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“The medium is the message” is one of the most famous—yet controversial—statements in the field of media and communication studies. The Canadian literary scholar and pioneering media analyst Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911–1981) coined the phrase after hearing the anthropologist Ashley Montagu (1905–1999) deliver a talk on science titled “The Method is the Message.” McLuhan’s expression refers to the significance of the form of communication media irrespective of its content; that is, the communication medium itself has the potential to influence the way a particular medium’s content is perceived and to shape cultures dominated by particular media. This dictum, which is also the title of the first chapter of McLuhan’s provocative book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), encapsulates the central foundations of his broader analyses of the profound impact of communication technology on society, culture, and human senses.
Until the mid-1950s McLuhan’s work primarily consisted of literary and cultural criticism that examined new forms of popular culture, with an emphasis on the increasing role of mass media in the emergence of consumerism, as well illustrated in The Mechanical Bride (1951). From the later 1950s on, McLuhan turned more attention to the technological properties of communication and the vast effects of the media on human cognition and sensation. Conventional communication studies, he thought, were preoccupied with analyzing media content, while taking for granted the medium as a mere technical device to deliver the message to the receiver. McLuhan, instead, privileged the medium over the message, or form over content; even content is form. He argued that the content of any medium is not only a message, but also, more importantly, always another medium. For instance, the written word is the content of print and, at the same time, the medium of speech. McLuhan defined medium broadly, regarding many cultural artifacts as media and arguing that their work as “media” extended beyond the mere conveyance of content. The electric light, McLuhan explained, functions as a medium, as it renders possible certain forms of human activities such as night football or brain surgery. These activities themselves are the “content” of the electric light because they cannot exist without it. In his terminology, the medium designates something that “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 1964, p. 9). As such, McLuhan extended the term media to mean any forms of technology that function to extend and widen the human senses and limbs by abolishing temporal-spatial limitations. For instance, the telephone is the extension of the ear, just as the wheel is the extension of foot and leg, and clothing is that of skin. McLuhan’s approach sees media as including all technologically constructed artifacts such as buildings, roads, planes, automation, and so on.
Drawing on the work of his mentor, the economic historian Harold Innis (1894–1952), who in his work on the “bias of communication” examined the material substance of communication and its impact on the spatialtemporal organization of societies, McLuhan presented the history of communication as a history of the medium, rather than as a history of the message. McLuhan maintained that the major phases of civilization tended to accord with the introduction and rise to popularity of particular modes of communication technology and consequent changes of the human sensorium at a social level. With the rise of the printing press, social life shifted from a traditional society based upon oral communication to a modern, visual typographic culture that, because of its emphasis on literacy and uniformity, made possible the rise of rational individualism and western nationalism. Since then, electronic media pushed culture into an unprecedented, turbulent media revolution—a technocultural society in which communication technology itself has become the central nervous system. It is an age of global communication mediated through radio and TV (and the Internet), which has generated diverse and heterogeneous social relations and brought about the retribalization of the world—the “global village,” as McLuhan famously characterized.
The startling new insight implicated in McLuhan’s statement predated the postmodern turn in media studies, which is typified in the work of Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007). Some critics point out that McLuhan’s technological determinist perspective ignores vital questions related to the functions of various media institutions and the ideological effects of the media on the audience. His erratic and poetic style of writing also makes it difficult to formulate a comprehensive theory of the media and society. Yet, the core aspects of his insight contributed to the development of “medium theory” and “media ecology,” elaborated more systematically by later theorists.
- Innis, Har 1951. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- McLuhan, M 1951. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard.
- McLuhan, M 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- McLuhan, M 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Bruce Powers. 1989. The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Meyrowitz, J 1985. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. London: Methuen. Theall, Donald F. 2001. The Virtual McLuhan. Montreal:
- McGill-Queen’sUniversity Pr
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