New Media Seminar Week 6: “The Medium is the Message”

This semester I have been participating in a seminar on new media, and we did an overview of the meme “The medium is the message” originated by Marshall McLuhan. I should admit up front that I only had time to read the Wikipedia Cliff notes version, but it touches on issues that come up in linguistics and related subjects.

What is “Medium” and “Message”?

One issue is what is a “medium” for McLuhan and what is a “message”? Even those who read the article weren’t too clear on it. Mark Federman from the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology argues that the general interpretation of a communication channel being more important than the message is not correct.

Instead, Federman argues that McLuhan meant the following:

Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation – be it an invention or a new idea – many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset. We sometimes call these effects “unintended consequences,” although “unanticipated consequences” might be a more accurate description.

Many of the unanticipated consequences stem from the fact that there are conditions in our society and culture that we just don’t take into consideration in our planning. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions. All of these dynamic processes that are entirely non-obvious comprise our ground or context. They all work silently to influence the way in which we interact with one another, and with our society at large. In a word (or four), ground comprises everything we don’t notice.

I can’t argue with that, but how “profound” is this? This is something almost any historian or anthropologist could tell you. McLuhan was admittedly writing in the mid 60s, but I suspect that “unanticipated consequences” was something already known in this historical field.

And what is a “message”? According to Federman (quoting McLuhan), a message is “the change of scale or pace or pattern” while a medium is any extension of ourselves. Federman indicates that this includes tools such as a hammer, a wheel and so forth as well as “language” (on a side note, many linguists would say that “language” is more like an expressive act singing and dancing rather than a “tool”).

At this point, I am going to translate as follows:

McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”

Pyatt: “A tool sets up an unconscious pattern of behavior [message]” and and thus “A new tool triggers a change, usually unanticipated” or even “Societies unconsciously adjust around the affordances of a tool.”

FYI – affordance means the functions enabled by a tool.

Why this Statement?


My question is this – Is McLuhan trying to deliberately trying confuse us?. My colleague Dave Stong was alluding to this in our discussion, and maybe he was on to something. The “message is the medium” statement is much more provocative than the one I made…and potentially more misunderstood.

Do you want to know where our discussion returned to many times? The impact of a communication channel (e.g. text, TV, radio…) on the content of what the person was trying to say. But apparently that may not be what McLuhan meant at all. This is, shall we say, disappointing.


OK – I really don’t think McLuhan was trying to pull a fast one on us. First, I wonder if he was borrowing from semiotic theory where a major theme is how the composition of a “message” or “transmission” (art, text, TV show..) affects how it is interpreted by the receiver. This is something I have always found interesting, yet I have never been satisfied with that theory (see later discussion). I also wonder if he was “thinking aloud” somewhat for our benefit. I doubt he meant to be confusing, but he sure did an excellent job of it.

No matter what you may think of semiotics though, I think almost everyone would agree that many presentations carry both a conscious message as well as “subtext”. For instance, designers of book covers and album covers will spend a LOT of time on font selection, text placement, art placement/selection and so forth in order to “stand out” as well as appeal to a particular demographic. Again I am not sure how profound this revelation is. I am much more interested in the mechanics of this.

Ultimate Dissatisfaction

I think my ultimate dissatisfaction with McLuhan and others is that they are saying something basic in a very confusing way. Hasn’t everyone heard of a case of an unintended consequence of a new invention? I know the impact of the cotton gin on accelerating slavery in the South. I doubt that was Eli Whitney’s intention. Similarly, does any designer not know that changing the presentation affect how the message is perceived? I am not sure that McLuhan is adding to this (actually R.K. Logan argues that this concept was new to communication studies, which makes me feel that we need to emphasize a broad liberal education.)

What I would like is a more systematic investigation of how these “messages” and “media” interact (both McLuhan’s kind and the conventional kind). We all speak of metaphors of music carrying meaning, but how does it differ from language really? And how do you know which font to use. I’m sure our designer friends could tell us intuitively, but it’s nice to supplement with usability studies (even if you want to dispute some findings).

I know I am speaking somewhat as a science geek here, but I do wonder when we will get past the obvious statements dressed in ambiguously defined language.

I genuinely think these are interesting topics to explore.

Post Script: Alternate “Message”?

Still thinking about “The medium is the message”, is McLuhan’s actual meaning (i.e. message) that we need to pay attention to the medium (as in “The economy is the message…dummy” to paraphrase James Carville.) I like this interpretation since it makes McLuhan’s thesis much more comprehensible. But I could still be off base.

Post Script 2:

In an ironic example of how medium affects the message – I started watching some video archival footage of Marshal McLuhan (per Brian Young’s suggestion) from various TV shows. It’s a lot less technical and a lot more accessible. There’s even a record of him analyzing the Nixon vs Kennedy debates where Nixon won on the radio, and Kennedy on TV. I will agree that this concept was very revolutionary at the time. Another good example was his discussion of how most political debates are rigged to be boring.

What I still find interesting about the seminar is none of us yesterday realized that McLuhan discussed presidential debates or even invented the term “global village”? Why? What’s the communication gap? If we had known, I think we would have had a very different reaction to the reading.

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