If ‘the medium is the message,’ then what is it telling us?
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian born scholar, poses an unconventional look at mass communication, but one worth exploring further. According to McLuhan, a message’s medium says more about us and society than the message itself. McLuhan was not one to shy away from the spotlight. He became known, in part, because of the creative phrases he developed to coincide with his work. He is probably best known for the expression “the medium is the message,” which refers to his thought-provoking medium or technological determination theory.
So what are we to learn from this?
How is it possible that the message’s medium can convey more than the message itself? Well, in McLuhan’s eyes, the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and interaction.”
In other words, mediums are responsible for causing societal, cultural, and relational changes across time. These societal changes are visible across the different phases of communication. In the tribal phase, the emphasis is on oral and tactile communication leading to communal societies. In the Gutenbergian (print) phase, the focus is on individualism, linear thinking, visuals, and privacy; the culture is fixed on materialism and individualism. Finally, the electronic phase did away with linear thinking. In this phase, the emphasis was on uniformity and closeness. This new phase also paved the way for what McLuhan coined as a “global village,” creating a culture of connectedness and participation.
Another essential point McLuhan makes is that the medium takes a role in varying the “meaning and sense of the information” it carries. Different mediums have different features to be considered in delivering a message. Imagine listening to your favorite song on the radio. It is a deeply immersive experience. Can you imagine “listening” to a new song by only reading its written lyrics? The defining features transmitted over the radio (vocals, instrumentals, sound effects, and auditory emotion) are lost — possibly altering the song’s meaning. This point is exceptionally useful in understanding how medium affects perception. Recall the debate surrounding the first-ever televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy? Television viewers seemed to favor Kennedy while radio listeners favored Nixon. The candidates’ messages were the same, but the medium affected the audience’s perception. This became a game-changer in political campaigns.
While other theorists focused on how the messages presented by the media influenced society, McLuhan’s focus remained on mediums. In the tribal phase we discussed earlier, tribal leaders, elders, or those with life experiences to share were probably influential in their communities. The Gutenbergian phase gave influence to those who controlled the print periodicals. As the mediums used in society have changed, so have those who influence us. In the electronic phase, we look up to television celebrities, movie stars, social media influencers, radio personalities, podcasters, and so forth.
Critiques of McLuhan’s Views
While McLuhan makes compelling arguments, there are some limitations. First, not everyone in a defined culture has equal access to all forms of communication. Socio-economic restrictions may limit some individuals from accessing the primary mediums in a given society. Where do these individuals fit within his theory? Some governments restrict certain mediums and forms of telecommunication only to trusted members of society or government allies. How do these mediums affect society if gross inequalities in accessing them exist? Another criticism of McLuhan’s work is that he oversimplifies a medium’s role in reshaping society. There are a number of other sociological factors at play that affect society. How can this be narrowed down to a particular medium being the driver of these changes? Lastly, criticism also exists surrounding the notion that technology is the driving force of a society. If we are led to believe that technology is our driving and defining societal characteristic, then this may very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, despite the fact that there are several other pertinent issues that are driving our societal changes (political control, class interests, economic ideologies, among others).