The Medium is the Massage

Greg Proffit
4 min readFeb 24, 2021

Marshall McLuhan wrote a seminal work in 1964 called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In it, McLuhan posits that various media types (print, radio, television) affect society by the direct impact of the medium itself on the reader, listener, viewer, more than by the content portrayed. He coined the famous phrase, ”The medium is the message”, as a concise statement of this phenomenon.

McLuhan used the terms ”hot” and ”cool” to describe this property of various media. A hot medium gives the recipient lots of information, stimulates multiple sensory inputs, and requires little interaction from the user for the extraction of meaning. A cool medium may only stimulate one or two senses and requires much more participation from the user for the user to determine and extract meaning.

Think of the difference between a book you’ve read (some people still do that), and seeing the movie adaptation of the same book. A book is much ”cooler” than a movie, because the reader must imagine in her own mind everything sensory: how the characters look, the colors in the settings, the sounds of the voices in dialogue, etc. A great author creates a world not only for his characters to inhabit, but for the reader to inhabit with them. Television and movies provide all, or nearly all, of the visual and auditory information to the watcher. Great directors, like Hitchcock, for example, knew this to be true, and left only the suggestion of violence in some of his scenes, counting on the viewer to fill in the blanks in her own mind. This interactive component, he believed, would make them even more frightening than anything he could put on film. Count in your own mind how many senses you use when reading vs. watching television or a YouTube video.

In 1967, McLuhan wrote anther book, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. In this book McLuhan points out the entire array of effects on the sensorium of the user of each respective type of a particular medium. This has application to sound (volume), and sight (colors, movement, screen refreshes, etc.), but the accumulated affect is amplified. McLuhan explores how various media types ”massage” the user, and how that effect, in turn, impacts how the user both receives and perceives content.

Greg Proffit

2xTop Writer - I write eclectically about Love, Reading, Ideas, Politics, God, Psych., & Random Absurdities—325+ stories. Twitter @gproffit