Book Summaries Philosophy

The Medium is the Message Summary (6/10)

“You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan says the environment that man creates becomes his medium for defining his role in it. The invention of type created linear, or sequential thought, separating thought from action. Now, with TV and folk singing, thought and action are closer and social involvement is greater. We again live in a village. Get it?”

The Medium is the Message was written in 1964, and the ideas in it seem to become more relevant in time. McLuhan’s thesis is that the medium through which we communicate, whether TV or Radio or Newspaper, creates an entire industry around it that we are not aware of: a new way of living, and a new way of thinking.

It is not that the TV is merely transmitting ideas– the existence of TV creates a ripple effect through society. People’s reading habits change, the way they think changes, what they choose to discuss (events happening far away), and even what types of emotions they choose to feel (anger, outrage). The TV format, with its constraint due to advertising considerations, influences how people pay attention and for how long.

The counter intuitive idea here is that the message itself is basically meaningless – what really matters is the technological medium, how we interface with it, and how it affects society. Today, in the internet age, we see new trends emerge that influence everything from politics, to the way we interact with each other, to the relationships we have with ourselves. The concern is that these technologies may cause societies to become less literate and less critically minded.

The New Environment

Minority groups can no longer be contained in an electric information environment.

Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.

the poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted,” he cannot go along with currents and trends.  A strange bond often exists among anti-social types in their power to see environments as they really are.

In the “Emperor’s New Clothes” it is the antisocial brat, not the well-adjusted courtiers who had  vested interests, that saw that the Emperor “ain’t got nothin’ on” – the antisocial brat clearly saw the new environment.


Distinct and separate political viewpoints no longer matter.

A new form of politics has emerged, where the living room has become a voting booth, where electronic devises have made it possible to interface with the world and participate in revolutions and war.   


The child of today grows up watching “adult” news, inflation, war, crime, taxes etc… and is bewildered when he enters an archaic educational establishment where “information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules. It is naturally an environment much like any factory set-up with its inventories and assembly lines.”

The “child” is a seventeenth century invention, he did not exist in Shakespeare’s day. Up until then, he had been merged into the adult world – childhood didn’t exist.

Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up – that is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice.


Faraday’s accomplishments were due to his ignorance of mathematics. His independence, originality of mind and fantastic intuition allowed him to look for an explanation of electrical and magnetic phenomena.

Professionalism is environmental while Amateurism is anti-environmental. Professionals merge into the patterns of their environment, while amateurs attempt to develop the complete individual awareness and the critical awareness of social groundrules.

The amateur can afford to lose. The professional tends to classify and to specialize, to accept uncritically the groundrules of the environment. The groundrules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is contentedly and unaware. The “expert” is the man who stays put.


“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories [; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves … You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing].”

Socrates, quoted in “Phaedrus” by Plato

The “illiad” by Hmer was the cultural encyclopaedia of pre-literate Greece it was how men managed their spiritual, ethical, and social lives. The persuasive skills of poetry and drama were taught to insure the transmission of the tradition across generations.

These Bardic songs were rhythmically organized with great formal mastery into metrical patterns which insured that everyone was psychologically attuned to memorization and to easy reall. There was no ear illiteracy in pre-literate Greece.

Plato attacked the oral, poetized form as a way of communicating information. He called for a more precise way of communicating – one that would favor facts, human nature, principles of reality. The Greeks had a different definition of poetry than we do today. “Poetic” was a product of the collective psyche and mind.

The mimetic form, a technique that exploited rhythm, meter, and music, achieved the desired psychological response in the listener. Listeners could memorize with greater ease what was sung and what was said.

Plato opposed this method because it discouraged argument and disputation, and this was an obstacle to abstract, speculative reasoning. He thought of it as “poison, and an enemy of the people.”


Individual authors who took credit for their intellectual accomplishments through copyright is a recent invention – it did not exist prior to the printing press. Medieval schools did not care about the precise identity of the “books” they studied; they were a humble service company tasked with the tedious undertaking of procuring texts for long hours.

Xerography – every man’s brain-picker – heralds the ties of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one – instant steal!

As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression. Teamwork succeeds private effort.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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