“The medium is the message.”
Or so goes the famous saying from media scholar Marshall McLuhan, widely regarded as the father of media studies and one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. McLuhan was famous for quips like these, often misunderstood as they were. “The medium is the message” means we can glean more from the effects of a new medium on society — say, television — than we can from the messages distributed via that medium.
McLuhan defined “mediums” as “extensions of man,” and he considered everything from the television to the light bulb to be mediums. He also believed these media had clear effects that were ignored in favor of the medium’s content.¹ For example, people were far more aware of the messages on television — commercials, shows, etc. — than they were of the effects television was having on both them and society. The same would hold true for something as simple as a water bottle. Most people would focus on the contents of the bottle as opposed to the effect that being able to carry water around with you at all times would have on society, even though the latter is far more profound than the former.
Cell phones are another example. It goes without saying that in spite of laws prohibiting texting while driving, countless people do so every day, sending everything from greetings to gossip. That people are killed by texting and driving, however, has nothing to do with the content of the messages being sent and everything to do with the medium being used to send them — mobile phones — without which texting and driving would not exist.