Yes, Virginia, the medium is the message



Once upon a time, in a land now lost in time, there was a man named Marshal McLuhan who wrote a book (1964) called “Understanding Media” in which he evinced the (then) startling notion that the medium is the message.

What McLuhan was really saying is that for the study of communications it is the medium – not its purported message – that should be studied.

Know your medium because it is going to shape whatever message you receive.

And it is truer today given the media outlets available. Just look at the plethora of media we have today – cable, email, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the list continues to grow.

How we receive our messages changes the way we perceive it. Don’t believe me? Try to follow this.

One metaphor used to understand the concept is to look at the railroad as a medium. What a train carries is the message.

Then you can begin to understand its effect on society. The rails, the locomotive and the cars do not denote any “message” of what it carries. But it certainly affects the shape of what it carries. It affects to whom it is carried and how people deal with it when “the message” arrives.

And by adopting that mode, railroads have shaped our environment in startling ways. We see it in the way we organize and create cities, built factories, employed people and made heretofore less hospitable places habitable.

Before the train, transportation meant people on horseback or in wagons. Now hundreds could board a train.

This change in transportation changed the way we perceived ourselves, our world and what was possible in it. We changed our cities to accommodate stations and stockyards.

McLuhan said so it is with the media.

Now we can understand why in the 1930s the sensation President Franklin Roosevelt made with his “fireside chats.”

For the first time the president, using radio broadcasts, talked directly to the people. There were no filters.

The broadcasts were beamed right into the living room. The whole family would gather around the radio to listen. It was a shared experience together – 90 percent of households had radios.

In the 11 years of his presidency, FDR made only around 30 chats, fewer than three a year. Yet they are still remembered for the effect they had.

People were living through the Great Depression. The bottom had dropped out of their world and they were scared.

Here was the president telling them in a personal and conversational way that things would get better and why.

FDR spoke confidently and conversationally. He instilled confidence in the government. It could be said FDR was the voice of government. It also could be said it got him re-elected three times.

Today we have presidential tweets. He connects to each individual on a personal level. His message is as personal as it gets.

We have the internet and blogs. We get emails directly to our personal addresses.

So what is the effect of these new media: emails, texts, tweets and a growing number of others?

We get messages to and from a host of other groups, political, social and religious.

Politically, we tend to follow those who express the same worldview we ourselves share. They reinforce what we believe and bring us new information that also reinforces what we think.

Who watches MSNBC and Fox and Friends?

News organizations today built an organization that jibes with the worldview of its target audience.

Thus we tend to reinforce preconceived or pre-existing ideas and take comfort in their reinforcement through these and similar sources.

The rails for mass media were greased first with the print explosion that allowed messengers to reach a mass audience of readers in a day.

Stalin learned fake news could destabilize a country.

The Nazis used “The Big Lie.” Just keep repeating the lie – the bigger the lie the better. People will begin to believe what they keep hearing – especially if it feeds their fears or prejudices.

Today, the internet and smartphones bring messages to us at the speed of light putting information at our fingertips.

But it does not end there.

Now we have the power to be dispensers of information. We are the messenger. It is our vision that we can dispense.

The internet has reduced the cost of dispensing media to within the reach of any purse.

The emails we pass along to our private email trees come from where? What source? Is it the truth? And whose truth? Where is truth in this world of information?

Today, we live in a new age of communication that provides us a tremendous platform to reach out to others with information. With that ability come tremendous responsibilities for both the sender and receiver.

All the advice I can really offer when shopping in the free market of ideas is caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

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