Decolonizing McLuhan

Re-introducing the concept of the ‘medium is the message’ by McLuhan through decolonized thought re-inserting the continued existence of indigenous peoples.




“The printed book added much to the new cult of individualism. The private, fixed point of view became possible…” McLuhan 50.

The colonized Message: A postcard depicting attractive Hawaiian women elated to be welcoming a tourist to their beautiful island.

The decolonized Medium: A postcard neglecting to illustrate an authentic representation of indigenous women who inhabit Hawaii, rather a sexualized depiction of women, welcoming a white settler into their lands, culture and traditions.

McLuhan famously asserts that to fully grasp the information or knowledge available from a concept, event or innovation, one needs to look beyond what appears to be the obvious. McLuhan warns this often overlooks critical pieces of information that contribute to the complete picture or idea. While McLuhan is correct in drawing attention to the fact that our personal societal and cultural experiences prevent us from understanding multi-faceted events, he neglects to highlight the inverse effect this may have. Although someone may have a different ‘grounding’ experience of lived culture and traditions, that doesn’t mean people of different backgrounds are incapable of viewing issues or events in a similar perspective. McLuhan defines the ‘medium’ as “any extension of ourselves” and the ‘message’ as “the change of scale, pace or pattern that a new invention introduces into human affairs”(McLuhan 8). Therefore, the message would not be the information being directly and obviously conveyed, but the change it causes. The medium signifies the extension of our thoughts and environment media enables us to create.


Medium creating a message

Or decolonized thought extending beyond conventional media to change perspectives

“…Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than “a place for everything and everything in its place” you cant go home again” (16)

This sentiment denies the ability for indigenous peoples to revitalize and restore indigenous culture, traditions and livelihoods that were damaged by colonialism. McLuhan asserts the notion that once a mass movement gains momentum, to return to life before is impossible. This mass movement could be technology, new media or colonialism.



However McLuhan is mistaken in predicting that a new form of “…Politics” is emerging… the living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television.. Pollution and other events are changing everything.” (22) Indigenous peoples are the perfect example of defying this “mass audience” movement of politics by decolonizing space through land as pedagogy to protest political and global issues. This can be observed with the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the Oka Crisis. Both are examples of indigenous resistance to a colonial power that has appeal to a ‘mass’ audience through colonial media sources in the inaccurate portrayal of indigenous lands as sacrificed. Indigenous peoples resist colonialism through displacement by rejecting this narrative and defending their lands despite being “sold” from one colonizer to another. Indigenous peoples are using new forms of media while simultaneously implementing protests from a land based, decolonized and traditional perspective.


“…The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media works as environments… All media are extensions of some human faculty, psychic or physical” McLuhan 41.

McLuhan identifies a powerful truth to media that has proven beneficial in advancing decolonization and advocating for indigenous rights. Mcluhan writes, “…Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act- the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change” (McLuhan 52). While sexist in the last phrase of the statement, reclaiming a voice through media has changed the narrative and thus the perspective surrounding indigenous peoples. While major mass media outlets initially neglected to report on the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, indigenous peoples were able to circulate an authentic, decolonial account of events to resist the colonial injustice taking place on sacred lands.


“…It is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” (McLuhan 9)


In this sense, media has been used against aboriginal peoples. Reporting on missing and murdered indigenous women throughout Canada has record biases reporting style. When compared with reporting on similar cases, bios, personal attributes and emotional affections are exempt. News coverage of non-aboriginal women runs along the lines of ‘beloved athlete, student and daughter. Active member of her local youth church group and had aspirations of attending university of British Columbia’ versus, reporting on missing or murdered aboriginal women… ‘Aboriginal woman, age 34 frequently seen in the downtown east side.’ This method of delivering a message through a construed medium affects the perspective that is often associated with missing and murdered aboriginal women as being inherent targets because of substance abuse stereotypes that have been perpetuated by a colonial, derogatory and sexist narrative.


McLuhan’s presentation of the concept of the medium is the message as innovative itself denies this notion having been existent among indigenous culture and tradition for centuries. Traditionally, it was common for community totem poles to be carved to convey knowledge systems, transfer of property rights and societal dynamics. This notion of various knowledge systems transcended throughout a variety of traditional art forms. Arguably, the concept ‘medium is the message’ has been employed by indigenous peoples before the era of new media.


McLuhan on printed technology as an innovation for individualism denies the legitimacy of Aboriginal oral history and traditions.

“In the name of ‘progress’ our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old” This way of considering legitimate knowledge systems places indigenous legal orders and oral histories as something of the past.

“Most people find it difficult to understand purely verbal concepts… we are so visually biased that we call our wisest men visionaries, or seers!” (McLuhan 117)

This highlights a problem that continuously confronts indigenous peoples throughout colonial court systems and governmental powers. Aboriginal right to land and natural resources are frequently denied due to the indigenous traditions of passing down property rights through oral histories. Arguably, the tendency to rely predominantly upon visual or written information hinders westerners from perceiving the entire message or information being conveyed… overemphasis on the obvious.

One thought on “Decolonizing McLuhan

  1. I quite like your analysis of the “you can’t go home again” quotation, Alexandra. McLuhan exposes quite a bit here, doesn’t he? On the one hand, as you astutely point out, he precludes Indigenous people from a return (or a resurgence), but at the same time he wants to call everyone back to the “global village.” Lots to think about in this short quotation–thanks for raising it with these reflections!

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