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 second-best meaning of the medium is the message

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

Yesterday, recall, I said:  “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 your favourite gadget is playing with your mind

Yesterday I talked about the many ways to understand the meaning of the medium is the message, and one way of understanding the phrase that I said was the best way.  There is also a second-best way, which I want to talk to you about today.  The second-best way is that the medium is affecting the way you think.  How?  McLuhan believed that our minds see the world through our senses.  (This is the concept of the sensorium.  An idea he found in the work of Harold Innis.)  And the senses are weighted in a particular balance by the dominant media of the day.  (In thinking about this balance and changes in it over time and space, it helps to think of the senses as numbering two (eye and ear) rather than five (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and finger tip.)   This idea strikes most people who have met it as both right and wrong, brilliant and crackers, science and science fiction.

If you have ever wondered why so many people thought McLuhan makes no sense – in the words of the running joke on the hit TV show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which first aired in 1968, “whatcha doin’ Marshall McLuhan?” –  this is it.  People like Robert K. Merton, “perhaps the most distinguished sociologist” of his day, thought McLuhan was crackers.  (Famously, Merton said of a talk McLuhan gave at Columbia University in 1955, “[Your paper is] so chaotic I don’t know where to begin.”  McLuhan responded with, “You don’t like those ideas?   I got others.”)  Tom Wolfe believed he was a genius whose thinking was all but impossible to follow.  Neil Postman, who as a student also heard McLuhan’s talk, and went on to become the most distinguished social commentator of his generation, believed McLuhan to be brilliant, but also believed McLuhan’s theories about media having psychological affects via the sensorium to be crackers.

Questions:  Which one of the two best ways to understand the meaning of the medium is the message makes the most sense to you?  Whose opinion of McLuhan, Merton’s, Wolfe’s, or Postman’s, is most like your own?

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.

Marchand, Philip.  Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989; 1998, pp. 141-142.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, October 15th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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