The Medium Is the Message

For those who think technology is merely a tool: you're being fooled.

The medium is the message.
Marshall McLuhan

Medium is the Message (Telephone)
Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

Every time you read a newspaper, attend a church service, or go to a business meeting, you are not only absorbing a message; you are absorbing the medium.

In other words, how you say something is as important as what you say. And how you receive a message is as important as the message itself. If you are not aware of this, you are in big, big trouble. (We all are.)

The path we're on

Western society is approaching an interesting crossroads. We have more information, more data, and more technology than ever before. And we are still very, very stupid.

We have billions of gigabytes of valuable content; yet, we have little experience or wisdom in how to wield such resources. We're bound to screw something up. In fact, we already have.

We may soon find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic, Terminator-esque reality, in which the tools we built to use are, in fact, using us. And if you think I'm being over-dramatic, suspend judgment for a moment and be honest:

These powerful communication tools may not have super-intelligent cyber-brains hell-bent on destroying the world (yet), but can we honestly say that they are neutral, that they will not change how we live our lives, how we value relationships? Haven't they already?

How much time do you spend using the Internet? How about checking your phone or email? It's more than you think.

How to tell if you're addicted to technology

Do an experiment and hide your phone for the weekend. Shut your laptop down. Did you miss it? Did you start to get an “itch,” like an addict going into withdrawal?

I've been amazed at how dependent I am on these soulless machines. Since I use technology all-day-every-day, I don't even notice it. But whenever I am away from my computer or iPhone for several hours, I start to panic. I worry and wonder: What did I miss?

The reason I rely so heavily on these tools? Communication. I want to connect to other people — for the sake of work and building personal relationships. Ironically, I've often felt enslaved to the very tools I thought I was mastering.

How do I know this?

  • Because I find it hard to read a book. After a few pages, I'm ready to switch to something else. The instant-access of the Internet has programmed me to hop from one media source to the next without ever paying full attention.
  • Because I am a terrible listener. If I'm having a conversation with someone for more than a few minutes, I find my eyes and mind wandering. I get bored. I want to move on to the next task, the next conversation. Again, I'm thinking: What am I missing?
  • Because I am more concerned about people online than offline. When my wife and I have people over for dinner, I inevitably find myself wanting to check email or Twitter. While I love forming relationships on the web, I've found that an unfortunate byproduct is  it has led me to push away people in my own neighborhood.

I am not proud of any of this. The fact that this is so widespread in our culture is embarrassing.

What's really at stake

The communication advancements of the past hundred years — not just the Internet; but the telephone, radio, and camera (both still and video) — have drastically changed the way communities are shaped and how people interact.

While I'm not ready to quit the Internet or stop using my cell phone, I am sure of one thing: I have got to get a grip on these tools. Otherwise, they will rule my life — in subtle, inconspicuous ways, undermining the purposes for which I use them: to build relationships.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: I want to make a difference. In the world, yes. But also in my family and home town. Maybe you do, too. If so, let me suggest a challenge to the both of us: If the tools we're using are undermining the goals for which we're using them, let's consider changing tools. Or at very least, be more intentional about how we use them.

A lot is at stake here, even the integrity of the messages we so earnestly believe in. So let's not for one second believe that the medium doesn't matter, that we should carelessly employ any technology available for the sake of broadcasting a message.

That is the last thing we must do.

What do you think? Is the medium neutral, or does it affect the message? How is technology changing the way we interact, relationally? Share in the comments.

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