The Medium Really Is the Message: How Mediums Shape Messages


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Cesar Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, would like you to know that Marshall McLuhan was right. And he has the datasets to prove it. In a new paper, “How the Medium Shapes the Message: Printing and the Rise of the Arts and Sciences,” named after the media philosopher’s renowned phrase, “the medium is the message,” Hidalgo and his MIT colleagues show that communication technologies, “from printing to social media, affect our historical records by changing the way ideas are spread and recorded.”

“We completely agree with McLuhan,” Hidalgo said to Nautilus.“ What he was saying was not that messages were irrelevant, but the medium by which they were transmitted was more consequential. The famous example is the Nixon and JFK debate. People who watched on TV thought the good-looking JFK won, and ones who listened on radio thought Nixon won. It was the same content but what people observed, or what they thought happened, was very different depending on the medium they were using. We found every communication technology changes the way in which we interact.”

Hidalgo and his colleagues composed the short video below to give props to McLuhan and show how mediums, from oral culture to printing to TV, transformed society. During the oral age, political and religious leaders were the talk of the town. But the advent of printing gave rise to artists and scientists, while TV spurred the rise of entertainment and sports heroes. Causation or correlation? Watch and read the MIT group’s work to find out.             

A related study:-

The Medium Shapes the Message: New Communication Technologies May Bias Historical Record

The introduction of communication technologies appears to bias historical records in the direction of the content best suited for each technology, according to a study published February 20, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by C. Jara-Figueroa and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

Studying the societal impact of new communication technologies is challenging, due to limited data on historical events as well as the difficulty of parsing observed correlations. The authors of this study used a dataset of almost 14,000 biographies, classified by primary occupation on Wikipedia or Wikidata. They analysed the impact of the printing press, radio, and television, on the biographical content that was recorded following their introduction. They found that the introduction of printing (1450-1880) was associated with an increase in the number of painters, composers, and scientists recorded in Wikipedia’s biographical records, as well as a decrease in religious figures. 
Cities thought to be early adopters of printing were more likely to be the birthplace of recorded scientists and artists than cities which adopted printing later.
The introduction of radio (1880-1950) was associated with a significant shift towards the performing arts in Wikipedia’s biographical records. Finally, with the introduction of television (1950-2000), the authors found an increase in recorded sports players and a further increase in the number of performing artists.
The authors believe their results may indicate that historical figures whose work was best suited to available media — for example, musicians for radio, and sportspeople for television, were most likely to be recorded in historical records.
The authors emphasize that their data relies largely on Wikipedia, a community-edited resource, and also note that the memorability and fame of recent individuals is prone to change over time. However, they note this indication that prevalent communication technologies rapidly affect the biographies present in our modern digital historical records warrants further investigation–and may contain clues to the “heroes” we will produce for future historical records.
The authors add: “[Marshall] McLuhan was right! A team of MIT researchers used big data to study the effect of communication technologies on collective memory. They found that new communication technologies change the occupations of people who achieved global fame”.  (Source:

2 Responses to “The Medium Really Is the Message: How Mediums Shape Messages”

  1. 1 david

    yes, Marshall McLuhan was right; about so many things.

    it’s nice that MIT has taken a look at biographies to gain an understanding of how mediums affect messages; that was a very clever device to choose and, it is revealing.

    however, there are bigger things than McLuhan said that an outfit like MIT might want to study that might be influential in helping us to choose more wisely what we focus on and, who we listen to.

    McLuhan had a lot to say about that, and unfortunately the lessons go unlearned because they go unexplored.

    thank you for creating this blog. I think it is a genuine service delivering a very important message that hopefully can disrupt that unfortunate trend.


  1. 1 Process – Week 9: Form and Function – Laura Eydmann

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