A McLuhan look at modern TV/Film viewing
November 17, 2005
Over the past few decades there has been an incredible amount of technological advances as compared to the past few centuries. As people living in what is known to be the informational age, a term that has come about in the last decade, it is becoming normal to be completely immersed in a society completely filled with media, yet not notice it. During the 1960’s a Canadian Professor by the name Marshall McLuhan was becoming well known for his books discussing his media theories. His popularity was not for the deep understanding and amazement of his theories, but more because the general population did not understand them. It is only in today’s world that we can start to understand what he was talking about, and how amazing his work was. He was ahead of his time, his theories apply to technology that at the time did not exist.
In 1962 Marshall McLuhan published his book, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. McLuhan states, “...[I]f a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.” (“Marshall”) His book was filled with such writing and imagery to describe symbolism, that he easily confused his audience. A few years later he published another book, Understanding Media: The extensions of Man. This book was written to make his work more accessible to a larger readership. In this book, probably his most famous, he describes the important theory of The Medium is the Massage, the relationship between the medium and the message. It must be clearly stated that, McLuhan cleverly choose to use “massage” instead of “message” in the title and name of his theory. As the theory is actually referring to the message, one can often hear “The Medium is the Message” and “The Medium is the Massage” they refer to the same theory and therefore can be interchanged.
Using McLuhan’s theory of the medium is the message, society today can be examined and it can be seen that television viewers are changing from watching television strictly on their TV set and moving to a the computer and a wide range of mobile devices.
It is often misunderstood, like a lot of McLuhan’s work, that the Medium of the message, refers that the channel in which the content is delivered, is more important than the content itself. This however is not what McLuhan meant. “The medium is an extension of the human body in a way a wheel is an extension to the leg.” (Federman, 1) The medium is the technological advances made in society. These advances are in turn like a domino effect where one change leads to another. The message is not the content which is delivered, but rather the changes that this medium brings to the society that uses it. Often these changes are not immediately seen and become clear as time progresses. These changes in society are not predicated when a new medium is created because people look at the most obvious changes the medium will produce. Instead, one has to look at the non-obvious changes that could be produced by this medium. (Federman 2)
Viewers have been able to tune their television sets and watch content that is provided to them. This has been relatively untouched for decades with the only exception of the video cassette recorder (VCR). Until that time, the only two ways of watching visual content was at a movie theater or at home on a TV set. The immediate effects, as the industry thought, would be reduction in movie theater ticket sales, and a threat to the advertising model of the TV industry. If one looks back at this time period it can be seen that this did not happen.
Until recent years, the TV industry has been essentially left alone and there has not been any major technological advances other than shrinkage of electronic components. This stagnate industry changed in grand style at the 1999 Consumer Electronics show held in Las Vegas when two technology companies, ReplayTV and Tivo, introduced the Digital Video Recorder (DVR). (DVR Wikipedia) The DVR is a unique little device offering features such as: pausing and rewinding live TV, recording multiple shows at the same time; the ability to watch a prerecorded show and record another; and automatic series recordings. Most of these features are made possible because of the video is recorded on a hard drive which is random access – meaning unlike tape you can access any part of the drive at any time. The automatic series recording is a feature that allows a viewer to choose a program that they like and continue to record the show every time it comes on, even if the schedule changes. The DVR is essentially the smart tape less VCR. It has taken time for adaptation but six years on it seems viewers prefer their DVR to record their TV shows. According to data collected in a survey with 74 participants, out of the 57% of people who record TV shows, 50% of them record it on their DVR in contrast to using a VCR is 42.7%. (Appendix Q2 Q3) Although these are close numbers it shows that more people are using their DVR than their VCR.
Another piece of key technology in use today is the Internet. Originally developed under the ARPAnet Project by the United States government in a hope to create a de-centralized computer network that would withstand a nuclear attack, the internet become incredibly popular during the mid to late 1990’s. The ability to go on to the internet, has made our society today known as the “Information Age”. Information of all types is now accessible for anyone as long as they had a connection to the internet.
In January 1999, Sean Fanning dropped out of college to write a piece of software that would change the world. His released to the world during the summer of 1999 and was known as Napster. (Darren) This software was only seen as a way to download as much copyrighted music you could possibly find on the internet. This started a craze in music download, but of course this was all illegal due to infringement of copyright laws, so Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Napster was closed down later in the year. (Napster shut down)
Using McLuhan’s approach of the medium is the message, one can look back to this time period and analyze the medium and the message. The medium is the technological advances, and in this case the combination of the internet and Napster. In some ways we can see the internet as an extension to our feet as it allows us to walk through the vast amounts of information, similar to walking through a library. Going along with this analogy, the library itself is Napster and Napster’s music are the books. At the time, the most obvious and immediate effect were technical and primarily the bottleneck of computer networks as music content was being downloaded. (Anderson) McLuhan’s message is the not so obvious at the time, but this activity of internet music downloading was setting up the society to expect to download any media content on the internet. Society were becoming content hungry online and were inadvertently making the internet the next distribution channel.
Although Napster was shut down, similar programs and networks surfaced. These new pieces of technology however had a different architecture and unlike Napster was not owned by anyone and therefore could not be shut down. These are now the Peer to Peer (P2P) networks. With the introduction of these new programs, another major change was the content being downloaded was no longer restricted to music. Now anything can be downloaded including movies/videos, and pictures. Thus, these new P2P programs continued to drive society’s hunger of illegal downloading of media content.
In January 2001 at MacWorld San Francisco Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computer, introduced the worlds first computer based DVD burner, coined by Apple as the SuperDrive. This gave computer users the ability to take their home movies and make their very own DVD’s. It returned the power of creation to the computer user instead of the film and TV industry dictating what can or can not be seen on DVD. This computer was originally aimed at the professional user but soon migrated to the consumer lines of computers. This was the first step in DVD and the change to society. Nowadays, the DVD burner is the drive of choice in most desktop computers.
After a relatively exclusive 4 month deal ended with Pioneer to supply Apple with Superdrives, companies all around the world started to produce electronic units that too were able to record onto burnable DVDs. Over time this created a market for those who wanted to make DVDs however did not want to interface them with a computer. Standalone DVD burners were soon born and it was not restricting just home videos being burnt to DVD.
Also announced at Macworld San Francisco in January 2001 was Apple’s mp3 software jukebox called iTunes. In November of that year, Apple introduced the Apple iPod, a portable music device that integrated perfectly with the new iTunes 2.0. An amazing device that had a small physical size but a large – for the time - 5GB capacity. The iPod was originally for Mac users, but later became available for Windows users too. In Apple’s first two months, they shipped 125,000 iPods. (Apple ups Q2). When compared to this year, Apple’s third quarter saw 6.16 million iPods sold and a growth of 616% of iPods sold compared to the same quarter a year ago. (“Apple reports Q3”) Apple’s last quarter, Q4, they sold 6.5 million iPods with a growth of 220% for the same time last year. (“Apple reports Q4”)
What helped Apple to drive the iPods sales other than its stylish looks and features, was the release of the iTunes Music Store. April 28th, 2003 Apple held a press event and unveiled the new online music store accessed with ease through iTunes. For the first time, computer users had a complete solution for online music, they could buy and download music based on per track costs of only 99 cents instead of having to pay a monthly subscription. Once downloaded they can play it, burn a CD, or transfer the song to their iPod. (“Apple iTMS”) Within the first week Apple broke record sales to by selling one million tracks after the launch, making Apple’s iTunes Music Store the largest online music store in the world. (“Apple One Million”) With this success of the iTunes Music Store, October 16th of 2003 Apple released the windows version of iTunes which brought both Macintosh and Windows users to the new iTunes Music Store. (“Apple iTunes Windows”) A little time after that, the iTunes Music store started to open their online doors to other countries. There are a total of 21 stores, and this number is continuously growing.