Painfully Coming to Grips with “The Medium is the Message”

Marshall McLuhan with Woody Allen in the movie, "Annie Hall"

We are now in week #7 of the New Media Faculty Seminar. Our NMFS  group of educators meet weekly, in Second Life, to discuss readings assigned by Gardner Campbell, the originator of the seminar series.  There are 13 of these NMFS groups, scattered around the country, who are all reading the same material and meeting on their own campuses. We are all united through a “mother blog“, where our posts from the individual group blogs are harvested.

This week, there were two readings by Marshall McLuhan, an excerpt from Gutenberg Galaxy and The Medium is the Message. I found both (particularly the first one) to be particularly difficult partly due to all the references (many to writers, philosophers, or academics that I do not know) and partly due to the internal inconsistencies in his writing.  I was greatly relieved to find that my fellow NMFS-ers felt the same way.

Willow Shenlin facilitated our discussion and did a wonderful job, diligently leading us through her favorite McLuhan-isms, as well as the parts that she found particularly confusing. And that’s what is so great about these weekly meetings – not only do they provide a structure to force you to read material you normally would not, but you get a chance to wrestle with the parts of it you don’t understand and benefit from the insights of the group.

WIllow Shenlin's set up

About mid-way through our 90-minutes, we took a field trip over to Willow’s property in SL to see a few exhibits that she’s put up, to help with the readings and bring them to life.  She’d put up a media viewer through which we watched this fondly-remembered scene from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out to counter a blowhard who was standing behind him in line at a movie theater (god, I love that scene).  She also showed us this amazing TED talk by Nathalie Miebach which, as Willow put it, I would love to see Marshall McLuhan’s response to!

Marshall McLuhan bot

Willow also had a Marshal McLuhan “bot” (automated character) – pictured to the right – that spouted McLuhan quotes from a menu when you clicked on him.  It was hilarious – and helped me to relax and let the readings wash over me a bit more.

When I reflect on the McLuhan readings, there are a couple of “nuggets” (to borrow Gardner’s term) that are really sticking with me. The first is his idea of sense ratios.  How is information coming to us – through our ears? Our eyes?  Our fingertips?  McLuhan makes the point that changes to these sense ratios have consequences.  For example, with the invention of the alphabet and written communication, we shifted from a strong dependence on hearing to a more visually oriented culture.

The other McLuhan-ism that I am only now really beginning to understand is his classic “the medium is the message”.   I thought I knew what it meant (it certainly has a prominent place in our culture!), but I now realize that I didn’t.  What’s worse, like the blowhard in the Annie Hall movie, I had been misrepresenting it.  Oy.  In his essay, McLuhan points out that we over-emphasize the importance of content.  Let’s say, for instance, that we are looking at an image of a family, sitting around the dinner table, We would argue that it doesn’t matter if the image is a photograph, an oil painting, a screen shot, or a water-color – the important thing would be the content of the image – who is that family and what is happening in that dinner scene?  But McLuhan’s point is that the way that content affects us, the way we are able to experience ourselves in relationship to it, will change depending on the medium  in which it is expressed.  That it matters whether it’s a drawing, a movie, a book, or a television show.  He goes on to say that content actually distracts you from what happening technologically. As McLuhan puts it, “Content is the piece of juicy red meat that is carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”  So, according to McLuhan, it’s vitally  important to be aware of the medium and the tradeoffs and impacts of that medium on us, every step of the way.

“It is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. We must look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.”

One of the ways McLuhan tries to make this clear is through the concept of  “extension”.  That is, that media is not just a tool, it becomes a part of us – an extension of what we can do.  I had a breakthrough on this when I listened to the podcast conversation between Gardner Campbell and Alan Levine for the McLuhan session of a past NMFS series, on the heels of our Wednesday session (I wish I’d listened to it before!).  Gardner used this perfectly simple and powerful example to explain what McLuhan means by “tools as extensions of ourselves”.  Here goes.

Pick up a hammer

“If you pick up a hammer, and hold it in your hand, what do you have?” Gardner asks.  In trying to answer that question, we immediately jump to capabilities (“you can build a house” or “now you need a nail”).  But Gardner urges us to, instead, think in terms of the most basic, the most obvious thing.  You have a hammer in your hand.  Simple.  And the, he says, McLuhan goes further. What McLuhan would say  is that you don’t have a hammer in your hand, what you now have is a “hammerhand”.  You’ve changed the hammer.  And you’ve changed your hand.  A new union, that neither one was before you picked up the hammer.

Aha. The penny dropped for me. And my next immediate thought was how very wrong I’ve been in a key element of my thinking about new media technology (this is the painful part). In my work, I spend a lot of time with teachers and students, talking with them (coaching them) about the use of new media as it’s applied to teaching and learning.  What I regularly say, in an attempt to soothe and reassure them, is that all of these wonderful web tools are just that – they are tools.  Not unlike a pencil or a chalkboard or a microscope.  What you do with the tool is what makes it worthwhile.  What you plan, create, devise is what has meaning.  Oh dear.  Exactly the opposite of what McLuhan is saying.

As I sit here and type on this computer  (and create this blog entry), the computer (and the blogging platform) have become an extension of me. We are now united to do something that I (or the computer, or the blogging platform) could not do without each other. The computer and the blogging platform are not just tools. They have changed my thinking and the very way I interact with the world.  We are united and have moved together to a different understanding.

One of the McLuhan quotes that I’ve always loved (and used quite often) is his lament that man is “shuffling toward the 21st century in the shackles of 19th century perceptions”.   In his lifetime, he didn’t see the laptop computer, the cell phone, or the tablet – but he did give us a way to think about them, a way to make sure we are in right relationship with our tools and the way we use them.



Filed under New Media Faculty Seminar

4 responses to “Painfully Coming to Grips with “The Medium is the Message”

  1. Great post, Spiral – again, I’m so bummed I can’t attend. I’ve been struggling with McLuhan too (who hasn’t?) and it’s interesting to read how you think that you have misinterpreted McLuhan. I don’t know if you have misinterpreted him? Or maybe he is wrong? Even though tools are seen as extensions (and I agree on that), does that necessarily mean that content isn’t what matters; that the medium trumps the message? I agree that the tool/medium shape the message and as McLuhan also puts it; we shape tools, and in return they shape us. But thinking that this means that tools trump content, in my opinion is too technology deterministic. As we have seen e.g. in SL, this tool can be used in many ways – we all have the same tool available, but the outcomes are so different – and how would McLuhan explain that? Yes, tools are extensions, but I still believe that we, the humans, shape the message … I think, lol 🙂

  2. rheyden

    Hi Mariis! Thanks for your comment – thoughtful, as always. I like to think that you are right here. That if Marshall McLuhan were to come into a virtual world and see all the different outcomes/experiences/builds he would allow as much as the humans behind all of that work have shaped the message (as much as the medium has shaped them). Too bad we can’t, like Woody Allen, pull him out from behind the curtain and ask him!

  3. Pingback: Us ‘n Machines

  4. Pingback: Us ‘n Machines | The CogDog Show

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