Yesterday, I gave a long preface to this post, a definition of medium theory from Joshua Meyrowitz’s “Taking McLuhan and ‘Medium Theory’ Seriously: Technological Change and the Evolution of Education” (Technology and the Future of Schooling: Ninety-fifth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Part II. Ed. Stephen T. Kerr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. 73-110).
I prefer using the term ‘medium theory’ to describe it, so that the essence of the argument and the contributions of other theorists become more visible. I use the singular, ‘medium theory,’ rather than ‘media theory,’ to describe this philosophical tradition because what makes it different from most other media theories is its focus on the characteristics of each individual medium or of each particular type of media. Medium theorists are interested in differentiating among media. Broadly speaking, media theorists ask: what are the relatively fixed features of each means of communicating and how do these features make the medium physically, psychologically, and socially different from other media and face-to-face interaction? (79)
Most of the time I’m doing media studies or media ecology or even orality/literacy studies, that’s exactly what I’m interested in doing. It is what I’m trying to figure out in my Notes from the Walter J Ong Archives posts of October 16, 2004 and October 19, 2004 posts, and it’s why Professional Lurker was interested in those posts, which were first emails to TechRhet.
More from Meyrowitz:
Medium theory examines such variables as: which and how many senses are required to attend to the medium; whether the communication is bidirectional or unidirectional [or multidirectional]; how quickly messages can be disseminated; the relative degree of ‘definition,’ ‘resolution,’ or ‘fidelity’ involved; how much training is needed to encode and decode in the medium and how many ‘levels of skill’ are involved; how many people can attend to the same message at the same moment; and so forth. Medium theorists argue that such variables influence the medium’s use and its social, political, and psychological impact.
Medium questions are relevant to both micro-level (individual situations) and macro-level (cultural) changes. On the micro level, medium questions ask how the choice of one medium over another affects a [new page] particular situation or interaction (calling someone on the phone versus writing a letter, for example). On the macro level, medium questions address the ways in which the addition of a new medium to an existing matrix of media may alter social interactions and social structures in general (e.g., how widespread use of the telephone has changed the role of letter writing and influenced the nature of social interactions in general). The most interesting — and most controversial — medium theory deals with the macro level.
The analyses of the medium theorists are often more difficult to test and apply than the results of focused studies of particular media messages, but they are of significance because they suggest that media are not simply channels for conveying information between two or more environments. As McLuhan put it in his often-quoted and usually misunderstood pun, ‘the medium is the message.’ That is, the subtler and more persuasive societal influences derive from the form of the communication, not from the particular messages that are sent through the medium. (79-80)
Later in the article, Meyrowitz echoes Ong by stating that medium theory does not argue that medium or media cause social change in and of themselves, but rather that there is an interaction between the two:
The thrust of medium theory is the argument that we want to understand more fully media’s contribution to social change, we need to draw heavily on such analysis of the forms of communication, instead of relying exclusively on the more traditional concerns with who controls the media institutions and with the imitative or persuasive impact of media messages. Further, medium theory does not necessarily claim that media, even in their combination with other factors, function in a straight, deterministic manner. The thrust of this perspective is that the features of each media environment encourage certain patterns of thought and experience while discouraging others. (87)
cross posted, in part, at Notes from the Walter J Ong Archives