Medium theory

13Aug07

Update: The book will be out soon – details on the Television & American Culture website.

In my continuing series of excerpting my textbook-in-progress, Television & American Culture, here’s a section I’ve been working on from the final chapter, Television as Technological Medium. The chapter as a whole outlines how we view TV as a technology, and the various institutional & cultural shifts that have taken place over the years, especially in the digital age.

The chapter begins with a bit of theory, contrasting the approach of medium theory with the social construction of technology model that the rest of the chapter follows. Here is the medium theory section – if you’re a McLuhanite, you might not be satisfied, but I figure you’re probably not the book’s audience. For those of you who teach television studies, I’m curious to hear if you find the space given to this topic sufficient or too much – I don’t know how much McLuhan & media ecology is even taught these days outside a few select die-hard programs. Any and all feedback appreciated…

The Message of the Medium

One challenge of trying to understand television technology is isolating what makes the technology distinct from its uses—after all, every form and use of television covered thus far in this book is tied to and enabled by the technology of television. One influential approach to studying technology offers three different metaphors of analysis that we might consider in analyzing a medium like television (Meyrowitz 1993).  The first metaphor views a medium as a conduit for content, conveying meanings and representations like those discussed in Chapter 4. A second metaphor considers a medium as a language with its own form or grammar, the norms of communication employed by producers, as discussed in depth in Chapter 3. Both content and grammar are impacted by technology—for instance, the rise of portable camcorders and remote satellite transmitters enabled the model of electronic news gathering that typifies television journalism today, as discussed in Chapter 2.

The third metaphor is the most broad and abstract, seeing any medium as a distinct environment independent of any specific content or form it might convey. Every medium has its own possibilities and limitations of communication that shapes the production and consumption of texts. For instance, reading a book is generally an individual experience that can be done almost anywhere and within the reader’s control, choosing at any time to stop reading, reread a section, or even skip to the end. Compare reading a book with going to see a film in the theater, which is a shared group event in a specific and constrained space that controls the viewer’s time and way of experiencing the narrative. Books and films can share content, as in the case of adaptations or tie-ins—however, no matter how faithful the adaptation might be in terms of content or even storytelling form, the two medium environments are quite distinct and lead to different experiences of consumption.

The study of medium environments has been called medium theory, analyzing how a medium creates possibilities of communication and social impacts apart from the specific content it might convey. Medium theorists take a macro-level perspective on technologies of communication, charting broad historical transformations between eras of communication, such as the shift from oral to written culture. In this view of history, communication technologies are seen as a central defining attribute of a society, shaping social relations, economic systems, and political structures—the ways that people interact with each other transform with the adoption of a new technology, as the shift to writing changed our ability to communicate across time and space with widespread social implications. Additionally, medium theorists argue that a medium has direct impacts on individual psychologies, as the rise of writing fostered a mode of logical analysis that some claim was not possible in an oral culture—writing enables modes of thinking such as historical and scientific reasoning, which arguably could not thrive in an oral culture. For medium theorists, these large-scale changes in a culture’s dominant forms of communication are more important and influential than the specific messages that media convey.

The most influential and controversial medium theorist was Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian literary scholar who became internationally famous in the 1960s for his proclamations about electronic media. McLuhan was not only the first well-known scholar of television, but he himself was a visible television personality, appearing on talk shows throughout the 1960s to offer his insights into the medium and its social significance. McLuhan’s ideas are difficult to summarize, as he was less interested in detailed arguments and evidence than making sweeping pronouncements in the form of provocative phrases and axioms—among the most famous of McLuhan’s phrases are “the medium is the message,” “we drive into the future using only our rearview mirror,” and “the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” McLuhan purposely wrote using such “exploratory probes” to evoke creative and provocative thinking—his elliptical style makes it easy to misread or dismiss some of his more exaggerated proclamations. However, we can look back at McLuhan’s ideas to see how they shape a particular way of looking at media that has remained influential decades later, and even might be more relevant in the digital era than they were in the 1960s. [Illustration: McLuhan on TV]

The most vital idea in McLuhan’s work is that “the medium is the message”—this central tenet of medium theory argues that content and messages obscure the great impact of an entire medium at the macro-level. McLuhan saw media as creating pervasive environments that shape human consciousness as fully and invisibly as water is to a fish—we cannot perceive the power of a medium environment while we are swimming in it. Our awareness of media is rooted in the past, thinking that the technologies of a previous era still matter even as we communicate using the tools of today. While at times McLuhan was quick to dismiss the study of content, we can strike a middle ground approach that considers medium environment as a key filter that shapes television’s content and form. There is no doubt that particular aspects of the television medium shape social relationships and modes of communication in ways that McLuhan’s probes encourage us think about.

McLuhan was generally a utopian thinker, seeing the development of technology as moving the world toward a better place, or at least enabling a return to a “new orality” through electronic media. He conceived of media as “sensory extensions,” linking to our bodies by providing technological appendages that allow us to see, hear, and feel beyond ourselves. He saw television as the most balanced sensory medium and imagined that it would enable society to return to a tribal culture of shared values and experiences. But unlike local pre-literate tribes, McLuhan envisioned a “global village” joined by television’s universal address and shared culture. Probably more than any other of his futuristic predictions, many of which seem off-base today, a modified model of the global village seems to have taken shape in the digital era, with the internet’s nearly worldwide saturation enabling an interconnected population—although given the narrowcasting tendencies of both global television and internet circulation, it might be more appropriate to point toward a number of overlapping global villages rather than one shared universal culture.

Many critics both in the 1960s and since regard McLuhan as less of a prophet than an eccentric footnote in the study of mass media, a distraction from the more detailed and grounded study of media content, form, institutions, and cultural practices that comprise the bulk of this book. However, a subfield of media studies has emerged focusing on media ecology, exploring how media function as environments rather than just conduits or grammars. Few media ecologists share McLuhan’s utopianism, as many claim that the shift from print to television as the dominant mass medium has led to many social problems, including illiteracy, civic disengagement, increased violence, drug-like media addiction, and environmental collapse—the title of a famous media ecological treatise against television dismissively sums up the perspective as “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (Postman 1986).  If the danger of overlooking the impacts of a medium environment is that we risk ignoring how technologies shape our experiences like fish in water, it can be equally risky to focus on media ecology with nostalgic blinders comparing the negative elements of today to the positive features of yesterday, a trap that many media ecologists fall into.

At its best, however, media ecology can focus our attention on macro-level elements of medium and technology that other facets of television studies might miss. One of the best regarded studies of media ecology combines McLuhan’s sweeping historical claims with more detailed accounts of shifting social relations in the television era. Instead of imagining that television alters sensory balance or consciousness, we might consider how television changes the way we relate to one another, providing access to social relationships and behaviors in a manner distinct from other media. As discussed in Chapter 2, television news and advertising allows politicians to appeal to viewers at an emotional register much more intensely than print typically can, altering the style of politics encouraged by the medium. Another example involves how children experience television—unlike with reading, there are few barriers of comprehension for young children to view programming aimed at older audiences. Thus even in programs designed for families, children watching television can see adults interacting in ways that they rarely would witness in person, whether it is romance behind closed doors or parents talking about how to discipline children. Television, because of its medium features of accessibility and emotional resonance, helps break down and shift social boundaries beyond just the content that it conveys  (Meyrowitz 1985).

The chapter then proceeds to critique technological determinism & offer a social constructionist model…



3 Responses to “Medium theory”

  1. 1 Lance Strate

    I have a Google alert set up for “media ecology” and that’s how your post came to my attention. Since you ask for feedback, I will provide you with some. But just from your second paragraph explaining what the chapter is about, I get the impression that you have a negative attitude towards the media ecology intellectual tradition. You are certainly entitled to make whatever assessment you care to, but I do hope that if you are going to represent this perspective, you will adequately research it and provide an objective account. And I will tell you that there are quite a few media ecologists out there who teach courses about television, many are not necessarily “die-hards” or “McLuhanites” as you put it, and teaching about media ecology has been on the rise over the past decade.

    Josh Meyrowitz’s 3 metaphors is fine as a starting point, but it’s about metaphors, not approaches per se, and Josh over emphasizes the distinction between language and environment. The media ecology tradition encompasses both metaphors, tracing its roots in part back to Peirce, Whitehead, Russell, Sapir, Whorf, Korzybski, Wendell Johnson who wrote about the semantic environment, Dorothy Lee, etc. Edmund Carpenter, McLuhan’s colleague in his formative years at Toronto, wrote a seminal essay for their Explorations journal called “The New Languages,” in which he argued that media are languages and languages media, and extended the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to media. Edward T. Hall, who also is part of the media ecology tradition, declared that culture is communication, and extended Sapir-Whorf to all of culture as a communication system. And McLuhan, in Understanding Media, argued that all media, meaning all technologies, are both languages (translators) and environments.

    So, media ecology incorporates an ecology of symbols, language, culture, and communication. And media ecology was originally defined by Neil Postman as the study of media as environments, although I have also pointed out that we could just say it’s the study of media environments. But no one in our field uses the singular form, medium environment. First of all, “medium” is synonymous with “environment” so that would be redundant, and second, the environment we live in is always composed of more than one medium, of a multitude of codes, modes of communication, and technologies. And medium theory is not the study of media environments. Media ecology is an -ology, a study. Medium theory is, well, a theory. Simply put, it’s the translation of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” into something more like a social scientific theory. The scholars who favor “medium theory” all come from the social or behavioral sciences. More humanistic types like McLuhan, Ong, and Postman were vehemently opposed to labeling their approach as theory. Essentially, the work that has been done under the heading of medium theory is part of the larger field or intellectual tradition of media ecology. This is just about getting the terminology straight.

    Medium theorists and more generally media ecologists do not necessarily take a macro level perspective. We are willing too, you might even say that we often take such a perspective, but there has been significant work down on the micro level, including ethnography. From this point, your summary of media ecology is ok, and your introductory remarks about McLuhan, while not really advancing the discussion very much are also all right.

    When you get to the point that “at times McLuhan was quick to dismiss the study of content,” I think you are setting up a straw man. McLuhan absolutely did argue that the medium shapes and influences the content, that’s one of the main interpretations of “the medium is the message.” He also took the position that popular culture reflects technological biases. He never dismissed the study of content, it’s just that he became less and less interested in addressing the subject himself, and that his argument was that content is secondary, not primary.

    McLuhan was not an utopian thinker. That’s an interpretation that others assigned to him, typically critics looking to dismiss his work. His often voiced claim was that he was trying to be objective and simply describe the situation without passing judgment, but whenever he was asked his opinion, he generally voiced concern about the changes that were occurring. Yes, he did argue that media extend the senses, and this might be worth a little more attention, in that he anticipates the idea of the cyborg by saying that any extension is also an amputation (whatever we gain by our gadgets, we lose more of our humanity). He did not say that TV is the most balanced sensory medium. He argued that our natural sense ratios were disrupted by writing, the alphabet, and print, which placed an enormous emphasis on vision above all the others, and he suggested that television was restoring much of the balance, but orality is the most balanced medium. He did not say we are actually returning to tribal culture, but that a new form of tribalism is being created, a neo-tribalism on a global scale. And the global village was not utopian in its conception–McLuhan pointed out that villages are characterized by a complete lack of privacy and extreme violence as well. I do think it’s fair to say that a multitude of global villages is more accurate, I’ve made similar points many times in the past.

    The next paragraph, starting with “Many critics” strikes me as reflecting a negative bias towards McLuhan and media ecology on your part. Perhaps that your intent, or it could be that you’re falling into the trap of repeating what others have said about McLuhan. It is true that he made an initial splash in the 60s, followed by more mixed critical assessment, followed by a concerted effort to dismiss him altogether. By the 80s, something akin to a taboo had emerged about discussing his ideas, hardly an attempt at even-handed assessment, but since the 90s we have witnessed a McLuhan revival that has yet to abate. You go on to introduce media ecology at this point, and notice how you basically repeat what you’ve already said about medium theory. I’ve already said that your characterization of McLuhan as utopian is mistaken, so of course most media ecologists don’t share this. In the field, McLuhan is the most central figure, but three are media ecologists who reject McLuhan in favor of other scholars such as Innis, Ong, Postman, Carey, etc. And there is a wide range of attitudes towards technology within the field, from actual utopians and technology boosters, to those who try to be objective or balanced, to severe critics and neo-Luddites.

    While I am please to see you mentioning Postman’s most popular book, given that Postman is second only to McLuhan in his importance to the field of media ecology, I tend to be suspicious when the only comment made is a reference to the book title. When you make the comment that “the title dismissively sums up the perspective,” my reaction is that you are the one who is being dismissive here. Postman did not issue a blanket condemnation of television, as many who give the book no more than a freshman’s cursory reading might conclude. And that whole bit about nostalgic blinders, and “a trap that many media ecologists fall into” is downright insulting. On what, exactly, do you base this conclusion?

    You end with some favorable remarks about No Sense of Place. And that’s great, Josh’s book is an important one. But it really represents just a slice of what media ecology is about, even what media ecology is about in relation to television.

    I find the indication that the chapter goes on to critique technological determinism in favor of social construction also disturbing. I’ve seen that before, but it’s basically a straw man argument. Who exactly is it that champions technological determinism? What books develop that philosophical position? If you mean to attach it to someone like McLuhan, that would be a mistake I’m afraid, but I won’t bother to go into it since I don’t know what you’re actually saying here.

    Might I suggest that you take a look at my book, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study. In addition to the overview in the first part of the book, I also make the point in the second part that social construction, like any kind of construction, requires materials and methods, which is what we mean by media. In other words, the opposition between technological determinism and social construction is a false dichotomy. I would also recommend Casey Man Kong Lum’s recent anthology, Perspectives on Culture, Technology, and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition. Those two books should provide you with sufficient background to write a proper section on the topic.

    I imagine that the fact that I am irritated by what you have written comes through in these comments, and I would guess that you were not expecting to receive feedback of this nature. It’s in the nature of this medium to magnify the slightest criticism, so I can only imagine that this seems very harsh. it certainly would be better to have spoken about it in person, but I hope this is better than nothing, and I do appreciate the fact that you are trying to cover the topic in your book. I wish you the best of luck.

  2. 2 novelle

    my group is coming up with a research study on the influence of media and we have decided to use medium theory as a basis of our study. yet, we can not find any concrete understanding of wht this theory is trying to point out although we alreedy have an idea of how it goes .. we would like to ask for help on thisa matter. your help will be greatly appreciated. thank you!

  3. 3 Amrid

    what is the function mcluhan theory medium?


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