Explorations in Medium Theory in Mass Communications


Throughout the ages, cultures of communication have evolved over and over again, reflecting our society’s ideals back towards us. Marshall McLuhan, famous for his work in popular culture during the ’60’s, explains that we are now living in a ‘global village’ (Littlejohn & Foss 285); a place where we can instantly connect with anyone anywhere, despite location or cultural traditions. With new forms of communication, we’ve broken down barriers of distance and are able to virtually interact with and download information at our convenience and discretion. With the touch of a button on a Blackberry, a person can talk to a relative overseas, check the weather and today’s headlines, and store vital data such as schedules, phone numbers and music. But which is more important; the data being stored or the device or channel conveying the data? Many would instantly say it to be the data being stored and that the device (medium) is just a tool devised to showcase this information. To bring this to a more practical context, imagine a television. It is easy to state that it is the tv shows that are watched (the content, the propaganda, the advertisements) that are of more essential importance than the idea of broadcast media, in general, that underlines and contains such media. McLuhan and his mentor Harold Adams Innis, along with many other scholars, would disagree with this theory, arguing that ‘the medium is the message’ (Littlejohn & Foss 290). Medium theory, tied closely to the sociocultural tradition, is the exploration into such theory of investigating society’s interaction and influence over media and media’s interaction and influence over society. It takes us away from the information being displayed (the tv show) and allows us to visualize the cultural impact of such medium (broadcast media) separately. This essay will outline the concept of mass media, encapsulate medium theory into two main sections, classical medium theory and new media theory, and strive to show the significance of recognizing the medium as an overall force in shaping society throughout the ages.

Mass media is a term all too familiar within today’s culture as we look towards a vast array of information that swamps our daily lives. We associate mass media with advertisements, tabloids, tv shows, news, and anything of manufactured intelligence or truth that floods the vast populations in any given society. As it is impossible to consume everything that is thrown at us in the form of communication, mass media dictates what we should be paying attention to and what we should ignore (Littlejohn & Foss 287). This is not to say it is on an unifying front that everyone absorbs the same information with the same context, but rather it guides us to personally filter out excess information to get what we want with unifying reference points of genre. George Gerbner describes this, explaining mass media as “the ability to create publics, define issues, provide common terms of reference, and thus to allocate attention and power” (Littlejohn & Foss 285). In a sociocultural sense, it establishes and presents unifying trends of culture and genre, allowing us to determine where we fit in the great scheme of society and what we want to soak up. Watching the television, a person does not just allow the tv channel to dictate the show that they want to watch but rather the person chooses the show from a sense of what they feel targets them within the genres they belong to, as specific tv shows and news channels are constantly changing and shifting information.

Joshua Meyrowitz attempts to organize and distinguish theories associated with mass media by separating the schools of thought into 3 main categories: medium as a vessel, medium as a language, and medium as an environment (Littlejohn & Foss 287). ‘Medium as a vessel’ supports the idea “that media are more or less neutral containers for content” (Littlejohn & Foss 287). This means that in the case of the television, it doesn’t matter what the focus of the information presented is but rather that the television brings across all information unbiased in the same demeanour. ‘Medium as a language’ reflects exactly what is sounds like. Different mediums will express themselves in different ways, with different cultural slang or grammar to define the genre. With printed mediums this could reflect in the format of the piece, the way in which something is written (choice of words and style), and even the font choice. The last category and the one in which medium theory is strongly based upon is ‘medium as an environment’. This idea is derived from the concept that media has the ability to create and directly influence our personal and individual experience within a mass population whether or not we realize it.

The concept of medium theory believes that even when separating content from media, the medium still creates dominant repercussions in society. Within classical medium theory, McLuhan gained mainstream acknowledgement by “calling our attention to the importance of media as a media” (Littlejohn & Foss 290), bringing recognition to this theory. This means that the television, Internet, newspaper, and radio are all going to influence the population despite what is spoken or conveyed through them. He also believed that technology, in any aspect, was a way in which humans amplified their own abilities; the car is an extension of the feet, clothing is an extension of the skin, mobile communications are an extension of the voice, and so on. This ties into the importance of the medium in itself as we interact with our own realities.

McLuhan, with help of Harold Adams Innis’ previous work, also went on to describe media as an “extension of the human [therefore] the predominate media in use biases any historical period” (Littlejohn & Foss 290). Time binding is a term to describe an aspect of medium theory, where the medium is more or less permanent and unchanging therefore as it is passed from generation to generation, despite new shifts in cultural idea or rebellion the information stays the same. For example, travelling back to cave art or to Roman stone carvings, these forms and uses of the medium (the stone or cave) rarely changed and acted as a strong reference to a society’s tie to tradition. Space binding, on the other hand, allowed communication to be more flexible; to have the ability to move locations or shift slightly in thought. Speech (passing information through word of mouth) and written media (paper based) was easily ready to be manipulated, revised, and reproduced with more comfort.

Correlations between media and human perception and thought begin to surface as one starts to shift, so does the other. In ancient times, stories, news, and law were carried through word of mouth sculpting the way in which we acted upon the knowledge. Now, with all of technological advancements, we interpret information in a different way and react accordingly. Donald Ellis delves even deeper into McLuhan’s theory bring it to a more modern context, recognizing drastic contrasts with our reactions to the different breeds of medium through oral, written, and newly electronic media (Littlejohn & Foss 290).

Oral communication is a very traditional form of communication, and as stated before, was a way in which information was passed down through generation to generation. Because of the process of a person first storing the information within themselves and then transmitted it to another, it produced a society of community, where collective harmony among ideas and concepts trumped individuality as self and the overall population merged together (Littlejohn & Foss 290). In order for the information to be valid and rational, everyone had to come together to establish an overall consensus between the facts.

Written communication permitted a different way to store information. It allowed the “separation of knowledge (what is known) from the knower (who knows it)” (Littlejohn & Foss 291). By writing something down, the message was no longer alive and organized chronologically as with speech, but had the potential to be revised and edited, disconnecting it from the instance of transcription and holding it in space indefinitely. As a person reads a book, they no longer see a person’s words but rather an illusion of a sense of ‘truth’ separate from human interaction. With the invention of the printing press, this cracked the sense of the group collective and divided people into those who “held the knowledge and those who didn’t” (Littlejohn & Foss 291).

As soon as electronic media came along, a new shift of consumption erupted through culture. The creation of broadcast media allowed information to be sent to mass amounts of people, despite location or vocation, no longer only being contained in a physical sense. Television allows for us to view the world in our living rooms, without ever having to move, except for scanning channels with the remote control. Broadcast media does not only apply to television but to a vast array of of different mediums, combining both oral and written communication in a new form of information frenzy. With the capability to propel mass amounts of information, truth is now not definite, as various forms of contrasting truths are projected, and the individual is forced to sift through the flood of opinion for their own personal adaptation of the truth. Now with the more individual form of communication ingestion, the community of orality and the culture of class from literacy changed to “create a culture of cells” (Littlejohn & Foss 291). People are now specialized in their ideas, now free to choose what theories or activities to support and educate themselves in, and thereby segregating themselves into subcultures organized in contrast to other subcultures.

New media theory is at the heart of this development with the popularity of television and the explosion of the Internet. Mark Poster describes the new era of communication technology as the Second Media Age. Now media was not just for the overall population, as it is when watching tv, but could also be used to convey information on a very individual level (Littlejohn & Foss 291). There are distinct difference between the first media age and the second: ‘centralized’ (first media age) versus ‘decentralized’ production (second media age); ‘one-way’ versus ‘two-way’ communication; ‘state control’ versus ‘beyond state control'; ‘the reproduction of social stratification’ versus ‘democratization'; ‘fragmented mass audiences’ versus ‘promoting individual consciousness'; and lastly, ‘the shaping of social consciousness’ versus ‘individual oriented’ (Littlejohn & Foss 292). This shows an ever revolving sense of media within media. Even as some sense of the information stays the same in content, new forms of medium that transfer it will undoubtably change the way in which we receive and interact.

Two dominant approaches, social interaction and social integration, are also used to explain the complexities of medium theory. Social interaction approach attempts to organize communication “in terms of how close they come to the model of face-to-face interactions” (Littlejohn & Foss 292). Television does not fall very close to human to human interaction but is more of a form of people engaging primarily with the media. Contrasting this, using a web cam to talk to a relative across the country is seemingly close to having a conversation in person, despite the possible hundred of miles separating the two individuals. Social integration approach, on the other hand, “characterizes media not in terms of information, interaction, or dissemination, but in terms of ritual, or how people use media as a way of creating community” (Littlejohn & Foss 293). As people are devoted to specific tv shows at a certain day and time or consistently logging onto a favourite website, this approach directs our attention to the need to ritualize experiences, explaining that the content is not always primary but the act and comfort of the repetition of the action makes us feel involved. This is easily seen with the morning ritual of reading the newspaper with coffee and can be easily transferred over to other areas of new media. Facebook, for example, is a prime reflection of this approach. An individual will log into their account many times a day, more out of ritual rather than truly being interested in whether or not Brad ate a roast beef sandwich or the fact that Sandra can’t wait until she goes to Mexico in two weeks.

As we evolve in media and medium, we evolve in culture and society and vice versa. In a lot of ways, medium theory shows us that how and in what way we send our content is more important that the essence itself. Television, mobile communication, web cams, the Internet, online gaming, magazines, billboards, movies, music, and many others all play an important role in creating our human experience, formulating our reality not only through interaction between society but now also with devices that imitate human interaction. Society has become and has always been an ever moving target as we advance further and further into new ways to express communications through media. Throughout the ages, we’ve seen radical shifts of societal ideals based upon this concept and as we look further, one cannot predict the impact the next big advancement in technology will do to our relationships within self, society, and reality.

Works Cited

Littlejohn, Stephen W., and Foss, Karen A. Theories of Human Communication, Ninth Edition California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.

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