Oct 042014
Marshal McLuhan

The process of mediation is a central concept to the study of social media, and it was the main topic explored in the lecture I gave this week to Year One BSc Media Production students on the module TECH1002 Social Media and Technology.

I decided that the best way to introduce this topic was to look at the work of Marshal McLuhan, and his central idea that the ‘Medium is the Message.’ As McLuhan asserts in The Gutenberg Galaxy

“[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent” (Marshall McLuhan, 1962, p. 41).

So, rather than thinking about media and the technologies of media that we use and encounter in our social interactions, it would be more appropriate to step back and think about how technology enables us to think about the world in different ways. What it enables us to do and how it shapes the way that we think, interact and respond to different things that take place in the world, but which are mediated to us through different platforms, different concepts different languages, different technologies.

The starting point is to understand what a media is, and what it does. A media, as Jones and Hafner describe, is something that stands between two things and facilitates different interactions between them. How a set of gears on a bicycle mediates the actions of the cyclists legs and feet and transforms one force into another type of force.

“A medium is something that stands in between two things and facilitates interaction between them… The fact is, all interaction – and indeed all human action – is in some way mediated” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 2).

As Jones and Hafner argue, as individuals we are unable to act alone, but have to do things by establishing relationships with other people. To do this successfully we have to deploy and utilise a range of practical and symbolic tools. As Jones and Hafner say, “the definition of a person is a human being plus the tools that are available for that human being to interact with the world” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 2).

Therefore, in thinking about media and the way that we use it to make sense of the world we have to understand that it is a process, as Roger Silverstone suggests, a “process of mediation” (Silverstone, 1999, p. 13).

As Silverstone goes on to point out:

“To do so requires us to think of mediation as extending beyond the point of contact between media texts and their readers or viewers. It requires us to consider it as involving producers and consumers of media in a more or less continuous activity of engagement and disengagement with meanings which have their source of their focus in these mediated texts, but which are extended through, and we are measured against, experiences in a multitude of different ways” (Silverstone, 1999, p. 13).

Underpinning this process, then, are a whole set of technologies and ideas that, according to McLuhan, provide use with an extension of our capabilities, and gives us ‘affordances’ that open up the world to us in new ways, or, indeed, close the world to us in different ways. McLuhan’s breakthrough idea was that we will, in the future (think 1960s here) use electronic forms of communication as a ‘nervous system’ in which we wont just be able to exchange products and objects, but through which we think and share ideas. McLuhan was thinking this around the same time that the early developments of the internet were being pioneered, but well before the Internet was developed as a working tool.

The challenge that this way of thinking introduces, then, is that we can then rethink the processes of media production, and that we can reflect on the whole set of expectations that we have in our culture about the requirements for learning and engaging with the media as producers and not as simply as consumers. It’s impossible to buy a ready-made, out-of-the-box pack from a store that enables us to become a ‘media producer’. It is a very seductive consumer fantasy that we can walk into a store and purchase the kit that we need to be a media producer. The truth is, however, that we have to learn production, technical management and creative skills in order to be a successful media producer. We have to practice these skills, test our ideas and understanding, and reflect on the processes that we engage in when creating our media.

This idea of mediation is nothing new in Western Society. It has presented challenges to thinkers and philosophers for many thousands of years, so we quickly looked at the idea of Plato’s Cave, to get a sense that the fundamental process of making sense of the world is a major problem that has concerned people for many different reasons and in many different ways.

We understand the world through signs and symbols, and what we are looking to get a sense of and be aware of are the generic social processes that allow us to mediate the world around us for our own understanding and for our interaction with others. As ethnographer Robert Prus argues:

“All constructions of reality, all notions of definition, identifications, and explanations, all matters of education, enterprise, entertainment, interpersonal relations, organisational practices, cultic involvements, collective behaviour, and political struggles of all sorts are rooted in the human accomplishment of intersubjectivity” (Prus, 1996, p. 2).

McLuhan argued that anything might be recognised as a mediating process. The things around us have symbolic structure, and that they transform how we think about the world.

“Media, under McLuhan’s analysis, constitute a broad category: cars, speech and language are examined alongside what we more commonly think of as media — newspapers, television and radio. All of these “artefacts” can be treated as media because, as technologies, they mediate our communication; their forms or structures alter how we perceive and understand the world around us. McLuhan argues that media are languages, with their own grammar and structure, and that they can be studied as such”(“Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan,” 2014).

As such, this is a process that is contested and is transformative, and never stays still. As Roger Silverstone argues “Mediation is like translation… It is never complete, always transformative, and never, perhaps, entirely satisfactory. It is always contested” (Silverstone, 1999, p. 14).

So, through this module, we will be looking to examine the ‘symbolic interactions’ that represent the moments when people exchange ideas and try to give meaning to things that they are considering and trying to make sense of – the ‘translations’ that people attempt to fix or which they contest in different situations and under different circumstances.

McLuhan thinks that the important factor is not what is said, i.e. the specific content of a message, but the form and the function of the carrier of that message. It’s not the voice on the telephone that we necessarily need to consider, but the way the telephone affords us the technical capability of speaking over distances. As Stevenson points out

“Marshall McLuhan is best known for the provocative thesis that the most important aspect of media is not to be located within issues connected to cultural content, but in the technical medium of communication. The medium, declares McLuhan, is the message” (Stevenson, 2002, p. 121).

We then spent a short amount of time looking at McLuhan’s ideas of Typographical Man, Hot and Cold Media and his model of Globalisation. I’m not going to describe them here, but they are certainly a useful point to follow up in the further reading associated with this module, particularly how Jones & Hafner use and expand on the concepts of ‘affordances’ and ‘constraints’, in which media is recognised as a set of tools that allow us to engage with each other in different ways than we might previously. As Jones and Hafner point out:

“Strictly speaking, the process of mediation and the tension between what tools allow us to do and what we do with them is fundamentally the same whether you are using pencil and paper or a word processing programme. What is different… are the kinds of affordances and constraints digital tools offer and the opportunities they make available for creative action. In many ways, digital media are breaking down boundaries that have traditionally defined our literacy practices” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 13).

Which itself is an echo of what McLuhan argues when he says:

“Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting… We acquire the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment. But our detachment was a posture of non-involvement. In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner” (Marshal McLuhan, 1964, p. 4)

This then brings up the challenge of how we can attune our skills and our capabilities to deal with these new media practices and technologies, and what types of ‘literacies’ we might need to thrive in this world? As Jones and Hafner assert:

“The crux of the concept of mediation is that we cannot interact with the world without doing it through some kind of medium, and the media that we use play an important role in determining how we perceive the world and the actions we can take. And so part of mediation has to do with how we are to some degree ‘controlled’ by the tools that are available to us to take action” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 99).

This is a world in which traditional barriers are being broken down and new practices are being explored and introduced that enable us to think about our identities in different ways and to reconsider the communities that we are part of in different ways. Over the coming weeks, in both the lectures and in the workshop sessions we are going to work through these ideas. There is plenty to be thinking about, experimenting with and working to make sense of. As Jones and Hafner point out:

“There are at least four ways that media can exert control over us. The first is through what we have been calling affordances and constraints. Different tools make some actions more possible and other actions less possible… The second way media exert control over us is through social conventions that grow up around their use. The away particular tools get used is not just a matter of what we can do with them, but also of the ways people have used them in the past… The third way media exert control over us is through who has access to the. The distribution of tools, both technological and symbolic is always unequal… Finally, media exert control over us through how easy or difficult they are for us to use. All tools require that people learn how to use them” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, pp. 99-101).


Collections Canada. (2014, september 21st). Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan. From Library and Archives Canada: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/innis-mcluhan/030003-2010-e.html
Wikipedia. (2014, September 21st). Allegory of the Cave. From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave
Wikipedia. (2014, September 21st). Marshall McLuhan. From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan

Allegory of the Cave. (2014, September 21st). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave
Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (2001). Remediation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Lovink, G. (2011). Engage in Destiny Design: Online Video Beyond Hypergrowth: Introduction to Video Vortex Reader I. Paper presented at the Video Vortext II: Moving Images Beyond YouTube, Amsterdam. http://www.networkcultures.org/_uploads/%236reader_VideoVortex2PDF.pdf
Marshall McLuhan. (2014, September 21st). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan
McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge.
Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan. (2014, september 21st). Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/innis-mcluhan/030003-2010-e.html
Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York: State University of New York Press.
Silverstone, R. (1999). Why Study the Media? London: Sage.
Stevenson, N. (2002). Understanding Media Cultures (2nd ed.). London: Sage.