The Medium is the Message

That phrase, attributed to Marshall McLuhan, was introduced by him in the 1960’s in reference to media – at that time television – but more generally expressing his idea that it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled the scale and form of human association and action. McLuhan’s point was that the form of a medium embeds itself in any message transmitted, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

The power of that idea is even more apparent today when the term “media” now has expanded to include the computer and all the other tools of the digital world. Moreover, the “symbiotic” relationship described is now increasingly viewed with alarm by many who see it overtaking other forms of communication and social association. The concern is that the medium is shaping human interaction in unacceptable ways as well as creating actual damage to the development of children.

Cited most recently is a messaging service introduced by Facebook for children as young as six. Pediatric and mental health experts joined in a letter saying the service “Messenger Kids,” pushes the company’s user base well below its previous minimum age and preys on a vulnerable group developmentally unprepared to be on the social network. A former chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has said, “Facebook is making children into a market, and the youngest children will be more likely to get hooked even earlier.”

Increasingly, the problem of tech addiction as well as that of disinformation corrupting political life, is being attributed to advertising; the fact that the industry is built on sophisticated technology used to aggregate user attention and sell advertising. The ad business has become proficient at profiling, targeting and persuading people.

It is interesting that advertising is being pointed to as the culprit now, when in fact it has been a driving force in media since the early days of broadcasting. In the 1920’s and ‘30’s, Edward Bernays, now considered the father of public relations, promoted his ideas about the engineering of consent. Interested in propaganda, which he renamed public relations he wrote, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and influenced by Freud’s theories of the impact of the unconscious on behavior, he concluded that by understanding the group mind it would be possible to manipulate people’s behavior without their ever realizing it. His own ideas were adopted by the world of advertising and tested in some famous marketing campaigns such as cigarettes, with great success. The goal was to convince people they want something they do not need.

Steve Jobs is known to have taken this a step further, saying the goal was to convince people to want something they did not know they wanted. This has led to the sophisticated technology that enables the profiling and targeting of potential consumers.

Bernays developed techniques to shape public opinion based on understanding the motivation of behavior. Today, the world of technology has made such understanding irrelevant. We, as consumers, let those advertising know through our clicks and likes how to target and mobilize our purchasing power.

In the 1930’s Bernays’ ideas about propaganda interested the Nazis, who put those ideas to their own use. Today, the concern is that the advertising capability of the media also enlists bad actors, as is being discovered by Facebook and others.

Is the problem the medium – or the message?