The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Kenneth E. Boulding

The Medium and the Message *


Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science

31 (2), May 1965, 268-273.

If, as Marshall McLuhan repeats almost to the point of being repetitious, the medium is the message, there is really no way of reviewing these two extraordinary books in a medium as linear, visual, and non-tactile as print.  One might use a book as a weapon, for, as McLuhan understands very well, a weapon is also a medium and a message (Understanding Media, chap. 32), in which case one would simply throw the book at the reader.  When I took my degree at Oxford I was literally struck by the fact that the Vice Chancellor, in conferring the degree, hit the four kneeling candidates before him solemnly on the head with a large Bible: “In nomine Patris (bang!) et Filii (bang!) et Spiritus (bang!) Sancti (bang!)”  Reading these books is a rather similar experience.  One is tempted to put the whole review into the form of a comic strip with balloons simply saying “Pow!,” “Zowie!,” and so on. Or perhaps one could simply abandon the alphabet and write a long line of asterisks, exclamation points, and question marks, like this: ! * * ! * * * ! ! * * ? ! ° *

It is clear after reading these books that something which McLuhan will not allow me to call an explosion but which I am damned if I will call an implosion is going on in Toronto, beneath the deceptive surface of what is often regarded as a plain and provincial, even Presbyterian, exterior.  The knowledgeable, however, will nod sagely to each other and murmur a magic password, “Innis.”  The late Harold Innis, whose stature rises as we recede from him, was perhaps the first man to realize that communication was the key to social phenomena of all kinds.  The all-too-select few who have read a remarkable little magazine called Explorations, which came out of Toronto some years ago, realized that the Innis ferment was working mightily.  Again, to vary the medium and to mix the metaphor, the McLuhan books are the skyrocket that came out of this ferment, and one feels almost that if one lit them with a match they would soar up into the sky and explode into a thousand stars.

Let me, however, try to come down to earth and explain what the books are about.  The Gutenberg Galaxy, in spite of the fact that convention compels it to be printed as a codex, is obviously designed to be printed on a moebius strip.  It has no real beginning or end, though it ostensibly begins with King Lear and ends with a significant reference to Finnigan’s Wake, which also has no beginning or end.  It has no chapters, but is divided into about a hundred sections, each of which is headed by a chapter gloss, which summarizes but is also an integral part of the section.  Each of these is pretty self-contained, and

* The Gutenberg Galaxy: the Making of Typographic Man. By Marshall McLuhan. University of Toronto Press. 1962.  Pp. 294. $5.95.. Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man.  By Marshall McLuhan.  McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1964. Pp. 359. $8.75.


can be read almost at random in any order.  he total effect is almost literally that of a galaxy or a great garden of jeweled aphorisms.  I can perhaps best give the flavour of the book by quoting some of these, almost at random.  For instance, page 18, “The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world”; 22, “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy”; 24, “Does the interiorization of media such as ‘letters’ alter the ratio among our senses and change mental processes?”; 26, “Civilization gives the barbarian or tribal man an eye for an ear and is now at odds with the electronic world”; 31, “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village”; 124, “The invention of typography confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable ‘commodity,’ the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production”; 199, “Print, in turning the vernaculars into mass media, or closed systems, created the uniform, centralizing forces of modern nationalism”; 208, “The uniformity and repeatability of print created the ‘political arithmetic’ of the seventeenth century and the ‘hedonistic calculus’ of the eighteenth”; 239, “Nobody ever made a grammatical error in a non-literate society”; 251, “Typography cracked the voices of silence.”

Frankly, hopefully “gentle reader,” how do you review a book like this?  Understanding Media is somewhat more conventional in form, in that it has chapters, and does seem to have a beginning and an end.  The crackling quality of the ideas and of the style, however, remains, and it is really the same book as The Gutenberg Galaxy in a slightly more conventional form, and applied more directly to the problems of the modern world.  Even so, there is a new idea on almost every page, and the sheer density of new ideas is so great that at the end one has a distinct feeling of having been hit over the head.  The publisher is reported to have said that nobody would read a book unless at least ninety per cent of it was familiar, and there is no doubt that a book of this kind, where ninety per cent of the ideas are unfamiliar to the average reader, is exhausting.  It has long been a custom of mine to take notes of the books I read on the flyleaves at the back, and usually the page or two which the publisher thoughtfully provides, presumably for this purpose, is ample.  I usually only jot down things which I think are somewhat new to me or significant.  In McLuhan’s case I find I have not only covered all the flyleaves provided, but my notes have spilled over onto an assortment of airline menus and hotel stationery, reflecting the synthesis of two means of communication, the airplane and the book.

Now, however, comes the sober and earthy work of appraisal.  Is the Galaxy a firework, exploding into stars and descending as a stick, or is there something here that shines continuously as part of the structure of the social universe?  What, in other words, happens to the McLuhan message after it has gone through the medium of the Boulding nervous system?  I think my conclusion is that there is a good deal of fireworks, but in the middle of the fireworks there are some real bright and continuing stars, in the light of which the world will never be quite the same again.  I will try to summarize in some chapter glosses of my own.


1. A social system is largely structured by the nature of the media in which communications are made, not by the content of these communications.

This, I take it, is the central message of McLuhan, and with this proposition I think I agree almost 99 per cent.  It is the invention of spoken language that differentiated man from the beasts, and enabled him to create societies, social systems, and social evolution in the first place.  The invention of writing is a major mutation.  Without it, urban civilization would have been inconceivable, even though it is not the only precondition of civilization.  Thus, we must have the domestication of plants and animals, that is, agriculture, before a sufficiently large and stable food surplus appears with which cities can be fed.  Men must be fed before they can write.  Once they start to write, however, a whole new fabric of social life is created, and man becomes conscious of time, and the social organization extends backward into the past and forward into the future in a way it could never do in a purely oral society.  Societies with alphabets do differ from those with ideographs, though perhaps McLuhan overdoes this.  All languages are really ideographic.  The alphabet is merely a crutch towards learning the gestalt patterns of whole words and sentences, though it is undoubtedly convenient in writing dictionaries and developing lexicographical orderings.  The relationship between literacy and violence forms a fascinating theme which recurs constantly in McLuhan.  The letters of the alphabet are the dragon’s teeth from which spring armed men.  I am not sure that he is entirely right in this; I suspect rather that the alphabet and the armed men both spring from a more remote and fundamental cause, which is the rise of large-scale organization itself.  The apparent peacefulness of the Neolithic village and the beastly violence of civilization may reflect merely the ability to organize violence, and even though literacy is part of the skills of organization, it is by no means the whole.

2. Media can be divided into “hot” media, which do not involve much participation on the part of the recipient, and “cool” media, in which the process of communication involves a great deal of participation on the part of the recipient.  The effect of a medium on the structure of society depends very much on its temperature.

The terminology, I think, is unfortunate, but the idea is an important one, even if McLuhan runs it a little into the ground.  Print is a hot medium.  It is like a branding iron, imposing its own pattern on the page, if not on the mind.  It is endessly repeatable; it implies abstraction.  It carries man away from intimate, complex relationships, from gemeinschaft into gesellschaft, from tribalism into nationhood, from feudalism into capitalism, from craftsmanship into mass production, from lore into science.  It builds large-scale organizations because it develops abstract and simple human relationships, and permits the almost endless multiplication of messages and patterns.  By contrast, speech is a cool medium, developing dialogue, response, feedback, complex and intricate patterns of personal relationships, family-centred societies, a familistic ethic, tribalism, and superstition.  McLuhan argues that by far the most important thing that has happened in the twentieth century is the development of television, which is a cool medium of communication, involving a high level of participation on the part of the viewer, mainly, it would seem, because the television image is so imperfect.


It is clear that McLuhan has an enormously important idea here.  On the other hand, it is not difficult to catch him out in inconsistencies, especially in his discussion of television, where he seems the least convincing.  From one point of view, surely both radio and television are as hot media as print, in the sense that they do not really evoke dialogue or feedback between the recipient and the originator of messages.  On the other hand, one feels that McLuhan is quite right in pointing out the enormous contrast between radio and TV.  Hitler was a phenomenon of the brief radio age.  On TV he would have been as ridiculous as McCarthy was.  There is no doubt that TV elected Kennedy, defeated Nixon, and destroyed McCarthy, and that radio was the secret of the power both of Hitler and of Roosevelt.  But this has very little to do with the hot-cold continuum, as McLuhan describes it.  The real difficulty here, and it is something which is likely to distract attention from the enormous importance of McLuhan’s message, is that he has tried to squash into a single dimension properties of media which require at least three dimensions for their exposition.  We have on the one hand the dimension of involvement of the recipient, which is the one on which McLuhan concentrates, and this is indeed important.  It accounts for a great deal of the different effects of oral versus written communication, or the difference between the printed page and the picture, or the difference between Renaissance and modern painting, or the difference between Mozart and Strindberg.  I would like to call this dimension the demandingness of the media.  Some media are demanding, some are undemanding.  On this dimension, I suspect that print is “cooler” than McLuhan thinks.  Print is not imprinted on the mind the way it is on paper.  In order to effect the transmission from the printed page to the nervous system of the reader, an enormous amount of involvement is required, and the pattern of the printed page has to be translated with the aid of an enormous memory bank into a totally different pattern in the nervous system.  After all, there are no letters in the brain.  Demandingness here is perhaps more a function of the context of the medium than the actual physical form of the medium itself, and McLuhan often makes the mistake of supposing that it is the physical form of the medium which is significant rather than its social context.

A second dimension which McLuhan tries to squash into his single continuum is the range of a medium.  This is closely related to the ability of the medium to develop a system of feedback from the communicatee to the communicator.  A conversation, even more a dialogue, is the medium with the smallest range.  It exists for the most part only at a single point in time and space, even though there is a time dimension in individual memory.  The invention of writing made it possible for the present to speak to the future, and to hear from the past.  It also made it possible for one man to communicate with people far beyond the range of his voice.  Printing merely introduced a quantitative change in this dimension.  It merely had the effect of amplifying the effect of manuscript.  It is significant, I think, that in the age of print between Gutenberg and Edison, a man could communicate in visual form to many more people than he could communicate with orally.  Electronics changed all this.  The phonograph and the tape did for the ear what writing and printing had done for the eye.  It enabled us to hear people from the past and to speak to people in the future.  It also increased the potential number of people who can hear one man to include


the whole population of the earth.  As communication increases in range, however, it tends to lose in feedback.  With increase in range, dialogue passes into monologue.

A third dimension of media is their information density.  McLuhan hints at this many times, but never quite seems to spell it out.  The concept here is close to the information theorist’s concept of capacity.  The information intake of the human is limited by the capacity of his sense organs.  The ear has a greatest capacity than the skin, and the eye than the ear.  The combination of all the senses has a greater capacity than any one of them taken singly.  The problem is complicated by the fact that the capacity may not be a simple additive quantity.  We are interested, furthermore, not merely in the amount of information which can be transmitted per unit of time, but in the total information which can be transmitted and processed during the life of a system.  There is no point in having an enormous intake of information through the senses for five minutes if it takes us five days to digest and process the information we have received.  It is probably the information-processing apparatus which is the real bottleneck, not the information-receiving apparatus.  The failure to realize this occasionally leads McLuhan astray.  I suspect, for instance, that he puts too much stress on “synaesthesia” or the combination of the senses, and not enough on the fact that it is the processing of information in the human nervous system which is the really crucial process in the social system.  In this sense it is the message, not the medium, which is important.  The message is not just another medium, as McLuhan is continually saying, for the message consists of the processing of information into knowledge, and not the mere transmission of information through a medium.

3. Print created an “explosion” resulting in the break-up of an old integrated order into individualistic, differentiated, atomistic, mechanical human particles, producing classical economics, Protestantism, and the assembly line.  Electricity creates an “implosion” which unifies the nervous systems of all mankind into a single contemporaneous whole, bringing us back to the tribal village, this time on a world scale.

This exciting theme recurs constantly in McLuhan’s work.  It is one of those great flashes of light which makes the surrounding world seem rather dim, and it seems almost sacrilegious to ask if this idea is true or can be tested.  Print certainly had a lot to do with Protestantism and capitalism.  On the other hand it also had a lot to do with the rise of the modern nation, the development of national literatures, and the break-up of the trans-national order of the Middle Ages.  It is true that a book (in manuscript) created medieval Europe, and another book created Islam, and with the coming of print these old unities fragmented.  Is this the result of print, however, or is it simply the result of multiplication?  Surely if Gutenberg had discovered an offset process by which manuscripts themselves could simply be reproduced cheaply and easily, the effect would have been exactly the same as the discovery of print.  Here again I think we see McLuhan concentrating on one dimension of a medium to the exclusion of others.  Similarly with the electric implosion.  It is certainly true that the rise of large-scale organization is intimately connected with the development of the telephone and telegraph and instantaneous com-


munication.  These inventions have had an enormous, effect in increasing the range of media, both in terms of the distance over which dialogue could be conducted, and also in terms of the number of people to which a single person can speak.  On the other hand, I would argue that electricity in itself has not had much effect on either the demandingness or the density of media in general.  It has raised some and lowered others.  Consequently, I have doubts about the world village.  It is. true, I think, that an increase in the range of media, whether this is conversations or weapons, increases the optimum scale of organization, and that we have probably now got to the point where the optimum scale of political organization is the whole world.  This does not mean, however, that we are going back to the tribal village.  We are going on into something quite new and strange, and even though this newness and strangeness is highly conditioned by the nature of the media that produce it, it is by no. means clear that McLuhan has caught the exact relationship.  It is perhaps typical of very creative minds that they hit very large nails not quite on the head.

These criticisms in no way detract from the enormous importance of these works.  They should provide hypotheses for social sciences to test for a hundred years to come.  One would like to see them required reading in every university.  There is indeed in these days an invisible college, as de Solla Price calls it, of people who have perceived the crucial role of information processes in social systems.  I am not sure that I would appoint McLuhan president of this invisible college, but I would certainly welcome him as its dean.