In 1964, Renaissance scholar and English Professor Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and created a revolution in the very foundation of critical theory that has since made it irrefutably one of the most influential works of literature of the 20th century. Long before there was such a thing as the internet, foundation of analyzing meaning was constructed upon the idea that content was king. In fact, content was not just king, it was everything. In Understanding Media, McLuhan sets for a sustained argument that the meaning of any content is only a contextual component of the medium through the content is delivered. From this proposition arises not just the most important phrase from the book, but one of the most important phrases of the latter 20th century.
“The medium is the message.”
In other words, one cannot fully understand the message without understanding media and its impact upon the sensory perception involved in the process of transmission and reception of ideas. The reception of McLuhan’s book, ironically, resulted in as much derisive criticism as it did acclaim. One notably corrosive response was that of Kenneth Burke who reframed McLuhan’s theory within the context of a messenger delivering news to a king about the status of his enemy: “He is armed and raging and is—“ whereupon the messenger is interrupted by the king who tells him he doesn’t care about the content of the message, he just wants to know whether it came by phone, radio, TV, word of mouth, etc. The sarcastic edge is biting and certainly proves a point, but time has proven Burke seemed to have missed the point. (The last unspoken bit of information from the messenger might contain information which the vitality of which could be significantly impacted based on whether the information arrived by TV or word of mouth.)
Nevertheless, the fundamental line drawn in the sand by the book’s critics is valid: McLuhan makes grand and visionary points which at the same time can be said to use vague reasoning which are not easily verified through scientific experimentation. McLuhan’s prominence within academic circles is yet another example of irony: his fame through regular appearance on television lowered his status by the 1970’s whereas today that same approach is used as validation of academic theories. Put another way: the medium which called into the question the meaning of McLuhan’s message has now become the medium which now affirms the meaning of McLuhan’s message.