Donald Ellis. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.
Medium theory is concerned with the fixed features of the channels of communication and how these features are distinguished psychologically and sociologically from other media. The theory examines the relationship between human senses that are required to use a medium and the structure of the medium itself. We do not experience the world directly, but through different media of communication. These media filters—oral, typographic, and electronic—determine what we know and how we know it. The emphasis is not on the content of media (e.g., sex, violence, entertainment), but on the nature and structure of media and how these alter thinking and social organization. Typical issues for media theorists concern the complexity of the medium of communication, what senses (visual, aural, vocal) are activated to attend to the medium, how messages are constructed, the speed and directionality of the medium, and how all of these have social and psychological influence.
The influence of medium theory issues is at both the individual and the social levels. On the individual level, medium theorists study how medium choice influences a communicative situation between people. For example, it is a different experience and different senses are activated if an employer fires an employee by sending him or her a letter as opposed to speaking to him or her face-to-face, even if the content of each message is the same. A computer-mediated interpersonal relationship has medium influences that affect the relationship and differentiate it from a face-to-face relationship. On the social level, medium theories note how changing patterns of social interaction attributable to medium differences (e.g., Internet, cell phones, Blackberries) change social structure in general. Thus, the Internet has altered the speed, storage, and availability of information and created an information class including changed patterns of reading. Facebook has influenced social capital, or the resources accumulated through the relationships among people, and allows for the formation of new social networks. The major issues in medium theory are its historical development, the principles of media epistemology (the impact of predominant media on human thought and knowledge), and its social effects.
History of Medium Theory
Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis are most associated with medium theory. Innis analyzed historical social changes by associating them with the dominant medium of the time. He correlates human history with communication technology. Innis showed how political power was possible by information monopolies. Early church scribes, for instance, controlled religious information—including ideas about behavior, morality, salvation, and obedience—and thus exercised political control. But the invention of a new communication medium, namely the printing press, made for wider availability of religious information and resulted in new interpretations that ultimately undermined church authority.
Innis was responsible for numerous important insights about the social effects of media. He explained how highly specialized media that required skill and training, such as writing in the 15th century or early computers, served primarily special interests and elites who had the time and resources to master the media. On the other hand, media that are inexpensive, easily learned, and available to everyone (writing in the 20th century, Internet) have democratizing effects. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century laid the foundation of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Innis also illustrates how the dominant medium in a culture determines its stability. Accordingly, stone carvings are permanent and difficult to revise and thereby associated with long lasting conservative cultures. In contrast, modern electronic communication systems facilitate speed, the movement of messages across great distances, decentralization of information, and cultural change.
McLuhan was influenced by Innis and extended his perspective. McLuhan argued that the human senses were important to the communication process and that media extended the senses. Media technology, according to McLuhan, extends the self into interaction with the medium. Hence, television allows us to see beyond the limits of biology. The telephone does the same for hearing. Computers and electronic media allow information to be stored (electronic data bases), manipulated (word processing), and transmitted (e-mail) far beyond the meager capabilities of human nature. McLuhan rejected the mind-body dualism and held that all knowledge was based on sensory information and that the frequency and intensity of sensory stimulation determined the nature of knowledge and experience. McLuhan’s essential argument, then, was that the structure, form, and popularity of a medium were the chief ingredients of an individual’s experience and social structure. He also suggested that each medium had its own character, including strengths and weaknesses, and what worked well with one medium may not work well for another. Consequently, the fixed and static nature of print does not translate well to the visual medium of television. McLuhan and Innis integrate culture and human history into medium theory and thus establish the concept of media epistemology, or how knowledge and culture are reflective of the dominant historical media.
Human history from a medium theoretical perspective is divided into three major periods—oral, print, and electronic—with each affecting the senses and the structure of culture differently. Media epistemologists argue that each historical period relies on different senses and therefore its own forms of thinking and communication. Medium theory begs the epistemological question about how media and knowledge are linked. Orality, print, and electronic media make up what Raymond Gozzi and Lance Haynes refer to as zones of epistemology. Each zone not only represents a historical period of human development, but also results in a basic reorganization of power, information, and society.
Orality is the most organic and natural medium of communication. The human communicator is responsible for the production, transmission, and storage of knowledge. Orality is the first stage of human development at the individual and cultural level. Speech comes naturally and is learned easily by all humans. Knowledge develops through direct experience, and the grounds and warrants for knowledge emerge from group oral traditions and rituals. Memory, and all its limitations and weaknesses, is the primary mechanism of information storage and reliability. There is no separating people from their cultures and realities because there is no distinction between an individual and his or her knowledge. Language in oral cultures operates to stimulate existing meaning carried in the consciousness of known others. For that reason, clichés, epithets, and sayings are characteristic of orality. A single word or brief phrase arouses a whole network of meaning. Moreover, linguistic rhythm and pattern serve as memory devices and became the foundation for modern literature.
Change is slow in oral cultures, and they are traditional because they have no means for contact outside their own group. Their knowledge is directly semantically ratified and has accumulated over time such that it represents the group’s concrete reality. Survival depends on accumulated knowledge, and challenging such knowledge with creativity and innovation is threatening. Strands of oral qualities of communication appear in many groups and families or any collection of people with close interpersonal relationships and an established group consciousness (e.g., gangs, families, religious groups, prisoners, organizations).
The invention of the printing press introduced the print or the typographic era and had different influences on consciousness from orality. Writing changed the distribution patterns of information as well as what was distributed. The printing press made it possible to store lots of information and communicate it easily to others. Writing became the dominant medium, and thus knowledge was influenced by the nature of the printed word—visual, sequential, and fixed—such that information is more deliberate and orderly. Walter Ong explained how print was a first step in splitting consciousness and alienating individuals from communities. As literatures developed, people are separated into different informational worlds. The literate and powerful read and manipulate symbols, while others remain in their local oral community.
Print is fixed to the page and separate from human experience. It is considerably more permanent than speech. As reading became more common, it was easy to treat the printed page as objective. Moreover, writing began to develop rules and structures (e.g., grammar) for communicating ideas. Unlike the member of the oral culture, who is immersed in his or her group reality, the typographic person is more individualist and associated with rationality or step-by-step reasoning. Print made it possible to develop literatures associated with styles, authors, and intellectual property. The printing press, with all its structural and social implications, fostered scientific inquiry and the rejection of religious and traditional authority. Joshua Meyrowitz explained how these changes in thinking patterns led to a form of linearity that affected changes in architecture (e.g., buildings became more orderly), physical space (e.g., villages with winding paths became linear grid-like cites), and assembly-line production. Print remains a medium of authority (note how in a court of law a witness places his or her hand on the Bible, not a CD of the Bible).
The current electronic era is associated with numerous changes in society due to the dramatic increase in speed, information transmission and storage, and the distances among users of electronic media. The electronic epistemological zone makes it possible to take messages that are complex, sophisticated, and technologically based and make them appear natural, real, and occurring in real time. Television, the Internet, DVDs, cell phones, movies, iPods, and the applications these technologies spawn isolate senses of reality and assemble an organized bricolage, or interconnected set, of experience that constructs feelings, identifications, empathy, and emotional responses. The electronic media create a lifelike sense of presence, but the messages really come from a distance. Moreover, what we are witnessing (e.g., watching television, movies) presents a vivid sense of reality, but a viewer is not really witnessing anything occurring at the moment.
An important epistemological concept of medium theory is the idea of distant presence. Distant presence refers to the power of communication media to provide an informational experience for a user that is not local. In oral traditions, individuals have direct experience with others. All interactions are local, robust, and in real time. But in electronically mediated traditions, experiences feel immediate, but are really at a distance. Messages on television, for example, are fashioned and packaged at an earlier time, but are designed to embody the generalized domain of knowledge and experience held by diverse audiences. Ong refers to this as secondary orality, where the current complex and technologically based media essentially produce messages that return us to oral-like epistemological conditions. The literary tradition of writing is associated with linguistic complexity, rationality, and coherence. But many aspects of contemporary electronic media emphasize brevity, speed, titillation, and the privileging of visual impact. Sensory experience is returned to the communication experience. Scholars such as Neil Postman decry the simplistic show business epistemology of media such as television and its deleterious effect on the quality of discourse in society. New electronic media have restructured and redrawn the boundaries of social life by influencing modern conceptions of information, knowledge, society, the concept of the public, development, and values.
Social Effects of Media
Information in the electronic age is easier to amass, organize, and use for personal or business reasons. Information in traditional societies was limited and kept close to the user of the information. Digitalization makes it possible to generate, store, and transmit information from great distances. It resides in electronic space and can be extracted at will. Moreover, information is commodified and has exchange value. In traditional cultures, information was useful to the individual for the normal maintenance of life. But commodified information can be bought and sold (e.g., television shows, computer software, movies, reports, data bases) and has market value rather than simple intrinsic value. Accordingly, information takes on commercial and entertainment values. As a consequence of commodification, information is valuable in inverse proportion to its availability. Hence, information becomes intellectual property (e.g., movies, books, scripts, software, commissioned reports), and it is owned, protected, and registered. The fewer people with skills and access to information, the mo re valuable the information becomes.
The nature of knowledge—what is worth knowing and how it is known—has changed as a result of changing predominant media. The written word has lost its supremacy as the organizer of knowledge. The concept of truth changes more easily from medium to medium. People are more likely to get news from television or text messages than they are from the newspaper, and what counts as news is subject to medium effects. The sheer amount of information is daunting. And what passes for knowledge accumulates at a startling rate. Knowledge, like information, is sold and packaged and acquires the business values of attractiveness, speed, price, and ease of use. So the sound bite was invented, and long discursive disquisitions become scarce. Infotainment gains currency because information cannot escape being packaged as entertainment. The increased distance between knowledge users is a troubling consequence of the new media society. Simple activities such as pointing and clicking on a computer or touching the icon of a cash register obscure very sophisticated technological, mathematical, and logical knowledge, but the user needs to know none of it. This colonizes certain segments of society and redistributes literacy.
Electronic media are implicated in reorganizing societal structures. The concept of a common public has been fractionated such that people do not share a sense of place in Meyrowitz’s phrase. Modern media create new audiences and collectives. All the people who watch a television show (e.g., Survivor, Fox News, American Idol) may be considered a media-created public. They share commonalities and access and control of their demographic information is a commodity of value. New media have created new publics, and this is particularly true in the realm of political communication. Jürgen Habermas explained how the 18th-century salons and coffee houses became a forum for democratic discussion, a context where there was greater equality among participants and conversation was subject to argument and reason rather than flattery and acquiescence to status. These public spaces created a type of communication, opened up new problem possibilities, and were more inclusive. But new media reshuffle the boundaries of public life such that collegiality and commonality are disappearing, and aspects of democracy are threatened.
Modern media are highly commercial and yoked to corporate interests. The ability of new media to engage all the senses, according to Postman, means that entertainment is the supra-ideology of most discourse, especially on television. Entertainment values specify that media content must be absorptive of attention and attract people for reasons of personal satisfaction. When a medium treats subject matter as entertaining, it changes the attitudes and meanings that audiences have for the subject matter. Thus news and politics, when treated as entertainment, change the relationship between the subject matter and the audience. When the news, or politics, or educational messages become quick, breezy, and visually appealing viewers are lulled into experiencing excitement, tension, and personal identification. They come to expect such stimulation and are bored or uninterested to the extent that it is absent. This is why social critics blame modern media for a host of society’s ills ranging from short attention spans to the decline of reading and a lack of political engagement.
The implications of medium theory have also played a role in national development. Early media theories of development were naïve, assuming that modernization for the sake of modernization was desirable. Still, Majid Tehranian explains that media influence development through four interrelated processes: Information can revise important issues such as health and agriculture, control in the form of computerized storage of records (finances, taxes, purchasing patterns) can modernize a culture, development and globalization are dependent on electronic information processing highways, and finally, new media influence democratization. They are particularly important for mobilizing people and communicating new ideas. All media can be agents of good or ill—and while they mostly help government and industry, new technologies retain their liberating potential.
Finally, medium theory addresses questions of normative theory or how the media should perform and what society should expect from media. Citizen democracies cannot be sustained without a repository of quality information and outlets for open discussion. The media play a key role in these functions as well as contributing to freedom, diversity, and cultural solidarity. A normative political model of the media seeks to intervene in media operations and suppress inequalities in the market, promote freedom, and improve public access. A key tension in societies is access to the media. A private economic theory has media in the control of individual ownership. But free-market perspectives argue that a hypermedia environment is the strongest protection against state oppression. A second issue is the problem of the media assuming commercial values and thus subjecting political discourse to such values. Political language begins to sound like advertising, and the discourse is packaged for easy sale and consumption. Again, some critical scholars accuse the media of debasing public discourse and threatening the quality and authenticity of democratic institutions.