Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 10. Nr. Juli 2001  

The message of the medium
McLuhan's media theory and the present media situation

Gabriella Hima (Debrecen)


Content and medium

The ever-changing technologies shape the way messages are communicated. Every new technology is a medium that topples man's former view of the world. According to McLuhan's rule, there is a moment at the boundary between one medium and the next when the old medium loses its original content and becomes the content of the new medium. At that moment, the old medium loses its symbolic function and becomes a mere empty channel, transporting nothing. For an instant the old medium is free of information and the new medium manipulates the emptiness of the old one to create new contents. At the moment of completion, content and medium converge and can be used as raw material for the next round.(1)

To track the specialities of a medium, one must find the moment at which it has exhausted its programme. For centuries, the medium book was marked for its content. In the era of electronic media, author-related content is declared superfluous. The irrelevance of the content is important for the way in which the new medium disrupts tradition and reshapes the mind. This way is not a process that results from subjectivity of the media worker, it is a techno-effect, an object strategy - it is the "experience" of the technology. The author is no longer the producer of a meaning but a strictly operational acting subject who chooses, saves and transmits the signs. The signs, beyond any signification, have a semantic-free, purely physical aspect. The materiality of the sign and the operationality of its mediation subvert the communication because of the effects not intended by the author. This results in two kinds of statements: an intended and a non-intended one. The conclusion of McLuhan's media theory is analogous with that of psychoanalysis, which also maintains that each statement is a double one: it transports both a conscious and an unconscious meaning. The message of the medium for McLuhan is, however, not an unconscious but a non-human message: it is the statement of the carriers of the material. The autonomous message of the medium is therefore the mediated message minus the intended one.(2)

McLuhan's utopia about Understanding Media presupposes a hermeneutic and an anthropomorphic approach in relation to the media. However, media as the technical a priori of any understanding can hardly be understood. The possibility of a conscious, author-related intention, capable of exploring the medium's potentials of the meaning in order to transform it into its own message, was ignored by McLuhan. One reason for this omission is that he got stuck in the hermeneutic tradition, which is unable to come to terms with the situation of modern media. Traditional hermeneutics refer only to communication between human beings. Therefore they cannot be applied to the specific communication between man and machine, nor can hermeneutics describe this new phenomenon within the categorical framework of interhuman experience.(3) The other reason is that in media discourse the message of the medium becomes a message about the incapacity of the subject. The only possibility for the rehumanisation of the technical media is the reinforcement of the human origin attributed to them by the role that verbal language plays within the media network.

Writing as medium

Even in the era of the designer media, the communicated message is based on a verbal language. When Ted Nelson dreamt about world-wide semantic networks, everybody hoped for a new era of the written word. With the appearance of the Internet, however, everybody spoke about the immediacy of a new oral and visual society (the world as global village). The Internet - connecting text, image and sound - actually evoked the naïve belief that its user could get in direct touch with reality. It was forgotten, however, that these electronically transmitted images in their inner structure also have a script, namely, in digital modus operandi they separate into letters which need to be re-edited. Cyberspace is thus nothing else but "a text-based environment" yet.(4)

Electronic media cannot mean therefore a return to the preliterate, pre-Gutenberg or even pre-Platonic era. The new media prevent the traditional kind of writing and, in addition, develop technologies of a new, say, virtual way of writing. In short, traditional writing and virtual writing are quite different from each other. Traditionally, writing involves the storage of texts on stone, clay tablets, parchment, paper or hard disk. Virtual writing in the electronic media means "producing a language that only exists in the main memory".(5) Reading of traditionally stored texts is a solitary experience because the readers feel as if they were the only ones to receive this medial transmission. Reading of virtual texts turns into a shared experience. Readers feel as if they were amidst the immediate tumult of the mass media; the intimacy between the reader and the text is completely destroyed by others. The stored word causes single events. On-line texts turn the written word into an unstable medium. They are dynamical and exist only in the present. (A hard copy is no longer on-line literature but a traditional text.)

Electronic technology created a new virtual-textual environment for mankind, which up till then had been caught in typographic settings. The empty screen of the computer is an electronic tabula rasa, which can be filled with text, like a blank piece of paper. However, in contrast to the paper, the computer text can be infinitely deleted or replaced by other texts. Maybe it is a poor use of computing capacity to turn the computer into a typewriter, but with regard to the text-editing technology, its greatest achievements are the delete key and the cut and paste functions. Menubars and windows next to or behind the text are simply subscreens, less original than some hypertext-strategies of the previous era. The technique of, say, Eliot, Joyce, Proust or Borges was to use the old medium of the written word, as though it were already part of the new electronic age. The softpage has not yet supplanted the letter-size thinking of the typewriting era (or hardpage era).(6)

Reading habits can only be changed through electronically transmitted hypertexts. This, however, is more a project for the future than a common practice at the present. Hypertexts no longer offer the clear writing space of the book but reflect the topological characters of the elaborated material. While linear writing suggests that the ideas it presents are homogeneously organised, the hypertext makes possible the coexisting of very diverse structures. Complex, interdependent and hierarchically arranged trains of thought or chains of associations are no longer serialised. Turning argumentation into text is a breach in the linearity because of the constant switches from association to ideas, from ideas to information, from information to conclusion, from conclusion to the next sentence. The idea of switching is the connecting. But in practice, links distract from the main line of thought. Links often do not connect but rather disconnect by breaking down the continuity. The disconnected fragments look out for new connections and combinations. The result is often misreading and failed communication. In hypertext everything is inside everything else: it has no beginning, it has no end. Writing on computer must never reach a conclusion. As Ted Nelson wrote: "There is no final word".(7)

Hermeneutics and deconstruction

While linear writing forces twigged relations into one train of thought, hypertexts make possible a direct representation of the connection and structure of thought. That which is concealed by the medium book is revealed by the medium hypertext. As Norbert Bolz wrote:

Hypertext macht explicit, was lineare Schriften noch der hermeneutischen Arbeit auflasten: das Netzwerk seiner Referenzen. [...] Der gesamte hermeneutische Gehalt eines Texts ist in der Verzweigungsstruktur seiner elektronischen Darstellung manifest.(8)

From this point of view, linear texts have an affinity to the reading strategy of hermeneutics while hypertexts are more inclined towards the reading strategy of deconstruction. The digitalisation, which, in order to express and to transmit knowledge, breaks this knowledge into limited units, has a natural affinity to the philosophy of deconstruction, which denies all claims to unity.(9) The goals of historical hermeneutics are universality and profundity. But media text has no need for either. According to media theory, media text is not concerned with the secret intentions lurking behind an information transmission. Media texts, like the media themselves, cannot produce a final understanding that might be established, say, by text-analysis or text-interpretation. Moreover, media theory liberates retrospectively even the old-fashioned text of its obligation to have a solid meaning. The media text describes neither the reality nor the ideas beyond the text. Its material is the media themselves. Media are not carriers of cultural and ideological values. Rather than transporting messages, they form their own parallel world, which never touches classical reality. Knowledge of the framework and of the contextual relations is surplus information, which can only increase the information load.(10)

Information-transport has no natural topography. The demand for restructuring knowledge anew as hypertext confronts the limited receptive capacity of man. The connections of connections lead to utter confusion. One gets lost in hyper-cyberspace. Ted Nelson's definition of Internet - "Everything is deeply intertwingled" - is almost identical with Pynchon's definition of paranoia: "Everything is connected".(11) Actually, boundaries between world-complexity and connection-mania have been smudged since the paradigm of knowledge shifted radically from reference to intertextuality.

Language as metamedium

Marshall McLuhan wrote that the content of a medium is the preceding medium. "An inevitable consequence of this rule is that those who strive for a deeper content always end up at a previous medium."(12) For writing the previous medium is speaking, while for network communication it is both: writing and speaking. Language presents itself as the metamedium of all past and future media. As the carrier of the Western textual culture writing makes possible the on-line transmission of all humanity. However, language turns out to be not only capable of recording written texts, but also of transmitting correctly individual intentions when not distracted by body language. The narrowing of the transport channels focuses the importance of the verbal message. The obsolete alphabet exceeds design. If writing has been cornered by design in the television, video and paper world, "it has created a new, free space in the electronic universe".(13)

Electronic media are thus establishing a new concept of text. Jay D. Bolter's statement about hypermedia as the "revenge of text upon television" seems to be verified.(14) Actually, the shift from the printed media to the electronic media does not mean the death of the book. The transient computext seems to represent the ironic re-emergence of the written word after the word had already been declared dead by the new visual culture. Writing has succeeded in renewing itself by finding a new mass medium. Even those, who believe they can remain outside, find themselves already included in the universal media archives. All books can be republished and resold anew on CD-ROM. The computer serves as an unprecedented compression tool and the media as a container with an unprecedented volume. The writers get rid of their publishers. Nelson's utopia about the collaboration through an online-world-library as the only possibility for the human brain to cope with the mass and complexity of information almost seems to be fulfilled nowadays.(15)


The common accessibility to the media archives causes difficulties. In the world of electronic data there is no evidence of authenticity. The knowledge-applicants streaming on the strada of information mostly have a heterogeneous and obscure origin. This leads to a deep cultural crisis and a crisis of confidence. Traditional sources that can be trusted close up, because value and non-value appear in the same context.(16) Data, information, knowledge and science cease to belong to the same paradigm. The practice of science is profoundly shaped by value commitments. Values enter science by selection, but who makes the choice in the era of the world wide web and on what grounds? Preservation in media archives happens not by a value-based canon; rather it is a technological a priori.

Internet as medium

Each medium must, time and again, discover its own dynamics. The medium, in McLuhan's opinion, has its location not within man, but outside man. The carriers of medium can only transmit their message if their attributes are utilised within the framework of human communication. Because of its breach with everything human, media theory, while gaining its own discursive object, lost its proper purpose and sense, namely, communication. The author wants to enter into a discussion with the reader and vice versa - through a given medium, out of necessity. Already in the 17th century Protopop Avvakum encountered this barrier of the written medium. In his autobiography the Russian preacher and writer addressed his potential readers directly and left some lines in his manuscript blank for their possible answers.(17)

The inherent dynamics of electronic writing lies, in comparison with traditional writing, especially in the technical possibility of reciprocal communication. However, mass media are mostly used for one-way-communication. Baudrillard sharpened McLuhan's slogan ("the medium is the message") in a way that means that the message is a task, an exam for the receiver.(18) Message is no longer message but an order. Mass media are therefore not really intended to enter into a dialogue. Norbert Bolz says that

Internet-Benützung unter der Flagge Interaktivität segelt, bietet dies nur doch scheinbar. Meist wird die Rezeption durch rechnergestützte Instruktionen gegängelt, die individuelle Bahnungen ebenso ausschließen wie Annotationen und Kommentare.(19)

Sybille Krämer comes to a similar conclusion: mass media do not make but break dialogue ("die gleiche Information [erreicht] zur gleichen Zeit viele anonym bleibende Rezipienten.").(20) Receiving information is a passive happening but interactivity needs an active response. The message will therefore not emerge from the carriers of the media but solely from the sender, who consciously utilises the technical capacities of the media for the coding of his/her own verbal message. This message, because of being naturally dependent on language, includes parts of the human subconscious.

The inmost aspiration of the author is the reader's response. Electronic writing should be an appeal to the reader to take part in the creative process, to co-write the literary composition - the work. If once literature turns from an Aufschreibsystem into an Umschreibsystem, Myron Krueger's allusion to McLuhan's slogan - "response is the medium" - will become true.(21) And then we could share McLuhan's enthusiasm about the effects of media, when he wrote: "Nothing ever printed is as important as the medium of print." We might say, regarding the possibilities of telematical media: Nothing ever said in response is as important as the invention of the medium of the response.

© Gabriella Hima (Debrecen)

TRANS        table of contents: No.10


(1) "Adilkno", 10.txt ("Probing McLuhan"), 46.txt ("The Extramedial")

(2) Groys, Boris (2000), pp. 92, 97-98.

(3) Krämer, Sybille (1997), pp. 94-97.

(4) "Adilkno", 35.txt

(5) Ibd.

(6) "Adilkno", 01.txt ("Writing in the Media"), 10.txt ("Probing McLuhan")

(7) Nelson, Ted (1981), p. 2/14.

(8) Bolz, Norbert (1993), p. 222.

(9) Bolz, Norbert (1993), p. 223.

(10) "Adilkno", 51.txt ("Self-Reception")

(11) Bolz, Norbert (1993), p. 218.

(12) "Adilkno", 46.txt ("The Extramedial")

(13) "Adilkno", 35.txt ("Virtual Writing")

(14) Bolter, Jay D. (1991), p. 26.

(15) Kampis, György (1998), Bolz, Norbert (1993), p. 217.

(16) Kampis, György (1998)

(17) Already in the 17th century Protopop Avvakum (1620-1682) encountered this barrier of the written medium. In his autobiography, Zitie protopopa Awakum, im campym napisannoe (Das Leben des Protopopen Awakum, von ihm selbst niedergeschrieben), which he wrote in 1672-1673 in an underground cell in Pustozersk, where he was imprisoned from 1667 until he was burned at the stake in 1682, the Russian preacher and writer addressed his potential readers directly and left some lines in his manuscript blank for their possible answers. The mentioned work was printed for the first time in 1861 in St. Petersburg (Editor: N. S. Tichonravov).

(18) See in Bolz, Norbert (1993), pp. 227-228.

(19) Bolz, Norbert (1993), p. 233.

(20) Krämer, Sybille (1997), p. 90.

(21) Krueger, Myron (1982), p. 43.


WWW (last access to all mentioned WWW sources: 2001-06-25)

"Adilkno": The Media Archive, WWW:
Writing in the Media:
Probing McLuhan: WWW:
Virtual Wirting: WWW:
The Extramedial: WWW:

Keviczky, László: "A kimeríthetetlen erõforrás: a tudás" [Knowledge: the enexhaustable source of energy], WWW:

Kampis, György: "Az egyetemek korszaka után. Az egyetemek és a tudás kapcsolata" [After the era of the universities. The connection between universities and knowledge], 1998. 04. 07. WWW:

Nyíri, Kristóf: "Multimédia és az új bölcsészettudományok" [Multimedia and the new human sciences], WWW:


Bolter, Jay D.: Writing Space, Hillsdale 1991.

Bolter, Jay D.: "Das Internet in der Geschichte der Technologie des Schreibens", in: Bolz, Norbert: Am Ende der Gutenberg-Galaxis. Die neuen Kommunikationsverhältnisse, München: Fink, 1993.

Bürdek, Bernhard E.: "Der digitale Wahn", in: Bürdek, Bernhard E. (Hg.): Der digitale Wahn, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 2001, pp. 178-213.

Groys, Boris: Unter Verdacht. Eine Phänomenologie der Medien, München/Wien: Carl Hanser Verlag 2000.

Krämer, Sybille: "Vom Mythos 'Künstliche Intelligenz' zum Mythos 'Künstliche Kommunikation' oder: Ist eine nicht-anthropomorphe Beschreibung von Internet-Interaktionen möglich? In: Stefan Münker, Alexander Roesler (Hg.): Mythos Internet, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1997, pp. 83-107.

Krueger, Myror: Artificial Reality, Menlo Park 1982.

McLuhan, Marshall: Understanding Media, London: McGraw-Hill, 1965.

Münker, Stefan, Alexander Roesler (Hg.): Mythos Internet, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1997, pp. 37-55.

Nelson, Ted: Literary Machines, Swarthmore 1981.

Sandbothe, Mike: "Interaktivität - Hypertextualität - Transversalität. Eine medienphylosophische Analyse des Internet", in: Stefan Münker, Alexander Roesler (Hg.): Mythos Internet, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1997, pp. 56-82.

For quotation purposes:
Gabriella Hima: The message of the medium. McLuhan's media theory and the present media situation. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 10/2001.

TRANS     Webmeisterin: Angelika Czipin     last change: 04.07.2001