Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In what sense can Marshall McLuhan¡¦s ideas about the relationship between the media and society be summed up in the phrase ¡§the medium is the message¡¨?

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Marshall McLuhan¡¦s main thesis, which he developed and maintained throughout his career, is that media has a deep and invisible effect on the world, society, and the way in which we view society. His famous catch phrase ¡V ¡§the Medium is the Message¡¨ refers to his theory that the media is what is important, and regardless of the content, the effect will still be the same. To understand McLuhan¡¦s theories we must try to forget the symbolic content of what is being said, or the superficial interpretation of the actual picture. Instead we must look deeper into the whole infrastructure of the medium itself.


McLuhan described the content of medium as ¡§the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind¡¨ (McLuhan 16418). For instance, the same words may be spoken face-to-face, printed on paper, or presented on television. But three different messages may be presented simply because of the different senses used to perceive these words. McLuhan argues that modern communication, including radio, television and computers would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic and philosophical consequences. The dominant medium of any age controls people and reconnects forms of relationship with the world based on which sensory motor apparatus is being used. The phonetic alphabet, printing press and the telegraph were turning points in society because they changed the way people thought about themselves, and even changed the ways in which they experienced the world.


McLuhan divides the history of social man into three eras the Tribal Age, the Age of Print, and the Electronic Age. The Tribal Age is marked by a world where all the senses were balanced and simultaneous, an oral culture structured by a dominant auditory sense of life (McLuhan & Zingrone, 17). The phonetic alphabet and the print revolution changed everything, and in trading an ¡¦eye for an ear¡¦ resulted in a shift towards sequential, lineal thought, reducing the use of all the senses to a merely visual code (McLuhan 16 45).


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During the Age of Print, man began to develop his own individuality. Print gave people privacy, and society became fragmented as people changed their way of thinking and looking at the world. McLuhan links the beginning of logical, connected thinking directly to the phonetic alphabet, as it is a lineal thought process. The invention of the telegraph announced the beginning to the end of the Age of Print, and the Electronic Age was born. The introduction of new electronic media ¡V television, film and radio ¡V caused the power of the printed word to decrease significantly, and McLuhan noted a reversal of the three-thousand year bias towards a visual culture in favour of the pre-alphabetic, and more sensor-balanced, oral tradition. This instant communication removes our individuality, but connects people, as everyone can now share the same experience of watching images on television at the same time with the same effects. McLuhan coined the phrase ¡¥the Global Village¡¦ where the electronic media re-tribalize the human race.


McLuhan sees all technology and media as an extension of man. He refers to it as self-amputation, in which we create a medium or technology to replace or modify some other extension. For example, the wheel is an extension of the foot and clothing is the technical projection of skin (Stevenson, 001). McLuhan believes that mankind has always been fascinated and obsessed with these extensions, but too frequently they choose to minimize or even ignore the amputations. For instance people praise the advantages of having a car and being able to travel around at high speed, but they choose not to be reminded of the negative consequences, which can include loss of muscle strength and poorer air quality. Any new form of media or technology will bring disruption and threaten the balance of our senses, and it is the response to the speed and power of the new extension that brings about even more extensions, which in turn create new stresses in society.


McLuhan¡¦s distinction with regard to the effects of media is ¡¥hot¡¦ and ¡¥cool¡¦. The defining characteristic is determined by the degree and type of tribal or social participation the medium demands on us. ¡¥Hot¡¦ media are those that contain relatively complete sensory data, thus the perceiver has less need to become involved by filling in missing data. Meanwhile, ¡¥cool¡¦ media requires the individual to participate perceptually by filling in the missing information. A lecture requires less participation than a seminar, so the lecture is ¡¥hot¡¦ while the seminar is ¡¥cool¡¦. (McLuhan & Zingrone, 1746) By participation, McLuhan refers to the completeness (hot) or incompleteness (cool) of the


stimuli, and not the degree of interest or time spent on that particular medium of communication.


The Internet would be an extremely cool medium, as it requires very high audience participation. It could warm up a bit and maybe even become less interactive if some more television-like features were added to it. Film is still very hot at this point, though it may cool down if it changes. Television is quite cool, but could be even cooler with widespread interactive television. Watching television ¡§has often been seen as a routine, unproblematic, passive process the meanings of the programmes are seen as given and obvious; the viewer is seen as passively receptive and mindless.¡¨ (Livingstone, 10). This means that the audience only have to sit and stare without thinking, yet the audience are highly involved because of the low-resolution monitor, mosaic screen and thus greater mental participation. McLuhan regards television as a ¡¥cool¡¦ medium¡¦ as it leaves spaces for the media to participate, and exhibits lower levels of information technology.


Reading a book is very different from watching television. When reading we can go at our own pace, reading the same sentence over and over, and it will always be there. On the other hand, television is like an endless flow which we cannot capture; we just tune in and become part of the silent audience. McLuhan noted that the ability of television to draw people to certain events, bringing different places and times together at high-speed simultaneity meant the beginning of a new electronic age.


This may possibly be why so many people were drawn to the events of September 11th, 001. People described the event as ¡§surreal¡¨ and many had trouble understanding the scene. The media portrayed the attack as a television event filled with drama, heroism and special effects. In a movie the medium is hot, and everything is already organized for us in a way that we can process the given information more easily. Since we are used to seeing that kind of violence in a cinema, it may be too traumatic to process in a different medium where more thought must be used. The World Trade Centre attack is deeply embedded in the minds and senses of the world, and cool media, such as TV, can explain the circumstances, allowing viewers to insert themselves into the story.


Marshall McLuhan was one of the first people to look at media as a major force in the shaping of society. He was certainly the first to make the idea popular, and also one of the first to look at technology as an extension of the human body. With cameras and televisions enhancing our eyes, satellite dishes increasing the sensitivity of our ears, and computers and the Internet boosting the power of our brains, the human body has finally become fully extended through communication technology. His theories and ideas may not all be correct. However, many of his predictions (for example the concept of the Global Village) are so correct that his work is being re-investigated by communication scholars. The important thing is that the ideas of Marshall McLuhan can help us look at our society and everything that is happening today from a new angle. This can then help us work out newer and better solutions to some of the oldest problems.


Reference


McLuhan, Marshall (164) Understanding Media the extensions of man, London Routledge & Kegan Paul.


¡¥Playboy Interview Marshall McLuhan ¡V A Candid Conversation with the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media¡¦ reprinted from Playboy (March 16) in McLuhan, Eric & Zingrone, Frank (eds.) (17) Essential McLuhan, London Routledge.


McLuhan, Marshall (16) The Gutenburg Galaxy; the Making of Typographic Man, London Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Stevenson, Nick (00) Understanding Media Cultures Social Theory and Mass Communication, London Sage.


Livingstone, Sonia (10) ¡¥Introduction to Theories of Communication and Culture - Making Sense of Television The Psychology of Audience Interpretation ¡V ¡§The Social Psychology of the Viewer¡¨¡¦ at www.atkinson.yorku.ca/~cefg4000/pr/crpr16.html (accessed 5 November 00)


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