The English Language, Marshall McLuhan, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Matter moves to a more disorganized state, if you allow it some time. I’m not a physics expert, but that’s entropy, the second law of thermodynamics in a nutshell (yes, I’m oversimplifying). Any parent can explain that one via the self-evident and irrefutable evidence of a child’s room. If you select any random child, hire an army of housekeepers to clean his room, let them get at it, pay them their wage, stand back and admire the spotless cleanliness of aforementioned room, turn your back for an instant, and then return for another admiring glance, what do you find? You find a mess.

Entropy, in the context of a child’s room operates according to formula. Room plus Child plus Time equals Mess. The only way to counteract this is to send the child off to boarding school.

Now that I’ve set the stage for entropy, consider the idea in the context of the English language. Having been writing for decades now, for fun and profit, I’m beginning to suspect that entropy is wreaking its toll on language as well. Granted, language is constantly in a state of evolutionary flux as new words are added due to such things as technological and scientific advancement (in addition to old words sloughing off due to technologies and customs falling prey to old age), but what we are seeing nowadays is something entirely different.

Nowadays, communication, regardless of medium, is governed by the post-modern idea that meaning is not inherent in the original body of work as intended by the writer (or artist, etc). If you’ve recently taken a literary criticism class, you’ll probably know what I mean. Rather, meaning is inherent in how the reader or listener or viewer interprets and understands according to his own life experience and education and worldview. Thus, meaning, even of single words, is losing its grip on the past; its anchor back to the point in historical time in which the word was created is dragging. In a great many cases, the anchor chain has snapped completely. Furthermore, technology is filtering a great deal of communication, particularly for younger people, so that exchanges take place in hurried, slipshod ways. Words no longer need precise use, and many people have no expectations of their precise use. Voila. Entropy at work, due to the pressures of post-modernity, as well as technological changes in social interaction.

Marshall McLuhan once famously remarked that “the medium is the message,” inferring that the medium, the vehicle of communication, forms and influences the message itself. I think his saying has become somewhat passé in light of entropy and the unfortunate evolution of modern language. McLuhan’s saying still holds a certain amount of truth, but, I would argue that it is becoming replaced with a different truth. Namely, the recipient is the message.

More on this later.

4 thoughts on “The English Language, Marshall McLuhan, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics”

  1. I just had an argument with someone who thought that fallible and infallible meant the same thing, because flammable and inflammable do. Actually, I’m quite proud of myself for walking away and letting him have the last (incorrect) word.
    Humpty Dumpty knew about linguistic entropy all along.

    1. Nice. I’ve had that exact experience before. I don’t bother anymore. Though, if I have the energy some day, I might experiment with correct and incorrect to prove a point.

  2. This often repeated phrase by McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) is his most misunderstood idea; it does NOT mean what it literally says and you have to understand it in the context in which McLuhan wrote it. By “the medium is the message” he means, what he says in this quote from ‘Understanding Media’:

    “The medium is the message. This merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (p. 7).

    The key words are: “the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology”. It means that we should pay more attention to the impact on the world that a medium has, consider how it changes society and the world both for better and worse, rather than its content, “the new scale that is introduced into our affairs”, rather than the messages that are carried. For example, TV has had a profound effect on all kinds of things: politics, news, entertainment, religion, business, advertising, education, etc. The message of TV, which is more important than any programming TV carries, is the cumulative effect of all those changes. The Internet is similarly having a profound effect on the world. If you want to read more about this, my friend Mark Federman has explained it here: http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm .

    And here’s another explanation by McLuhan himself:
    “When I say the medium is the message, I’m saying that the motor car
    is not a medium. The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil
    companies. That is the medium. In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car. When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone. The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects. The car is a FIGURE in a GROUND of services. It’s when you change the GROUND that you change the car. The car does not operate as the medium, but rather as one of the major effects of the medium. So ‘the medium is the message’ is not a simple remark, and I’ve always hesitated to explain it. It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people. *It is the environment that changes people, not the technology*.” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Alex, and thanks for the pointers on McLuhan. I’m afraid I slept through most of comm theory in college (though, the sections on feminist critique and marxist critique always seemed to wake me up – probably due to how angry those people seemed to be). I like the idea of “the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people.” That works for me. My real point is that modern society has elevated the individual’s subjective perspective to such a height that it pretty much trumps everything else. This can get taken to absurd ends. In the context of story-telling, I’d argue that this means the reader is more important than the author. I don’t agree with that perspective, but that’s how a lot of people operate, unwittingly or not.

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