The 14 Messages of New Media

    by Robert K. Logan
    August 6, 2007
    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.

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    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.

    Tagged: books education guests new media teaching
    • Brilliant! Thanks for posting this Robert.

      Out of curiosity, would you happen to know if McLuhan made any predictions about the rise of surveillance (or sousveillance) and panopticism?

      Panopticism, which is aided heavily by camera technology (“an extension of the eye”), has become so commonplace and pervasive in modern postindustrial society. Especially in London. One could easily argue that inventions like Facebook or the self-checkout lanes at grocery stores are based around the panoptic model.

      I suppose Foucault thought of Panopticism as inherently Utopian because it is a method of social control that can facilitate more internal self-discipline amongst individuals, thereby relying less upon traditional, external, and ‘forceful’ establishmentarian-discipline.

      Would you happen to know if McLuhan perceived Panopticism as being Utopian or Dystopian in nature?

      Thanks again Robert!


    • Patrick – thanks for your kind words. Re your inquiry – to the best of my knowledge I do not believe that McLuhan weighed in on panopicism but he certainly was of the opinion that with electric media that there was no such thing as privacy or private intellectual property. He foresaw developmenrs like remixing and Napster.

      To illustrate McLuhan’s notion of the disappearance of privacy let me share a quote from Understanding Media: “The principle of numbness comes into play with electric technology… With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body. Apparently this could not have happened before the electric age gave us the means of instant, total field-awareness. With such awareness, the subliminal life, private and social, has been hoicked up into full view.”

    • Clarine

      Dear Robert,

      Thank you very much for sharing your outlook on media and the goals of your upcoming book. I look forward to reading it. In the column, you mention virtual reality as one new medium that you will focus on in your book. I am wondering what your thoughts are about this technology and what your outlook on it is in relation to other forms of media you will analyzie. What impact do you see it having on communication and education? Do you see it emerging in culture in new ways?
      Thank you.

    • I believe McLuhan’s notion of the “Global Village” is a comment on panopticism, but he was never as concerned with political activism.

    • Clarine – thanks for your comments. The best way to answer your question is to share a couple of excerpts from the chapter of my book that deals with virtual reality (VR) which I indicate with quotation marks.

      There is a mix of opinions on the progress of VR:
      “Although the idea of creating virtual realities has been around almost 50 years progress in this field has been painfully slow. Costs are high, graphics are not that great and the equipment that must be worn to create the effects leave a lot to be desired. Some are enthusiastic like Louise Elliott writing in Desktop Engineering in February of 2005, ‘Once regarded as pie-in-the-sky slice of science fiction requiring a full-face helmet-like headset, virtual reality (VR) is now fairly easily available, comfortable to use, and becoming affordable’. Mark Devlin thinks otherwise, ‘It is difficult to believe that VRs been around nearly two decades, (yet) as fast as technology moves, its stunning that VR has largely remained a back-burner fantasy’.”

      I believe VR will have an important impact on training and personal development:

      “There are a number of features of virtual reality that make the experience seem more realistic that other forms of media representation. One factor is embodiment and immersion in that you are made to feel part of the simulation immersed in the environment and acting as a participant in the action and not just an observer of the action. The interactivity of VR and the sense of control through the goggles, the cybergloves or joystick adds to the sense of presence and personal involvement.

      These features that make VR seem so realistic contribute to their value as training tools when they are used for example for surgical or flight simulations. ”

      “There is in addition to the commercial 3DVRPs (3 dimensional VR platforms) a number of sites that operate more or less as MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role-playing games) but the objective is not to play a zero sum game but rather to achieve a win-win situation where the players come away enriched by the experience and perhaps have made some valuable social contacts.

      The focus of Dotsoul is personal development and the release of subconscious creativity. One of the tools used in Dotsoul is the wiki, which encourages collaboration. The Croquet Project developed by educators Alan Kay and Seymour Papert supports communication, collaboration, resource sharing, and synchronous computation among multiple users. Its objectives are the intellectual development of its users with an emphasis on mathematical and analytic skills. ”

      I hope these excerpts answer your question, Clarine.

    • Anthony – McLuhan’s notion of the Global Village was more about our involvement with each other on a global level because of mass media. I can see where panopticism fits in but panopticism is more about invasion of privacy by civil authorities than about our involvement with each other. You are right about McLuhan not being a political activist but he did have a friendship with the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau and often tenured advice to the PM. He and I also attended a rally to protest the building of an expressway through downtown Toronto known as the Spadina Expressway, which, by the way, was never extended into the heart of the city. This is the only instance of his political activism that I am aware of.

    • Mom

      Angie, thought this looked very relevant to your job. The comments on privacy are interesting.

    • Great post, I’ve translated it for my italian blog http://www.vincos.it.
      It’s really useful to have a theory of the new media, now that even Wikipedia is trying to delete the definition itself. I can’t wait to read your book to understand these messages. I hope you will clarify what new media are (I prefer social media) differentianting internet from RFID, for instance. The risk here is that your category of new media is too wide.
      Thank you professor

    • Molto grazia Vincenzo – I appreciate your comments and the fact that you translated my guest blog into Italian that is a real honour. Now to respond to your request to clarify what new media are. To do this let me share an excerpt from my upcoming book Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan, which will be published by Hampton Press sometime in 2008. By the way you have my permission to translate this for your Italian blog.

      What are the New Media?

      The term new media will in general refer to those digital media, which are interactive, incorporate two-way communication and involve some form of computing as opposed to old media such as the telephone, radio and TV. These older media, which in their original incarnation did not require computer technology, now in their present configuration make use of computer technology as do so many other technologies, which are not necessarily communication media such as refrigerators and motor cars. Many new media emerged by combining an older medium with computer chips and a hard drive. We have surrounded the term new media with quotation marks to signify that they are digital interactive media. When we use the term new media without quotation marks we are generically denoting media, which are new to the context under discussion. To better illustrate the difference in the terminology we can say that today all new media are new media. We can also say in 1948 that TV could be classified as part of the new media of its day but not as new media as we have defined the term above. TV integrated with a computer to form a digital video recorder such as TiVo system can be, on the other hand, classified as an example of the new media.

      An important distinction between new and old media as we will use the term is that the old media are for the most part mass media, which is not the case with the new media with the possible exception of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Although the latter two media may be considered mass media because any one with a computer and a telephone or cable connection can access them, they are nevertheless experienced on an intimate level, each user working alone with the screen and interface (Wolf 2003b, p. 11). Another point is that although millions of people access the Net and Web every day they are each accessing different material given that there are billions of pages already extant on the Net. The Web and the Net also differ from mass media like TV and radio because they incorporate two-way communication. It is therefore a safe bet to regard the old media as passive mass media and the new media as individually accessed interactive media. This is a bit of an over generalization in that some old media like the spoken word in conversation, the written word in correspondence and telephone conversations are highly interactive, but it is certainly the case that all new media are highly interactive.

      The new media permit a great more participation of its users who are no longer just passive recipients of information but are active producers of content and information. This is certainly the case with those who use email, are participants in a listserv or chat room, create a Web site, blog, burn their own CDs, use Web collaboration tools, podcast, offer products via eBay or simply surf the Internet creating their own connections between existing sets of information.

    • I’ve been studying McLuhan for some time with a purpose to understand our present environment. I summed the work up in “The Wave of the Future” (www.theinnovationroadmap.com/Magazine/Articles/TheWaveoftheFuture.pdf). The shifts I saw were:

      -The Four Laws

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