The Medium is the Message

Who is Marshall McLuhan?
Marshall McLuhan was born in Canada on July 21st 1911. He was a student first at the University of Manitoba, and then at Cambridge University. Initially, he earned a B.A. (1932) and M.A. (1934) at Manitoba, before proceeding to complete a B.A. (1936), M.A.(1939), and Ph.D (1942) at Cambridge. He went on to become a professor of English.

The move towards media analysis came when he was teaching at the University of Wisconsin between 1936 and 1937. Whilst the students there were only 5 to 8 years younger than him, he felt massively removed from them. He suspected that this was the result of the differing teaching methods of the two times. However, not content with this as a simple answer, He set out to investigate the issue. He published “Understanding Media” in 1964.

The publication of “Understanding Media” catapulted McLuhan to fame. He was invited to speak at innumerable different conventions, for innumerable different companies; and received many honorary degrees during his life. McLuhan co-edited a magazine called ‘Explorations’ in the nineteen fifties; became president of the University of Toronto, and created the Centre of Culture and Technology to study the social impact of media. He died on December 31st 1980.

Defining “The Medium is the Message”
The purpose of this post is to define the so-called McLuhan equotation: “The Medium is the Message”. McLuhan introduces this phrase in the first paragraph of “Understanding Media”, saying:

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”

In order to define “The Medium is the Message”, we will start with what McLuhan meant by the terms “Medium” and “Message”.

Defining “Medium”
He defines the medium as:

“any extension of ourselves”

This could be any form of technology, or art, or writing that expands our scope of action, like wheels are an extension of our feet, and a hammer is an extension of our hands and arms. It allows us to do something that our bodies could not do ordinarily. In an essay by Mark Federman, Federman states that:

“…a medium -this extension of our body or senses or mind – is anything from which change emerges.”

Defining “Message”
Most of us would consider the information inside a medium to be the message. However, McLuhan defines the message using:

“…the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns…”

He defines the message of any medium or technology as:

“the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”

The Difference Between “Message” and “Content”
It is important to note that the message is not the same as the content. In his book “Understanding Media”, McLuhan says:

“The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium.”

What he means, is that the railway (medium) had the same effect on human society (message), regardless of the function (content) of the railway. So, in this context, the actual content of the medium is completely independent to the message.

So, what does it mean?
So, using these definitions and pieces of information, we can define “The Medium is the Message” as: The medium is the item or technology that incites a change in the psychic and social conscience, and the message is the measurable impact (intended and otherwise) of that Medium.

The Estate of Corinne and Marshall McLuhan (2015) Who is Marshall McLuhan [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 5th October 2015]

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media [Online] California. GINGKO PRESS inc. Available from: [Accessed: 5th October 2015]

Federman, M. (2004) What is the meaning of The Medium is the Message? [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 5th October 2015]


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