In this blog post, let us travel together to explore the vision of a philosopher who predicted the future of the media and communication theory. His thoughts enabled us nowadays to understand today’s information society and digital technologies and their relationship to human behaviour.
This Canadian born communication theorist has revolutionized how the world thinks about communication systems. He was a head of his time for how he envisioned how largely the modes of communication can reshape human existence.
Marshall McLuhan’s thoughts have been discussed over the past 50 years for its relevance within the world of media and communications. Today, his works are among the cornerstones of the study of media theory.
Dying in 1980, Marshall McLuhan predicted the world wide web and its associated virtual reality 30 years before it was invented, and he understood and described its effects as early as in 1964.
Herbert Marshall McLuhan (born 21st July, 1911 in Edmonton and died in 31st December 1980 in Toronto) started his career as a Professor of English at several universities in the United States and Canada before moving to the University of Toronto in 1946, where he remained for the rest of his life https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan
He had futuristic understanding of the media and their cosmic meanings. McLuhan’s most famous idea is that “the medium is the message” by which he means that the medium has a fundamental effect on shaping of human’s behaviours and thoughts more than the message itself that is delivered through that medium.
“The medium is the message” was mentioned in McLuhan most widely known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). It was the medium in its broadest sense of communication that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action”. It is worth mentioning here McLuhan’s idea about the light bulb to illustrate that concept. The light bulb does not have content in the way that books or newspapers have written content, or the way televisions have programs, yet it is a medium that creates a new form of environment and has a social effect. The light bulb is a form of a content-less media that changes how people create new spaces during night time. The Medium is the Message – YouTube
The medium being the message has been for long time a challenging idea. McLuhan said “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium that is, of any extension of ourselves-result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves” .
Electric technologies have radically altered the way people think, feel and act. The electric light reshaped humans’ activities during day and night. The means of transportation such as trains and aeroplanes have restructured people’s ideas about where and how to build cities. The electronic media, present at his time, such as television and radio reshaped the way humans arrange their time and lives.
By applying this concept on the media technology of today, we can surely say that the media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Twitter are much more significant than the content they deliver. The impact of these technologies is huge in the way they affect us rather than we affect them. The internet world with its platforms has changed human history and behaviour. The characteristics of each of the above mediums defines a certain human behaviour and a different mode of communication. When we use “Twitter”, for example as a tool of communication, we need to adjust the way we use the language to fit the character limit of 280 characters. This limitation has an impact on the grammar and the terminology or vocabulary that we use to comply with that limitation. The cellular phones as a communication tool have reshaped completely the habits and rituals of human social gatherings. McLuhan was, in fact, interested in how the mediums imprinted themselves into the composition of any content that was delivered through them and how our consistent exposure to those limitations is eventually shaping and altering our social thoughts and actions.
He described how people’s views of the world change with the adoption of new media “The technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth century, brought on by the adoption of fixed points of view and perspective by typography, while the technique of the suspended judgement is the discovery of the twentieth century,” brought on by the bard abilities of radio, movies and television”
Another important point to mention is that the content of the medium is easy to grasp but usually the character of the medium is overlooked. McLuhan points out “It is only too typical that the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium”. McLuhan explained that the medium is not neutral, but it does have an effect on people while they are completely unaware of that change that is happening to them. They don’t see that the medium is roughing them up. “They think of the old medium because the old medium is always the content of the new medium. As movies tend to be the content of TV, and as books used to be the content – novels used to be the content-of movies”. People generally tend to focus on the content which is the obvious part of the communication process as they are eager to receive this valuable information. However, they end up not noticing the structural changes in their lives that were hiddenly introduced. When the title of his book had a printing error, instead of writing “The Medium is the Message”, it was mistakenly written “Massage” instead of “Message”, McLuhan used it as a teaser to grasp attention and to emphasize that the medium affects people “It takes hold of them. It rubs them off, it massages them and bumps them around, chiropractically, as it were, and the general roughing up that any new society gets from a medium, especially a new medium, is what is intended in that title”.
McLuhan is famous for his definitions of what he called “Hot” and “Cool” media. He stated, in the first part of his book Understanding Media, that different media requires different degrees of participation from the people who consume that medium. “Hot” media is characterized by its high definition such as print and radio. This type of media are full of information and thus allow less involvement on the part of the reader or listener. Whilst other forms of media such as telephone and television, can be considered “cool” media of low definition as they demand a high sensory involvement of the user. “Cool” media require active user’s participation including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. These transformations formulate a fundamental understanding as well of how “the medium is the message”.
He was able to deduct that the 20th Century as the age of electric technology was the most dominant tool of his time for how it impacted all aspects of people’s lives from jobs, education, their relationship with neighbourhoods, families and above all the speed with which that change was dramatically happening.
McLuhan’s concept about “global village” in 1960’s predicted the emergence of the world wide web. He was able to envision how the mass media are turning the world into a “global village” and that a global communication revolution was about to happen. He stressed how electronic technology would decentralize information, leading people to live in clusters far from major urban centres while having equally access to information. He compared the global village to the central nervous system pointing out that societies are interconnected by the influence of electronic technology. According to him, the global village is not a peaceful place where everything happens at the same time, where there is no continuity or connection and that it is participatory.
Now, that we are in the 21st Century, how can we relate this theory to our societies? Aren’t we in a global village already? Have electric mediums shaped us and been continuously defining who we are today and how we connect with one another?
In fact, nowadays we receive news in real time, we are able to communicate with anyone in the world from our laptops, phones and even from our watches. Technology has enabled us through apps, websites to share and receive information across what the globe. McLuhan’s concepts are totally coinciding with our current reality. However, his ideas at his time were very unclear and confusing to his society and his propositions were not taken seriously and he was viewed as a pop culture star rather than a thinker worthy of serious considerations.
I think McLuhan can be considered a genius who was be able to predict the network public sphere and the decentralization of information. He would have been satisfied to see that his prophecy had become true. Isn’t it right that our behaviours and actions are continuously changing and adapting to the new technologies and to the new mediums? Aren’t we moving towards an even more decentralized world? Isn’t it more engaging and participatory?
We became so close to each other than any other time in the past. The question is “Are we making use of this opportunity to create a better human world?”.
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