The Medium is the Message

Last week, I mentioned the phrase “The medium is the message” in a post on the future of books and why the introduction of e-books doesn’t frighten me as an employee of a brick and mortar bookstore (in response to Andrew Roger’s post on the a new e-book technology here). The phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan, communication theorist, media analyst, and professor of English. I used this phrase to refer to the idea that the way a message is presented changes the way the message is interpreted or received.

I was surprised when I got a comment on my blog from Andrew McLuhan, blogger at Inscriptorium and expert on all things Marshall McLuhan. Here’s what Andrew said:

Respectfully, that’s not at all what Marshall McLuhan meant with the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. What he meant has more to do with how a new medium changes society and people with its introduction – the reorganization of sense ratios, the new ways of life and living. And it’s not all about communications media either. Think about how the world changed with the introduction of trains, of the automobile. He explains it in the first chapter of his book ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’. It’s worth a read, and will give you much more to think about!

Now, I am always willing to admit when I am wrong, and I was wrong in the way that I used “the medium is the message.”

To borrow a McLuhanism:

“You mean my whole fallacy’s wrong?”

According to the biography on the official Marshall McLuhan website:

Understanding Media, first published in 1964, focuses on the media effects that permeate society and culture, but McLuhan’s starting point is always the individual, because he defines media as technological extensions of the body. As a result, McLuhan often puts his inquiry and his conclusions in terms of the ratio between the physical senses (the extent to which we depend on them relative to each other) and the consequences of modifications to that ratio. This invariably entails a psychological dimension. Thus, the invention of the alphabet and the resulting intensification of the visual sense in the communication process gave sight priority over hearing, but the effect was so powerful that it went beyond communication through language to reshape literate society’s conception and use of space.

“The medium is the message” then is a statement on how the form of communication changes communication as well as communicators, as in the example of the invention of the alphabet given above.

So there you have it, my original interpretation was wrong. I stand by the sentiment of how I used the phrase, though perhaps I should have used a different phrase to express my idea that physical books will not be replaced by e-books. Though, I found it interesting that, according to Andrew McLuhan’s blog, Marshall McLuhan:

“1st used this phrase in June (?) 1958 at Radio broadcasters conference in Vancouver. Was reassuring them that TV could not end radio”

Anyway, I hope to have cleared up my mistake. Please take a moment to drop over to Andrew’s Inscriptorium blog or the Marshall McLuhan website to learn more about Marshall and his ideas. And perhaps you’ll join me in picking up a copy of Understanding Media next time you are in an indie bookstore. I’m sure that we all have a lot to learn about language, media, and ourselves.


One response to “The Medium is the Message

  1. Thanks for taking my comment in the spirit in which is was left – good luck with your writing! Had a laugh when you said I was an expert on all things McLuhan… I’m hardly that – just somewhat well-informed on some things McLuhan (and only that, by accident of birth:).

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