Medium theory stands apart from more generic “media theory” in its exploration of the influences of communication technologies in addition to, and distinct from, the specific content (messages) they convey. Medium theorists argue that media are not simply channels for transmitting information between two or more environments, but are themselves distinct social-psychological settings or environments that encourage certain types of interaction and discourage others. Medium theory analyzes differences among communication environments.
Medium theory focuses on the characteristics of each medium (or of each type of medium) that make it physically, socially, and psychologically different from other media. Thus, medium theorists study how television differs from radio, but also how electronic media (including TV and radio) differ from print media (such as books, magazines, and newspapers). Medium theory also examines how communications through a particular medium or type of medium compare and contrast with face-to-face interaction. The singular “medium” is used in the name of the theory to highlight the focus on the particular characteristics of each medium.
Characteristics of Media
In comparing and contrasting modes of communication, medium theorists explore the influences of such characteristics as the type of sensory information the medium can and cannot transmit (e.g., visual, aural, tactile, etc.); whether the medium is uni-sensory or multi-sensory; the nature of the medium-conveyed form, or forms, of information within each sense (e.g., picture vs. written word as distinct types of visuals, or Morse-code clicks vs. voice as distinct types of sound); the speed and degree of immediacy of communication through the medium; whether the medium affords unidirectional vs. bidirectional vs. multidirectional communication; whether interaction through the medium is simultaneous or sequential (as in the difference between telephones and CB radio); the physical requirements for using the medium (e.g., whether one has to stay in a certain location or look in a certain direction to attend to the medium); the degree of control the user has over reception and transmission (such as when readers choose their own pace and order of reading articles in a newspaper vs. the fixed speed and sequence of a news broadcast); the scope and nature of dissemination (e.g., how many people in how many different locations can attend to the same message at the same moment); and the relative ease or difficulty of learning to use the medium to code and decode messages (including whether one tends to learn to use the medium all at once or in stages over time).
Medium theorists see such characteristics as fostering unique uses for each medium and different responses to the same content when experienced through different media. Medium theorists have described, for example, how the Bible in restricted-access manuscript form served to support the medieval church’s monopoly over the word of God and access to salvation, while the Bible in widely available print form became a tool of Martin Luther’s sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which weakened the power of the Catholic church. Another classic medium theory example is how US radio audiences and television audiences in 1960 apparently responded very differently to the same set of events, the Nixon–Kennedy debates. Although no one thought to carry out a definitive medium research project during the debates, it was widely observed at the time that radio listeners tended to think that Nixon (with his ministerial voice and superior verbal debating skills) had won, while TV watchers (with access to images of a haggard, sweating, lip-licking, and eye-darting Nixon, contrasted with a tanned and composed Kennedy) were much more likely to think that Kennedy had won.
Micro VS. Macro Medium Theory
Medium theory operates on at least two levels: the micro (individual situation) and the macro (cultural). On the micro level, the key issue is how the medium selected by a person or group for a specific purpose influences a particular situation or interaction. On the macro level, the primary medium theory question is how the addition of a new medium to a society’s existing matrix of media may alter social interactions, thinking patterns, social roles, social institutions, and social structure in general.
Micro- and macro-level medium theory questions are interconnected. On the micro level, a medium analyst might ask how the presence of a camera and/or microphone affects the specific behavior of a particular politician. On the macro level, a medium theorist might ask how electronic media alter political styles in general, shift the criteria used to judge candidates (thereby altering the range of viable candidates), and change the public’s overall perception of politicians and world leaders. The dramatic increase in state, corporate, and citizen surveillance technologies in public and private settings in recent years raises similar micro and macro questions about the average person’s behaviors. On the micro level, we might ask how behavior in a particular situation is affected by the presence of a camera and/or microphone, while on the macro level we could ask how general conceptions of private and public spheres and “appropriate” behavior are being reshaped by ubiquitous visual and aural monitoring and replay.
The most interesting – and most controversial – medium theory deals with the macro level. Macro-level medium theory is typically the most different from analyses of media content. One of the most popular media questions over the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been a content-related one: do children imitate what they see on TV, such as TV violence? Medium studies, in contrast, explore such factors as the influence of structural changes in the boundaries of experience rather than the imitative and persuasive impact of media messages. The role-system form of medium theory suggests that changes in media alter the balance of what different types of people know about, and compare to, each other. Because young children are rarely able to read adult books, for example, books for parents about what to tell and not tell children tend to reinforce parental power. Yet a television show with the same content, a medium theorist would argue, undermines parental authority because thousands of young preliterate and partially literate children are able to listen in, learning about the very topics that are being recommended for restriction from them, and learning the biggest secret of all – the “secret of secrecy” – the fact that adults conspire over what to tell and not tell children (Meyrowitz 1985, 226 –267). Medium theory would argue that child– adult roles and interactions are thereby transformed, changing not just children, but what we, as a culture, mean by childhood and adulthood. Similar contrasts exist between content-related questions and medium questions regarding gender and minority roles. Content questions about television, for example, might focus on the imitative and persuasive power of sexist and racist role portrayals in the medium, while medium questions would more likely look at the different ways in which various media restrict or expand the experiential worlds of women and minorities. Medium theorists would point out, for example, that the dire content-based prediction that young girls growing up watching sexist TV would embrace limited roles for themselves has been falsified by the dramatic call on the part of women who grew up in the television era to integrate into what were once considered the “male spheres” of culture: business, sports, medicine, law, and the military – spheres that were exposed to, and demystified for, young girls and homebound women in television households.
By exploring the potential impact of the characteristics of various media on the macro level, medium theorists have also developed arguments about how different dominant media tend to encourage different modes of thinking (e.g., print encouraging abstract, linear thinking vs. television encouraging concrete, nonlinear thinking); different human sensory balances; different relationships between physical location and experience; different layouts of houses, stores, offices, and cities; different forms of individual and collective memory; different perceptions of war; different conceptions of self vs. other (e.g., localism vs. nationalism vs. globalism or a multilayered sense of identity); different conceptions of privacy and of public etiquette; changes in relative social statuses; and different value systems (including shifting assessments of the relative merits of various media of communication).
The History of Medium Theory
The term “medium theory” was coined in the 1980s (Meyrowitz 1985, 16) to give a unifying label to the work of a number of mid-twentieth-century scholars in a variety of fields (including history, anthropology, political economy, philosophy, religion, the classics, and communication), who were exploring how the different characteristics of different media encourage unique forms of interaction. The roots of medium theory, however, go back much further. Indeed, throughout history, each major development of a new medium has stimulated a new form of medium theory. In ancient Greece, Socrates complained that writing differed from oral dialogue in several key ways. Written texts, he argued, were incapable of answering questions put to them, reached audiences for which they were not intended, and weakened the memories of those who relied on them. Ironically, Socrates’ critiques of writing are well known today only because his student Plato recorded them in his written dialogues. Plato continued the medium theory tradition, but with a reversal of value judgments about at least some modes of orality versus text: Plato was enthusiastic about writing but wanted to banish the oral poets from his Republic.
In the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg touted the ways in which his own invention of movable type differed in method and potential effects from the work of the scribes. And in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and his followers consciously exploited the revolutionary potential of print via the first mass-mediated publicity campaign.
The rise of the film era in the early twentieth century encouraged film theorist Rudolf Arnheim to defend film as a potential art form (rather than a simple mechanical reproduction of reality). He proposed a form of medium theory that he called materialtheorie, which suggested that artistic and scientific descriptions of reality were shaped as much by the peculiarities of the chosen medium of representation as by the reality being portrayed.
As the influence of electronic media grew in the 1940s and 1950s, political economist Harold A. Innis dramatically advanced the development of medium theory with two densely written books that extend the principles of economic monopolies to the study of information monopolies, Empire and communications (1950) and The bias of communication (1951). Innis rewrote the history of civilization, from early Mesopotamia and Egypt to the British Empire and the Nazis, as the history of communication media and their influences.
The increasing dominance of television in the 1960s set the stage for the most famous and controversial medium theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who burst on the popularculture scene with his second medium theory book, Understanding media, published in 1964. McLuhan, who was influenced by Innis’s work, attracted the wrath of the literati and many scholars, not only by suggesting that television and other electronic media were having a major (and not necessarily negative) impact on the culture as they diminished the social significance of literacy, but also by presenting his ideas in nonlinear, aphoristic form, with little respect for what he saw as print-encouraged disciplinary boundaries and scholarly style. McLuhan defined media broadly to include not only print, the telegraph, movies, telephone, radio, TV, and computers, but all technologies, including clocks, motor cars, and weapons. In a form of argument that paralleled his approach to communication media, McLuhan claimed that the spread of the railroad (and later the airplane) fostered the development of “new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure,” regardless of “whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and . . . quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium” (1964/1994, 8).
Walter J. Ong, who both studied with McLuhan and influenced McLuhan’s own work, was one of a number of other scholars who deepened the analysis of the shifts from orality to literacy and from literacy to what he called the “secondary orality” of electronic media. One of the major themes in Ong’s multifaceted works from the 1950s to the 1990s is how shifts in modes of communication fostered changes in forms of human thought and consciousness. Recent decades have seen explosions in both new generations of electronic and digital media and in the number and types of medium theorists.
Sub-Genres of Medium Theory
While medium theorists tend to share a common view of general communication history, they also divide into sub-genres of medium theory. Harold Innis, for example, presented a theory based on media “biases,” such as the tendency of a medium either to last a long time (“time biased” media such as stone hieroglyphics) or travel easily through space (“space biased” media such as papyrus). Marshall McLuhan’s medium theory focused on media as extensions of the human senses, with differential effects on the human sensorium and the balance among the senses. Joshua Meyrowitz has developed a role-system medium theory based on how different media change the structure of social information systems, including “who knows what about whom” and “who knows what compared to whom,” thereby restructuring roles of group identity, socialization, and hierarchy. Ronald Deibert’s “ecological holism” medium theory shifts the focus away from the “inherent effects” of each medium to the ways in which pre-existing social forces and trends are either favored or not favored by the new communication environment. He analyzes the unintended consequences of technological change, when a “chance fitness” between medium and message brings ideas at the margins of society to the center.
Strengths and Limits of Medium Theory
By exploring the influence of modes of communication, medium theory provides insights into social and psychological processes that are invisible in traditional content-based approaches to media. In that sense, medium theory is similar to studies of industrialization, which suggest that the means of production are as important, or more important, to examine than an inventory of the products that are produced. Medium theory, like industrialization theory, looks at the structural changes in human relations, social identity, institutions, conceptions of labor, changes in rural and urban settings, and so forth.
Nevertheless, some critics dismiss all medium theory as a simplistic and mechanistic form of “technological determinism,” where autonomous technologies are viewed as reshaping people and societies in predetermined and monolithic ways. Yet, an accurate reading of most medium theory work reveals a much subtler argument: about tendencies rather than absolutist mechanisms, about interactions between media and society rather than media wholly shaping society. Most medium theory, rather than advocating a simple causal view, describes how the characteristics of a widely used medium foster, enable, and encourage certain communication patterns while discouraging others. Even Marshall McLuhan, whose provocative, aphoristic style has led him to be tagged more than other medium theorists as a media determinist, said, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (McLuhan & Fiore 1967, 25).
Medium theory has been criticized more legitimately for tending to start with an analysis of existing forms of media rather than delving into the socio-political and economic forces that lead to the development of some types of media rather than others. Television’s initial development as a unidirectional form of mass communication from the few to the many (rather than as an interactive community medium), for example, certainly favored the economic and political interests of corporate and state elites over those of the public at large. Yet, most medium theory gives insufficient attention to critical theory concerns about who has the most power over the dominant media in society and how that control limits and shapes the design and uses of media. Medium theory also offers few insights into how to counter dominant cultural narratives that permeate most of the media in a society, including the highly selective “stories” that are told across media to shape public perceptions of “enemies” and war. In general, most medium theory does not challenge the political and economic status quo, including corporate ownership of mass media.
In looking at the ways in which media may shape societies, medium theory tends to give less attention to how significant variations among cultures (e.g., differing perceptions of time, space, and of human–human, human–nature, and human–technology relationships) may differentially shape the use of media in different societies. Ironically, while medium theorists examine media as types of “environments,” very few of them examine the ways in which “advances” in technology may lead to the depletion of natural resources and an increase in toxic environmental waste. Similarly, most medium theorists do not examine how third-world countries and impoverished communities in western countries bear the brunt of the exploitation of resources and labor, disruption of sustainable economies and food supplies, and hazardous techno-waste. Nevertheless, medium theorists typically do a good job at analyzing the long-term unintended social consequences of media, including the ways in which technologies such as the Internet, mobile phones, camcorders, and so on have been embraced by third-world and other activists to protest and undermine the neo-liberal agendas that fostered the development of these technologies in the first place.
The current era of hypermediation has created a milieu of enhanced appreciation for medium theory. The growth of the world wide web, mobile telephony, WiFi, blogs, video surveillance technologies, virtual communities, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, social networking web sites, and many other mediated environments has led to broader acceptance of the basic medium theory premise: that such media must be looked at as creating new social settings, settings whose influence cannot be reduced to the content of the messages transmitted through them.
- Carpenter, E., & McLuhan, M. (eds.) (1973). Explorations in communication. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Chaytor, H. J. (1945). From script to print: An introduction to medieval vernacular literature. Cambridge: W. Heffer.
- Deibert, R. J. (1997). Parchment, printing, and hypermedia: Communication in world order transformation. New York: Columbia University Press.
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- Goody, J., & Watt, I. (1963). The consequences of literacy. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5, 304 –345.
- Havelock, E. A. (1963). Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published 1964).
- McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (1967). The medium is the massage: An inventory of effects. New York: Bantam Books.
- Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Meyrowitz, J. (1994). Medium theory. In D. Crowley & D. Mitchell (eds.), Communication theory today. Cambridge: Polity.
- Ong, W. (1977). Interfaces of the word: Studies in the evolution of consciousness and culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.
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