Thinking about the Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan holding a mirror

Source: John Reeves, Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, no. d’acc. 1980-194, PA-165118

Marshall McLuhan, who we have been studying in my Religion, Media, and Popular Culture class, is fascinating until you have to read him.

That was my experience, anyway. It seems that his ideas have been analyzed, interpreted, and represented in the decades since his passing, and this representation has served to make them more accessible, clear, and coherent. It’s not that I think McLuhan was wrong or a crackpot. Not at all. His mind didn’t work the way most of our minds work. I get the impression that his mind fired ideas faster than he could communicate them. And, given his historical context at the height of his popularity (1960s United States), many of his ideas seem odd, incomprehensible, and absurd. Why is this nutcase so obsessed with media, and what is he trying to say? Media rewires us? What?

And yet, he was right, in some part. Most people wouldn’t argue that the printing press changed the world, but many people would disagree with his basic assertion that the content of the printed materials was less important that then fact that printed materials were now accessible. Most people probably wouldn’t get what he meant when he argued we shifted from an aural-based culture to a sight-based culture. But we did.

I have, as a hobby, listed to podcasts and radio dramas for the last few years. I’ve acclimatized to listening to and discerning between aurally transmitted information. A few weeks ago, my wife and I listened to a Sherlock Holmes audio drama by Big Finish Productions. She struggled with differentiating voices because, as she admitted, she wasn’t accustomed to that type of listening. She hadn’t acclimatized to it. It is a developed skill (and it isn’t too hard to develop it) in light of a literate, highly academic culture such as ours. We process primarily with written words. As such, we recall information in ways conducive to writing and books. And so our society values certain forms of communication over others, certain media over others. (Is it possible the internet, which combines text, images, moving videos, and sounds is a culmination of different forms of informational processing? Is it indicative of a schizophrenic nature? Is it merely better suited to handling different learning styles, albeit learning styles of people who are technologically literate?)

When Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message,” this is largely what he meant—how the message is transmitted is more important than the message. The changes the medium brings to humanity are more important than the message itself. I don’t, however, agree with this. I don’t see the need for placing medium and message in opposition. I don’t see the need to establish a hierarchy. In my technical writing classes we focus on tailoring messages to specific media, but media is tailored to specific audiences. This is done to ensure maximum potential of data transmission. It isn’t medium versus message. They complement one another and interact with one another.

Have our brains been rewired, our perceptions reshaped to comprehend certain forms of media over others? I’m sure they have been. But media cannot be devoid of content, and content is a message, shaped by media, dictated by a human audience.


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