The Medium Is The Metaphor (Postman, Not McLuhan)

Neil Postman updated Marshal McLuhan’s famous expression “The medium is the message.” 

Or, for you fellow sticklers who know about the book cover, “The Medium Is The Massage.” 

Postman unlocked the modern era (when it was his future) with his reframing:

The medium is the metaphor.

The distinction is every bit as important in 2023 as it was in 1985 when he published it in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Culture is an outgrowth of the ideas most conveniently expressed through conversation. A medium can influence or change both the convenience and nature of the conversation. 

In the 2020s we see it everywhere with social media. But think back through history: Spoken word. Written word. Transmitted spoken words (radio). Movies, then TV, and video. Then text messages. The exploding richness and brevity of social media.

Who is in the conversation changes. Who is and can lead the conversation changes. The convenience factor – it changes too. 

Not just in the medium, but in the metaphors we use as a function of the mediums at our disposal. Our language changes. Not just LOL and IDGAF, but not exactly not that either.

In reference to McLuhan and why it needed an update, Postman writes:

A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world.  But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality.

In case you’re still not convinced, think of that Facebook post you wrote years ago, or your TikTok from a minute ago, or an X/Tweet from whenever and – the immortality of your conversation with anyone and everyone that’s ensued. 

Three more quotes because this evolution of media and language is ever-evolving. If we can talk about how it changes, we can focus on creating the cultures we want to be a part of. If we ignore it or fail to talk about it… things fall apart, even more.  

Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist–all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading. 

Thus it takes some digging to get at them, to grasp, for example, that a clock re-creates time as an independent, mathematically precise sequence; that writing recreates the mind as a tablet on which experience is written; that the telegraph re-creates news as a commodity. And yet, such digging becomes easier if we start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. 

When Galileo remarked that the language of nature is written in mathematics, he meant it only as a metaphor. Nature itself does not speak. Neither do our minds or our bodies or, more to the point of this book, our bodies politic. Our conversations about nature and about ourselves are conducted in whatever “languages” we find it possible and convenient ot employ. We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.

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