Media definition

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, Sept 3, 19601

Media are the parameters of all enterprises, whether private or collective. They impose, they are the assumptions. Mostly, therefore, they are subliminal just because they are constitutive and pervasive.  But to a number-sodden age, it may be more effective to say “Media are the parameters” rather than that “the medium is the message”.2 

New Media and the New Education, 19603

any new structure for codifying experience and of moving information, be it alphabet or photography, has the power of imposing its structural character and assumptions upon all levels of our private and social lives, even without benefit of concepts or of conscious acceptance. That is what I’ve always meant by “the medium is the message“.

Media are not things like books or devices. Neither are they physical senses or combinations of senses. Neither are they a form of language use like orality or literacy. Neither are they a mode of technology like the mechanical or the electrical.  However much they may be like these (just as some physical materials are like chemical elements) media are, instead, “parameters”, “assumptions” or “basic structures” that give shape to “the sending and receiving of information”, the “pattern[s] in which the components [of any communication] co-exist”: “operative principles and lines of force”.4

Earlier exchanges within the NAEB project throw further light on McLuhan’s notion of just what media are:

McLuhan to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959

I am not an apriorist in these matters — not committed to any doctrinaire approach beyond the assumption that man’s reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen in education.5 But I don’t think of reason as divorced from our total sensibilities.6

McLuhan to Harry Skornia March 30, 1959

Apropos of recent telephone comment about my “philosophical approach”.  Remember that when one approaches the intelligible aspects of media patterns one is in danger of philosophy.  But my concern is with light through the media onto our situation, not light on the media from our theories. But unified field of awareness of inter-action of media does need some verbalized articulation. Has not the effect of media over the centuries been kept at the sub-verbal level precisely by such philosophical assumptions [as underlie the Gutenberg galaxy]…?

McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959

it is (…) confusing at first for some to learn that the mosaic of a [visual] page of telegraph press is ‘auditory’ in basic structure. That, however, is only to say that any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct lineal hook-up or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations, is auditory, even tho some of its aspects can be seen.

  1. Except where otherwise identified, all citations in this post are taken from the McLuhan folders in the Unlocking the Airwaves project.
  2. McLuhan added: “I do not revoke the latter formula.”
  3. This essay appeared in a series of different publications and was included as an appendix to McLuhan’s 1960 Report on Project in Understanding New Media.
  4. The phrase “the sending and receiving of information” is from McLuhan’s letter to Harry Skornia, January 1, 1959; “basic structure” and “pattern in which the components co-exist” are from McLuhan speaking to the NAEB ‘research committee’ in September 1959. All these passages are cited in full above. “Operative principles and lines of force” is from the Playboy Interview.
  5. When the human “reasoning equipment is what we are seeking to elicit and strengthen”, this can be accomplished in no other way, of course, than by deploying our “reasoning equipment”. A difficult circularity is thereby introduced into the task, since it appears that the object at stake — namely, “reasoning equipment” that is to be elicited and strengthened — must already be active in the subject in any appropriate approach to that objective. Beyond this knotted problem of a ‘future perfect’ time, where a future finding must already be active in the initial way to it, a further problem is constellated. Through this same circularity of the exercise of our “reasoning equipment” on our “reasoning equipment”, all our experience would appear to be locked “inside a human box” (as McLuhan put the point). See Planet polluto, garbage apocalypse for the reference and further discussion.
  6. The association of “our total sensibilities” with our “reasoning equipment” is not a “doctrinaire approach” because, according to McLuhan, it can be demonstrated. But it is all important in this context to note that “our total sensibilities” cannot be understood literally — any more than the discovery of the chemical elements could have been based on a literal understanding of physical materials.