The Medium is the Massage
Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore
Marshall McLuhan is the original media guru. He achieved international fame in the 1960s and 1970s, coining the phrase ‘global village’ in his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. His star dipped slightly in the 1980s before rising again with the advent of the internet, which he predicted.
The Medium is the Massage is not your typical philosophy book. Firstly, it was not actually ‘written’ by McLuhan. A talented book designer, Quentin Fiore, took some of his key quotes and placed them within a very striking visual order, with lots of images, changes of font and devices such as upside down print, consistent with McLuhan’s own ideas about print being too restrictive a medium. The book seems very ‘hip n happening’ in a sixties way, but this disguises McLuhan’s deep literary and metaphysical learning. He was, after all, a college professor.
Why was the book called The Medium is the Massage, when McLuhan is more commonly quoted for his catchphrase ‘the medium is the message’? The title was actually a typo that crept into the editing process, when it should have been ‘The Medium is the Message’. But McLuhan thought it was very apt (and insisted that it stayed) because, he felt, “All media work us over completely”; media technology so changes our personal, political, aesthetic, ethical and social lives that “no part of us is untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”
The global village
Today, every child learns the alphabet, and we teach it without really thinking about it. And yet, says McLuhan, words and their meaning make a child act and think in particular ways. McLuhan explains it in greater length in The Gutenberg Galaxy, but his point is that the alphabet and the advent of printing created a much more mentally fragmented, detached and specialised kind of human being. However, the electronic age and its technologies have reinvigorated social involvement, bringing us together again. Telephones and the internet allow us to have hundreds of friends and connections around the world. We’re still using the alphabet, but the media for its expression allows for exponentially greater influence on others, and to be influenced by others endlessly. A learned person in the late Middle Ages might have had access to a library of a few hundred volumes; today, the average person has millions of books at their disposal at the push of a button. How would such changes not alter who and what we are? As McLuhan famously says:
“Ours is a brand new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village...a simultaneous happening.”
Before the advent of the alphabet, McLuhan argues, man’s main sensory organ was the ear. After it, the eye became dominant. The alphabet made us think like a sentence is constructed: linear, with each letter connected in an order. “The continuum became the organizing principle of life”. Rationality came to mean the sequential connection of facts or concepts. Yet the new media environment is multi-dimensional – no longer detached, and involving more of our senses again. Media information now comes to us so thick and fast that we no longer have the ability to categorise properly and deal with it in our minds. It’s more a case of recognising patterns as quickly as we can. Influenced by his reading of Lao Tzu, McLuhan says:
“Electric circuitry is Orientalizing the West. The contained, the distinct, the separate – our Western legacy – are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fused.”
Self and social changes
Early in the book, McLuhan notes that media students are often attacked for “idly concentrating on means or processes” rather than on substance. In fact, in the era we live in it is actually these very means and processes which are rapidly and deeply changing what is ‘known’. ‘Electric technology’, as he describes it, is reshaping every aspect of social and personal life, “forcing us to reconsider and reevaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted.” McLuhan warns: “Everything is changing – you, your family, your neighbourhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to ‘the others’. And they’re changing dramatically.”
For one thing, a child growing up in the modern media environment doesn’t just have their parents and a teacher to influence them, they are now exposed to the whole world: “Character is no longer shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.” Every child is exposed to a barrage of adult information through the media that makes the idea of ‘childhood’ seem quaint. On the plus side, technology is making learning more fun, and gives some control back to the student. Education does no longer have to mean rote learning, blackboards and regimented school days.
The relationship between ‘public’ and ‘private’ has also changed:
“Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions... are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval”
Social media sites have blurred the distinction between what is private and public. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg naturally sees this in a positive light – he thinks people’s public and private faces should be one and the same. A fair point, but the larger question in the hyperlinked, connected world is to what degree a person can be said to exist if their actions and thoughts are not frequently updated online. If the self is not always on show, is there a self? Such questions validate McLuhan’s claim that the new media environment changes everything: self, family, society.
One of his points is that the technology of each age induces ways of thinking and conditioned responses in people, responses which become incompatible in a subsequent age. New technologies wreck not just the old commercial order, but render mindsets useless too. In the face of the new, we hark back to the old. It is only “the artist, the poet and the sleuth” who are willing to tell things as they really are.
The world of work
McLuhan also calls time on the conventional idea of ‘jobs’, which were an outgrowth of the industrial era’s mechanisation and specialisation, in which people were reduced to cogs in a machine. In the new world, he says...
“...fragmented job patterns tend to blend once more into involving and demanding roles or forms of work that more and more resemble teaching, learning, and ‘human’ service, in the older sense of dedicated loyalty.”
This sounds very much like today’s increasingly freelance, ‘consultant’, ‘expert’ economy in which people create dedicated followings for their ideas or products, and in which their highest offering is guidance or training for people who would like to do the same (e.g. write, cook, be an online marketer). All this happens outside of corporations and the usual organisational structures - another case of the medium (the internet) producing the big changes.
The media environment changes politics in a fundamental way. Where once you had a ‘public’ consisting of many separate and distinct viewpoints, this has been replaced by an ‘audience’ that gives instant feedback to any political decision, making it more participatory. Through television and other media, people can see what is going on in real time anywhere in the world, and react to it. Emotions are sprayed across our screens, and one person’s plight might be felt by millions.
Almost universal access to these media forms has another effect:
“In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained – ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.”
This point about minority groups becoming the mainstream was picked up by Noam Chomsky. If they have access to information and can express their points of view using the media, they can exert the same power as a mainstream political party or a large corporation.
McLuhan was wrong on some things. He believed that in the information age cities – which were a monument to the railway – would become less important, museum-like places but not where people lived and worked. For a time he seemed right, as people fled from cities into suburbs, but the new fashionableness of city living comes from the desire for real experience (the possibility of chance meetings, access to live music etc), not just the virtual. Generally though, it is astonishing how someone who died in 1980 could have so well foreshadowed how we live now.
McLuhan notes that before the invention of printing, authorship of a book was quite secondary to the information in it. It was only after Gutenberg that “literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property” came to the fore. Again he is prescient, saying that “As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression. Teamwork succeeds private effort.” Does Wikipedia come to mind? Though the fame of individual authors has not altered, he was quite right in his feeling that collaboration and the text itself would rise back to prominence.
On McLuhan’s reasoning, online social media applications like Twitter and Facebook do not simply assist revolutions, they are at the heart of them. More than simply connecting people who would otherwise have remained unconnected, they actually change the weight of power towards the people. Whereas some commentators in the established media have tried to downplay the role of social media, McLuhan would likely have argued that this is a reaction of the old guard. What social media can do is the message, and its applications will continue to transform the world.
Near the end of the book is a spread of the front page of The New York Times from September 1965, the day after the great electrical failure that plunged the city into darkness. McLuhan notes that “were [the blackout] to have continued for half a year, there would be no doubt how electric technology shapes, works over, alters – massages – every instant of our lives.” And this was in 1965, when plenty of people didn’t even have televisions. Zoom forward to the present; imagine if the internet ceased to work for six months – would we live in the same world? Would we be the same people?
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey.
McLuhan was born in 1911. His mother was a Baptist school-teacher who later became an actress, and his father was a Methodist who had a real estate business in Edmonton, Canada.
He attended the University of Manitoba, earning his MA in English in 1934, and in the same year was accepted as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. In 1936 he returned to Canada for a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin. In the early 1950s, McLuhan began the Communication and Culture seminars, funded by the Ford Foundation, at the University of Toronto. During this period his reputation grew, and in 1963 the university created the Centre for Culture and Technology, which he would head until 1979.
His first major work, The Mechanical Bride (1951), was an examination of the effect of advertising on society and culture. McLuhan pointed out that the means of communication itself creates an impact, regardless of what is being said instead of the commonly accepted attitude that the content of a message is more important than its form. His other key books are Understanding Media (1964) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968). McLuhan died in 1980.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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