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The Medium is the Message Research Paper


Human communication has developed from primitive forms, such as symbols and mimes, to more complex modern forms such as language. Communication, as a discipline, has attracted the attention of many scholars and professionals. Numerous theories have been put forward, all of which attempt to stake a claim as to what constitutes communication.

Within the theoretical foundations of communication, there exist the medium theory proposed by experts such as McLuhan, Ong and Meyrowitz. The medium theory postulates that effective communication is determined by the medium of communication. McLuhan uses the terms medium to also refer to communication technologies such as the TV, the radios, the internet and many others.

Thus, the meaning of a message is any change introduced by the medium within the communication process. This implies that communication technologies affect how people perceive the world around them. Such technologies also introduce new communication patterns into human affairs. Such patterns change people perception education, business trade among phenomena. Within this paper, the medium theory is analyzed Vis a Vis the internet.

Suffice to state that the medium theory has come under intense criticism. Critics argue that McLuhan and other medium theorist ignore other basic variables, which determine the effectiveness of communication. Despite the criticisms, it can be concluded that the effectiveness of the internet as a communication medium is found to corroborate McLuhan’s (1964) theory. Medium theorists such as McLuhan, Ong and Meyrowitz propose that modern communication has been mediatised.

This implies that the medium the message. The medium of communication modifies communication process in that it determines how people transfer, receive, perceive and interpreted messages. The meaning of every message is determined by the medium and not the content or the manner in which the message is relayed (Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research 2011).

McLuhan and other media theorist postulate the media, rather than the actual content of the message should be the centre of study in relation to how meaning is derived. Furthermore, every form of medium is unique and has unique characteristics. Therefore, different forms of media modify communication differently.

To understand the medium theory, it is important to critically evaluate the meaning and implication of the terms ‘medium’ and ‘medium is the message’ (Federman 2004). McLuhan (1964) uses the terms ‘media’ and ‘technology’ to also refer to the medium of communication. McLuhan refers to Medium as “any extension of ourselves that helps us in perceiving the world around us” (1964).

In general terms, medium refers to technologies through which messages are passed from the speaker to the recipient. McLuhan (1964) further gives two types of media; hot and cool media. By hot media, McLuhan (1964) refers to any form of technology, such as the radio, that requires limited involvement by the user.

Conversely, cool media, such as the TV requires maximum involvement by the user. Other examples of medium forwarded by McLuhan include print media forms such as newspapers, bulletins, tabloids and magazines. McLuhan controversially adds that technologies such as cars and the light bulb are among useful communication media.

These Media are the lenses through which people see the world around them. McLuhan (1964) adds another form of medium; the content. McLuhan (1964) argues that “a typical characteristic of every medium is that the content carried by that medium is medium in itself”. Thus medium becomes a form of language with its own language structure and rules.

McLuhan (1964) asserts that medium intensifies and speeds up the process of communication. Medium changes the “scale, pace and pattern” through which people associate with others as well with the world around them resulting to “psychic and social consequences” (Weisband, Schneider & Connolly 1995).

This implies that media determines how people interpret the world around them. The social consequences create the meaning of the message regardless of the content of that message. Therefore, the meaning of the message is purely determined by the medium. This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘medium is the message’ (McLuhan 1964).

McLuhan (1964) uses the term medium and media refer to technologies, such as the internet, the TV and the radio that aid communication. In view of McLuhan’s (1964) assertion, the internet is one of the modern technologies that modify communication process.

According to Adeel (n.d.) the use of internet has increased over the last few years. Numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of internet to social cultural changes within societies. In a study conducted on the effects of internet use in Pakistan, Adeel (n.d.) found out that despite being a medium of social interaction, the use of internet amongst Pakistanis has led to social isolation within families. Pakistanis spend more time on the internet than with other family members.

Therefore, the internet leads to isolation within families. Furthermore, the internet is easily accessible and has therefore negatively affected Pakistanis’ reading culture as well as outdoor social activities. Rather than spending time playing outdoor games, Pakistani children spend more time on the internet playing online games. Therefore, the internet has impinged on the ability of the Pakistani young generation to interact.

Other than social isolation, the internet has also led to erosion of cultural values. The internet is a free media, and thus connotes freedom of content and viewership. Anyone can post any form of content on the internet without restriction. Thus, the internet has increased access to content containing negative messages such as pornography and violence.

Furthermore, internet has led to increase in cyber crime and other anti social behavior such as racial, gender, religious discrimination. Brey (n.d.) departs from the path taken by Adeel (n.d.) and focuses on the positive influences that the internet. Brey (n.d.) argues that the internet has increased access to information and thus many cultures have become enlightened.

Furthermore, the internet has created a culture of globalization. Biggs (2000) concurs with this, further adding that the internet has brought together people of various cultures together, and gradually has blurred cultural differences amongst the netizens. This has created a new culture amongst the netizens. As such, the internet culture is slowly evolving. Biggs (2000) concludes that Intent is on its way to becoming a culture in itself.

Medium theorist asserts that media scales up the process of communication resulting to new psychic experiences which in turn modifies meaning. Salomon (1990) explains that the internet is one of the modern technologies that have brought new possibilities which traditional technologies such as the newspaper, the TV and radio could not afford users. Salomon (1990) adds that the internet has the ability to affect peoples “minds in interesting and important ways”.

In relation to this theory, Voiskounsky (1998) adds that modern technologies, such as the internet, aid in development of psychic abilities in human beings. The internet is thus seen as a mediator between human cognitive processes and the communication process. Salomon (1990) and Voiskounsky (1998) seem to form their argument on the core of Vygotsky’s (1962) theory on the relevance of cognitive mediation.

Cole (1996) adds that Vygotsky’s theory proposes that the human mind is a crucial instrument that determines the meaning of communication symbols. The assertion above can be taken in light of McLuhan’s (1964) assertion that a communication medium shapes how people associate with others as well as with the environment around them.

Regardless of the content of communication, the internet affects people in similar ways. Thus internet users are most likely to derive the similar meaning from a message passed through the internet.

Studies on the influence of the internet as a medium of communication go way back to the 1990s with scholars such as Dyson being among the first to document findings. Dyson (1997) argues that the internet gives people the opportunity to “redefine their societal roles”.

The internet has enabled people to find new ways to govern their lives. Issues such as education, business and commerce as well as communication are mediated by internet and have therefore taken a new meaning; the internet has enabled people to perceive education, business, commerce and communication differently.

This implies that the internet has enabled people to study and do business more efficently. Dyson (1997) assertion that the internet has enabled people change the way they perceive education, business and communication corroborates McLuhan’s (1964) assertion that communication medium is “an extension of ourselves that helps us in perceiving the world around us”.

The medium theory of communication postulates that the medium determines how messages are received, translated and interpreted. This assertion discounts other variables of communication that determines the outcomes of the communication process (Meyrowitz 2001).

Such variables include the style and method of communication. In criticising the medium theory, Meyrowitz’s (2001) assertions are analyzed Vis a Vis the material culture and its relationship to communication technologies. According to material culture theorist, peoples’ perception of the world is determined by social and cultural factors.

Therefore communication does not occur in a vacuum but intended to pass a predetermined message. As explained earlier, material culture theorists stipulate that social and cultural factors determine how people perceive the world. There are two material subcultures: lowbrow and highbrow cultures.

Lowbrow culture is defined as a way of life amongst the low class. It is also referred to as popular culture, famously recognized as pop culture. Pop culture utilizes style rather than medium as the means of effective communication. Specifically, humor and sarcasm are the dominant styles of communication within the pop culture (Jordan 2005). Conversely highbrow culture refers to the lifestyle of the high class (Peterson and Kern1996).

Lowbrow and highbrow cultures utilize various forms of communication technologies such as the TV, Newspaper, magazines and the internet. The purpose of each of these technologies is to relay socially constructed messages. As such, the media only relays a message and does not modify it.

The medium theory stipulates that effective communication depends on medium. The medium of communication is the most crucial variable in determining how a message is perceived. While McLuhan (1964) offers plausible examples and illustration on the assertion that the medium is the message, this notion is yet to gain universal acceptance.

Critics argues that McLuhan (1964) and other medium theorist ignore other variables that also influence communication process. For instance, the material culture theorists argue that the prevailing societies and cultures influence the construction of the message. For the message to be effective it has to be transmitted in a specific manner.

According to material theorist the medium is only useful in transferring messages and does not modify them. Therefore, technologies such as the internet do not determine the meaning of the message. Despite the criticism by material cultural theorist, the medium theory tends to outweigh the criticism since it is evident that the internet has changed the way in which people view the world around them.

McLuhan’s (1964) main assertion is the medium is the message. This implies that the meaning of any message is solely determined by the medium through which it is carried. In this regard, the medium theory overlooks the content and the style of communication amongst other variables that determine the effectiveness of communication.

The e application of the medium theory especially with regards to internet as one of communication technologies has been evaluated and found to be true. Through the internet, people have been able to accelerate their social interactions and associations. Furthermore, the internet has altered people’s perception of the world around them.

The medium theory is not universally acceptable. The use of internet as a medium of communication goes beyond its ability to modify the process of communication. As exemplified by material culture theorists, the internet enabled the transfer of predetermined messages. Such criticism does not mean that the medium theory is false. It is still relevant and has presented new and credible ways through which communication is perceived.

Reference List

Adeel, K., Impact of internet on society -Pakistan community.

Biggs, S. 2000, ‘Global village or urban jungle: Culture, self-construal, and the internet’, Media Ecology Association. Web.

Brey, P., Evaluating the Social and Cultural Implications of the Internet. Web.

Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research 2011, Media evolution and cultural change: Discussing medium theory and mediatisiation’. Web.

Cole, M. 1996, Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Federman, M. 2004, Web.

Jordan. M. 2005, Weirdo deluxe: The wild world of pop surrealism and lowbrow art, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Meyrowitz, J. 2001, Morphing McLuhan: Medium Theory for a New Millennium.

Peterson, R. and Kern, R. 1996, ‘Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3, pp. 900-907.

Salomon, G.1990, ‘Cognitive effects with and of computer technology’, Communication Research, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 26-44.

Voiskounsky, C. 1998, . Web.

Vygotsky, L. 1962, Thought and language, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Weisband, S., Schneider, K. and Connolly, T., 1995, ‘Computer-mediated communication and social information: Status salience and status differences’ Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 1124-1151

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