The work of Canadian philosopher and writer Marshall McLuhan is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s when McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” Now the animator Daniel Savage has created a simple, black-and-white animation for Al Jazeera that illuminates why this axiom resonates in 2017.
In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan wrote about how media affects daily life. But instead of focusing on the content–today, the tweets, Facebook posts, and news articles that many of us regularly consume–he was interested in how the form of the content, that platform that delivers it to you, can impact your psychology in insidious ways.
As the Hong Kong social activist Alex Chow narrates, Savage’s animation shows a figure reading a book inside of a square, which transforms into a figure listening to a radio inside of a circle, which morphs to a figure watching television inside another square, which, finally, changes into the figure typing into a computer inside of a triangle. The shifting geometric shapes act as a visual metaphor for how each progressive type of media affects the shape of the world in which people dwell, even if they don’t realize it. “The fact that our insane president can have a hissy fit and send it to the world with the tap of a screen really says something,” Savage tells It’s Nice That.
“McLuhan wasn’t saying that content is inconsequential,” Chow says in the animation. “He was saying that when we pay too much attention to it, we ignore the power of form in shaping our experience. So, if you don’t understand the medium, you don’t fully understand the message.”
“Another strange effect of this electric environment is the total absence of secrecy,” a recording of McLuhan narrates as pixels of light bombard the human figure in the animation. “With the end of secrecy goes the end of the monopolies of knowledge. Everything happens at once. There’s no continuity, there’s not connection, there’s no follow-through. It’s just all now.” That sure sounds like Twitter on a Wednesday. (Source: https://goo.gl/ckAPgT )
Critique of the Above Article & Video: But “the medium is the message“ is NOT just about elevating the importance of medium or “form” relative to content. It is about the transformative effect of the entirely new environment that is created by any new medium, the entire service industry that supports a medium, which could not continue to exist without it. The medium is just the figure in a much bigger environmental ground. McLuhan explains this best in a 1974 lecture titled “Living at the Speed of Light”, delivered at the University of South Florida:
“The car has lost its place in the heart of the people. That doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear overnight. Not at all. All it means is the effects of the car are disappearing. And privacy and service environment are part of the effects. When I say the medium is the message, I’m saying that the motor car is not a medium. The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil companies. That is the medium. In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car. When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone. The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects. The car is a figure in a ground of services. It’s when you change the ground that you change the car. The car does not operate as the medium, but rather as one of the major effects of the medium. So ‘the medium is the message’ is not a simple remark, and I’ve always hesitated to explain it. It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation. And the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people. It is the environment that changes people, not the technology.” – McLuhan, M. (1974). ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, a lecture delivered at the University of South Florida, can be found in David Staines & Stephanie McLuhan (Eds.). Understanding Me: Lectures & Interviews (2003). Boston: MIT Press, 241-2.
Another criticism is that the video equates the word “medium” with the word “form” and they are not equivalent. The Google dictionary defines form as “the visible shape or configuration of something” and medium as “an agency or means of doing something”. These are two different things entirely.