Evaluating Communication Media

  • McLuhan, M. (1964). “The Medium is the Message.” Understanding Media.
  • “Post something abut the communication medium you think has had the biggest impact on our world and why.”

I’m having a hard time responding to the above prompt, in part because my answer depends on what “impact” means, and for whom (who is impacted?)– or maybe it is my concern about what it means than what it actually means–in part because it depends on where and when and how the answerer (me!) is situated (and is this okay?), in part because its impossible to quantify in a holistic way what communication medium has had the most impact (and wouldn’t I hate to have the “wrong” answer?), and in part because there is the question of what counts as a “communication medium”? I know, it’s fun to ask academics seemingly simple questions. Anyway, this last question comes up for me because McLuhan talks about the electric light bulb as a communication medium, but one that people tend not to think of as a communication medium due to its lack of alphabetic textual “content.”

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And yet, according to McLuhan, electric light, along with power, “eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV.” It shapes what we are able to do and when (at night, when there is no natural light), and where (underground, where there is also no natural light).

And this makes me think of the clock, which makes measurable the very medium by which we consider something as having a big impact–particularly in terms of efficiency. So much of our day to day lives have been impacted by the timekeeping technologies, including the 9-to-5 work week, when and how we sleep, when and how we eat meals, when and how we learn/go to school, as well as what we value–I’m thinking of the importance of being on time and the very ability to be on time in particular cultures versus the importance of not being on time or being 5-10 minutes late in others. 🙂

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McLuhan also talks about:

“electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant. With instant speed the causes of things began to emerge to awareness again, as they had not done with things in sequence and in concatenation accordingly. Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs”

Instantaneousness, “instant gratification” is a key feature of the internet, computation, and social media that some have argued had led to significant shifts in the way that human beings who engage with these technologies read, think, and behave, including in terms of their expectations; for instance, we often talk about today being a time of “instant gratification,” and one of my greatest fears is the idea of having to use dial up in the super inter-connected world of today. Okay, I’m kidding, sort of, and I suppose it would depend on where I am and whether that place is very high or low tech, but I mean to point to how our temporal expectations have shifted significantly.

This question (and others’  blog posts) also remind me of Wesch’s “The Machine is Us/ing Us” which illustrates how Web 2.0 technologies including social media has changed the way we think, process information, love, and live, as well as Prensky’s stuff on “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” which talk about how changing technologies have led to distinct shifts in the way people think, with implications for teaching and learning.

McLuhan also mentions the printing press,

Print created individualism and nationalism in the sixteenth century.

and money

Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives.

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And the excerpt ends where McLuhan includes a quote by Jung, to illustrate how “our human senses, of which all media are extensions […] also configure the awareness and experience of each one of us”:

Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence.

This final quote makes me think about historical narratives and the relationship between slavery, the industrial revolution, and the impact of slavery on the U.S. economy, as well as how subjective questions about “impact” are. Maybe that’s part of the point and even what makes it fun to talk about, but perhaps a bigger might be: What are the implications of positioning particular technologies as more or less impactful than others?

See also: Haas, A. (2007). “Wampum as Hypertext.” SAIL.

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