Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Massage Continues

Marshall McLuhan condenses his provocative ideas from Understanding Media and merges them with supporting visual arguments in The Media is the Massage. In McLuhan’s view, the media used to communicate a message is more significant than the message itself. Media not only extend our “psychic or physical” faculties (26) but also profoundly influence and shape them; thus, the history of society is the history of media (8).
As I read The Media is the Massage, I was repeatedly struck (or massaged?) by the incredible modern relevancy of these ideas from the 1960s. McLuhan could not have imagined the internet, let alone contemporary social media. Yet one aphorism after another speaks to today’s context:
“How shall the new environment be programmed now that we have become so involved with each other … ?” (12).
“The worldpool of information fathered by electric media ... far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. … Now all the world’s a sage” (14).
“Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men” (16).
Whenever we use social media (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter), we obliterate “time” and “space” far more effectively than 1960s television (even Batman). We read about and view pictures of our friends’ activities from across the world on the previous day. Time and space lose some meaning in the world of Web 2.0 as the “concerns of all other” people persist in electronica long after their conclusions. The “worldpool of information” not only competes for time out of our days but also exposes us to diverse perspectives – and perhaps leads to confusion. With so many sages, who should we believe?
I was particularly struck by the following quote:
“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).
If McLuhan’s logic is correct, then the modern computer interface clearly changes people. Gane and Beer describe interfaces as “conceptual and material devices that occupy and enable key points of contact within networks” (53). Interfaces structure the user’s experience and perspective through their navigation, visual design, media, interactivity, etc. Compare these interfaces, for example:

Tom Green's MySpace Profile. Who's Tom Green? you ask. Beats me, but he likes the Dodgers and has a public MySpace profile.

The interface's "massage" manifests in Facebook and MySpace's obvious similarities. Both interfaces rely on linearity and well-defined sections, the electronic extension of the printed book and the Western mind shaped by it.
In the 21st century, McLuhan’s central thesis – that societies “have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication” (8) – almost seems like an old truism or even a statement of the obvious.
Works Cited
Gane, Nicholas, and David Beer. New Media: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam, 1967.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post because I am reading McLuhan's other text (as I mention in my comment on your prior post -- I am indeed blog stalking you right now!). Your discussion of FaceBook is the exact example I had thought about as I pondered which medium our society might be ignoring as an extension of ourselves. I wondered what it would mean to explore the medium FaceBook for its message. The way that it pushes new "friends" at us is the medium's message that we need more and more such "friends." I believe the medium of FaceBook has actually changed the meaning of "friend" in our society -- how many friends you have is certainly more important than what these "friends" mean to your actual life. Clearly I too have found McLuhan powerfully prescient (a word I used for you on your prior post!) about our current world. The numbing that he speaks about as a result of not examining the media is happening worldwide now -- the narcotic of FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter lulls billions of us every single day into a sense of connection that, if we were to stop and ponder, is something much different than our old idea of connection. You might enjoy reading Jennifer Buckner's post about the Narcissus/narcosis idea as she applies it to our mediated lives as distance students at ODU: http://jbuck014.grads.digitalodu.com/blog/?p=146.

  2. Sharing Yoda sounds a little personal, LOL! I like your application of McLuhan to social networking (great way to work through ideas by applying to a different example) AND I'm thrilled you are making connections back to the key terms.
    I've always wondered about "massage" in the title; however, your use of it definitely justifies how/why it is appropriate. The technology/interface massages our use/messages. Keep up the great work!

  3. Eric, I enjoyed reading this post. Similar to Susanne, I have also been thinking about Facebook as a powerful interface in our society. What intrigues me about Facebook is that it is a medium controlled at the individual level; some individuals are very aware of how they act rhetorically in this space and demonstrate an understanding of how to manipulate the medium to a construct their digital identities. However, I don't think that having this sort of awareness necessarily dismisses McLuhan's point about the medium itself being inseparable from the intended message. Perhaps more important, though, many individuals use Facebook with no critical awareness of their rhetorical actions/choices in this environment. Facebook as an interface constructs us, and the less users are aware of this or consider the potentially powerful (potentially negative?) effects/consequences, etc., the more McLuhan's idea about the medium being the message (or massage) reigns true.