Week 6 - Feb 14 th
Visitor: Robert Fleming
Readings: Marshall McLuhan – “The Medium is the Message”
Key words: Structure and configuration
The personal and social consequences of any medium (any extension of ourselves) result from the
new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves or by any new
With automation, it is true. The negative result is the new patters of human association tend to
eliminate jobs. The positive result is that automation creates roles for people. Many people would
say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or
The human restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of
fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is
the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary,
centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.
The electric light is a medium without a message and (characteristic of all media) means that the
“content” of any medium is always another medium. (The content of writing is speech, just as the
written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.
An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes. What we are
considering are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or
accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of
scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.
The railway did not introduce movement or transportation into human society, but it accelerated
and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and work
It could be argued that activities, such as brain surgery or night baseball, are in some way the
“content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact
underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and
controls the scale and form of human association and action.
The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of
IBM discovered that it was not in the business of making office equipment or business machines,
but that it was in the business of processing information/moving information.
The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content”.
For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is
noticeable as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or medium) that is noticed.
A fairly complete handbook for studying the extensions of man could be made up from selections
Selye The latest approach to media study considers not only the “content” but the medium and
the cultural matrix within which the particular medium operates.
General David Sarnoff: “The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the
way they are used that determines their value.” Modern science = pie, firearms, viruses. It has never occurred to General Sarnoff that any technology could do anything but add itself on to
what we already are.
“Classical economics” cannot explain change or growth
Mechanization is itself the cause of maximal growth and change; however, the principle of
mechanization excludes the very possibility of growth or the understanding of change. For
mechanization is achieved by fragmentation of any process and by putting the fragmented parts in
With instant speed the causes of things began to emerge to awareness again, as they had not done
with things in sequence and in concatenation accordingly.
Mechanization was never so vividly fragmented or sequential as in the birth of the movies, the
moment that translated us beyond mechanism into the world of growth and organic interrelation.
The movie carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative
configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal
connections to configurations.
At this moment of the movie, cubism occurred, and was described by Gombrich as “the most
radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture.”
Cubism sets up an interplay of planes and contradiction or dramatic conflict of patterns, lights,
textures that “drives home the message” by involvement.
By giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front, in two dimensions, Cubism drops
the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing
on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message.
Before the electric speed, it was not obvious that the medium is the message. The message, it
seemed, was the “content,” as people used to ask what a painting was about. Yet they never thought
to ask what a song was about, nor what a house or a dress was about.
Dethocqueville had explained how it was the printed word that, achieving cultural saturation in the
18 century, had homogenized the French nation. The typographic principles of uniformity,