The Medium is the Message
I’m finally reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, a book I have had my shelves for just over two years. As a friend of mine put it, “I just order books and then they sit until it’s their turn. You have to be in the right kind of mood for a given book when you pick it up…” Yeah, that’s me too.
Anyway, McLuhan’s book is a much lauded classic, published in 1964. So far, it is a hard book to describe. I’m only a few chapters in. But I can say it is dense in ideas. Reading it is like eating rich ice cream. You can only have so much of it in one sitting.
And it stays with you. I find myself thinking about what I read long after I’ve read it. McLuhan’s ideas give you a new perceptual filter, a different way to consider the world around you.
Ostensibly, the book is about media -- though McLuhan’s use of the term media is expansive. Media includes, of course, TV, radio, etc. But he also includes things like electric light.
In McLuhan’s eyes, electric light is a medium. We can use electric light for night surgery or night baseball, it doesn’t matter. These things are the “content” of electric light, but it is more important to recognize electric light as a medium, a medium without a message, but a medium nonetheless. And therefore it should be seen as part of our media landscape, just as TV, radio, etc., which shapes all us in all kinds of ways.
In one of his more cryptic passages, McLuhan writes how GE thinks it's in the lightbulb business (remember this is c. 1964) but “it has not yet discovered that, quite as much as AT&T, it is in the business of moving information.” Ponder that.
The opening chapter covers his oft-quoted aphorism, “the medium is the message.” I love this aphorism because, as with the best of aphorisms, it is open to a variety of interpretations and uses.
What does it mean?
Well, one thing it means is that the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” In other words, the medium itself has a great deal of influence on the kinds of messages we can create and on how we interact with each other.
To understand this, Neil Postman (a student of McLuhan’s) used the analogy of smoke signals. Such a medium limits what you can say. It’s hard to talk about the nature of existence, for example. Smoke signals can communicate simple ideas, but it makes philosophy impossible.
Or consider Twitter. By its very structure, Twitter encourages certain kinds of messages and associations, and eliminates others. Similarly, users on Youtube, bound by a different set of constraints, create different messages and have different associations.
One of McLuhan’s great insights is not to lose sight of the medium by simply looking at the content or message. He wants us to not just focus on what is being said (the message or content) but to think about how the message is encoded and carried (the medium).
For McLuhan, media deserve attention because media dictate how we relate to each other, for better or for worse. Media are extensions of ourselves, hence the subtitle of the book (“extensions of man”). The telephone is an extension of the human voice, allowing us to communicate instantaneously over great distances. The television is an extension of the human eye, allowing us to see things happening far away. Our physical tools are extensions of our nails, fists, teeth, etc.
Important in all this, is the idea that the medium forces changes regardless of the message. As McLuhan writes, automation altered our relations to one another -- it changed work patterns, eliminated jobs, etc. -- it didn't matter whether the factory “turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs.” Our media work in the same way. It doesn’t matter whether you approve of Twitter or not, you are bound by its constraints. The only way out is not to use it at all, but even then you will feel the effects as they ripple in the broader environment in which you live.
In another striking metaphor (he has gobs of them), McLuhan writes our media are like staples or natural resources. We wouldn’t question the idea that a country rich in oil or cotton would have some obvious social patterns of organization as a result. “Cotton and oil, like radio and TV, become ‘fixed charges’ on the entire psychic life of the community," he writes. "And this pervasive fact creates the unique cultural flavor of any society.”
These changes or effects happen regardless of our intentions, or whether we approve of them or not. For McLuhan, media have a certain deterministic quality, they make certain things happen. He mocks the idea that media are somehow neutral. He would scoff at the statement that, say, “Facebook is neither good or bad, it’s what people do with it that counts.” No.
“Suppose we were to say, ‘Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.’ Or, ‘The smallpox virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.’”
These statements are obviously absurd. And McLuhan wants us to think of our media in a similar way; He doesn’t want us to think the way media are used determines whether they are beneficial or not. He wants us to consider the nature of the medium itself… what does it dictate we do? Because the medium is the message.
To think otherwise is to fall into a Narcissistic trance. Narcissus, McLuhan reminds us, fell in love with an image that he failed to recognize as his own. (It is a common mistake to think Narcissus fell in love with himself). The name "Narcissus" comes from the Greek for narcosis, meaning numbness. And for McLuhan, the story of Narcissus represented the typical numbness, or trance, that comes from using a technology/medium. We fall in love with the image (or extension) of ourselves, and thus we ignore how the medium alters our environment.
“Our conventional response to all media,” McLuhan writes, “namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” For him, the content is like the meat a burglar uses to distract a dog and break into your house. The medium has the power to impose its own assumptions on you. “Docile acceptance of media” makes them “prisons without walls for their human users.”
Powerful stuff. And this is just from about the first 20 pages!
But it got me thinking about how our internet media have altered forevermore the investing game. How has social media, for example, changed investing?
It seems impossible that the whole GameStop episode happens in a world without social media… which allowed users to organize in a way and at a speed that would’ve been impossible in the days before the internet. Certainly, stock prices have diverged from “reality” before. But to this extent?
What kind of effect does Twitter have on people? Investing is a long game. It requires patience and discipline and being able to put up with droughts of performance. It is hard. How much harder is it today just because of our media?
Or does it make it, in some ways, easier? I know I have made many valuable contacts (and friends) through Twitter. I have been able to tap expertise I would not have been able to find otherwise, or at least, it would’ve been much harder. We share ideas and research. These interactions have been enormously beneficial for me.
But perhaps McLuhan would say I am still focusing too much on the message. What are the effects of social media on investing? What does the medium itself force upon us? What does it make us do? What does it prohibit? How does it change things, whether we like it or not?
I don’t have well formed answers to all these questions yet. But they are worth thinking about, otherwise we fall into "docile acceptance" of our media's spell, like Narcissus and his image. I would be curious to hear your thoughts.
In summary: Media are like environments. And new media create new environments. Environments are not “passive wrappings but active processes." These ideas unlock McLuhan’s aphorism that the medium is the message.
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!
Published March 26, 2021
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