“The Medium is the Message” is just one of the famous, pithy quotes that Marshall McLuhan left behind after his death in 1980. But what did he mean by that? Essentially, he is saying that the medium is more important than whatever message is being disseminated. This idea was central to McLuhan’s paradigm of Technological Determinism which posits that “historical eras of social structure each have been the product of the dominant communication medium of that time.” This blog post is going to critically analyze Technological Determinism and give three strengths and three weaknesses of the paradigm.
First, technological determinism makes a very strong case for the idea that social structures in our society do, indeed, revolve around the dominant communication medium of the time. McLuhan describes this in three waves. First, it was the tribal paradigm, and this was when people either experienced things first hand or heard it from someone else. Next, with the revolution of print, we entered the print paradigm in the early-modern era. This shifted the focus of communication from relative to linear, for things in print can now be preserved and have to be told in a specific order to make sense. Then, in the twentieth century, it was supplanted by the electronic paradigm with the revolution of television and radio. This last paradigm extended the ability of which people could see or hear because now we are all an interconnected “global village.”
This idea of a global village is another extremely fascinating point in terms of technological determinism. With the advent of radio and television, and later on the internet although McLuhan died before that, we can now see and hear things from all over the world. People can interact with one another as they would in the tribal era without geographical limitations. Subsequently, this would lead to a new social order, and has it? Absolutely. While McLuhan never saw the rise of social media, it is arresting our attention nowadays like nothing else and it plays a huge role in the push-and-pull power struggle we see in society today. Take political elections, for example, that rely heavily on social media to persuade and disseminate their point-of-view and information. Moreover, we can now experience cultures all over the world. For example, one no longer has to go to South America to see South America, for there are plenty of influencers, documentaries, and information via the internet and social media that captures the essence of South America and transmits it to us. An article by Inquiries does a good job of explaining this idea of the global village. Take a look here.
Finally, a third key takeaway of technological determinism is this idea that “the medium is the message” as I mentioned before. Out of all of McLuhan’s ideas, this one has gained the most ground. If my earlier explanation of this wasn’t sufficient, watch a great info-graphic video below that explains what McLuhan meant by this phrase.
While McLuhan’s idea of technological determinism was way ahead of its time, it is not without its limitations. First of all, it assumes that, as we introduce new technologies that a loss of knowledge may occur. For example, the introduction of speed dialing on cellphones, or the ability to save contacts in our phones, now means we don’t have to remember phone numbers. While we may not need to remember phone numbers any longer, it doesn’t mean that there is a loss of knowledge. On the contrary, the introduction of smartphones has put information right at our fingertips. So it’s not that we are losing knowledge or the ability to remember, we are just utilizing our brains in a different capacity. An article by Business Times believes this same idea.
Another limitation is that the paradigms stop at the technological era. And while we still might be in that technological era, the way our technology has evolved has been unprecedented in McLuhan’s time. While McLuhan lived, radios and television were the primary mediums, and both, relatively stationary mediums at that. With the advent of the internet and smartphones to accompany them, I believe another paradigm needs to be created: a mobile paradigm. By establishing this, there would be some way to catalog mobile phones, tablets, wireless headphones, etc.
A third limitation of technological determinism is this need for linear communication. Viewing this from the print paradigm, McLuhan thought it essential that there is “order and structure in messages; written communication makes sense only if components of the message are in the proper order.” But that isn’t necessarily true. A prime example we can see of this is the book that took off because of the printing revolution—the Bible. The Bible is anything but chronological. For example, the book of Job occurs while the book of Genesis is being told but it is actually placed before Psalms. Yet, despite this, people all over the world still read the Bible and understand its message. To see how crazy the chronological timeline is of the Bible look at the image below.
Regardless of the individual thoughts of McLuhan, it is clear that he was a man well before his time. His amazing prescience is something we still look at today as our world ever evolves and ever changes with each medium created.