Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Medium is the Message

I recently finished a communication class here at Fuller. One of the assigned readings was The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church by Shane Hipps. I thought the book was really interesting, especially the first half.

Hipps owes most of his thinking on media to Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, "The medium is the message." This is the thought that the medium (or media) through which information comes (books, TV, Internet, phones, etc.) is often more important for your message than the content itself.

In his book, Hipps is mainly writing about how the church is shaped by media. However, his thoughts can be applied universally to most other areas of life. Here are a few thoughts:
When we talk about media and technology as tools for the church, we assume they are simply conduits or pipelines useful for dispensing the gospel...

However, McLuhan’s simple yet provocative statement ‘The medium is the message’ issues a direct challenge in this understanding of media. He writes, ‘Our conventional response of all media, namely that it is how they used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. The content of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.' In other words, media are much more than neutral purveyors of information. They have the power to shape us regardless of content and thus cannot be evaluated solely upon their use.
His point is that we often give little thought to how different media impact us. For example, he talks about how we are often oblivious to TV when we watch it. We don't understand that it is reducing our capacity for abstract thought, making us prefer intuition and experience over logic and reasoning, thus reviving elements of an individualistic culture.

To drive this point home, Hipps quotes a very hyperbolic metaphor of McLuhan:
The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb.
Hipps' point is that "the medium has far more impact on the culture than its content." I think it's so very important to notice the ways in which different media shapes the way we understand the world, not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of others as we seek to communicate truth.

I owe a great deal to my friend Roy for helping think through these things for the first time a few years back. Also my friend Scott has a lot of great thoughts on how technology is shaping us at his blog (particularly this post and this one). Also, if you're interested, here are a few other resources I would recommend:

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (one of my favorites)
The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman
Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith by Shane Hipps

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