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“The Medium Is the Message” by Marshall McLuhan Essay


Introduction

Since the dawn of civilization, humanity has been interested in different ways to convey and preserve information. Over the centuries, people have developed numerous methods of communication that use a wide range of channels such as print, radio, telephone, television, and the Internet. Every method of communication has its own unique characteristics defining both cultures and individuals using them. When it comes to an understanding of how media shapes individuals and society at large, there is no better way to learn about the subject than to refer to one of Marshall McLuhan’s works.

Marshall McLuhan starts his classic book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by stating that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 1964, p. 7). The arch-famous statement that sometimes is being referred to as McLuhan’s Equation is reiterated in his work The Medium is the Massage in which he discusses the effects of “electric” (McLuhan & Fiore 1967, p. 9) media on cognition and society. The phrase beautifully sums up McLuhan’s communication theory which holds that a medium for communication could hold as much informational value as a message itself. In other words, “the medium through which content is carried plays a vital role in the way it is perceived” (Gross 2011 para. 4). However, it could be argued that Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and the famous statement in which it first appeared carry more meaning than it might initially seem: they predicted the “dissolution of the linear mind” (Carr 2010, p. 21). This paper will explore how McLuhan’s Equation is relevant to modernity in terms of understanding television and the Internet.

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was published at the time when the Beatles started “invasion of America’s airwaves” (Carr 2010, p. 21). Just like the famous band, the book immediately became popular, transforming McLuhan from a professor not known behind the walls of academia into a star. The book was an expose on the state of emerging “electric media” (McLuhan & Fiore 1967, p. 9) that proposed a theoretical framework for understanding different kinds of media. The main idea behind Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is that technology is not just a means to an end; rather, it is an extension of individuals using it.

It is important to note that McLuhan used the concepts of medium and technology almost interchangeably in the book. In order to understand McLuhan’s Equation, it is necessary to remember that the main premise of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was the notion that media could extend people’s central nervous system. In McLuhan’s view, language is also a technology for communication; therefore, it significantly alters inner consciousness by becoming its extension (Bobbitt 2011). Taking into consideration that language is “an extension of inner consciousness” (Bobbitt 2011, para. 3) it could be argued that this type of media is the most influential. According to McLuhan (1964, p. 91), “without language, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention.”

The era of rapidly progressing electronic technology has introduced new possibilities for extending people’s nervous systems. Moreover, it has elevated new media to a level of significance that has never been seen before. McLuhan understands that unlike other technological solutions that had helped to extend mechanic functions of people’s bodies, electricity is able to alter human brain by transforming the central nervous system. Therefore, he calls pre-electronic technology “a slow explosion outward” and electronic technology “an instant implosion and an interfusion of space and functions” (McLuhan 1964, p. 106). According to the writer, the electronic extension of consciousness has significant implications not only for the future development of human languages but for humanity itself. It is important to understand that McLuhan does not try to categorize any technology/medium as good or bad; rather, he is interested in possible effects of its use. It is clear that he is neither a technophobe nor a technophile because sometimes he speaks gleefully about the movement towards a single consciousness that might be granted by new technology, and sometimes he calls it a “suicidal autoamputation” (McLuhan 1964, p. 43). Interestingly enough, the Internet has not been developed at the time of the book’s writing.

Hot and Cold Media

The discussion of hot and cold media is probably the most confusing part of McLuhan’s framework for understanding technologies for communication. It has to do with the fact that he does not provide consistent definitions of the terms “hot media” and “cool media” (McLuhan 1964, p. 31). Instead, McLuhan describes them as dynamic concepts that are more related to the way people use particular technology than to the medium itself. According to McLuhan, hot media have the following characteristics: extend single sense in high definition, have low participation of on audience, engender fragmentation, promote detribalization and exclusion, uniform, and horizontally repetitive (McLuhan 1964). Cool media, on the other hand, are associated with the following features: fewer data, have high participation of an audience, promote holistic patterns, engender tribalization and inclusion, organic, and create vertical associations (McLuhan 1964).

Taking into consideration the fact that properties of media depend on the societal milieu in which they are being used, it could be argued that hotness or coolness of specific technology is a function of its context. In relation to McLuhan’s media scale, both television and the Internet have the elements of hot and cool media. It could be explained by the process of cross-fertilization that has occurred when printed word and electronic media came into contact. The similar process of hybridization happened when humanity transitioned from oral to literary tradition. According to McLuhan, oral societies are associated with the creation of emotional individuals, whereas literacy trains people to suppress their feelings and adopt a pragmatic attitude (McLuhan 1964).

The creation of electronic media has allowed producing “hybrid energy” that helped to liberate people from sensory numbness introduced by literacy (McLuhan 1964 p. 53). Electronic media is responsible for the formation of the “global village” that has broken traditional boundaries between different societies and groups of people (McLuhan 1964 p. 93). In order to better understand the process of hybridization of different media, it is necessary to introduce the concept of modernity. The term ‘modernity’ describes the developments in social, economic, political, and scientific dimensions of human thought that prompted the transition from traditional to advanced societies (Laughey 2007). It is not clear when the emergence of modernity has happened. Nonetheless, the term could be used to explore the media theory in the context of “the rapid development of mass media technologies” (Laughey 2007, p. 31) that occurred during the last century. Arguably, the growth and expansion of communication methods is the most important aspect of modernity.

Television and the Cultivation Process

Even though the Internet is rapidly taking the place of television, it still remains the cornerstone of an electronic environment in which children spend dozens of hours weekly. It could be argued that television is the hub of “the most broadly shared images and messages in history” (Preiss 2008, p. 117). George Gerbner conducted research in the late 1960s in order to explore how television contributes to viewers’ conception of reality in the realm of social life (Preiss 2008). As a result, he developed Cultivation Theory that helped to understand the cultural implications of growing up in an environment dominated by images and messages broadcasted on television. According to Gerbner’s theory, people who “spend more time watching television are more likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect the most common and recurrent messages of the television world” (cited in Preiss 2008, p. 117). It could be argued that Cultivation Theory could help to understand McLuhan’s Equation.

Gerbner argues that television is more than just a medium. He claims that television is a coherent system of storytelling that with the help of images helps to unite and socialize heterogeneous populations (Preiss 2008). Just like any organized religion, television performs a social function of bringing together people from different economic strata thereby creating and legitimizing a particular social order. Gerbner states that the cultivation process does not depend on whether viewers are able to distinguish between those televised images that are ‘real’ and those that are not (Preiss 2008). He claims that whether people ascribe the labels of factual or fictional to what they see on their screens they are being cultivated. It happens because of the labeling process that is contingent on style rather than function (Preiss 2008).

Even though television programs differ substantially across genres, they all contain identical images of social order and consistent ideologies. Therefore, the cultivation process takes place when viewers are being exposed to the overall pattern. It could be argued that by cultivating “shared conceptions of reality” (cited in Preiss 2008, p. 119) among diverse populations a medium becomes a message. The findings of Gerbner’s research suggest that there is no individual program or type of program that could account for the creation of a common view of reality, rather it is the exposure to the medium itself that produces the effect (Preiss 2008). Even though modern societies have easy access to various electronic mediums, they are still “imbued with the ideology of print culture” (Preiss 2008, p. 122). Literary culture is closely associated with the idea of freedom and the selection of information from a wide range of sources that often have conflicting interests. It could be argued that unlike television, print culture creates heterogeneous societies by magnifying individual differences and changing their views of reality.

According to Cultivation Theory, people are born into environments shaped by the medium of television; therefore, they do not notice the massive flow of messages and expose themselves to dispositions and views that dominate their cultures (Preiss 2008). Gerbner argues that influence of television is “subtle, complex, and intermingled with other influences” (cited in Preiss 2008, p. 123). Taking into consideration that even ‘light’ television viewers share cultural spaces with ‘heavy’ viewers, it could be argued that they also are being cultivated by the medium of television.

The Internet

Nobody would disagree that modern media technologies are associated with a wide range of socioeconomic implications that reach across cultures and continents. However, various mediums have different capacity for communicative connectivity. It is clear that user reach of the Internet surpasses that of any other technological means for communication. Media of the pre-Internet era has been shaped to a great extent by the nature of messages they transmitted. However, the emergence of the web has allowed creating an enormous environment that embodies the essential properties of all media. According to Fortner and Fackler (2013), the shared environment formed by cross-border communication constantly changes human societies all over the world.

It could be said that “global village” (McLuhan 1964 p. 93) that has broken traditional boundaries between different groups of people became even smaller during the last decades. Fortner and Fackler (2013) argue that the Internet is a “magic formula of globalization” because it is able to untie diverse political actors worldwide. The adoption of this new form of media changes societies by introducing them to new cultures, producing hybrid cultures and revitalizing traditional cultures (Fortner & Fackler 2013). Unlike other types of media, the Internet does not represent a government-run structure in the minds of people. Therefore, it has become a symbol of freedom and anti-elitism. Moreover, the web is considered a platform for “articulating and shaping the will of the citizenry” (Fortner & Fackler 2013, p. 647). It could be argued that the medium represents more than a means of communication: it became a political instrument, a message.

There is no denying the fact that different societies around the world are witnessing the transformation of the nature of power. In order to better understand this change, it is necessary to consider the concept of symbolic power. The concept has been developed by John Thompson in his book The Media and Modernity (cited in Couldry 2012). According to Thompson, symbolic power represents the “capacity to intervene in the course of events to influence the actions of others and indeed to create events, by means of the production and transmission of symbolic forms” (cited in Couldry 2012, p. 240). Even though educational and religious institutions are also built on the principles of communication through symbols, it could be argued that the Internet is a source of the most powerful symbolic resources. The concept of symbolic power could help to explain why the emergence of the Internet has transformed the social landscape in such a short period of time.

McLuhan believed that when dealing with new technology people tend to concentrate on the obvious and miss significant structural changes associated with it. He argued that the emergence of a new medium is always associated with unanticipated consequences. It happens because every human society has a web of religious, historical, political, and cultural factors that trough interplay with new technology produce secondary and tertiary effects that could not be anticipated. “The message” in McLuhan’s Equation is “the change of scale or pace or pattern that a new invention or innovation introduces into human affairs” (McLuhan 1964, p. 8). For example, the message in a news broadcast is not contained in the reporting of stories, but rather it is a shift in social attitude towards the described events. Taking into consideration the fact that the Internet is an enormous force of social transformation, it could be argued that it has become a message by virtue of its effect on the world.

Conclusion

The phrase “the medium is the message” beautifully sums up McLuhan’s communication theory which holds that a medium for communication could hold as much informational value as a message itself. The idea was first developed in the book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that proposed a theoretical framework for understanding different kinds of media. According to McLuhan, the electronic extension of consciousness has significant implications not only for the future development of human languages but for humanity itself. Electronic media is responsible for the formation of the global village that has broken traditional boundaries between different societies and groups of people.

Taking into consideration the fact that properties of media depend on the societal milieu in which they are being used, it could be argued that not only technology is being changed by people using it, but it also transforms the users. Cultivation Theory helps to understand the process of cultural change that happens as a result of the emergence of a new medium such as television or the Internet. The theory also explains why the cultivation of shared notion of reality by television transforms the medium into a message. The concept of symbolic power could help to explain the role of the Internet in the transformation of the social landscape in an extremely short period of time. However, the web is not only the most influential force of change around the world, but it is also a message in itself that could lead to more unanticipated effects in the future.

Reference List

Bobbitt, D 2011, , Web.

Carr, N 2010, The shallows, 1st edn, W.W. Norton, New York.

Couldry, N 2012, Media, society, world, 1st edn, Polity, Cambridge.

Fortner, R & Fackler, M 2013, The handbook of media and mass communication theory, Springer, New York.

Gross, J 2011, , Web.

Laughey, D 2007, Key themes in media theory, 1st edn, Open University Press, Maidenhead.

McLuhan, M 1964, Understanding media, 1st edn, McGraw Hill, New York.

McLuhan, M & Fiore, Q 1967, The medium is the massage, Bantam Books, New York.

Preiss, R 2008, Mass media effects research, L. Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah.

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IvyPanda. (2020, September 2). "The Medium Is the Message" by Marshall McLuhan. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-medium-is-the-message-by-marshall-mcluhan/

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IvyPanda. 2020. ""The Medium Is the Message" by Marshall McLuhan." September 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-medium-is-the-message-by-marshall-mcluhan/.

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