The medium is the message  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. The phrase was introduced in his most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. McLuhan proposes that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study; he said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself.

Hence in Understanding Media, McLuhan describes the "content" of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As the society's values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. We sometimes call these effects "unintended consequences", although "unanticipated consequences" is more accurate. The "unanticipated consequences" work silently to influence the way in which we interact with one another, and with our society at large. 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 that we are not aware of.

More controversially, he postulated that specific content might have little effect on society — in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children's shows or violent programming, to give one example — the effect of television on society would be identical, and profound. 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. So the medium through which a person encounters a particular piece of content would have an effect on the individual's understanding of it.

McLuhan also claimed in Understanding Media that different media invite different degrees of participation on the part of a person who chooses to consume a medium. Some media, like the movies, 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 TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of 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. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be "hot", intensifying one single sense "high definition", demanding a viewer's attention, and a comic book to be "cool" and "low definition", requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value. This concentration on the medium itself, and how it conveys information — rather than on the specific content of the information — is the focal point of "the medium is the message".

He pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of the concept of “the medium is the message”. 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." Likewise, the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less the individual news story itself — the content — and more the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crimes are in effect being brought into the home to watch over dinner.

McLuhan frequently punned on the word "message" changing it to "mass age", "mess age", and "massage"; a later book, The Medium is the Massage by McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, was originally to be titled The Medium is the Message, but McLuhan preferred the new title which is said to have been a printing error.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The medium is the message" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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