i-6f808ba8ceb34d72360a8ba74f5a3793-Robert Logan.jpg
Robert Logan

Mark Glaser is on vacation for the beginning of this week. We’re pleased to have Robert K. Logan from the University of Toronto as our guest blogger here at MediaShift.

New media have certainly changed the landscape of communications and education in an even more dramatic manner than electronic mass media did as was documented and analyzed by Marshall McLuhan in 1964. I had the good fortune to collaborate with Marshall back in the 1970s and have tried to carry on his tradition, as have others, by focusing on the impact of media independent of their content. McLuhan’s pithy way of describing this approach was through the use of his one-liner “the medium is the message,” which he made famous in his ’64 book “Understanding Media.”

The “medium is the message” was McLuhan’s way of saying that independent of its content or its so-called message, a medium has its own intrinsic effects on our perceptions which are its unique and true message. “The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs,” he said. McLuhan cites the way the railway created “totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work.”

What McLuhan writes about the railroad applies with equal force to the media of print, television, the computer and the Internet. “The medium is the message” because it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,” according to McLuhan. The effects of a medium impose a new environment and set of sensibilities upon its users.

i-3bad5cc6bec19a0ab988b6fbb18a5e4d-Marshall McLuhan.gif
Marshall McLuhan

I am in the midst of making use of McLuhan’s famous one-liner to update his groundbreaking book “Understanding Media: Extensions of Man” by writing a new book “Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan.” The idea is to describe the way that new media have changed each of the old media that McLuhan analyzed. Then I’ll describe the impact on communications and education of new media that McLuhan never had a chance to observe: the Internet, email, blogs, search engines, PDAs, cell phones, iPods, podcasting, social networks, YouTube, Flickr, virtual reality, RFID tags, etc.

Differences Between New Media and Mass Media

One of my objectives in updating Marshall’s work is to identify the characteristics of new media and contrast them with the electronic mass media that McLuhan dealt with. Given that the medium is the message, I began my analysis by identifying the characteristics or messages of new media that are different from mass media that McLuhan identified such as the light bulb, telegraph, telephone, radio, phonograph, camera and television.

I actually began this exercise back in 1996 when I first identified the five messages of the Internet published in the first edition of “The Sixth Language” (Logan 2004). Back then the notion of new media had not yet been formulated but at that early stage I identified the following five messages of the Internet:

1. two-way communication

2. ease of access to and dissemination of information

3. continuous learning

4. alignment and integration

5. community

Although one or two of these characteristics apply to traditional mass media, what is unique about the Internet is that all five of these characteristics apply and help define the impact of this medium. As it turns out all of these characteristics also apply to the general class of new media. Since formulating these five messages of the Internet my study of new media revealed that there are also nine other additional properties or messages that characterizes most new media. They are:

6. portability and time flexibility (time-shifting), which provide users with freedom over space and time

7. convergence of many different media so that they can carry out more than one function at a time and combine — as is the case with the cameraphone

8. interoperability without which convergence would not be possible

9. aggregation of content, which is facilitated by digitization and convergence

10. variety and choice to a much greater extent than the mass media that preceded them and hence The Long Tail phenomenon

11. the closing of the gap between (or the convergence of) producers and consumers of media

12. social collectivity and cooperation

13. remix culture which digitization facilitates

14. the transition from products to services

Although some of the electronic media McLuhan studied had one or two of these 14 characteristics, by and large these properties apply primarily to new media. The telephone permitted two-way communication but it was a stand-alone non-portable technology until the emergence of the cell phone. The very first form of the cell phone embraced two-way communication and portability but did not incorporate the other 12 messages of new media. The smartphone today, because of interoperability and convergence with other media like the digital camera and the Internet, now aggregates content, provides variety and choice and promotes social collectivity.

New media today seem to have 14 distinct messages that intertwine and support each other. Digitization makes interoperability, two-way communication, ease of access to information, continuous learning, convergence, aggregation of content, remix culture and the transition from products to services possible. Aggregation of content leads to variety and choice, The Long Tail, community, social collectivity and cooperation. Remix and digitization helps close the gap between user and producer, which in turn builds community, variety and choice. Ease of access and dissemination of information leads to continuous learning; social collectivity and cooperation; remix culture; and the closing of the gap between user and producer.

If McLuhan were around today, I think he would see the impact of new media as an extension of his observations on the impact of the early electronic media. And in fact the effects seem to be even more intense with new media than they were for electronic mass media. Examples of the intensification of effects with new media include McLuhan’s observations that with electronic media:

1. our involvement with each other would increase,
2. social structures and access to information would decentralize,
3. “consumer becomes producer as the public becomes participant role player,”
4. the media become extensions of our psyches,
5. “the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing,”
6. there is a growth of interdisciplinarity,
7. a melting of national borders and the rise of a global village, and
8. “Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of knowledge, nomadic as never before — but also involved in the total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience”

I believe the key that unlocks this mystery is the speed-up of information flow with electricity that McLuhan observed becomes an even greater speed-up with new media. As McLuhan observed: With electric media “it is possible to store and to translate everything; and, as for speed, that is no problem. No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier.”

What McLuhan was unable to envision is that with hypertetxt, the Internet and search engines there is an actual speed-up of the flow of electric information. This explains why each of the items listed above become even more intense with new media as compared with the older electronic mass media that McLuhan knew and analyzed. I am sure he is looking down from the great Internet in the sky and smiling at all the new developments he predicted over 40 years ago.

Robert K. Logan is emeritus professor at the University of Toronto’s Physics Department and a senior fellow at the Institute of Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary and the Institute of Strategic Creativity at the Ontario College of Art and Design.