The medium is the message…or is it? (Jameson)

In working through the concept of meaning as it is signaled, encoded, and transmitted in various mediums, I couldn’t help but think of the famous Marshall McLuhan concept, sometimes known as the McLuhan Equation: “the medium is the message.” A more obvious and literal interpretation of this phrase seems to suggest, contrary to the Peircean model of semiotics, that meanings are in fact properties of signals or sign vehicles. In this conception, the content of any piece of communication is secondary to how it is communicated. Upon closer examination, it’s clear that this isn’t quite what McLuhan was saying, and that his claim (placed more in the field of media theory than communication or information theory) may not be at odds with our in-class understanding of where meaning is situated in symbolic systems. [1]

Looking a little deeper about this phrase, McLuhan seems to be analyzing communication in a wide, historical, systemic way. He says that, overall, the content of communication (the message) has historically been less important in shaping society than how it is communicated (the medium). In our modern world, mediums are constantly changing and evolving. These mediums are tied directly to societal changes, in that the invisible, multitudinous forces shaping society also exert pressure on the kinds of mediums that develop. These mediums in turn shape how we think by altering the environment in which we operate in new ways that were previously inaccessible. What has been more important, the text message conversations you have or your mobile phone? Arguably, the text message conversations would not even exist without the mobile phone in the first place. Additionally, the mere existence of the mobile phone technology has completely altered the way in which we communicate—using abbreviations/acronyms/slang; the speed at which we communicate; how many people we can communicate with at one time; how we plan; how other technologies build on this—which has altered how we think and operate in ways we can’t even realize. [2]

To McLuhan, a medium refers to any physical tool that is an extension of ourselves, similarly to how a symbol is a theoretical cognitive extension of our thoughts. Ultimately, I don’t think this is at odds with the understanding of meaning we’ve discussed in class because McLuhan is making more of a social commentary, and is not literally saying that there is more meaning in a medium than in the content. But who knows!



[1] Federman, Mark. “What Is the Meaning of The Medium Is the Message?” N.p., 23 July 2004. Web. 12 Oct. 2016. <>.

[2] Olson, Dan. “Minisode – The Medium Is the Message.” YouTube. Folding Ideas, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2016. <>.