What is the Medium?

In his Kuro5hin article, The Software Construction Analogy is Broken, Mishkin Berteig suggests that “software creation is the process of creating new medias [sic!],” and while I agree with him now, I was confused at the time because he continued to mention Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the medium being the message, which is something I’m only beginning to understand the meaning of. Luckily, Umberto Eco is confused about this as well.

In the essay “De Consolatione Philosophiae”, published in his collection of essays, Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco writes:

In effect, all of McLuhan’s reasoning is dominated by a series of equivocations very troubling to a theoretician of communication, because the differences between the channel of communication, the code, and the message are not established. To say that roads and the written language are media is making a channel the same as a code. To say that Euclidean geometry and a suit of clothing are media means pairing a code (a way of formalizing experience) with a message (a way of signifying, through conventions of dress, something I want to say, a content).

Eco then repeats his criticism of McLuhan’s notion of light being a medium, showing how light can be either signal, message, or channel. And he continues:

In conclusion, the happy and now famous formula, “The medium is the message,” proves ambiguous and pregnant with a series of contradictory formulas. It can, in fact, mean:

  1. The form of the message is the real content of the message (which is the thesis of avant-garde literature and criticism);
  2. The code, that is to say, the structure of a language—or of another system of communication—is the message (which is the famous anthropological thesis of Benjamin Lee Whorf, for whom the view of the world is determined by the structure of the language);
  3. The channel is the message (that is, the physical means chosen to convey the information determines either the form of the message, or its contents, or the very structure of the codes—which is a familiar idea in aesthetics, where the choice of artistic material notoriously determines the cadences of the spirit and the argument itself).

I think that my confusion is partly due to me having interpreted it as “the channel is the message.” But McLuhan seems to regard almost everything as a medium: he says that a medium is an “extension of ourselves, or […] any new technology.” About this, Umberto Eco writes:

It is not true that—as McLuhan says—all the media are active metaphors because they have the power to translate experience into new forms. In fact, a medium—the spoken language, for example—translates experience into another form because it represents a code. A metaphor, on the contrary, is the replacement, within a code, of one term with another, a simile established and then covered. But the definition of medium as metaphor also covers a confusion in the definition of the medium. To say that it represents an extension of our bodies still means little. The wheel extends the capacity of the foot and the lever that of the arm, but the alpha bet reduces, according to criteria of a particular economy, the possibilities of the sound-making organs in order to allow a certain codification of experience. The sense in which the press is a medium is not the same as that in which language is a medium. The press does not change the coding of experience, with respect to the written language, but fosters its diffusion and increments certain developments in the direction of precision, standardization, and so on. to say, as McLuhan says, that language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet (in so far as it allows us to move from one thing to another with ease and nochalance) is little more than a boutade.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on November 15, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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