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The Media That Shapes Us

This week in grad school, we learned about Marshall McLuhan’s technological determinism. To those unfamiliar, this article gives a good crash course.

Back in 1964, a Canadian theorist named Marshall McLuhan theorized that we shape the technologies/tools of the mass media and they in turn shape us. McLuhan says we both shape each other. I thought this point was really strong.

Watching the news media it seems all sensationalized stories. Drama, trauma, the outrageous, the horrendous. There aren’t many wholesome, heart-warming stories making the front page of the paper. I had to wonder, is it the media’s fault, or ours? They, after all, have the goal to sell papers, or for TV news, to get higher ratings. Sex sells; outrage, pain, struggle, the unthinkable sells. Would there really be high rating for stories of firefighters rescuing a cat from a tree? Or a Girl Scout troop donating cookies to our troops? Compared to BLM protests, outrageous things being said by former presidents, or murder mystery stories/man-hunts, the fluff pieces wouldn’t hold attention or garner traction. 

So who is really responsible for the stories the media portrays? Us or the media? Are they really the ones with the power, or is it at heart us who pull the strings?

Extension of the Media

McLuhan also theorized that media technologies influence patterns of human thinking and our ways of relating to the world around them. His central idea was that with every era in history, humanity has been largely shaped by a particular technology. This idea was particularly inspired, in my opinion. In the 1950s, the electronic era, it would have been the spread of TV; in these days, it would be social media. Ultimately, McLuhan thought that a society that is dominated by electronic media will differ from the print-dominated one before it as people now relate to the world around them according to which senses they use to learn about it. These tools, in a way, are an extension of man as the media extends ones senses giving us the ability to experience things in a time other than when they took place. This video was cute and super creative in the ways the point was illustrated.

While this theory posed another strong point, I do feel it has its limitations as it fails to take into account the existence of coexisting media. Many people still read the paper, listen to the radio, and watch television, even though social media may be considered the dominant mass media of late. I feel this aspect of his theory, although interesting in theory, is ultimately misleading as many mass media exist at a time, and to ignore that discounts the influence multiple media have in a society.

The Medium is the Message

McLuhan’s theory ultimately tries to get to the core of whom or what has the power of control in our everyday lives. It is a look into the degree human thought or action is influenced by technology and mass media. He famously said, “the medium is the message,” impressing the point that the medium we receive the information from directly influences our minds. He felt that society is changed by the dominant media of its time. THis video better illustrates this theory,

However, McLuhan was less concerned to what a viewer was watching on TV or even who controlled the content being broadcast. This part of his theory is misleading and leaves much to be desired. He was focused on the fact that the person was watching on a TV rather than reading a paper or magazine. He felt that the effect on a person and the society as a whole stemmed from the medium of the message rather than the content. I feel this is a vast oversimplification and to not even consider the source of the content or the content itself is a gross overlook at the situation. In my mind, the message is as important as the medium if not more.

Global Village

Finally he felt that with electronic media, we could yield a “global village.” In essence, electronic media allows more interconnectivity throughout the world. Take print media which was confined by geography. Now with social media, TV, Internet radio, and shared content sites, the emergence of a global village is alive and well. This theory although postulated in the 60s, was super strong and well ahead of his time. Although McLuhan passed in the 1980s, well before the emergence of the Internet in 1990, he was accurate in his prediction of the global village, a world in which geography had no boundaries thanks to emerging technology. We have seen this be true with the Internet, email, and now social media, narrowing the gap between nations to practically be nonexistent.

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I'm Alyssa Ostroff— a designer and marketer who works with startups looking to push creative boundaries.