Reaction to McLuhan

This week’s reading was an excerpt from Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in which he argues that the medium is the message. His confusing and lengthy lists of examples both helped and hurt my understanding of this argument. McLuhan was arguing that the very being of a medium was as important if not more important than the content it can convey. Most people would say that the content of the media is the message, but McLuhan disagrees.

On Page 9, McLuhan writes, “The content or uses of such media are as diverse and ineffectual in shaping the form of human association.” [1] In this quote, McLuhan defends his point of view. He was talking about the electric light as a medium and how some could argue that things the electric light is used for, such as brain surgeries and night baseball games, are the light’s content, which further proves his point. Also on page 9 he writes, “… it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” [2] I feel as if this might be his clearest argument. I never thought that I could get talked into believing that a light bulb was a form of media, but here we are.

Another relatively clear argument he made was when he was proving General David Sarnoff’s statement false. “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.’” [3] In this passage, it seems obvious that the medium is the message. All of these things can be inherently good or bad and one does not have to use or misuse it to find that out. I am still having trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that he is using things like apple pie as a medium and whether or not I agree with it.

I think McLuhan’s argument is a bold and confusing one. I also think I might be taking it more literally than he had anticipated, but that’s what he gets for being so bold. I’m finding it hard to understand how the technology of new media or thought can be seen as media. I guess new technologies come from human experience and often necessity and the technology itself portrays what a society wants or values. I think there is more of a close and interconnected relationship between the medium and its content and that McLuhan did not discredit the content of media completely. Going back to the apple pie example, upon further thought, I guess could be a medium. It can portray love or friendship or caring, but are those content or is the content the actual pie? You can bake a pie for someone you love to show you appreciate them or just to show that you were thinking about them. I think the content and medium really work more hand-in-hand than strictly one or the other when shaping human experience.

Overall, McLuhan’s argument is confusing to me. Some examples he used I could agree with but others had me completely lost. History is so vast that this argument would have a hard time holding up to every single thing like it seems like he is trying to do.

[1] Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge, 1975), 9.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Ibid, 11.




6 thoughts on “Reaction to McLuhan

  1. VHiggins,
    I like the honesty of your post and I definitely do not think you are alone in your frustration at McLuhan. I too found his theories and writing style to be much to eccentric to get a tight grip on what exactly he was saying. I also struggled in considering things like “Apple Pie” as mediums, but i suppose in a sense he isnt wrong. A medium (from my own understanding) is anything that conveys content, thus an apple pie could be a medium because, as you said, it can carry a “message” of love or affection. I find myself also agreeing with you completely that perhaps the medium and the content are equally important due to their close connection to one another. Anyway, personally I think ill stick to good old fashioned history and leave the media studies to the more abstractly inclined students.


    • Thank you for this comment! It is refreshing to see that I wasn’t just babbling on in my blog post (which is something I felt I was definitely doing) and that some people understood and shared my confusion. This reading still is like fuzzy to me with only small spots of clarity, but I feel confident enough in that to stand by some of the things I wrote here. I agree, I will be sticking to the strictly historical. I’m not cut out for media studies!


  2. The honesty in this post is refreshing, as there were absolutely many people who felt the way you did about this article. I am in agreement that this argument will have a hard time holding up as time progresses and that there were some confusing examples. I, personally, believe that the message is very important; however, McLuhan convinced me that the medium is extremely important as well, for it can tell the reader a great deal of information. Abiding by this idea makes historians analyze the source more thoroughly, which is always a good thing for historians. In addition, it can allow us to come up with better conclusions for our research papers, as it can make our arguments more analytical than statement of fact. Thus, I felt that reading McLuhan and believing the argument helped me become a better historian, something I can always use help improving on, as it is a continual process.


    • I completely agree with you. After the initial confusion and frustration about this piece, I was able to take a step back and even appreciate it. I admit that I really didn’t think twice about the medium and how it can convey a message or just that its of at least equal importance to the message itself. This also helped me become a better historian in the sense of reading and analyzing a piece critically and engaging in discussion about the various viewpoints one could have after reading this piece.


  3. So your thoughts on how he argues it is very clear and concise, which I really liked to read (especially after trying to read his arguments which made no sense to me). The arguments that you touch upon that he presented are very confusing to me, espeically when there are so many ways to debunk what he is trying to get across. He is clearly talking about how the medium is the message, but new mediums are made every day! So does that mean the original medium is the message behind all of the new mediums? So the candle came before the light bulb, is the light bulb now content of the candle? It’s a very confusing concept to me to grasp.


    • Thank you! And I still have a hard time wrapping my head around this. I just tried to rationalize a crazy thought that I had read and came up with this blog post. My understanding got fuzzy when he was mentioning everything that could be a medium. You bring up a valid point of whether the new medium is content of the original medium, but I cannot answer that question either as I am confused by the whole things still. Thanks for your reply!


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