In today’s Fireside Chat we explore the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and the notion that the medium is the message – an idea that remains as thought-provoking today as it did in the 1960s.
If you are interested in reading more about McLuhan I would strongly recommend:
- Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (2001)
- Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)
- Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, (1979)
History Fireside Chats are produced, recorded and researched by Dr Kristopher Lovell. The audio was recorded using the CAD M179
Transcript: Episode 8 – Marshall McLuhan and the Medium is the Message
Hello and welcome to History Fireside Chats – in today’s episode we’re going to be talking about Marshall McLuhan and his belief that the ‘medium is the message’.
McLuhan was one of the most important and controversial media theorists of the C20th. The journalist Tom Wolfe claimed that McLuhan sounded like the ‘most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov’, though Wolfe was pessimistic about that.
McLuhan was a Canadian media theorist born in 1911 to a very religious family. His early life and his later ideas were very much shaped by the literature he enjoyed and read. He credited, for example, the novels of G. K. Chesterton for converting him to Catholicism. And the influence of literature on McLuhan is clearly seen in his writings which are full of references to historical and contemporary texts.
Along with Eric Havelock and Harold Innis, McLuhan was an instrumental part of the Toronto School of Communication Theory which explored the history of communications and its relationship with psychology and social organisations. During his time at Toronto, McLuhan focused on the role of the media in modern and past societies arguing that communications technology affects social states – he claimed that the invention of the Gutenberg Press in the 1440s (the first moveable type press in Europe) transformed Western society and culture beyond increasing literacy in Europe – it also led, he argued, to the birth of nationalism, democracy and capitalism. New technologies are not simple tools – they fundamentally change human culture and society. Technology in his own words, ‘altered our relationship to one another and to ourselves.’
According to McLuhan, it didn’t matter what one did with the new technology – whether it was used to produce cornflakes or Cadillacs – what mattered was the fact that the technology ‘shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.’ For him, very simply the Medium is the Message – not the content.
This theory has attracted a lot of criticism and scepticism over the years – and this is partly because McLuhan was a brilliant self-publicist. He was the perfect ‘Soundbite Philosopher’, a celebrity academic, able to attract and hold the attention of the public. His writing could be paradoxical and confused– but he was great at producing pithy, profound sentences that he buried within these impenetrable, obstruse paragraphs. And these soundbites connected with the public.
He was also a man who enjoyed puns and took his humour to the point of irreverence, and many critics have taken his tone more seriously than his ideas. He supposedly advocated only reading the right-hand page of a serious book in order to get it quicker. He joked that he didn’t understand his own theories. ‘After all’, he said, ‘my stuff is very difficult’. According to him, ‘Clear prose indicates the absence of thought’ and he supposedly never rewrote anything after the first draft (although that one, I do believe). 
His sense of humour is evident in his book, The Medium is the Massage published in 1967 with designer Quentin Fiore. This was an experimental, mixed media essay in which he sought to develop his argument that the medium matters more than the content. The title was meant to be ‘The Medium is the Message’, but supposedly a printing error misspelt it as massage which McLuhan loved not only because it was a pun, but because it meant the title of the book could be read in multiple ways.
Message could be broken down into two words to describe our modern society: Mess Age. A period of messiness. Massage could also be broken down to also describe our society as the Mass Age.
In this book McLuhan argues that the content of media matters less than the medium itself. In his view, the medium ‘shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.’ The contents of a letter, the content of a telegram, programmes on the radio and television are so varied and diverse that they have little, if any, real impact on society. Yet, according to McLuhan, we are too distracted by analysing the minute detail within content that we forget to consider how the medium affects society more broadly. ‘The “content” of a medium’, he wrote, ‘is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind’.
McLuhan himself took a very broad view of what constitutes a medium to illuminate his point – according to him, the electric lightbulb is the perfect example of a medium, but one without a message. The light bulb carries pure information and yet there’s no content within it. The lightbulb is ignored as a form of media until it is used to spell out a slogan on a billboard after which we take notice of the content of the advert, but we still ignore the lightbulb as a medium. Yet the light bulb, humble as it is, forms the backbone of modern society. Modern society depends on the lightbulb – society has been driven by this technical change.
Thus, McLuhan argues when we look at the content of a medium, we restrict ourselves to looking at how the media affects us as an individual when we should looking at how societies are changed more broadly by the form – how technology changes our values, norms and behaviours as a collective. It is the media, technology, that forms and shapes our environment.
But surely, content does matter? Surely the message of a message is well… the message? It’s the content we’re interested in reading, watching or listening to surely?
And I have to say that otherwise there’s no reason to suggest you listen to this podcast. There’s no reason to recommend a new TV show or a book.
But here is where a lot of people have misunderstood McLuhan – McLuhan doesn’t necessarily deny content is important – but its importance is limited to a few people. What you choose to watch on TV might be important to you and any friends you’re watching TV with, but on the whole it matters far less than the impact that TV has had on society more broadly. As McLuhan said in an interview in 1977 ‘the effect of TV, the message of TV is quite independent of the program. That is, there is a huge technology involved in TV which surrounds you, physically, and the effect of that huge service environment on you, personally, is vast. The effect of a program is incidental.’
An historic example McLuhan uses is how in the eighteenth century, the printed word had helped to homogenize nations. This idea isn’t exclusive to McLuhan. Elizabeth Eisenstein used McLuhan’s ideas as a basis for her work in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in which she argues that the printing press helped bring about the Scientific Revolution, among other major societal changes. Benedict Anderson in the 1980s would argue that by printing texts in shared, common languages, print capitalism helped to create modern European nation-states based around imagined communities.
A modern example that perhaps might also illustrate McLuhan’s point is streaming – during the Covid pandemic our streaming habits changed. With many of us working from home or furloughed, streaming boomed massively. People sought comfort in comedies and light entertainment – they also sought comfort in nostalgia. In 2020, people were using the latest streaming platforms to watch old programmes including Only Fools and Horses, classic Star Trek and Friends.
The content of much of what we were watching was the same as it was twenty years but the new medium, streaming, has fundamentally changed our relationship with entertainment and with each other.
Twenty years ago, if you missed an episode of your favourite TV programme, you risked never seeing that episode ever again. Who knew when that episode would be broadcast again? Now, you can binge watch entire seasons in a night. Adverts would interrupt the flow of many programmes and movies, twenty years ago. Now streaming services show you the episodes without interruption yet the programmes are still planned around advert breaks. You can now arrange to watch movies and shows with friends and family from all over the world at the same time, simply by sharing a link. The content, whether it was nostalgic or modern, matters less than how the instant availability of programmes have changed our relationships with one another. This has in many ways both a positive and negative effect on society. We can now choose to watch and rewatch whatever we want instead of being forced to choose between what was being broadcast in the 1990s. But now we often limit ourselves to programmes that are within our comfort zones instead of being forced to watch something unusual on TV because there’s nothing else on.
Today a couple can break up or fall in love in ink or through text messages – the medium doesn’t necessarily change the content; it might not necessarily change the relationship either. But technology has changed us as a society by enabling communications quicker communications. Society has been forever altered by the speed of communications which has brought the world, arguably, much closer together. We now live in a Global Village – for better or worse, but that is a conversation for another day.
McLuhan has often been heavily criticised for his ideas and his perceived irreverence. But beneath McLuhan’s humour and irreverence was a very real understanding of his own role within media theory and history. Many of McLuhan’s critics have complained that his ideas are incomplete or not fully fleshed out, but McLuhan felt that his work was not meant to be a ‘complete package’. It was meant to be part of the dialogue, part of a conversation – it wasn’t supposed to be the final word on the topic. His work needed to spark a discussion, so it didn’t matter if some of the details were a bit off. And in that respect McLuhan certainly sparked off one of the most interesting and controversial conversations of the twentieth century.
And perhaps the next time we’re flicking through Netflix for an hour trying to decide what to watch, we should comfort ourselves with the knowledge that McLuhan would point out that it doesn’t really matter what we choose to watch but how we are watching it. So just pick something.
I hope you enjoyed this History Fireside Chat. We will be exploring some of McLuhan’s ideas more in the future, especially his notion of the Global Village, but for now thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next time.
 Richard Kostelanetz, Understanding McLuhan (In Part) The New York Times, 29 January 1967 https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/11/02/home/mcluhan-magazine.html
 Asa Briggs and Peter Burke, A Social History of the Media (2020), p. 13
 McLuhan, Understanding Media (2001) p. 7
 Rabil, Albert. “The Future As History And History As The End: An Interpretation of Marshall McLuhan.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 51, no. 1 (1968): 81. See also McLuhan on 24 Hours (1971) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02lbklz
 Katharine Q. Seelye, ‘Quentin Fiore, Who Made the Medium His Message, Dies at 99’, New York Times, 1 May 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/obituaries/quentin-fiore-dead.html
 McLuhan, p. 19
 Mcluhan, p. 8-9
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983); Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, (1979)