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…
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Technology, Television, TV Textbook | 3 Comments