Despite that Understanding Media was published fifty-two years ago, Marshall McLuhan’s beliefs and radical theories are challenging and profound ideas in today’s society. However, we can observe McLuhan’s work among other related thinkers such as his fellow colleague Harold Innis, and use their theories in how media forms create our everyday environment, and in turn offer some form of evaluation in their claim that form is more important than the content i.e. The Medium is the Message.
‘The medium is the message’ is a phrase coined by theorist Marshal McLuhan in which he used it to explain the various different impacts that mediums have on people. The main assumption is that the medium is not only the channel in which information is shared, but it is an environment that can vary the very meaning of the message. McLuhan states that the personal and social consequences of any medium that is of any extensions of ourselves comes from the new scale that is introduced in our daily lives by each extension of ourselves (McLuhan 1964:7).
The notion of medium theory is that mediums have more of an impact on society than any message that is conveyed by that medium. For example, the filament bulb changed human behaviour between the night and day, the television modified the way we arrange our time and to a certain extent changed the way we plan rooms in our houses, and even transportation methods such as monorails and subways have altered our ideas of what cities look like. During his widely popular television lecture in 1977, McLuhan was asked a question regarding his famous quote. He was asked that if the medium truly is the message and it doesn’t really matter what we say on television, then why was she asking the question in the first place. McLuhan replied by stating that television surrounds us physically and that the more televisions in our environment leaves a vast personal effect on us. He then concluded that the effect of the program is something that just happens. (ABC 1977) What McLuhan is saying is that new forms of media reform our consciousness, and the more technology that surrounds us reshapes our perspective.
McLuhan argues that it is only too typical that the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium. (McLuhan 1964:9) In retrospect it is a discussion of the overall scope, and that mediums have the potential to extend our capability. The invention of YouTube for instance is powerful is because of its large scope to deliver all its content and not the content itself. YouTube has formidable power; however, the content is slow. After all, YouTube had been founded in 2005 and has only just rapidly spread over a six-year span after becoming more mainstream in 2009 (Dickey 2013). Technology though has overwhelmed media and has helped developed YouTube where it is now just over a decade later. Our ideas change our interactions; however, the mediums change the fundamental scale of those interactions.
Consolidating with interactions, the level in which mediums can develop falls into a degree of bias. Harold Innis, a Canadian professor, theorised how technology impacts the medium by using a macro historical approach. In Innis’ book The Bias of Communication, he states that each medium has both time and space bias. He refers to the time bias as something that lasts through time, however is poor spatially. An example of this would be the written hieroglyphics on ancient Egyptian tombs. (Innis 1951:34) He then referred to Papyrus (the eventual successor to stone) having a space bias, something that conquered the previous medium however it is far more fragile (Innis 1951:35). If Egypt kept using stone as a form of medium then it is very likely that they couldn’t expand that far, however it could last through time so people can see it today, and you can see their past and ancestors. With the developments of tools such as the printing press, the radio and most recently the internet, Mass communication is becoming increasingly space biased as it reaches out to a far larger audience. Innis’ ideas of the medium in human history later influenced McLuhan to divide human history into three different historical eras; The Oral, the Literate Mechanical and the Electric. The Oral era consisted of acoustic forms of communication, with tribal societies communicating without writing. This era relied on the basis of storytelling and verbal communication in order to prosper. The Literate Mechanical era began with the alphabet/phonetic alphabet by attaching sounds to them. It began with the invention of initial writing by humans by putting letters together to create words and eventually led up to the Printing Press; which was the final victory of literature. Finally, the Electric era instantly connected people around the world, beginning with the first use of the telegraph to present day. Developments of radio and television straight into the heart of the present, and was so far ahead of its time when theorised. Electric media is organic and the brain intercepts electrical signals so in theory, we are electrical beings. We can also use medium theory to state that electric media is a natural extension of our central nervous system. McLuhan referred to how society radically changed from an oral society to a literate one in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy in which he wrote about the development of the printing press. He then later produced a report on ‘new media’ which later became a basis for his book Understanding Media. McLuhan also referred to the electric era as the dawn of the greatest of all the human ages, and that nothing could measure the level of human awareness during the transition of present day to next (Mywebcowtube 2016).
McLuhan died in December 1980 so he didn’t see how the internet became what it is today, but medium theory can be tested in contrast to everyday technologies including the internet itself. Referring back to the electrical era, we can conclude that electric media extends our capabilities of the central nervous system. The internet extends the capabilities even further and provides a degree of unification, thus making every internet user sharing the same central nervous system. Every technology connected around the world acts as one brain and we become more like the tribe, and all the electrical systems come together to form a wired planet. Chris Woodford demonstrates that similarities can be drawn between the brain and the internet itself in the form of anatomy and function. In other words, philosophical theories aside, the brain and the internet have some degree of similarity physically and functionally (Woodford 2016). Going back to YouTube, McLuhan referred to a concept in The Gutenberg Galaxy called the ‘Global Village’. With the power of the internet and YouTube alike, people have the ability to become self-journalists with a rapid increase of the term ‘YouTubers’ over the course of five years with people such as Felix Kjellberg (Pewdiepie) becoming millionaires from advertisement revenue (Dong 2016). McLuhan stated that in a global village, the mass creates a loss of identity and that we don’t really matter at all. Everybody in today’s society has the desperate need for individuality. You could assume that the obsession with the self has created a generation of people creating daily vlogs which is arguably the most favoured form of online expressionistic video content at this moment in time. McLuhan later distanced himself from the global village term and instead referred to it as the ‘Global Theatre’, a pedestal that anybody could stand on due to the capabilities of satellites, mass communication and worldwide television. He stated that everybody on the planet can participate as actors, and that every kid’s concern is to do cause a ruckus in an attempt to become famous or to find some form of identity (McBride 2011). It is as if Marshall McLuhan used television for the basis of the internet, unknowingly what it would become like today.
By looking at the invention of the mobile phone, it is not just a device that has changed the way in which we communicate with one another, but its presence and stigma has created social gatherings and changed personal habits. For example it has resulted in not only shaping us as individuals, but has altered the environment we live in. Public places now have power banks that allow users to charge their phone whilst shopping, and the recognisable touch screen display we familiarised ourselves from the original iPhone has caused McDonalds to implement kiosks with aesthetic interfaces (Peterson 2015). By referencing medium theory to an everyday media such as the mobile phone, we can agree that the mobile phone itself has had a greater impact rather than the conversations we have on it; it has now become an extension of our voice and ears.
By looking at a social media tool such as Twitter, anybody who uses it has to conform to the 140-character limit in order to post a tweet. It makes the user think about the way they use their language and has a direct impact on the user’s grammar and vocabulary. Some could argue that Instagram’s unique expansion system of using hashtags has caused users to conform to self-visualization. This is because we as humans are tool users and view tools as extensions of ourselves, which can either be physical or conscious. The car for instance is an extension to our legs and the hammer is an extension of our fist. (Sellinger 2008:109) If the technology is present then we use it and later accept it. After all we can either hammer in a nail, or we can punch it in with our fists. Furthermore, we gain greater power with better technology and the technology ‘massages’ us. The term ‘massage’ came from a play on words from McLuhan’s well known phrase, however when you consider that new media changes the perception of the individual, it is as if they are massaging the individual.
Due to McLuhan’s radical beliefs, lack of research methods and evidence, not all his statements have a level of authenticity. He was often criticised for his presence of a technological determinist; as he believed that the technology in a society helped steamrolled their social and cultural structure. Raymond Williams for instance was one of McLuhan’s critics, and he believed that technological determinism fails to access the significance of social power, interactions, relationships and circumstances. He declared that there are social motivations to help transform the innovation into a technology; similar to a supply and demand concept (Newinfluencer 2016). For somebody that was from a period with the only media coming in the forms of the telegraph, the radio and the television, McLuhan somewhat predicted the internet in the form of the global village and was completely ahead of his time. It is as if Marshall McLuhan anticipated all the attention seeking users that appear on social media in the form of bottle flippers and people dressed as clowns to scare people. You could also argue that he anticipated virtual reality in which it would be an ultimate medium to immerse yourself in a 360º environment however he labelled it as holographic technology (vitalogue 2013). We must not forget that the technology we possess extend our capacity to venture and do great things, however sometimes we need to pay actual attention to the real world around us to know what’s going on. McLuhan stated in a symposium that when we are surrounded by an environment that blinds us totally, and from the moment of birth a fear of the new environment, we always prefer the old one. After all, a fish wouldn’t discover water (McLuhan 1966).