• 03.16.17

An Animated Guide To Marshall McLuhan And “The Medium Is The Message”

In the age of Trump, McLuhan’s 50-year-old ideas seem prophetic. Here’s a primer.

An Animated Guide To Marshall McLuhan And “The Medium Is The Message”

The work of Canadian philosopher and writer Marshall McLuhan is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s, when McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” Now the animator Daniel Savage has created a simple, black-and-white animation for Al Jazeera that illuminates why this axiom resonates in 2017.


In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan wrote about how media affects daily life. But instead of focusing on the content–today, the tweets, Facebook posts, and news articles that many of us regularly consume–he was interested in how the form of the content, that platform that delivers it to you, can impact your psychology in insidious ways.

As the Hong Kong social activist Alex Chow narrates, Savage’s animation shows a figure reading a book inside of a square, which transforms into a figure listening to a radio inside of a circle, which morphs to a figure watching television inside another square, which, finally, changes into the figure typing into a computer inside of a triangle. The shifting geometric shapes act as a visual metaphor for how each progressive type of media affects the shape of the world in which people dwell, even if they don’t realize it. “The fact that our insane president can have a hissy fit and send it to the world with the tap of a screen really says something,” Savage tells It’s Nice That.

“McLuhan wasn’t saying that content is inconsequential,” Chow says in the animation. “He was saying that when we pay too much attention to it, we ignore the power of form in shaping our experience. So, if you don’t understand the medium, you don’t fully understand the message.”

The animation takes the viewer through a brief history of mass media, which began with the invention of the printing press. Books being available on a scale never before possible changed the collective experience of the world, informing identity and broadening consciousness. Electronic media, from the telegraph and telephone to the television, has had similar effects, extending experience beyond physical boundaries. The next step was the internet, which has altered how we live in even more fundamental ways. The animation shows figures seeing their world through each progressive technology, pointing out how the means by which they see the rest of the world truly impacts what they perceive.

“Another strange effect of this electric environment is the total absence of secrecy,” a recording of McLuhan narrates as pixels of light bombard the human figure in the animation. “With the end of secrecy goes the end of the monopolies of knowledge. Everything happens at once. There’s no continuity, there’s not connection, there’s no follow-through. It’s just all now.”

That sure sounds like Twitter on a Wednesday.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.