The Message of “The Medium is The Message”
“So an attitude is caused when we think about something the same way over and over until it becomes automatic. The resulting actions in response to the thought also become automatic. Change the habit of thought and you change the attitude. Change the attitude and you change the resulting action.”
“The Medium is The Message” is the phrase that made Marshall McLuhan famous. It is a phrase most of us, young and old, have heard. Until a few weeks ago it was a phrase that confounded me.
Let’s get very fundamental here and go back to the invention of the alphabet to understand what McLuhan is talking about and why it is important.
“The Greek myth about the alphabet was that Cadmus, reputedly the king who introduced the phonetic letters into Greece, sowed dragoon’s teeth, and they sprang up armed men. Like any other myth, this one capsulates a prolonged process into a flashing insight. The alphabet meant power and authority and control of military structures at a distance. When combined with papyrus, the alphabet spelled the end of the stationary temple bureaucracies and the priestly monopolies of knowledge and power.”
“The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology…This stark division and parallelism between a visual and an auditory world was both crude and ruthless, culturally speaking. The phonetically written sacrifices worlds of meaning and perception that were secured by forms like the hieroglyphs and the Chinese ideogram. These culturally richer forms of writing, however, offered men no means of sudden transfer from the magically discontinuous and traditional world of the tribal word into the cool and uniform visual medium.”
“All of these forms [pictographic and hieroglyphic] give pictorial expression to oral meanings. As such, they approximate the animated cartoon and are extremely unwieldy, requiring many signs for the infinity of data operations of social action. In contrast, the phonetic alphabet, by a few letters only, was able to encompass all languages.”
Consider the invention of the printing press and the introduction of books to the society. A book communicates a message. Many books communicate many messages. ‘The book’ communicates the same message to everyone who comes into contact with a book. The book transmits the same message to everyone while many books transmit many different messages to many different people.
Evolution moves very slowly. We adapt to our environment very slowly. We survive because we do adapt. When we change more quickly than we can adapt we face problems that we have not had the time to make the kind of adjustments necessary.
The habits we acquire determine our state of mind. Our changing habits are part of this process of adaptation to our environment. Do not think of environment, as being just the quality of our air or water but it is a broad term signifying the world we live in.
The point to be recognized is--the medium is what is important and not the content being carried by the medium. The medium is form and its ubiquity (presence everywhere) changes us dramatically. The change is sudden and how we respond to the new medium changes us to the core. Since we do not consider anything but that the new technology can be accomplished and will serve some desirable purpose we are constantly setting ourselves up for unknown problems.
The quotes are from “Understanding the Media” by Marshall MaLuhan.