The Medium is the Message

The Medium is the Message: Part 1

A story comes to us from the old Soviet Union.

Those where the days when productivity was low and the ruble was worthless- which gave rise to the saying, “Ve pretend to vork and zhey pretend to pay us.”

So here is the story: At the gate to a construction site, workers are inspected for items of value they might be removing.  One man comes out each night with a wheelbarrow full of dirt, and each night the dirt is carefully sifted for pilferage: nothing.


The guard is certain something is getting stolen. He demands,“ I know you are stealing somesing. I von’t arrest you if you tell me vot you are smuggling.” The worker admitted,“Veelbarrows comrade, Ve are stealing veelbarrows.”

I love this story because it reminds me of one of the most important truths about communication: The means by which something is said often has more impact than the content that is conveyed. This fertile thought is the basis for so much that has been discovered about media and communications. Pause for a moment and think about the difference between your boss coming by your desk to chat with you and being called into his office for a ‘chat’.

The implications of this thought was expounded to the world by Univeristy of Toronto’s Professor Marshall McLuhan. He has been called the greatest media theorist of the past century, the high priest of pop culture.


In 1962 he predicted: “The next medium, whatever it is — it may be the extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, (make obsolete) mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” — The Gutenberg Galaxy.

His astoundingly prescient predictions anticipated the revolutionary power of such things we now know as –the personal computer , Google, Wikipedia, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, and several generations of multimedia and World Wide Web technologies. Knowing that the communications media would shrink the world, he coined the phrase ‘the global village’

He also packaged his most important ideas into very catchy phrases, none more famous than ‘The medium is the message’. What does he mean by a medium? Narrowly, it refers to anything that changes the way we interact, often a technical innovation or way of communicating ideas but broadly, though it could mean almost anything.

For McLuhan, a medium can be thought of as an extension of the human body. Wheels extend our legs, allowing us to travel further and faster than ever before. A hammer is the extension of one’s arm allowing one to multiply and concentrate force.

What then is a message? – It’s the punch, the impact- how our lives change as a result

For example in the1950-70’s a car was not about four wheels attached to an engine. Rather, a car is the cluster of benefits that travel makes possible: independence and availability. To have the car meant that you can take someone on a date; it opened up a social world of friends. That’s the message of having a car.

Much of the social impact of a teen having a car in the 50’s has been replaced by having a smart phone in this decade. It’s impact on life is that it creates the possibility of being in constant contact with others and with an endless variety of amusements. Texting and tweeting keep us aware of how others are reacting to us, moment by moment and to events in our world.

But every extension of the body’s capabilities is simultaneously an amputation. The use of the automobile has meant that we use our legs a lot less and that has had huge implications on the health and the pace of life for most living in industrialized countries. Texting has resulted in fewer of face to face interactions and forced our thoughts to fit shorter and simpler messages.

Media have the effect of imperceptibly reshaping of our lives and our minds; it becomes the water in which we swim- we take for granted the way they totally dominate how we live and function. What we gain when society embraces a new technology is obvious early on; what is lost is obvious to most people only in retrospect. By the time most of us realize what it has cost to adopt a new innovation, we find ourselves unable to live without the new benefits that it has provided.

A feature of great ideas is that it becomes obvious once it is stated. 

‘The medium is the message’ is a truth about how technologies, especially communications technology affect us. If you accept this description of how media affects culture, then you understand that any change in the dominant medium results in a change in the message- therefore, a change a change in our world. It is then easy to understand how each breakthrough in communication from writing, to the printing press, to radio and telephone and the cybertechnologies have defined new eras in world culture. It really does change our expectations of each other and the ways in which we think. After that, there’s no going back.