Mark Federman, chief strategist of McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, attempts to explain in his article “What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message,” the intentions of Marshall McLuhan, educator, scholar and philosopher, when he said the famous phrase, “The Medium is the Message.” Federman points out the basics of what McLuhan meant and the common misinterpretation expressed by the general public who assume a medium is only in the form of communication such as a radio, television, the Internet and the press. But, as Federman notes, the medium is actually meant by McLuhan to include “any extension of ourselves,” or, as Federman puts it, “… anything from which a change emerges.” He gives the example that a theatre production is the medium, but the message is the tourism that the production attracts. After all, what would New York be without tourist attractions such as Broadway?
But Federman fails in his brief analysis to give modern examples to McLuhan’s argument. Sure this hypothetical theatre production might attract hypothetical tourism in his hypothetical city, but what are the modern applications of “The Medium is the Message?” If Federman came to a clearer analysis of how McLuhan’s argument, which was made famous in the 1960s, affects modern society, a better comparison can be made to Federman’s final point that claims the understanding and anticipation of the effects of the medium allows society to make change.
When McLuhan first communicated his assertion that The Medium is the Message, society was just beginning to experience the impacts of technological advancements such as television and its effect on body image and cultural behavior, for example. But technology has since taken the world by storm since the creation of what is now arguably outdated means of communication, such as the radio. Some might even consider the rise of the television to be coming to an end due to the developments in computers and the ability to stream TV channels. The cultural phenomenon has come to the point where the term “TV channel” is becoming outdated and can eventually be replaced by “computer channel.”
Noticing and Making Change
Federman states in his article that by predicting the effects of a changing medium, society can decide where technology will take us. He states that, “… we have the opportunity to influence the development and evolution of the new innovation before the effects becomes pervasive.” And he claims, perhaps mistakenly, that McLuhan agrees when he says, “Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it. Anticipation gives the power to deflect and control force.” But with new technology such as smartphones, that make the delivery of information fast and efficient, can we as a people really change the medium even if it is destructive to society? Some would argue that technology such as smartphones is distracting people and destroying interpersonal relationships. After all, many individuals are the victims of being ignored when someone sends or receives a text message. Many people consider the convenience of being able to communicate quickly and efficiently as outweighing the social responsibility to the person or people with whom they are in physical contact.
The same argument can be made for social networking sites such as Facebook, which make the experience of friendship less personal. Even though many, and I would argue most, people recognize that Facebook is decreasing human contact, society isn’t willing to give it up. Despite Federman’s claim that the medium can be changed: “… noticing change in our societal or cultural ground conditions indicates the presence of a new message that is the effects of a new medium. With this early warning, we can set out to characterize and identify the new medium before it becomes obvious to everyone.”
Federman admits, however, that the process of recognizing negative change and making a change for the better can take years or decades. But eliminating social networking sites or the technology of smartphones for the benefit of social interaction doesn’t quite gel in a society that is becoming ever more efficient and gadgetized.
In fact, the age of gizmos and gadgets have potentially contributed to the division of wealth in the United States and the majority of the western world, including most of Europe. After all, taking the personal touch out of guiding our rules and regulations around the stock market, for example, has allowed many of the corrupt to fall under the radar. It would be hard to get away with what the corrupt are getting away with in a society still guided by the barter system, for example.
So while the power to make the change may be true, the effort to change something so entrenched into society hinges on the participation of the vast majority. For example, to eliminate something as culturally engrained as Facebook, would require the elimination of the Facebook server and the assurance from the public that the program will not be copied and redistributed, or perhaps recreated and made even more efficient. Even if creating a social networking site were outlawed, the public would find a way to include the masses and guide society, as with what is accomplished by the distribution of pirated videos and music – though the practice of its free electronic distribution is illegal, the masses still participate, and this process has taken place for more than a decade with no end in sight.
The advancement of technology has also led to the creation of motor vehicles and factories, which could lead to the destruction of our planet. Though advancements are being made toward eliminating the effects of these technological advances, the dependence that society lays on these mediums is perhaps irreversible. However, this view is possibly too pessimistic and McLuhan could be correct in saying the anticipation of the negative effects of the medium – such as the total destruction of the world in this case – will lead to a resolution.
But what about the effects of mediums such as the capitalist system, which has created a divide among the wealthy and the poor? After all, the destruction is already done to the growing demographic who fall under the poverty line due to the division of wealth that is inherent in the capitalist system. So while Federman claims the opportunity is there to generate change, the application of this change could be impossible in many cases.
McLuhan, while well-intentioned, assumes anticipation of mediums’ affects gives people the power to create change. If that is true, people have yet to discover the mechanism with which much of this change can be generated.
Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that the message is not the words or images communicated to the public, but it is the way in which these words and images are communicated that really delivers society into a new age, will go down as one of the most important statements in history. But the time has come in to recognize that the power to change isn’t always possible.