Understanding Media


The medium is the message

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’ is a 1964 book by Marshall McLuhan. A pioneering study in media theory, it proposes that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study. McLuhan suggests that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered through it, but by the characteristics of the medium itself.

McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as an example. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that ‘a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.’

More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society — in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example — the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it. The book is the source of the well-known phrase ‘The medium is the message.’ It was a leading indicator of the upheaval of local cultures by increasingly globalized values. The book greatly influenced academics, writers, and social theorists.

In Part One, McLuhan discusses the differences between hot and cool media. Different media invite different degrees of participation on the part of a person who chooses to consume a medium. Some media, like the movies, were ‘hot’—that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with ‘cool’ TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. Part One of ‘Understanding Media’ goes on to cover the ways that one medium translates the content of another medium. Briefly, ‘the content of a medium is always another medium.’

‘Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue.’ Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. Hot media favor analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, as they are usually sequential, linear and logical. They emphasize one sense (for example, of sight or sound) over the others. For this reason, hot media also include radio, as well as film, the lecture and photography. Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term ‘cool media’ as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean ‘detached.’ This concept appears to force media into binary categories. However, McLuhan’s hot and cool exist on a continuum: they are more correctly measured on a scale than as dichotomous terms.

In Part Two, McLuhan analyzes each medium (circa 1964) in a manner that exposes the form, rather than the content of each medium. In order, McLuhan covers The Spoken Word, The Written Word (as in a manuscript or incunabulum), Roads and Paper Routes, Numbers, Clothing, Housing, Money, Clocks, The Print (as in pictorial lithograph or woodcut), Comics, The Printed Word (as in Typography), Wheel, Bicycle and Airplane, The Photograph, The Press, Motorcar, Ads, Games, Telegraph, The Typewriter, The Telephone, The Phonograph, Movies, Radio, Television, Weapons, and Automation.

McLuhan uses historical quotes and anecdotes to probe the ways in which new forms of media change the perceptions of societies, with specific focus on the effects of each medium as opposed to the content that is transmitted by each medium. McLuhan uses interchangeably the words medium, media, and technology. For McLuhan a medium is ‘any extension of ourselves,’ or more broadly, ‘any new technology.’ In addition to forms such as newspapers, television and radio, McLuhan includes the light bulb, cars, speech and language in his definition of ‘media’: all of these, as technologies, mediate our communication; their forms or structures affect how we perceive and understand the world around us.

McLuhan says that the conventional pronouncements fail in studying media because they pay attention to and focus on the content, which blinds them to see its actual character, the psychic and social effects. Significantly, the electric light is usually not even regarded as a media because it has no content. Instead, McLuhan observes that any medium ‘amplifies or accelerates existing processes,’ introduces a ‘change of scale or pace or shape or pattern into human association, affairs, and action,’ resulting in ‘psychic, and social consequences’; this is the real ‘meaning or message’ brought by a medium, a social and psychic message, and it depends solely on the medium itself, regardless of the ‘content’ emitted by it (if any). This is basically the meaning of ‘the medium is the message.’

McLuhan, to show the flaws of the common belief that the message resides or depends on how the medium is used (the ‘content’ output), uses the example of mechanization (machinery to assist the work of human operators), pointing out that regardless of the product (i.e. cornflakes or Cadillacs), the impact on workers and society is the same. In a further exemplification of the common unawareness of the real meaning of media, McLuhan says that people ‘describe the scratch but not the itch.’ As an example of so called ‘media experts’ which follows this fundamentally flawed approach, McLuhan quotes a statement from ‘General’ David Sarnoff (head of RCA), calling it the ‘voice of the current somnambulism.’ Each media ‘adds itself on to what we already are,’ realizing ‘amputations and extensions’ to our senses and bodies, shaping them in a new technical form. As appealing as this remaking of ourselves may seem, it really puts us in a ‘narcissistic hypnosis’ that prevents us from seeing the real nature of the media.

McLuhan also says that a characteristic of every medium is that its content is always another (previous) medium. For an example in the new millennium, the Internet is a medium containing traces of various mediums which came before it — the printing press, radio, and the moving image. The impact of each medium is somewhat limited to the previous social condition, since it just adds itself to the existing, amplifying current processes. Therefore different societies may be differently transformed by the same media.

An overlooked, constantly repeated understanding McLuhan has is that moral judgement (for better or worse) of an individual using media is very difficult, because of the psychic effects media have on society and their users. Moreover, media and technology, for McLuhan, are not necessarily inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but bring about great change in a society’s way of life. Awareness of the changes are what McLuhan seemed to consider most important, so that, in his estimation, the only sure disaster would be a society not perceiving a technology’s effects on their world, especially the chasms and tensions between generations.

The only possible way to discern the real ‘principles and lines of force’ of a media (or structure), is to stand aside from it and be detached from it. This is necessary to avoid the powerful ability of any medium to put the unwary into a ‘subliminal state of Narcissus trance,’ imposing ‘its own assumptions, bias, and values’ on him. Instead, while in a detached position, one can predict and control the effects of the medium. This is so difficult because ‘the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody.’ One historical example of such detachment is Alexis de Tocqueville and the medium of typography. He was in such position because he was highly literate. Instead, an historical example of the embrace of technological assumptions happened with the Western world, which, heavily influenced by literacy, took its principles of ‘uniform and continuous and sequential’ for the actual meaning of ‘rational.’

McLuhan argues that media are languages, with their own structures and systems of grammar, and that they can be studied as such. He believed that media have effects in that they continually shape and re-shape the ways in which individuals, societies, and cultures perceive and understand the world. In his view, the purpose of media studies is to make visible what is invisible: the effects of media technologies themselves, rather than simply the messages they convey. Media studies therefore, ideally, seeks to identify patterns within a medium and in its interactions with other media. Based on his studies in New Criticism, McLuhan argued that technologies are to words as the surrounding culture is to a poem: the former derive their meaning from the context formed by the latter. Like Harold Innis, McLuhan looked to the broader culture and society within which a medium conveys its messages to identify patterns of the medium’s effects.

McLuhan’s theories about ‘The medium is the message,’ link culture and society. A recurrent topic is the contrast between oral cultures and print culture. Each new form of media, according to the analysis of McLuhan, shapes messages differently thereby requiring new filters to be engaged in the experience of viewing and listening to those messages. McLuhan argues that as ‘sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the structure and of configuration.’ The main example is the passage from mechanization (processes fragmented into sequences, lineal connections) to electric speed (faster up to simultaneity, creative configuration, structure, total field). Howard Rheingold comments upon McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ in relation to the convergence of technology, specifically the computer. In his book ‘Tools for Thought’ Rheingold explains the notion of the universal machine – the original conception of the computer. Eventually computers will no longer use information but knowledge to operate, in effect thinking. If in the future computers (the medium) are everywhere, then what becomes of McLuhan’s message?

According to McLuhan, the French revolution and American revolution happened under the push of print. The preexistence of a strong oral culture in Britain prevented such an effect.


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