Marshall McLuhan’s theory of entrepreneurship

“The crossing or hybridizations of the media release great new 
force and energy as by fission or fusion…” (1964:48). 

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian academic and celebrity who famously coined the phrase “the medium is the message” back in the 1960s to express his thesis about the effect of new technologies on culture and society. 

At a time when critics railed against sex, violence, and blasphemy on vacuum tube televisions, McLuhan claimed that the content of television was irrelevant, as it is the medium of television that really changes us by creating new audio/visual tribes, and seating us passively in front of the tube. New environments!

The implication of McLuhan’s theory is that new technologies shape environments and perceptions, by making accessible new dimensions of time and space. 

He gave the example of the light bulb, which is a medium devoid of any content (or message), yet it creates an environment by its mere presence, illuminating the dark, extending our ability to make use of time and space, increasing our productivity and possibly our enjoyment of evenings. 

Marshal McLuhan is known for many things, but it is perhaps his concepts of “cold” and “hot” innovations that is most relevant to entrepreneurship scholars. Entrepreneurs exist in ecosystems with incumbent organizations and therefore should be selective about the innovations they pursue.  The core idea here is that hot innovations (improvements along existing dimensions) are for incumbents whereas cold innovations are for new entrants (new combinations). This is very similar to Tushman and Anderson (1986) who argue that incumbents/entrants have the advantage with competence enhancing/destroying innovations. It is also similar to disruptive innovation theory‘s distinction between disruptive and sustaining innovation.

Let’s examine McLuhan’s concepts of hot and cold innovations in turn:

Hot innovations increase performance along an existing dimension. They preserve the old order. The same content providers are served and there is little room for new entry. McLuhan relates hot innovations to the word “hot”, which is used to express an attachment to local and popular cultures. By increasing stimulus over one or more senses, a deeper connection to the environment created by the technology is achieved. At the extreme, heating up a technology makes it hypnotic. Innovations that get too hot are soon challenged by the emergence of new cold innovations.

Cold media are innovations that add some new dimension of performance for the senses, while compromising performance for senses along existing dimensions. This new combination of stimulations creates opportunities for newcomers to get positioned in a new but growing industry. 

Cold innovations eventually get heated up giving rise to new cold innovations. McLuhan relates cold innovation to the word “cool” where a person or object is considered to be detached from the currents of popular thought. 

He claims that unlike hypnotic “hot” innovation, “cold” innovations are more akin to hallucination–the user has to fill in the blanks. For example the comic book requires the reader to fill in the joke.



McLuhan, M. (1964). Understandig media. The Extensions of Man. New York.


McLuhan, M., McLuhan, M. A., and Lapham, L. H. (1994). Understanding media: The extensions of man. MIT press.


Tushman, M. L. and Anderson, P. (1986). Technological discontinuities and organizational environments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 439-465.


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