The Medium is The Message

The Medium is The Message

This is the title (or nearly the title) of a book published in 1967 by Marshall McLuhan. Until a few days ago I had never physically handled the book. More on that in a minute. I learned of its existence so long ago that I cannot remember when I didn’t know of it. As I got a bachelor’s degree in communications, it’s very possible that department first brought it to my attention, along with a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t recall if my life depended on it. 

My husband reminded me that Marshall McLuhan, the actual human being, bereted a pontificating professor in Woody Allen’s 1977 movie Annie Hall. I might have learned of it from that. I was never curious to read it assuming it’s too academic. The title has been sufficient. I have pondered the phrase for years and find it to be meaningful.

To me, the phrase means the technology you use determines how you will communicate. The how then effects the what. How you communicate effects what you communicate.

TEXTING

My speech patterns and what I will say are very different in text, email, over the phone, on zoom or in person. Texting is the most radical. Like others, I abbreviate words. Not because I don’t appreciate the value of grammar, but because the keyboard is so small, and the bursts of communication are coming too fast. If I don’t abbreviate, the back and forth can’t happen at the proper speed. There is a difference between a brief and logistical text exchange, like “get butter” and a five-minute parlay. With that, there is a form of bonding I have not experienced in any other medium. Multiple topics going at once, a sense that you and the other texter really get each other. Emoji and gifs in addition to words. I’m not saying it’s superior, but I am saying it is unique. It allows for a burst of intimacy that can bypass some of the more anxiety producing aspects of in person intimacy.

That’s the message of the medium. The message is what that medium can do that nothing else can. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition.

YOUTUBE COMMENTARY VIDEOS

My kid shows me some of the YouTube commentary videos they watch. So fascinating. In this case, YouTube is the medium, a sub medium of video. I am interested on two levels, as a direct source of insight into youth culture and as an editor. I thought I had seen it all, but I haven’t, not by a long shot. The editing style has a different grammar, it’s extremely lean, all dead air removed, maybe even a little of the air that wasn’t dead. The medium knows it is fighting for attention and it doesn’t ever provide space for reflection. I often have to tell my kid to pause just so I can laugh and not miss the next line.

These videos are sort of like clever essays delivered by charismatic but highly irreverent anchormen. In this world the news is not geo-political or important, it’s cultural and optional.  They are highly constructed verbal arguments against something, usually an offensive offering like Bad Boys on TikTok. The best ones are truly brilliant. Young people have a grasp on the meta that is hard to understate and hard to articulate but very funny. Because of the digitization of everything, they have digested exponentially more content than previous generations and therefore their analysis and performed and edited presentation of that analysis is its own medium.

THE ACTUAL BOOK AS PHYSICAL OBJECT

When my kid is showing me a new video, it’s McLuhan’s book title that most often pops in my head. I feel grateful be introduced to a new medium and I try hard to decode its message. I was talking to my husband about all this, including that I had never read the book and he said, it’s right there, pointing behind me.

What?

It’s on the top of that stack behind you.

Right here, under the art supplies?

Yes.

I’ve lived with my husband for 23 years. This book came with him. Therefore, I have lived in the same house as this book for 23 years without knowing it. I don’t know what that means, but it makes me feel really weird. This book has been in the same vicinity as art supplies I use almost every day. Not a good look for someone who takes pride in being observant. I can discern subtle changes in the pavement throughout my neighborhood, but I can’t notice the cover of a book that I’ve been thinking about for decades because when I look in its direction, instead of seeing it, I just see a blob called Husband stuff. You think you know everything about someone, and you find out you know nothing because you aren’t paying attention.

Well, despite my intentions to not read the book, I opened it up. It’s nothing like I expected! It’s mostly a picture book! McLuhan collaborated with the graphic artist Quentin Fiore. I enjoyed flipping through it. It’s humorous. It’s the YouTube commentary video of its time.

Turns out I was one-part right, one part ignorant. McLuhan wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964 and the phrase first appears there. That one does seem to be more academic but it’s not in our house for me to check. My husband’s book is the The Medium is the Massage. I certainly wish that phrase were true. I would love a massage. I didn’t realize the play on words until I took the illustration photo for this post. More proof I’m not an observation savant. My husband was dumbfounded, having never noticed the wordplay. All this has got me wondering what else resides in these mysterious piles of husband stuff. Even if I look, will I see it?

Privacy vs. Internet Communication

I am enmeshed in an ongoing mental dilemma regarding communication on the Internet.  Is it okay for me to write a blog, post stuff on Facebook, comment on stuff on Facebook, share photos of my kid, let people see my art, etc. or should I maintain my privacy and by extension maintain control over unintended consequences?

Obviously, as you are reading this, I’ve made a decision to write, however, I still hotly contest that decision in my head everyday and with every post.

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When I wrote anything in the past, it was almost only for an audience of one.  I would write a letter or an email to “X”.  I didn’t have to analyze very hard what was appropriate and inappropriate for “X” to know.  I could filter almost unconsciously.  Facebook has been a real conundrum in that when I go there to write, I am potentially addressing 100s of people.  I can’t remember who they all are.  I do know that they are a wide net of intimate and casual, professional, familial and past relationships.  There is no obvious one size fits all writing style.  To enjoy Facebook I have had to do two things: #1 – adopt and strictly follow a set of rules about what kind of content I can post and #2 – accept that I might be communicating with someone that I would rather I wasn’t, shrug my shoulders and think oh well.  My rules are:  Never post anything political, religious or contentious.  But of course everything is political, religious or contentious to somebody which is why this is such a damn dilemma. I don’t want to get into it on Facebook.  I don’t particularly want to get into it off of Facebook either, but if I do, at least I have the benefit of picking my conversational partner and getting into it in private.

You could say to me, jeez louise, just don’t post if you are so hung up.  That’s reasonable.  Or is it?  Nobody has to do Facebook, right? Nobody had to try the Model T either, or use the first phone or get a computer or fly in the air but most eventually did.  I want to be here now, participating in history, doing the stuff humans do.  I want to see what it’s all about.  What is interesting to me is not deciding to do it or not do it, but thinking about what it is.  This is a sea change, all of us writing to each other in mass rather than privately one on one.  It adds to and changes our persona.  Before, perhaps, we had various personas, suitable for the occasion. Now we have an additional new virtual persona, suitable for everyone at any time and affecting the other personas since this new persona interacts with nearly everybody we know whether that interaction even registers in our consciousness. It’s bizarre, at least compared to the past. In the past, if you made a connection with another human, you probably knew about it.

My generation, and the ones on either side of me, resides in a pivotal moment in history.  We will be the last people to know what it was like to have privacy.  We existed before the Internet, iPhones, social media, digitized photos, emails, texts, search buttons and credit cards. As everything becomes digital, everything becomes public. Information used to be more material and therefore more stationary but now it’s digital, accruing, multiplying and permanent (at least as long as we have electricity). That changes how we communicate. If you don’t like it and want to opt out, you really can’t. You would just be an ant saying no to a rainstorm.

So we might as well get with it right? I value connection, nuance and specificity so on Facebook I try to post things that are in alignment with those values. As I have gotten used to posting on Facebook, I find I want to go a step further into public communication and share my thoughts in a more nuanced way on certain topics.  Hence, this blog.

Because of the Internet, I now have the chance to do this new thing, communicate with everybody, or at least throw my virtual hat in the virtual ring with everybody else’s virtual hats.  I don’t have to persuade anyone to post this for me.  I can just put it out there.  I can now join the ranks of those people who tell it like they see it.  And all without being vetted by another.  How modern.

The price of admission is random; I don’t have to pay until some arbitrary and unknown time. The price of admission may be getting hit with whatever pie someone wants to throw at me and knowing anyone who cares to see me get hit with that pie can, including my mom, my friends and you.  Or maybe it’s not pie in my face at all, maybe it’s the quieter humiliation of the pie I baked, brought to the party and watched, as nobody even tasted. In my over active and anxiety riddled imagination I am worried I’ll get doxxed because I use the f-word when really it’s more likely that nobody will even know I said I was a feminist because they will be too busy paying attention to things that interest them more.  If the first half of that sentence doesn’t make sense, google #gamergate.  It has nothing to do with me except for freaking me out that online communication is dangerous.

In general I prefer the now to the past so it makes sense that when weighing the merits of anonymity vs. public persona, I am taking advantage of this new opportunity to shout to the rafters and write in a public forum. Meaning, I already tried being private, so why not now try this, just because I can?  When in Rome and all that. I did it before when I started posting videos to YouTube 6 months after YouTube started.  I don’t regret that at all, in fact I am very proud of my work there (https://www.youtube.com/eaglecrowowl).   I had the same level of uncertainty and trepidation.  You really can’t know if it’s a good idea until it’s too late.  Mostly I feel a combination of nothing ventured, nothing gained and what the hell, it’s not like anyone is paying close attention.  We are all going to die, and maybe sooner even then we think, and with that in mind, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Does anybody else think about this shit?