The Medium is the Massage (*that is not a typo): An Inventory of Effects
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, the iconic booklet on media and communication by the public intellectual Marshall McLuhan, hit stands in 1967. I was three years old. When the first printing came back from the typesetters, the cover apparently read, “The Medium is the Massage,” instead of “Message.” McLuhan reportedly saw the typo and shouted, “Leave it alone! It’s great. And right on target!” My father found this story very amusing, and told it often. Even as a child, I loved words and toyed around with all the possible meanings: Message, Mess Age, Massage and Mass Age. Just as McLuhan had hoped.
As a child, McLuhan’s book featured prominently on my parents’ bookshelf, smack dab in the middle of all things scholarly, below the Encyclopedia Britannica and above Betty Friedan and Frederick Douglass. The red-bound and slim booklet was placed at the eye level of a middle schooler, and caught my attention as I grew taller, tempting me each time I passed through our little foyer. My parents added subliminal force of their own, during Watergate, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Abscam, Jonestown and other roiling events of the 1970s and 80s, coolly stating — with knowing glances across the table — “The medium is the message.”
Eventually, I couldn’t resist. At about age ten, my fingers plucked the book from the shelf. And here was a book for me! It was short, fewer than 200 pages, more collage than verbiage, stuffed full of photographs and cartoons. McLuhan (and his illustrator Quentin Fiore) also included what my father, a graphic artist, described as “mirror writing,” pages intended to be read as mirror images of one another. Some pages were even left blank, to inspire my ten year old imagination. With that, I began to see myself as a journalist, a member of the media / message.
The Medium is the Massage became a best-seller with a cult following. My parents were in the cult. Still are.
But, over the years, I took issue with some of what the hugely influential McLuhan had to say. I had heated arguments with my parents about his theories. And I surprised(perhaps even disappointed?) them when I announced I would be leaving the practice of law for a career in broadcast journalism. I would become one of the influencers, a member of the media elite.
McLuhan first coined his famous phrase in another book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. He believed that modern media are so powerful they have become extensions of the human senses. The media ground us in the physical world, but expand our ability to perceive the world around us — beyond our immediate surroundings—to an extent that would not be possible otherwise. I agree. It is even more remarkable when you consider that McLuhan was writing in 1967, before the advent of the Internet, before the smart phone. He’s not rolling in his grave. He’s dancing in it.
I originally entitled this blog, “The Medium is the Massage,” in tribute to McLuhan, his prescience and good old-fashioned journalistic accuracy. But then I considered the onslaught of comments urging me to correct the typo.
Besides, my intent is the same. To urge us toward an understanding that media are not inherently bad or good, but do inevitably bring about huge societal shifts. Media can make us entirely complacent. Or can make us aware of the human experience in ways that awaken our passion and compassion.
To be good global citizens (another McLuhan coinage), we need to be aware of the profound changes that come with our consumption Netflix, NFL Football, the Huffington Post, Call of Duty, Vice News, The New York Times, NPR, cute kittens on YouTube, The X Factor, TMZ, National Geographic, all that Facebook feed, or whatever media we digest. Otherwise, we may lack the capacity for global responsibility that will be required of us in the Twenty-First Century.