“The medium is the message”. Marshall McLuhan

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In 1960’s Quebec, University followed grade 11.  So at the tender age of 17 I was a student at Sir George Williams University in downtown Montreal.  My English class was focused on information technology, more specifically, on modern media.  The subject matter was focussed on the theories of Marshall McLuhan.  Our young professor, who had a fascination for McLuhan’s provocative ideas, made a big impression on me.  McLuhan’s ideas had an even bigger impression.

I was especially fascinated with McLuhan’s division between “hot” and “cool” media.  Hot media was media that provided an immediate connection to the audience… the message went straight into your psyche, requiring little or no interpretation.  Two examples McLuhan cited were movies and radio (I’d also include live theater).  In all cases of hot media, as an individual experiences them, they are immediately hit by the content.  It is almost impossible to control reactions as there seems to be no filter of, or for, the communication.  The hottest of these types of media, for me, is live theater. When I see a great play the emotions are often overwhelming.  All hot media are defined by a fullness of information and are delivered in high definition – there’s little to add to the experience.

On the other hand, cool media included the telephone, television and cartoons.  The information in this media is in lower definition and therefore requires subjective participation – kind of like filling in the blanks to complete a picture.  Illustrating McLuhan’s point were the horrific scenes from Vietnam that were currently airing on TV.  There was a coolness, a lack of feeling translated by the television. I distinctly remember a very graphic scene when an American G.I. executed a kneeling Vietnamese soldier with a bullet to the head.  By the time I registered what I had just witnessed a commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was playing.  What a juxtaposition of images… from murder to breakfast cereal!  Strangely, I felt little emotion.  The same thing happened when I saw the second plane fly into the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.  The live image had an aura of the unreal.  I even questioned the veracity of the event at first.  But as for emotion… nothing.  Soon the reporting continued with good looking smiling announcers.  Only later did the story unfold and the tragedy of innocent passengers, and their loves ones, begin to emerge.  If that same scene had occurred in a well-made movie, given in full context of the terrorists and passenger lives, the audience would have screamed and cried as the plane crashed into the tower.  The experience would have felt so hot and immediate.

The telephone offers the same coolness as the television.  As your conversation flows you are constantly trying to decipher the other person’s words and quite often trying to picture their facial expressions.  It is more of an interactive activity requiring subjective effort to get at the content.  It is a less engaging medium.

The theories of McLuhan can be a bit confusing… even opaque at times. He even objected to people calling his writings, and ideas, “theories”.  In an amusing interview with TV host, Dick Cavett, he said that he was merely probing and looking for answers.  McLuhan seemed to be hinting that in his view searching was understanding – a rather Socratic perspective.  The most provocative quote, from the many McLuhan made over his career, was his contention that the “medium is the message”.  In other words, the manner, or vehicle, by which you receive information is, in many ways, more important than the content.  For McLuhan, electronic media, and many other technologies, are an extension of our selves and our senses.  The telephone, as one example, allows us to hear things at great distances… we acquire superman hearing.  He goes on to point out that technologies also change us: “We have never stopped interfering drastically with ourselves by every technology we latch onto.  We have absolutely disrupted our lives over and over again”.

In his book “The Gutenberg Galaxy” McLuhan illustrates the ways in which a medium is sometimes more important than its content.  As an example, he looks carefully at the effects of the printing press and subsequent increase in the availability of books.  His analysis pointed to the long term consequences of the resulting increase of literacy – everyone started reading, which in turn caused a breakdown in the frequency of family discussions.  There was also an erosion of a sense of community.  The world became less oral, and communal, instead more inward and subjective.  According to McLuhan, this eventually led to individualism, modern democracy and many other social phenomena.

McLuhan was always quick to point out that technology itself was morally neutral   One example of this is the introduction of the light bulb.  Even though it had no content it drastically changed human behaviour.  Night time became a very different experience and human activity expanded into new territory.  The role of the sun in our daily lives and habits was greatly diminished.

What does all this mean today?  In terms of information technologies, in particular, the changes have been profound.  Over 40 years ago McLuhan anticipated the internet.  He wrote prophetically, “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village”.  McLuhan predicted that new communication devices would take us back to a more orally-based world.  Instead of the ancient tribal villages our new village will be geographically all encompassing.  As a 17 year-old this image sounded like a positive development.  It struck me as an optimistic viewpoint and, if realized, an evolution that could lead to greater understanding among people and nations… world peace? (Please remember that when I took this course, it was the 1960’s and the flower generation was alive and well!).  As it turned out the introduction of the internet and various modern communication technologies have led to some coalescing of ideas and consensus among different communities…but, just as equally, it has resulted in a great deal of social fragmentation and alienation.  There may be more empathy for distant and different cultures but there also seems to be a comparable antipathy for varying political and religious views.  A curious result.

Perhaps the medium is the cause, as much as the content, of the negative effects of modern communication technologies.  First, the access to information is readily available and the amount of it is virtually unlimited.  Every subject matter can be researched exhaustively.  This “Google Effect” has led to millions of highly opinionated “experts”. These folks have done all their “learning” in the privacy of their home without the opportunity for dialogue or forceful presentations of contradictory points of view.  As one example, we all know someone who believes that they are better informed than their own doctor regarding their illness. Hell, they read it on the internet!  They’ve looked at study after study, article after article. The world is now full of hypochondriacs.

So, is McLuhan right in saying technology not only changes the world, it disrupts it?  Or, in the case of communication technologies, is it affecting our perception? Early findings, from the people studying the impact of the internet, are not definitive regarding either its positive or negative effects.  Scientists at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour at UCLA have been looking at the impact of Internet searching on the brain. Principal investigator Dr. Gary Small, states “We know technology is changing our lives.  It is also changing our brains”. He goes on to cite some possible good news: “The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults.” The postulation was based on findings that showed searching on the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry – significantly there were no qualitative claims about the health benefits of this increased brain activation.

A more troubling assertion comes from other sources. In his book “The End of Absence”, Michael Harris argues the more we know the less we understand.  Information overload is the cause.  While Nicholas Carr, in his book “The Shallows”, acknowledges research showing the plasticity of our brains – it changes over time due to varying inputs. He claims that online reading actually lowers comprehension as we become acclimatized to, and attempt to digest, the endless flow of information.  The internet fundamentally makes our “plastic” minds more capable of shallow thinking and less capable of more profound, deep thinking.   It is a very worrisome conclusion

Instead of a hopeful, illuminating and enlightened “global village” are we, instead, entering into a superficial, myopic and individualized (subjective) jungle?

There seems to be some disturbing anecdotal evidence supporting such a view.  I watch people spending hours each week getting snippets of information on Facebook.  Twitter allows for only 140 characters, including spaces, to comprise a message.   Political coverage on television is mostly reduced to “sound bites”.  Newspaper, the real paper variety, readership is declining every year. 

Increasingly I find many people have an outright aversion to truly looking into serious subjects from both sides…or in depth.  They seem to be happy to get information that fundamentally agrees with their worldview. Give them a headline from an article and they’re satisfied… especially if it agrees with their dearly held beliefs.  As a result of this lack of interest in serious dialogue, television content is filled with “fluff”- things like phony reality shows, celebrity watching, funny sitcoms and a variety of game shows.  Thankfully there are still some good dramas and documentaries… but are many people watching them?  Nevertheless, overall, most content on TV is quite trivial.  I admire the ideas of Neil Postman as presented in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”.  He hits the nail on the head regarding the dilemma television faces in this world of disinterested, shallow minds. “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another matter altogether”.  Must people always be entertained just to hold their interest? 

A lot of modern media are definitely what McLuhan conceived as “cool” – they do not engage our passions, or engender much empathy.  Is it just me or does it not seem that the most positive of human emotions and characteristics are somehow bypassed by the incessant incursion of online communications and content.  Maybe we’re all being jointly, en masse, anesthetized.  McLuhan wrote that “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values”.  It seems frightening!  On the other hand he writes, “In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness”.  As telephones extended our “hearing” will these new communication technologies expand our consciousness in a good way…or alter our brains and negatively disrupt our depth of understanding?

Maybe it’s time to slow down a no-holds-barred adoption of modern technologies until we learn more.  We should remember that all the wonderful smart phones, computers and other media are neutral tools, not friends (or foes).   Heed Thoreau’s observation, “Men have become the tools of their tools”.   Let’s not deprive ourselves of enriching, face to face human communications, and time spent with your local tribe of friends and family.  And please, by all means let’s ensure we keep Thoreau on the curriculum at schools!  He wisely offers a prescription that may undo, or at least mitigate, some of the bad effects of too much time spent online making virtual “friends” on Facebook and Tweeting ourselves to death…or surfing too much, or watching too much television.  Set aside your tools and get out in the woods, once in a while, by yourself, and think.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on earth so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.  To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.  To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives” Thoreau