This is the title (or nearly the title) of a book published in 1967 by Marshall McLuhan. Until a few days ago I had never physically handled the book. More on that in a minute. I learned of its existence so long ago that I cannot remember when I didn’t know of it. As I got a bachelor’s degree in communications, it’s very possible that department first brought it to my attention, along with a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t recall if my life depended on it.
My husband reminded me that Marshall McLuhan, the actual human being, bereted a pontificating professor in Woody Allen’s 1977 movie Annie Hall. I might have learned of it from that. I was never curious to read it assuming it’s too academic. The title has been sufficient. I have pondered the phrase for years and find it to be meaningful.
To me, the phrase means the technology you use determines how you will communicate. The how then effects the what. How you communicate effects what you communicate.
My speech patterns and what I will say are very different in text, email, over the phone, on zoom or in person. Texting is the most radical. Like others, I abbreviate words. Not because I don’t appreciate the value of grammar, but because the keyboard is so small, and the bursts of communication are coming too fast. If I don’t abbreviate, the back and forth can’t happen at the proper speed. There is a difference between a brief and logistical text exchange, like “get butter” and a five-minute parlay. With that, there is a form of bonding I have not experienced in any other medium. Multiple topics going at once, a sense that you and the other texter really get each other. Emoji and gifs in addition to words. I’m not saying it’s superior, but I am saying it is unique. It allows for a burst of intimacy that can bypass some of the more anxiety producing aspects of in person intimacy.
That’s the message of the medium. The message is what that medium can do that nothing else can. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition.
YOUTUBE COMMENTARY VIDEOS
My kid shows me some of the YouTube commentary videos they watch. So fascinating. In this case, YouTube is the medium, a sub medium of video. I am interested on two levels, as a direct source of insight into youth culture and as an editor. I thought I had seen it all, but I haven’t, not by a long shot. The editing style has a different grammar, it’s extremely lean, all dead air removed, maybe even a little of the air that wasn’t dead. The medium knows it is fighting for attention and it doesn’t ever provide space for reflection. I often have to tell my kid to pause just so I can laugh and not miss the next line.
These videos are sort of like clever essays delivered by charismatic but highly irreverent anchormen. In this world the news is not geo-political or important, it’s cultural and optional. They are highly constructed verbal arguments against something, usually an offensive offering like Bad Boys on TikTok. The best ones are truly brilliant. Young people have a grasp on the meta that is hard to understate and hard to articulate but very funny. Because of the digitization of everything, they have digested exponentially more content than previous generations and therefore their analysis and performed and edited presentation of that analysis is its own medium.
THE ACTUAL BOOK AS PHYSICAL OBJECT
When my kid is showing me a new video, it’s McLuhan’s book title that most often pops in my head. I feel grateful be introduced to a new medium and I try hard to decode its message. I was talking to my husband about all this, including that I had never read the book and he said, it’s right there, pointing behind me.
It’s on the top of that stack behind you.
Right here, under the art supplies?
I’ve lived with my husband for 23 years. This book came with him. Therefore, I have lived in the same house as this book for 23 years without knowing it. I don’t know what that means, but it makes me feel really weird. This book has been in the same vicinity as art supplies I use almost every day. Not a good look for someone who takes pride in being observant. I can discern subtle changes in the pavement throughout my neighborhood, but I can’t notice the cover of a book that I’ve been thinking about for decades because when I look in its direction, instead of seeing it, I just see a blob called Husband stuff. You think you know everything about someone, and you find out you know nothing because you aren’t paying attention.
Well, despite my intentions to not read the book, I opened it up. It’s nothing like I expected! It’s mostly a picture book! McLuhan collaborated with the graphic artist Quentin Fiore. I enjoyed flipping through it. It’s humorous. It’s the YouTube commentary video of its time.
Turns out I was one-part right, one part ignorant. McLuhan wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964 and the phrase first appears there. That one does seem to be more academic but it’s not in our house for me to check. My husband’s book is the The Medium is the Massage. I certainly wish that phrase were true. I would love a massage. I didn’t realize the play on words until I took the illustration photo for this post. More proof I’m not an observation savant. My husband was dumbfounded, having never noticed the wordplay. All this has got me wondering what else resides in these mysterious piles of husband stuff. Even if I look, will I see it?