The Medium is the Message - Part 2

I suspect the readership is flat-lining here. Ah well, it was only ever for myself.

A good place to start with McLuhan is his most famous phrase - "The Medium is the Message". Many at the time and since interpreted this to mean that McLuhan was saying that all communication was nonsense and you should drop any attempt at meaning. So outrageously stupid educational installations were commissioned, with flashing lights and speakers and whatever else, which supposedly would automatically educate kids if they stood in front of them and played etc.

This isn't what McLuhan meant at all. The medium is the message because the distinction between a message and the communication of that message is a false one. There is no such thing as a neutral channel or communication technology that simply transfers a separate message more or less faithfully. The standard theory is shown in the image above, which I nicked from Wikipedia. There's a pre-existing sender and receiver, and some channel between them along which the message passes more or less faithfully. 'Noise' in the most general sense, which includes the notion of interference (also 'misunderstanding' in human communication), is anything that interrupts this flow from sender to receiver, or more broadly which prevents the message received being identical to what was sent.

The problem with this model is that you have this lovely, pure, clean channel as the baseline state of things, and noise as something that gets tacked on afterwards. Now everybody really knows that noise and interference are the norm, they're not the exception. Communication, where what gets received is identical to what gets sent, is the absolute exception. It's almost a miracle when it happens. Just noticing how people will interpret a piece of text in a million different ways, with some loving it, some taking offence, some violently disagreeing etc. is proof enough that the meaning which comes out of communication is a highly variable thing, and that supposing this is all some unadulterated simultaenous orgasm of understanding at root which then gets gradually eroded is nonsensical idealism.

But McLuhan isn't just saying, yes keep that simple model where you have a sender and a receiver and a communications channel between them, but add some more noise into the picture. By making noise the baseline, the model itself dissolves. The sender and receiver and even the channel all emerge and change constantly, from the process of interaction. Communication is not 'about' something, it is a process of creation itself. It is an interaction, when we communicate we're at the same time creating a sender and a receiver, and the 'channel' that links them. Physicists are familiar with this, they know that 'events' are shaped by the communication between entities; it's not that particles and what have you are madly texting to each other about the state of the weather, the particles themselves are constituted by the interaction we would normally call communication.

In more common sense everyday terms, McLuhan showed how depending on what communications technology you use, you create in fact a different type of person. Media are 'hot' or 'cold', referring to their tendency to engage the viewer. Hot media engage them in a stunned mullet sort of way, so that the recipient does not add much meaning to the process. Cold media invite the user to add meaning, to participate in creating meaning in a process. For example a lecture would be 'hotter' than a dialogue, because the meaning is not really negotiated to the same extent in the former. Film tends to be hotter than TV - it 'gives' you or capture you in a meaning (particularly in a cinema) in the moment more than TV does. And these are direct, 'physical' effects that media have on people - they physically react differently to hot media and cold media.

It's in this sense that the medium is the message. McLuhan was saying that we tend to ignore the actual physicality of communication, assuming that you might have some message, and whether you put it in a book, or a film, or a radio program, made not the slightest bit of difference. But it makes all the difference in the world. Just as Elizabeth Eisenstein explained in her famous "The Printing Press As an Agent of Change", media change the very way we experience and understand the world, they're not channels through which messages are transmitted.


  1. Nick, as a faithful reader, let me just say that it just gets better and better. See, it is not just for you. Keep it up, it continues to make my day every single time.

  2. Better to write something interesting and intelligent and not get a comment than get a zillion comments from Tim Blair type loons.

    McLuhan was always up for a bit of fun. If only we could wheel him out these days like Woody Allen did in Annie Hall ...

  3. Why thank ya ma'am. I loved McLuhan's stuff, he was endlessly inventive and nearly always profound. Like his insight that academic social scientists ferret around for any funds to keep their research projects going, when the advertising industry worldwide does most of the research they need for them - billions of dollars' worth. Just watching ads will give you the zeitgeist, he used to say.

    Do you track the traffic to your blog with Google Analytics?

  4. No, can't be buggered. After all, it's just therapy. I have a tracker, but the only thing it tells me is that no one's interested in Michael Duffy. Almost anything and anybody else. So who called the blog after him? D'oh. Ah well, long live the Duffster.

    The stuff about Conan Doyle and the fairies and the dark is fascinating. My grandmother was a German peasant in the bush way back when candle power was still the go on many nights, and she had more superstitions than you could shake a stick at (and if you spend a night in the deep bush around Alice with only the stars for light you soon get to believe in ghosts and ghoulies).

    Love that whole Victorian state of mind - guess that's why the last time I enjoyed Nicole Kidman, she was in The Others. But it's actually never left us. A block or so away is a Spiritualist church with mediums, spirit communications, healing, messages from the other side, Evidence of Survival, and with a very nice set of suburban folk as its congregation ...

  5. It's interesting that most only really experience darkness now in private. And even there very few houses seem dark in the way a Victorian house lit by gas flame would have been.

    Being in the dark in public is now almost unheard of. It would be thought suicidal - social or public space is felt as this volatile, dangerous potentiality of violence and paedophilia. We haven't thought much about the dark, and how little we experience it now - the Earth from space, at least over the 'developed' world', is ablaze with light.

    I think the scene you describe of huddling around a candle at night produced very different people. When you have darkness you have that sense of the unknown, of mystery. The En-light-enment (the term says it all) was all about driving light into all of that darkness.


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