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McLuhan's Theory of Medium and the Message: Perception of Information through Different Sources

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Marshall McLuhan, known for his eccentric ideas, brought a new insight into the way media is looked at today though medium. Though McLuhan’s book ‘Understanding Media: Extensions of man’ he explored the idea of how the ‘medium is the message’. He focuses on the idea of television and radio as a medium being much more interesting than the actual message that they are trying to say. We then focus too much on the context and forget about how we get the content in the first place. He further explains how the medium can affect how a massage is perceived as different mediums such as a text or email can have different ideologies and style. This is helpful as it helps us better understand how important the medium is and how different media has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to how you want the message to engage with your audience. He also talks about the hot and cold media and how different types of media needs different participation from the audience with hot needing less participation from the audience such as a Book, Film or photograph, whereas cool media requires a high amount of participation from the audience and has low definition, an example of this is comics, television and a cartoon. All of these concepts from Marshall McLuhan has many advantages, however some disagree on his opinion on the instrumental view on technology which other might find be limiting and lack perspective.

McLuhan believed that the medium plays such an important role when it comes to communication and sending a message. He was more fascinated in the medium such as the radio and television much more than the actual message that was being portrayed. ‘It is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action’ (McLuhan, 1964) this refers to the light-bulb and how it’s ‘not until the electric light is used to spell out some brands name that it is noticed as a medium…. Then it is not the light but the content that is noticed’ (McLuhan, 1964, p. 13) this helps us understand how the medium is more significant than the message itself as without the medium (light bulb) there wouldn’t be a message to show. McLuhan as well as talks about the concept of hot and cold media. With cold media needing a high amount of participation as they need more participation from the audience to help get the full message from that particular medium. He explains then about hot media saying ‘any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one’ (McLuhan, 1964 pg. 24). He further explains how hot media has a ‘high Definition’ and ‘filled with data’, examples used by McLuhan is how photography has a high definition as the audience would instantly recognize what is in the photo. However compared to a cartoon which has a low definition and a lower amount of detail meaning that the person viewing the cartoon would need to figure out from the drawing by looking at the text and the image closely to figure out what then cartoon is. McLuhan brought new idea to how mediums should be looked at by demonstrating how much influence the medium has on each of us.

Even though McLuhan’s concept was created in 1964 with the idea of ‘medium is the message’ it is still very relatable to today with the growth in new technology and the way we communicate. He brings ‘potential of electronically based media to re-shape human experience is of major significance’ (Devereux, 2014) in today’s day and age.

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This is beneficial as people who create media must use his idea to choose how they want their message to be perceived as different mediums can show different messages. They would also better appreciate the medium they are using and how vital it is in our society. An example of this would be printed media such as books and print media producers produce ‘a fairly impersonal, linear, rational way of thinking and relating to others’ however with the growth in ‘wireless communication and computer-mediated communication’ such as text messaging and emails there is an increase in ‘interactivity….. and choice on the part of the user’ (Media and Society, Chapter 7) this means that the audience has more control over the media through different mediums such as online media. This can help prove how different ‘medium is the message’ and how much a change in medium can influence the message that is being portrayed as the audience is gained more control over what they see online through comments and social media. Though this example of emails this type of media is seen as hot media as has a low definition and less participation than texting which requires a high amount of participation as text messages are constant and multiple texts are sent which is cold media.

Many people believe that McLuhan’s beliefs in the ‘medium are the message’ is correct and has many advantages. However, many believe that his belief in the instrumental view of technology is wrong and is limited. When it comes to the instrumental view it is common to think ‘The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value…. Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value’ (David Sarnoff, Understanding Media pg. 16) this means that we have complete control over the technology, and we tell it what to do. However in this case from McLuhan’s point of view, he doesn’t look at it from that perspective he explains how ‘there is simply nothing in the Sarnoff statement that will bear scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of all media’ (McLuhan, 1964) He explains with the link to technology and how the ‘medium is the message’, he argues that media doesn’t fully bend to those who are using it and ‘any technology could do anything but add itself onto what we already are’. They aren’t just so they can supply us, but they also shape the way we process information. To sum up McLuhan says that media doesn’t fully adapt to how we want to use media. An example of this is Television with programs giving us different information and thoughts, they influence the way we think and adapt it to real life and doesn’t adapt to how we want to use it. This example of Television is known to be a Cold media in contrast to a film which is hot media as a Television needs a high amount of participation with more distractions in the room you watch the television compared to a film which is set in a dark room with little to no distraction.

The ‘medium is the message’ is seen throughout Marshal McLuhan’s work and has affected the way we see mediums today with the growth of new means of communication every day. He explains how the media content isn’t as important as the medium influences itself on us. And how ‘it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action’. He was always fascinated by how the medium plays such an important role that he never cared about the message itself. He also gave the idea of hot and cold media which helped us classify what types of mediums have a high definition and participation from the audience, we can use this information to analyse different mediums as one with a low definition (cold media) would have a different effect on the audience than one that has a high definition (hot media). This approach on both hot and cold media and the idea that ‘medium is the message’ has helped the world and media organisation to choose more carefully on what kinds of mediums they want to use as the same message sent on different mediums can mean different things. The organisations can pay more attention to this and ensure that the audience is getting the right message on whatever medium they view the message on. Marshal McLuhan has, however, has had opinions that others have disagreed on and can be seen to limit his ideas. His though on the instrumental view on the technology being less technology using doing whatever we want it to do and instead believes from a technologies point of view that it cannot do what we want it to do but instead add to what we already are.

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McLuhan’s Theory of Medium and the Message: Perception of Information through Different Sources. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“McLuhan’s Theory of Medium and the Message: Perception of Information through Different Sources.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023,
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