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.

The meaning of the medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan (July, 1952, age 40).  The technique is the content

“Somehow the bugbear of content” has so captured people’s minds that no one thinks about the way content is delivered.  They think only about the message not the technique or the technology by which it is sent and received.  It is time they did.

Michael Hinton (October 2009, age 57).  Imagine the world without your favourite gadget

Here Marshall McLuhan comes very close to saying “the medium is the message.”  So close that you can point to his statement in this letter (July 16, 1952) as the earliest statement of the idea.  What he actually says is “[you] should be interested in technique as content.”  What does he mean when he says this?  When an ad is playing on TV is he saying that the TV is persuading us to buy something? Everyman’s McLuhan says “McLuhan never intended the phrase… to have such a literal meaning.”  And that McLuhan “rephrased the medium is the message in different ways at different times for different audiences.”  For example, he also said: because a medium is an extension of our bodies, minds or spirits, the user is the content; mediums are environments that produce effects on us; ‘the medium of language is its own message”; and the medium is the massage.

Terry Gordon, McLuhan’s offical biographer, gives a handy formula for you to generate an infinite number of interpretations of the medium is the message.  Write it as “the medium (insert a defining word or phrase here) is the message (insert another additional defining word or phrase here).”  Which allows you to write, for example: “The medium (of the past) is the message (of the medium of the present.)  Or “The medium (of Angelina Jolie) is the message (of the medium of Brad Pitt.)  Or “The medium (of bullshit) is the message (of the medium of the PR spokesman).” 

This is fun, providing a way to pass the time and get academic articles published, but it is not very helpful in understanding Marshall McLuhan or his relevance to your life today.  The best way I know to explain the meaning of “the medium is the message” is to say that the world with the medium is different from the world without the medium.  And so I agree with Everyman’s McLuhan that when an ad is playing on your TV, your TV is not the message of that ad.  You are asking too much from the idea.  It explains some things but not everything.  To see the relevance of this big idea of Marshall McLuhan ask yourself these two questions:  How is the world of business with PowerPoint different from the world of business without PowerPoint?  How is your world with cell phones different from the world your parents or grandparents grew up in which was a world without cell phones ?               

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan.  Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 231-232.

Gordon, W. Terence, Eri Hamaji and Jacob Albert. Everyman’s McLuhan. New York; Mark Batty, 2007.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, October 14th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Business, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 2 Comments

2 Comments to The meaning of the medium is the message

  • […] Anyway, it’s interesting how McLuhan seems to have all these ideas he’s toying with at all times– and he’ll talk about stuff before it’s in its finite form, fiddling with the idea until he finds the best way to talk about it. Here he is talking about “the medium is the message” before he figured out that exact phrasing. […]

  • Amara Perera says:

    I still have trouble understanding this phrase. I thought I understood it as the message of the medium is not its content, but the change it brings about. Then I came across Paddy Scannel. He gives the light bulb example and tells that ‘It’s a medium without a message’ He tells that content of the light bulb is what it illuminates. Suresly the light bulb did bring about many changes by illuminating. Now how is that a medium without a message?

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