“The medium is the message”

30Oct10

This often and tediously repeated phrase by Marshall McLuhan is his most misunderstood idea; it does not mean what it literally says and you have to understand the context in which McLuhan wrote it. By “the medium is the message” he means what he says in this quote from ‘Understanding Media’ (1964):

“The medium is the message. This merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced  into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (p. 7).

The key words are: “the new scale that is introduced  into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology”. It means that we should pay more attention to the impact on the world that a medium has, consider how it changes society and the world both for better and worse, rather than its content, “the new scale that is introduced into our affairs”, rather than the messages that are carried. For example, TV has had a profound effect on all kinds of things: politics, news, entertainment, religion, business, advertising, education, etc. The message of TV, which is more important than any programming TV carries, is the cumulative effect of all those changes. The Internet is similarly having a profound effect on the world. If you want to read more about this, Mark Federman has explained it here: http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm .

And here’s another explanation by McLuhan himself:

"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*." 
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews 
(2003).

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6 Responses to ““The medium is the message””

  1. 1 Terry Gordon

    How excellent to have these qualifiers of “the medium is the message.” Here are a few more from MM himself: 1) “When we say ‘the medium is the message’ we suppress the fact that the user or audience or cognitive agent is both the ‘content’ and maker of the experience, in order to highlight the effects of the medium or the hidden environment or ground of the experience.” (McLuhan Unbound, #3) 2) “The effect of media, like their ‘message’ is really in their form and not in their content.” (McLuhan Unbound, #18) 3) “The medium itself is the ultimate message.” (McLuhan Unbound, #18) And here’s one from yours truly: How trumps what.

  2. Ian, McLuhan felt that near instant electronic communication leads to a loss of identity, that the message “sender is sent” and becomes “discarnate” and bodyless, essentially a disembodied voice and that this condition precipitates violence. For my part, it’s simply the fact that we’re willing to communicate nasty things to people online through text, voice or images, because we can’t see them; we’re willing to send comments that we would never say to someone face-to-face, again a condition of being disembodied in our communication…..AlexK

    “The violence that all electric media inflict in their users is that they are instantly invaded and deprived of their physical bodies and are merged in a network of extensions of their own nervous systems. As if this were not sufficient violence or invasion of individual rights, the elimination of the physical bodies of the electric media users also deprives them of the means of relating the program experience of their private, individual selves, even as instant involvement suppresses private identity.
    The loss of individual and personal meaning via the electronic media ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence.”
    – “Violence of the Media”, Canadian Forum, 1976


  1. 1 Change Is Good: Media, Messaging & Global Village | Eat, Love, Paleo!
  2. 2 Rights Without Responsibility | Scripturient
  3. 3 the medium is the massage. – Stay Curious.
  4. 4 Being Massaged by the Medium – Maddy Baker

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