Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message”
From Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Signet, 1964): 23-35, 63-7
Marshall McLuhan, in his essay “The Medium is the Massage” (1964), asserts that the medium plays a vital role in the way ‘content’ is perceived. McLuhan argues that technological advances in communication, in mediums, will have lasting effects and consequences on the way we perceive the world. He stresses that the content of a medium itself was another medium; word is speech and print is writing. He notes that we are so focused on the content of a medium that we are blind to the changes that medium inflicts and its very characteristics. He demands that a medium should be an extension of ones being rather than an amputation of ones self.
McLuhan defines a medium as “any extension of ourselves” (1). What he meant was that each ‘medium’ enables our bodies to do more or our senses to be extended in an artificial way; the book is an extension of our eye. For example, language extends our thoughts from our mind out and onto others. The characteristics of anything we conceive, create, or use, a medium, brings changes that often go unnoticed; such changes effect the ‘message’ and society as a whole. The culprit is that we are distracted by, and blind to, a medium’s content (1). He supports this with the idea that the ‘content’ of writing or of print is speech, but the reader is unaware of print and speech. Therefore, it is the character of the medium that forms its message. In McLuhan’s words, “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.” (1). The message is and can be measured by the “change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (1). He claims a key factor to the new medium is the breakdown of time and space. Electric technology enables instant communication unlike the sequenced mechanical age. In the digital age, everything is instant. He supports this notion saying that cubism shows multiple points of view, two dimensions, and therefore has instant awareness as a whole. Cubism forces the viewer to consider the work in its totality unlike the content paintings search for meaning. The conclusion being that it is not content or technology, but the changes technology causes content we should be alarmed about, such as the speed of information.
McLuhan observed that “mechanization is achieved by fragmentation” (3), putting fragmented parts in a series but that “one thing follows another accounts for nothing…nothing follows from following, except change” (3). In other words, technologies instant speed ended sequence, caused everything to merge and come into awareness. “Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it
suddenly seemed that a chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs.” (3)
McLuhan’s exaggerated and overemphasized writing style puts a sense of urgency and drama to his ideas without providing factual evidence. His clearest claim was that whatever the form of media a society uses, that media, will have a huge impact on society. But his statement that ‘the medium is the massage’, is a statement of equality that causes a lot of confusion and even a complete dismissal of these theories. As a statement, ‘the medium is the message’, exclaims that the medium we use to communicate is equal or greater than the message we are communicating. If a book is our medium then the words would be our message; the words have no purpose without the book, they are inaccessible. The book, the medium, communicates the words to the reader and thus is equal or greater in value.
We can use these views to look at modern technologies today. A book has a beginning, middle and end; it is a linear experience; whereas a website is hardly ever linear. As a medium, it is up to the reader to come up with a method of consuming the content and develop a conclusion; but often the book and ‘web page’ mediums carry the same messages.
It is unfair to judge this work in its original context or even outside of its bigger context, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, a lot has changed in forty nine years, and according to McLuhan a lot of which we are not even aware of. The idea behind ‘the medium is the message’ is sociological. McLuhan’s purpose, right or wrong, is that the mediums we use to deliver content affect our society unexpectedly and under our noses. In a nutshell, it is not really how we perceive a message within a medium, but how we subconsciously obtain that message.
Rather then the equality McLuhan gives the medium and the message, I believe the take away is to look at a medium as a message. The technologies that define a web page, for example, HTML5, responsive, CSS3, whatever, enable us to do the things we do; technology is there to support the message, never one or the other. In a later essay titled “Photograph”, McLuhan clarifies this thought, “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.” (199). In the light of design, we should consider how our decisions affect the message and the message in itself is a medium; the design choices we make shape the perception of the message.
Armstrong, Helen. “Dematerialization of Screen Space | Jessica Helfand | 2001.” Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2009. 119-23. Print.
In 2001 Helfand published her essay “Dematerialization of Screen Space,” criticizing the current relationship between technology and its users. Her essay looks at the Internet as a multidimensional universe through displacement, dematerialization, and demarcation. She questions the restrictions of the view-port, the interaction and travels through information, time and space, and the challenges designers must face in the ever-evolving new age. The way Helfand puts it is, “What has not been recognized is the extent to which the viewer is a moving target. Are our conceptions of electronic space lodged in geometric exactitude in an effort to harness the dynamic of an unruly audience?”
McLuhan, Marshall, and Lewis H. Lapham. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1994. Print.
“Understanding Media” is the larger text that contained “The Medium is the Massage”. As a whole it is McLuhan’s analysis of the ways that language and technology shape human behavior in the techno-driven world of globalization.
Logan, Robert K. Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan. New York, NY [u.a.: Lang, 2010. Print.
Logan’s ‘Understanding New Media’ is a fantastic update of McLuhan’s theories. He expands these theories into the modern age and among various fields of new media. Logan views McLuhan’s predictions as more relevant today than ever. He sets out to analyze the new media McLuhan foreshadowed but never experienced.
Is the web a medium?
What is the message of the web medium?
How can we control that message?