The medium is the message: Marshall McLuhan saw the catastrophe coming

Sep 9, 2022
Marshall Mc Luhan painted portrait
Image: Flickr / thierry ehrmann

It is more than 50 years since the astute cultural critic Marshall McLuhan burst into the academic world with his perplexing insights into the meaning of communications and how they would affect mankind. He declaimed, ‘The medium is the message’. I had just turned 30 and was enrolled for an MA in the Stanford University Communications Department. I didn’t understand what McLuhan meant, but as another popular ‘truth’ at the time was, ‘Don’t trust anyone over thirty’, I kept my mouth shut and listened.

I found I wasn’t alone. The pioneering Canadian Professor’s theories about the effect of media on human development were celebrated, acclaimed, scorned, and condemned. The idea the medium had more influence on behaviour than the content it carried was considered ludicrous – Your worst enemy has threatened to kill you; is it more important to know that, or by what means you received the message?

Over time the evidence piled up. With McLuhan’s capacity to push ideas and think outside the square he reached conclusions which interwove outright nonsense with brilliance. What to think?

McLuhan was the first to recognise media represented both opportunity and threat. They increased human control over our environment, but also increased the environment’s control over us. He foresaw how the media revolution would ‘change us’ producing ‘self-centredness in man, and a fragmentation in society.’ How right he was.

When I was growing up radio enjoyed pride of place. Most household activity took place in the presence of radio; the cooking, cleaning, eating, entertainment – cards and boardgames. The medium sat in the warmest room in the house where the family gathered. Multi-tasking while listening to radio was commonplace and we moved about. People weighed less than they do today.

Generally, conversation was part of the mix – except when the news came on. These were wartime years. The news was read in a sonorous voice, and we children were told to shush. We did, and it sounded important.

When the idea of television was first mooted it was argued that the medium would fail, as people would not sit still to watch. The pundits said, ‘There may be some use for it, but entertainment was not one of them’.

As the Network commercial broadcasters and Public Broadcasters struggled to find purpose for broadcast television (was it to be an advertising medium or a means of social and political education?), human behaviour changed. We took to television like ducks to water. Houses were redesigned with the television set as the focal point. The ‘family room’ was born. Conversation stalled. There was less interactive social activity. Board game sales declined. Fewer people learned a musical instrument. People sat, they moved and walked less, and as they became more passive, they became larger; the comfort foods and snack industry boomed.

Researchers counted advertisements and violent acts. There were concerns about effects on children. But while the data counters were looking at the symptoms, as McLuhan predicted, they were mistaking the trees for the wood. Even then, the media industries had barely got under way.

Video was born, movie distributors panicked, but were born again with big event action movies. Cable television emerged with all its promised diversity of content. At first the technology was embraced by theorists, believing there would now be something to satisfy everyone, but the new medium had several salutary messages. Here’s three ways form changed content and human behaviour.

News reporting was transformed. It was 24/7. As news was no longer news without pictures, available footage was shaping news coverage and consequently news values. This new form of television beast had a voracious appetite. How to fill the hours? Gone were the sonorous voices. The presenter had to act the news, raise eyebrows, look concerned, pass a judgement. Journalists became opinion leaders and experts, so they interviewed one another. Channel competition for audience numbers set in, so sensational events, catchy misleading headlines, shorter stories, were in demand and the nature of news reporting completely changed.

Then what happened? It seems the media now can’t help themselves. They’re addicted to extremes. And this thirst to consume – and provide – 24-hour scintillating, attention grabbing, news coverage, is essentially very, very, boring. Because there isn’t enough meaningful news. So, they, and we as the audience, live on a banal, soulless, empty diet of blather and drivel. A thousand people are reported missing in a landslide, then blink, blink, smile, let’s buy an ice cream! Then, as soon as something ‘interesting’ comes along the news clones jump on it with relish. And in doing so they distort the news and corrupt their very purpose. It’s a vicious cycle they can’t escape.

Children’s television was transformed by cable. The operators found they could make money from this genre which up to this point had been a loss leader; its purpose was about the well-being of the audience, about creating quality stories for their development. The tail began to wag the dog, big time. Character merchandise became the point. Volume was key, and opportunistic program makers developed characters, then stuck the character on everything a child could see or touch. Of course, children wanted to get their hands on it, sleep with it, play with it, as their little imaginations were invaded by banal television images. This may be one reason why some young children now report as ‘identifying with’ cats and dogs or ‘furries’.

When no longer toddlers, the kids just walk off; they find their own way in this media swamp full of awful, animated rubbish, made easy to sell for a global market, but we parents are conned into believing a couple of rudimentary Bananas and a simple cartoon series, Bluey, are iconic Australian programs serving some greater social purpose. Even that bastion of quality, the BBC Children’s sector, has lost its way. As their viewing numbers tanked, their CEO called for more cartoons perhaps a British emulation of The Simpsons, but with roast beef rather than turkey.

Thirdly, ‘reality television’ was born with the introduction of cable, which happened to coincide with the screen writers’ strike in the US which went on for months. How could the networks, fighting tooth and claw with one another for ratings and advertising dollars, fill the endless hours technological change had heralded with cable? By paying nothing for the content was the answer. Product placement was the name of the game. Costs were negligible, contestants unpaid, cameras handheld, production values low; no scripts were required because no one cared what was said. The Real World was the first to air, but Survivor nailed it. And what a gold mine reality TV turned out to be. It is now the dominant form on free to air television.

Some insatiable need is filled by these programs about sex, love, marriage, cooking, gardening, house renovation, singing, surviving, endurance, etc – all extreme examples of life stages we may go through – for audiences, globally, have responded, and advertisers are happy chappies. These shows aren’t really real; they may be unscripted, but they are constructed, cast, curated, manipulated, edited and packaged.

We became so entranced by reality television, Americans elected a reality star as President, one who employed the techniques of the genre to buffer his popularity. And as Danielle Lindemann in her book, True Story. What Reality TV Says About Us, has correctly observed Trump’s presidency became the ultimate reality show. He didn’t care where the boundary lay between the factual and the fake. He could say what he liked and go out onto 5th Avenue and shoot someone if he cared to.

We are all now utterly confused about reality and news reporting.

Meanwhile the internet arrived which enabled the digital delivery of television shows and other content. Scripted television bounced back with the development of streaming services and the long novella enabled binge viewing; with our portable phones and tablets we can view anywhere at any time.

With the internet came social media interactivity which meant viewing one on one. Young people never needed to be alone again. Generally, they took to this world as though the technology was in their DNA, gaming, posting, chatting, downloading, interacting. Initial concerns about personal footprints faded away quickly, as they immersed themselves finding ways to create their own persona.

Just as McLuhan predicted 50 years earlier, we were all encouraged to become someone – not just to grow up as a responsible citizen – and we have become, self-centred. In the process, society has fragmented, as we contest the culture wars. The media mammoths happily pay little tax, stack up the profit, harness this bonanza of personal data at their disposal to sell to the market and ponder an even more invasive, powerful presence.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, TikTok, Snapchat, Reddit, Quora, YouTube and more. It’s about Me and Me and Me.

Trolls inhabit these spaces contributing to a sea of ‘victimhoods’, and an epidemic of mental illness has followed.

Life has not become easier or more satisfying. With access to more and more information, we understand less and less. Truth and facts are contestable. Confusion, alienation, and distrust are pervasive. We seem to have lost the bonds that cohere as we redefine history and paint it as an anthology of fairy tales about white, male, privileged, racist, supremacists. In the search for self, biology is seen as malleable. The #MeToo movement – long overdue – has put the fear of god into men in general. Young men especially if white and straight, wonder where to from here. A friend’s four-year-old daughter came home from kindergarten with the question, ‘Am I a girl?

Across the Western world statues of figures from history are being defaced or tumbled from pedestals. Cecil Rhodes was targeted with a ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign. To placate the activists, Rhodes scholarships were renamed the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships. When asked why he would agree to this, Nelson Mandela responded, that South Africa’s new constitution includes an injunction, ‘to come together across the historical divides, to build our country together with a future shared equally for all’.

Can we all just think hard about that?

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