Basic Instincts: The Medium Is Not The Message

By J. Michael Willard

One should never dispute the philosophy of one so thoroughly respected as to have his name synonymous with communication foresight. But I will.

Marshall McLuhan was full of crap.

I realize that is a bodacious comment coming from someone who can count the revenue generated by his fiction and non-fiction in coins that would fit easily into a purse for parking meter change.

It is not that I think McLuhan was a phony. He was merely misinformed, or perhaps he didn’t tap into the common sense aspect of his hosanna chorus: “The Medium is the Message”.

If that were true, and if you were reading this — which you obviously are — you might suggest that I was wrong, and the evidence for this is the sheer bulk of serious papers on the topic.

But you would also have to consider that the medium, especially in this case being a computer, would be the primary driver of thought for whatever words i commit to electronic paper.

Really now, a piece of metal, circuitry, chips and plastic is the message? Perhaps it is the internet transom over which these words fly to other devices?

I think not, no more so than suggesting the message is in the cord stuck in a socket that charges the computer.

In short, McLuhan suggested the medium embeds itself in any message it communicates, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

If you understand that, I will next ask you the square root of some astronomical number having to do with the miles Superman’s birth planet Krypton is from the minor planet Ultima Thule.

Let’s face it McLuhan devotees: in essence, a light bulb switched on is a medium, influencing whether a room is light or dark. I get that. I merely question the significance in a multi-media world.

It has generally been thought that McLuhan was referring to television. Since he was writing in the turbulent 60s, such a conclusion — at first glance — might have appeared obvious.

TV definitely had a massive impact — on the Vietnam war, on Presidential elections and on civil rights. Given the upheavals, this made sense in McLuhan’s book “Understanding Media”.

However, neither the various media nor the messages are frozen in time. They change at warp speed, as one would expect they would and should. It is a fast moving planet we landed on.

Who a decade ago would have envisioned a reality show character as President? Who before February 2004 (when Facebook was launched) thought about social media. Today, even the comic strip Dick Tracy and his once-futuristic wrist phone/watch are passe’.

These communications innovations are, were and will always be — just as was Gutenberg’s printing press — transitional, creative, and money/time saving vehicles that reproduced ideas in message or visual form.

They were not messages, not by a country mile. Then, what pray tell is the message? Well, it’s a little like a Yogi Berra-ism.

The message is the message, and it always will be the Alpha, the Omega and the North Star. The message is that which is contained in a unique, interesting and newsworthy (to someone) thought.

This is a concept we strive nearly daily to kindly suggest to clients — even highflying Fortune 500 ones — who insist on banal platitudes or government gobbledegook as key messages.

For example, we might be told by an executive of a pharmaceutical company: “Make sure you always put ‘The patient is always in our hearts’” in the news release about a new product.

Okay, but…

Notwithstanding the news release itself is somewhat of a relic, the above is a trite positioning statement — not a message. It doesn’t shout news, and neither does it really support other messages. It is as etherial, sort of fried air.

Discovering messages is like finding a shiny diamond on a beach of gray pebbles. Often, you have to dig deep. On occasion, it jumps out at you like neon on a honky-tonk.

But, on reflection, I have been too harsh on Mr. McLuhan and unfair.

He still reigns as a bright light to my fading bulb, though he died nearly 40 years ago. He coined the term “global village” and, in essence, predicted the worldwide web.

He was spot on there, and his writings do crank up the cranium.

However, if Mr. McLuhan were around to revisit his signature theory in the 21st Century, I feel confident he would shout: “For gosh sakes, ‘The message is the message’.”

Willard Self-Portrait



I am a novelist but my day job is utilizing my years as a business consultant, journalist, and public service in the field of international development.

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J. Michael Willard

I am a novelist but my day job is utilizing my years as a business consultant, journalist, and public service in the field of international development.