McLuhan in Reverse

His General Theory of Media (GToM)

by Robert K. Logan (Author)
©2021 Textbook XVIII, 146 Pages
Series: Understanding Media Ecology, Volume 8


McLuhan in Reverse proposes two new and startling theses about Marshall McLuhan’s body of work. The first argues that despite McLuhan’s claim that he did not work from a theory, his body of work in fact constitutes a theory that Robert K. Logan calls his General Theory of Media (GToM). The second thesis is that McLuhan’s GToM is characterized by a number of reversals, including his reversals of figure and ground, cause and effect, percepts and concepts; and the medium and its content as described in his famous one-liner "the medium is the message."
While McLuhan’s famous Laws of Media are part of his GToM, Logan has identified nine other elements of the GToM. They are his use of probes; figure/ground analysis; the idea that the medium is the message; the subliminal nature of ground or environment revealed only by the creation of an anti-environment; the reversal of cause and effect; the importance of percept over concept and hence a focus on the human sensorium and media as extensions of man; the division of communication into the oral, written, and electric ages along with the notions of acoustic and visual space; the notion of the global village; and finally, media as environments and hence media ecology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Chapter One McLuhan’s General Theory of Media (GToM) and the Role of Reversals
  • Chapter Two The Ten Elements of McLuhan’s General Theory of Media
  • Chapter Three Applying McLuhan’s General Theory of Media to the Flowering of the Digital Age
  • Chapter Four Understanding Humans: The Extensions of Digital Media
  • Chapter Five General System Thinking and Marshall McLuhan’s General Theory of Media
  • Chapter Six Cataloguing McLuhan Reversals

←vii | viii→←viii | ix→


I wish to acknowledge what I believe to be the source of my insight that reversals play a key role in McLuhan’s GToM. Although I have been involved in McLuhan studies since 1974 when I first met Marshall McLuhan and began working with him, the insight that reversals played such a key role in his thinking is only a recent insight that is not more than a year or two old. I believe that what prompted this insight was the suggestion that Izabella Pruska-Oldenhoff made to me when she posited that there was a spiral structure to Marshall McLuhan’s thinking. This led to a paper we wrote together entitled “The Spiral Structure of Marshall McLuhan’s Thinking (Logan and Pruska-Oldenhoff 2017).” We further pursued this idea in a chapter in a book in press with Springer entitled A Topology of the Mind. The reason I wish to credit Pruska-Oldenhof’s identification of the spiral structure of McLuhan’s thinking with my insight of McLuhan’s use of reversals is that the spiral structure contains the notion of reversal. As a spiral goes forward in one direction it reverses itself in the plane perpendicular to the forward motion going back and forth in a circular motion.

The original idea for Chapter Four was formulated as a direct result of listening to Douglas Rushkoff’s presentation based on his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus at the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto on November 21, 2016. The idea was further developed as a result of the dialogue Doug and I had during his seminar presentation and in the private ←ix | x→conversation that ensued after the seminar as well as the result of a number of email exchanges. The idea presented here that we become the content of digital media is basically Doug’s with the exception of the twist I gave to it by suggesting the flip that we are extensions of the digital media we make use of instead of McLuhan’s notion that our media are extensions of us, both of which are claimed to be true.

I wish to acknowledge the stimulating conversations of Philip Morais, JD candidate (Faculty of Law, University of Windsor) who asked me “What is the most important thing that Marshall McLuhan contributed?” My answer was the application of general systems thinking to the study of communications and the impact of technology and as a result of responding to Philip’s question I eventually wrote Chapter Five of this book.

I also wish to acknowledge the editorial assistance I received from Callum Smith, B.A. in Communications (Royal Roads University in British Columbia).

Finally, I wish to thank the editor of Peter Lang’s Understanding Media Ecology series, Lance Strate and the two reviewers, unknown to me, who reviewed my original manuscript. Their suggestions, in my opinion, led to a better book. Finally, thanks to the staff at Peter Lang especially Erika Hendrix and Ashita Shah for all their help and support. It is always a pleasure to work with Peter Lang, now the publisher of three of my books.

←x | xi→


I first met Marshall McLuhan in 1974 at the Coach House on the campus of St. Michael’s College, the University of Toronto. I was a professor of physics carrying out research in theoretical elementary particle physics, lecturing, supervising grad students, and from 1971 teaching in a seminar course, The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry. The objective of the seminar course was to introduce humanities students to physics without making use of mathematics (i.e. the poetry of physics) and integrating it with a study of poetry and other forms of literature that were related to physics (i.e. the physics of poetry). I started the course because I felt that too many bad decisions were being made by politicians and business people who had no basic understanding of science.

When I came up with the idea of the course I had no idea it would change my life, but it did because it became my ticket for meeting Marshall McLuhan and my subsequent collaboration with him. In 1974 after returning from spending three months studying and collaborating with Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca Mexico I organized a future studies seminar at New College known as the Club of Gnu. The name was a portmanteau of the New College mascot, the gnu and the Club of Rome, a prestigious NGO of futurists that had just commissioned the study The Limits to Growth. I recruited different professors to join the Club of Gnu from different departments in the University. Among them was Arthur Porter, the Chairman of the Industrial Engineering Department who I visited in his office. ←xi | xii→He enthusiastically signed on to the project and immediately called his friend and colleague Marshall McLuhan asking him to join the Club of Gnu. When he mentioned my name, McLuhan asked “is that the Bob Logan who teaches the Poetry of Physics course?” Porter answered in the affirmative and McLuhan said send Logan over to the Coach House. I want to talk to him and invite him for lunch. And that conversation over lunch led to the start of my collaboration with Marshall McLuhan which lasted to his passing in 1980. During the six years I worked with Marshall I divided my time equally between working and publishing with him and pursuing my physics research. Once McLuhan was gone I decided to devote myself fully to carrying on his legacy publishing my last physics paper in 1982.

In the intervening years since I began working with McLuhan, I have been applying his insights into a number of different areas in addition to media ecology and McLuhan studies such as linguistics, education theory, systems biology, and cognitive science. Most recently, I suddenly had an insight and came to the conclusion that despite McLuhan’s denial of not working from a theory that in fact his body of work constitutes what I will call his General Theory of Media (GToM). Furthermore, I also believe that McLuhan’s GToM and his success in developing a revolutionary way of studying media and technology and their impacts is due to his use of reversals. In his study of media, he makes the following reversals:

(1)the usual emphasis on figure to that on ground;

(2)the emphasis on cause to that on effect;

(3)the emphasis on concept to that on percept; and

(4)the emphasis on content or the message to that on medium as in his famous one-liner “the medium is the message.”

(5)in his Laws of Media (McLuhan 1975, 1977; McLuhan, M. and McLuhan, E. 1988) in which McLuhan asks what a medium i. enhances, ii. obsolesces, iii. retrieves and iv. reverses or flips into, he once again makes use of a reversal.

I have, therefore, concluded that McLuhan’s body of work constitutes what I have called his General Theory of Media (GToM) and that the underlying theme of this theory is his use of reversals. This is the thesis that will be explored in this book. While McLuhan’s famous Laws of Media are part of his GToM there are nine other elements of the GToM that I have identified. They are 1. his use of probes; 2. figure/ground analysis; 3. the idea that the medium is the message; 4. the subliminal nature of ground or environment revealed only by the creation of an anti-environment; 5. the reversal of cause and effect; 6. the importance of percept ←xii | xiii→over concept and hence a focus on the human sensorium and media as extensions of man; 7. the division of communication into the oral, written, and electric ages along with the notions of acoustic and visual space; 8. the notion of the global village and finally, 9. media as environments and hence media ecology.

In developing McLuhan’s GToM I want the reader to bear in mind that for McLuhan media are defined as any human artifact or any form of human technology and hence is not restricted to just communication media or technology but includes all forms of technology from the simplest hand tools and the human spoken language to automobiles, televisions and computers.

I realize that my approach of suggesting that McLuhan formulated a general theory of media runs counter to the way in which McLuhan’s body of work is usually regarded.


XVIII, 146
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 146 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert K. Logan (Author)

Robert K. Logan (PhD, MIT, 1965) is an emeritus professor of physics, fellow of St. Michael’s College, and member of the School of Environmental Studies, all at the University of Toronto. He is also Chief Scientist of the sLab (OCAD University) and a recipient of the Walter J. Ong Award for Career Achievement in Scholarship by the Media Ecology Association.


Title: McLuhan in Reverse
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