Saturday, August 16, 2014

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man


Marshall McLuhan proposes that media (not its content) affects how we perceive and understand the world around us.

McLuhan uses interchangeably the words medium, media and technology. For McLuhan a medium is "any extension of ourselves", or more broadly, "any new technology". In addition to forms such as newspapers, television and radio, McLuhan includes the light bulb, cars, speech and language in his definition of "media". All of these, as technologies, mediate our communication. Their forms or structures affect how we perceive and understand the world around us.

It’s Not the Content
McLuhan says that the conventional pronouncements fail in studying media because they pay attention to and focus on the content, which blinds them to see its actual character, the psychic and social effects. Significantly, the electric light is usually not even regarded as a medium because it has no content. Instead, McLuhan observes that any medium "amplifies or accelerates existing processes", introduces a "change of scale or pace or shape or pattern into human association, affairs, and action", resulting in "psychic, and social consequences"; this is the real "meaning or message" brought by a medium, a social and psychic message, and it depends solely on the medium itself, regardless of the 'content' emitted by it.

McLuhan, to show the flaws of the common belief that the message resides or depends on how the medium is used (the "content" output), uses the example of mechanization (machinery to assist the work of human operators), pointing out that regardless of the product (i.e. cornflakes or Cadillacs), the impact on workers and society is the same. In a further exemplification of the common unawareness of the real meaning of media, McLuhan says that people "describe the scratch but not the itch."

Listen to Bob Dobbs and Katie Thomas discuss Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

The Rearview Mirror
McLuhan also says that a characteristic of every medium is that its content is always another (previous) medium. For an example in the new millennium, the Internet is a medium containing traces of various mediums which came before it—the printing press, radio and the moving image.

The impact of each medium is somewhat limited to the previous social condition, since it just adds itself to the existing, amplifying existing processes. Therefore different societies may be differently transformed by the same media.

The only possible way to discern the real "principles and lines of force" of a media (or structure), is to stand aside from it and be detached from it. This is necessary to avoid the powerful ability of any medium to put the unwary into a "subliminal state of Narcissus trance," imposing "its own assumptions, bias, and values" on him. Instead, while in a detached position, one can predict and control the effects of the medium. This is so difficult because "the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody".

McLuhan argues that media are languages, with their own structures and systems of grammar, and that they can be studied as such. He believed that media have effects in that they continually shape and re-shape the ways in which individuals, societies, and cultures perceive and understand the world. In his view, the purpose of media studies is to make visible what is invisible: the effects of media technologies themselves, rather than simply the messages they convey. Media studies therefore, ideally, seeks to identify patterns within a medium and in its interactions with other media.

Hot & Cool
McLuhan identified two types of media: "hot" media and "cool" media. This terminology does not refer to the temperature or emotional intensity, nor some kind of classification, but to the degree of participation. Different media invite different degrees of participation on the part of a person who chooses to consume a medium. Some media, such as film, were "hot" - that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with "cool" TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be "hot", intensifying one single sense "high definition", demanding a viewer's attention, and a comic book to be "cool" and "low definition", requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value.

McLuhan's Laws of Media
McLuhan concluded that four things happen to all media and human artifacts; this phenomenon was inevitable, and they apply universally. Additionally, while some results may take years to make themselves apparent, McLuhan insisted that these things all happened simultaneously.

Enhance, Reverse, Retrieve, Obsolesce

Because these things happen simultaneously, McLuhan settled upon the tetrad to display the interlocking nature of these effects.

View a graphic of the Laws of Media (click on each word to see an explanation).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this Ed! Lovely work!!! Love Katie Thomas