Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Marshall McLuhan's (one) Big Idea


Marshal McLuhan (1911-1980) is, I think it fair to say, a once mega-famous but now almost-forgotten 1960s intellectual - the first major analyst of 'the media'.

If you want to know about him, I would recommend a 1968 Penguin anthology called McLuhan: Hot & Cool edited by GE Stearn. This was published at the height of McLuhan mania, when it still seemed possible that he was a 'genius' thinker of the stature of Marx, Weber and Freud (Marx? Freud? - Who they?...)

Yet there were also other voices pointing out that, by ordinary empirical standards of validity, most of what McLuhan said - on a sentence by sentence basis - was just plain wrong!


My evaluation (having read a lot of and about McL on-and-off for more than twenty years) is that he was indeed more wrong than right, and certainly was not a genius (even before his creativity was obliterated by major brain surgery); but he had One Big Idea that was both new and true.

That was the idea encapsulated in his slogan The medium is the message - and it is the insight that the social importance of communications media (such as the lecture, the handwritten book, the printed book, the telegraph, telephone, television, internet) is not exhausted by their content.

The form and nature and properties of the medium is also very important; and perhaps more important than the specific content of the medium, since content may cancel-out in its effects, and also because communicable content is significantly constrained by the medium.

So that, over the long term, the societal importance of the printed book, the telephone or television may have more to do with the special qualities of that medium of communication than with what people write, say or watch.


(Because I think this insight is correct, I am recurrently troubled about the effect of blogging; and engage in a probably futile fight against the nature of the medium by such negative self-limitations as not indexing my posts, not having a blogroll and - nearly always - not cross linking with the day's news and the current blogosphere. By such frictions I hope, somehow, to retain the reader's awareness of the medium, and his alertness to its distortions - not take it for granted.) 


McLuhan's One Big Idea seems to me to be both valid and sufficiently counter-intuitive to count as a very significant intellectual contribution.

And for this, if for not much else, McLuhan certainly deserves to be remembered.



  1. The "not indexing my posts, not having a blogroll and - nearly always - not cross linking with the day's news and the current blogosphere" is actually a part (although only a small part) of what I like about your blog.

  2. Almost-forgotten?? Oh, not in Canada, my friend! I daresay every Canadian under the age of 40 has heard the name:

  3. This is a really interesting article and here's something it makes me consider. If the medium is so influential that would explain why certain ideas did not propagate prior to modernity.

    Perhaps notions such as political correctness cannot survive without a medium where the message can be delivered in a non-pragmatic way. The notion of political correctness is detached from pragmatism and subsequently could not survive without a medium capable of reality-detachment.

    I think one of the most influential technologies in that regard is the television. With the ability to edit recordings combined with powerful images one is capable of subverting pragmatism and instead propagating idealism.

    Thinking on this now this is exactly why the mass media is so important (as you have outlined before). The mass media effectively controls modern mediums of communication allowing them the choice of whatever medium fits the current cultural current.

  4. @TR - Pleased to hear this!

    @SJ - Famous for being Canadian perhaps? But not famous like Freud or Marx, as predicted c1967.

    @AN - There's something in that - or, at least, these developments make it much easier for more people to become idealists.

    The process can be seen among the elite with the early novel and things like The Spectator magazine of Addison and Steele.

    When the mass media reaches its current scale, it commands the attention of most people most of the time, evokes strong emotions and provokes engagement with media narratives - and it thereby displaces all other potential modes of public discourse (such as local communities, face to face and small group meetings etc).

  5. Bit of an inside joke for other Canadian readers, I would say; I don't expect you furriners to get it. :p

  6. McLuhan was not the first major analyst of the media. As a proud Canadian, I have to say that is mostly Harold Innis, whom McLuhan popularized, who had the greatest insights into this new area.'s_communications_theories

    The key books are Empire and Communications, and The Bias of Communication.

  7. Innis was also a part of the old Tory tradition in Canada.

  8. @Th - But did Innes pre-describe the Big Idea?

  9. My car radio stopped working for about a month (I didn't have the security code), and I stopped listening to NPR. Instead I decided to spend my drive time in prayer and reflection.

    My wife insisted on getting the code from Honda for her use, but I haven't turned the radio back on since it's been fixed.

    Life is so much more peaceful when you stop putting that kind of baleful influence into your mind. . .

  10. Interestingly, mentioning McLuhan and Marx in the same sentence makes some degree of sense, even if the degree of impact and fame each thinker had in the end differs wildly. There is a similarity in their basic approach.

    McLuhan (if I understand correctly) takes the media and examines its effects as a function of the structure of the medium, as opposed to individual human decisions as to what to attempt to say with it. This yields interesting analysis, but obviously it can't do much to prescribe what individuals should and shouldn't do if they're involved in mass media.

    Marx (if I am summarizing correctly) took society and analyzed its behaviour as a function of its class structure, as opposed to individual human decisions. This yields interesting analysis (again), but (again) is even less prescriptive in suggesting individual action, since it assumes that individual human action is irrelevant.

    This sort of analysis, if proclaimed as the primary lens for viewing something, is probably a form of fatalism, neglecting human responsibility to focus on conflicts being fought on the level of principalities.

    Obviously, then the interesting question is how the Marxist analysis was squared with the practical question of how individuals or small groups should behave. I am not well versed in how Marxism prescribes political action, but given that the practical upshot consisted of things like Bolshevism and Maoism, I cannot imagine the doctrines were very good.

  11. @A - Interesting comparison. McL's analysis suggests that in order to remove the effect of a medium, you need to remove the medium (or reduce it to an insignificant minimum) - which is probably true.

    If Engel is considered as the co-author of Marxism, then there is a sense in which his (essentially accurate) characterization of 'primitive communism' among hunter gatherers was the correct answer to class conflict - i.e. to remove the inequalities of class, you must have the kind of society which does not have class.

    The idea, theory, notion, hypothesis that complex sedentary societies could me made classless by increasing their complexity until they somehow retained the advantages of division of labour, but without the apparatus of the state... (which has 'withered away' - Hah!) or whatever... well, that certainly turned out to be false.

    But a return to simple hunter gatherer life would certainly solve the inequality problem, if that happens to be someone's over-riding priority.

  12. From Wikipedia:

    ". . . Innis's concept of the "bias" of a particular medium of communication can be seen as a "less flamboyant precursor to McLuhan's legendary phrase 'the medium is the message.'"

  13. @Th - doesn't sound like the same thing. Perhaps I'll have to read Innis to find out.