Friday, May 29, 2009


In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he introduced the phrase “the medium is the message”. By this he meant that understanding or perception of any message is inevitably influenced by the characteristics of the medium that the message is presented in. I take this to be his way of describing what I have called the inherent content of any message. That part of what can be learned from any expression of human creativity is to be found in the physical properties of that expression and the tools and materials used to produce it.

McLuhan was basically talking about the modern development of electronic media in his thesis, but these precepts can obviously be expanded to consider any medium used for expression. In my interest in Native American rock art we have images produced in a medium that is as opposite from McLuhan’s modern electronic media as we can get. Another of McLuhan’s ideas is that these modern electronic media will inevitably lead to the “global village”. McLuhan sees this as an intensely heightened human awareness made possible by the instantaneous availability of information everywhere at the same time. It was his hope that this would lead to a common sense of worldwide responsibility and enlightenment. The phrase global village is now used to metaphorically describe the Worldwide Web and the Internet which McLuhan prophesied. I do not know that he forsaw the exact outcome that the worldwide web has given us, but he expected computers and electronic media to develop something of that nature.

This is obviously a huge difference from the conditions of the societies that created rock art. Far from being part of a global village, most of the societies responsible for rock art were insular and saw the world in an “us against them” fashion. Also, far from resembling the instant and ephemeral nature of information on the worldwide web, rock art seems intended to be for the ages, given the durable nature of the media.

I was never completely comfortable with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. While I accept that the medium is certainly part of the message, the Inherent Content in the message, McLuhan seemed to ignore the Implied Content part of the message, the actual communication intended by the communicator. I have to respond to McLuhan that the medium is really only part of the message.

Marshall McCluhan's influential book is available through this link:

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