Medium as “Massage”?

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the massage,” often as not corrupted to “the medium is the message.”  What he meant was that the medium had become so all-embracing as to massage the receiver and to affect the meaning of the message.  In the years since, particularly in the last decade, Americans and, indeed, most of the technological world embraced the corrupted version of his philosophy with a vengeance, despite the fact that, in fact, the medium is NOT the message, because all form has to have some sort of content.

The problem is and has always been that the obsession with form [the medium] tends to dilute the content to the point where it’s so vapid at times that the information content and value is insignificant, trivial, or irrelevant.  Even when it’s not, that content is often overpowered by the form of the message… or in the case of Twitter, e-mail, texting, etc., the existence of so many competing message-forms. As I’ve noted before, the amount of “real” information I receive, either in paper or electronic form, is less than one percent of the total information sent to me.  I’m fortunate; I can read quickly and dismiss the junk without missing much.  I’ve learned that most people can’t, and, because they can’t, or won’t spend the time to sift logically though all those “communications,” many just prioritize by the flash of what hits them, by, if you will, the effectiveness of the massage created by the form of the message.

Do all those tweets, texts, voice-mails, and even cellphone calls really carry any meaning?  Aren’t most of them merely reaching out so that their senders and receivers can be reassured and “massaged” in some way?  All this massaging is having an effect, and much of it is anything but good.  Mayors in several cities, and legislators across the USA, are calling for restrictions on cellphones, ear buds, and other devices being used, not just by drivers, but by pedestrians as well, as the number of fatalities caused by both distracted drivers and walkers/runners has begun to increase markedly. 

This wide-spread need for instant reassurance and instant information is also reducing the attention span of students and younger Americans, and recently a large number of professionals have begun to publish books and studies on the deleterious effects of too much instant communication.  Interesting enough, several of these have been called “attacks on the information age.”  Yet, none of the critics are attacking the technology; they’re attacking the way in which people are using it and the growing dangers posed both to individuals and society by such uses. 

Another impact of the growing impact of the “medium massage” is the dumbing down of mass media to make it “more reassuring.”  One example is in cinema. My wife is a movie buff, and over the years I’ve been exposed to movies I never knew existed, but one thing that’s become very clear to me is that many third-rate movies from fifty years ago have better writing [not necessarily better plots] and more clever dialogue than most first rate movies today.  Why?  There may be a number of reasons, but I think the bottom line is simply that there was more emphasis on message and meaning than on medium.  Special effects and brilliant cinematography are now what draw the most viewers, not provoking and insightful dramas.

I’m not attacking the media or the technology, but I am attacking the glorification of the gadgets and the use of technology to swathe users in continuously-communicating social reassurance.  A social massage once in a while is fine; continuous social massaging is like any other addiction – destructive, and it’s well past time to call it what it is.

1 thought on “Medium as “Massage”?”

  1. Joe says:

    I used to think twitter was a waste of time. Then we had a really bad wild fire nearby. People listened to the fire radio channels and tweeted their news. That was useful. The same is somewhat true for the protests in Egypt.

    Nevertheless you are right. I would prefer the news to devote more time analyzing developments in Egypt in light of the new information revealed by the leaked State Department cables than to go to Cairo for the latest clashes… I.e. to provide context rather than noise.

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