For the week 3 lecture of Media Technologies, it was time to think like a scientist. I don’t mean we got out Bunsen burners and started setting fire to things in the media hub (unfortunately), rather than needed to think about terms such as evolution, natural selection and environments. Of course it’s not entirely necessary for those theorising media technologies and the connections they have with society, education etc. to consider media in this way however, Marshall McLuhan found this comparison both intriguing and useful and, I must admit, so do I!
McLuhan revolutionised how we see media and how it affects society on a global scale, there’s no denying this. However, he took it one step further. He believed that no media worked independently, but rather worked together in a system of “constant interplay”. This is where the science comes in! McLuhan likened this media system to a complex eco-system of interactions – much in the same way that the world around is a delicate ecological balance of animals, plants, bacteria etc. But what made McLuhan notice and believe in the similarities between a scientific eco-system and a technological one?
As we have heard many times from Professor Xavier of the X-Men franchise, new creations in nature are born from genetic mutations. Why do we have blue eyes or red hair? Because of a mutation within our DNA. So how do we explain the advances made with the release of a new smartphone or console? No advance or technology appears from nowhere, it’s a result of hundreds of leaps forward and years of innovation and creative thinking. From the days when the printing press revolutionised the world of books and mass media really took off, to where we are now – a huge amount of books stored on the cyberspace of the world wide web, ready to download as PDF at the touch of a button.
However, evolution cannot be thought of as a linear process but rather a gradual transformation of processes that inter-connect with each other – with specific advances in one technology, affecting what can be done with another technology and so on. McLuhan states that “no medium has its meaning or existence alone”, he believed different mediums and media technologies are like species living within the same ecosystem and that they establish relationships between them. Each species learns from the other, competes with the other and is constantly adapting to survive and thrive within a competitive ecosystem.
As well as mutations, natural selection also plays a part of the eco-system of media technologies. I’m assuming you have a Blackberry device? You don’t? Well then maybe an Android device? Or iPhone? There was a time when the Blackberry was the ultimate PDA – personal digital assistant. The Blackberry device was incredibly popular with professionals and businesses as a way to keep track of appointments, deadlines, meetings etc. However, it’s since become a relic as iPhone and Android products have caught up and overtaken the Blackberry in terms of innovation and sales. Here is a perfect example of how natural selection allows the dominant species – or in this case product, to come out on top.
One of the most important concepts created and championed by McLuhan is that “the medium is the message”. Meaning, it’s not the way we use the technology that’s the important part, it’s the medium itself, how we interact with it and how it this influences our lives and society. McLuhan also added that the contents of a medium, is in itself also a medium, so it’s not just the book that should be considered a medium, it’s the words and pages within, that form mediums also.
As you can see from the video above, which shows an interview with McLuhan from 1967, he doesn’t take himself and his work too seriously. For this reason and several other, McLuhan and his theories have been heavily criticised. As he often speaks with metaphors and similes – likening one concept with another, relating scientific evolution to how we advance our digital technologies, many have been confused by his (at times) ambiguous ideas. Most people think in very linear terms, they research, develop and theorise in order to develop their learning, and therefore for 2 and 2 together to make 4. McLuhan was more concerned with creating new ideas and challenging his learning by questioning himself at every opportunity and constantly developing and adapting his ideas.
I found the ideas put forward by McLuhan incredibly far-reaching and interesting, I’ll be discussing them more in the Seminar 3 – Ecology post!