When studying media theories, the one catchphrase that gets mentioned the most is, quite likely, Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message‘ and while it doesn’t sound like rocket science per se, it, often times, leads students and scholars alike to debate its meaning. Here is our take on what Marshall McLuhan meant when talking about the medium and the message.

First off McLuhan certainly was of the opinion that the medium shaped and controlled ‘the scale and form of human association and action’. When we look at movies, for example, this means that the way one consumes the medium (via the conceptions of speed and time) its meaning gets transformed. He argued that this leads from ‘the world of sequence and connections’ into ‘the world of creative configuration and structure.‘ Sticking with the example of a movie this would mean that the message of said medium, the movie, is the transition from ‘lineal connection’ to so called ‘configurations’.

That’s not all that we can find in McLuhan’s research though. He also went into great detail explaining that the ‘content of any medium is always another medium‘ – this henceforth means that  speech is the content of writing, writing is the content of print, and print itself is the content of the telegraph, and so on and so forth. You could, obviously, apply that to our current media landscape as well.

In McLuhan’s understanding the ‘medium’ was a rather broad term. One of his most famous examples included a light bulb of which he said the a light bulb itself does not have any content in the way a newspaper has articles or a tv has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect. It enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise not be illuminated. Therefore, according to McLuhan, a light bulb is a medium with any content. He says that ‘a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.’

Another famous example that’s been used in many textbooks is the example of news coverage in regards to a terrible crime. This news report might in actuality be less about the news story itself (the content) but more about the change in public attitude towards crime. As the news report brings such events into the safe space of everybody’s home it carries a certain amount of significance indicating it is not to be taken lightly.

When it comes to defining and understanding Media, McLuhan calls the content of a medium ‘a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.‘ What he’s trying to say here is that most of us focus on the obvious, the meat (content) as this is where the information lies, but while focusing on that, we often miss the structural changes that are subtly being introduced while we are being distracted. This might not sound like something one experiences on a daily level but when we think of how society’s values and norms change due to new technological developments and ways of how media is making use of said developments, we can realize the social implications the medium can have. Those implications can be felt anywhere. From cultural over religious issue and historical precedents all the way through existing conditions. McLuhan even mentions that there might be ‘secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions‘ that we are not aware of.

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is 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.”

Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, current examples

When you search the internet for a definition of ‘the medium is the message’ you will quite often get hold of some quick explanations that jump to the conclusion that McLuhan meant the medium supersedes the content of the message. To make things clear: This is not the case! By now there are countless articles out there that say ‘the medium is no longer the message’ or ‘the message is the medium’ (?) etc. It’s crucial that, just because that might sound catchy, it doesn’t automatically make sense.

One of McLuhan’s main concerns was, as mentioned in the first part of this article, that we focus on the obvious ‘content’ rather than on the implications (‘structural changes’). This could also, if we want to make it more recent, be a technological invention. The main features of a new technology (or software, application, etc.) are rather obvious from the get go. The very definition of said invention and its existence will tell us what to do with it, how to use it. However the long term impact of this new technology or invention will not be that obvious – we might not even be aware of long term implications while using it – that’s what McLuhan calls ‘unintended consequences’. One example we can find in many textbooks is TV. While TV raised to fame, from the 60s to the change of the decade, we consumed it, were glued to the goggle box, but didn’t necessarily understand its long term impact on society. Now we know. As McLuhan also so fitting stated: “One only understands the true impact of a technology when looking onto it through another technology”. How will future generations judge the impact New Media (e.g. the internet, social media, messaging, etc.) had on society? Are we aware of the eventual influence? Only time will tell.

The reason why we are not aware of the bigger picture is rather simple and nothing we have to blame ourselves for. We simply can not predict all the factors (political, economic, cultural, religious, etc. – tertiary effects) that influence how we behave and decide. If we’re being honest, there are way more variables out there than there are fixtures, hence understanding what is happening in this context is crucial.

According to McLuhan the introduction of a new ‘message‘ brings with it ‘the change of scale or pace or pattern’  – it  ‘introduces into human affairs.’ Again, to make this more current, we could say that the message of a show like Game Of Thrones is not only what you see, the fight of good vs bad (with dragons!), but the improved tourism to the areas where those stunning scenes were shot.

Generally McLuhan always tries to tell us to look beyond the obvious and find the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new message that’s been presented.

What is also rather interesting to consider when discussing McLuhan is his understanding of ‘medium’.  In his book, Understanding Media, he, in addition to what was discussed in the beginning, also calls a medium “any extension of ourselves.” Suggestion from McLuhan to further this understanding here are that a hammer extends our arm and that the wheel extends our legs and feet. Each enables us to do more than our bodies could do on their own.

Taking this a step further this also means that the medium of language extends our thoughts from within our mind out to others. This makes sense, especially when looking at how all our thoughts are, obviously, based on individual experiences. However, McLuhan also looked at mediums as something that resembles fertile soil in which seeds are being planted. To break it down: A Medium to McLuhan, the extension of our body (senses / mind), is anything from which change will take place. When looking at what drives such change it could be argued that basically everything we create or invent or innovate could bring about change. This means, in McLuhan’s terms, all of those things would be media.

Now the erm ‘the medium is the message’ hopefully makes more sense. We can understand the nature and characteristics of anything we create (medium) by looking at the changes that are happening. Even if those are non-obvious or unnoticed changes to the masses, they do have effects (message). Hence, bringing it back to the start, McLuhan warns that mankind often is distracted by the content of a medium (which, most times, is another medium in itself). He adds another crucial quote:  ‘It is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.’ 

This shows that the character of the medium is its very potency or effect. I’s message. To say it once more with McLuhan himself: “This is 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.”

Why do we need to be aware of all this though? When we understand ‘the medium is the message’ we will be able to see changes, even minor ones (the ones we often tend to ignore). We understand that noticing slight changes in our society or culture could show the introduction of new messages, which is eventually the effect of a new medium. Knowing all this allows us to identify new mediums before they become obvious to everybody else (which could take years or decades). Noticing such changes could not only be beneficial to us as individuals but, if we notice that they are detrimental to our societies, could also help prevent damage as we could intervene – as McLuhan put it best:

 “Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it. Anticipation gives the power to deflect and control force.”