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What Does the Phrase 'The Medium is the Message' Actually Mean?

Shalu Bhatti May 4, 2019
If we look at this phrase from a literal point of view, then perhaps, we would miss out on the whole point completely. The 'Medium is the Message' has a far more complex meaning than what may seem. Read to understand what the phrase means and what it actually implies.

Did You Know?

Marshall McLuhan, the inventor of this phrase, often punned on the word "message", altering it to "mess age", "mass age", and "massage". His later book, titled 'The Medium Is the Massage' was originally supposed to be titled 'The Medium is the Message', but a printing error gave McLuhan a more preferred title!
It's amusing how words can denote so many things in so many different ways. They are mixed, matched, punned, used in different contexts, and while we use them to form a message, we somehow tend to forget that the message is an extension of us, our thoughts, our desires, our sense of direction.
And when we finalize the words, finalize the message, and say it out loud, thereby becoming the medium of the message, we come to realize that invariably, it is not about the message, it is about us. Therefore, we become the medium, which is the message. Confused?
Coined by Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual, Marshall McLuhan, in 1964, in his famous book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the phrase, 'The Medium is the Message' has become a popular as well as a sought-after phrase that most of us want to understand.
McLuhan was a visionary and emphasized on the need to focus on the medium, and not disregard the medium over the message. This, according to him, was the key to identify and understand the change that the message (or the medium) brings forth. The following section explains the same in an elaborate manner.

What is the Meaning of '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, the medium is the message."
"This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium―i.e., of any extension of ourselves―results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."
McLuhan begins his book with the aforementioned words, emphasizing on the fact the medium is an extension of our own self, and it is this very medium that introduces a "new scale" (new dynamics) in our current environment, therefore, bringing about irrevocable changes in our affairs.
The word 'medium' is used for any means of communication, through which a message is likely to be delivered or conveyed. These can be counted as television, radio, print media, internet, and the like.
On the other hand, a message is the content of these mediums. However, the literal combination of these words doesn't take us even halfway close to the real 'message' of this phrase. We cannot say that if television is the medium and the content is American Idol, television is American Idol.
McLuhan has stated many examples in his book to explain this concept. He speaks about a light bulb, which he calls 'The medium without a message', thereby making it the message itself. He states that because the electric light contains no specific content, it becomes the message, depending upon how it is used. The following excerpts clarifies on this view.
"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."
"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 it 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 form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the 'content' of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium."
The aforementioned excerpt only substantiates the fact that we cannot just focus on the message and become indifferent or unperturbed about the medium in picture. This is because if we do so, we fail to notice the primary causal factors that are likely to instigate the change in our environment and how we function.
Let's say the message is a drop of ink, and the medium is a glass of water. What most of us tend to do, is to focus on the drop of ink rather than to focus on the medium, and because of our delay in understanding that need, we don't even realize when the entire glass turns blue, and that message itself has become the medium.
Had the medium been anything else, say, a pen, or a blotting paper, then the dynamics would have been different. Hence, we can say that the phrase, 'The Medium is the Message' implies that more than the message itself, it is the medium that influences the way we perceive a message, and the changes that follow post the perception.
What McLuhan tried to put across by coining this phrase is the fact that by being blind to the medium, we tend to also become blind to the actual impact of the message, and therefore, fail to realize or be prepared for the changes that come along.
He states, "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."

The Need to Understand 'The Medium is the Message'

The advantage of grasping the whole purpose behind this phrase is to give equal importance to the medium as well as message. McLuhan considered the medium to be a positive harbinger of change. According to him, every medium is a message or a content.
To not focus on "juicy piece of meat" but to watch out for the burglar. We need to play the role of those that can observe the precursors of changes that the medium is about to bring, and predict the changes that seem non-obvious to the common eye.
If successful in doing so, we can identify and perhaps evolve the new mediums that the future is likely to have. By being ahead of time through our perception, we can outsmart our competitors and refine the raw idea of a futuristic medium.
By contemplating the positives and/or negatives of the medium in a thorough manner, we will hold the power to play a crucial role in the safety/development of our future, from a progressive innovation that lies ahead.
Marshall McLuhan states:"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."
The medium is the message implies that one should not just focus on the aspect that gets all the limelight, but widen our horizons to see the entirety of the whole thing. Perhaps it was this approach of that led him to coin words such as 'global village', and forecasting the 'World Wide Web', thirty years before they actually existed! Need we say more?