The Medium Is the Massage

The back cover of McLuhan’s 1967 book

Marshall McLuhan wrote a seminal work in 1964 called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In it, McLuhan posits that various media types (print, radio, television) affect society by the direct impact of the medium itself on the reader, listener, viewer, more than by the content portrayed. He coined the famous phrase, ”The medium is the message”, as a concise statement of this phenomenon.

McLuhan used the terms ”hot” and ”cool” to describe this property of various media. A hot medium gives the recipient lots of information, stimulates multiple sensory inputs, and requires little interaction from the user for the extraction of meaning. A cool medium may only stimulate one or two senses and requires much more participation from the user for the user to determine and extract meaning. 

Think of the difference between a book you’ve read (some people still do that), and seeing the movie adaptation of the same book. A book is much ”cooler” than a movie, because the reader must imagine in her own mind everything sensory: how the characters look, the colors in the settings, the sounds of the voices in dialogue, etc. A great author creates a world not only for his characters to inhabit, but for the reader to inhabit with them.  Television and movies provide all, or nearly all, of the visual and auditory information to the watcher. Great directors, like Hitchcock, for example, knew this to be true, and left only the suggestion of violence in some of his scenes, counting on the viewer to fill in the blanks in her own mind. This interactive component, he believed, would make them even more frightening than anything he could put on film. Count in your own mind how many senses you use when reading vs. watching television or a YouTube video.

In 1967, McLuhan wrote anther book, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. In this book McLuhan points out the entire array of effects on the sensorium of the user of each respective type of a particular medium. This has application to sound (volume), and sight (colors, movement, screen refreshes, etc.), but the accumulated affect is amplified. McLuhan explores how various media types ”massage” the user, and how that effect, in turn, impacts how the user both receives and perceives content.

McLuhan is oft criticized for his concern over what was derisively called ”technological determinism”. That is, his critics believed McLuhan was a Luddite, afraid that emerging technologies, especially visual media forms like television and video would somehow adversely affect the user, ”determining” cognition, comprehension, and responses, by means of the medium itself and not by means of the users interaction with the content conveyed.

McLuhan died in 1980 prior to the proliferation of the internet and prior to any so-called social media platforms at all. Little did McLuhan’s critics realize in 1967 just how much conscious participation is surrendered, the better technology becomes at immersing the user in an environment in which the triggering of predictable responses is the goal. Neither McLuhan nor his critics had access to brain-imaging technologies, or they could have seen visual evidence of the neural impact of ”hot media” on various regions of the brain. And when McLuhan died, the field of neurophysiology was brand new, it’s insights into brain-chemistry and neurotransmitters like dopamine with its role in addiction and compulsion a complete unknown.

Today we know that McLuhan was right. The medium is both the message and the massage. Both environment (with its sensory stimuli), and content are customized for the responses desired. And the medium is engineered to maximize attention capture. A hot medium masquerades as a cool medium requiring interaction ( a swipe of the infinite scroll, please), while behind the curtain it is controlling everything. Software engineers collaborate with psychologists to experiment with every element from the color of the background, to the placement (and colors) of labels & buttons, to the tactile feel and sound of a ”click”, to the algorithms determining what information the user does or does not see.  All of this happens while massaging the user into feeling good about what kind of person they are for using the particular platform, flooding him with dopamine when he sees ”likes” and hearts, and other emoticons so he’s sure to come back for more.

Sadly, this overall ”massage” phenomenon isn’t relegated to social media platforms. The so-called News Media, especially the ”hotter” variety, exist in a marketplace where viewership pays the bills. Let’s face it, we choose the media we consume the same way we choose our food. What flavors do we like better? Which has the larger portions? Which has the prettier or more handsome ”talent”? We trust that if a program is on what is called a ”News” network, then the content is actually ”news” in the sense of being factual and true.

But media magnates realize that we consumers choose our channels like we’re in the McDonald’s drive-thru. We want to eat what we’re familiar with. We want to hear what we already believe. So, we watch, listen to, and consume the ”news” from networks and personalities expressing opinions that are our own. This satisfies our confirmation bias. It doesn’t require any thinking, or interaction. This makes us feel better about the kind of persons we already are. We don’t come to the news the way we would approach taking medicine. It is entertainment masquerading as fact. And we fail to recognize that all the while we’ve been laid out on a carefully prepped table enjoying the massage.

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