Commonly Asked Questions (and Answers)

Answers by Dr. Eric McLuhan, Marshall’'s eldest son

Why is the title of the book “The medium is the massage” and not “The medium is the message”?

Actually, the title was a mistake. When the book came back from the typesetter’s, it had on the cover “Massage” as it still does. The title was supposed to have read “The Medium is the Message” but the typesetter had made an error. When Marshall saw the typo he exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”

Now there are four possible readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: “Message” and “Mess Age,” “Massage” and “Mass Age.”

On media and technologies as Extensions of Man (the subtitle of Understanding Media)

It was R. W. Emerson who wrote in 1870 that:

The human body is the magazine of inventions, the patent-office, where are the models from which every hint was taken. All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses

On “The Medium is the Message”

Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message.

The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. (Understanding Media, NY, 1964, p. 8)

What McLuhan writes about the railroad applies with equal validity to the media of print, television, computers and now the internet. “The medium is the message” because it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” (Understanding Media, NY, 1964, p. 9)

On the source of the phrase, “Global Village”

As to the origin of the term “global village” in McLuhan’s work. it has been variously attributed, to Teilhard de Chardin, for example. He did not get it from Teilhard, however. As far as I have been able to ascertain, it comes from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or else from P. Wyndham Lewis’s America and Cosmic Man—if it comes from anywhere.

Joyce published Finnegans Wake in 1939. In it he uses two phrases, both allude to the Pope’s annual Easter message to the City (of Rome) and the World: Urbi et Orbi. Joyce turned this into “urban and orbal” in one place in the Wake, and into “the urb, it orbs” in another.

The painter and writer, Wyndham Lewis and McLuhan were close friends during the 40s and 50s. Lewis published America and Cosmic Man in 1948 (Britain) and 1949 (US). The eleventh paragraph of Chapter Two of that book read:

If you look at North America on the map of the world, you see a very uniform mass. It is more concentrated and uniform than any other land mass. You see an immense area full of people speaking one tongue: not a checkerboard of “united states” at all but one huge State. “United States” is today a misnomer. And since plural sovereignty anyway—now that the earth has become one big village, with telephones laid on from one end to the other, and air transport, both speedy and safe must be a little farcical, the plurality implied in that title could be removed as a good example to the rest of the world, and the U. S. A. become the American Union.

Now, McLuhan was a great fan of Joyce’s and had read the Wake closely for years. Also he and Lewis discussed these and related matters frequently during the years of their association. And he had marked the phrases in Joyce and the paragraph in Lewis’s book, and pointed them both out at one time or another. But I think the truth of the matter simply that he was thinking along those lines and came up with the phrase and after the fact found it echoed in both writers.

In Understanding Media (xii-xiii) he put the matter this way:

…since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear.