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Medium is the Massage +

The Massage Continues: 
A Review of The Medium is the Massage
and Other McLuhanisms
McLuhan’s Message Massaged...into a Summary

In The Media is the Massage, first published in 1967, Marshall McLuhan condenses his provocative ideas from Understanding Media and merges them with supporting visual arguments. In McLuhan’s view, the media used to communicate a message is more significant than the message itself. The media profoundly shape how we perceive the message, how we think about and structure the world, how we function as a society, and how we operate as a culture. Next to this influence, the message itself is irrelevant.
In McLuhan’s own words:
All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. An understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical. (26; emphasis added)
To understand the human cognition, psychology, society, and culture of an era, we must examine the predominate media of that era. McLuhan’s ideas provide a foundation for studyingboth old and new media.


McLuhan’s Key Concepts: The Logic and Effects of Massaging Media

McLuhan provides the following logic for his claims:Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change” (41).
The invention of alphabetic writing, for example, extended our visual sense and thereby conditioned us to perceive rationality and logic as “connected and sequential facts of concepts” (44-45). Moreover, printing enabled the mass production of books, which enabled masses of people to consume ideas in isolation. The “private, fixed point of view became possible” (50; emphasis added).

Conversely, electric/new media involves us in others’ lives all the time, making privacy and detachment impossible (53). Also unlike print, “in all electric phenomena, the visual is only one component of a complex interplay” (125). New Media extends multiple senses. Consequently, new media is changing Western culture and its constituent individuals: “The contained, the distinct, the separate – our Western legacy – are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fused” (145).

Marshal McLuhan ca. 1973, taken by Robert Lansdale. Posted under CC license on the online edition of the International Journal of McLuhan Studies, Feb. 7, 2012.
The Media is the Massage inventories several specific effects of new media:
1. New media affects you and your role in society: “How shall the new environment be programmed now that we have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting work force of social change?” (12; emphasis added).

2. New media affects the family unit: “The worldpool of information fathered by electric media … far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage” (14; emphasis added).

3. New media affects the community: “Electric circuitry [New Media] ... pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men” (16; emphasis added).
4. New media affects education:“Today’s child … lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up” (18). Neither society nor the educational environment encourages maturation.
5. New media affects work: “the fragmented job patterns tend to blend once more into involving and demanding roles that more and more resemble teaching, learning” (20; emphasis added).
6. New media affects political participation: “the mass audience ... can be used as a creative, participating force” (22; emphasis added).
7. New media affects "the others": “minority groups can no longer be contained – ignored. … We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other” (24; emphasis added).

McLuhan’s Definition of Media

Marshall McLuhan ca. 1936. Posted on Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain by Library and Archives Canada.
McLuhan never defines “media," yet he clearly interprets it as a process for communicating a message. He claims the “medium, or process of our time -- electric technology - is reshaping and restructing patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life" (8). Obviously, only communication technology can simultaneously impact the patterns of our social and personal lives. Then he analyzes the effects of writing, printing, art, television, and movies. These media, or genres, share one commonality: the communication of messages.
Arguably, his central claim that The Media is the Massage gives the field of new media its theoretical impetus and rationale. If media reshape and restructure “patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life” (8), then they are necessarily a vital field with many distinct yet interrelated areas of inquiry. Indeed, one must study new media, preferably from an “anti-social” standpoint, in order to exert any self-control or power within our heavily mediated environment (79). His ideas also provide a loose analytical framework; the various effects he identifies and describes can serve as focal / starting points for contemporary scholars of new media. As reviewer Megan Mullen puts it, “McLuhan's work has called our attention to the ways in which we both produce and are produced by our interactions with technology” (375).

McLuhan’s Reception and Engagement by New Media Scholars

As early as 1969, there were multiple books and anthologies about McLuhan (McLuhan Hot and Cold, McLuhan Pro and Con, and Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan) (see Sparshott). Two more anthologies on McLuhan emerged in 1989 (The Man and his Message and The Medium and the Messenger). In a 1991 review of these works, James Curtis writes, “we can appreciate these books about a key figure in the theory of technology whose provocative work continues to raise important issues a decade after his death” (1143). Yet another anthology (The Legacy of McLuhan) came out in 2005, a testament to McLuhan’s “remarkably enduring” ideas (Mullen 380; emphasis added). 

McLuhan’s place in New Media studies is firmly cemented. Gane and Beer credit him with anticipating certain forms, qualities, and effects of new media, and they apply his ideas in one way or another to each of their “key concepts” (network, information, interface, interactivity, archive, and simulation). As media professor Megan Mullen writes in her 2006 reflection on Understanding Media, “it is hard to think about the field of academic endeavor known as media studies without a nod to McLuhan” (373).

McLuhan’s Usefulness for Producing New Media

By emphasizing media’s influence on our perception and understanding of information, McLuhan focuses our attention on the rhetorical canon of delivery. The medium, or delivery, of a message determines whether that message can be perceived at all, let alone understood.

Image taken from The Medium is the Massage
In this image, McLuhan demonstrates our conditioning by print media (53-4). We can’t easily read the unfamiliar media of these reversed letters. The cognitive struggle of reading this passage (I can’t read it, period) vividly illustrates the importance – and neural massage – of media/delivery. When we are aware of the various interrelated effects of new media, we can better adapt our construction and use of media to deliver our messages.
A website that presents information in neat columns of tidy text-boxes has very different effects on its viewers than a website with information strewn across a depiction of an actual desktop. In the iGoogle interface, for instance, the various "gadgets" reside in clealry defined text-boxes and in vertical columns (or horizontal rows depending on how one looks at it). This layout promotes a linear perspective on information, reinforcing the print-conditioned preference for "connected and sequential facts or concepts" (44-5). It is designed for the fast, efficient location of information. In contrast, Microsoft's OneNote website presents the desktop metaphor literally and with liberal clutter. Its non-linear organization encourages viewers to explore the information on the site in no particular order, thus pulling them into taking in all of the available information rather than quickly locating what they want and proceeding to something else.
A Linear "Massage"         

Screenshot of my iGoogle homepage

A Non-Linear "Massage"

Screenshot of Microsoft's OneNote Website