“The Medium is the Message,” is the phrase most commonly attributed to McLuhan. Understanding the significance of this concept first involves an understanding of the individual terms. McLuhan uses media as an umbrella term, which encompasses technologies and other type of human extensions.
In Understanding Media, McLuhan discusses how technologies restructure patterns of socialization, and consequently have a profound effect on societies. His argument unfolds in a somewhat unorthodox manner, as he employs a variety of historical anecdotes, physical science, art history, literary thought, and political thought to prove his point.
McLuhan refers to several passages from Shakespeare to substantiate his core argument, including the following passage from Romeo and Juliet: But soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It speaks, and yet says nothing. According to McLuhan, the word “television” could be substituted for “window,” and we would ostensibly have an acute critique of media. McLuhan also looks to Cubism, an art movement in which a subject is deconstructed and then re-constructured in a form that offers multiple aspects of the subject, to substantiate his theory.
In Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich describes the movement 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.” According to McLuhan, cubism is a representation of his theory that the “message is the medium” because it “drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole.” Similarly, McLuhan discusses Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the contrast between American and British life, in which Tocqueville claims that the wide adoption of typography and print culture in the United States lead to an environment of uniformity and continuity. England, on the other hand, had an “unpredictable quality” because it clung to the dynamics of its oral tradition.
Criticisms of McLuhan
According to McLuhan, content is like the “juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” Evidently, McLuhan does not think much of the value of content and this has been problematic for many critics of his work who believe that content can often times fuel technological innovation. Take the example of Internet pornography and censorship – the fact that certain types of content deemed inappropriate are available on the Internet has implications for how the Internet is structured. Furthermore, “the medium is the message,” seems to imply a profound separation of medium from message. It can be argued however, that the relationship between medium and message is more complex than McLuhan implies.
A further criticism of McLuhan involves his association with technological determinism, which looks at technology as existing separately from society. McLuhan focuses primarily on the manner in which technologies interact with social practices and the human experience, but he seems to gloss over the manner in which technologies are socially constructed. McLuhan does not consider the process of technological innovation as a social process, and this represents a shortcoming in his theoretical framework.
Contemporary Examples of McLuhan’s Theory
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues that the rise of certain civilizations over others has very little to do with intrinsic qualities of those civilizations; rather it has to do with capitalization of technology, specifically agricultural practices. According to Diamond, the key to agriculture are the domestication of plants and animals, which are technologies that have a strong environmental component. Diamond’s argument can be seen as a contemporary example of McLuhan’s theory of “the median is the message,” because it focuses on how a technology is the fundamental driver of social change.