Psalm 144:4 Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.

Message & Media (part 3) – McLuhan

The Medium is the Message
Marshall McLuhan

Technology is not simply a conduit or pipeline – a neutral purveyor of information, but a dynamic force with the power to shape and change us regardless of content.

To avoid being consumed by it or left behind by it, we need to study the action of the technological whirlpool and navigate and harness it to our own ends by cooperating with it.
To shun it completely or embrace it openly without understanding it could have disastrous and unexpected effects.

So, we need to ask ourselves some questions when we start to make choices about what media we want to use.

What does it extend / enhance?
What does it reverse into?
What does it retrieve?
What does it obsolesce?

What does it extend / enhance?
Every new form of technology enhances something of our humanity or extends an older form of technology. To understand media properly, we must understand that all media is an extension of humanity.

The wheel extends function of the foot.
The telephone extends function of the voice and the ear.
The telescope / Binoculars extend function of the eye.

What does it obsolesce?
Any new medium makes an older medium obsolete, maybe not necessarily disappearing but function changing. For example, the car makes the horse & cart obsolete, but that merely transforms the horse & cart into a recreational, romantic or entertainment vehicle.

What does it reverse into?
When pushed to its extreme, every medium will reverse into its opposite intention, a good example being the car: originally intended to increase transportation speed, when pushed to its extreme, reverses into traffic jams and fatal accidents. This is the most difficult law to predict or anticipate

What does it retrieve?
Each new form of technology retrieves an experience or an older form of technology from the past. For example, email retrieves the technology of the telegraph so to understand a little more about the future effects of email, we would do well to study the cultural effects of the telegraph in the 1800s.

Lets use the wheel as an easy example

The Wheel

ENHANCES: Speed of transportation, personal energy saving.
OBSOLESCES: Need to use travel as a form of exercise – leads to obesity? Coach / work horses. Various manual labour with the introduction of the wheel into machinery.
REVERSES INTO: Danger to individuals – Road traffic accidents, societies built round the car like in the USA, reliance on speed of transportation over environmental factors – leading to global warming (debatable).
RETRIEVES: Ability to use something else to do the work for us. (Previous horse)

This is all very well and gives a fairly simple expansion of the effects of the technology of the wheel.

Why not try it on something a little newer – the Mobile Phone.

Here’s where you join in with your comments.

What does the mobile phone extend / enhance?
What does the mobile phone reverse into?
What does the mobile phone retrieve?
What does the mobile phone obsolesce?


9 responses to “Message & Media (part 3) – McLuhan

  1. tobit 11/04/2011 at 14:22

    Al, do you need to tell people more about what Marshall McLuhan meant by “the medium is the message”?

    McLuhan entered into a debate that focused on the content of various media. This debate said that the TV itself is irrelevant, it is what is watched on it that it important. Watching songs of praise makes TV good, while watching porn makes it bad. McLuhan said* that this is like saying it is what is written on a missile case that is the most important thing, not what the missile can actually do. Actually you could write ‘peace and love’ on a bomb, but, well, when it lands…

    Another aspect of the debate that McLuhan challenged was ‘media effect’ that is, that bad things makes people do bad things, but that is for another time

    I will come back to Meyrowitzs again…
    Meyrowitz explains how a medium (for example television) creates a type of social space. These spaces are then subject to the same phenomenon Goffman describes (such as a front region where the “actors” (individuals) are on stage in front of the audiences and a back region or off-stage which can also be considered as a hidden or private place where the individual can be themselves and get rid of their role or identity in society. Meyrowitz argues that many people read books to tie themselves into a particular network and to reinforce their special identity. That is, they read things that are of interest to them. Although people watch things about their special interest, they also often watch television simply to see what other people are interested in or doing. Subsequently people develop specific behavioural responses not just to each other in their regular social spaces, but also to media and the social spaces they create and the content within them.

    *in one of his books, if it turns out to be important I will find the reference!

  2. tobit 11/04/2011 at 14:27

    ok, now to answer your challenge!

    What does the mobile phone extend / enhance?

    The human ear, community, connectedness, direct contact

    What does the mobile phone reverse into?

    Personal space, intrusion, self-importance

    What does the mobile phone retrieve?

    The telephone, telegraph, letter writing, yogurt pots and string

    What does the mobile phone obsolesce?

    Sanctuary, being unreachable

  3. Alex Green 14/04/2011 at 10:43

    As there are no other replies, I’ll share what I got from the exercise myself.

    What does the mobile phone extend / enhance?

    The ability to connect people especially over long distances, now possible globally – ‘Global village’.

    What does the mobile phone reverse into?

    Isolation of people in close proximity – being not present when driving / excess smartphone usage in public company etc.

    What does the mobile phone retrieve?

    Post / Telegraph / Personal face to face communication / message delivery

    What does the mobile phone obsolesce?

    Larger community, personal connection, intimacy, genuine maintenance of friendships (not just interactions with facebook ‘friends’).

    • David McHaffie 28/04/2011 at 22:56

      I hope a late reply is better than never…
      As an almost non mobile phone user, I wonder if we need to think more carefully about technology and terminology. It seems to me that the answers above apply to the use of telephones, which have of course been around for all of our lifetimes, not specifically to mobile phones, which have not (in my case at least). Mobile phones are being used here only as an exercise, but it does perhaps illustrate the need to be careful about what it is that we are talking about.

      • Alex Green 29/04/2011 at 07:03

        Thanks for joining in David, any comment is better than none!
        I agree to a point David, Yes, we must always be clear and careful about terminology. I think there are some points above that couldn’t be applied to the standard landline phone. We’ll see how much we can touch on mobile tech in the workshop. There’s so much stuff to fit into 1 1/2 hours that I feel I’ll be sharing another couple of posts after the weekend!

  4. Pingback: Message & Media (part 8) – Workshop Summary 2 « [un]conscious-stream[ing]

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