The Medium is the Message

Anyone who has heard of McLuhan has probably heard his most famous quote “The Medium is the message.” I studied McLuhan quite a bit in connection with my teaching about media in the seventies and eighties. What I have realized lately getting interested in McLuhan’s thinking again and referring to it in some of my blog posts is that while McLuhan’s famous dictum is still well known it is not well understood. McLuhan is making a point about form and content. The medium – handwriting, print, TV, blogging – whatever – is ‘the medium’. The message – ‘meet me in the square at 6:30′, ‘Texas election tied’, ‘Tsunami relief delayed’ – whatever – is the content. What McLuhan is saying is deliberate nonsense – on the face of it. The message, of course, is normally the content..

What McLuhan was trying to do was shock us into awareness of the importance of form as opposed to content (or message) by means of an outrageous statement. He failed. I find most people don’t get it. I certainly didn’t until I read McLuhan carefully. What he is saying, put in a more balanced way, is that the form of our communications media have a large effect on us but we miss it because we are understandably focused on the content that is being communicated. The phrase “Content is king” reinforces the basic truth that we select what we consume in any medium by the content. The remote control, for example, enables us to instantly make decisions about content while watching TV. Content is what grabs our awareness like the figure in a picture, while we take the background – the medium – for granted.


Of course in this particular famous picture the figure and the ground are ambiguous – so we can see it as two faces or a vase. What McLuhan is asking us to do is make a similar switch of awareness from how the content is impacting us to how the medium is impacting us.

McLuhan developed his thinking at a time in human history when new media – TV, radio, mass circulation magazines, motion pictures were all changing our day to day experience of the world. A hundred years ago most people were farmers. They saw the occasional newspaper. Read a few books if they were so inclined. Most of their time was taken up with work – with hay and cows and chickens and eggs. No TV, or movies or radio. McLuhan was struck by the indisputable fact that the media environment has been drastically changed in the 20th century. Today I sit here at a computer most of the day. I happened to grow up on a farm with cows and chickens so I have a reality based picture of what it was like 100 years ago, but I don’t live in that world at all any more. Most people today in the developed world have had absolutely no contact with a world where cows and chickens are a more important part of their everyday experience than TV. We take these changes for granted; McLuhan warns us not to do that.

McLuhan was amazed when he began to look into the effects of this sort of change of environment on human beings. He searched for evidence of changes caused by living in different media environments. One of the things that got him started was a phenomena noticed by the British when they began to give civil service exams in India. They discovered that examinees passed the tests with high marks because they could remember word for word the entire text book the exam was based on without always fully understanding the content. McLuhan argued that they could perform this prodigious feat of memory because they came from an oral culture. Writing was rare – everything of verbal importance was heard, not read, and then had to be remembered precisely, if it were to be preserved. What McLuhan theorized was that differences in the media environment change the emphasis we place on our various senses. Therefore it impacts the way our brains develop and the way we experience the world. In this case literacy reduces the importance of the process of hearing and remembering and increases the importance of the sense of sight and reduces the necessity to remember the exact wording. McLuhan called that shift in sensory emphasis sense ratio.

Now lets skip forward to our own time and look at an example of the very different media environment we live in. We live in a period when the media environment in terms of where we get our news is changing from the near total domination of TV to a mix of TV and the Internet. McLuhan didn’t live to see the Internet, but an analysis in McLuhan’s terms of the changes introduced by the Internet would begin with some fairly obvious observations. The first might be that TV and the Internet, while both using a screen, engage different parts of the brain because TV is dominated by visual content and the computer screen by print. In my experience computers have made me much more aware of how emotional TV is. Lets do a thought experiment. Take the Iraq war and close your eyes and see what images you remember. I get burning tanks, the aftermath of suicide bombings, stills from Abu Ghraib. I don’t know what images you get but I am pretty sure they will have a strong emotional element. If you read news and blogs on the Internet about the Iraq war then think of what stands out for you from that experience. It will probably be more about ideas and interpretations of events. What I notice is the great variety of different views expressed by bloggers and the relatively predictable view of events that the media presents. I see that dissonance because as a student of McLuhan I am looking for it. Because I am less concerned with content I am not swept away by each competing point of view but very impressed how a change in the media environment is changing the way we see events. I notice that the established media are accustomed to framing events in certain ways and that bloggers frame them differently. The bloggers break the monopoly the media have enjoyed in the framing of events. This is exactly the kind of thing that McLuhan was saying we miss when we focus exclusively on content.

I’m no genius when it comes to media. It wasn’t until I started using the Internet and happened to not have a TV at all that I got it that TV is so emotionally manipulative. I first saw it when I visited my son in the US and he had a large screen TV. I became aware that every time the news came on my stomach clenched, and that I was moved into upsetting emotional space. Once I noticed it, McLuhan gave me a way of understanding that it was the medium itself that was a big part of the reaction – not just the content. I could read about the same events on the Internet with much less emotional reaction. To the extent that kind of difference is caused by the medium in question, that medium, while not the whole message, is very much a part of the message.

One Response to “The Medium is the Message”  

  1. 1 Heresiarch

    Thanks for the thoughtful treatment of McLuhan. I, too, continue to pursue the mans thought, finding funny angles and unexpected correspondences with other thinkers. Freud, Marx, philosopher Richard Rorty, and even the theologian Charles Hartshorne orbit McLuhan.

    I have worked for (too) many years in marketing, so I perked up when I hit your reference to Content is King, the mantra of Direct Marketing. The content, in McLuhans world, is the bloody steak used to distract the watchdog of the mind. Content is King acknowledges the druglike effect of printed words. Especially when consumed by starved minds. Thats why personalization is such a big deal in marketing.

    Your mention of Internet reminds me of a thought I had during the early days of personal computingwell, two things. In the posthumous, Laws of Media, completed by McLuhans son, Eric, the media analysts propose that each new medium, or technology, does four things. One of them is to retrieve an olde cultural form. The computer in the early days retrieved needlepoint in the crude pixilation of the images. A retrieval that remains is the scrolling of a window on a computer screen. Reading on a computer isnt about turning pages. Its about scrolling, a medieval form.

    As for bloggers breaking the monopoly the media have enjoyed in the framing of events I see this as a point where McLuhan merges into Marx. Each new technology puts a new means of production into the hands of a lower social class. In so doing, it jostles class relations. Remember the early days of WIRED magazine? All the democratic/anarchic euphoria about how PCs would crack the media monopoly? Well, finally, it seems to be happening.

    Take a look at my blog, and youll find post-McLuhan musings about McLuhan. Its at

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