The Medium is the Message

By Jim Selman | Bio

Forty-five years ago Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. I wonder what he would have made of today’s media-on-steroids. Someone sent me a fascinating YouTube piece called “Social Media in Plain English” , which was followed up with a dramatic piece on the extraordinary impact of all that is going on in the Social Media Revolution. It includes a new term I had never seen before: socialnomics. It’s getting easier and easier to feel ignorant and out of touch.

The general consensus is that the phenomenon of social networking/social media is as potentially revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution. Whether this is hyperbole or turns out to be fact will remain a question for history. What is a fact is that the medium is changing faster and in more dramatic ways than many of us can keep up with. I was just getting comfortable with email, blogging and my own websites. And now, almost overnight it seems, I am confronted with Twitter, mobile phone applications, Facebook, YouTube and Hulu—online media that seem to be taking over the space of our communication bandwidth. I’m not talking about the technical bandwidth required to support this global communications network. I mean our mental bandwidth. What is our capacity to reflect on how this medium is affecting us when it is evolving so rapidly?

McLuhan’s point was that we cannot separate the medium from the content and that there is a relationship between what we have to say and the various means by which we say it. Although I am no expert on the technologies and how they work, I do believe there is something larger going on here—something having to do with the breaking down of our traditional hierarchical structures and systems for power and control. It is my observation that when governments or institutions stop serving the people for whom they are created, then the people stop paying attention. Life goes on regardless of what governments and institutions say or do. I think the argument has been made that “Perestroika” brought down the Soviet Union almost overnight because the population stopped listening to the propaganda and began to connect in other ways, greatly assisted by a ‘new’ tool called the personal computer.

If the medium is the message, then we must conclude that the message today is:

  • We’re all connected.
  • Time is of the essence.
  • Our future is being created in billions of free and open conversations every day.
  • These conversations are increasingly transcending national borders and are disconnected from traditional forms of authority and control.
  • Every individual voice counts.

In 1984 Fernando Flores, the famous philosopher and technology guru, was asked the question “What is a computer?” He pointed out that, first and foremost, it is not merely a machine for processing information, but is a tool for communication and coordinating commitments. He went further to declare it to be “a universal machine for playing games”. He wasn’t talking of Star War-type videogames. He was speaking of the myriad games we play to organize and create our world: the games of business, politics, religion, creativity, technology and power.

If we consider the new media to be about transforming our world and if the Internet in all of its emerging manifestations is about coordination and inventing and playing new ‘games’, then it seems to me we need to think hard about some important questions. For example:

  • How do we manage our impatience?
  • Are we so habituated to short, pointed messages that we’re losing the capacity for thoughtful, reflective, rich conversations?
  • Is our ‘communication repertoire’ being reduced to sound bites and whatever can be said in 140 characters?
  • Are we so objectifying the content of our communication that we are losing the capacity to distinguish and interact with the context?
  • When everyone’s opinions about everything are on the table and at least technologically equal, how do we distinguish between different points of view?
  • In a world where real-time polling becomes the medium, does opinion become more ‘real’ than fact? 

This is obviously an emerging inquiry. Socialnomics (and whatever other disciplines are brought to bear) are working hard to understand what is going on. Meanwhile, many of us feel we are being swept along in a technological tidal wave unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. And I suspect many, like me, are reluctant to get on the bandwagon just because everyone else is. Yet we don’t want to be left behind. For now, I am choosing to be a strongly interested observer, a committed learner with a beginner’s mind, and a person who is concerned that we be as conscious and responsible as possible as we continue on this increasingly exciting—though potentially perilous—journey.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.