daily notes #4: What does “the medium is the message” really mean? Here’s Marshall McLuhan in his own words

What does Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” actually mean? Let’s go straight to the source. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Understanding Media:

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is 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. . . . 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. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology [e.g., the assembly line]. The essence of automation technology [e.g., computers] is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.”

Want a more explicit definition? Here’s one from a 1974 lecture. Speaking of Cadillacs…

“The motorcar as the supreme form of privacy has been threatened, in fact superseded, by television. Television brings the outside inside and takes the inside outside. It really pulls the rug out, or the highway out, from under the car. It deprives the car of its rationale and its meaning. If the car had not lost its real meaning in our lives there would be no oil crisis whatever. That is, nobody would even dream of allowing the oil crisis to occur . . . It is something that could not have happened if the car had not already been obsolesced. The car has lost its place in the heart of the people. That doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear overnight. Not at all. All it means is that the effect of the car are disappearing, and privacy and service environment are part of the effects. When I say “the medium is the message” I’m saying that the motorcar 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.

A medium is “any extension of ourselves” but whatever given object or innovation -ie. the extension- is not the point, the message is what’s key. And the message is “a hidden environment of services created by an innovation.” In other words, since McLuhan’s central preoccupation is “effects on people,” the “hidden environment” -the message- is what concerns him because it is “the environment that changes people not the technology.”

Bonus: guidance from the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology

“Note that it is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. Thus, the message of theatrical production is not the musical or the play being produced, but perhaps the change in tourism that the production may encourage. In the case of a specific theatrical production, its message may be a change in attitude or action on the part of the audience that results from the medium of the play itself, which is quite distinct from the medium of theatrical production in general. Similarly, the message of a newscast are not the news stories themselves, but a change in the public attitude towards crime, or the creation of a climate of fear. A McLuhan message always tells us to look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.”

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