McLuhan: The medium is the message

‘[T]he ‘message of any medium or technology is the change of scale, pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs…[For example]the railway…accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human function , creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure’ (McLuhan, 1964: 8). Discuss in relation to a contemporary communication technology that you think is having the kind of consequences outlined by McLuhan and ‘medium theory’.

In this modern world, media has been very powerful as a source of information and power. Medium such as television, radio, newspapers and the internet have become the major source of information. These medium contain some particular messages that introduce a new way of living. Through the invention and development of technology, people can now use these medium to develop communication process. However, these medium are also the message itself that people sometimes do not realize as people tend to focus on the messages that the medium brings. Marshal McLuhan’s notion of this have been an interesting issue amongst media theorist to examine how can it be that the medium itself is the message.

This essay will discuss McLuhan’s idea of change in the ‘scale, pace and pattern’ of human affairs. This paper will then examine what McLuhan and other ‘medium theorists’ mean by ‘medium’ and the ‘medium is the message’. This essay will also discuss a contemporary communication technology particularly mobile phone, its relationship with the medium theory and how it has impacted society and culture.

In the first place, the medium theory was predominantly introduced by Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a Canadian academic who proposed a very well known idea in media studies which is called ‘the medium is the message’ (Abercrombie & Longhurst, 2007, p. 207). This idea then spread out around the world and became influential in media studies. ‘The medium is the message’, is actually a very difficult concept by McLuhan, as the idea of this theory has become quite complex amongst media theorists. According to Stevenson (1995, p. 115), Marshal McLuhan’s idea then became an exhibition of technological determinism. Chandler (1996, p. 1) argues that technological determinism is commonly associated with broad claims about social and historical changes. This critic then leads to the difficulties in understanding and analyzing the differences that cultural media has on our everyday live.

However, the emphasis of this notion is simply on the medium itself where according to McLuhan, ‘the medium is the message’. This is because the effects of medium on personal and social scale as the extension of us can result from a new scale that is introduced into our lives by the extension of ourselves and by any kind of new technology (McLuhan, 1964, p. 7). In this case, the medium can be TV programs, newspaper, radio news, etc. which are the meaning that can convey the message to create ‘awareness and initial imagery’ and as tools to carry the meaning of advertising (Kwiatkowski, 1998, p. 44). What this means is essentially that the power and the message can be found in the medium itself. According to McLuhan, the power of the message lays on the medium itself rather than on the content of the message. He believes that each medium changes human relations and relations with time and space. On this basic notion, human history can be divided into oral, print and electronic cultures.

The message itself is very important to be considered as the way in which a message is transferred within the medium therefore becomes as important as the message itself (Taylor & Willis, 1999, p. 3). In other words, the model in which a message is conveyed can give a huge contribution to the way we understand or define the meaning of the message in media text (p. 4).

In some major cases, however, people tend to think in an old way that the meaning of the medium which refers to the mass-media of communication such as Television, radio or internet is the message as content of information in the channels themselves (Federman, 2004, p. 1). This then lead to the conclusion that the medium should be ignored as it only brings the message that people need without realizing that the medium can sometimes be more meaningful than the message itself. McLuhan in his writing took an example of electric light to explain this notion and how this light works as a medium, connects with the message that it conveys. McLuhan (1964, p. 8) states that the electric light is pure information and plays a role as a medium without a message unless it is thought in some particular circumstances. For example, electric lights do not contain any message in the daylight. However, the meaning or message can be more meaningful if we see the lights in the night as it can give an idea that we need the lights in the night. This concept then emphasizes the importance of electric lights in redefining social relation (McLuhan, 1994, p. 52, cited in Stevenson, 1995, p. 117). The electric lights contain no message, but it transforms relation of time and space.

According to Meyrowitz (1997, p. 42), change in media in the past have affected the information that people have in ‘given places’. As a result, it also changed the relative status and power of those in different places. However, it can also be said that the relationship between places and social situation is still very strong because technological advancement through mobile devices makes it easier for us to get connected with people around the world at a different time and occasion. Mayrowitz believes that when we are communicating through telephone, radio, television or computer, we are ‘physically no longer determines where and who we are socially’. From this idea, it can be concluded that these medium play the role as the message itself whereby it introduces a completely different way of communicate things and pass the message to other people.

Furthermore, McLuhan proposed the idea of ‘the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affair’ (McLuhan, 1964, p. 8). He examines the idea of the railway that introduces a big change in human history. What he means is that the railway itself is a message that tells people about a new kind life and world that replace the human functions. In other words, before the railway was invented, humans used to travel to other places and carry their products without having transport system. This happens as a conventional way of travelling and trading systems.

However, since the railway was invented, the system changed to be more convenient as people can travel and move faster flexible. This then change the conventional idea of time and space where people see these two aspects as new and transformational humans’ invention. This is because the elimination of space and time is certainly influenced by technological advancements in mass communication (Stevenson, 1995, p. 122).

A practical example of the idea of the medium is the message would be the case of mobile phones. This device, as all people know creates a very significant breakthrough in humans’ history. Mobile communication is now creating a sense of new way of communicating with other people even in a different place, time and circumstance. This type of communication is enabled by mobile media such as mobile phones, television or radio, which can promote the idea of a mobile way of life. According to Abercrombie and Longhurst (2007, p. 225), the introduction to ‘greater mobility’ is caused by technological changes that enable people to mobilize their way of living. The advent of portable radios, CD, or television has made live much easier and flexible. The new greater invention in digital technology has introduced even greater opportunity to create better communication process.

Mobile phones would be the focus of the notion of mobile communication. As it is commonly found that almost everyone in the world has access to mobile phones and flexibly use them as a major device to communicate. Mobile phone has now developed not only for voice conversation, but also for texting, email, and downloading music and pictures (Abercrombie & Longhurst, 2007, p. 226). The impacts of mobile phones on economy and culture are also relevant to be discussed. Mobile phones have evolved in a very short time to become tools of economic empowerment, especially for those people who live in the third world (The Economist, 2009, p. 13). The benefits of this can be seen through infrastructural compensation for bas roads creating a totally free marketing system and efficient entrepreneurship. The message of this breakthrough is lying on the mobile phones themselves as the message to reinforce the idea that mobile phones have changed human life from more conventional way of communicating to a more convenient and flexible way.

In conclusion, the medium that carry messages can also be the messages as what McLuhan has proposed. ‘The medium is the message’ conveys meaning that it is not always the case to say that the medium only brings messages. In other words, the medium itself can create a totally different perspective of technological developments in communication. As McLuhan’s idea of the railway, this has created a totally different human’s perspective of time and space. Mobile phones which has introduced a much more flexible way of communicating things. The impacts of mobile phones on the culture itself are also significant where people now tend to experience a more mobilized way of living.

Reference list

Abercrombie, N, & Longhurst, B, 2007, Dictionary of media studies, New York: Penguin Books.

Chandler, D, 1996, Engagement with media: Shaping and being shaped, An article for computer mediated communication magazine, pp. 1-7

Chandler, D, The transmission model of communication, pp. 1-9

Federman, M, 2004, What is the meaning of the medium is the message? (from http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/MeaningTheMediumistheMessage.pdf).

Kwiatkowski, K, 1998, The medium is the message-Marshall McLuhan, in Research currents, pp. 44-45.

McLuhan, M, 1964, “The medium is the message”, in Understanding media: The extensions of man, London: Routledge, pp. 7-13.

Meyrowitz, J, 1997, “The separation of social space from physical place”, in Tim O’ Sullivan and Yvonne Jewkes (eds), The media studies reader, London: Edward Arnold, pp. 42-50.

Stevenson, N, 1995, Understanding media culture: Social theory and mass communication, London: Sage Publications.

Taylor, L & Willis, A, 1999, Media studies: Texts, institutions and audiences, Melbourne: Blackwell Publishing.

The Economist, 2009, The power of mobile money: A Special report on telecoms in emerging markets, pp. 13-19.

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