Saturday, September 23, 2006

Marx Explains McLuhan’s Gnomic Aphorism

The Medium is the Message.

Thus announced Marshall McLuhan—and the fallout continues.

“What could he mean?,” pointy heads have been asking each other for more than a quarter century. “Certainly the message is the message. The medium is a neutral carrier. There IS a difference between Shakespeare and stock market reports. Surely it matters whether the media carry one or the other. The particular medium is unimportant. What matters is the content.”

This is how McLuhan gets refuted, ostensibly.

But wasn’t there a precedent? Karl Marx said something much like McLuhan, but didn’t incur the same criticism (though Marx has incurred much other criticism). Marx said that changes in the means of production alter the relationships among social classes. He said, in effect, the medium is the message.

In Marxist analysis, the introduction of new technologies—once called labor-saving devices—into a society upsets the social order. When the upset is dramatic, a violent revolution might ensue. But the change in the means of production comes first. Revolution is an effect of changes in relationships among social classes, not a cause.

Now, nobody said, “Wait a minute there, Karl. You can’t just say that new technologies rearrange societies. What are those means of production producing? Labor-saving devices are just neutral carriers. There IS a difference between washing machines and bayonets. Surely it matters whether the means of production produce one or the other. The particular means of production is unimportant. Human labor, machine labor, who cares? What matters is the content.”

The medium is the message.