Is the Medium the Message?

Week 8 of our Virtual Environments module[1]. The topic of discussion was Marshall McLuhan’s theory “The Medium is the Message”. The lecturers posed a question to the class, ‘Does the Medium matter?’ After a few minutes of silence (presumably everyone was deep in thought behind their computer screens), people started to give their opinions on whether the medium mattered, a fair debate ensued and the class gave their thoughts on the topic. Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher and intellectual came up with this idea that the medium is the message. He predicted the Internet and its impact before it was even brought to commercialisation. What is interesting now is that we are now analysing our relationships with the Internet and technology by reflecting on his theories that were created way before the World Wide Web was invented. A fascinating thought that one man could predict something that would eventually be an integral part of modern society.

After learning this theory that ‘the medium is the message’ on reflection it is definitely something that informs the thinking behind our virtual environments class. We use computers, the Internet and Second Life to communicate with each other as part of our module, and these mediums affect the way in which the ‘message(s)’ is/are received. The difference between an online class and a class in real life is the way in which the ‘message’ is perceived. From my online class experience, I have found that the way in which my ideas come across differ to that of a class in a real life setting. I feel that when I want to say something online there is sometimes a delay in communication as I have to type it up and this can affect the flow of the debate we may be having, even using voice it can be difficult to get your turn in without speaking over someone. In comparison to a real life class setting, we are able to see each other and raise a hand if we want to speak and this keeps the flow of the conversation running smoothly. However an online class can also give you the time to think through what you would like to say before you send it, and that can be beneficial. This shows that the ‘message’ itself can change slightly depending on the medium that is used. Also another question that was asked during class, which related to McLuhan’s theories, was whether or not technology has become and extension of the human body. As written by Marshall McLuhan himself:

Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.[2]

To understand this philosophical theory, we can relate this to smartphone technology. The class seemed to engage far better with this question, as we seemed to all have a response to put forward. Smart phones give us the ability to connect and communicate with each other at a click of a button. We have access to more information on a smart phone than a lot of people did generations ago. This has also come with its drawbacks. The ways in which we speak to our friends and family differ between something as small as an app. For example speaking on the phone to a friend is different to chatting to them via Facebook messenger, where you have the ability to use ‘Emoji’s’ or send pictures. This will in turn affect the way in which the ‘message’ is perceived. From the class discussion, this was something a lot of people agreed with. Overall I think the medium does in fact affect the the ‘message’.


If you want to read more about Marshall McLuhan’s theories, here is a link to an extract of his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.


[2] McLuhan, Marshall (1966/1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill. Paperback edition, 1966.