McLuhan: Prophet or Fortune-Teller

karsh-portraitLargely regarded as the father of media, Marshall McLuhan is known for his theories on media’s effects on society as well as individuals. Though he is still highly regarded, there are those who don’t understand and those who don’t buy into his seeming prophetic interpretations of how media has and will influence us. This paper summarizes briefly some of Marshall McLuhan’s theories using examples from modern technology, and takes into consideration oppositional perspectives.


McLuhan (2014) articulates a difference between nationalization (i.e., separation; segregation) and tribalization (i.e., group think) as triggered by the prevalent media of the time. Before print, as Burke (2013) points out, we were dependent on travelers for news in the form of songs and poetry. Everyone knew everything about everyone, elders were sources of information, and well known events were time markers. The “tribes” worked together to survive whether it was legal matters, history, or current events. With print, McLuhan determined that people became more independent when the need arose for privacy to read books. They were able to withdraw from the group and learn information pertinent to their own survival. Capitalism facilitated greed and competition. However, with electronic communication, people are once again depending on others for information and sharing what information they have. Collective intelligence exemplifies the new tribalization. Shirky (2010) discusses civic value in contributions online; another example of McLuhan’s tribalization in action.

mcluhan_quoteNaysayers may contend that due to the proliferation of social media and their typical uses (Boyd, 2008; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Java, Finn, Song, & Tseng, 2007), though we do cross national boundaries, we connect more with specific people for specific reasons and are no longer forced to associate with those whom we do not want to associate with; regardless of proximity. In other words, nationalism is created through interests rather than geographical boundaries. In fact, McLuhan might have considered this the reversal part of the internet tetrad.

Medium is the Message

Medium is the message means that what is important is not the content of the message itself, but the environment it is presented in. Taking the example of tribalization, what was printed did not matter to the shift to nationalization; what mattered was the affect of print on society. Likewise, what matters in retribalization is not what is shown on tv, presented on the internet, or played on the radio. It is the fact that the mediums themselves have shifted our focus from ourselves to our tribe (in this case, a global community) and from our ears to our eyes.

136038McLuhan’s example of a car being the message and the environment in which the car survives (e.g., the gas stations, the roads, etc.) makes this clear. He says when you change the grounds, you change the car. We know that when you change even the type of road your car goes on (e.g., paved to dirt or unbeaten), you necessarily change elements of the car. You can’t have a car made for paved road functioning well on on an unbeaten path. It must have a different chassis, different tires, a different engine, and so on. The message doesn’t matter. It changes as the medium changes. Shirky (2010) presents a good example of this as well. He explains that with the proliferation of the internet the content we produce changes to fit the abilities of the technologies. Another example is the change from finite amounts of space for categorization (e.g., libraries) to the infinite space we have for those same types of connections with the internet (e.g., tags) (Shirky, 2005). Our message- or content- changes with the medium. We tend to think too linearly and traditionally; an echo of McLuhan’s contention that we strive to produce yesterday’s message with today’s medium.

Those who do not agree with McLuhan may note that the message does matter, and while it changes based on the form of presentation, some messages are universal and eternal (Campbell, 1988). Some stories, regardless of how they’re told, transcend time and medium. In fact, the details of the story change across cultures, but the overarching themes remain. Though a story might be considered a medium, in which case it may serve to support McLuhan’s theory, it seems likely that McLuhan himself would not consider the story the medium but rather the message.


80678659_4603781_1259360083_xorThough McLuhan’s theories seem to accurately represent the ebb and flow of behavior with the tides of medium, there are those who would say the same of him as they would of fortune tellers and astrologists; the notions are vague enough that they can be made to fit any situation. This may also attribute to the constant “misinterpretations” of his theories. If this is true, why would it benefit media psychologists to understand these theories?

As a media psychologist, understanding McLuhan gives us another tool to look beyond bias and preexisting notions of how mediums should be used, to richer uses (e.g., augmented reality). We have the tools to create today’s message with today’s medium. We also have the tools to understand how the mediums have an effect on us as individuals and a global tribe. By standing back away from the specificity of the message, and seeing the larger picture of the medium and the network in which all mediums interact, media psychologists can not only help to articulate how we’ve transitioned from medium to medium in the past, but help us understand and foresee changes ahead.


Boyd, D. (2008). Why youth <3 social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. Youth, Identity, and Digital Media, 119–142. doi:10.1162/dmal.9780262524834.119
Burke, J. (2013). The day the universe changed: Episode 4 “matter of fact.” YouTube. Retrieved from
Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday.
Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), 1143–1168.
McLuhan, M. (2014). Marshall McLuhan Speaks — Centennial 2011. Marshall McLuhan Speaks. Retrieved from
Shirky, C. (2005). Ontology is overrated: Categories, links, and tags. Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet. Retrieved from
Shirky, C. (2010). How cognitive surplus will change the world. Retrieved from

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