Marshall McLuhan, a well-known Canadian communication theorist, revealed his theory’s main idea by coining the phrase “the medium is the message.” This phrase reveals that the message’s meaning is determined not only and not so much by the content as by the form. In general, this theory is about what the media is and how it affects individuals. McLuhan firstly presented this theory in the classic Understanding Media (1964), and now it fits most recent media conceptions.
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The choice of the medium to convey the message affects the meaning of certain information. It does not mean that the channel is more important than the message or content of the information itself. The author instead criticizes the extensive focus on content that distracts from realizing that the medium’s character carries its own message. For McLuhan, a new medium is “an extension of our sense, mind, or body,” it is built from ideas, innovations, inventions, and ideals that trigger changes around us (McLuhan, 1994). The latter extends media capabilities as a hammer extends our arm. In other words, we should search for the meaning in the information we gathered having experience with the media. “The scale and form of human association and action” is controlled and altered by the medium itself (McLuhan, 1994). For instance, news stories themselves do not carry the newscast’s actual message. The change in the public’s attitude towards various issues such as crime is its actual content. Thus, McLuhan suggests focusing on the less obvious message to identify and shape the innovation to avoid its possibly detrimental consequences.
This theory stems from elements of his conception of the media that are also important to comprehend. Media brings considerable social and physical consequences no matter which content it conveys. All mediums tend to interplay with each other, while one medium’s content can be another medium itself. For instance, the content of this written statement is speech. Media accelerates and amplifies existing social processes; it is not neutral. It instead influences the way people interpret information and communicate with each other. For instance, a lightbulb as a medium without any content creates an environment (illuminated spaces) that has a social effect- people can continue their activity (McLuhan, 1994). The same occurs with already mentioned newscasts that change viewers’ attitudes towards crimes rather than disseminating the story itself.
Another principle found in Understanding Media is even more complicated. Although McLuhan has not stated it directly in the text, he believes the media shifts our perception of time and space. His theory makes it possible to trace how technologies change interpersonal relations. New media plays the role of the social platform by establishing new communicational contexts. These contexts involve individuals able to exchange information and interact with each other in a way never available before. For instance, the author anticipates the “transportation of information by means of electricity” based on the idea that transportation is a way of communication.
McLuhan once said that he did not use any theory in his book. It is true; all ideas came to his mind from observations. I believe that there are more valuable concepts in this chapter that I have not mentioned. His approach to exam communication and media through artists’ and poets’ lenses made it a little bit sophisticated and challenging to comprehend. In terms of theory’s thesis, I would say that the choice of the media affects the meaning of certain information.
- What do you think the “medium” is? What is its “content”? Do you agree with the notion that channels of information dissemination have their own messages?
- In Understanding Media, McLuhan calls the globe “a single large village.” Which powers are responsible for that, and how they changed the way people interact?
- Do you agree that focusing on the medium instead of information itself may help to stop detrimental communication technologies? Can you come up with a recent medium that emerged and created new communicational contexts?
McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding the media: The extensions of man. The MIT Press.