February 2003

Marshall McLuhan loved the metaphor. James Watson and Anne Hill's 'A Dictionary Of Communication And Media Studies' lists a few of his inspired phrases: "Radio he called the Tribal Drum, photography was the Brothel-without-walls, TV the Timid Giant, the motorcar the Mechanical Bride." The dictionary also quotes literary critic Northrop Frye's description of McLuhan as a 'manic depressive roller-coaster of publicity'.

McLuhan's understanding of the media as an extension of ourselves led him to consider the world as a global village and come up with the famous equation 'the medium is the message'. A whole chapter of his book 'Understanding The Media' is about this equation, which is on a par with Albert Einstein's E equals emceesquare.

Understanding McLuhan can be difficult as he uses the term 'message' to signify content and character. The content of the medium is a message that can be easily grasped. And the character of the medium is another message which can be easily overlooked. McLuhan says, and quite truly, "Indeed, it is only too typical that the 'content' of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium." The cellphone is a case in point. The content of this medium may be good or bad depending on the personality of the individual. MacLuhan asserts that any medium can do nothing but add itself on to what we already are. But the cellphone's character is absolute. It has the power to unite a divided family... but also to create a diaspora.

The character of the medium, therefore, is independent of the content. But interestingly, McLuhan points out that the content of any medium is always another medium. "The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph." This fact collapses the duality of medium and content. The difference, however, between one medium and another will always remain. But as a generic term, when all differences vanish, the medium is indeed the message. This may still be difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is not an algebraic equation but a profound metaphor. After all, McLuhan loved the metaphor.

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