Marshall McLuhan draws out cognitive illustrations on his article ‘The Medium is the Message’ that shows how the use of technological media such as print, radio, and television widely influences the development of a particular age than their messages can. He introduces a largely perceptive point in claiming that communication mediums are the message themselves which are delivered to their recipients. However, I strongly disagree that the medium primarily affects social and industrial changes in the society, but rather, it is the content of the medium that provides more effect on the future of the ages. In this paper, I will be drawing out some details to support the idea that it is the combined messages of the medium and the content themselves that largely affect the society and culture. The evidences will provide some insights into why the content of the medium should still be given more consideration and study than the technological tool used to deliver it. I will argue that though McLuhan’s arguments have important points, his findings lacked the ability to weigh each side fairly.
The Power of the Medium and the Message
McLuhan stresses on his book ‘Understanding Media’ that the communication device used to carry out a message is a crucial aspect that should be given thorough study. He believes that it is the communication medium which is used that greatly affects one’s perception and future innovations. He refers to the word ‘Medium’ as any device which is used for communication such as paper, radio, and television. For McLuhan, these communication media have in them an intrinsic message or content that is simultaneously delivered or inculcated in the minds of the recipients together with the ‘message’. The ‘message’, on the other hand, refers to the real content of the device such as news articles, films, poems, or radio talk shows. McLuhan argues that, although “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message” (151). He stresses the point that the content of the message has minimal effects to the social perception of the society.
I can see McLuhan’s point in pioneering the idea of observing the other side of media which is the tool itself and not the content anymore. The fact that he is a very technological and at the same time creative person shows how much emphasis he has given on the technological side of the issue, which is quite clear in his uses and pun of words. Clearly, McLuhan has discovered how industrialism and technology have greatly affected our world and society. He states that the present culture of people is being moulded by the way they communicate, and this shapes the existence of humans. Apparently, the inventions in the new age of technology have changed the culture of the people, and human lives are shaped by these changes. Mcluhan suggests that people shape the tools, but they shape people in return. Since technology predicts social change, it explains why the society changes from time to time while the people get used to the products of technological world. From telephone to cellular phones today, the society has been improving in the mode of communication.
As people become educated and knowledgeable, the demands for new gadgets and another mode of communication are being addressed. The tribal age made people learn how to listen, and the literate age made them learn how to read, and as the ages came, people realized that there are still many gadgets that can be innovated to make their lives more convenient. The knowledge about mathematics helped the people during the earlier centuries and resulted in the development of mechanical calculators that led to the invention of the computers. Since then, many other high technological gadgets have been invented to satisfy the people’s needs. High technology gadgets have kept on amazing people with their capabilities to communicate easier and faster than the gadgets that they had been using before these new gadgets were introduced. ‘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’ (151). Nowadays, people can send messages to their families regardless of their location through internet messaging. They can watch videos, listen to music, and take pictures using their latest cellular phones. They can get any information they need from the internet and learn all the latest news and events anywhere in the world. Those are just few of the things that technology can provide to people. It is a manifestation that people get countless advantages from these new gadgets. Thus, technology plays a very important part in humans’ lives today. The dependence of people all over the world to technology is evident. The presence of high technology today helps to sustain the humans’ existence in the planet. The constant innovation of new gadgets made people become dependent to technology which put them to new culture and gave them new perceptions toward their surroundings.
Apparently, McLuhan’s assertion that these communication and electronic devices have more influential ‘content’ than the real message that they carry is quite understandable. He is actually correct to an extent; however, I would like to argue with his opinion that the medium should be given more attention because it is the message itself aside from the real content. He gives many examples to support this claim by using the analogy of the light bulb. A light bulb does not have any content, but it illuminates its surroundings; therefore, creating a lighted space where people can fill up (152). The message here, therefore, is the result of light and what people can do with the light; but what McLuhan aims to highlight is the idea that the bulb in itself is the carrier and at the same time the reason why people can make innovations with it. This is, in my opinion, an inconsistent way of perceiving the role of the bulb. Its ‘message’ of providing light is the main reason why people are able to see things clearly despite the dark. The production of light is the real message of the electronic tool which shows that the bulb’s ability to give light influences people to work and move better. If the bulb did not produce any hint of luminescence, scientists and inventors would probably not upgrade it into incandescent bulbs or fluorescent lamps.
The argument with the bulb can also be associated with McLuhan’s argument that the content has little effect on people’s decisions and future acts. In this situation, let’s take the case of violent programming on television and children. Children’s show and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) are both messages that television delivers. A child who watches more educational shows is expectedly more good-mannered and knowledgeable than a child who is regularly exposed to violent shows. Clearly, McLuhan’s argument is quite broad and general in a way that he overlooked a particular situation where the ‘real content’ of the television can be considered crucially influential to viewers. Ironically, McLuhan’s use of general David Sarnoff’s speech in the University fo Notre Dame also reveals that content is important in the same way that the medium is. Sarnoff stated that, ‘We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in theselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value’ (154). By using the same case of violent programming’s effect on children, similarly, television is used as a medium to broadcast different kinds of shows. The fact that the first child’s case, the television is used to broadcast the message conveyed in children’s shows demonstrates how meanings can be perceived differently compared to that of the child watching WWE.
Moreover, another argument that shows how medium and content work hand in hand in delivering various messages and influences to the society is McLuhan’s research of an African who does not understand the English language but still listens to BBC News every evening. In this case, McLuhan illustrates that despite the African’s inability to understand any word that he hears on the news, he still finds hearing the sound of it important, therefore, demonstrating that it is the idea of the sound produced by the medium used that affects him. However, it is still an arguable scenario due to the fact that the sound produced by the radio or television can be considered as the real content on the premise of an African. ‘His attitude to speech was like ours to melody—the resonant intonation was meaning enough’ (161). It is, therefore, quite reaosnable to conclude that the vagueness of the real definition of ‘message’ that reveals the flaws in McLuhan’s arguments and assertions.
Marshall McLuhan has provided intellectual and perceptive points as he discussed the role of communication mediums in our society and future. His ability to provide more meanings in particular words shows that he is well-equipped in critically analysing what is not always obvious in our society. However, his flaws fall on the idea that he based his findings on technological theories without weighing the logical effects and results of the ‘real content’ of communication. Moreover, the inconsistencies in his claims show how the arguments presented with regard to mediums being the message itself reveal that the combination of both is what completes the meanings delivered to the recipients. It is not merely the electronic or communication medium used to deliver that needs attention for further studies but also the meanings construed in each messages that these mediums carry out.
As consumers, we encounter numerous media outlets of technology each day. What are media? Books, television, computers, movies, cell phones, video games and text messages are just a few examples of the types of media that we use everyday in order to send and receive messages. In order to understand how the media is indeed the message within our society, Marshall McLuhan urges readers to look at where the quest for technological advancement began. In order to understand today’s advancing technology, we, as technological consumers need to understand where our need for communication comes from and how this need for communication still defines us. What is important in communicating? Is it the actual content of the message that I send via text message or is it actually the cell phone device by which I send the message?
McLuhan writes in his essay, “The Medium is the Message,” “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 practical fact, the medium is the message. 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, or by any new technology” (McLuhan 38). Advancements in technology have brought about important changes in how humans communicate with each other. For example, when Johannes Gutenburg developed movable print type in the fifteenth century, it influenced the way the written word was distributed. Eventually, the written word became available to more people because of the printing press.
McLuhan uses the analogy of the advancement of railroads to point out how it changed the way society was able to work, function, and communicate. McLuhan says, “For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure” (39). In the context of reading “The Medium is the Message” in the twent first century, it is important to recognize how computer and cell phone technologies are now playing a vital role in how we communicate and at what rate of speed we are able to achieve successful communication.
Within the electronic age, the medium has taken on the responsibility of the meaning of the message instead of the actual content of the message. Is the message as important as the medium by which it is delivered? McLuhan feels that the device by which the instantaneity of the message is delivered (the medium) outweighs the importance of whatever is being said in the context of the message. The medium is what becomes important; not the actual content of the message.
Henry Jenkins, a media analyst and Founder and Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, writes, “Old media are not being displaced. Rather, their functions and status are shifted by the introduction of new technologies” (Jenkins 14). New technology is advancing the way the message is spread via the medium. Jenkins says, “A medium’s content may shift (as occurred when television displaced radio as a storytelling medium, freeing radio to become the primary showcase for rock and roll), its audience may change (as occurs when comics move from a mainstream medium in the 1950’s to a niche medium today), and its social status may rise or fall (as occurs when theater moves from a popular form to an elite one), but once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communications options” (14). The medium is what is important and not the actual content of the message.