Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is the medium the message?

In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "the medium is the message," most popularly in his book Understanding Media. The phrase means, in brief, that no medium is really neutral, but brings with it aspects that are part of its very nature.

As such, since print and television are different mediums, they are not netural, but carry with them both benefits and detriments that are part of their nature.

Back in February, I made a brief case for film and television being the "new literature." This time around, I'd like to ponder McLuhan's phrase. In short, I disagree that the medium is the message. Rather, the medium is what we make it.

This does not mean that I deny that certain mediums are better at some things than others (they are), but that mediums are not inherently tainted by their nature.

Western culture has moved from a "Have you read ...?" mentality to a "Have you seen ...?" mentality. Consequently, I advise intelligent interaction with the predominant mediums in our culture - film and television.

Simply because the tendency of film and television is to result in obscurity of careful thought does not mean that these mediums are completely tainted. The medium, as I argue, is not the message, but the medium is what we make it.

Film and television present an opportunity for the Christian worldview. First, there is opportunity in interacting with these mediums, offering comments and criticisms, dialoguing with others about these mediums, etc.

Second, if handled and approached thoughtfully, these mediums may also be integrated into the Christian worldview beneficially.

Third, we need to keep a healthy balance in mind when it comes to any medium. Jerome once lamented that he was spending too much time with his scrolls, perhaps at the expense of his time with God. Even Pascal made the case that a scholar absorbed in studies may be doing so, in part, as a diversion from having to confront the great questions of life.

It is an error to spend too much time absorbed in any medium if our motives are skewed. Moreover, if involvement in a particular medium removes us from real interaction with real people, then something is wrong. Christ called his followers to go into the world, not retreat from it.

McLuhan also wrote of extensions and amputations. Technology may offer extensions, such as an extension of knowledge gained via television, but it also comes with amputations. What do we lose when we learn news from television rather than from one another, for instance? Cell phones allow us to communicate with anyone, anywhere, so long as we have a signal. This is an extension in communication, but we amputate solitude. One thing I gather from these insights is that we need to bring discernment to any form of technology, not just marvel at the wonder of what something does.

And what do we make of the Internet? The Internet has the ability to combine mediums, but does it do so well? Is youtube the ultimate video expression of the Internet? What of hyperlinks? These are questions I'd like to ponder in future postings regarding the philosophy of technology.

By the way, McLuhan's estate has set up a Web site for him. What would he think?

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