Media are Messages

I kind of struggled with this one. McLuhan made a number of logical and rhetorical leaps that I found distracting. There were a number of abstract thoughts like “nothing follows from following except change.” You could put that in an inspirational calendar, and I could stare at it for a month and come to an interpretation of it, but for now, I am just baffled.

Another example (on page 205 in the New Media Reader), “Before the electric speed and the total field, it was not obvious that the medium is the message. The message it seemed was the “content,” as people used to ask what a painting was about. Yet they never thought to ask what a melody was about, nor what a house or a dress was about. In such matters, people retained some sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity.”

First of all, I doubt that this is actually true, because I think people have asked and do ask what melodies, houses, and dresses are about, particularly in the fields of musicology, architecture, and fashion design, respectively. In music, the concept of “word painting” has existed for well over a thousand years. Just as importantly, paintings were, for millennia, predominantly representative art and they usually conveyed a narrative Venus and Mars---love conquers war with an attribute that carried “aboutness.” With a few cultural exceptions, non-representative art has only been a standard in western art for less than a century. In non-western traditions, arabesque designarabesque may have carried meaning, but we can’t know if it did, or what it was.

Aside from that, the whole idea of meaning is totally subjective. To say that the medium is the message might suggest that meaning is static and singular.
What is the meaning of Schrodinger’s cat?
The medium carries multiple messages.
schrodinger's cat

Along with the medium carrying multiple possible messages, I would also include the notion that noise is part of the message as well.
The theoretical basis for this comes from the Shannon-Hartley theorem, but a practical example can be found in a simple game of Telephone.

But perhaps that’s what McLuhan meant, also on page 205, “Is that not what has happened in physics as in painting, poetry, and in communication? Specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field, and we can now say” that the medium is the message.


Tony’s post on last week’s seminar extended the computer/pizza metaphor prompt to the theremin, and while he was quite right to reference Good Vibrations, I think it is important to also include the theme from Star Trek, and the They Might Be Giants song Spacesuit. The theremin is an excellent example of technology responding to indirect manipulation as though it were direct manipulation.