McLuhan Studies : Issue 3

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A Case Study in the Bias of Communication

Take a moment: count the seats in your own home-do not forget the patio, the attic, the toilets, the bikes, cars, and children's seating. Count a sofa as two or three seats, as the case may be. How many total? How many per resident? Canadians, on average, sit for up to 14 hours a day: 12 to 15 seats per person fill the majority of Canadian homes. Chairs of one kind or another dominate every room of the house, except the bedroom. When we add office, meeting place, stadium, restaurant, theatre, and transportation seating to the total, we see that Canadians enjoy access to more than 40 seats apiece-much more.

The one billion seats in our everyday environment attest to the chair's dominance of our postural and gestural lives; moreover, they harness us to most present-day technologies. We even exercise sitting down. Only 75 years ago, the situation played in reverse. Canadians stood for 10 to 12 hours a day, and sat for only 2.5 to 3.5 hours-and at that they averaged fewer than five seats per person per home. Henry David Thoreau, wrote that at Walden Pond, he "had three chairs in [his] house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in bigger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all."

Orientals (Japanese, Balinese, Siamese) knelt and floor-sat, even in harmonious luxury. Today, we all sit 14 hours and sleep eight, which only leaves two hours a day for standing, or walking or running from one seat to the next. Even at the rate of 40 seats apiece, it would require 220 billion seats-and half as many trees-to equip present day humanity for the post-chair age.

Chair Effects

A chair is generally out of sight and out of mind: like all hidden environments, it's in plain sight. When we do look at it, we see a Queen Anne, a Stickleback or a Bauhaus: we collect it, ornament it, position it, cherish it. But we don't see the side-effects: the chair distends our seat, simultaneously numbing our "cheeks," the largest muscular system in the body, the one pivotal to all physical action.

With chairness defining our main posture, we eventually stop using-or hardly ever use-the other postures of the body. This should be painfully obvious to the eight out of ten readers who now suffer from chair-related back problems. Has your computer chair left you with a floppy disk? Do constipation and intestinal disorders plague you due to a lack of squatting? Or are you just a regular sitter who thinks that sitting up straight-in itself-maintains good posture? But then you discover that the only things that stack up well in chairs are extra weight, shallow breathing from a crushed diaphragm, cardio-vascular strain from pinched leg arteries, and caesarean-section due to weakened stomach muscles. If you fall behind in our speeded-up sedentary environment, you can always catch up on your stationary bike, or "swim" for it from the seat of your "nautilus" gym.

Meanwhile, we have run out of great escapes to the farm: a settee slicker no longer differs from the country bum kin. We even perform every farm job sitting down: we sentimentalize the "out standing in his field" farmer as a pastoral ideal. Just yesterday, it seems, our moms and dads encouraged us to "move up, get a sit-down job."

How do seats team up with technology? While we leave it to the dentist to administer the local anaesthetic, he relies on his reclinable chair to administer the general one. It numbs not only the seat, but also the feet, the legs, the back, the arms and ultimately the head; all of this so the mouth can be served up, as if on a platter. That chair only dramatizes the subtle "sleeper role" played by all chairs.

Chairs administer general anaesthetic wherever dashboards, display screens, terminals and other paraphernalia fill in for the dentist. They deliver us to a technology, precisely numbed according to that technology's specifications. That is why we slouch when we watch TV: we numb the head because the medium demands it. Try watching TV standing up, especially while others recline: you are immunized, they are not. TV demands not the chair but the recliner, an entirely different medium with quite different effects.

How does a seat reorganize our sensorium? Chairs promote heads and headship, while desensitizing the body. The parts of the chair are named for the parts of the body they numb or displace: seat, legs, feet, back, arms, etc. The chair-sitter, bodily numbed, cut off by desks, then boxed and cubicled in an office, relies on technological senses for vital information. He no longer accesses his original sensory tools, necessary for direct mimetic observation. His other senses numb, he tends to rely on the eye as main source of perception.

In McLuhan terms, the chair is a visual medium. As an "eye" man, the sitter thinks in sequential abstractions-the basis for thinking-on-your-seat. We experience thinking-on-your-feet entirely differently, and it produces quite different results.

Chairs and Children

A California study of infant postures, reported in the Toronto Star, January 12th, 1989, reveals that crawling develops essential activities in the infant's nervous system: "...they learn that things exist even when they are hidden, that heights can be dangerous and that objects exist independently of themselves....They learn spatial location and they understand better what their mother is communicating. These changes do not occur before babies become mobile [through crawling]....Whatever delays or impedes the crawling phase will impair these vital developments."

In most of the Western world, laws now prohibit a new-born from being released from the maternity ward without the parents first installing a car-seat. So now sitting officially replaces crawling or standing as first posture. Junior's free ride, which started with snuggling, now extends from the high-chair to the car-seat, from the grocery cart to the supermarket pony, and all the way back home in a stroller.

These aspects of infant chairness lend new meaning to the term growing up. Many a curious child, naturally at one with the earth, barely touches the ground for days on end. A recent survey of British children found that 85% of them now suffer from permanent postural damage by age seven. And how does science solve these chair-created problems? More and better chairs, of course, disguised in "ergonomics."

An enterprising German manufacturer has even designed what will surely become known as the "womb to tomb" chair: the device adjusts for car-seating and high-chairing, and, by changing pin positions, it can grow and be used all the way to adulthood. Handles and a carapace would add the finishing touches before we lower it into the grave with its occupant. While Greek city-states chained the statues of their gods into their thrones, Greek moms potted their offspring in inverted ceramic vases, which were cut with appropriate leg holes and filled with absorbing sand or moss. Somehow, this practical baby-sitting and diaper service went east to China, but never made it to the West. Subsequently, the stocks, a popular piece of penal furniture of the middle ages, was revived in the modern high-chair, the "walker" and the "jolly-jumper." The kids who now use these devices grow up ready for the "bungee cord" and the astronaut's umbilical tether.

Our Economic Affair with...

Many hotels, today, make more money selling seats than they do selling beds. Patrons demand seminar, conference and committee seating. And more committees sit in Canada today than ever before. Without quite being aware of it, a great many of them form sitting committees on standing, disguised as standing committees on seating arrangements. On the surface, they discuss the global and local plight of chairs-of-state, chairs-of-education, the chair industry, seat sales and other chair structures. All are in trouble. But, in one way or another, these committees only discuss modernization (improvement), which means replacing chair-sitting with the next posture.

One can easily understand our reluctance to change posture. We carry a large investment in chairs. Seat sales underpin important sectors of the economy. The Blue Jays baseball club alone, for example, adds $100,000,000 to Toronto's chair-related economy. During the 1992 World Series, 45,000 Blue Jay fans even didn't have to board a seat sale to Atlanta. Instead, they sat in Toronto's SkyDome where they all watched the game on a giant screen. A seat on the Toronto Stock Exchange has been selling at over $50,000.

After the 1989 municipal election, taxpayers paid out over $86,000 to furnish the mayor and councillors with new seats. The process repeats itself in municipalities across North America every four years. The electors have recently voted again. At current prices, we can expect the new chair order to top $155,000 for a mere dozen official seats. And now there is the new Metro Hall (Toronto, 1992) with even more seats for sale.

Given the theoretical but ridiculously low price of $100 apiece, we can appreciate the chair's economic contribution. Seat sales-airlines, cinemas, schools, stadia-generate billions. Only the military/industrial complex rivals the chair's economic scale. Remove chairs from our midst and we would even have to redefine the word economy. Remove chairs as the political ground and, equally, we begin to redefine politics. In both spheres, new postures replace the chair or throne.

And where would bureaucracy be without chairs? Almost one quarter of the Canadian work force squirms a living in seated public service. We know that we must get off our seats, but only reluctantly do we do so.

Chairs and Mats

A look at China's 1000 A.D. switch from mats to chairs shows us the resulting shift in their furnishings and customs, and helps us to understand the chaos we will encounter as we switch from chairs to other postural media. The two manners of furnishing a house-with mats or rugs designed for sitting and squatting and sleeping on the floor, or with chairs requiring raised furniture, tables and beds-are completely incompatible. Mat-sitting structures both culture and customs quite different from those that chairs allow.

After the Chinese adopted the chair, styles begin to change. Costumes transform: women wear trousers. The Chinese no longer make floors of wood, but of tile or stone. They no longer remove their shoes upon entering a house; the veranda changes its character, and they forget its ancient purpose. The whole range of furnishings alters, and with it the proportions of the rooms and the style of decor. The conventions of many floor-sitting societies required postures which conceal the legs and sinuous movements on rising and sitting-especially for women-which, graceful in themselves, are not easily acquired by chair users. If the legs must be concealed, long robes are necessary, trousers ungainly, short skirts unseemly.

The chair or the mat decides the character and shape of all other pieces of furniture: it is the key piece, the postural ground. Those who use chairs need tables raised high enough to fit the legs underneath. This factor governs its height whether the table is used for writing or eating. Mat-sitters find wardrobes and cupboards inconvenient. They prefer to reach low chests and small boxes fitted with drawers, without having to stand up. People who use chairs will also sleep on raised beds; those who sit on mats, tend to sleep on them. Lamps must be high for the use of chair sitters. Mirrors must be hung on walls or placed on raised dressing tables. Mat-sitters want low-standing lamps, and mirrors on light portable stands which can be moved about the floor. Chair-users hang pictures high on the walls, but mat sitters display them low, near the ground, in alcoves used for this purpose.


While North Americans make the move out of chairs to rebecome multipostural, the Japanese have converted from kneeling to chair-sitting. Japan had adopted its postural trappings from seventh- Century China, three centuries before China switched to chairs. The similarity between T'ang Chinese and recent pre-chair Japanese styles, as a result, is most striking.

The Western and the mat-sitting modes cannot be mixed in the same room, and hardly even in the same house.The modern Japanese, well aware of this, do not attempt to place modern, raised furniture on the tatami, the finely-woven, thick, soft mats which in their traditional homes cover the floors. A modern Western style house may have one or two rooms furnished in the Japanese manner. In homes of the wealthy, the house will be divided into two parts: one Western and one Japanese; one furnished with chairs and tables, the other with mats. It is also worth noting that when the modern Japanese business man returns home from his Western style office, and relaxes in his Japanese style apartment, he also gets out of his Western style suit and puts on his traditional kimono. For just as the two styles of furniture clash in the same room, so too the dress, and a wide range of customs.

The Chair of State

Beginning 5000 years ago, chairs-the throne-increasingly became Western society's main ground for organizing political power. Among other things, the chair favours centralism and hierarchies. It promotes fragmentation and specialism: headship and corresponding corporate parts such as the "right-hand man." Chair rules rule in everything from the Speech from the Throne, to hierarchic political parties, to election campaigns.

In Canada, an election campaign mimics the once popular parlour game of musical chairs: the incumbent usually gets to start the music, to some political advantage. But all of that is rapidly changing. We now live with non-stop campaign music with more post-chair seats that ever. That, in part, is what our recent Canadian Referendum was about: more seats, more committees. Whee!

No one has realized that musical chairs can only be played when there are more people than seats. And, besides, everybody now knows chair's rules: when Czechoslovakia was recently liberated, Canadians immediately sent them 10,000 copies of Robert's Rules. Chair rules now mediate the split between the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia (Post-National era). When one throne sat alone atop a nation, it was all-powerful. Today, since anyone in a chair accesses powers greater than had ancient kings, all chairs are equally powerless.

But even now the chair shows incredible resiliency. Leaders, with everyone under them now occupying chairs, practice Management By Walking Around (called MBWA or WAM). All roads used to lead to Rome; now, the Pope, the President, the CEO, comes to you, the sitter. Their seats are vacant, yet dearly cherished indeed: Cardinals demand "collegiality"; special interest groups demand commissions and committees; the citizens demand democracy.

The End of the Chair Age

Beginning in the 1950s, television's mimetic pressures added floor-sitting and reclining to our postural repertoire. Then, in the 1970s, the physical pressures of oversitting resulted in the comeback of the stand-up desk, the cathedral "resting wall" and the "kneeler" chair. The stand-up desk (the Popemobile, in the Pope's case) goes hand in hand with the corporate executive's new role, Management By Walking Around. The Cathedral reminds us, as its Greek name implies, that the building originally housed but one chair. Everyone else stood or knelt, except for the dignitaries leaning on the back wall into which small resting-bumps had been built. (Today, Catholic priests and congregation sit facing each other. In many places, they no longer genuflect, or even kneel for the consecration.)

Similar resting-walls now line European bus stops, subways and waiting areas. Trends in design increasingly move the "resting" walls indoors, into the bookless dens and rec-rooms of the post-literate, post-national, post-chair age, and cover them in textiles and skins. Likewise, the old saddle posture has refound itself in the new "kneeler" chair, and the horse harness, of course, returns as the seat-belt. As a further erosion of the chair's position, designers are now busy enclosing all home and office media in the walls: interactive, room-sized touch-pad electronics.

The Chair as Indispensible Ground

Many events and activities in our society rely entirely on chair-sitting. What would happen if the user could not sit? In some cases, the activities would disappear completely. Certainly, this would be the case for the movie theatre, the play, the concert and the sporting event. What would happen to the tractor, the airplane, the motor car, the bus, and the passenger train?

In other areas, work or play would have to be restructured. Such is the case of the schoolroom. Would the lunchroom, the restaurant and the supper table revert to the ancient triclinium where diners lay down to eat? Or would eating become a stand up event, as it already tends to thanks to the microwave oven and the fast-food restaurant? The armchair critic, the committee and the modern toilet would disappear.

Even a partial inventory shows us how pervasive is the chair as indispensible ground. I invite you to flesh out this list by keeping an eye open for the next few days. How many different seats do you, on average, sit on in the course of a week?

Chairs and Mass Media

Born with the advent of writing systems 5000 years ago, the chair increased its postural hold with each enhancement of writing systems (e.g., the phonetic alphabet, the renaissance printing press, word processing). The chair's dominance, like writing's, ends officially with the arrival of electricity and formally with the latest computer development-Virtual Reality imaging (VR).

How chairing replaced and in turn was replaced by other postures, reveals itself in the evolution of mass media, especially in the twentieth century. Writing Medieval monks balanced the effects of sitting/writing (manuscripts) with standing/reading aloud (at the ambo). (It should be noted in passing that both seat and desk surfaces were sloped.)

The printing press broke the standing/sitting equation. We continued to write sitting down and we now read sitting down too. With the advent of electricity, readers turned silent and began to recline (with the newspaper), while some writers reverted to standing up-for example, Karl Marx, who trod back and forth in front of his stand-up desk, and Henry James who paced up and down while dictating his text, and Ernest Hemingway.

But stand-up desks with their high stools and slanted surfaces began to disappear from banks and offices at the turn of the twentieth century, replaced by the conventional 18-inch chair and its flat desk to measure: too bad if humans do not all grow to be the same size. Stacking chairs and tables eventually made the desk surface flat, turning school children into postural pretzels.

Silent Cinema

Standing, our most versatile posture, struggled to its feet in the silent cinema era. The standing actors-Chaplin, Keaton, et al.-starred, scripted, manned the cameras, directed and edited all while standing up. They enjoyed near complete independence and control.

With the 1930 arrival of "talkies," power dramatically shifted away from the versatile standers. The high cost of sound had made the chair paramount in pictures. The banks took over. They directed from above, from the board room. The artists united, but speech was to replace mime on screen. And, chair-created, chair-sitting specialists progressively shoved aside these versatile standers.

Talkies Four chairs were dropped into the roles Chaplin and Keaton accomplished standing up and alone. Flat-bed editing trashed their stand-up moviolas, to a film editor's credit. A movie director was officially seated on the set-his chair made famous. The head shot now gave prominence to the actors (and their voice). Lesser stars and walk-ons were shown in wide-angle, the most important shot in silent cinema days. A producer moved into a well-chaired boardroom, and assumed universal picture control. Tinsel Town plays an incredible game of musical chairs around a holy wood-a forest of seats. The movies, of course, only distract us while they generate seat sales around the world.


Radio programming, initially, was produced standing-up, and listened to sitting down. (The opposite of the medieval monks.) But with the advent of TV, radio postures began to reverse: shows were produced sitting down (disc jockey) and listened to standing up (background music). For the strapped-in driver, meanwhile, the car radio "stands-in" for standing: it gives the driver height (helicopter reports, beat and dance).


TV, meanwhile, pushed Tinsel Town's star system to well seated "talking headiness." In the TV home, we abandoned the conventional chair and opted for the recliner, the couch and the floor. Little did we suspect that the famous psychoanalytic couch would go from backroom to centre stage with a new generation of "jung and easily freudened" TV viewers and stars. Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall probe ids, egos and superegos on their show couches. At home, we probe our own couch.

Computer Animation

Successively, then simultaneously, at home and at the networks, other postures began to encroach on the chair's dominance: the couch, the recliner, the floor, the stand-up desk, and more recently the camcorder with its direct satellite feed-all threaten the static chair's centralized production and consumption units. And who, any more, wants to sit in polluted grid-lock when he has access to a cellular phone?

A movement is afoot to replace the chair everywhere. In Hollywood, the emergence of computer animation cut even the lead actor's head shots. The famous face has now become a famous voice (e.g., Angela Lansbury as the kettle in Beauty and the Beast, Elizabeth Taylor as the new-born on The Simpsons, and Robin Williams as the lamp in the movie Aladdin). Performance and power, of course, now come from the computer animator's chair, and all that's stirring is a "mouse."

Film's Foley: The last standing survivor in the film industry is a carry over from the stand-up radio studio, the Foley artist. He adds every background sound to a film-footsteps, keys, doors, falls, and fights by miming the on-screen action in a sound studio. But today, the digital synthesizer threatens even his creative role. It can reproduce any sound without the operator leaving his chair or making a noise of his own.


The computer started a postural struggle too. The first electronic computer required several people, several days, travelling up and down its rows and stacks to "wire" or programme it. Then, when sequential access magnetic tape computers arrived, the programmers sat down to their flow-charts while computer operators stood to the task of changing tapes and collecting read-outs. After the birth of the PC, the chair regained supremacy from desk-top to lap-top. We use the desk-top computer, generally, as a nine-to-fiver; and the lap-top as a faithful companion. The new note-book computer brings us continuous process (massage).

But now Virtual Reality imaging, voice-activation and touch pad computing depose the computer's chair. The VR user clambers inside the system. From thinking-on-his-seat, he rises to thinking-on-his-feet-even though, at this stage, VR only works via miming heads (visettes) and miming hands (video gloves). Any day now, miming with the whole body, as Chaplin did, will be the standard for VR: one stand-up role will, once again, replace four chair jobs.

Our return to Chaplin reminds us that the main business of the 1990s is downsizing. Are you playing a role, or are you holding down a job? By the end of the century, three out of four of us could be economically redundant. Welcome to the post-chair age.

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