The Meaning of ‘Medium’ is the Message.
Much of the the confusion around the statement “the medium is the message” can be avoided if the reader is willing to first consider the use of the word ‘medium’.
When Marshall McLuhan made this statement for the first time…
(in 1958, at a Vancouver conference — he would later write it up as the first chapter of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964)
…he meant by ‘medium’ “an environment of services and disservices.” He was talking about the effects of technology, not about the technology itself — a telephone or a radio or a computer — but what and how the technology affects people and societies.
McLuhan would discuss this in terms of technology (‘figure’) and its effects (‘ground).
This all becomes confused for us today because we rely on the current definition of ‘medium’ as simply a technology, when that’s not the same definition Marshall McLuhan used. He preferred ‘milieu’ or ‘environment’.
When reading the works of Marshall McLuhan, it is helpful to keep in mind that he was an English professor who was careful and deliberate with words.
“The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, p.9)
Thank you for reading,
Marshall McLuhan draws out cognitive illustrations on his article ‘The Medium is the Message’ that shows how the use of technological media such as print, radio, and television widely influences the development of a particular age than their messages can. He introduces a largely perceptive point in claiming that communication mediums are the message themselves which are delivered to their recipients. However, I strongly disagree that the medium primarily affects social and industrial changes in the society, but rather, it is the content of the medium that provides more effect on the future of the ages. In this paper, I will be drawing out some details to support the idea that it is the combined messages of the medium and the content themselves that largely affect the society and culture. The evidences will provide some insights into why the content of the medium should still be given more consideration and study than the technological tool used to deliver it. I will argue that though McLuhan’s arguments have important points, his findings lacked the ability to weigh each side fairly.
The Power of the Medium and the Message
McLuhan stresses on his book ‘Understanding Media’ that the communication device used to carry out a message is a crucial aspect that should be given thorough study. He believes that it is the communication medium which is used that greatly affects one’s perception and future innovations. He refers to the word ‘Medium’ as any device which is used for communication such as paper, radio, and television. For McLuhan, these communication media have in them an intrinsic message or content that is simultaneously delivered or inculcated in the minds of the recipients together with the ‘message’. The ‘message’, on the other hand, refers to the real content of the device such as news articles, films, poems, or radio talk shows. McLuhan argues that, although “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message” (151). He stresses the point that the content of the message has minimal effects to the social perception of the society.
I can see McLuhan’s point in pioneering the idea of observing the other side of media which is the tool itself and not the content anymore. The fact that he is a very technological and at the same time creative person shows how much emphasis he has given on the technological side of the issue, which is quite clear in his uses and pun of words. Clearly, McLuhan has discovered how industrialism and technology have greatly affected our world and society. He states that the present culture of people is being moulded by the way they communicate, and this shapes the existence of humans. Apparently, the inventions in the new age of technology have changed the culture of the people, and human lives are shaped by these changes. Mcluhan suggests that people shape the tools, but they shape people in return. Since technology predicts social change, it explains why the society changes from time to time while the people get used to the products of technological world. From telephone to cellular phones today, the society has been improving in the mode of communication.
As people become educated and knowledgeable, the demands for new gadgets and another mode of communication are being addressed. The tribal age made people learn how to listen, and the literate age made them learn how to read, and as the ages came, people realized that there are still many gadgets that can be innovated to make their lives more convenient. The knowledge about mathematics helped the people during the earlier centuries and resulted in the development of mechanical calculators that led to the invention of the computers. Since then, many other high technological gadgets have been invented to satisfy the people’s needs. High technology gadgets have kept on amazing people with their capabilities to communicate easier and faster than the gadgets that they had been using before these new gadgets were introduced. ‘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’ (151). Nowadays, people can send messages to their families regardless of their location through internet messaging. They can watch videos, listen to music, and take pictures using their latest cellular phones. They can get any information they need from the internet and learn all the latest news and events anywhere in the world. Those are just few of the things that technology can provide to people. It is a manifestation that people get countless advantages from these new gadgets. Thus, technology plays a very important part in humans’ lives today. The dependence of people all over the world to technology is evident. The presence of high technology today helps to sustain the humans’ existence in the planet. The constant innovation of new gadgets made people become dependent to technology which put them to new culture and gave them new perceptions toward their surroundings.
Apparently, McLuhan’s assertion that these communication and electronic devices have more influential ‘content’ than the real message that they carry is quite understandable. He is actually correct to an extent; however, I would like to argue with his opinion that the medium should be given more attention because it is the message itself aside from the real content. He gives many examples to support this claim by using the analogy of the light bulb. A light bulb does not have any content, but it illuminates its surroundings; therefore, creating a lighted space where people can fill up (152). The message here, therefore, is the result of light and what people can do with the light; but what McLuhan aims to highlight is the idea that the bulb in itself is the carrier and at the same time the reason why people can make innovations with it. This is, in my opinion, an inconsistent way of perceiving the role of the bulb. Its ‘message’ of providing light is the main reason why people are able to see things clearly despite the dark. The production of light is the real message of the electronic tool which shows that the bulb’s ability to give light influences people to work and move better. If the bulb did not produce any hint of luminescence, scientists and inventors would probably not upgrade it into incandescent bulbs or fluorescent lamps.
The argument with the bulb can also be associated with McLuhan’s argument that the content has little effect on people’s decisions and future acts. In this situation, let’s take the case of violent programming on television and children. Children’s show and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) are both messages that television delivers. A child who watches more educational shows is expectedly more good-mannered and knowledgeable than a child who is regularly exposed to violent shows. Clearly, McLuhan’s argument is quite broad and general in a way that he overlooked a particular situation where the ‘real content’ of the television can be considered crucially influential to viewers. Ironically, McLuhan’s use of general David Sarnoff’s speech in the University fo Notre Dame also reveals that content is important in the same way that the medium is. Sarnoff stated that, ‘We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in theselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value’ (154). By using the same case of violent programming’s effect on children, similarly, television is used as a medium to broadcast different kinds of shows. The fact that the first child’s case, the television is used to broadcast the message conveyed in children’s shows demonstrates how meanings can be perceived differently compared to that of the child watching WWE.
Moreover, another argument that shows how medium and content work hand in hand in delivering various messages and influences to the society is McLuhan’s research of an African who does not understand the English language but still listens to BBC News every evening. In this case, McLuhan illustrates that despite the African’s inability to understand any word that he hears on the news, he still finds hearing the sound of it important, therefore, demonstrating that it is the idea of the sound produced by the medium used that affects him. However, it is still an arguable scenario due to the fact that the sound produced by the radio or television can be considered as the real content on the premise of an African. ‘His attitude to speech was like ours to melody—the resonant intonation was meaning enough’ (161). It is, therefore, quite reaosnable to conclude that the vagueness of the real definition of ‘message’ that reveals the flaws in McLuhan’s arguments and assertions.
Marshall McLuhan has provided intellectual and perceptive points as he discussed the role of communication mediums in our society and future. His ability to provide more meanings in particular words shows that he is well-equipped in critically analysing what is not always obvious in our society. However, his flaws fall on the idea that he based his findings on technological theories without weighing the logical effects and results of the ‘real content’ of communication. Moreover, the inconsistencies in his claims show how the arguments presented with regard to mediums being the message itself reveal that the combination of both is what completes the meanings delivered to the recipients. It is not merely the electronic or communication medium used to deliver that needs attention for further studies but also the meanings construed in each messages that these mediums carry out.