Key to understanding McLuhan's now famous phrase "the medium is the message" is the idea that a communications technology, or figure, operates through its context, or ground. McLuhan called attention to the fact that media often operate silently, affecting and altering the people who use them and function in their environments. To fully grasp the impact a new technology will have, one must examine figure and ground together, since neither is comprehensible without the other. McLuhan argued for the necessity of examining communications technologies in their historical specificity, particularly in relation to those technologies which preceded them. Previous technologies have affected the social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of society, as well as the individual members of society. The present environment, itself made up of the effects of previous technologies, gives rise to new technologies, which, in their turn, further affect society and individuals.
Furthermore, all technologies have embedded within them their own assumptions about time and space. For example, what interested McLuhan was not specifically the car on the road or whether it had power windows, reclining seats or six-passenger seating. For McLuhan, these elements are merely the content of the medium, much like a television program is the content of television. The message of the car, rather, is found in the growth of suburbs; the expansion of highways and freeways linking suburbs to cities; new social spaces and practices, like carpool lanes and street racing; and the ways we think about geography, movement and time. The message here can only be understood if the figure, the car, and the ground, the environment in which the car is used and which it produces, are analyzed together. McLuhan greatly admired important modernist art, like the symbolist poets and artists, including artist Paul Cézanne, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and writers James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, precisely because their work reconfigured the figure-ground relationship in ways that offered a critical commentary on culture and society.
…the ground of any technology is both the situation that gives rise to it as well as the whole environment (medium) of services and disservices that the technology brings with it. These are side-effects and impose themselves willy-nilly as a new form of culture. 11
Portrait of Girl on Wicker Chair with Telephone, early 20th century, photograph by John Kelso
Marshall McLuhan, 1973, photograph by Robert Lansdale
11. McLuhan, Laws of Media, p. 475.