The Medium Is the Massage as Multimedia Event

In 1966-67, The Medium Is the Massage was released in five different mediums: Book, record, film, multimedia “magazine,” and lecture. Quotes from The Medium Is the Massage provides quotes from all five versions as well as links to a video walkthrough of the book, a recording of the record, a video of the film, an archive of the multimedia magazine, and a record of the lecture. Each section includes alternate versions as well, including both the 45 rpm promotional single of the record and Paul Miller/DJ Spooky’s remix of the LP. There’s also quotes and audio from Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Adam Michaels’s The Electric Information Age Book and The Electric Information Age Album.

Five for Rhetsy

Collin Brooke has issued a call for a list of five things — books on your night stand, books you want to read this year, songs you’re playing in heavy rotation, recent games you’ve played, snacks in your cupboard, etc. — with the results to be shared in the next issue of Rhetsy. Here’s a list of the most recent games I’ve played on a computer or iPad:

  1. Dwarf Fortress
  2. Minecraft
  3. Carcassonne
  4. Stone Age
  5. The Battle for Wesnoth

Call for Nominations: 2015 Technology Innovator Award


Deadline for nominations: 26 April 2015

The CCCC Committee on Computers in Composition and Communication will honor an innovator in our community at the 2015 Computers and Writing Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and we need your help to identify a person who has pushed our field regarding excellence in teaching, more rigorous scholarship, and deeper levels of service.

Among other qualities, this year’s innovator will be the person whom you recognize as having done the most to help other teachers use computer-mediated learning and teaching and has served as a mentor to those new to computers and composition.

This year’s recipient should be a person who pushes the envelope, who moves us beyond the cutting edge to the bleeding edge, who is willing to open the technological Pandora’s Box knowing full well that the challenges and work that we’ll meet as that Box is opened will strengthen our community and make our classes better. The recipient of the Technology Innovator Award might be referred to as an outstanding leader or an electronic pioneer who calls our assumptions into question, urging us to engage in an active search for new and exciting ways to accomplish our pedagogical goals in the composition classroom.

Nominees for the award can be of any academic rank (student, contract, staff, tenure-line or tenured faculty, etc.) as well as independent scholars.


The recipient of the Technology Innovator Award

  • has made a significant groundbreaking or foundational contribution to the field of computers and composition
  • demonstrates outstanding teaching achievements with computer technologies
  • provides on-going support and encouragement to the community, in particular to those who teach with computer technologies
  • contributes to the field through scholarship and publication in print and electronic media (including such media as journal articles, discussion lists, webtexts/hypertexts, text/book authorship, and editorial work)


While we ask that you keep nomination letters to 750 to 1000 words, we do encourage you to include or link to CVs and supplementary material. Do keep in mind that the more thorough the nominations are, the better the individual’s chances. Stated another way: Nominations consisting of only a name, a few sentences, and a link to a CV may not stand up against more formal, detailed nominations. We encourage single letters of recommendation crafted and signed by individuals or groups instead of multiple letters for a single nominee.

  • Nomination letters should be kept to 750-1000 words.
  • A nomination should consist of an email that includes specific details on the nominee’s award qualifications. Nominations should contain information on accessing materials that demonstrate the nominee’s work. Attachments are acceptable.
  • Nominations can be submitted by an individual, a group of individuals, or a professional organization (e.g., the Assembly on Computers on English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the CCCC Caucus on Intellectual Property and Composition, etc.).
  • Self nominations are encouraged.


Beginning in 2007, the 7Cs elected to keep nominations for this award in a two-year rotation. The judging committee, comprised of previous winners of this award, will consider all nominations from last year (2014) in addition to any new nominations for this year. We recognize the work you put into the nomination process and want to recognize that by considering deserving individuals without repeating the paperwork. If you want to nominate someone and you aren’t sure whether they were nominated last year, please contact John Walter at johnpwalter [at] gmail [dot] com for clarification/confirmation.

Please title the email: Tech Innovator Award: NOMINEE’S LASTNAME

Send nominations via email to John Walter at johnpwalter [at] gmail [dot] com.

Deadline for nominations: 26 April 2015


The following outstanding members of the computers and writing community have already received the Technology Innovator Award. (Past winners should not be re-nominated.)

The judging committee is typically comprised of the five most-recent-years’ past winners.

2014: Dan Anderson

2013: Angela Haas

2012: Cheryl Ball

2011: Charlie Lowe & Michael Day (tie)

2010: Nick Carbone

2009: Dànielle DeVoss & Will Hochman (tie)

2008: Janice Walker

2007: Kris Blair

2006: Mike Palmquist

2005: Richard Selfe

2004: Carolyn Handa

2003: Charles Moran

2002: John Slatin

2001: Lisa Gerrard

2000: Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe

1999: Fred Kemp

Please send questions, comments, and nomination submissions to John Walter, 7Cs Technology Innovator Award Coordinator at johnpwalter [at] gmail [dot] com.

Why I Teach The Medium Is the Massage

The following is a revised version of a blog post I wrote on July 16, 2010. I rewrote it and posted to the Cyber-Rhetoric course blog as the last lecture on The Medium Is the Massage, and thought I’d repost it here. When I wrote the first version back in 2010, it wasn’t my intention to explain why I believe teaching The Medium Is the Massage is so important, as I assayed1 the subject, I found myself ending up doing just that.

From the July 16, 2010 Inside Higher Ed‘s article “Technologically Illiterate Students“:

“Say you are an employer evaluating college students for a job. Perusing one candidate’s Facebook profile, you notice the student belongs to a group called “I Pee My Pants When I’m Drunk.” What is your first thought?

It should not be that this student is unemployable for being an intemperate drinker, said Susan Zvacek, director of instructional development at the University of Kansas — though that it might mean that, too. Mainly, though, it should suggest something else — something that might be more relevant to the student’s qualifications.”

“What it tells me,” Zvacek said, “is that the student is technologically illiterate.”

The piece then goes on to offer  Zvacek’s definition of technological literacy:

“The digital divide used to be about the hardware haves and have-nots,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is that it’s less about who has hardware, but who has access to information; who has those problem-solving skills. And that’s going to be the digital divide that we’re going to see in the future … the ability to deal with information.”

The assumption that today’s student are computer-literate because they are “digital natives” is a pernicious one, Zvacek said. “Our students are task-specific tech savvy: they know how to do many things,” she said. “What we need is for them to be tech-skeptical.”

On the one hand, I want to stand back and suggest that the issue raised in the anecdote isn’t about technological awareness but rhetorical awareness, about the construction of the self. And it is. At the same time, however, Zvacek is getting at something else. Zvacek is responding to the US Department of Education’s definition of technological literacy as knowing how to use a computer, and in doing so, she’s not alone.2

I want to push this issue farther though, push it beyond the concepts of computer literacy or technological literacy. In fact, I want to push us beyond the use of the word literacy itself for a whole host of reasons, first and foremost because literacy is, technically, about letters, about the written word, and that positions the issue squarely in a particular techno-cultural-noetic milieu.3

I was fumbling with this very subject when I wrote about technological literacy in The Making of a Technorhetorician: A Technological Literacy Collage, which I wrote earlier that year as an example for students working on their own technological literacy collages. I’m unhappy with what I wrote there, as unhappy, in fact, as I was when I wrote it. The problem, I’ve realized, is that I fell into the trap I try to push students away from. I let the imperiousness of literacy muddle my thinking4 The issue, I so fumblingly hinted at in my technological literacy collage is not literacy of any sort but awareness rooted in orality-literacy studies and media ecology. Its the kind of awareness that Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong spent their careers trying to teach us.

As long as we keep basing this issue in particular techno-cultural-noetic contexts, we’re going to keep fumbling along, never to get it right. The awareness I’m talking about here, and the awareness I think Susan Zvacek is getting at without realizing it, is rooted in an awareness of McLuhan’s dictum/maxim “The medium is the massage,” that “[a]ll media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”5 That is,  McLuhan’s awareness of how media work as environments:

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a working knowledge of the way media work as environments. (26)

It can be hard, at first, to convince students that I’m talking about something relevant to their lives when we jump around from such topics as the difference between alphabets, syllabaries, and logograms; Renaissance perspectivism and railroads; Homeric myth and encyclopedias; Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Absurdest theater, and the Fluxus Movement; John Cage and Charlotte Moorman, the TV-bra wearing cellist and performance artist. As McLuhan knew, you’ve got to pull the rug out from under our feet before we can get beneath the surface and understand the deep structures.

Making the mistake of being too rooted in a particular techno-cultural-noetic perspective leads us to focus on the wrong things. My go-to example here is the belief that oral poets must be illiterate. Early scholars of oral tradition too quickly jumped to this conclusion that oral poets must be illiterate because the oral poets they studied were illiterate, even while there was evidence to the contrary, and it mistaken notion was perpetuated for far too long.6 As Ong argued, writing is imperious. It clouds our perspective. We are so rooted in literacy and in print culture that we far too often fail to realize it’s not our natural noetic state or that it’s not inherently better than other noetic states. This is the reason why we use literacy as the metaphor for everything, and in doing so, we fail to recognize that when we think we’re talking about literacy we are sometimes actually talking about awareness of media as environments.

I believe this is important because, as McLuhan and Fiore reminds us through the use of the A.N. Whitehead quote at the end of the book, “The business of the future is to be dangerous” (160). Yes, the business of the future is to be dangerous. As they reminded us at the beginning of the book, with another A.N. Whitehead quote, “[t]he major advances of civilization are processes that all but wreak the societies in which they occur” (6-7). However, as McLuhan and Fiore assert in the introduction to the book, “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (25). The Medium Is the Massage, as with much of McLuhan’s other work, is his attempt to give us the tools necessary to contemplate what is happening, to understand how media work as environments, so that we can help determine our own future.

Ultimately, this is why I keep teaching The Medium is the Massage, why I keep returning to it semester after semester even as I resist becoming one of those teachers who always teaches the same thing semester after semester. Back in 2009, when I was teaching at Creighton University, a student told me our university president walked by, saw the student reading The Medium is the Massage, and said, “People still teach that?” Fortunately, this particular student had gotten McLuhan’s message by that time and she explained that she found it to be an important book. She had come to understand McLuhan’s message and its relevance to her 21st-century life. I keep teaching McLuhan because it is relevant to all our 21st-century lives and it will be relevant to the lives of our 30th-century ancestors as well.

  1. From the French Essai, meaning “trial” or “attempt,” and the origin of Montaigne’s invention of the essay genre.
  2. For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, let me suggest Cindy Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention; Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher’s Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives from the United States, and Stewart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age as three good starting points.
  3. See, for instance, Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s “Blinded By the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy for a Metaphor for Everything Else?” in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies.
  4. If you’re really curious as to what I mean by this, see Walter J. Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” (The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Ed. Gerd Baumann. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. 23-50; Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 4: Additional Studies and Essays 1947-1996. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999. 143-168.).
  5.  The Medium is the Massage, 26.
  6. Scholars of oral tradition, including such people as Albert Lord who was one of scholars who first promoted the error, have also worked to correct this perception. For a good, introductory text on this subject, see John Miles Foley’s How to Read an Oral Poem.

Hot and Cool Media

When teaching Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage, I find that I need to spend a bit of time teasing out what McLuhan meant by hot and cool media. This isn’t surprising since the book relies upon the concepts but doesn’t go into them in depth, and, moreover, while television is one of the book’s primary go-to examples of cool media, students today are accustomed to television as a high-definition technology. Since I’m teaching an asynchronous online course this semester, I’ve distilled my talk on hot and cool media down to this:

As W. Terrance Gordon explains in McLuhan for Beginners,1 a hot medium is a high-definition medium that “gives a lot of information and gives little to do” and a cool medium is a low-definition medium that “gives a little information and makes the user work to fill in what is missing” (51). As Gordon notes, the amount of information involved is not the facts and knowledge we’re getting but “how our physical senses respond to, or participate in, media” (51).

Some things McLuhan tells us are hot: radio, print, photographs, paintings, movies, lectures.

Some things McLuhan tells us are cool: telephone, speech, cartoons, mosaics, television, seminars.

Here is a list of hot and cool media, paired together to help illustrate the comparative nature of “high definition” and “low definition.” The hot media are in red and the cool media are in blue: (radio | telephone) (print | speech), (photographs | cartoons), (paintings | mosaics), (movies | television), (lectures | seminars).

As you compare the painting and cartoon below, the “Florence, Piazza Della Signoria” by Giuseppe Gherardi and a Peanuts cartoon respectively, notice the amount of visual detail in the painting compared to that of the cartoon. If you’re familiar with the Peanuts, you know that Charley Brown lives in a free-standing house and that Snoopy’s dog house is in a fenced backyard. Only, we only ever see the fence when it’s important, such as when Snoopy is perched on top of it pretending to be a vulture or when he’s interacting with the neighbor’s cat.

We, as viewers of the painting, are presented a fully detailed scene. It’s a high definition image and there’s little for us to “fill in,” or, in Gordon’s terms, there’s little work for us “to do.” As we look at and read the Peanuts cartoon, on the other hand, we see that there’s very little detail. We’re supposed to remember that Snoopy’s dog house is in a fenced backyard rather than off by itself somewhere with nothing but snow and a little bush off in the distance (3rd panel). The Peanuts cartoon is a low definition image and we have much work to do in filling in the context.

Florence, Piazza Della Signoria

Peanuts Cartoon

Peanuts Cartoon

So, having looked at the two images, let me offer one more example: the lecture vs. the seminar.

In a lecture, someone stands before you and talks at you. You might be able to ask a question and get a response, maybe even engage in a bit of an exchange, but the point of a lecture is to lectured to. High amounts of information and little for you to do other than absorb (or tune out) that information. This is why a lecture is a hot medium.

In a seminar, on the other hand, you and the other seminar participants are gathered together to discuss ideas. The instructor might act as the discussion leader, but it’s quite common to have students take charge of discussions for at least part of the time. Because there are multiple, sometimes competing, ideas being expressed, the seminar resembles something more like a mosaic or a mixed media collage than a painting. You, as participant, are responsible for sharing ideas, filtering through information, asking questions, and making connections. Compared to a lecture, a seminar gives little in the way of straight-forward information and it requires its participants to fill in what information there is. This is why a seminar is a cool medium.

In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which McLuhan offers an extended discussion on hot and cool media (22-32), he also notes that we can heat up a cool medium and cool down a hot one, or that a medium can “overheat” and reverse itself by cooling down (33-40). When thinking about hot and cool media, this is worth remembering.

For our immediate purposes, however, it might be worth noting that at the bottom of page 125 of The Medium Is the Massage, McLuhan tells us that the images of the cool medium of television wrap around us in a “sort of reverse perspective which has much in common with Oriental art.” If you’re wondering what McLuhan might be getting at here, turn to pages 143-145 in which he quotes from the ancient Chinese philosopher and poet Laotze, who gives us what we might call a “reverse perspective”: the idea that a spoked wheel is a circle is because of the empty spaces between the spokes; the idea that a pitcher gets its form from the absence of clay; and the idea that doors and windows are valuable because of what is not there (the lack of wall allows us to move through doors and see through windows).

This Asian perspective (the East), McLuhan tells us, is much cooler than the North American and European Western perspective. Immediately following the Laotze quotes, McLuhan tells us that electric circuitry is “Orientalizing the West” (145), by which he means that it is disrupting our uniform, continuous, and connected linear patterns of thought that have their roots in the alphabet (44-45) and were fostered with the advent of print (46-61), and is instead replacing that with a sensibility that is more flowing, unified, and fused (145). In other words, electronic circuitry is cooling down the hot perspective of Western print culture.

  1. Gordon, W. Terrance. McLuhan for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1997.