In a 1994 Playboy interview, Marshall McLuhan contended that ‘the content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb.’ In more familiar terms: the medium is the message.
McLuhan noted three landmark moments in human and social evolution: the invention of the phonetic alphabet which allowed us to communicate ideas; the invention of movable type so that we could record them; and the invention of the telegraph for their rapid dissemination. Based on these three, surely convergence – the wholesale global integration of passive (television) and active (computers/internet) communications media – represents a fourth landmark.
But if the medium is the message and content is irrelevant, what happens when the medium becomes pervasive, or at least integrated to the point that it is inescapable? The message is obvious. We’re on the cusp of an integration which could be the realization of what the Greeks envisioned as true democracy. But what’s the cost?
We’ve recently seen a global revolution brought about by the internet. The message has been received. The content, however irrelevant, was mostly empty marketing and pornography. The fact that no one seems to care proves that McLuhan was right. The medium has been integrated and has rapidly evolved. We now find ourselves on the precipice of a revolution called convergence.
Other mediums will follow, ad infinitum.
But with each revolution comes an increased level of abstraction, and an increased tendency towards irrelevance, brought about by the method of the technical evolution itself. (Can’t afford the technology. Just don’t care about the technology…) One begins to wonder whether, on the simple human front, we’re capable of grasping the meaning of messages which have become so giant and yet so subtle. At what point do the ‘media-induced extensions of man,’ as McLuhan called them, become so tenuous that they completely lose meaning?
Nobody asked if you wanted to be part of a world where all media converged at a single point (i.e. you), because as McLuhan said, the medum itself is the message, and if you stopped getting messages you didn’t want there would be no need for answering machines or e-mail. But, the final question that needs addressing is this: at what level do we accept that the message has become so abstracted that it is no longer feasible for the common person to integrate it?
There is one truth that is important to keep in mind when all the media becomes too much to wrestle with, and, as usual, it comes from Groucho Marx: ‘Outside a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.’