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Massaging the Medium

Thanks to Peter Lindberg, for pointing me and others to a couple of Marshall McLuhan articles. But before I talk about those, here’s an overview of Marshall McLuhan from the Wikipedia:

“Famous for coining the phrases “The medium is the message” and “the global village,” McLuhan was one of the early purveyors of the sound bite. He asserted that each different medium affects the individual and society in distinct and pervasive ways, further classifying some media as “hot” – media which engaged one’s senses in a high intensity, exclusive way, such as typography, radio, and film – and “cool” – media which were of lower resolution or intensity, and therefore required more interaction from the viewer, such as the telephone and the television. While many of his pronouncements and theories have been considered impenetrable, and by some absurd, McLuhan’s central message that to understand today’s world, one must actively study the effects of media, remains ever more true in the electronic age.”

In the first article Peter linked to, Melanie Goux discovers why Marshall McLuhan’s book was entitled The Medium is the Massage (rather than Message):

“Actually, the title was a mistake. When the book came back from the typesetter, it had on the cover “Massage” as it still does. The title should have read “The Medium is the Message” but the typesetter had made an error. When Marshall McLuhan saw the typo he exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”

The second article was a McLuhan interview from 1969 by Playboy Magazine, which sheds some light onto why McLuhan was so receptive to the above typo. McLuhan mentions the message/massage thing here:

“…because of their pervasive effects on man, it is the medium itself that is the message, not the content, and unaware that the medium is also the massage — that, all puns aside, it literally works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio.”

If it’s true that the title was a mistake, then Marshall McLuhan proved he was adept at running with the mistake and massaging it into a new idea. He could pick up words, load them into his ‘ideas gun’ and blow peoples minds. Further, the memes ricocheted into the lexicon of society.

McLuhan himself describes his thought processes like this:

“I’m making explorations. I don’t know where they’re going to take me. My work is designed for the pragmatic purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences. But my books constitute the process rather than the completed product of discovery; my purpose is to employ facts as tentative probes, as means of insight, of pattern recognition, rather than to use them in the traditional and sterile sense of classified data, categories, containers. I want to map new terrain rather than chart old landmarks.”

This ‘mapping of new terrain’ is exactly what we’re doing in the 21st Century with the Web. Whatever your interests, you can find and explore them on the Web. It literally is a Web of Ideas, which we’re creating as we go. This reminds me of David Weinberger’s book Small Pieces Loosely Joined, which I’ve just finished reading. Here is one nice quote from that book (pg 55):

“The Web place is defined by interest the way the real world is defined by the accidents of geography. Interest on the Web is, like the Web space itself, explosive, out-bound, digressive. The Web space is the opposite of a container.”

It’s a shame McLuhan wasn’t around to see the World Wide Web – I wonder what such an original and probing mind would have made of it?

Not all of McLuhan’s ideas have proven prescient and he is very hard to read sometimes. I remember trying to read The Medium is the Massage when I was at Varsity in the early 90’s. I don’t think I finished it then, so I must pick it up again. Not so much for the specifics of his ideas, for they are hit and miss. For example, McLuhan gave great wraps to television as an interactive “cool” medium:

“We could program five hours less of TV in Italy to promote the reading of newspapers during an election, or lay on an additional 25 hours of TV in Venezuela to cool down the tribal temperature raised by radio the preceding month. By such orchestrated interplay of all media, whole cultures could now be programed in order to improve and stabilize their emotional climate, just as we are beginning to learn how to maintain equilibrium among the world’s competing economies.”

Of course history had other ideas – television turned out to be a passive one-way entertainment form. Or maybe it did control our emotions like McLuhan predicted, only not in a good way. But either way, it’s not McLuhan’s specific predictions that will endure. It’s his observations about technology being an extension of our bodies that will continue to inspire us. McLuhan died a decade before the birth of the Web in the early 90’s, and more than 20 years before the two-way Web emerged in the early 21st century. But his spirit guides us as we, his technological children, explore this exciting new world…

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