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MATRIC: 134072040
(MAC 342)

The phrase, "the medium is the message", was first coined by Marshall McCluhan, an early
observer and prophetic critic of the emerging technologies of the early 1960's. (Black and white
television was just beginning to gain some headway and personal computers had another two
decades to begin to make an impact.) What he proposed was that themedium -- how a
communication is conveyed - can be more important than its content; that the characteristics of
the medium itself can dramatically change the meaning and experience of the communication. In
other words, what we say (the content) as well as how we say it (how it is conveyed) determines
its actual meaning. I still remember the old game of how to say the same three words and have
three different meanings: "I love you." or "I love you." or "I love you?" (Try sounding it out by
emphasizing the underlined words and you'll get different meanings.)
Academics and scholars, confronted with his novel ideas, were generally more sceptical, if not
hostile, in their appraisal. Dwight Macdonald in his review of Understanding Media remarked
that: the parts are greater than the whole... A single page is impressive, two are stimulating, five
raise serious doubts, ten confirm them... (Stearn 1968)
This observation is essentially true of McLuhans writing, but Macdonald fails to follow it to its
logical conclusion. If (to paraphrase him) the perception of the "whole" numbs appreciation for
the "parts," perhaps it would have been better to have studied one of those parts in more detail?
Today McLuhan is best remembered for two phrases: the medium is the message and the
global village. This is appropriate, because they essentially sum up his entire philosophy. I
intend in this essay to explain what McLuhan meant by the medium is the message as well as
examining some criticisms of his media thesis, in order to assess its value.

Key Concepts
Traditionally, we think that the message is what is important. And there can be many different
messages that come out of the same technology for very different purposes (eg the electric light
can be used for sport stadiums or operating theatres). In this thesis, Guns dont kill people;
people kill people.
On the other hand, McLuhan wants to argue that the medium contains its own message, which is
independent of the content. The medium does the same thing, no matter in what context. For
McLuhan, the message of any medium is always formal. Its about structure or scale, about what
kinds of patterns it produces. We can ask two questions: What does the technology do? E.g.
lights shed light on things; they allow people to see better. Guns shoot things, no matter what
theyre shooting at. Thats their purpose. How does it change our actions or our relationship
with the world? Lights extend the sense of vision. Guns extend our arms range (thats why
theyre called arms!).The light bulb and the gun are physical technologies, but this also applies to
communication technologies. The medium structures the way we interact with the world,
irrespective of what its content is.
The message that books convey, for example, is that stories must be told spatially. They make
the understanding of stories into a rational enterprise (unlike speech, which is soundoriented and
can go off in many directions). Although McLuhan doesnt put it this way, you could say that
the medium is the message is his way of saying not what does it say? But what does it do
and how does it change us?

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
An explanation by McLuhan (2003) of this phrase: "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*."

McLuhans observations probes, he prefers to call them are riddled with such
flamboyantly undecipherable aphorisms as The electric light is pure information and
People dont actually read newspapers they get into them every morning like a hot bath.
Of his own work, McLuhan has remarked: I dont pretend to understand it. After all, my
stuff is very difficult. Despite his convoluted syntax, flashy metaphors and word-playful
one-liners, however, McLuhans basic thesis is relatively simple.
McLuhan contends that all media in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they
communicate exert a compelling influence on man and society. Prehistoric, or tribal, man
existed in a harmonious balance of the senses, perceiving the world equally through hearing,
smell, touch, sight and taste. But technological innovations are extensions of human abilities
and senses that alter this sensory balance an alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the
society that created the technology. According to McLuhan, there have been three basic
technological innovations: the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which jolted tribal man out
of his sensory balance and gave dominance to the eye; the introduction of movable type in the
16th Century, which accelerated this process; and the invention of the telegraph in 1844,
which heralded an electronics revolution that will ultimately retribalize man by restoring his
sensory balance. McLuhan has made it his business to explain and extrapolate the
repercussions of this electronic revolution.

McLuhan M. (2003)., Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews
McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.
McLuhan, M. (2003a). Understanding media: The extensions of man (Critical Ed., W. T.
Gordon, Ed.). Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press. Original work published in 1964.
McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the massage: An inventory of effects. New
York: Bantam.
McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: University
of Toronto Press.
McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (2011). Media and formal cause. Houston: NeoPoiesis Press.
McLuhan, M. & Nevitt, B. (1972). Take today: The executive as dropout. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich.
McLuhan, M. (1995). Essential McLuhan (E. McLuhan, & F. Zingrone, eds.). New York:
Basic Books.
McLuhan, M. (2006). The classical trivium: The place of Thomas Nashe in the learning of his
time (W. T. Gordon, ed.). Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.