The medium is the message
              the mess age
              the mass age
              the massage

Attributed to Marshall McLuhan, symptomatic of his later, rather cryptic works, where he discussed modern media, particularly television.

Refers to a concept invented by Marshall Mcluhan, first presented and discussed in his volume Understanding Media, in addition to appearing in several of his other works. Also became a hip phrase for the in-the-know following the publication of Understanding Media, as well as a useful tool for anyone who wishes to manipulate media successfully (that is, to communicate effectively).

As to the meaning of the mantra, it is widely misunderstood. Media are defined in Understanding Media as anything acting as an extension of man and his normal, unaugmented capabilities. According to Mcluhan, most messages are produced by an interaction of two elements: the medium and its content. The role of each is defined by their shared relationship; this means that every content is capable, when analyzed with respect to its relationship to another thing, to act as a medium. What is meant by "the medium is the message" is that the medium used far overshadows the content in their respective roles in producing meaning. To provide a few examples, which is often the best way to explain Mcluhan (and frequently the only way he manages to make himself comprehensible):

  • The stone tools used by humans for millions of years are media. Their role as media is to extend the capabilities of the hand to produce material change in the world around their users. The way in which this primarily changes the consciousness of humanity (or, more simply put, the message) is produced not by the content, which in this case is stone, but instead by the very fact that it allows man to do things he was not able to do before he employed the medium in question.
  • A car acts as a medium by extending the capacity of man to travel by foot. In a sense, this means that it extends the entire body, since the effects of travel on the human body are systemic, affecting the heart, lungs, brain, and everything else, as well. The content of the car is not what's important; It doesn't matter whether you drive a domestic or an import, the meaning is the same: instead of traveling at a maximum speed of about twenty-two miles per hour, your maximum speed is usually at the very least four times that.
  • Interestingly, Mcluhan holds that light is a medium without a message! That's because light itself has no content; the message is nonexistent. It is either on or off, and that which reflects the light is a separate medium altogether.

This brings us to just why the medium is so powerful in producing meaning. To qoute Mcluhan in Understanding Media, it's because "it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action" (p. 9)

Here, I'd like to play around with an example that Mcluhan himself loves so much he beats it nearly to death: the printed word as a medium. When some cultures moved to this highly visual medium, there were distinct changes in the structure and processes of the cultures with access to it. I'll follow one of many lines of analysis here, to keep things fairly simple.

The introduction of the printing press revolutionized the impact of the printed word on Western mass culture. Suddenly, literacy was available to many who before had no access to it, and the corresponding orientation towards linear thought (printed language being a distinctly linear medium) is overwhelming. Witness the corresponding movement in Renaissance art towards linear perspective, a move brought on by the new study of optics--a strong argument can be made that these resulted from the increasingly linear patterns of thought resulting from the spread of literacy.

Thus, it was the medium--the printed word--and not any single work within that medium that effected such profound change in Western culture. Or, more poetically, the medium is the message.


Error404: The Protestant Reformation would never have happened without the printing press, and that's the important thing. Bible or Beowulf, it's literacy, not Jesus, that set things in motion. People had the tools to question Christianity long before Gutenberg. People questioned Christianity long before Gutenberg. People did not publish their opinions on it before the printing press. Hence, it's not the content of the Bible (a whole 'nother showdown, given the staggering variability in that ol' text), but technology and literacy.
True to an extent, but ultimately Marshall McLuhan overlooks the role that content has to play.

For example the protestant reformation changed the entire political structure of the west, and the way that people thought of each other. The key point of the protestant reformation was that every man could go into his closet and find God for himself. This allowed people to go into their closets and find a God that didn't support the current status quo (that is to say the divine right of kings, and the social order it supported).

McLuhan's analysis would've been something like the Gutenburg press supported literacy and free thought by removing church control on the dissemination of information.

Sure, the Gutenburg press had a role to play in changing society and the way it interacts in and of itself, but if they had printed of 1,000,000 copies of Beowulf then not much would've changed. The only literate people were aristocrats and clergy anyways. But they didn't print off Beowulf. They printed the bible. Now that everyone had access to their own copy of it (instead of relying on the parish copy) they had the ability to read it and interpret it themselves.

Example 2: The Bolshevik Revolution

Tzarist Russia thought of their peasantry and proletariat as less than dogs. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace spoke of them as real people, with real personality and hardships. It's this writer's belief that this work helped the proletariat realize that they're people, eventually resulting in the revolution. It wasn't the invention of books or the printing press that caused it, it was the specific work.

This isn't to say that the idea of the medium is the message is baseless, just that it's only part of the whole picture

The Medium is the Message Or... Talking with your girlfriend on the phone

... (the telephone rings)...
Gary (picks up the phone): Yeap?
Linda: It's me again.
Gary (bored): Oh, hi baby. Everything OK?
Linda (excited): Super! Martha just called and guess what!
Gary: mmm, what?...
Linda: She told me that she bought this wonderful skirt I have been telling you about!
Gary: Oh, the red one? Nice...
Linda: She is coming tomorrow to the college wearing it!
Gary: ...I'm thrilled. Tell me, do we have Physics at 9:00am ?
Linda: Nope. At 8:00am.
Gary: Hate it. I'm a corpse. Think I should get some sleep...
Linda: OK baby! See you tomorrow!
Gary: G'night baby...

So, let's have a first glimpse on what is meant by the phrase "The medium is the message". Look at the first three lines of the above typical phone conversation. Gary picks up the phone and is wondering who is on the line. Linda says "It's me again". "It's me"... Now, is this a proper answer? Saddam Hussein could have called, and he still could say "It's me"! Any person could say "It's me", because of course everybody is he himself!

So, the paradox here is that although the message ("It's me") is totally meaningless and useless, Gary gets his answer as to who is calling him. He responds with "Oh, hi baby". He understood that it was not Saddam, it was Linda, his girlfriend (BTW, Linda makes Gary terribly bored during the last few months, and he thinks that their relationship has probably come to an end. (we will need this later)). But what the heck happened here? Linda gave no hint as to who she was by answering "It's me", but Gary nevertheless understood that it was Linda. Let's think. If "It's me" was the message, what was the medium that carried this message? Linda's voice...

This is an example of a case where the content of the message is completely irrelevant, and the only thing that counts is the medium, i.e. the voice of the caller. In fact, Linda could also answer with a message of a wrong/misleading content like "It's me, Saddam!". Gary, now wondering only about her sense of humour, would still understand that it is Linda. It is the same case with your mama returning home, she hears a noise from your bedroom and asks "Is anybody home?". Whether you respond with "Me", "Yes", "No", "The Martians" etc, she will get the answer she was looking for.

Now, it depends on which layer you analyse something, in order to say which is the medium and which is the message. The above example made sense and was therefore analysed at the Physical Layer (the carrier, in which case it was the voice which carries the words). (Time to remember the OSI model ;-). But the above example of the whole conversation can be analysed at higher layers, where the words carry meanings, the meanings carry information, and information carries human communication (like the OSI Application Layer).

So, the above conversation, as most of Gary's conversations with his girlfriend Linda during the last months had a very low S/N ratio (signal to noise). Gary was not interested in the least about the things that Linda told him, and was during most of the conversation contributing only with acknowledgements to Linda's words. At last he was so bored, that he invented a typical way to tear up the connection: He asked about the Physics class next morning. He already knew that it was on 8:00am, but the question was a way to make Linda tell him that it was on 8:00am, so that he could exclaim that he should get some sleep in order to be able to get up so early.

So, the only part of the conversation that seemed to carry some real information, was actually noise. The real problem behind all that, is the typical assumption/need that if two people have a relation (not any relation, a girlfriend-boyfriend relation), they should have a daily communication. Whether they have something to tell each other or not, they should communicate daily. Sometimes they even say it clearly: "I just called to hear your voice! ;-)". Caution, I do not suggest that this is wrong, or that I do not do it, I just want to point out some issues about it. So, when the actual goal of the calling is to just hear your other half's voice, it is the carrier that you are interested in, not the message.

Actually, talking on the phone with your girlfriend imitates the act of being physically together with her. So, to imitate the physical proximity using the phone, you need a constant flow of something of your girlfriend that suggests this proximity. This is the voice. But to get the voice, you have to get it through something that is being said, and there you have all these 45min conversations that feed your local Telcos, in which you say everything and at the same time, nothing. This jabbering is done of course with a great pleasure when you are in a fresh relation, but as you get to know each other, as one gets used to the other, this meaningless jabbering which only exists to verify that the communication channel of the two is still open, gets very tiresome.

Gary and Linda broke up next evening.

One of the most misunderstood things that Marshall McLuhan has ever said. He was very specific about what he meant by "media". In essence, he meant "any technology or development that acts as a tool, extending human capability". Also, he was very specific: by "message" he meant "repercussions/advances changes in society produced by this tool".

The core problem that many have with this statement. is that people already understand "media" to mean "vessel to communicate", e.g. radio, television, writing, movies - and "message" as "content". 

The short version of what he was actually saying was that people get far too hung up on the content and/or purpose of a technology, without realizing what it will actually do. His example was that the electric light bulb (medium) allowed for complex eye surgery or open heart surgery that would have been impossible given the contamination of a sooty burning piece of wood being used as illumination. Or that a gas lamp could ignite bowel gases, making abdominal surgery really risky. The steam shovel put a lot of ditch diggers out of work. Combine harvesters also meant most of the population no longer had to work on farms.

Every time a new medium comes along, the people who developed it always came to the table with the idea that it would enlighten and enrich and uplift the human race. With the advent of television, why, people could attend open university lectures and watch plays and listen to classic Greek poetry! Not realizing that what it would actually be used for would be mindless television comedies and reality shows. We could have had virtual reality in the 1990s, but its inventor, Jarod Lanier, refused to allow it to be used for pornography and/or military applications - which are the two main drivers for the development of most new technologies. The VCR was used in its inception to allow people to keep their own porn on hand rather than being seen going into a seedy theater.

Take the World Wide Web, which was originally designed to share hyperlinked documents - the idea being that the free and open sharing of information would allow humans to get smarter, to build communities, and shrink the physical and cultural differences between peoples. Well, some of that does take place, sure. But what we've ended up with more often than not are memes, echo chambers and if anything a shrinking of people's circle of friends. 

Noted cultural satire South Park put it very elegantly in its song, "Safe Space" -

"If you do not like me
You are not allowed
In my safe space (my safe space)
Look and you will see
There's a very select crowd
In your safe space (my safe space)
People that support me
Mixed in with
More people that support me
And say nice things"

If anything, we've ended up with a general lack of empathy and/or any real paricipation - instead flocking to hugboxes that cater to own specific sense of self.

The promise was that the global village would shrink in size - and people could form friendships with people anywhere, regardless of distance. Unfortunately, for far too many it has done the complete opposite - having people segregate very vigorously by point of view, with no quarter or compromise with any other worldview - preferring the company of a like minded fellow halfway across the world than the actual, very real human being next door.

In addition, it's put an enormous number of people out of work, and almost completely enslaved a minority of those still considered useful. Travel agencies are all but dead in an age of Expedia. Amazon has put most bookstores out of commission, those that weren't destroyed already by WalMart selling the latest hit book as a loss leader. People now demand that these sites run 24 hours a day, meaning that many tech folks are literally 24/7 on call.

When robotics come in en masse, and we're seeing this now with fast food workers being replaced by self-serve kiosks and robots, checkout cashiers replaced with automated kiosks and bank tellers replaced by machines - how will most people be able to justify their experience? Farm workers can be trained to operate machines, but not everybody can be a highly educated savant doing research or engineering on a nanotechnology level. In theory most people could live a pretty good existence on a guaranteed income, being paid to produce content and experiences. Time will tell how that actually pans out. I'm not hopeful though, especially since most people are looking at each other with disdain. 

 

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