Myth and Mass Media – McLuhan

McLuhan, M. (1997). Media research: technology, art, communication: Routledge.

The effect of media, like their “message,” is really in their form and not in their content” (10).

“The spectator or reader must now be co-creator” (12).

In Myth and Mass Media, McLuhan discusses language and mass media in regard to the making of myth. While this particular essay’s topic does not directly relate to my research, McLuhan discusses some concepts foundational to his later essays, and by extension my study.

“If a language contrived and used by many people is a mass medium, any one of our new media is in a sense a new language, a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness” (6).

The Online Video Conversation (OVC), in this sense can be seen as a new language, a new codification of experience. Additionally, those that use the OVC are creating new work habits, by their very use of the tool. However, as a new and sparsely used medium, its collectivity is limited to those using it within a specific setting, such as the classroom. Therefore, it is not a mass medium in the sense that it is not broadcast to the masses. It will not likely be considered such until it is used in a different manner.

In this 1959 essay, McLuhan defines his now famous phrase in his discussion of languages as macromyths. “[T]he medium is the message. Only incidentally, as it were, is such a medium a specialized means of signifying or of reference” (6). So, it is not just the content that is the message, but also the social act of using a given form that forms the message or meaning. Furthermore, a language is little affected (or perhaps slowly affected) by how people use it; but it takes on the character of what is expressed and felt by those using it. “And it can be utterly changed by the intrusion of another language, as speech was by writing, and radio by television” (6).

In this way, the OVC can be seen as unique to other communication forms, and therefore offering a unique communication message, by its particular multimodality. It merges the familiar genre of the asynchronous online video, with video communication technology that individuals use to communicate synchronously, and textual comments and tagging. The resulting “message” of this, the way that the OVC perhaps changes speech a bit is in catering to our desire to send and receive information in small, manageable chunks and the ability to go back and recall/reread/re-experience information. So, the OVC does not cvhange our speech in a way as intensely as writing, radio, television, etc. However, it offers this unique communication method that we can use and expect certain things from that we do not expect from other media. For example, we can generally expect that individuals will be both visually and aurally present in the video, that conversation will, or at least can, ensue, and that the conversation will be available to review at some future point if need be. Of course, there are events that can alter such expectations, such as the owner (original video poster) removing the video, or an account being removed, or even a tool (like Viddler through which an OVC conversation might take place) closing down.

McLuhan states that “Electronic culture accepts the simultaneous as a reconquest of auditory space. Since the ear picks up sound from all directions at once, thus creating a spherical field of experience, it is natural that electronically moved information should also assume this spherelike pattern” (7). In FtF communication, we receive not just audio but also other sensory data simultaneously. With the OVC, one also gets much of that that multimodal information, but also has the opportunity to add textual material to that communication, so the sphere becomes even richer.

Continuing the discussion on a medium’s ability to change our speech, McLuhan states that the instantaneous nature of electronic media and the information field today confers the auditory character of the new culture. Again, his writing is even more relevant now; with the internet, or current culture is far more instantaneous today, and at greater distances. Beginning chirographic style took on that of speech (primary orality), radio took on that of writing (see Residually Cyclical Styles 1 and Residually Cyclical Styles 2. The OVC appears to invariably apply a conversational style. That is, it is comfortable, natural, tangential, etc. Even, when participants discuss a topic for which they’ve prepared an outline, it is still just conversational as opposed to a more smooth, perhaps rehearsed style. Also, although participants add textual comments, those too are more brief and conversational than a formal essay. This is the nature of much of our electronic social communication of IM, tweeting, and texting.

In another example of his prophetic ideas, McLuhan writes, “The movie, which has so little in common with television, may be the last image of the Gutenberg era before it fuses via the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television, and fades into the new world of auditory space” (10). In other words, the nature of print (the Gutenberg era) creates a feeling within the reader that he or she is sharing the thoughts of another person’s mind, yet it is a very individual process, as one reads alone, generally. So, McLuhan may be suggesting a far more interactive medium in which participants use the modes of the media tools he lists: the ability to both communicate and broadcast at a distance by means of audio, video, and text. So, he is essentially describing the internet (an epiphany not original to me). More specifically, however, he is really describing the ability to communicate with video via the internet.

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