By Padraig McKeon.
30 years ago (!) as a newbie to communications in college, I was introduced to the concept of ‘the medium is the message’. It was the catchphrase descriptor for the thinking of Canadian philosopher and academic Marshall McLuhan, one of the first thought leaders in the emerging study of mass communications as we now know it.
His thinking – set out in Understanding Media (1964) – was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself – by the effect that it has on those in place to receive the content.
At the time television was the next great frontier. McLuhan however used the example of a light bulb to explain. He explained that while the bulb does not deliver content in the way a newspaper has articles or television does programmes, it is still a medium that has an effect on the society around it. By throwing off light, it allows people to create useable spaces at night when it would otherwise be dark. The light bulb he argued “creates an environment by its mere presence”.
He was way ahead of his time. Had he lived to see digital communication as we know it (he died in 1980) he would have seen one of the core theories of his thinking on modern media evolving exactly as he set out.
His argument was that media technologies should be seen as “an extension of the physical, social, psychological, or intellectual function of humans”. In the way that the light extends the room from darkness, so McLuhan figured the media extends our ability to engage the world around us. Television extends what we can see and hear; a computer extends our capacity to search and store knowledge. The electronic media, in general, he stated were “an extension of our central nervous system”
And so it has come to pass, perhaps eerily so for those that worry about their teenage childrens’ obsession with WhatsApp and Snapchat. But if we accept that teenagers in every era will find a way to mutually obsess about things they will grow out of, we should focus on the environment that the underlying technology in those applications is creating “by its mere presence”
It’s not the technology itself. Rather we should consider how we moderate a world that knows nothing other than the utility unquestionably and reliably offered by that technology – the world where the speed and ubiquity of connection, the default gathering and management of data and the capacity to access directly anybody who wants to be accessed will be taken as given.
The way society works will change - for example when economists now talk about the prospects of recovery in Ireland’s consumer economy you wonder what that will look like, given that that today’s 10 year old will never see ‘shopping’ or, more particularly, shops in our traditional understanding of them as the default place to fulfil their retail needs.
It all seems terrible utilitarian – more Orwell’s 1984 than McLuhan’s 1964 – and yet there I would argue is the ultimate opportunity. For all that that the application of technology to communications has changed the game ‘by its sheer presence’ we are already at, or can certainly foresee, a point where technically there are no insurmountable barriers to access for all.
When no one is doing anything different in technical terms, what will stand out is the idea. Creativity and emotion - the unpredictability of the individual – these are the elements that have always and will always make for successful communications.
The medium may be a message. It may effect a new context but within that context, it is not the technology that engages people – it is the idea. Let us not forget that opportunity and / or how to exploit it.