“The Medium is the Message,” What Does That Mean?

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When humans developed writing, our ideas and our stories became more complex. With writing came the ability to formulate arguments. That led to the development of liberal arts, complex mathematics, philosophy…we could fill an encyclopedia with the various fields that developed from our ability to write.

Before writing, humans communicated primarily with speech. Because of our communications being mediated by speech rather than writing, we experienced a different reality. That is what media theorist, Marshal McLuhan, was writing about when he proposed that the medium is the message.

The medium (speech, writing, music, video, etc) is as important as the messages that we communicate with that medium. The medium is just as important because it shapes the message like a funnel shapes the liquid that passes through it.

Let’s say we need to measure the distance from the west coast of the United States of America to the east coast. But the only technology we have is a twelve inch ruler.

We could spend a few years, maybe more, measuring the United States foot by foot. If we are careful, we could get a fairly accurate measurement.

But who is going to take the time to do that? Instead, our lives would be shaped by the fact that we do not know the actual length of the United States. Land ownership would be very different. Boundaries would be vague at best. Especially when dealing with large areas like counties and states.

Life would be vastly different for the simple reason that we didn’t have a way to efficiently map out the land.

On the other hand, life would be different if we could only measure vast areas. And life is different still (not necessarily better or worse, just different) because we do have means of measuring long and short distances.

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Signs are a great technology for communicating restaurant menus, but a terrible technology for political discourse.

Each technology we adopt affects the messages we communicate. Each technology we adopt changes our reality. There are pros and cons to each technology, but they do not always balance evenly. Sometimes the pros outweigh the cons, sometimes the cons outweigh the pros. That is what Marshal McLuhan wanted us to consider when he proposed that the medium is the message.

In these times, it may be wise to consider how texting changes what we say, how reading blog posts versus reading books changes our thoughts, and whether or not new conveniences are actually improving our lives.

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