A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Is everything a medium?

Marshall McLuhan (January 4, 1971 age 59).  Yes!

He who is tired of London, said Dr. Johnson, is tired of life.  I’m not tired of London or life but I’m getting bloody tired of people asking me what I mean when I say “the medium is the message.”  Mr. Edwin Newman opened up our talk today, thankfully, with at least a variation on this bloody question: why he asked me is the medium the message?  Why isn’t the message the message?   Poor old Ed.  He does get himself wound up in visual knots.  Ed, I said, what .. is … the … message … of… the … electric … light?  He didn’t know.  Asked me if there was one.  Bloody cheek.  The answer is obvious.  The medium and the message are one.  The message is the medium.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  No!

From his discovery of communications as the proper subject for his study in the early 1950s Marshall McLuhan moved on in the 1960s and 1970s to view everything made by man as a medium of communications and thus an appropriate subject for his study.  This shift opened up endless subjects for his study but sharply reduced his ability to say anything useful about them.

Consider the “media” he devoted chapters to in Understanding Media.  One of the many reasons people found the book hard to understand was the all encompassing meaning of media.  Things ordinary people would think of as communications media are discussed:  newspapers, radio, television.  But then so are things people don’t naturally think of as media, such as numbers, clocks, money, comics, and weapons.  The result is Babel.  Naturally, Marshall McLuhan has fascinating things to say about the wheel, the bicycle and the aeroplane as media, but what he has to say about them makes far less sense and is far less interesting than what he has to say about the traditional communications.

To a young boy with a hammer, the old saying goes, everything is a nail.  Marshall McLuhan’s new hammer was his theory that communications media themselves rather than their contents exert a powerful and neglected influence on the way we think and behave.  Over time Marshall McLuhan broadened his definition of what a medium is.  So much so that by the 1970s “the medium is the message” had become in effect “everything is the message?”  As interesting as this thought is I can’t help thinking, and I think rightly, that the message of the rocking chair, soap-on-a-rope, or the pocket fisherman is less interesting than the message of twitter, the internet, or PowerPoint.

Take a look at Understanding Media. Which of all the media that McLuhan talks about do you think are the ones that are least like traditional communications media?   My personal favourite is ‘games.’

Take a look at your world. Do the people you know in sales look on everything as if it was a sale?  Do researchers think everything needs more research?  Do teachers think everything needs teaching?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Viewing for this post

Marshall McLuhan and Edwin Newman:  “Speaking Freely” hosted by Edwin Newman, 4  January 1971.

Tags: , , ,

Michael Hinton Thursday, January 21st, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

Leave a Reply