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Marhsall McLuhan - "The medium is the message"
This essay deals with issues raised by Marhsall McLuhan's famous dictum: "The medium is the message." It has 5 sources.
An analysis of Marshall McLuhan's essays investigating how this dictum applies and is supported or contradicted by the content therein. It also attempts to accommodate for modern technological trends such as the internet and takes into account the importance of other general media theories.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) once wrote that he would never become an academic. Though he was learning in spite of his professors, he would eventually become Professor of English, in spite of himself. In a famous quote that is well related to his investigation of media, McLuhan says, "I don't explain, I explore." His explorations of media and their significance in our daily existence took him through James Joyce, the symbolist poets, Ezra Pound; back to antiquity and the myth of Narcissus, and forward to the mythic structure of modern Western culture dominated by electric technology. McLuhan's best known work, Understanding Media, first published in 1964, featured a dictum that gained him immense popularity - 'the media is the message'. The book focuses on the media effects that permeate society and culture. McLuhan stresses that the key factor and starting point in all this is always the individual, as media are merely technological extensions of the body. We shall now examine the background of McLuhan's ideas on the media being the message. (McAdams, 1995)
Analysis: In Understanding Media, McLuhan says: "In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message." (7) He does not leave this theory unexplained or vague, but goes on to 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, or by any new technology." (7) He supports these initial claims by offering examples of the pros and cons of automation. The negative effect of automation, he argues, is that the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate jobs. At the same time, on a positive note, automation intensifies the depth of involvement and undoes to some extent the damage caused to human relations by preceding mechanical technology. Natural reactions to this examples and the initial premise would be to state that it is not the machine that is directly responsible for the negative or positive effects caused, but rather it is the actions perpetrated by the human controlling it that actually renders it meaning and message. Therefore, in the word of McLuhan, the restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships. An example offered is when the author says it is not really important whether the machine churned out Cornflakes or Cadillacs. By this he means that the real significance of the medium of machinery lay in how it effected our relations with our fellow beings as well as ourselves. (McLuhan, 1964)
McLuhan supports his arguments in many ways. He cites the example of the electric bulb, which he says is pure information. By itself, it has no real meaning or message, but is always instrumental in enhancing the effectiveness of another medium, such as a neon sign or billboard. From this fact, McLuhan concludes that 'the "content" of any medium is always another medium' (8). The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.
These examples help clarify his theories and place his ideas in proper perspective. McLuhan further elucidates by saying that psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns amplify or accelerate existing processes. The "message" of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. (8) He continues to offer examples in the form of railroad developments and the consequences of advances in aeronautical engineering on human relations and perception. Returning to the bulb, he says: "Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference."(8)
Exploring the implications of the bulb, McLuhan develops his theory and strongly supports it through a variety of examples. The strengths of the basic and essential tenets lays in his theory that the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the "content" of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium. We are given a clear and lucid picture of what he is alluding to when he says: "The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth." (9) We are then given a number of sources from which McLuhan draws the philosophical material for his theory. We are told of Shakespeare's intuition of the transforming powers of new media; Hans Seyle and socio-radical theories; General Sarnoff's analysis of print media; classical economic theory and the paradox of mechanization; noted historian Toynbee's unique analyses; Hume's theories on causality; dimensional aspects of cubism; and typographical and print culture effects on literary and socio-psychiatric inclinations. (McLuhan, 1964)
The weaknesses of McLuhan's theories are mostly evident without great analysis. The major deficiency is its tendency to offer much substance for theoretical debate without actually concluding anything significant; remaining for the most part 'a bulb without a billboard'. The analyses expounded by McLuhan are vital to communication studies and a proper understanding of the nature of media, but are generally negated by McLuhan's own remarks on exploration rather than explanation. The true test of the practicality and logical reality of any theory comes in its implementation. When something open to debate and confutation is implemented imperfectly, its theoretical aspects are immediately questioned. Since McLuhan's work is based largely on intense theorizing, the manifestations of his ideas are prone to even greater scrutiny. This process is not restricted to McLuhan alone, but to all thinkers and proponents of highly developed theory. One of McLuhan's biographer's points out that: "Understanding Media brought McLuhan to prominence in the same decade that celebrated flower power. San Francisco, the home of the summer of love, hosted the first McLuhan festival, featuring the man himself. The saying "God is dead" was much in vogue in the counterculture that quickly adopted McLuhan but missed the irony of giving a man of deep faith the status of an icon." (Gordon, 2002)
McLuhan, who was also said to have been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin, a prominent Catholic thinker, was thought to be a guru by many sectors of a generation that was undergoing changes relevant to his theories. In Understanding Media, McLuhan quotes Pope Pius XII on the importance of analyzing media: "It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the stability of its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual's own reaction." (20) This analysis is highly applicable today, particularly with the development of the worldwide web and technological sophistication of communications. As far as theories go, McLuhan's apply perfectly to all forms of media found on earth today. The initial premise of media being a technological extension of the individual has never been more evident than it is in the case of the Internet and the global village. In fact, one could as far as to say that McLuhan safely predicted the coming of the internet and nearly all its implications a good three decades before it was actually a part of everyday life the world over. Most of his theories find their completion and fulfillment through the Internet and its impact on human relations. (Regent University, 2003)
Most of McLuhan's work is compatible and often overlaps with general media theories. It is not entirely incorrect to say that a good portion of his work is actually accepted by educational institutes and media study centers as 'gospel truth' today. The contrasts found between general media theories and McLuhan's theories arise mainly from the latter's weaknesses, outlined above. In the current era, there are a series of major fields for which…[continue]
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