The Medium Is the Message

The Medium Is the Message

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control. it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that. in operational and practical fact. t.he medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium-that is, of any extension of ourselves-result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves. or by any new technology. Thus. with automation. for example, the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate jobs, it i.� true. That is tl,e negative result Positively. automation creates roles for people, which is to say depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical technology had destroyed. Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with t.he machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation tliat is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decencralist in depth. just as the machine was Fragmentary. centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.

The instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection. The electric light is pure information. Jt is a medium without a message. as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact. characteristic of all media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech. just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. lf it is asked. ‘What is the content of speech?,” it is necessary to say. “It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal: An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs. What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social

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consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message· of any medium or technology is the change. of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society. but it accelerated and enlarged the sea le of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment. and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium The airplane, on the other hand. by accelerating the rate of transportation, tends to dissolve the railway form of city. politics, and association, quite independently of what tlie airplane is used for.

LeL us return to the electric light. Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because iL is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the fom1 of human association. lndeed, it is only too

. typical that the ·content” of any medium blinds us to lhe character of the medium. [t is only today that industries have become aware of the various kinds of business in which they are engaged. When IBM discovered that it was not in t.he business of making office equipment or business machines, but that it was in the business of processing information. then it began to navigate with clear vi.�ion. The General Electric Company makes a considerable portion of its profits from electric light bulbs and lighting systems. It has not yet discovered that, quite· as much as AT&T., it is in the business of moving information.

The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no· content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the ·content” (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical pervasive, and decentralized For electric light and power are

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separate from their uses. yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio. telegraph. telephone, and TV. creating involvement in depth.

A fairly complete handbook for studying the extensions of man could be made up from selections from Shakespeare. Some might quibble about whether or not he was referring to TV in these familiar lines from Romeo and Juliet:

But soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It speaks. and yet says nothing.

ln Othello. which. as much as King Lear. is concerned with tile torment of people transformed by illusions. there are these lines that bespeak Shakespeares intuition of the transforming powers of new media:

Is there not charms By which the property of youth and maidhood May be abuse!? Have you not read Roderigo , Of some such thing?

In Shakespeares Troilus and Cressida. which is almost completely devoted to both a psychic and social study of communication. Shakespeare states his awareness that true social and political navigation depend upon anticipating the consequences of innovation:

The providence thats in a watchful state Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold. Finds bottom In the uncomprehensive deeps. Keeps place with thought, and almost like the gods Does thoughts unveU in their dumb cradles.

The increasing awareness of the action of media. quite independently of their ·content or programming. was indicated in tbe annoyed and anonymous stanza:

In modem thought. (if not In fact) Nothing is that doesn’t act. So that is reckoned wisdom which Describes the scratch but not the itch.

The same kind of total, configurational awareness that reveals why the medium is socially the message has occurred in the most recent and radical medical theories. In his Stress of Life. Hans Selye tells of the dismay of a research colleague on hearing of Selye·s theory:

When he saw me thus launched on yet another enraptured description of what f had observed in animals treated with this or that impure. toxic material. he looked at me with desperately sad eyes and said in obvious despair. “But Selye , try to realize what


you are doing before it is too late! You have now decided to spend your entire life studying the pharmacology of dirt!” (Hans Sel ey , The Stress of Life)

As Selye deals with the total environmental situation in is “stress· theory of disease, so the latest approach to media tudy considers not only the “content” but the medium and he cultural matrix within which the particular medium·

operates. The older unawareness of the psychic and social effects of medi a can be illustrated from almost any of the onventional pronouncenJents.

In accepting an honorary degree from the University of otre Dame a few years ago, General David Sarnoff made

this statement: “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modem science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.” That is the voice of the current somnambulism. Suppose we were to say, “Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.” Or. “The smallpox virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.” AgaiJ1. “F ireanns are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.” That is. if the slugs reach the right people firearms are good. If the TV tube fires the right ammunition at the right people it is good. I am not being perverse. There is simply nothing in the Sarnoff statement that will bear scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical fonn. General Sarnoff went on to explain his attitude to the technology of print. saying that i t was trne that print caused much trash to circulate, but it had also disseminated the Bible and the thoughts of seers and philosophers. It has never occurred to General Sarnoff that any technology could do anything but add itself on to what we already are.

Such economists as Robert Theobald, W. W. Rostow. and John Kenneth Galbraith have been explaining for years how it is that “classical economics” cannot explain change or growth . And the paradox of mechanization is that although i t is itself the cause of maximal growth and change. the principle of mechanization excludes the very possibility of growth or the understanding of change. For mechanization is achieved by fragmentation of any process and by putting the

fragmented parts in a series . Yet, as David Hume showed in the eighteenth century. there is no principle of causality in a mere sequence. That one thing follows another accounts for nothing Nothing follows from following, except change. So the greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant. With ins tant speed the causes of things began to emerge to awareness again. as they had not done with things in sequence and in concatenation accordingly. Instead of asking which came first. the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a ch icken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs .

Just before an ai rplane brea.ks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak perforn1ance. Mechanization was never so vividly fragmented or sequential as in the birth of the movies. the moment that translated us beyond mechanism into the world of growth and organic interrelation. The movie, by sheer speeding up the med1anical, carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of trans ition from lineal connections to configurations. lt is the transition that produced the now quite correct observation: “If it works. it’s obsolete.” When electric speed further takes over from mechanical movie sequences , then the lines of force in structures and in media become loud and dear. We return to the inclusive fonn of the icon.

To a highly literate and mechanized culture the movie appeared as a world of triumphant illusions and dreams that money could buy. It was at this moment of the movie that cubism occurred. and it has been described by E. H. Gombrich (Art and Illusion) as “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture-that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” For cubism substitutes all facets of an object simultaneously for the “point of view· or facet of perspective illusion. Instead of the specialized illusion of the third dimension on canvas, cubism sets up an interplay of planes and contradiction or dramatic conflict of patterns. lights , textures that “drives home the message” by involvement. Thi s is held by many to be an exercise in painting, not in illusion.

1n other words, cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top. bottom, back and front and the rest , in two

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dimensions , drops tbe illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing on instanl total awareness. suddenly announced that the medium is the message. Is it not evident thal the moment that sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the structure and of configuration? Is that not what has happened in physics as in painting. poetry, and in communication? Specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field, and we can now say. “The medium is the message” quite naturally. Before the electric speed and total field, it was nol obvious tbat the medium is the message. The message. il seemed , was the “content’ as people used to ask what a painting was about Yet they never thought to ask what a melody was about, nor what a house or a dress was about. In sucb matters, people retained some sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity. But in the electric age this integral idea of structure and configuration has become so prevalent that educational theory has taken up the matter. lns tead of working with specialized ·problems· in arithmetic, the structural approach now follows the linea of force in the Field of number and bas small dlildren meditating aboul number theory and “sets:

Cardinal Newman said of Napoleon, “He understood the grammar of gunpowder.” Napoleon had paid some attention to other media as well. especially the semaphore telegraph that gave him a great advantage over his enemies. He is on record for saying that ·Tbree hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.’

Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to master tbe grammar of print and typography. He was thus able to read off the message of coming change in France and America as if he were reading aloud from a text that had been handed to him. In fact, the nineteenth century in France and in America was just such an open book to de Tocquev ille because he had learned the grammar of print. So he, also, knew when that grammar did not apply. He was asked why be did not write a book on England since he knew and admired England He replied:

One would have to h.we an unusual degree of philosophical folly to believe oneself able lo judge England in six months. A year always seemed to me too short a time in which co apprec iate the United States properly . and it is much easier to acquire clear and precise notions about the Amerian Union than about Great Britain. ln America all laws derive in a sense from

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i.he same line of thought. The whole of society, so to speak . Is founded upon a single fact everything springs from a simple principle. One could compare America to a forest pierced by a multitude of straight roads all converging on the same point. One has only to find the center and everything is revealed at a g ance. But in l England the paths run criss-cross. and it is only by travelling down each one of them that one can build up a picture of the whole.

De Tocqueville. in earlier work on the French Revolution, had explained how it was the pr inted word that. achieving cultural saturation in the eighteenth century, had homogenized the French nation. Frenchmen were the same kind of people from north t o south. The typograph ic principles of uniformity, continuity, and lineality had overlaid the complexities of ancient feudal and oral society. The Revolution was carried out by the new literati and lawyers.

In England. however, such was the power of the ancient oral traditions of common law, backed by the medieval tnstitution of Parliament, that no uniformity or continuity of the new visual print culture could take complete hold The result was that the most important event in English history has never taken place: name ly. the English Revolution on the lines of the French Revolution. The American Revolution had no medieval legal institutions to discard or to root out, apart from monarchy. And many have held that the American Presidency bas become very much more personal and monar· ch.ical than any European monarch ever could be.

De Tocquevilles contrast between England and America is dearly based on the fact of typography and of print culture creating uniformity and continuity. England. he says. has rejected this principle and dung to th e dynamic or oral commonlaw tradition. Hence the discontinuity and unpredictable quality of English culture. The grammar of print cannot help to construe the message of oral and nonwritten culture and institutions. The English aristocracy was properly classified as barbarian by Matthew Arnold because its power and status had nothing to do with literacy or with the cultural forms of typography. Said the Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon upon the publication of his Decline and Fall· “Another damned fot book. eh, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh. Mr. Gibbon?” De Tocqueville was a highly literate aristocrat who was quite able to be detached from t he values and assumptions of typography. That is why he alone understood the grammar of typography. And it is only on those terms, standing aside


from any structure or medium, that its principles and lines of force can be discerned. For any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance. But the greatest aid to this end is simply in knowing that the spell can occur immediately upon contact. as in the first bars of a melody.

A Passage to Tndia by E . M. Forster is a dramatic study of the inability of oral and intuitive oriental culture to meet with the rational. visual European patterns of experience. “Rational.” of course, has for the West long meant • uniform and continuous and sequential” In other words, we have confused reason with literacy. and rationalism with a single technology. Thus in the electric age man seems to the conventional West to become irrational ln Forster’s novel the moment of truth and dislocation from the typographic trance of the West comes in the Mara bar Caves. Adela Quested’s reasoning powers cannot cope with the total inclusive field of resonance that is India. After the Caves: “Life went on as usual, but had no consequences. that is to say. sounds did not echo nor thought develop. Everything seemed cut off at its root and therefore infected with illusion.”

A Passage to India (the phrase is from Whitman, who saw America headed Eastward) is a parable of Western man in the electric age, and is only incidentally related to Europe or the Orient. The ultimate conflict between sight and sound. between wdtten and oral kinds of perception and organization of existence is upon us. Since w,derstanding stops action. as Nietzsche observed. we can moderate the fierceness of this conflict by understanding the media that extend us and raise these wars within and without us.

Detribalization by literacy and its traumatic effects on tribal man is the theme of a book by the psychiatrist J. C . Carothers , The African Mind in Health and Disease (World Health Organization, Geneva, 1953). Much of his material appeared in an article in Psychiatry magazine, November, 1959: “The Culture. Psychiatry . and the Written Word” Again. it is electric speed that has revealed the lines of force operating from Western technology in the remotest areas of bush, savannah, and desert. One example is the Bedouin with his battery radio on board the camel. Submerging natives with floods of concepts for whic:h nothing has prepared them is the normal action of all of our technology. But with electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native. We are no more

prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of Ghana is able to cope v.>ith the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture.

Electr ic speed mingles the cultures of prehistory with the dregs of industrial marketeers, the nonliterate with semiliterate and the postliterate. Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation v.>ith new information and endless new patterns of information. Wyndham Lewis made this a theme of his group of novels call.ed The Human Age The first of these, The Childennass, is concerned precisely v.>ith accelerated media change as a kind of massacre of the innocents. In our own world as we become more aware of the effects of technology on psychic formation and manifestation, we are losing all confidence in our right to assign guilt. Ancient prehistoric societies regard violent crime as pathetic. The killer is regarded as we do a cancer victim. ·How terrible it must be to feel Hke that.” they say. J. M Synge took up this idea very effectively in his Playboy of the Western World

If the criminal appears as a nonconformist who is unable to meet the demand of technology that we behave in uniform and continuous patterns, literate man is quite inclined to see others who cannot conform as somewhat pathet ic. Especially the child, the cripple, the woman, and the colored person appear in a world of visual and typographic technology as victims of injustice. On the other hand. in a culture that assigns roles instead of jobs to people-the dwarf. the skew, the child create their own spaces. They are not expected to fit into some uniform and repeatable niche that is not their size anyway. Consider the phrase “It’s a man’s world.” As a quantitative obser vation endlessly repeated from v.>ithin a homogenized culture, this phrase refers to the men in such a culture who have to be homogenized Dagwoods in order to belong at all. It is in our 1.Q testing that we have produced the greatest f lood of misbegotten standards. Unaware of our typographic cultural bias, our testers assume that uniform and continuous habits are a sign of intelligence, thus eliminating the ear man and the tactile man.

C. P. Snow, reviewing a book of A. L. Rowse (The New York Times Book Review, December 24, 1961) on Appeasement and the road to Munich, describes the top level of British brains

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and experience in the 1930s. “Their I.Q’s were much higher than usual among political bosses. Why were they such a disaster?” The view of Rowse. Snow approves: “They would not listen to warnings because they did not wish to hear: Being anti-Red made it impossible for them to read the message of Hitler. But their failure was as nothing compared to our present one. The American stake in literacy as a technology or uniformit y applied to every level of education. government, industry, and social life is totally threatened by the electric tedmology. The threat of Stalin or Hitler was external. The electric technology is within the gates. and we are numb, deaf, blind. and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology. on and through which the American way of life was formed It is, however, no time to suggest strategies when the threat has not even been acknowledged to exist. I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors that their greatest enemy was quite invisible. and quite unrecognized by them. Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content.” The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The ·content of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print or of speech.

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. 1. 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 Mil avail them not at all. The effects of technolog y 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

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encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.

The operation of the money medium in seventeenth­ century Japan had effects not unlike the operation of t ypography in the West. The penetration of the money economy, 11vrote G. B. Sansom (in Japan, Cresset Press, London, 1931) ·caused a slow but irresistible revolution. culminat ing in the breakdown of feudal government and the resumption of intercourse wid1 foreign countries after more Lhan two hundred years of seclusion: Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon approval or disapproval of those living in the society.

Arnold Toynbee made one approach to the transforming power of media in his concept of ·etherializat ion.” which he holds to be the principle of progress ve simplification and i efficiency in any organi7.ation or technology. Typically, he is ignoring the effect of the challenge of these forms llpon the response of our senses. He imagines that it is the response of our opinions that is relevant to the eUect of media and technology in society. a “point of view” that is plainly the result of the t ypographic spell for the man in a literate and homogenized society ceases lo be sensitive to t he diverse and discontinuous life of forms. He acqllires the illusion of the third dimension and tbe “private point of v iew ” as part of his Narcissus fixation, and is quite shut off from Blake’s awareness or that of rlle Psalmist. that we become what we behold.

Today when we want to get our bearings in our own culture, and have need to stand aside from the bias and pressure exerted by any technical form of human expression, we have only to visit a society where that particular form has not been fclt , or a historical period in which i t was unknown. Professor Wilbur Schramm made such a tactical move in studying Television in the Lives of Our Children. He found areas where TV had not penetrated at al l and ran some tests. Since he had made no study of the pecu liar nature of the TV image. his tests were of ·content” preferences. viewing time. and vocabulary counts. In a word. his approach to the problem was a literary one. albeit unconsciously so. Consequent ly. he had noming to report. Had his methods been employed in 1500 A.O. to discover the effects of the p1inted book in the lives of children or adults, he could have found out nothing of the changes in human and social psychology resulting from typography. Print created


individualism and nationalism in the sixteenth century. Program and “content analysis offer no dlles to the magic of these media or to their sub] imina l charge.

Leonard Doob. in his report Communication in Africa, tells of one African who took great pains to listen each evening to the BBC news. even though he could understand nothing of it . Just to be in the presence of those sounds at 7 P.M. each day was important for him. His-attitude to speech was like ours to melody-the resonant intonation was meaning enough. In the seventeenth century our ancestors still shared this native’s attitude lo rlle forms of media, as is plain in the following sentiment of the Frenchman Bernard Lam expressed in The Art o(Speaking (London, 1696):

‘Tis an effect of the Wisdom of God. who created Man to be happy. that whatever is useful to bis conversation ( way of life) ls agreeable to him . . . because all victual that conduces to nourishment is rdishable. whereas other things thaL cannot be assimulated and be turned into our substance are insipid A Discourse cannot be pleasant to the Hearer that is not easie to the Speaker; nor can it be easily pronounced unless it be heard with ddight

Here is an equ�ibrium theory of human diet and expression such as even now we are only striving to work out again for media after centllries of fragmentation and special ism.

Pope Pills XII was deeply concerned that there be serious study of the media today. On February 17. 1950. he said:

It is not an exaggeration to say Lhat the future of modem socieLy and the stability of its inner life depend in large part on the mainLena11ce of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacicy of the ind.ividuais own reaction.

fail ure in this respect has for centuries been typical and tocal for mankind. Subllminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them ptisons without walls for their human users. As A J. Liebling remarked in his book The Press. a man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he bas a gun to help him get there. For each of the media is also a powerful weapon 1Nith which to clobber other media and other groups. The result is that the present age has been one of mult iple civil wars that are not limited to the world of art and entertainment. In War and Human Progress, Professor J. U. Nef declared:

The tocal wars of our time have been the result of a series of intellectual mistakes. . . .

ff the formative power in the media are the media themselves. that raises a host of large matters that can only be mentioned here, although they deserve volumes. Namely, that technological media are staples or natural resources. exactly as are coal and cotton and oil . Anybody will concede that society whose economy is dependent upon one or two major staples like cotton, or grain. or lumber, or fish. or cattle is going to have some obvious social patterns of organization as a result. Stress on a few major slaples creates extreme instability in the economy but great endurance in the popula­ tion. The pathos and humor of the American South are embedded in such an economy of lim ited staples. For a society configured by reliance on a few commodities accepts them as a social bond quite as much as the metropolis does the press. Cotton and oil. like radio and TV. become “fixed charges” on tbe entire psychic life of the community. And this pervasive fact creates the unique cultural flavor of any society. IL pays through the nose and all its other senses for each staple that shapes its life.

That our human senses. of which all media are extensions, are also fixed charges on our personal energies, and they also configure the awareness and experience of each one of

us, may be perceived in another connection mentioned by the psychologist C. G. Jung:

Every Roman was surrounded by slaves The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly. and of course unwittingly. a slave. Because Llving constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence (Contributions to Analytical Psychology. London, 1928).

The Galaxy Reconfigured- Notes

1. Jerusalem, III, 7 4. 2. Ibid., II. 36. 3. This Newtonian theme is developed by myself apropos “Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry• in John Killham, ed . . Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, pp. 67-85. 4. John Ruskin, Modem Pointers, vol. III, p. 96. 5. See H. M. McLuhan, “Joyce. Mallarme and the Press,” Sewanee Review. winter, 1954, pp. 3 8 -55. 6. Cited by Raymond Williams, Culture and Sodety, 1 lBQ-1850, p. 38. 7 . In Selected Essays, p. 145. 8. “The Social and Intellectual Background” in The Modern Age (The Pelican Guide to English Literature). p. 47.

  • The Medium is the Message
    • The Medium Is the Message

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