Shining a Light on Marshall McLuhan

by Zoë Dutton on 16 April 2021
Shining a Light on Marshall McLuhan
Revisiting the media theorist's seminal 'Understanding Media' in a lit-up world

In September of 2020, user @W7FJXR63 tweeted:

The tweet contains a picture of a student accommodation block lit up with the rainbow-coloured LED strips endemic to the Gen Z-er’s bedroom/TikTok studio. One person replied with a zoomed in screenshot of the window lit up red: “either sex, horror movie binge watch, or disassociating. [T]hose are the only options.” The reply itself received nearly 25,000 likes; others clearly agreed. In fact, they not only agreed, they understood. The tweeter and the tweet-ees shared an unspoken cultural knowledge, otherwise dubbed ‘relatability’ – that sacred like-giver. They collectively knew that the red was not just a colour, but a vehicle for a message; publicising and elevating the specific emotional state of its owner. Indeed, the array of coloured windows expressed (to those fluent in its cultural language) both the projected state of the individuals and their membership to a collective. Not one spelt out “I’M UNDER THE AGE OF 25,” but their presence was sufficiently coded to make a viral tweet of this interpretation. Neither did the red light spell “I’M HORNY,” yet the specifics of its colour silently spelt this out – at least to those who knew the code. More inside jokes that were cracked in the replies and the collective conscience was deeper embedded.

The tweet brought one thing to my mind: “the medium is the message”, Philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s infamous maxim, first coined in his 1964 book Understanding Media. In it, McLuhan asserts that the content of specific media objects has overly dominated their study, blinding us to the importance of the media that the content inhabits – the layers of meaning that encase it. The word within the slogan within the advert within the television within the moving image, for example (to skip quite a few layers). As such, the reaction that the overt ‘message’ of a cultural object might provoke in us is almost irrelevant to the wider effect of the inhabited media: “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception.”

The medium, therefore, is its message. Why? Because its impact is far greater than that gaudy thing – its content – we like to label as such, and to which we usually assign the greatest importance.

Marshall Deemed Light Bulbs to be ‘Pure’ Media. He Was Wrong.

It’s a bit of a head spinner, no doubt. Take film, for example. Remember the famous tale of the 19th century audience running from an advancing train on a black and white screen, the first they had ever seen? Did it really matter that it was a train that they were shown? Or were the audience fundamentally reacting to the undoing of space, place and time, that had before seemed so apparently immutable? Did it matter, in turn, the minutiae of cinemas’ and televisions’ programming schedules, more than their shaping of public and private physical space, the when and how of our moments of communion, communication, learning and control, the way we look at ourselves and at others? In this sense, media shapes our world through its very presence – it informs how we view the world on a fundamental level.

We can see why the line between Understanding Media and a tweet about TikTok lights might therefore be easy to trace. But McLuhan touches on light as medium with a surprising lack of depth. He swiftly concludes that a bulb has no ‘content’, and that it is therefore a distilled, ‘pure’ medium. The use of light – be it for brain surgery or a baseball match – is of little significance, according to McLuhan, because the light exists only to light. That is, to illuminate activity:

“The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name.”

As the response to @W7FJXR63’s tweet shows us, however, McLuhan’s interpretation of light might be in need of a little update, because Mx Red Room sure didn’t choose that colourway to see better. In fact, I don’t think the hippies of Understanding Media’s era chose their warm tone palette for reasons of clarity either. Indeed, the pleasure gardens of 18th century London 200 years previous had also made light a spectacle, and stained glass windows had done so before that. Light has long been manipulated by humankind for reasons other than illumination.

I’m not sure the solution to Understanding Media’s blind spot is a complete dismissal of McLuhan’s argument. Instead, let us double down… Confusingly, McLuhan conflates physical light and bulbs as the same medium. It would perhaps be more illuminating (ha ha!) to understand it as a Russian doll: light (as in, visible electromagnetic radiation), is the content of the LED or oil lamp etc. that produces it, and these vessels are themselves the content of the sociocultural concept of ‘light’ created by humans.

When we truly understand the media at play within our concept of light, things become more message-y than perhaps even McLuhan knew. His response to computer super-chain IBM is an example of an equivalent interpretation. He writes: “when IBM discovered that it was not in the business of making office equipment or business machines, but that it was in the business of processing information, then it began to navigate with clear vision.”

With every passing year, sellers of light have increasingly realised this same vision. They are not selling physical illumination, rather, they are selling us something far more abstract: they are selling us better lives. What’s more, as light is increasingly commodified and fetishised, its snowball of cultural meaning continues to pick up pace and complexify.

Understanding Kim Kardashian’s Aseptic White Mansion

The response to @W7FJXR63’s tweet tells us that not just owning, but understanding light, (or rather understanding how we understand light) has become currency – creating or destroying connections. If you were, for example, to invite friends over to watch – let’s say for the sake of emphasis – Schindler’s List, and made sure to put your rainbow spinning disco ball on in the corner, your friends would hardly be keen to join you again. They might be irritated, offended and confused. How strange that one type of light would upset us so, because tonight we had planned to look at the other light. A club lit only with harsh white spotlights would feel exposed, lacking the ambiance we expected to find there. We light our living spaces with warm shaded bulbs to show and tell and realise comfort and domestic security. We light our bathrooms in white to emphasise sterility and perhaps to minimise, indeed literally whitewash the ‘dirty’ truth of what those rooms are intended for. And we paint these rooms colours to match the atmosphere we choose to curate – colour itself being but another form of light.

Of course, with enough time, we begin to subvert such norms: I think of a friend’s burnt orange downstairs loo; those famous egg toilets at sketch restaurant with the rainbow checkered glass ceiling; Kim Kardashian’s oddly aseptic though somehow tranquil white mansion. Still though, these choices are calculated with a mind to their impact on our social and economic capital and, in turn, our wellbeing. “What does this say about me, about us?” Kim K didn’t go for the white because it made it easier to see without her reading glasses, neither do I think that stain management was one of her decor priorities. Her house expressed and in turn generated capital. The white mansion said something so delightfully nuanced, something too intricate to sum up in an Instagram caption. Its medium was its message and its message was its medium.

Is Happiness 10,000 Softly-Lit Scandinavian Candles?

Before rainbow LED strips, it was the cult of fairy lights, salt lamps, blue light filters and the warm orange glow of Hygge that took hold. That is, Hygge as in the Danish art of… a sort of calm but in the moment feeling that involves a lot of wearing knitted jumpers, relishing the smell of herbal tea and smiling adoringly at your fantastically rugged blond husbandTM. One online lighting store has a page dedicated to explaining Hygge. The article announces excitedly:

“28% of Danes light candles every day!” and “31% of them [are] lighting more than 5 at once.”

Five at once! Phwoooar!! No wonder those Danes are so damn happy. (Definitely nothing to do with that comprehensive welfare state, civil liberty and equality.) If your candle and/or rugged husband isn’t to hand though – don’t worry: “[f]or help to make the lighting in your home more ‘hygge’ this winter, feel free to get in touch.” That’s right, you can buy your happiness in bulb form.

I don’t want to sound like a total skeptic, because the effect of light on our wellbeing is very real. A new orange lamp shade can make your room feel different, feel better. Blue light filters help us get to sleep at night. A bright white lit hospital encourages alertness, creating better patient outcomes. All because these effects are hardwired into our biology, reminding us in turn of the glow of a fire that signifies night and induces sleepiness, and the white, bright sun that means we should get going on the business of hunter-gathering. The effect of specific colours beyond the warm-cold spectrum is disputed, but their impact on a psychological level is demonstrable: the classic example of the team wearing red being more likely to win, for example. A complete understanding of the technology of light is, as such, deeply complicated by the relationship between nature and nurture. The impact of cars might be assessed independently to biology, exploring their radical shaping of the physical, financial and cultural landscapes we inhabit. This is because there was a time in which cars and even carts did not exist – not anywhere in the landscape nor our DNA – and yet now they do. This sort of ‘clean break’ of the before and after of each technology makes them far easier to interpret. But light has a history that stretches back to the very very beginning, and our responses to it now fall in the inexact venn diagram of culture and biology.

What does this all mean, then? As I see it, McLuhan’s theory is more pertinent than ever, and has proved to be more accurate with each passing year, as the very presence of technological media shapes our society increasingly profoundly. And yet for too long light slipped under Mcluhan’s and all of our radars as being one of the most radical media to exist in humanity’s cultural history. As such, its potential and meaning are yet to be fully realised, in both senses of the word. As the tentacles of it and of all technologies infiltrate ever further into our lives, we seem, in fact, to be letting go of overt content, should a medium express it better. It’s a very show-don’t-tell world, as the NYU student dorms attest to. Marshall may have missed out on TikTok LED strips, but I like to think that he’s in Heaven, live-tweeting on the white light pouring out from the pearly gates: “either salvation, gospel marathon, or ascending with the angels. [T]hose are the only options.”