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2: The Medium is the Message

Published on 2020-09-01

Preparatory Readings:

Table of contents

  1. Overview
  2. McLuhan: The Medium is the Message
  3. Consider the Objections
  4. McLuhan’s Response to Sarnoff
  5. Marx and Ruling Ideas
  6. Marx ‘Life Determines Consciousness’
  7. More McLuhan against Sarnoff
  8. In sum: Two Large Course Questions
  9. Modalities of Media


Today, as we continue our introduction to our course, we’re going to look closer at Marshall McLuhan’s famous thesis the “Medium is the Message”.

Our Goal here is to consider:

Why he thinks the “medium” that carries the message has such a big impact.

As a corollary to this, we also we want to give some early attention to the “modalities” of communication types so that we can begin to see how different media modalities might effect how a message is received. (Much of our course will continually reflect on these modalities and their consequences.)

Finally, as we continue to think about McLuhan’s thesis, I want to look at parallel ideas from Marx and Marxist theory which will offer some early concrete examples of how “material / physical structures” (such as a medium) can affect consciousness (or the message that consciousness receives.)

McLuhan: The Medium is the Message

Let’s start with a video clip of McLuhan himself and a related clip that try to point at the central import of his claim “the medium is the message”.

(Note: if you want to annotate anything from these videos, use the associated discuss video anchor)

discuss video anchor

discuss video anchor

With these overviews in place, let’s turn to the assigned reading of his appropriately titled chapter “The Medium is the Message”

And let me start with a question:

What position or outlook does McLuhan mean to challenge with this pithy saying, “the medium is the message”?

I get the impression that he is frustrated with a position that suggests that the specific technology through which we receive “information” or a “message” does not affect the ultimate significance of the message.

By analogy, we might say, “it doesn’t matter how we build a house, or weave a rug, or transmit information. What matters at the end of the day is that the house is there, a completed rug is present, or the message has been received.

How does McLuhan see this position represented in the words of General David Sarnoff (See )?

Sarnoff aims to critique technological pessimists who blame technological advances for new problems. Sarnoff’s position is that technology is fundamentally neutral.

Consider what Sarnoff’s says as quoted by McLuhan:

“The products of modern science are not good or bad: it is the way they are used that determines their value.”

We see this position criticized again in McLuhan’s critique of Toynbee:

“Arnold Toynbee is innocent of any understanding of media as they have shaped history’ but he is full of examples that the student of media can use. At one moment he can seriously suggest that adult education, such as the Workers Educational Association in Britain, is a useful counterforce to the popular press. Toynbee considers that although all of the oriental societies have in our time accepted the industrial technology and its political consequences: “On the cultural plane, however, there is no uniform corresponding tendency.” (Somervell, I. 267) This is like the voice of the literate man, floundering in a milieu of ads, who boasts, “Personally, I pay no attention to ads.” The spiritual and cultural reservations that the oriental peoples may have toward our technology will avail them not at all. The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.”

With respect to this quotation: consider the following questions:

What is the criticism of Toynbee here?

Here McLuhan is upset with an opinion quoted by Arnold Toynbee, a British historian and philosopher of history. As quoted by McLuhan, the quotation is cryptic, but according to McLuhan, Toynbee is observing that eastern societies, while adopting, many western / industrial technologies, have been able to retain a cultural distance from the cultural effects of these technologies.

What do you think he means to suggest with his last line about the “serious artist”?

This is a cryptic suggestion, but it is worth hanging on to, and I think it might justify and encourage some of the critical reflection we aim to undertake this semester. If the medium is the message, then most of the time we operate within the categories created by that medium.

However, fact that media shifts, paradigm shifts, or revolutions occur, requires that despite the power of the dominant medium people are still able to find a way to think outside the box, outside the categories created or enforced by the medium.

This might be important for us: If we want to shape the future, rather than be completely shaped by it, then, according to McLuhan, “the serious artist” is in some way an exemplar to be imitated.

Why is the comparison to a person who says “they are not affected by advertisements” particularly biting?

Because this is exactly the epistemic position on the part of the consumer that ad agencies are trying to create.

The person who says they are unaffected by ads is precisely the person who has been so thoroughly influenced by them that they no longer see them.

But no longer consciously seeing adds is not the same thing as not being affected by them. The person who no longer “sees” them is the person who is absorbing their content at deeper sub-conscious level.

In contrast, it is those most unfamiliar with their presence that would be most alert to their jarring presence.

It worth noting that the attitudes McLuhan points to in Sarnoff and Toynbee remain a common and even instinctive popular position.

Here’s an example I found recently from a comment in the New York Times.

nytimes article comment

discuss image anchor

Consider the Objections

Before exploring McLuhan’s counter position, I think it will be helpful for a moment and given Sarnoff, Toynbee, and the NYTimes commenter, the benefit of the doubt.

Do I care whether a rug is made by a machine? Do I care whether a nail is hammered by a rock, a hammer, or a nail gun?

Do I care whether I get a new report over the radio, over television, or in a newspaper?

Do I care if read a novel or listen to an audio book?

If the message is the same, who cares?

With respect to the above examples, what might be some reasons to think that the medium does not matter as Sarnoff suggests?

What might be some reasons to think that it does matter?

Before going further, add your reaction to these questions using our class annotation tool.

McLuhan’s Response to Sarnoff

Let’s consider how McLuhan might respond. In response to Sarnoff, he writes:

“It has never occurred to General Sarnoff that technology could do anything but add itself to we already are”.

He describes Sarnoff as being asleep or in a kind of hypnosis.

According to McLuhan, why can’t he see what McLuhan sees? Why is he described as “asleep” or hypnotized?

The description McLuhan gives is similar to the joke about the fish and the water.

The joke goes: one fish asks the other, how’s the water, and the second fish responds, “what the hell is water”?

The point is that the dominant culture is not experienced as the dominant culture but as the normal or natural, and therefore its effect, while real, is invisible.

McLuhan’s theory about communication or media as an “extension of man” runs along similar lines.

The impact of our dominant communication medium is so pervasive that it quickly becomes the “norm” and thereby “naturalizes” itself.

In this regard, we no longer see this medium or technology as an “artificial extension of ourselves” but as our natural self.

Marx and Ruling Ideas

In many ways McLuhan’s analysis is parallel to Marx’s account of the peculiar characteristics of “Ruling Ideas” which distinguish themselves from the ideas of other classes because they are experienced not as ideas belong to a class, but as the Norm, the Moral, the Rational, and the Natural.

Marx write:

“This conception of history, which is common to all historians, particularly since the eighteenth century, will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that increasingly abstract ideas hold sway, i.e. ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution appears from the very start, if only because it is opposed to a class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society; it appears as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class.” (Karl Marx, German Ideology)

Marx’s point here is that the dominant culture, precisely because it is ruling, is not experienced as the dominant culture, but as the “correct”, “the natural” and the “rational”.

If the dominant power is experience as the “correct”, “natural”, “rational”, “moral”, how will the minority culture be perceived?

Likely as the “wrong”, “unnatural”, “irrational”, and even “immoral”

What implications does this have for how a culture might welcome (or reject) a new technology or medium?

If a new technology/medium is introduced which runs counter to the dominant medium it likely will be seen as something more “sinister” than merely an alternative. Rather, it may be seen as a threat to a way of life; a threat to certain values; and threat to certain abilities that are regarded as “essential” or “normal” to human life.

You might keep an eye out for this reaction when we consider certain criticism of new media and worries about the loss of book culture.

Marx ‘Life Determines Consciousness’

Marx’s point here about “ruling ideas” is a consequence of a larger Marxist position that has many parallels to McLuhan’s idea that the “Medium is the Message”.

McLuhan’s thesis can be seen as particular application of Marx’s insight in the German Ideology: that counter intuitively, “life determines consciousness, rather than consciousness determining life.”

Marx writes:

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first method of approach the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness. (Marx, German Ideology]

Marx’s aim here to overturn a straightforward and naive assumption.

Namely, that we first have ideas and then we act, build, live, etc.

In McLuhan’s terms, it might be: we first have an idea or message, and then we simply pass that message along through a medium.

Marx’s wants to say what actually happens is more complicated. Our belief in the development of pure ideas or messages is naive. We might identify this belief as one of the “extreme contingency” which suggest I’m in complete control of my thoughts.

Marx wants to challenge this and say that, in reality the life we live, the physical structures in which we carry out that life, and the economy that supports that life has dramatic effects on the ideas we conceive.

Let’s think about a related example for a moment from the world of disability studies.

In this video, give close attention to how mundane physical structures are shaping the way society thinks.

discuss video anchor

Imagine you yourself as “able bodied” were transported to a world where everyone had “three arms and three legs”, would you still experience yourself as able bodied?

If think you would begin to feel disabled without your body every changing, how does this suggest that physical and social structures are affecting consciousness?

In the video, how was this idea captured in the distinction between “impairment” and “disability”

According to the video, why does a physical change as simple and mundane as “curb cuts” make such a big difference? How does it affect the self-conception of “disabled” people? How does it affect society’s larger attitude toward “disabled people”?

An opposing extreme position (we might call this the position of “extreme determinism”) would be to say that our ideas are entirely determined by our material life.

A less extreme position might be called “critical contingency”. This position might offer us a kind of middle of the road.

It would acknowledge with Marx that our immediate thought life is not entirely under our control and severely influenced by the structures around us.

But it opens up the possibility that, with the application of self directed critical examination, it is possible to think anew and outside the paradigms impressed upon by us the “ruling ideas”.

The point, of course, is that this kind of critical examination, while possible, is extremely difficult and even painful.

But it is many ways what we try to do in philosophy and in many ways what we want do in this class: to acknowledge with McLuhan that our ideas, the messages think of and receive, are certainly being influenced by the medium through which they are composed and delivered.

However, it may be possible with critical examination (as it is for McLuhan’s “serious artist” and as it was for the pioneers of prior media revolutions) to rise above the paradigm generated by the dominant medium, to think outset of it, and to help determine its course of development, rather than to be completely determined by it.

More McLuhan against Sarnoff

With Marx in the background, let’s return once more to McLuhan and Sarnoff. Sarnoff is described as seeing technological change as one of “adding” (and not of loss) because he s so unaware that his current consciousness is itself a product and extension of the dominant medium.

Because he sees his current life as the norm or natural, he only sees technological advance as an addition to his natural self, rather than a more fundamental transformation of his self-understanding.

Accordingly, the vision he has for new technology/new medium are circumscribed within limits of the existing paradigm (limited by the water in which swims but remains unaware of).

A relevant example might include ways that our “experience” with print culture – with printed books and the surrounding political economy of print culture – shapes our understanding of what a book, text, edition or information is or should be.

Accordingly, the “ruling idea” or the “right way” to experience information will likely shape or determine or even limit the way we think about information, books, texts, or editions within the context of a digital world.

Someone whose paradigm is determined or limited by 500 years of book culture might have trouble seeing computers or the internet as anything other than a place to supplement or “add” to the already familiar concept of a book, rather than being a medium to fundamentally re-imagine our conception of what a “text” is.

To what extent are we trying to recreate the printed book in a digital environment (on the web) because we understand the paradigm of the book, not as the “paradigm” of one medium, but the “correct or rational or ONLY way to encounter information”?

Conversely, we might ask, what kinds of possibilities within the new medium are being overlooked because we are merely trying to re-create the paradigm of the book within a new digital space?

Finally, to what extent do critiques of information consumption in the digital age, make this critique using categories of good and bad that come from the print paradigm?

In sum: this is a kind of “adding” because it is merely the employment of a new medium within the confines of an existing paradigm; a paradigm that, through the pervasiveness of a medium, has become so familiar that we experience it the same way that a fish experiences water.

There are other examples of this kind of thinking as well.

I was struck by Sven Birkerts remarks in Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic age, who writes:

“I worry not only that the world will become increasingly alien and inhospitable to me, but also that I will be gradually coerced into living against my natural grain, forced to adapt to a pace and a level of technological complexity that does not suit me, and driven to interact with others in certain prescribed ways.”

In the above quote, where can see the Marxist idea of a “ruling” or “dominant” idea at work? How does this ruling idea manifest itself as not just the dominant idea but the “natural” or “normal” idea? How is he using this idea to measure or evaluate the worth of alternative media?

To be sure, the media shift Birkerts describes may run counter to his “grain” and default setting, but to describe this as his “natural setting” suggests a kind of nature or attunement independent of technology, to which technology affects merely as an alien force.

From McLuhan’s perspective, surely the habits and attunements that Birkerts experiences as “natural” are themselves the product of habitual familiarity with a technological medium (i.e. the printed book) that has become so pervasive that he experiences them as “natural” rather than the product of his familiarity with a particular medium.

Birkert’s oversight of the way the “dominant medium” (with which he grew up) is affecting his judgment also seems clear to me from his introduction, where he pits language and literature as technologically independent phenomena that stands in contrast to “technology”.

“I speak as an unregenerate reader, one who still believes that language and not technology is the true revolutionary miracle. I have not yet given up on the idea that the experience of literature offers a kind of wisdom that cannot be discovered elsewhere…and that for a host of reasons the bound books is the ideal vehicle for the written word.”

Is there something odd about the distinction between “language” on the one hand and “technology” on the other hand?

I hope that as we discuss later readings, particularly those by Walter Ong, it will be clear how important it is that we recognize that language and literature is as much as a technology and medium as the bits travelling through circuit boards and that there is nothing natural about this.

The fact that Birkerts thinks this is a natural and that he pits language against technology seems to me clear evidence that he is a fish unaware of the water in which he swims and strong evidence of the truth McLuhan’s thesis.

In sum: Two Large Course Questions

If Marshal McLuhan’s thesis is correct that, the “medium (and not just the message) affect consciousness”, then I think we should reiterate two central questions mentioned in lesson 1:

  • How do technology/media shifts affect consciousness?

In this course, we want to consider the ways that media affects thought. We will have the opportunity to consider this from many vantage points and at many different levels of abstraction. But it will be your job to be vigilant about the subtle ways the forms in which we communicate are affecting the message that we share.

  • What criteria can we use to evaluate these shifts?

The second more difficult question has to do with evaluation and the role of “critical” reflection. Through critical reflection, how we can we evaluate the trade-offs of one medium over another? If each form of media will affect consciousness in some way, what are the guide posts we can look to in order to decide whether a given form of communication should be judged good, bad, better or worse.

Further, how can we engage in this evaluative project, while at the same time being aware of (and self critical) of the ways our familiarity with the dominant cultural medium is affecting our own attempts at critical evaluation?

Here we should consider whether it is every possible to reach a neutral evaluative standpoint? And if not, is still possible to distinguish better and worse evaluative positions?

Modalities of Media

In closing lets transition to some of the categories and ideas we are going to need on the table in order to begin observing the ways a medium can effect a message and our attempt to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that same medium.

One way to do this is to begin thinking of communication “types” and the kinds of characteristics or modalities that accompany that type.

McLuhan certain has something like this in mind when (in a later chapter) he distinguishes between “hot” and “cold” media.

“There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of . low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener.”

And again:

Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.

Consider this video which mention McLuhan’s idea of print as “hot” medium while television is a “cool” medium.

discuss video anchor

What does McLuhan mean by “hot” and “cold”? What are some of the characteristics (or “modalities”) associated with each type? Can you anticipate ways that these characteristics might affect how a message is received by human beings?

As a provisional summary, I have identified a few characteristics that are repeatedly emphasized as having a considerable affect on how a message is received and the overall social impact of that message.

I hope this is a list we can develop and refine during our semester of reading together.

Participation (McLuhan’s Hot and Cold)

What kind of participation does the medium invite or encourage?


How fast (and at what cost) does the medium allow the message to be communicated?


How many messages (and at what cost) can the medium accommodate?


While I’m not yet convinced identity is the right label, what I’m point out here is the degree to which the material logic of the medium reveals or hides the identity of the sender or receiver of the message.

To what degree does speaking on TV reveal the identity of the sender? To what degree is the identity of the receiver revealed? Does speaking through the radio lessen the identity reveal?

While a speaker on TV is visible, their identity seems significantly revealed. The radio may not reveal the identity as clearly, though voices can still be recognized and thus can reveal the identity to some degree.

What about writing a letter? Is this completely anonymous? How might changing the medium with which a letter is written affect this question? Does writing a letter by hand reveal more than typing a letter? What about the delivery mechanism of a letter? How does this reveal the identity of receiver and sender?

Compared to TV or Radio a message via letter seems to carry more anonymity, especially if it is left unsigned. But a handwritten letter certainly leaves traces of identity. A letter typed on a typewriter might reveal even less.

Perhaps it is still possible to track identity of a letter written on a type writer by inspecting the ink quality and tracing that back to a particular type of manufacturer. But here we need to see that “market costs” are also relevant factors for considering the modalities of a medium. Perhaps instead of saying “harder” or “easier” to track identity, we might ask, which media make it cheaper or more expensive to track identity. In a world of limited resources, this modulations between cheap and expensive will have dramatic impacts on the practical effects of whether or not a medium will reveal identity. And of course, human actors will be aware of these costs and they will directly affect human behavior, for good or ill, of those using the medium.

Connectivity Type

Here too, I’m not sure I have the right “label”, but I aim to identify the different kinds of connections different media allow: one-to-one, one-to-few, one-to-many

  one(sender) few many
one (receiver)      

What kind of specific media examples might fill in the above matrix? What’s an example of a medium with a one-to-one connectivity type? How about a many-to-one or one-to-many?

  one(sender) few many
one (receiver) telephone/conversation/letter   protest/demonstration
few niche publication/class room lecture, chain letter/ list email blog?/book group, caucus voting
many broadcast tv/mass media   internet