The medium is the message…but so what?

Marshall McLuhan reminds us that despite all our technology, we’re actually still not very media-savvy at all

I have to come clean: writing this second installment was really hard. My plan was to write a piece about Marshall McLuhan (1911-1981), whose centenary was on July 21st (that’s still the plan, of course) but I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to show what I think is really important and worthwhile about his thinking. After all, McLuhan was called “the prophet of the digital age” – the man who presaged the Internet – and who needs a prophet for an age we’ve already gotten into up to our necks?

If you’re not sure who Marshall McLuhan is: you may have seen a short “Heritage” vignette about him during commercial breaks from WKRP in Cincinnati like I did in the 1990s. In it, Road to Avonlea’s Cedric Smith portrays McLuhan formulating his signature phrase: “the medium is the message”. McLuhan was also famous for remarking that the emergence of modern communications technology had transformed the planet into a “global village”.

So who is he? Born July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, McLuhan is a very difficult thinker to categorize: a philosopher, a social critic, an historian, a scholar of English literature, a student of St. Thomas Aquinas and James Joyce; simultaneously all and none of the above.

Reading McLuhan can be akin to riding a rollercoaster, or to breathing deeply after a bout of serious congestion.

During his lifetime, McLuhan became famous enough to appear as himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), in which he served up a “Professor of TV, Media and Culture” for delivering a botched interpretation of his work in order to impress a date. You can find numerous clips of him on YouTube (I recommend the 1977 interview with Peter Gzowski, partly because I think it’s very funny), and they’re all worth watching. He’s also a very engaging and accessible, albeit very challenging, writer. Reading McLuhan can be akin to riding a rollercoaster, or to breathing deeply after a bout of serious congestion.

But McLuhan is most well known for having occupied himself for several decades with the intense study of technology. Not the study of the uses of technological devices, nor of their development and improvement, nor even of the side effects of technology (such as, for example, the ecological consequences of automobiles). McLuhan was interested in the subconscious transformations that each technological development effects in human beings. In other words, McLuhan’s discovery is that technology, or media—his preferred term—shouldn’t be thought of primarily in terms of the various tools at our disposal, or as tools whose uses have some potential side effects.

So how should we think about media?

McLuhan’s thesis is actually pretty simple: every society is shaped by its technological or media arrangement. Here I’m going to crib a concept from a French historian named Paul Veyne, to refer to this kind of arrangement: “set-up”. For McLuhan, members of a society can understand their situation, and possible escape routes from it, only by understanding its media set-up. This is the meaning of the phrase “the medium is the message”: “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” (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, p. 7). The idea that humanity preserves some kind of biological, social, or spiritual separateness from media is false; in “all cases, sensory change is levered by new technical innovations, since new technology inevitably creates new environments that act incessantly on the sensorium” (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968, p. 136). That claim might seem dense and maybe even inscrutable, but go sit in a room full of TVs playing CNN and FOX News for a week and then come back and re-read it.

Better yet, if you’re old enough, try to remember how the world seemed to you before there were such things as CNN and FOX or before the Internet. Or, even better, think about how, due to the Internet, it’s now possible to directly perceive something like the movement of history, since we can instantaneously track many events playing out all over the planet simultaneously. We can directly perceive history unfolding, or at least we have the technical means to create sensory effects that approximate such a perception, because the story is always more complicated than it appears. More than that, we also have the technical means to instantaneously and simultaneously intervene in those events on a global scale; the “speed of communication and movement makes possible at the same time such diverse facts as stock market operations, international armies, and newsgathering agencies on a world scale” (The Mechanical Bride, 1951, p. 7).

The Internet counts as a medium, to be sure, but so does the humble little shoelace.

I’m sure I’m not blowing minds with the above remarks: everyone is well aware of the effects of electronic news and communications media. But this is exactly where I think McLuhan has been sold short, his originality and intellectual strength really missed. For McLuhan, what we tend to call media are only a few members of a much larger class. Consider some of the “case studies” or media “character sketches” in Understanding Media: McLuhan analyzes not just things like TV, but also things like speech, roads, numbers, clothing, housing, money, games, and weapons. The Internet counts as a medium, to be sure, but so does the humble little shoelace. The shifts in our daily habits and patterns introduced by the shoelace aren’t as spectacular as those of the telephone or the World Wide Web, but surely a being that has to stop and bend down to tie a knot any number of times during the day is at least slightly different than one that doesn’t. And the shoelace, is actually a great example of the thesis “the medium is the message”, even if it’s a silly one. By this I mean that it’s a very clear case in which a medium or technology (and shoelaces are a form of technology) carries certain uses that we can put at our disposal and imposes a set of requirements on us that shape our habits. The shoelace introduces a set-up in conjunction with its uses, and we’re saturated with innumerable set-ups, each with rhythms to which we answer and which transform us, whether little by little or in large-scale jolts.

So what’s the big deal?

This is important and relevant for us because, although we’re the most “media savvy” beings to have ever occupied this planet, we’re also not very media savvy at all. We focus on a few select forms of media and miss out on the rest of them and the set-ups they establish. The point of all this is that if we don’t grasp the set-up, we can’t grasp our own situation, our own present, our form of life. “Form of life” is another concept I’m swiping from someone else: an Austrian philosopher, engineer, elementary schoolteacher and one-time architect named Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). A form of life shouldn’t be confused with a lifestyle or a way of life: it refers simply to the manner in which living beings exist, regardless of conscious choice. For example, when we look at ants farming aphids, bowerbirds building interesting and odd nests in mating rituals, or spiders constructing webs with function-specific threads, we don’t distinguish between the organisms and their trappings like we tend to distinguish between us and our tools: they’re integrated in a form of life.

McLuhan wants us to see that understanding media means looking at ourselves like we look at those ants, bowerbirds and spiders. Why? Because the lion’s share of what we perceive solely as tools at our disposal also dispose us to certain habits of action and thought of which we’re not entirely aware or of which we feel we’re entirely in control. And that lack of awareness, says McLuhan, is the greatest obstacle to solving problems posed by the set-up. To put it more strongly: for McLuhan, the question of humanity can’t be properly posed until we properly pose the question of the set-up or media.

In the next installment, I’ll be doing a McLuhan-ish character sketch of one medium that predominates among our current array of set-ups: oil. But in the meantime, how would you pose the problem of the media today?

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