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Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium is the Message”

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Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medi­um is the message.”

But what does it mean?
Who was Marshall McLuhan?

And how does it relate to PR?

Here we go: 

The Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan - The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan (1911 — 1980).
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Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium is the Message”

The medi­um is the mes­sage” is a phrase coined by the Canadian philo­soph­er Marshall McLuhan in the first chapter of his not­able book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” 1Understanding Media. (2023, September 18). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​U​n​d​e​r​s​t​a​n​d​i​n​g​_​M​e​dia

Despite being one of the most influ­en­tial thinkers in media the­ory, McLuhan’s ideas are often widely mis­un­der­stood. “The medi­um is the mes­sage” is no exception.

The medi­um is the mes­sage” does­n’t imply that con­tent or sub­stance lacks import­ance, only that the medi­um in which mes­sages are sent will sig­ni­fic­antly impact humanity.

  • McLuhan pro­posed that intro­du­cing a new medi­um will impact human­ity sig­ni­fic­antly more than any­thing sub­sequently trans­mit­ted through that medium.

McLuhan views medi­ums as exten­sions of human physiology. Our abil­ity to build houses extends our human skin, as it pro­tects against the ele­ments. This added lay­er of pro­tec­tion and phys­ic­al safety frees up men­tal band­width for human interaction.

So, a house is a medi­um in McLuhan’s inter­pret­a­tion. All human tech­no­lo­gies, down to the camp­fire, are con­sidered mediums.

McLuhan’s insight was that a medi­um affects the soci­ety in which it plays a role not by the con­tent delivered over the medi­um, but by the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of the medi­um itself. […] McLuhan poin­ted to the light bulb as a clear demon­stra­tion of this concept. A light bulb does not have con­tent in the way that a news­pa­per has art­icles or a tele­vi­sion has pro­grams, yet it is a medi­um that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to cre­ate spaces dur­ing night­time that would oth­er­wise be envel­oped by dark­ness.”
Source: Wikipedia 2Marshall McLuhan. (2023, May 15). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​M​a​r​s​h​a​l​l​_​M​c​L​u​han

According to McLuhan, our abil­ity to cre­ate exten­sions of human­ity expo­nen­tially impacts our com­mu­nic­a­tion more than any mes­sage con­veyed as a result:

  • A light­bulb is a medi­um (an exten­sion of the human eye).
  • A house is a medi­um (an exten­sion of the human skin).
  • The tele­phone is a medi­um (an exten­sion of human vocal cords).

And so on.

Why is McLuhan’s ana­lys­is neces­sary? “The medi­um is the mes­sage” is a stark remind­er that a medi­um’s format (and its lim­it­a­tions) will massively impact human soci­ety — and the mes­sages them­selves, too.

We often default to seek­ing mean­ing in mes­sages but for­get to con­sider the medi­um’s inher­ent media logic.

Learn more: Media Logic is Dead, Long Live Media Logic

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The Electronic Age

The Electronic Age according to Marshall McLuhan.
The Electronic Age accord­ing to Marshall McLuhan.
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The Electronic Age

Human cul­ture is often described based on our access to pro­duc­tion tech­no­lo­gies (e.g., the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age).

According to Marshall McLuhan and the Toronto School of Communication Theory, a bet­ter ana­lys­is would be to view soci­et­al devel­op­ment based on the prom­in­ence of emer­ging com­mu­nic­a­tions technologies.

Marshall McLuhan - Cambridge University - Digital-First
Marshall McLuhan at Cambridge University, circa 1940.

McLuhan sug­gests divid­ing human civil­isa­tion into four epochs:

  • Oral Tribe Culture. Handwriting marks the begin­ning of the end of the Oral Tribe Culture. The Oral Tribe Culture per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Manuscript Culture. Printing marks the begin­ning of the end of the Manuscript Culture. The Manuscript Culture per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Gutenberg Galaxy. Electricity marks the begin­ning of the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. The Gutenberg Galaxy per­sists but without its former prominence.
  • Electronic Age. Today, we reside in the Electronic Age. Possibly, we haven’t exper­i­enced the begin­ning of this age’s decline yet.

The Gutenberg Galaxy is a land­mark book that intro­duced the concept of the glob­al vil­lage and estab­lished Marshall McLuhan as the ori­gin­al ‘media guru’, with more than 200,000 cop­ies in print.”
Source: Modern Language Review 3McLuhan, M. (1963). The Gutenberg galaxy: the mak­ing of typo­graph­ic man. Modern Language Review, 58, 542. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​2​3​0​7​/​3​7​1​9​923

As a PR pro­fes­sion­al and lin­guist, I sub­scribe to the concept of the Electronic Age. My belief is that soci­ety is unlikely to revert to the Gutenberg Galaxy.

Thus, digit­al-first is the way for pub­lic rela­tions, too.

Read also: The Electronic Age and The End of the Gutenberg Galaxy

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Background: Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan, a pion­eer­ing fig­ure in media the­ory, is known for his pro­found impact on under­stand­ing medi­a’s role in soci­ety. 4Marshall McLuhan. (2023, November 17). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​M​a​r​s​h​a​l​l​_​M​c​L​u​han

McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. McLuhan was the son of a real estate and insur­ance sales­man and an act­ress, which might have influ­enced his interest in media and com­mu­nic­a­tion. His moth­er, Elsie Naomi McLuhan, was an act­ress and eloc­u­tion­ist, influ­en­cing his interest in speech and com­mu­nic­a­tion. He suffered a stroke at the age of four, which affected his abil­ity to read and write for sev­er­al years.

McLuhan’s time at Cambridge University, where he stud­ied under influ­en­tial lit­er­ary crit­ics like F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards, deeply shaped his intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment. His PhD dis­ser­ta­tion at Cambridge focused on the Elizabethan play­wright Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. It explored the clas­sic­al trivi­um of gram­mar, dia­lectic, and rhet­or­ic, reflect­ing his lifelong interest in lan­guage and communication.

McLuhan taught at sev­er­al uni­ver­sit­ies, includ­ing the University of Toronto, where he spent much of his career.

Before his fame in media the­ory, McLuhan pub­lished art­icles on advert­ising and busi­ness man­age­ment. His first major book, “The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man” (1951), examined pop­u­lar cul­ture and advert­ising. 5The Mechanical Bride. (2023, November 12). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​e​_​M​e​c​h​a​n​i​c​a​l​_​B​r​ide

McLuhan was also a poet, with his work exhib­it­ing a com­plex, sym­bol­ist style. He appeared in Woody Allen’s film “Annie Hall” (1977), play­ing him­self in a fam­ous scene. McLuhan col­lab­or­ated with avant-garde artists, includ­ing Harley Parker and John Cage, reflect­ing his inter­dis­cip­lin­ary approach.

McLuhan suffered a stroke in 1979 that affected his abil­ity to speak. He died in 1980.

Although McLuhan’s work was con­tro­ver­sial dur­ing his life­time, his insights have gained increas­ing recog­ni­tion and rel­ev­ance in the digit­al age, with the rise of the inter­net and social media.

McLuhan’s work laid the found­a­tions for the field of media eco­logy, which stud­ies media envir­on­ments and their effects on human exper­i­ence and understanding.

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Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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The cover photo isn't related to public relations obviously; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that it's good to have hobbies outside work.

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