It’s become a hackneyed platitude. It’s been accepted as a brilliant insight. It’s been attributed to one name. It’s been refuted by many and still it persists. “The medium is the message.” You’ve probably heard it many times. Probably wondered what it means. And probably just accepted it, since, without thinking about it, it seems so profound.
On the title page of the book are three names, not one, Jerome Agel, Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore. As is common, humans can’t seem to deal with such complexities and in general pare things down with over simplification. Consequently only one of those names gets credit. Maybe he deserves it; maybe the others don’t want it.
For years I wondered what does this cryptic phrase mean? How can a medium, such as TV, or radio, or print, be a message? I couldn’t help but think it’s inane. Finally, I deciphered the message. Or, so I believed. Agel and company don’t mean it literally. What they really mean is, the medium molds the message. By carrying the message, it shapes it, contains it, filters it, modifies it, perhaps even, manipulates it. But, no, a medium is not a message. TV and radio, without modulated content, are snow and static. Newspapers and magazines are paper stained with ink. Painting and sculpture are pigments and pebbles. But who am I to tell them what they mean?
Then, finally, I read the book. It’s. . , interesting.
There are some good reasons it made a splash. Occasionally it hits the mark with surprising precision. “The family circle has widened. . . Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage.” Maybe not remarkable, but true enough. Influences are not limited to one’s parents and immediate acquaintances in the village. High speed communications and travel become media for exchange, learning, influence. Yet, is there an undercurrent of irony? Wisdom is not known to be a common trait.
“Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know.” Quite an insightful statement for the mid-60s, a time before massive data collection by social media, and cameras in our stores and on our streets and in everyone’s pocket.
“When this circuit learns your job, what are you going to do?” is another example of their prognostication. The new medium of electronic computation, still in its infancy at the time, foreshadows the redundancy technology makes of people, even more so, and more completely, than the industrial revolution had. Their crystal ball was clearly working.
“A new form of ‘politics’ is emerging, and in ways we haven’t yet noticed. The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marches, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything.” More irony, or are they predicting the passivity of the mass audience, and the demise of democracy? Or both? Or just letting loose a random stream of unconsciousness?
“In an electronic information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained—ignored. . . Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.” This may be the most profound statement in the entire book, and unfortunately, the end of their wisdom. Yet, in spite of these rich insights, the book is only known for its ridiculous title.
Those few precocious tidbits, signaling the limits of their insight, are but little gems hidden midst a steaming puddle of postmodernist vomit. You can’t imagine my disappointment.
Throughout the book are pronouncements made without substance or support. Reams of disconnected thoughts mingle with simpleminded tautologies, and seasoned with dashes of ad hoc and ad hominem blathering. The claptrap eclipses the brilliance.
Try this for disconnected. “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules [sic], pervasive structures, and overall patterns of environments, or countersituations [sic] made by artists, provide means of direct attention and enable us to see and understand more clearly.” You might object that that quotation has been taken out of context, however, neither the preceding paragraph nor the following would offer any clues to help one’s mind grope through invisible environments of direct attention enabled by counter-situational-artists’ passive structures, the overall patterns of passive wrappings.
“The technology of the railway created the myth of a green pasture world of innocence.” [What? How?] It satisfied man’s desire to withdraw from society, symbolized by the city, to a rural setting where he could recover his animal and natural self. It was the pastoral ideal, a Jeffersonian world, an agrarian democracy which was intended to serve as a guide to social policy. It gave us the darkest suburbia and its lasting symbol: the lawnmower.” The city as symbol for society? The lawnmower as symbol for suburbia? Pastoral ideals existed before the railway. Suburbs may have begun with the railway, but their explosion and darkest expression were made possible by the automobile.
“Electronic circuitry confers a mythic dimension on our ordinary individual and group actions. Our technology forces us to live mythically, but we continue to think fragmentarily, and on single, separate planes.” I must agree. The authors’ thinking is fragmented. Whether they are living mythically is another question. How circuits bestow a dimension of any kind is never explained.
It becomes evident that their use of the word medium is in its broadest definition, not just its specific meaning of information transfer. Electronics, railways, airplanes, telescopes, scientific instruments, anything used for extending the senses, any means or vehicle of human exchange is a medium. But it also becomes evident that their use of the word message is stretched beyond comprehension.
They even venture into a definition of art. They hit the soul of postmodernism with it. “Art is anything you can get away with” [sic] After that turd, is the following, quoted, without citation or support, apocryphal Balinese thought about art. “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.” Out of context its implications are headache provoking. I had to investigate this. Attempting to find the source of the “quote” partially raises the fog. I found this, “When an explorer from the ‘civilized world’ asked the Balinese to show him their art, they were puzzled. The explorer tried to explain what art is to the very capable but rather uncomfortable interpreter who insisted, however, that in Bali they had no word for ‘art.’ Finally, the explorer clarified, ‘Art is what you do best.’ [Ask that the next time you go into an art gallery.] To which the Balinese man answered, ‘Then everything we do is art, since we always do our best.'” Are either true or accurate quotes of an actual conversation? Can the response of one Balinese represent all Balinese? Is this mythic?
Despite the grotesque idiocies of the book, I am perversely intrigued by it. I’m drawn by a love-hate fascination with its hints of brilliance and its heaps of bullocks. I’m tempted to buy a copy for myself—on second thought—I should copy it. “Xerography—every man’s brain-picker—heralds the times of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply Xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one—instant steal!” Instant guano. (I decided not to bother scanning any of it.)
“The invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. . .The rising consumer-oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy.” Consumer culture became concerned with piracy? This raises the issue of the ethics of ownership—Can ideas or knowledge be owned? Is knowledge a right? It also insinuates the source of celebrity and fame. If one claims the “rights” to thoughts, no matter how many others have had the same ones, he/she can take the fame, and own the “authorship” of them. And with billions of people in the world, we have a super abundance of thoughts, ideas, talent, and genius. It’s not out of scarcity that fame and greatness arises, rather, it’s paradoxically out of the superfluousness of it. For some inexplicable reason, the masses give up their rights and mound what belongs to many on a select few who, easy to remember through super-repetition, stumble into the media’s clutches and get ladened with concentrated fame. Media feed on the flames of fame, create it out of nothingness, promote it, honor it, and insist on its survival no matter how inequitable, unearned, or unjust. Twisted as it appears, because there is no scarcity of talent, the media artificially manufacture fame and exaggerate its specialty to create value, not for the objects of their attention, but for the media’s own inequitable, unearned, and unjust gain.
“Real, total war has become information war. It is being fought by subtle electric informational media—under cold conditions, and constantly. The cold war is the real war front—a surround—involving everybody—all the time—everywhere. Whenever hot wars are necessary these days, we conduct them in the backyards of the world with old technologies. These wars are happenings, tragic games. It is no longer convenient, or suitable, to use the latest technologies for fighting our wars, because the latest technologies have rendered war meaningless. The hydrogen bomb is history’s exclamation point. It ends an age-long sentence of manifest violence!”
It’s said to be an “important” mid-century milestone. After reading the book, it’s makes manifest that any value within its cover boards has been manufactured by the same media factory that contrives other familiar faux-fame. The gems hidden in the pictures are accidental. The end medium is, “anything you can get away with”
The Medium is the Message, Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, co-ordinated by Jerome Agel, Random House, 1967