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.