Marshal McLuhan penned the famous quote “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McLuhan, 1964). McLuhan hypothesised that the medium through which content is carried affects society by the characteristics of the medium itself, rather than the messages it hosts. McLuhan used the light bulb to demonstrate this notion, stating that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence”. A light bulb does not have ‘content’ in the way that a television has programs, yet the medium itself has a profound social effect. The social effect being that a light bulb enables people to create space during nighttime that would otherwise be cloaked in darkness.
With this in mind, I decided to sit and have a chat with my friend Isaac about his childhood television experiences. I was curious to find out what role the medium of television played in creating spaces in the family home.
Isaac spent his formative years living in a town called Inverell, situated in rural New South Wales. He moved from Inverell to Canberra at the turn of the century, age eight, yet he can still clearly detail the space created by the television in his family home during that time. “The TV room was separated from the kitchen by a walkway. The TV was in the corner next to a big window that faced outside into the yard area. There was a bookshelf, Dads guitar, a rocking chair, a spinning wheel, two couches and a bean bag”, he recalled. As we spoke Isaac remarked that he was surprised at how vividly he could remember the exact layout of the space.
Isaac then explained that the television was not the focal point of the ‘TV room’, and that the room could be better described as the home’s entertainment quarters. As a family of devout Catholics, TV was considered somewhat taboo. Furniture was deliberately arranged by Isaac’s parents so that the television was tucked away in the corner, almost out of sight. The primary television’s primary function was for showing VHS tapes, Saturday morning cartoons, and a platform for his parents to watch the evening news. The TV was used, and it was useful, but due to their religious faith, it was also important to Isaacs family that their entertainment quarters were not surrendered as a space for TV worship.
Isaac’s description of his family’s entertainment quarters can be explained, in part, by McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” theory by highlighting the profound impact mediums can introduce into human affairs. The family’s opinion of the television medium being somewhat sacrilegious resulted in the family arranging their entertainment quarter to deliberately ensure that the television was not the focal point. Simply placing a television in a space resulted in the space being reformatted to accommodate its presence.
McLuhan, M., 1964. Understanding media: The extensions of man. MIT press.