“The Medium is the Message”

Photo by Jon Ashcroft (Click Image for Source)

If you were living in Canada in the 1990’s you would have been subjected to the “Heritage Minute” historical messages seen on TV and in movie theaters. As I have not actually watched TV for several years, I don’t know if these “Heritage Minutes” are still being produced.

One that I remember well is the one about Marshall McLuhan. I thought it was stupid, and I didn’t understand what was being said.

Take a minute to watch the clip…

I hadn’t given any thought to this guy, McLuhan, until I was studying on the web about media in today’s world. He is most famous for his phrase: “The medium is the message”.

What he means by that phrase is basically this:

Media is an extension of ourselves. The device we choose to convey our message to others will determine the content of that message. And so the device, or the media, becomes the true message.

Tim Challies makes a good point in his book “The Next Story” that when any new media technology is created it is created for a specific environment, and even though the technology can be taken out of that original environment and be used in an entirely different type of environment, it will always take with it, where ever it is used, elements of the original environment. Power Point, for example, was created for the business board room. It is a great tool for making presentations using charts, graphs, and bullet points. But it didn’t stay in the board room. A lot of pastors use Power Point when giving their sermons. And so, when a pastor uses Power Point in delivering his sermon, he creates a business board room type of atmosphere in the church. The use of Power Point in the church brings with it elements of its original environment.

I remember when I was living in Canada attending my home church. The pastor at the time always used Power Point. He delivered his sermons using bullet points, and sometimes charts and graphs too. I once asked some new attenders, who had to drive for an hour each Sunday morning, why they decided to come to our church. Their answer was that they loved how the sermons were delivered in such a way that it made them feel as though they were at a business seminar. They didn’t comment on the content of the messages (although that was important to them too), instead they commented on the medium–how the message was delivered. The medium, then, is in itself a very powerful message. Some churches will never use Power Point. Some will have wooden pews and built in pulpits which would require a crane if anyone ever wanted to move them. In some churches the pulpit is just a glorified coffee table. These are all mediums which, in themselves, deliver very strong messages–perhaps even stronger messages than what is spoken by the preacher each Sunday.

You can also look at Christian television. What was TV originally created for? Entertainment. Therefore any TV show that isn’t entertaining will not last long. In fact the only place where you’ll see an unentertaining TV show last an undeservedly long time is on either public TV or Christian TV–where ratings don’t matter. All too often Christian TV programs simply consist of 50+ year olds sitting around a table discussing the theory of how to live life like they live life. Who finds this entertaining? Anyone under 40? I suppose the only people who do find these shows entertaining are other 50+ year olds who take comfort in that there is a show on that holds to the same values as they do. But even then I imagine that they only turn on the show so that there can be some background noise while they clean the house or something. Even the guys obsessed with the “End-Times” watch the programs that are obsessed with the “End-Times” for entertainment. They don’t watch the shows for education or information. They get a thrill from the idea that they are getting the inside edge on some secret knowledge as to when the world is going to end. And so when the maker of a Christian TV show says he doesn’t want to entertain, but rather just use TV as a tool to get his message across, then I’d say he’s chosen the wrong medium.

So with the medium being a powerful message in and of itself one cannot simply focus on the content. One has to choose the correct medium to use as well. One has to ask the right questions about what one is trying to get across to the viewers.

Here are four questions which McLuhan himself asked…

1) What does the medium or technology extend?

2) What does it make obsolete?

3) What is retrieved?

4) What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?

Good questions for any media producer to ask.

Media these days is a huge subject to look at, and it is very complicated. It is also a very interesting subject to study. I myself am just getting started. When I look at the questions above, and I think about how quickly technology is advancing, I wonder how things will look in ten years. Will McLuhan’s theories even apply anymore?

Here are a couple of good articles that relate to this subject…

Amusing Ourselves Out of Our Manhood

The Future of Christian TV: A TV Distribution Idea