Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams have made key contributions to our understanding of media and its relationship to society and culture. McLuhan, in particular, has been an influential thinker on the subject and his ideas continue to be debated to this day. McLuhan’s work laid emphasis on how media is not an exclusive domain, but a space for the intermingling of politics, commerce and culture. One of the founding fathers of the field of media ecology, McLuhan introduced his core ideas in the 1950s and 60s. This was a period of rapid growth in telecommunication technology. The project McLuhan undertook is no less than to explain how “the nuances and great sweeps of human history are made possible by media of communication–how media determine the thoughts and actions of people and society.” (Strate, 2004) Raymond Williams’ career as a media analyst succeeded that of McLuhan. Consequently, he was able to see the flaws in several of McLuhan’s theories and rectify them to a large extent. Where Williams differed from his predecessor was on his ability to place media in the larger socio-cultural and economic dimensions rather than merely the technological dimension. This essay will argue that while McLuhan laid out many fundamental concepts governing media studies, it is Williams who offers a more robust and veritable framework of understanding for studying media. Their arguments are weighed in the cases of digital media such as the television and the Internet. And finally, where either scholar’s concepts fall short, the Propaganda Model proposed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman is referred to present a more comprehensive understanding of media and its functionality.
One of McLuhan’s interesting ideas is that media is much more than the communications technology. It includes all “human inventions and innovations”. In this view, the constituent components of mass media includes “the spoken word, roads, numbers, clothing, housing, money, clocks, the automobile, games, and weapons, in addition to the major mass media and communication technologies.” (Driedger & Redekop, 1998) Hence, media is effectively an extension of human beings and their perceptory faculties and capabilities. While there is efficiency and expedition in the dissemination of information in this setup, the concerns are the attendant negative consequences. For example, an outcome of this pervasive media space is the numbing of our critical faculties under the overload of information processing. In this cultural order where ‘the medium is the message’, there is danger in media technology’s role in “how and what we communicate, how we think, feel, and use our senses, and in our social organization, way of life, and world view.” (Driedger & Redekop, 1998) I concur with McLuhan’s apprehensive about the power of media technology in determining and dictating culture. McLuhan further argued that
“the sensory organization, and the relationship between sensory organization and the nature of thought were shaped by a person’s direct experience with a medium. He saw television as a high-involvement medium, which leads viewers to crave the same level of involvement in all of their experiences. This was based on his designation of television as a “cool” medium, drawing on the distinction between “hot” jazz which was highly structured, and “cool” jazz, which was more unstructured, generating more listener involvement.” (Driedger & Redekop, 1998)
It is fair to claim that this theory is now proven to be inaccurate, for television actually only requires passive consumption as opposed to active engagement. Indeed, television has thus acquired the derogatory terms ‘idiot box’ and ‘the tube’. This is one of several instances where McLuhan’s grasp of the nature of a medium was off the mark. But some of his other theories pertaining to media’s influence on culture generally hold true. He first articulated his theories on media in his debut work The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. First published in 1951, this book focussed on media content as opposed to his later ruminations on the nature of media and the enabling technology. McLuhan identifies ways in which “popular culture reflects and promotes the attitudes, beliefs, and values of technological society”. (Strate, 2004) In this milieu, human beings are conditioned in certain ways that promote the technocratic social order. McLuhan refers to the ‘technological man’, who is a super specialist in his professional field, but is limited in his ability to critically engaging with the system he is a part of. While McLuhan doesn’t fully articulate the repercussions of this limitation, Raymond Williams’ fulfils this scholarly void. He elaborates that the ‘technological woman’ is mass produced as in an assembly line. She is a product of consumption of commodities such as soaps, cosmetics, household appliances, etc. With greater mechanization, some of her traditional roles are shifted to an automatic machine like, say, a washing machine. The vast sweep and penetration of mass media is such that children are especially hostage to its effects. Whereby, technological children grow up feeding on baby formula instead of mother’s breast milk. The resultant unfulfilled neo-natal urge leads them to carry an oral fixation in later life. This manifests in the form of addictions to cigarettes and alcohol – even Coca-Cola is a source of satiating this fixation. But beyond these physical entrapments that keep them entrenched in the consumerist cycle, the more significant effects are on the faculties of mind.