The Medium is The Message

The Medium is The Message

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.

TEXTING

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.

What?

It’s on the top of that stack behind you.

Right here, under the art supplies?

Yes.

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?

If Books Were Toxic, I’d Be Dead

If Books Were Toxic, I’d Be Dead

Whenever something triggers me to imagine a truly terrible outcome, suddenly in the hospital, somehow in prison, stranded in a foreign environment, my thoughts always coalesce around a desperate fear I would not have enough books, or heaven forbid, any books. Sometimes I imagine there would be at least one book and I would read it over and over. So, in my mind, though I’m freezing on a remote mountaintop after a small plane crash, my first set of concerns is how many times I can read House of Mirth or the Talented Mr. Ripley before the magic no longer works. 

I am addicted to reading. I know I am. There is no public shame because the effects don’t cause problems. Internally, I worry about my supply. It’s the worst feeling to finish the last book of a favorite author knowing I have come to end of the road with that particular escape.

I find reading to be intensely pleasurable. If a favorite book were to go on forever, somehow sustain its structural perfection but never conclude and I could opt to leave my life and read into oblivion, I don’t find that a totally awful thought. And that seems like an awful thought.

Thought reading has given me so much, I am not addicted to the benefits, useful as they may be. I am addicted to the escape. When I am reading, I am not suffering. So simple.

I love to eat and read at the same time. I don’t get to do that too often as I usually eat lunch with my husband and eat dinner with the family. I might do it at breakfast, but I’ve taken to reading off a phone screen, and that’s always subpar, which is good because it’s pretty easy to break away and get back to real life.

I recently had the opportunity to eat lunch alone, my white table bright from a beautiful sunny day, I was having sliced apple with cheese and crackers, another lifelong favorite activity. So yummy! And so easy to clean up. If and when I end up alone, half my calories will come from cheese and crackers. Pair this with a paperback novel and it just can’t get any better. 

I have traveled the world through books. I’ve read authors from many countries, translations from their native language. I learned about all sorts of people and all sorts of activities. I cannot imagine who I would be without this wealth of voyeuristic knowledge. On some level, I have lived many lives, been many people, learned the lessons of others tragic choices, walked the cities and shores of foreign lands. So many small details which have never left me.

Did you know that in Mumbai police ply detainees with candy in order to make them thirsty and them deny them water as form of confessional coercion? (Maximum City – Suketu Mehta)

In the same book is a killer who has slept in a single room with his extended family his whole life is afraid to sleep alone.

Being frightening doesn’t make you less afraid.

This is what I remember.

My husband is also a voracious reader. We rarely swap books, though he usually tells me about what he’s reading. His habits are more eclectic yet cohesive then mine. He is a natural historian and reads widely on a variety of intersecting topics. Marianne Faithful’s steamy autobiography next to a collection of Tennessee Williams short stories next to Merlin Sheldrake’s treatise on fungi. I am lucky to live with someone who always has something interesting to share.

Residing in a transient neighborhood of apartments, we both regularly bring home books orphaned to the sidewalk. I see a pile in the distance and feel dread even as I hustle towards it. Our bookcases overflow with books laying horizontal on top of the ones placed properly. Books line the hallways. We frequently rehome them to friends, Goodwill or the library but still more come in the front door than leave though the back.

We have two bedside tables each. Yes, you read that correctly, our bed is flanked by four tables stacked high with books both read and unread. That was not a conscious choice and I can’t see making it on purpose, but I’ve grown fond of my second bedside book table with its foot-high sloppy stacks. I’ve told myself to clean it up because I like things to be tidy, and yet I am facing, right now, in this very moment, that it is a comfort to me, and I want to keep it. At least if I get sick and have to take to my bed, I know I am all set.