Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970s
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In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” He defined a “medium” as “any extension of man” and conveyed the idea that messages existed outside the content. The character of a medium — not the information it carries — is its potency or effect. Scholarly works carry a particular message about rigor, trust, and objectivity, with effects beyond the obviousness of the content. A newscast’s message doesn’t consist of stories of crime — its message is that it shames criminals via public broadcast. The content is obvious, but the message is subtler and ultimately more powerful. It is produced by the medium’s features — broadcast, scholarship, and so on. Newspapers create a framework for history, which is more important than their content. A hammer creates a way to wield increased force, a medium with the message of leverage and impact.

I was reminded of McLuhan the other day when I read a sentence near the end of Nick Bilton‘s “I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works” (yes, it’s taken me a few weeks to get through it). The sentence in question stated starkly, “The medium is no longer the message.”

I startled a bit upon reading it, but moved on. But it stuck in my craw.

My thinking then turned to the Kindle platform, the implications of which I’ve also been pondering lately, especially the “me at the middle” assumption it embraces — that is, I can stop reading something on my iPhone and my Kindle knows where to pick up. I’m at the middle of the Kindle platform, the first time I’ve ever seen a content platform do this amazing but seemingly simple feat.

I first came across Bilton’s quote while reading his book on my Kindle. But when I wanted to re-read the last chapter — a letter to imaginary information bigwigs entitled, “Why They Won’t Come Back” — I was at work, and my Kindle was at home. Luckily, I could open the book on my computer even though my Kindle was miles away. And when I did, I was at the precise spot I’d left off reading two nights before.

What if the message of today’s medium — the Internet — is that the medium no longer delivers any differential force or presence? What if the message of a medium is abundance and access? What if “me at the middle” triumphs?

Does the medium disappear, leaving the message as the message?

Definitely not. In fact, McLuhan’s musings are even more pertinent today than ever. Our information age is filled with unintended consequences (e.g., Twitter as a tool of revolutions and rescues, YouTube as a tool for bullies, and so forth). McLuhan’s framework easily accommodates the changes of an abundant information space, and accepts that abundance itself can be a medium (extension of humans) producing a message (potent change) that we’re still unraveling. How potent is this new medium? Even after 20 years with it, we haven’t even settled on what to call it — the Web, the Internet, the Interwebz, Web 2.0, the mobile Web, online, digital. As Wired put it recently, “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet.

The consequences of this new medium and its message will take generations to unfold. Members of GenY (youths born between 1982 and 2004) will be the ones to watch in this regard. In an interesting essay about GenY (youths born between 1982 and 2004), Dan Coates writes:

[GenY:] the first generation in U.S. history to exceed 100,000,000 members is typified as multi-cultural, multi-racial, multilingual, multimedia and multi-tasking. Most importantly, Gen Y is the first generation in human history to, as children, be more technologically advanced than their parents.

For GenY, technology fits into their lives in dramatically different ways than it did for prior generations — most significantly, technology is intensely social for this generation. Their social lives, connections, and communication depend on the Internet — for good or ill, their social networks are more far-flung, enduring, and flexible, as well.

Their use of technology is pervasive and sophisticated. You can pretty much count on the totality of Gen Y to be online and connected. Research conducted by the Insights division of Ypulse in September 2010 shows 94% of Gen Y to be on Facebook, spending 11.4 hours a week within its pearly blue gates. This connectivity is nearly ubiquitous, with more than three quarters (78%) of high school and college students connecting to their preferred social network via their mobile phone. Mobile devices and the Facebook platform are the glue that keeps this generation connected. When Gen Y communicates with each other, their preferred tool is a text message (55% state texting as the primary means of communicating with their friends), followed by Facebook (24%). Voice-based communications (landline, VOIP and mobile voice calls) amongst Gen Y represents only 10% of communications, IM is the primary communications tool for 7% and email is dominant among a meager 1% of Gen Y when communicating peer to peer.

Bilton writes in his book that print helped define nation-states. What online networking will define remains to be seen, but new social and political definitions and structures seem inevitable.

The medium is — more intensely than ever — the message. And, by encompassing the globe with immediacy and social connections, this medium may deliver the most powerful and transformative message yet.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


4 Thoughts on "Is the Medium Still the Message When the Medium is Pervasive?"

While I agree with your general premise, McLuhan is as right today as he ever was, a few quibbles:

First the idea that Twitter was driving a revolution in Iran has been fairly debunked:

“It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

(note that this comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s much discussed piece on Web 2.0 and social activism, most visibly disputed by Anil Dash, whose own article was shredded in colorful fashion by The Angry Drunk).

Next, I wanted to contrast the view of GenY given in the linked article with that seen in a recent study. According to Researchers of Tomorrow: A three year (BL/JISC) study tracking the research behaviour of ‘Generation Y’ doctoral students, there is,

“…in broad approaches to information-seeking and use of research resources, no marked difference between Generation Y doctoral students and those in older age groups. Nor are there marked differences in these behaviours between doctoral students of any age in different years of their study. The most significant differences revealed in the data are between subject disciplines of study, irrespective of age or year of study.”

I think we make a mistake when we try to pin particular behaviors, particular uses of technology, on a particular age group. GenY may have grown up with certain technologies, but odds are, we older folks have been using those same technologies longer, and in many cases more extensively. A look at the demographics of Facebook alone will tell you that it’s not a young person’s phenomenon. We’re all in the same boat, all adapting to new technologies constantly. Twitter started in 2006–is there really a big difference for someone in GenY who was 24 years old at the time compared to someone from the previous generation who was 25?

One other quick question–the new Kindle, priced at $139 is apparently selling quite well, starting to reach a commodity level. But this model is Wifi only, no 3G connection. How does this affect the sort of syncing you’re talking about? If you’re reading on the device and not connected to the internet, I assume you then have to get the device to a Wifi network before you can have the “me at the middle” experience.

Also, the best reason I’ve yet seen for buying a Kindle is here.

In response to David’s point about graduate students, I have seen other studies indicating that the culture of academe has a more powerful and overriding effect on graduate students and young faculty than the GenY practices they may have gotten used to growing up. In other words, the old culture trumps the new once it comes to getting ahead in academe. No surprise there for those of us who have lived in this culture for decades and seen it change at a glacial pace (e.g., the resistance to accepting e-publications as valid for tenure and promotion).

Seconding your cross-device reading experience (and pleasure at being tracked across the cloud): having recently misplaced my Kindle charger, I resorted to downloading Shogun to my PC and reading it in its ~1,600 “page” entirety nearly entirely on iPhone (enjoying the backlit display) with occasional migration to other devices (whatever was handy in the moment). I was completely satisfied to have Amazon deliver me to my dog eared page wherever I was and whatever I was using—not remotely concerned about whatever privacy I might be sacrificing to the Amazon “cloud brain” to do so. Harkens back to “Why It’s So Easy to Swap Personal Information to Satisfy an Itch” on TSK in April.

Service wins the day.

Also reading: Libraries become cloud-supplied student unions with a handful of roving reference librarians wielding iPads. Breaks the conventional box but zeros in on service delivery meeting the audience where it resides. Heretical/distressing but relevant.

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