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Friday, February 11, 2011

The Medium is STILL the message

A few weeks ago, like many of you, I attended a screening of the film, “The King’s Speech.” Marvelously produced and acted by a great ensemble cast, it shows how Prince Albert, the Duke of York overcame a terrible stammer and was able to function giving speeches and radio addresses as King George VI of the United Kingdom. As a media person, one scene stuck me hard that most in the audience did not fully appreciate. His difficult father, King George V told his son that he must learn to speak better and master radio addresses as that was now part of what it was to be king in 1936. Being a good man, fair and decent, was not enough. You had to master the new medium to be a successful monarch (for a great biography of George VI, consider The Reluctant King by Sarah Bradford, St. Martins Press, 1989).

A few months from now we will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan. He was a Canadian communications theorist who was famous for two turns of phrase—1) the global village and 2) The Medium is the Message.

As a student, I vividly remember struggling with McLuhan. He was deep and not easy to digest. It is fair to say that he has been misinterpreted by more people than anyone else in the communications field. What I see him as is clearly the greatest media futurist ever.

Consider this statement way back in 1961: “print culture would be brought to an end by electronic interdependence. Electronic media would replace visual culture. Human kind will move toward individualism and fragmentation and our collective identity with a tribal base. The new group could be called a global village.”

The following year he wrote: “the next medium, whatever it is…..it may be the extension of consciousness, will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communications instrument could enhance retrieval; mass brick & mortar library organizations could be made obsolete, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip in to a private line to speedily tailored data of a salable kind”.

Wow! Move over Nostradomus! McLuhan forecasts many aspects of the digital world, Google and Facebook and he doesn’t use obtuse rhyming couplets to do it.

In 1964, his use of the term “The Medium is the Message” first surfaced. Here is my take on it. McLuhan felt that the media are extensions of our human senses, bodies and minds. Media, then, is the message in that the force of media embeds itself in the content, creating a “symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived”. He also said that the"content should not be studied as much as the media that caused it.” McLuhan always hammered away at the point that we do not often realize the social implications of a medium until “our values, norms, and way of doing things have been altered by the technology.” An example he often used was that when you turned a TV on in a crowded room everyone would get silent. Now with cell phones, e-mail, texting and twitter we communicate but do not talk nearly as much as we once did.

“The Medium is the Message” hit me hard at an early age but I did not realize it until 10 years later. One night in October, 1960 my father and I were driving alone somewhere. He put on the radio and the first Kennedy-Nixon debate was underway. We rode in silence for a few miles and my dad said “sounds like Nixon is getting the better of him”. When we arrived home my oldest sibling greeted us with “wasn’t Jack great. He had lots of facts and figures. He won the debate easily.” I was just a kid and did not want to argue with my college bound brother who devoured TIME magazine cover to cover each week and was very well informed.

About 10 years later, I saw Howard K. Smith of ABC News being interviewed. He said he was the moderator that night and by positioning could hear the candidates but not really see them. It was as if he were listening to the debate on the radio. His scoring was that Nixon had won easily on points. But the TV audience and the press the next day heralded it as triumph for the young Senator from Massachusetts.

Kennedy was better looking than Nixon which helped in a visual medium. Nixon had been ill and was running a fever prior to the telecast. He did not have an expert makeup man and Kennedy did. The medium of TV was the message not the content of the debate to some degree.

A short time later, I saw Marshall McLuhan on with Dick Cavett. When asked to explain how “the medium is the message” he used the Kennedy-Nixon debate as an example. He challenged the audience to objectively listen to a tape of the show and decide who won. I recently did it and he was right. (Full disclosure—I didn’t like Dick Nixon. He took too long to unwind the Vietnam War; he tried to cover up Watergate and thus almost destroyed our two party system. On August 15, 1971,he instituted wage & price controls and severed all ties to the dollar and gold which will haunt us eventually. Also, he did the shameful and un-American thing of having a White House “enemies list” while in office. But if you LISTEN to the debate, Nixon won it!)

McLuhan said that we focus on the obvious way too much. The obvious is the content but what about the subtle changes that occur due to the medium being used?

So George V told the future George VI to overcome his stammer and embrace the radio. In the 1930-1950’s that medium was the message in many cases. As we moved in to the TV age, it overshadowed content. How much have the media contributed this week to the overthrow of an Egyptian dictator? Perhaps more than the real content which is the valid complaints of an oppressed people. Now, we have a whole new array of digital entrants. The internet, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and the next generation that may only be 24-36 months away. (Does anyone remember MySpace?)

In July of this year, had he been long lived, McLuhan would have turned 100. Well,the medium is STILL the message.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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