Media, messages, and sporting signs

Medium Message ComicI was going through some of my old papers the other day and came across this comic, which I think I clipped and promptly forgot around ten years ago (every teacher has a huge collection of newspaper articles, comics, and “interesting items” that he or she is convinced will one day be used with students).  I can see why I kept it.  It’s a brilliant illustration of the principle about communication articulated by the great Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message.  What McLuhan meant is that every form of communication (medium) has a profound effect on the content being communicated (message).  In declaring that the medium IS the message, McLuhan is using a technique writers call hyperbole–he’s exaggerating for emphasis.  He didn’t mean that the medium literally is indistinguishable from the content, merely that the medium is extremely important to the content, and in some cases AS important.

Sound confusing? It really isn’t.  Consider an illustration.  A man wants a woman to marry him.  He gets down on one knee, takes out a tiny black box with a diamond ring, stares into his beloved’s eyes and says, “Will you marry me?” The medium is face-to-face communication, both audible speech and non-verbal body language.  The message is, “Will you marry me?” The message is greatly enhanced, enriched, and strengthened by the medium.

Now consider the same message but conveyed through the medium of text messaging.
SashaI suspect most women would not be thrilled at a proposal of marriage delivered via text message.  Why not? Because the way we say something is just as important as what we say.  That is what “the medium is the message” means.  Not all messages can be communicated through all media.  Text messages cannot communicate a marriage proposal.  Even if the message is identical–“Will you marry me?”–the medium changes it so thoroughly that it really isn’t a marriage proposal anymore in any meaningful sense of the term.  Most women would not be overjoyed, but insulted.

This, of course, is the point of the comic I found in my archives. Though an inspiring aphorism from the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a wonderful message, it is inappropriate to the medium of a sports placard.  Or, to put it another way, the medium of a sports placard cannot communicate the content of a Wadsworth aphorism.

Our students are surrounded with more media–more forms of communication–than at any time in human history.  Sometimes teachers get snobby and insist that this or that medium is harmful or pedestrian or lacking in artistic merit (or something along those lines).  Yet these “books are better than movies” arguments are not only grossly unfair (some movies are far better than some books), they miss a far more important point.  All media change, shape, and influence their content.  There are some things television can do that a book simply cannot; there are some things Arabic numerals can do that hand signals simply cannot; there are some things an opera can do that video game simply cannot.  The most important thing a teacher can do in this regard is help students recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each medium they interact with and learn which messages belong with which form of communication.

This is why Leonard’s friend (in the comic above) is mistaken; he thinks Leonard put “too much thought” into his sign, but in fact the opposite is true.  If Leonard had been more thoughtful he would have realized that when the medium is a sports placard, “GO TEAM” is a far better message than “Not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng but in ourselves are triumph and defeat.”–no matter how powerful that message might be as you study it quietly and thoughtfully while reading this website.

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