Monday, October 5, 2015

The Medium is the Message!

  Marshall Mcluhan was an English Professor who took upon himself the study of the effects of media upon people, the culture and society. He rose to fame in the sixties, partially due to publicity and promotion and partially due to acceptance by the so-called mind-expanding
sectors of the hippy movement. Unfortunately, during the seventies his popularity tailed off and some found him so frustratingly difficult to understand that he was accused of babbling nonsensically. Many have speculated that the reason why his popularity faltered was because the corporate world, advertisers, marketers, publicists and the like, realized that Mcluhan was not 'on their side' that his ideas about the media were intended for public contemplation and learning, and not services for hire by the mass media and corporations. Mcluhan's knowledge of the effects of media were not helping businesses other than to sell highly intellectual books (and one audio-record) and at the same time, it seemed that there were too few people who actually understood what Mcluhan was talking about to really make good practical use of it.
   Since then, Marshall Mcluhan's ideas have ebbed and flowed in popularity. In the 1990s, long after his passing, his face graced the magazine 'Wired' and he was adopted as the tech-magazine's patron saint, credited with foretelling the internet age and the rise of silicon valley. The magazine has since eased-up on their promotion of the man, citing his various flaws, namely his later books which seemed to be mostly written by his own students and brandished with seemingly childish non-linear artwork to display some fragmented version of the ideas that Mcluhan was trying to convey.
   Part of the problem is that Mcluhan's most important work, the book Understanding Media was written in 1964 and by the late seventies, his own personal views had changed and adjusted enough that some people felt that he was actually contradicting himself. Furthermore Mcluhan avoided making value-judgements on the effects of media and especially his most important idea of the Global Village. None of his ideas were treated as beneficial or detrimental for humanity, but simple effects. Mcluhan also seemed somewhat amoral, suggesting that most of the effects of media were neither good nor evil and not necessarily for the betterment of mankind.
   But writer/thinkers come and go and every so often Marshal Mcluhan comes BACK WITH A VENGEANCE!!! And people are usually reminded of his ideas when some sort of worldwide mass media event happens across cultural lines and national boundaries like Psy and his worldwide hit Gangnam-Style, or the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and suddenly we are reminded of this worldwide interconnection that may or may not be called the Global Village.
  So this blog is obviously about a thinker named Marshall Mcluhan who is the guy with the groovy ideas all about media, and music is clearly dependent on media of one type or another. So today the medium is the message, but the content is music. So let's talk about the guy who told us that the 'The Medium is the Message'

The Medium is the Message
The problem with someone as quotable as Marshall Mcluhan is that there are numerous interpretations of the idea conveyed or supporting the quotation itself. The most famous quote of Mcluhan is the 'Medium is the Message'.
   Some have misinterpreted this quote as a kind of battle-stance; thinking that Mcluhan is suggesting content is insignificant in and of itself and Mcluhan's ideas are juxtaposed to the power of highly developed content such as art or poetry or movies or literature or even scientific reports, famous political speeches, and especially quotables from other well-known authors, speakers, scientists and notable people. Many people have suggested that Mcluhan was mistaken and that content is what 'wins out' in the end, the ultimate triumph of quality content over trash television.
  In truth, this is a mistaken concept of the idea that Mcluhan was trying to convery. He has been quoted as suggesting that television content is "incidental" when compared to the effect of the medium itself. However, the intention is not that the content is good/bad/smart/silly/weird/insignificant or that anything spoken or said on television is nonsense or not important, but the idea that the media itself has an effect that is mostly independent of the content, to the point where the content is inconsequential or even interchangeable. The media, whether television or radio, telephone or print creates an environment surrounding the person and the effects of that environment certainly works in combination with the content, but is not dependent upon it.
  The easiest, but over-simplistic, example of the sort of 'medium is the message' idea is when the same content is taken from whatever original form it may be and transferred to different medium. Take Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a dream' speech and transfer it from video to audio-only, then to text and then apply that text to the side of a disposable paper coffee-cup and the effect is suddenly changed even though the content is essentially the same. The effect is different because the environment created is different.

Auditory Medium to Visual Medium representing auditory sounds to Auditory Medium to Visual with Audio etc.
  Human beings first form of self-expression was physical including violence and/or affection. From the invention of speech, however, the media was essentially auditory. The next form was the written word which represented the sounds made by speech in codified visual form. Each of these media had their own effects on the society and culture of human beings. However, the main transition that happened before and during Mcluhan's lifetime was from printed media to electric and then to electronic.
   Mcluhan noted two things; that each new media form seemed to contain within it all other previous forms of media and that the new format was not necessarily better or worse than the old format, but different in its effects on the person using that media. During Mcluhan's lifetime, the data from hundreds of books could be stored on microfiche and even read from these files without ever opening a book. The contents are identical, however, the effects and environment created by these two forms of text media may be similar, but not quite the same.

Cool Medium is the drug of choice.
Marshall Mcluhan divided various media into hot and cool categories usually depending on the level of 'involvement' perceived by the audience.
   Hot media sweeps up the user and make him or her feel greatly involved especially in one specific sense like sight. Hot media is hi-definition, linear, sequential and logical and including books (print media) , radio, film, lectures, photography.
   Cool media, on the other hand, provides less definition or less specific information but more stimulus, usually directed towards the acoustic, but using several different senses at the same time and needs more willing participation/attention from the user to mentally fill in the gaps in information. A sports event needs spectators to cheer and shout while a T.V. talk-show needs viewers to react and applaud even if those viewers don't contribute to the show content. Cool media also requires abstraction instead of logic but allows detachment instead of involvement. Cool media includes television, seminars and cartoons. Of course, the important one is that television is a cool medium. And much of Marshall Mcluhan's fame came from his ideas on the medium of television.
   Of course, the pervasiveness of television and the advertising contained within the media became the focus of attention of Mcluhan's fans and critics. Television, in Mcluhan's lifetime, was both the new medium and the new generation's medium. And yet, this cool medium was at the same time the biggest and fastest one. With the help of Satellite communications, it was reaching more people than movies or books ever could and at a quicker pace and spouting out more information faster and faster. Whether that information was relevant or irrelevant didn't seem to matter much. Television had everyone's attention, young or old, for at least a few hours everyday.
     On a 1970 appearance on the Dick Cavett show, Mcluhan stated: "The image pours right off that tube into the nerves. It's an  inner trip. The TV viewer is stoned." Many musicians and artists have noticed that certain content simply doesn't get broadcast on television, while at the same time realizing that the medium itself seems to have an effect on people that is similar to barbituates for the nervous system, numbing the mind and senses just enough to prevent people from thinking that there is something that needs to be done or even that they have to do anything while demanding participation in only limited form. In the same interview on Dick Cavett, Mcluhan stated: "TV, in so far as it tends to be an inner trip certainly deprives people of outer goals and motivation toward outer goals. It drives people inward." Television audiences don't think that anything has to be done for any kind of greater good except to buy the products sold and then just relax in front of the television every night for about three or four hours and then go to bed and get ready for work the next day.
    In 1967 Mcluhan once said on a CBC interview that the Vietnam war is a hot war being shown on a cool medium. He suggested that this was a mistake made by then-president Lyndon Johnson. Mcluhan states that the television audience becomes involved and is moved to try to stop the war because they find the content unbearable. Mcluhan was proven right and public opposition rose up in protests and eventually stopped the Vietnam War.
    Since the 1960s, however, thanks to a largely corporate and state-controlled television medium, certain 'hot' content seems to have escaped the TV for decades. Most shows have required less and less involvement from the viewer. Even cooking shows have become more spectacle than educational, providing high-stimulation with only sensory participation from the audience. Wars are no longer covered by television news, except to show panels talking about war (usually in an abstracted sense such as 'defending our freedoms') or draw maps of where the terrorists/ insurgents are supposedly located even when the area on the screen represents about ten-thousand square kilometres or more. No one is shown getting shot, neither on the ground nor from some aircraft or sea-faring vessel. It seems as though broadcasters have used Mcluhan's ideas in such a way to prevent a television audience from rising up. In the years since the Vietnam War, television content has gotten much cooler and stayed mostly cool despite decades of 24-7 news broadcasts. Some suggest that this is largely why news media is often geared towards easygoing celebrity-oriented entertainment or gossip-conversation rather than more substantial news.
    This cool medium called television, given cool content like info-tainment, celebrity gossip-news and sitcoms and soap-operas seems to gives people a false sense of security. It requires just enough attention/participation to keep a person staring at a screen, while providing a sense of detachment, and when combined with cool content it creates a feeling that disrupts and desensitizes the human nervous system. It's been over thirty five years since Mcluhan first noted the shortening of attention-spans of American television audiences and has stated: "What's wrong with television is the kind of effect it has on people's nervous systems. It's not the program that's unsettling or dangerous, it is simply the complete disruption of the human nervous system by this potent drug." Decades later, many casual observers would easily confirm the shortening of attention spans and the numbness caused by this drug called TV. And with each passing day we are becoming more and more aware of the effects of this very potent medium on the people that use it.

The Externalization of the Senses, the extension of the Human Nervous System, and the Adaptation to new forms of Media

  When the ring-tone plays that particular tone signifying your specific friend has called, you pick up your brand new smart-phone and talk to that person. That person is your friend, right? No. Your friend is forty kilometres away or even farther. What you're hearing is the disembodied analog voice of your friend after it's been digitized into simple data, broadcast to a tower, then fed through whatever existing network system to another tower, then re-broadcast and un-digitized to analog format so that you can finally hear the voice of your "friend". The same thing happens when you speak into the phone and your friend hears "You". Your own physical body and hearing and senses can't reach forty or more kilometres away, neither can your friend, but the media that you're using is a human-interactive interface that allows you to extend your senses beyond your physical body and capabilities. This 'through-the-medium' environment exists only as long as a phone call, but has profound effects on the culture and society outside of it, and these effects are entirely independent of the content of the call itself.
    Once your human senses have been extended in this way, there is always a cultural and behavioural change that goes with it. An older person, or perhaps a person who has lived for some time without a phone (mobile or not) might perceive this as a great convenience but not a necessity, and may even become annoyed with the constant ringing and turn-off the phone for some peace and quiet so they can finish the book that they were in the middle of reading.
  On the other hand, a younger person who has always had access to a phone of some kind, and knows that all his or her friends have phones, might wonder, or even worry, why he or she can't get their 'friend' on the phone even though they called three times. Rather than going to read a book, or doing without this extension of the senses, the person tries other means to send a message or go to further lengths to 're-connect' rather just leave the friend alone for a while. Is this a nosy person or has this person become so accustomed to this extension of their senses that they feel a loss when it's taken away?
     This externalization of the senses, the extension of the human nervous system, has an effect on people themselves and the culture that they inhabit. And these changes are remarkably powerful and happen regardless of the content and across national borders or traditional cultural differences. Every new media poses new questions and problems. Sometimes problems can be solved, such as when new forms of etiquette are developed to show emotion or sarcasm or nuance through media that cannot possibly convey such things. Some difficulties remain a work in progress such as questions of privacy. Sometimes problems are left unsolved, such as when a person cannot be reached by phone, internet, text-messaging, etc etc. and one is left to ponder whether that person has gone missing or simply wants to be left alone.

The Global Village
   Some have said that Mcluhan predicted the coming of the internet and talk about his idea of the Global Village as evidence that the Marshall Mcluhan was foretelling the future of both human beings and technology. Unfortunately Mcluhan's Global Village idea has been co-opted by several interpretations into meaning the Internet itself and as a result 'The Internet' and 'Global Village' are viewed as one and the same. Most likey, they are not.
   The linking-up of the two ideas is understandable, but the problem with this conflagration is that it has confused two of Mcluhan's ideas into one. The internet, if it has been predicted by Mcluhan is more likely the next wave of electronic information systems that he suspected would come along when he suggested there would be a 'convergence of media'. Mcluhan famously stated that all new media contains all prior media within it. The internet, rather than a Global Village, is yet another media technology; One that contains all previous media, hot and cold. Print, text, movie, TV, radio, video, audio, blog, vlog, lecture, seminar and even telephone and video-phone, including nostalgic information and new at the same time. Basically, the internet is the technological medium and the Global Village is likely the environment to be created by it (if it hasn't been created already by the so-called Social Media).
    Presently, the effect of media upon the culture and society is suddenly exponential, and the environment created is so vast and powerful that everyone is suddenly becoming aware of everyone else's doings. And not necessarily for good purposes: One woman uploads a video criticizing overweight people and instaneously it is seen by millions and not only perused but also parodied with more content uploaded to the same media environment. You'd think that, with all this technology and capability to learn and communicate, that people would have more important things to talk about than someone else's weight problem, but the future of media seems to be lacking any kind of privacy controls and is more indicative of people having more knowledge about other people business than is really required. The good thing is that there are plenty of people concerned with helping people lose weight rather than criticizing those that are overweight. This 'Village' that Mcluhan envisioned was not an idyllic, tranquil place, nor a dystopia, but one that was more tribal, and tribal reactions are surprisingly understandable and even predictable, but they've never happened on a scale this large. In fact, the two words 'Global' and 'Village' put together suggest both big and small, Grand and yet intimate. It's called a Village as if everyone knows everything about everybody but instead of happening in a small town, it's happening everywhere and simultaneously.
   No, the internet and the Global Village are not one and the same, the internet is just another technological step towards creating this environment that could be called the 'Global Village' through the constant sharing of electronic information, but it's already happening and developing as we ponder it. We already have numerous media that exist only in software form and databases. We have social interactions that only happen exclusively through the most advanced electronic information transfer that has come along. Is the next iteration of media just around the corner? It doesnt' matter. It's just a question of what's happening to us. What is the effect of this media on the people, the population, the culture the society? Do we keep going headlong into some sort of media super-environment that encapsulates all our senses in three dimensions or do we slow down this ride and question what the hell we are doing and where we are going? And what do we do with this Global Village now that we are so close to achieving it?

In Conclusion
In conclusion, there is no conclusion. Mcluhan, in all his wisdom, was well-known for not drawing conclusions or even making value judgements on the effects of media. Although in the 1960s and 70s his work seemed something that was groovy and out of this world, most people today would put this study clearly within the realm of Behavioural Psychology even though the science and technology that underpins the creation of these media environments is clearly something that is out of the scope of most Psychology studies anywhere. In fact, Mcluhan's own faculty at University of Toronto quietly and quickly shut down Mcluhan's field of studies not very long after he passed away.
  Furthermore, this blog is a mediocre overview of Mcluhan's ideas. There is much more depth and breadth to be discovered from his own writings and much more to learn from both Mcluhan and those who have taken up his concepts and ideas for study.
   But Mcluhan needs to be acknowledged. Not just for catchy phrases like the 'Medium is the Message' or groovy ideas like 'the Global Village' but for real, direct insights into the effects of media technology on society. Part of the reason that this blog was written was to bring back a little of Mcluhan's ideas and to prove that they are still modern and current, but part of the reason for talking about Marshal Mcluhan is because we at Very Us Mumblings all had a discussion and decided that Malcolm Gladwell is interesting but over-rated. 'Ten thousand hours' is hindsight-driven hoo-ey when compared to the thought of predicting the internet nearly thirty years before its birth and then suggesting all the problems that come with it, including social media and the lack of privacy and secrecy. So before you spend fifty bucks on the new book by that philosopher-type, head to the library or dust off some old media and try a little Mcluhan with your morning coffee and put your thinking-cap on because it might be more fun.