The Medium is the Massage

Christian’s excellent introduction to Lev Manovicht focused in part on the power of the medium to shape communication. The term “medium” refers to the communicative substrate that we chose to “fix” a given message, different examples include: print, radio, film, television, web and so on. What’s fascinating about media is how they invariably shape both how a message is expressed and how it is perceived. Marshall McLuhan encapsulated this concept when he famously said that “the medium is the message”, by which he sought to describe how the unique strengths, limitations and evocative powers of a given medium will exert forces on the message being communicated that can approach the significance of the very content being communicated, sometimes even eclipsing it. And it happens on both ends – media shape both the creation of communication and interpretation of communication.

This idea that the “vessels” of communication shape the content that they hold is important to understand in order to create effective expressions of meaning, since it’s always, and invariably, part of the mix. Thus, designers and artists (amongst others) have been examining the nature of abstracted forms of meaning for ages. For instance, let’s consider a very basic form of visual communication: the symbol. A guy named Rene Magrite did once back in the early 20th century in his painting The Treachery of Images:


For those of you who don’t read French, the caption reads “This is not a pipe.” And, it’s true. It isn’t a pipe – it’s a painting of a pipe. In fact, what you’re looking at is (to paraphrase Scott McCloud), is not a pipe but rather a digital image of a painting of a pipe. Get it? It’s interesting how seamlessly we accept symbolic representations for real concepts and things. While it’s necessary for visual communication to work, it’s also dangerous when you consider the possibility that symbols can carry unintended, or even intended, “mis-meaning”.

Instead of going further, I’d like to stop here and ask what you think about all of this. What do you think about what McLuhan and Manovich are saying about the power of medium to shape messages? For good or for bad? And what about this “treacherous” potential for subversion in symbolic representations of meaning?


  1. jeffreybardzell

    I don’t want to get too far into this now, but my reading of McLuhan is that he goes a lot farther than saying, “the medium affects and shapes the message.” His point quite literally is that the the medium overwhelms, predetermines, and constitutes its message. He is a self-professed technological determinist, and as such, the human ability to create or control a message is diminished beyond recognition. We don’t produces messages through our media; Media produces us through messages. Or something like that.

    Incidently, Foucault has an entire essay devoted to Magrite’s painting. It’s not a pipe, either, but I’m sure in most instances you could smoke it.

  2. thismarty

    Yup. I agree. Strictly speaking, the medium *is* the message (or the massage). I just wasn’t too sure how strong a dose of mind-bending to go for.

  3. jeffreybardzell

    Mind benders R us. We’re not just here to make snide comments; we’re also here to confuse people, and I take those twin responsibilities very seriously.

  4. chmbrigg

    Just to be clear, folks – in case it was not communicated in my talk last week – McLuhan, as Jeff says, makes some extremely bold statements to the effect that the medium does not merely shape the message. Here’s one quote from him to chew on: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” (McLuhan, p.207 of the New Media Reader)

  5. chmbrigg

    oh, and the sentences following the previous quote bear inclusion: “The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as ‘content.’ The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The ‘content’ of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware of either print or speech.”

  6. WES

    I really enjoyed reading your website. You have some very useful information. I am looking forward in your next post.


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