In 1967, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message”. What McLuhan meant is that the communication medium is an intricate part of the message, and its form influences the perception of the message. This was his media literacy definition.
McLuhan made this statement about media literacy before the existence of the Internet as we know it, before the massive amounts of telecommunication media that exist today. McLuhan defined a media literate individual as a person who is being well informed. He was mostly concerned about the effects of television watching on the general population.
McLuhan realized that the instantaneous message delivery system of television, which at that time had the massive attention of the general public, was a powerful and potentially disruptive force. In McLuhan’s opinion, the impact of television was to reduce literacy, rather than to increase it.
What is Media Literacy?
Media literacy began to take shape with the perceptions of McLuhan and others. McLuhan described his actions as similar to those of a comic whose position is to be disruptive and challenge the status quo. Nowadays, as we are overly saturated with media messages, there is still a need to take a step back from all of it, and analyze what is actually occurring.
McLuhan’s ideas were brilliant, in spite of the naysayers. His premise was so simple as to be easily misunderstood. He was describing mega-trends, not individual communications. In McLuhan’s time, there was the telephone system, radio, and television. McLuhan’s idea was that the telephone system, when taken as a whole, had an incredible impact on society, changing it forever. McLuhan proposed that what is said on the telephone in individual conversations is less important that the existence of the massive communication system in its entirety.
Hot Versus Cool Media
Then comes radio, which McLuhan describes as a “hot” medium. Radio replaced articles printed in newspapers as the most rapid way to stay informed with current global news. If a person wanted to stay informed as to what was happening on a global scale, in McLuhan’s time, they could simply tune in to the radio.
McLuhan described television as a “cool” medium, because in his time there was little chance of live international broadcasts. Instead, all television programs were pre-made, pre-packaged, and pre-sold to sponsors. McLuhan says very clearly that television promoted another kind of awareness that creates a subjective experience that does not give the opportunity for an objective experience. People become immersed in television shows, thus clouding their objective perception.
Telecommunication Extends the Human Nervous System
McLuhan thought that radio and television were extensions of the human nervous system. Imagine what he would have thought of the emergence of the Internet. McLuhan also coined the “global village” phrase, recognizing the fact that the international connections of telecommunications would be able to present any concept, any situation, any opinion, no matter how distant in physical space, to be in front of our eyes in virtual space.
Advertising as an Art Form
McLuhan said any painter, any musician, or any performer, sets up a trap to capture attention. So do advertisers. The goal of advertisers is to capture attention. In the early days of television, McLuhan says there was no way to measure the total impact. Simple measurements of sales due to advertising were possible, but the overall cultural changes had no standard to compare them against for measurement.
Pop Art of One Age Becomes the Classic Art of Another
McLuhan compared this phenomenon to the acceptance of plays by Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s time, his performances were considered popular media. The plays were rather bawdy and certainly not considered to be of “high-brow” culture in the time that Shakespeare lived. Nevertheless, as the centuries passed, his stories became recognized to be masterpieces of cultural art and thereafter were elevated to classic status.
Media Literacy and Medium
What McLuhan said is that the effect of the entire television broadcast system on society as a whole is vast, but the impact of any particular television broadcast is incidental. This is even clearer when one considers the effect of Internet communications in how we define media literacy.
One email message out of trillions has very little significance. However, the ability for the global population to send trillions of email messages to each other is a cultural phenomenon with enormous impact on our daily lives.
War Brought to Living Rooms in America
In the late 1960s in America, social upheaval was the norm. Walter Cronkite with his CBS news reports of the war in Vietnam changed the American perspective on the war. Photos of naked children running away from their burning villages, the carnage, and the devastation brought nightly into the homes of Americans by the television broadcasts made the war in Vietnam visceral and more real than any newspaper accounts could achieve.
Alternatives to Actual Violence
The dissemination of violent messages in the media is a contributing factor towards society’s desensitization towards violence. The alternative for this is dialogue. McLuhan points out that the representation of violent heroes in the media is necessary for young people to understand who they are.
The media promote controlled violence in sports. Sports games must have a public audience, or else they have no meaning in society as a whole. Sports games shown on television, with a massive audience, form part of the social fabric. They act as a release for natural violent tendencies, which is extremely necessary.
Media Literacy is About Discovering the Invisible
The reason why media has a potentially negative effect is that its influence is somewhat invisible. Images on television are not static, but are digital projections. Media participation is a resonant experience, because it requires interpretation by the viewer.
McLuhan’s basic conclusion is that electronic communication creates a loss of a person’s private identity.
How does this affect us in the modern world? The Internet, even more than television, has broken down barriers between people. The explosion of information sharing was a great equalizer. No longer is information guarded and controlled by those in power. Instead, “information wants to be free”.
McLuhan would be shocked and interested in how far this information sharing has gone. After all, his television appearance over thirty years ago is readily able for viewing by anyone who wishes to see it. However, he would also probably point out that just because information is freely shared, does not necessarily mean that the information being shared is actually truthful. This goes to his ability to take a meta-view on systems.
Media Literacy in 2016
The Center for Media Literacy (CML) addresses the issues of understanding the impact of media on global society. The mission of CML is to promote a better understanding of the impact of media. It also provides programs that help the younger generation attain critical thinking skills that are necessary to analyze the impact of media. The CML supports the efforts of teachers, students, academics, parents and caregivers in learning more about how media affects our lives.
The Media Literacy Project was created for the specific purpose of informing the public of the impact of the influence of media in our lives. In 2014, they started a special program called the Youth for Media Justice (Y4MJ). One of their efforts is to get young people to understand how advertisers target them and how to deconstruct advertisements in order to understand the impact on buying decisions and cultural influences.
This group encourages the ability for youth to develop critical thinking and analytic skills. This enables them to not simply be passive absorbents of media content, but to be capable of contemplating the overall implications.
It is important to understand how messages disseminated through the media have the ability to impact culture and society. Consumers of mass media benefit from learning about how they are targeted by advertising messages. They need to know what advertisers want them to believe, how persuasion is used, and most importantly how to recognize bias, spin, misinformation and outright lies that are promoted through the media.
A well-informed young person or adult is better equipped to deal with this phenomenon that otherwise, as McLuhan stated decades ago, is invisible yet significant in impact.