Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message’

In Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 publication Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he proposed that ‘…the medium is the message.’ This famous excerpt has often been misunderstood as presuming that the ‘message’ is completely arbitrary and meaningless, which isn’t true. The meaning behind it states that the ‘medium’ has the power to change “the scale and form of human association and action”, as McLuhan once stated. Mediums are enablers of expression and changers of society, sometimes subtly and other times explicitly and noticeably, but McLuhan argues that it’s the unforeseen, long-term effects that are both fascinating and more important to recognize. I believe that McLuhan’s assessment is usually true, but in some instances this mightn’t be the case, although the medium is undeniably always ‘the message’. I’ll explore this notion with reference to both McLuhan’s original work and publications that express similar interpretations, then examine some instances where the ‘message’ and the ‘medium’ are distinct or don’t have an intrinsic relationship.

Terrence Gordon, author of a biography on McLuhan prefaces his understanding of the notion ‘the medium is the message’ by stating that at the time of Understanding Media’s publication, McLuhan ‘was disturbed about mankind’s shuffling toward the twenty-first century in the shackles of nineteenth century perceptions.’ (2002)  McLuhan desired to show a depth in media that wasn’t being realised, explored, or perceived neither by the public or his colleagues. Early in Understanding Media (1964) he gives the example that it does not matter whether a machine spits out cereal or cars; the ‘restructuring of human work and association’ is the true focal point. The machine as a medium has far bigger implications by being a job taking, automatic and faceless worker than the impact of its output. The automatic nature of the machine is inherently ‘integral and decentralist’. (McLuhan, 1964, p. 1) The output or ‘message’, he is quick to note, is in and of itself a medium too. The electric lightbulb can be thought of as a medium ‘without a message’, providing environments otherwise too dark instant enlightenment with the ability to continue life as if it were daytime, continuing with discussions, projects, any activity. Academic Mark Poster gives his own example of the importance of mediums, mentioning that any society without writing ‘are thereby societies without history’ (Poster, 1990, p.10). While history itself as the message is important, the ability to handwrite on mediums such as papyrus and paper undoubtedly precludes this. In a nutshell, McLuhan states that the medium is in control of everything. It defines the messages, and ‘shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.’ Nothing we witness is through an objective, all-knowing framework and even then, McLuhan says, the ‘”content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind’ (1964, p.8) and we ignore the wider effects of changes in societal structure that are more likely to appear slowly and unexpectedly with new technologies. In this way, we can conceive of the characteristics and intricacies of any innovation we create by paying close attention to the changes in the way society acts due to the affordances and limitations of new technologies (Federman, 2004). An example of the way a medium will slowly but surely alter the social fabric of a society, McLuhan makes a case for the reintroduction of money in 17th Century Japan caused a the revolution collapsing the feudal government and slowly reintroduced Japan to the world after centuries of seclusion. He elaborates on this event, stating that ‘Money … reorganized the sense of people’s life because it is an extension of our senses and lives’. It was practically irreversible, and this change wasn’t enabled or hindered by the approval or disapproval of the Japanese people. The underlying medium completely overhauled their society, although this is an example of easily observable change and with a massive effect. To that vain, McLuhan states that you can’t simply expect mediums to perform a single observable purpose and exist in a vacuum. When ‘operating on society with a new technology, it is not the incised area that is most affected’ (McLuhan, 1964, pp. 12-13). The unprecedented ‘infectious’ outcomes of the societal surgery are the most interesting to McLuhan, as it demonstrates the magnitude of weight that the medium has apart from it’s desired ‘message’.

While McLuhan makes a compelling argument for the effect of mediums surpassing the messages initial intentions, it’s worthwhile considering instances where the ‘message’ and the ‘medium’ might be distinct from one-another and perhaps don’t fit neatly into McLuhan’s interpretation of media effects. McLuhan seems to have set himself up in a position from which his dissertations can’t possibly be disproven, simply because any message arguably more important than its medium of existence can’t be without that medium, and therefore, isn’t as important. With that said, perhaps the ‘message’ and the ‘medium’ are unrelated, or the restrictions of a medium have hindered the accessibility of a message instead of promoting it. Perhaps there are messages that have more of an effect on society than the medium itself! For the case of ‘distinction’, the example of the lightbulb is interesting. McLuhan notes that while the medium is incredibly influential, it can’t possess an interpretable message on its own without manipulation by an outside force (1964, p.1). The light can’t itself speak or write, but with other materials like frames or other focusing equipment it could produce writing. In this instance, the message is detached and distinct from the medium simply on the basis that there is no ‘message’ at all. Another example might be that of the Bible, the argument being that surely the ‘message’ of the Bible is influential on society than the book. To which someone might say that the Bible is easily distributable due to the characteristics of books as a medium, and without books the message couldn’t be distributed. Perhaps this position is challengeable though, as free copies of the Bible can be easily found via the internet which, while the internet obviously has monumental implications on society, it might be argued that the demand for the Bible in all its available forms surely shows that this ‘message’ is transcendental of whichever medium might be containing it and so ultimately hindering it ability to affect society. But I don’t believe that this viewpoint is one of great concern and doesn’t necessarily conflict much with what I believe McLuhan’s point is. Ultimately, the takeaway from ‘the medium is the message’ should be that mediums influence our society in incredible ways, ways that sometimes take decades to become apparent and recognised due to the sheer scale of change that new technologies and platforms affect our world with. The effect of the Bible on the development of societies around the world is undeniable, but the change brought on by the medium of cheap, distributable books afforded by the Gutenberg printing press is unparalleled. Literacy rates, population, cities, the spread of ideas and ideologies including the Bible grew rapidly and changed the course of human history.

In summation, McLuhan doesn’t pretend that the ‘message’ is insignificant, rather the ‘medium’ conveying the message has a far greater impact on our society by changing “the scale and form of human association and action” than any message does. While he realises these influences mightn’t be immediately obvious, they eventually emerge after time and become evident as having played an important role in the world we live in. Only then can we truly understand the scope and characteristics of a medium, and we might find that the changes weren’t what we were expecting, as McLuhan notes that ‘it is not the incised area that is most affected’ by the introduction of new mediums, and we should be aware that every new introduction comes with it unforeseen effects on society. Regarding opposition to the claim that the medium is the message, it’s hard to justice an alternative stance. The lightbulb example is one McLuhan himself made, and clearly wasn’t an attempt to disprove his own argument. You cannot have a message that is ‘distinct’ from the medium; they’re intrinsically tied together. However, there may be a ‘message’ from a piece of media that surpasses the effect on society that the medium as a whole has had, arguably the Bible as an example. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that in all cases, the medium is the message.


 

Reference list:

Book:

  • McLuhan, M., 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill, pages 1-17

Journal Article:

  • Poster, M., 2010, ‘Societies without writing are thereby societies without history’, McLuhan and the Cultural Theory of Medi, 2, no. 2, pp. 1–18

Website:

  • Federman, M. (2004, July 23), What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message? Accessed 8/10/15 from:

http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.html

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