Philosophy & Society: The Medium is the Message by Marshall McLuhan
In The Medium is the Message, McLuhan subverts the common assumption within art that the message exists, and is then channeled through the medium. Using the analogy of a light bulb, it cannot spell out any message except for itself (on its own). No matter what our human usage is, we cannot
transfer meaning through it directly. Its message is depicted through its function and form. The light bulb alone has no ‘content’ until used to convey something. It therefore is entwined with the message is communicates. The material and physical aspect of communicating a message means the
medium and the message cannot be separate.
Furthermore, McLuhan rejects any ideas that technology is passive in human usage. Technology will always have a function. A gun is not amoral, simply because it takes human interaction to be used. Technology is an extension of us, it can be scrutinized for its intended function. A message is intrinsic to its medium due to its spatio-temporal nature. Films take linear sequences and re-arrange them to ‘creative configuration’. It takes fragmented moments in time, to build a larger moment in time. The content of any medium is always another medium. Film is an arrangement of a variety of media, speech, music etc. Media is thus a process of rearrangement. He uses Cubism as an example of this argument and sees it as a disruption of linear representation. Picasso and Braque represented an object with reconfigured special rules: the top became the bottom, left became the right. In Cubism, the elements remain, but their arrangement is fragmented. It is no longer linear perspective but “instant sensory awareness of the whole” that is conveyed by the medium. This is McLuhan’s way of translating the idea that a medium necessarily influences the perception of any message, and with Cubism the content of the message cannot be apprehended by itself, the work of art has to be taken into account as a whole.
McLuhan defines two ends of a scale as ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ media, ranging from high definition (high information content) to low. However, this is constantly shifting. A cold medium like the written word expands into a hot one: typography, in which more information could be communicated with the reconfiguration of symbols and phonetics. Furthermore, hot media breaks hierarchical systems and communicates a new depth of intensity.
An increasing move towards the instantaneous disregards the need for fragmented media McLuhan explains that the ‘electric is total and inclusive’. The author predicts an increasing lack of distinction between man, medium and message. The instant nature of the world redefines the human as a producer and receiver of information. Mediums have become an extension of our senses, and according to McLuhan the next step is to follow the channel of our senses and for our consciousness to become a medium, extending into human society beyond our own bodies.
The instantaneous nature of technology to McLuhan is of prime significance as it will allow collective understanding of any message by the whole of society. Technology abolishes spatio-temporal boundaries between humans, our “nerves and senses” being incorporated into new media themselves. This concept is similar to trans-humanism and post-humanism, which consider ‘singularity’ as a moment in time when technology surpasses human consciousness and cognitive capabilities. Trans-humanists therefore see technology as the next unavoidable step towards evolution. This is what
McLuhan echoes when he talks about “extended nervous systems”.