” 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.”
– Marshall McLuhan
What a concept! Marshall McLuhan, a 20th century intellectual, came up with this idea to explain the phenomenon which occurs each time society is exposed to a change of scale in technology. In a nutshell, what he’s saying is that the medium has more of an impact on society than any message that medium may contain. This in turn becomes the new message. McLuhan is alluding to the idea that the real message is what the medium tells us about society, and not necessarily the message which it contains. For example, this blog as a medium says more about the society in which we live (and how it operates) than my upside-down, back-to-front heading does.
Distinguishing Between the Medium & the Message
The word medium in this instance refers to a means by which something is conveyed, i.e. a message. It’s an extension of oneself. A medium can range from technology, like television, the internet or a mobile phone, in which people send various messages to one another, to more mundane objects such as chairs. A message, on the other hand, refers to what is actually communicated. At this point it is important to distinguish between message which the medium contains and the message which the medium conveys.
In this sense, we can look at various case studies to determine how evolving mediums of communication have modified the way in which a society operates.
Case Study #1: Moving from the Cassette Tape to the CD
Interestingly, these two mediums coexisted for some time, however the CD did eventually overtake its predecessor. The main advantage of the CD was that it’s digital technology (compared to the cassette tape’s analogue constitution) allowed the use of chaptering, making it easier for consumers to switch between songs, and a higher quality of sound. Note that there was very little change in content (i.e. the message) through the movement from cassettes to CD’s; the same music was generally available on both mediums.
Case Study #2: From the Papyrus Scroll to the Book
The papyrus scroll (pictured) was the first main writing medium for Western society and lasted thousands of years. As a medium it manipulated our behaviour and formed communication habits still in use today. Due to the nature of having to unwind it to read it, a sequential form of writing was developed; left to right, top to bottom – the same way Western books are written today. However, not all societies use this medium. Japanese manga is written backwards, as it did not develop from the same source of medium that western novels did. This is an example of how a medium manipulated society into habits, in order to decode messages.
The book, or codex before it, introduced the ability to stop reading and pick up where you left off, through pages and page numbers, which in turn led to the first novel (centuries later) being produced, Robinson Crusoe, which would unlikely have happened if society was still using scrolls. Random access to a message (a book) changed the way society could store information, learn and conduct leisure reading.
So McLuhan’s concept The Medium is the Message can be understood through looking at how new technologies have modified the ways in which society communicate with one another and operate in general. However, even from a non-technological perspective, McLuhan’s concept can be explained.
Case Study #3: The Lecture Hall
If we use a lecture theatre as an example of a medium, we can look at how it manipulates society to behave. This picture demonstrates the typical layout; hundreds of seats facing in the direction of the lecturer’s podium. This draws the attention of the students to the lecturer, and quietly enforces a ‘sit and listen’ and one-way communication environment, where all attention is focused on the lecturer, who stands at the front of the room.
From looking at the examples of:
(a) Cassettes to CD’s
(b) Scrolls to Books; and
(c) A Lecture Hall
McLuhan’s notion of The Medium is the Message becomes clearer. Although the message may impact the individuals to whom it is sent on a minor level, the medium by which it is expressed is what develops a society and its practices. For example, the words I write on this blog are relatively unimportant in comparison to the medium of WordPress and the internet, and the way in which these mediums are driving society to act right now. On a large scale, a message is unimportant – it is the medium which comments upon and drives a society’s behaviour, and thus provides us with the real message.
Until next week!