In 1964, long before the advent of the internet, Marshall McLuhan coined a phrase that has become iconic—or as it might be termed in today’s online environment, gone viral.
The medium is the message.
Today, more than fifty years after the publication of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it is amazing how prescient he was. As I understand his thinking, he was positing that the form or method of communication was more significant to our evolution than the content being communicated.
The content is the easy part, that which our minds tend to focus on as we listen to, watch, or read something that sparks our interest. It could be the latest album from a pop star, a television program, or a new book we’ve picked up.
The medium, and there are many examples—smartphones, tablets, televisions, movies, print media, recordings, to cite but a few—is the structure or framework in which the content is couched. The medium is how, not what, we learn.
To see how important the medium can be, imagine learning about a massive earthquake, for instance, in one of three ways: by hearing the news on the radio, by watching video on a nightly TV newscast, or by witnessing live events as they happen on your mobile device. Which would have the greatest impact on you?
It might be argued that the advent of television was one of the most unifying forces the world has ever seen, allowing populations from every corner of the globe to see everyone else. It was the dawn, perhaps, of the notion of a worldwide village. If that is so, then the emergence of the internet with its worldwide web immediacy has surpassed even that. This medium, with its instantaneous online access, has brought far-flung peoples as close as next-door neighbours.
All good, right? For the closer we are, the better chance we have of understanding each other, of allowing for each other’s differences, of adapting to each other’s unique ways of living. Or not.
In 1961, well before the publication of McLuhan’s book, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the USA, Newton Minow, criticized commercial television as a vast wasteland. He was referencing both the calibre of programming available (the content), and the failure of the industry to utilize television (the medium) to its best effect.
A letter writer to a newspaper recently remembered how, in his childhood, he and his friends slew dragons, conquered armies, practiced games of skill, and played at sundry other activities, just as children today do. But, he wrote, they did it without computers. And they did it, for the most part, outdoors.
Those activities (the content), and the environment in which they pursued them (the medium), influenced their cognitive, social, and bodily development. It made them, for better or worse, who they are today.
But what of tomorrow? What effects will the media of today have on the intellectual and physical growth of young people? There has never been more content to share, to learn from; yet it remains secondary to the manner in which it’s delivered. Just as McLuhan stated.
How often I have seen when I’m out and about—at a restaurant, let us say—two people sitting opposite each other, each with attention focused solely on their smartphones. Are they texting each other, I wonder, rather than talking? Are they so disenchanted with their present company that they’d rather be with someone else, if only vicariously? Or is it that the lure of the technology (the medium) has persuaded them away from human interaction (the content)?
Human brains are evolving organisms, constantly adapting to conditioning stimuli from the environment. Hence, the brain of the indigenous New World person who spied the first European sail on the distant horizon more than five hundred years ago, and the brain of the erstwhile seafaring explorer, would have functioned quite differently than that of today’s urban dweller. None of them would likely survive for long in the others’ world.
Yet we, the people who descended from both aboriginal and interloper groups, do survive today, proof that the brain has responded to the information discovered by subsequent generations, and to the forms in which that information was presented.
Should we despair that future learning, and the means in which it’s delivered, will be different than the past learning with which we are familiar? Or should we celebrate the change as progress?
Should we criticize the infernal internet, that vast wasteland, and its array of technology that seems to isolate people from one another, even as it brings us together? Or should we embrace it as the surest way to advance our global civilization?
In search of answers, I decided to consult a medium. Alas, she had no message of comfort for me.
Perhaps I’ll do a Google search.