The Medium — that is, the iPad — is the Message

It is a compliment to Marshall McLuhan that the German writer Frank Schirrmacher applied McLuhan’s formula The Medium is the Message to Apple’s new iPad. He did so last week in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of which he is co-publisher. McLuhan’s formula is in the field of communications what Einstein’s E=mc2 is in physics.

“We need to understand,” Schirrmacher writes, “that almost all technological innovations in the digital sector have led to cognitive changes. They have resulted in boundless creativity as long as the systems were open and everyone could participate in their evolution. But the democratization of the computer now shows that most people want things to be simpler and don’t want to drown in the flood of data and commands. So convenience, transparency, and freedom from viruses come first….

“Steve Jobs’ iPad signals the transition from the revolutionary phase in computer technology to a restoration period…. Whatever becomes of the gadget the Apple founder has presented, it tells us nothing other than that the hardware changes the content. The tool changes our way of thinking.”

It was a common pastime in McLuhan’s lifetime – he died in 1980 – to decry many of his imaginative and unverifiable findings. But today few would doubt that his basic insights have been vindicated by events.

Schirrmacher’s observation that the iPad signals a change in the digital world from the revolutionary period to a restoration marked by simplicity of design and transparency which will have an impact on the content of the messages to be delivered by it has all the earmarks of McLuhanism.

Will it ever be possible to demonstrate that Schirrmacher was right?


8 responses to “The Medium — that is, the iPad — is the Message

  1. I very much like the phrase ‘from the revolution to the restoration’ but I can’t say that I understand how it applies to the iPad. Restoration suggests back to what one had before the revolution – but one did not have simplicity and transparency before … just what revolution? Computers? personal computers? laptops? PDAs?

    I suppose a typewriter had simplicity and transparency, and it certainly had no viruses (just the occasional jam).

    I recall the simplicity and ease of use of WordPerfect 5.1, but I doubt that’s what Herr Schirrmacher has in mind.

    What does he think is being restored?

    • Since I cannot answer your question I just googled him to find out what his pre-revolutionary golden age might be which he thinks must be restored. I learned that in a recent book (about changing demographics), The Methusalem Plot, he called for a rebellion by the old in response to the panic about the aging population.

  2. Better than that, Eric. New technology is itself the message. Jobs’ new technology from the beginning has been the message that intuitiveness is its own reward — in comprehension, in self-expression, in the joy of technolust for us non-techies. He has been freeing us from the message conveyed by the lines of code and “terminal fatal errors” purveyed by Bill Gates and his ilk. That is why Apple’s versions of engineering marvels, that are ostensibly available from other sources, are so subversive and so popular. As extensions of ourselves they are more natural, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling. That is why we Mac fanatics are always having such a good time, and did so even when the Windows naysayers were predicting the imminent demise of the outfit creating our beloved toys.

    • Most illuminating comment. Did you make up the TECHNOLUST???

      As to the concept of restoration – do you want to restore the pre-technolusty joys of the KAYPRO?

  3. In its day the Kaypro was, indeed, the object of my technolust. (For the mystified, check out Andy Kay was Steve Jobs long before Steve Jobs became Steve Jobs.) I still admire my Kaypro II in its sexy blue and grey livery whenever I visit my storage locker, though I haven’t plugged it in for two decades. I guess I’m still carrying a torch….

  4. What this article illustrates is the corollary to McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” message. And that is the more important message: “The Medium is the Massage,” altering our world view & impressions of reality.
    —Alan Hersh

  5. True. You and I may be the only ones who understand Marshall M. On one occasion a graduate student parked in McLuhan’s spot at the University. McLuhan left a note on his windshield, saying “THIS IS MY SPOT. M.M.” On the next occasion the student went up to him after a lecture and said, “Professor McLuhan, this is the only piece of your writing I have understood.”