The Medium is the Message

The Medium is the Message.

The way we communicate shapes how we speak, how we think, and how we act.

Some quick history.

Historically, there were two kinds of societies:

  1. Time-biased societies
  2. Space-biased societies

Empires were concerned with duration over time and extension in space. But depending on how they communicated, they were biased towards one or the other.

Time-biased societies wrote on stone and clay.

They emphasized religion and neglected problems of space, such as administration and law. They also had strong social hierarchies.

Time-based media was durable, heavy and hard to move. It made territorial expansion very difficult. But since stone and clay could survive the elements and natural disasters, their messages lived on for centuries.


Space-biased societies wrote on papyrus and paper.

They also communicated through speech. They were territorial and non-religious. Since they communicate with light and portable mediums such as papyrus, they expanded far and wide. But they didn’t last as long.


Writing led to the invention of democracy.

Approximately one-third of men in Athens were literate in 4th century BC.  For the first time in history, written language — civilization’s primary method of control — was shared widely among the population.

Literacy democratized learning and government participation. That’s why democracy developed in Greece — not Egypt or Mesopotamia.

Technology and Communication

New technologies change how we live and communicate.

Electric lighting transformed every structure of work, society, space and time. The telegraph shortened the sentence and radio shortened the news story.

The power is in the medium — not the message or the content. 

Writing augmented memory and extended the human mind.

Writing brought in:

  • Nationalism
  • Industrialism
  • Mass markets
  • Universal literacy

Repeatable precision is only possible with writing. Print lets us reproduce the same text over and over again.


TV transformed American culture.


TV shaped America’s taste in clothes, food, housing, entertainment, and vehicles. TV defined America’s visual identity.

Here’s the key lesson: Media shapes the character of knowledge. New technology creates new human environments. These environments are active, not passive. 

Media Blindness

We’re blind to our media environment.

We’re aware of the content, but not the technology. Calendars encourage us to spend time that we don’t currently have; credit cards encourage us to spend money that we don’t currently have.

Technology shapes music in surprising ways.

The Black Eyed Peas used to optimize their songs for DJs. Songs like “Imma Be” naturally speed up during the song. Since it was easy to transition in and out of the song, DJs used it more often. This strategy caused the song to explode.

Social media is transforming music.

Rap songs are getting shorter.

The way people hear music shapes how it’s made. Music has shifted from being an active, intentional experience to more of a passive, unfocused one.

Songs are now are optimized for streaming and social media. Most people ignore or deplore ads. But they never study them.

Social media is transforming advertising. Today, the best ads don’t look like ads. What works on social media is the opposite of what works on traditional media. The best ads are native to the platform. They’re raw, shaky, and timely.

Instagram is transforming fashion. Designs are getting bigger because they look good on Instagram.

We’re seeing the rise of:

  • Big logos
  • Bright colors
  • Vibrant patterns

Off-White: Big, Bright Logos

Off-White: Big, Bright Logos

Designers know that we’re consuming their clothes on small screens. Modern fashion is eye-grabbing. Big, bright designs are the secret to Off-White’s success (pictured above).

We’re blind to our media environment because we’re so immersed in it. Most people focus too much on content. And not enough on the medium.

The Medium is the Message.