“Medium is the message”

“The medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan (1964) said in his masterpiece “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. This quote has then served as an important perspective as people intend to extract an insight of the interaction among media, society and culture; more specifically, how society, culture and civilization are twisted through the lens of media.

Medium, by tradition, is defined as the vehicle for delivery of message. Message per se is what’s proposed to be entering the audience’s mind, exerting cognitive influences. That McLuhan equalized these two seemingly distinctive terms, however, indicates that in a broad sense, what unobtrusively affects people’s view of the world may not be the “message”, but the “channel” through which the “message” is formed and disseminated. Taking movie as an example, McLuhan argued that the distorted conception of time and speed in movie, an information channel, had nevertheless transformed the world from one of “sequence and connections” into one of “creative configuration and structure”. Extending McLuhan’s contention, Postman (1985) put forward his argument that “medium is the metaphor” in his thought-provoking work “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. Metaphor referring to the way of interpreting the world, Postman claimed that the pervasive entertainment on television has rendered everything, including those otherwise serious topics, entertaining, and has impaired people’s ability of deep contemplation. The fault is not on television programs. Instead, as a gateway to leisure and past-time, it is television itself that has framed an intention to entertain. This, with the popularity of television, has fundamentally changed people’s way of thinking.

In the context of today’s media environment, novel media forms such as wearable communication devices, VR headset, social networking sites are emerging prosperously, all providing similar content compared to their counterparts in the previous era, but with extremely different technological features. For instance, communication on Facebook is deprived of most social cues. Therefore, it provides an opportunity for more self-disclosure which leads to a higher level of interpersonal intimacy (Forest & Wood, 2012). In addition, considering Facebook’s popularity on mobile phones, people are increasingly able to initiate online conversations with friends regardless of temporal or spatial limitations. Turkle (2011), noticing the mobility and convenience of contact granted by the affordances of cellphones and Internet, advanced her observation that people are stuck in a phenomenon of “perpetual contact” brought about by mobile technology. People are always contacting friends miles away but are ignoring what is happening immediately around. Social media are redefining interpersonal relationship, and are constantly cutting off people’s attention by instant messages. As is confirmed by a research of Yeykelis et al (2014), the overloaded fragmented information online has substantially shortened people’s span of attention, reflected by their continuously switching from one platform to another within 19 seconds. The thing is, aligned with McLuhan and Postman’s argument, the content across different platforms does not change fundamentally; what’s undergoing changes, however, is the medium itself, and it is the medium framework itself that changes the representation of a culture.

To add further support to this, Gentzkow (2006) carried out a research exploring the interaction between television viewing and turnout for presidential election in the United States. The finding is, in spite of the prevalence of televisions in 1950s, people’s turnout declined nonetheless. Since television’s substitution of newspaper and broadcast was validated, the explanation was that because people were watching televisions more for entertainment, rather than for politics. This is indeed a compelling support to the afore-discussed outweighing importance of technology over content. Before the introduction of television, people were somewhat passively receiving information from newspaper and broadcast which were rich with political news. But as television brought far more affordances, especially visual entertainment, people were intuitively attracted to them. Although political news hadn’t changed across television and newspapers, people simply stopped attending to them but turned to the entertaining TV programs. This presumably “bad” influence of television on politics is actually applicable to many other forms of media.

All that said, however, what is argued is only one side of the coin. To address the other side as to how media is reflecting the actual culture of a society, the variable of culture should be taken into consideration. Groshek et al.’s (2012) research on comparison between “attack” political advertisements in France and US election campaigns found that overall America showed more negativity than France. This finding supported the hypothesis that since America takes on a “Liberal” model favored by commercial media and France “Polarized Pluralist”, there would be more negative campaign advertisements in the U.S. than in France. What’s more, given that America is a low-context country while France high, hypothesis was made that the U.S. would feature more personal characteristic attacking ads and France more issue attacking. Although these were not fully supported, more nuanced differentiations were expected to explain. In general, the difference in culture has been demonstrated by research to be significant.

Media reflects the world that is largely shaped by media. The interaction between them is always an ongoing process.

 

 

 

 

References

De Boer, N., Sütfeld, H., & Groshek, J. (2012).Social media and personal attacks: A comparative perspective on co–creation and political advertising in presidential campaigns on YouTube. First Monday, Volume 17, Number 12 – 3, December 2012.

Forest, A.L., & Wood, J.V. (2012). When Social Networking is Not Working: Individuals with Low Self-Esteem Recognize but Do Not Reap the Benefits of Self-Disclosure on Facebook. In Psychological Science. Volume: 23 issue: 3, page(s): 295-302.

Gentzkow, M. (2006). Television and Voter Turnout. In The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2006.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York : McGraw-Hill.

Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. U.S.A. : Penguin Books.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together : Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York : Basic Books.

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