Reaction to McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan coined the famous expression “the medium is the message”. After reading his excerpt, I found it to be very complicated, but after reading it a few times it started to make more sense to me.  So what does McLuhan mean by “the medium is the message”? He means that the way the message is presented (the medium) is how the message will be perceived by the reader, viewer, etc.… He is basically saying that the form is which something is presented is synonymous with how it is perceived.

While his reading can be very confusing, and complicated with his fancy, big words, he does use real life examples to help interpret what he means. The first example he uses is light. He calls the light “information, a medium without a message, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name.” [1] He goes on to say that baseball and surgery are “content” of light because if light did not exist, neither would surgery or night baseball games. Light in this case is the medium that controls the ability for people to watch baseball in the dark.

Another example McLuhan uses is from General David Sarnoff, who was accepting an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. He goes on to make very interesting points, he says “the products of modern science are not themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.” McLuhan negates this statement because he says Sarnoff ignores the medium in which it was presented. He says General Sarnoff never thought that technology could “add itself on to what we already are.” [2] This comes back to “the medium is the message”, and how it is perceived.

Does Marshall McLuhan’s argument hold up as a matter of history? I think it does. If you look back to what we learned this semester, I think McLuhan’s argument is very relevant. What I thought of after I read this excerpt was Constitutive Choices and Path Dependency. [3] What made me think of this is right at the beginning of the reading he says, “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium-that is, of any extension of ourselves-result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” He goes onto explain this quote in greater detail with automation. He essentially says as technology advances, people lose their jobs, but with this advance in technology, jobs are also gained. The basic definition of Path Dependency is that choices made in the past, effect choices made today, or in this case technology. Another example of this is when he says, “The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of leisure.” [4] That right there is a great example of path dependency, because previous technological advances allowed for the invention of the train and railway, and at the same time the train allowed for advances in technology later like the telegraph and eventually the airplane.

Lastly, I believe this argument holds up in history because I believe it is true, to a certain point at least. I may not believe it to the extent that McLuhan does, but I do believe “the medium is the message” is true to a point.


[1] Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge, 1975), 8-9.

[2] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 11.

[3] Class notes from 9/12

[4] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8.



One thought on “Reaction to McLuhan

  1. So, I am first off very impressed that you were able to get that out of it, because I had the most difficult time with figuring out what he was focusing on in his entire paper. Also, I love the fact that you bring path dependency into the equation. I never thought of connecting what he was saying to something that really does have a significant argument in history. (Mostly because, again, he was a difficult man to understand.) But your argument relating to how he argues that without the medium there is no message, and how path dependency basically argues that one change can result in a ripple affect that can alter how we move forward, is very compelling. I like that you thought outside the box on this one and brought in a more familiar thought, making it easier for me to understand McLuhan’s meaning at a different level.


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