Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism, “the medium is the message,” is just as true, and misunderstood, today as it was 40 years ago. Yet the onslaught of “new media,” “social media” and “interactive media” makes the advent of radio and television, catalysts for much of McLuhan’s thinking, look like a Victorian garden party compared to an ecstasy-fueled rave. With the right infrastructure, the tempo will only increase.

“The medium is the what?”
McLuhan’s central idea is that the structure of a medium and how we interact with it is much more important to human culture than the content that medium carries. For example, in most of the West, text is created from arbitrary symbols and read from left to right, top to bottom. The habit of ordering the symbols sequentially creates in our minds, and our culture, a habit of sequential thinking. It matters not if we are reading Neuromancer or a shopping list.

We become used to breaking down our sensory world into pieces, words, and then re-arranging those words in the clean and orderly lines of text. Hypertext bends but does not break the traditional text model. Hypertext allows us to create our own document, yet we still follow the left-to-right, top-to-bottom model of sequential access.

Radio, or today, iPods, have a different effect: we are surrounded by sound that flows through time. There is no left-to-right, top-to-bottom with iPods. McLuhan saw radio encouraging a new tribalism as it freed us from the sequential tyranny of text. Portability allows us to tap into our virtual “tribe” where ever we are. The iPod ad characters only appear to dance alone: the message is that all who hear the music are sharing something greater than music. We share a culture, a tribe.

Hot or not?
The other major distinction McLuhan saw is whether a medium is hot or cool. Hot media are high-resolution: they present something, be it sound, picture or moving image, that requires little processing to understand. Cool media are low-resolution: your brain has to be actively involved in decoding the data stream.

For example, broadcast NTSC television in black and white TV gave a fuzzy image with maybe 300 lines resolution. To “see” the picture, you had to give the TV your attention, which is why it is so difficult to maintain a conversation when a fuzzy TV picture is on – no matter what content is on offer. Hot media, with their high-resolution sound and/or image, can be both more thrilling in their intensity and easier to ignore – they become background to be experienced when we find the content interesting.

OK, so social media, content, message and storage all come together how?
We’re currently flipping through a half-dozen changes in our media diet.

  • Low-res “cool” TV is getting upgraded to high-res “hot” TV in the living room
  • Lots of low-res cool video is getting streamed out over the internet
  • Text is strong – you’re reading this – and has morphed into an interactive medium through chat and texting
  • “New” media, including social media, offer ease of publishing, low cost and interactivity, but what is different is not their content, but their authors and audiences
  • The always-on, always-and-everywhere available web, will allow the info-philiacs among us (like me, for one) to jones out in cyberspace 24×7
  • Hyper-media, the mashup of text, video, sound, and image, high and low resolution, with synchronous and asynchronous interactivity, means that the traditional relationship between content and medium is about to undergo massive change

Oh, you think it already has? The rave has just begun.

Part II of The Internet Is The Message coming soon to a web browser near you. Comments welcome, of course. And yes, this does tie into storage and internet-scale infrastructure. Stay tuned.