“The Medium is the Message”
Your first blog post this quarter was just a quick look at your favorite forms of art, but in the second blog, your objective was to read the Introduction to the textbook Convergences and consider the text’s meaning and use of the terms message, method, and medium.
You may not be familiar with Marshall McLuhan, a cultural critic from the 1950′s through the 1980′s. McLuhan coined many of the terms we use today such as “media” and “global village.” In books, articles, and speeches, he predicted many of today’s technological advances and warned that the insertion of new technologies has broader societal effects, both positive and negative, than may be intended or recognized.
One of McLuhan’s most famous phrases is “the medium is the message.” This cryptic phrase is often interpreted as meaning that the content is less relevant than the medium carrying it or that the weight of the delivery medium shapes the message being delivered. To some extent this has become true with fragmented texts and tweets serving as conversation and the impact of a viral video giving great importance to an inconsequential subject. However, for McLuhan, the term medium was broader than the artistic and technological media we usually associate with the term.
McLuhan described a medium as any innovation that “extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new” (Kappleman). Whether it is a car that extends a person’s range of movement beyond the capacity of feet or a Kindle that extends a person’s capacity to access books beyond paper and print, any new medium changes the way we do things and how we interact as a society.
According to McLuhan, the message is also not just the content or the meaning being delivered, “but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it” (Federman). McLuhan warned that the changes to society brought about by innovation should be more closely evaluated, especially because humans are quick to adopt new technologies without weighing the benefits against the changes or abandonment of older technologies that may be dropped (“amputations”).
Todd Kappleman explains the dangers of the unconsidered adoption of any new medium:
McLuhan believed that mankind has always been fascinated and obsessed with these extensions, but too frequently we choose to ignore or minimize the amputations. For example, we praise the advantages of high speed personal travel made available by the automobile, but do not really want to be reminded of the pollution it causes. Additionally, we do not want to be made to think about the time we spend alone in our cars isolated from other humans, or the fact that the resulting amputations from automobiles have made us more obese and generally less healthy. We have become people who regularly praise all extensions, and minimize all amputations. McLuhan believed that we do so at our own peril.
So what options do we have? Do we give up the cellphone in order to experience more face-to-face communications? Do we step out of our cars to enhance our personal health and the health of the environment? Today many people are embracing simplicity movements, but is that the answer? It’s an interesting question.
Federman, Mark. “What Is the Meaning of The Medium Is the Message?” What Is the Meaning of The Medium Is the Message? University of Toronto, 23 July 2004. Web. 07 Apr. 2013. <http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm>.
Kappleman, Todd. “Marshall McLuhan:”The Medium Is the Message”” Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium Is the Message” Probe Ministries International, 2001. Web. 07 Apr. 2013. <http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/mcluhan.html>.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964. Print.
Photo of Marshall McLuhan, from the Playboy interview, March 1969, reprinted http://www.nextnature.net/2009/12/the-playboy-interview-marshall-mcluhan/