McLuhan, Medium and Message

A tweet from Kester Brewin got me thinking about Marshal McLuhan – then I started but didn’t finish this post.

I think McLuhan is countering the assumption that we have that our communications are mere data, sent and received without any noise or corruption. That much is patently false, even without his analysis of media. Misunderstandings are a familiar part of life – I say one thing but you hear something else entirely. Communication is experienced, not simply received. The old chestnut of a tree falling in a forest with no one to hear it starts to have some relevance here; if you attempt to communicate with no audience then what have you done?

What McLuhan adds to this is that the medium of communication shapes the experience of the audience. To say that the message is overwhelmed by the medium is to misunderstand what he is saying though – possibly because we don’t use the words as I think he intends.

The message is not raw data, the platonic form of the communication, but the experienced end result where the intended idea of the communicator and the unconscious modifier of the medium are indistinguishable.

The medium is not a simple one word descriptor of how the message is accessed – TV, blog, phone call, letter – but a complex combination of all the ways that it has been put together. Take a letter for example – one from your bank in foreboding serifs is very different to luxuriant fountain pen cursive. Even TV, the medium we all love yet also love to hate. There are so many media hidden within, subgenres of show where a little tweak in format changes the medium completely. Why is The Voice a totally different should to The X Factor? Not the content or the script – celebrity judges, aspirational contestants with a story and a song, supportive hosts and a prize to aspire to. It’s the medium, the tone, the way the competition is framed and the subtle ways that the contestants are used.

As I sat in church during communion, I was wondering what the message was, what it was I was experiencing. Each church does it differently, each Sunday is a different moment and a different experience. Is it a mystery to be initiated into, a family welcoming you with grace, a reminder of gruesome sacrifice, a warning of judgement, a confirmation of commitment, a show of solidarity or something else? Yes, of course, and far more! The material content and often the actual script is the same but the message varies by the way it is experienced.

The message is both text and subtext; the message is what is experienced – not merely received as if it were a passive thing, or even perceived as if it were dispassionate. We experience it whether we want to or not – and as Kester has also pointed out, sometimes it is only when we move to a new medium that we realise we miss something about the old one. Ebooks and the feel and smell of a ‘real’ book, mp3 or vinyl, 48 fps cinema or 24 – we don’t always know what we’ll miss until it’s not there for us.

McLuhan is right if he’s saying that the message is indistinguishable from the medium as all we have is experience of the two together. I don’t pretend that there is no idea in the mind of the author that is independent of the way it is communicated but I do doubt that it is realistic for us to divide the two – like body and mind, the only certain conclusion of dividing them is that the joy of both will be killed.