Author and social theorist Tom Wolfe once commented on Canadian professor Marshal McLuhan’s mantra, “the medium is the message” saying:
The new technologies…radically alter the entire way people use their five senses, the way they react to things, and therefore, their entire lives and the entire society. It doesn’t matter what the content of a medium like t.v. is… 20 hours a day of sadistic cowboys caving in peoples teeth or… Pablo Casals droning away on his cello.
How is it that violence and the arts are effective in the same manner? Wouldn’t the content be the most important factor in analyzing a television program? To understand Marshall McLuhan’s theories the reader must not be concerned with the symbolic content of what is being said or the cosmetic interpretation of the actual show but rather, look deeper into the whole infrastructure of the medium itself.
McLuhan was prone to thinking up “clever” analogies and plays on words; and describing the content of a medium was no different. He described it as “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” We are the content of our media because the way we live life is largely a function of the way we process information. That information is presented and made available by way of a certain medium. In turn, each medium delivers a new message and a new form of human being, whose qualities are suited to it. The same words spoken face to face, printed on paper, or presented on television provide three different messages simply because of the different senses used to perceive it.
McLuhan thought primary channels of communication change the way we look at the world around us. The dominant medium of any age governs people and reconnects modes of relationships with the world based on which sensory motor apparatus is being activated. Dominant epochs spring from the phonetic alphabet, printing press, and the telegraph, which were turning points in society because they changed the way people thought about themselves.
To understand how and why people are affected by television, one must first become familiar with McLuhan’s idea of the electronic age. With the advent of television, the power of the printed word is decreased significantly. Books become “made-for-t.v.” movies and newspapers come alive with twenty-four hour a day headlines. Marshall McLuhan noted this increase in sound and touch and declared that instant communication was a return to prealphabetic oral tradition. The television connected people in a way that created an “all at once world” where closed human systems are rare. Suddenly everyone could share the same experience of watching images on t.v. at the same time with the same effects. To McLuhan, this meant returning to a single global village where the electronic media re-tribalize the human race. The whole world is becoming like the small town beauty shop where rumors and gossip include foreign ministers and movie stars. We all become busy bodies tracking everyone else’s business.
As we live, we search for meaning and the process of watching television is no different. However, it is the procedure used to compute this meaning that differs. Watching television “has often been seen as a routine, unproblematic, passive process: the meanings of the programs are seen as given and obvious; the viewer is seen as passively receptive and mindless.” (Livingstone p.3) This would mean that the television audience does not have to do anything but stare without thinking, and that the pictures we see do not leave any space for interpretation. However, we are a generation that has grown up learning to read television and interpret the conventions of television in order to put a meaning to the images shown. This creates the notion of “reading” television as natural.
Marshal McLuhan also noted this active participation and in turn, labeled the television as a cool medium. A Cool medium is a low-definition display that draws a person in, requiring high participation to fill in the blanks. Although we do not realize all of the many processes required to view a television program, the watcher is in fact highly involved because of the low resolution monitor, mosaic screen, and thusly, greater mental participation. The mosaic of colored dots perfectly placed on the screen encourages iconic commentary from viewers, who are constantly being challenged to pull the picture together in their mind’s eye.
Because the viewer must actively spend time trying to interpret the image and the message it brings, viewers are inserted in to the story in an aural, intuitive, and emotionally involving manner. Marshall McLuhan noted that the ability of television to immerse people in events, bringing all kinds of places and times together in high-speed simultaneity meant the dawning of a new electronic age. In this era, television medium is fluent and at the mercy of time, but also displaying the world in fragments the form of the medium congeals that. This fosters the belief that all things are connected but causes confusion because the connections are never articulated. There is a realization that we cannot capture television, which is like an endless flow, a continuous stream; we just tune in and become part of an impersonal, silent and invisible audience. When reading a book, the pace is ours; we can read a sentence over and over again, it will always be there, it is transitory and does not have a beginning or a conclusion, even though the programs shown on television do.
Perhaps it is this strong attachment to the senses that caused so many people to be completely drawn into the world trade center fiasco. Many described the event as “surreal” and had trouble comprehending the scene. The perceptual technique of reading dots requires a high amount of participation to begin with. Trying to process a picture of a plane flying into a skyscraper is even more difficult. Furthermore, the major television networks were effective in disguising the event as theater. The media portrayal of the attack erased some of the horrors of conflict, such as the loss of so many lives, by treating it as a major television event filled with drama, heroism, and special effects. In a movie the medium is hot, being highly visual, logical and private. Everything is already organized for us in a way that we can process the information more easily. Since we are only used to seeing that kind of violence and destruction in the movie theatre, it may become too traumatic to process it in a different medium where more thought must be used.
On the other hand, others are still glued to their televisions in search of yet another bite of information to digest. So much energy is used to process the individual faces of victims on television that we become attached and feel a direct connection as if it were happening to the viewer as well. For some, television validates existence. Take a single sled ride down a hill, for instance. The experience is fleeting and elusive. By tomorrow it will be forgotten and it may as well have never happened. But if it were on television, countless viewers would share in the event and confirm it. The ride would become a part of mass consciousness since the impact of an event on television is determined by the image, not its substance. Perhaps this is why the incident of September eleventh is so frightening. Because it is so deeply embedded in the minds and senses of the world. When watching the faces of the on lookers viewers can be alone and yet not feel alone. There is a deep connection to the image and to the face. Cool media, such as tv, clarify the surrounding context and let perceivers insert themselves into the story. Perhaps this is one piece of an elaborate mosaic of cultural activity that works toward a unified ideological end, whether intentional or not.
With cameras and televisions enhancing our eyes, satellite dishes increasing the sensitivity of our ears, and computers and the Internet augmenting the power of our brains, the human body has finally become fully extended through communication technology. In these respects, McLuhan was on to something. Unfortunately, one could not overlook McLuhan’s often abandonment of the linearity and order that he claimed were the legacy of print technology. His truths were enigmatic and seldom woven into a comprehensive system; at times he implied that chosen words are irrelevant while other times he declared the significance of the symbols were a matter of degree. His leaps of faith were a major hindrance to taking him seriously. Near the end, he was accused of selling out by Stuart Hall, fellow media theorist. But, as Kenneth Boulding in McLuhan: Hot and Cold stated, “It is perhaps typical of very creative minds that they hit very large nails not quite on the head.” Maybe we should give Marshal McLuhan another swing.