Monday, October 24, 2011

New Technologies, Old Thinking

Mass Communication

Marshall McLuhan [1911-1980]:  McLuhan once said: "Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition."
Photo Credit: © Horst Ehricht [1928-  ]; taken in the 1970s.

Much is made of the advent of new technologies, especially in how we communicate. The hagiography (and subsequent humanization) surrounding Steve Jobs and his innovative inventions is a recent example. To be sure, we can now communicate messages, images and ideas over the airwaves very quickly, getting close to matching the idea "as instantaneous as thought." Much of science fiction literature, certainly of the past, portends a day when humans would become have their brains (un)willingly connected directly to some sending and receiving mechanism, thus validating the human-machine relationship.

Yet, as much as some share some concern over the idea of humans becoming more machine-like, and this assertion remains unproven as of yet, a greater issue is what humans communicate, or rather disseminate. Despite the advent of wonderful technologies of communication, humans are still tied down to old ideas and prejudices. The newer technologies cut both ways, and persons and groups with old prejudices and hatreds now have a wider audience in which to potentially disseminate their ideas, as noxious as they are.

So, yes, we have newer technologies in communicating, bringing people closer together, And this is wonderful and good and there is much to applaud in these engineering marvels. Yet, the thinking has remained the same. Which brings me to Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist at the University of Toronto, who is perhaps most famous for coining the expression, "the medium is the message." In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), McLuhan writes:
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is 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. (7)
It has been a while since I studied communication theory and mass media in university, but McLuhan's words are worth looking at, in light of today's modern means of communication. McLuhan, for some was prescient, in seeing the human effects of mass communication. McLuhan's pithy phrase, because it is pithy, is often misunderstood to mean that content is less important than the means of communication. This is not so, at least according to McLuhan.

For McLuhan, the medium is anything that extended humanity's reach, from the physical and practical use of a hammer or wheel to do tasks, to the use of language and words to convey ideas. More so with the Internet and social media, which extends our ideas and thoughts around the globe instantaneously. In "What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?", Mark Federman of the University of Toronto's McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology writes:
Thus we have the meaning of "the medium is the message: "We can know the nature and characteristics of anything we conceive or create (medium) by virtue of the changes —often unnoticed and non-obvious changes —that they effect (message). McLuhan warns us that we are often distracted by the content of a medium (which, in almost all cases, is another distinct medium in itself). He writes, "it is only too typical that the "content" of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium." (9)

And it is the character of the medium that is its potency or effect —its message. In other words, "This is 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."

This, of course, can be good or bad, depending on how one views the thoughts and ideas being propagated. So, is McLuhan right? Is the medium the message? Yes, to a large degree, since new communications technologies introduce new media (i.e., social networking is one recent example), which influence change. Their presence and use effect changes, no doubt, in our personal spaces and how we view the message.

Even so, as important as McLuhan's theory might be, one must not forget that it is still the message itself that has the power to influence and motivate people to action, both good and bad. Not to put too fine a point to it, but the medium is still the means of carrying the message. Also worthy of consideration is that various media can alter the perception and validity of a message (e.g., manipulated photos and videos) to tell a story that the sender wants the world to consider as true. As another old saying goes, "Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story."

We might have new technologies (and new media), but the thinking (and the message) is often as old as humanity.


  1. Is gay marriage an example of "the medium is the message"? What about a rather different phenomenon: the ever-increasing intensity of fundamentalist religion?

  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    I would say yes, since both have changed our thinking and views of our surroundings.


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