Over the years, the debate on the significance of the medium of communication versus the message delivered has dominated the discipline of communication. When exemplifying both ends of the debate, most scholars often mention Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams. The media has become increasingly important in the 21st century. Therefore, it is crucial to determine the distinction between the medium and the content using the position of both theorists.
The Viewpoints of the Theories
Technological determinism is the main viewpoint of McLuhan’s theory. The concept contends that media technologies shape peoples and thus revolutionize culture and society (Smith & Marx, 1994). Based on the medium is the message stance; the community is affected by the characteristic of the medium used to convey the content (Strate, 2017). Accordingly, technological determinism argues that the means of communication is more important than the information and thus tramples the message and elevates the medium. Moreover, McLuhan uses the hot and cold viewpoint to describe media and its effect on the audience (Hart, 2006). For instance, a movie is hot because it only enhances visions and does not require much effort from the audience in terms of filling the details of a movie image. TV, on the other hand, is cool because it needs the audience to exert more effort to decipher the meaning of the content that the medium conveys. Furthermore, besides being a communication technology media includes all human innovations and inventions (Hart, 2006). In general, the communication media as outlined through technological determinism is a global village that constitutes several components including clothing, clock, the automobile, weapons, and the spoken word, among others.
Raymond’s model derives its concepts on social constructivism. The perspective contends that the impacts of communication technologies are culturally and socially constructed based on how they are used (Jones, 1998). Social constructivism holds that society shapes technology by determining its usefulness or uselessness (Freedman, 2002). Willian, also contends that society shapes technologies through the political economy of the institutions involved in developing the medium (Jones, 1998). Thus, the development and use of technology is a matter of political and social choice. In turn, instead of media shaping society and culture, it is the social choices that determine the communication tools. Through the Marxist viewpoint, Raymond examines the power relations inherent within communication technologies and how the forms of mediation promote social relationship and support the formation of dominant ideological positions (Freedman, 2002). Overall, the development of technology is a process that is shaped by the behavior of real people in a specific historical situation.
Similarities between the Theories
McLuhan and William agree communication technology changes the world. For instance, McLuhan states that the invention of television has changed all preceding entertainment and news media as well as social interactions (Laing, 1991). Therefore, the emergence of new technologies alters the way people understand and perceive the world. William also agrees with the sentiment and states that regardless of the technology, the new communication medium will still change the world (Freedman, 2002). Notably, despite being a natural outcome of social change, Williams agrees that new communication systems alter the world by changing social communication and relationships, expanding knowledge and increasing mobility.
Rather than define the media as an exclusive domain, both McLuhan and Raymond agree that it is a platform for the intermingling of culture, politics, and commerce. Notably, McLuhan contends that the media is a source of political, cultural and economic revolution because it determines the actions and thoughts of people and society (Durham & Kellner, 2009). For example, during the second world, the Nazis in Germany used media to brainwash youths in the country. Equally, instead of confining the press to a technological dimension, William places the tool in the broader economic and social-cultural perspective. In particular, William states that politicians and business persons often use the media to perpetuate personal goals that result in the exploitation of people and society (Freedman, 2002). In turn, just like McLuhan, William anticipated the detrimental the unsavory effects of technological media from a political, cultural and economic perspective.
Differences between the Theories
One of the differences between the two theorists is the argument that the medium is the message rather than the content. For McLuhan, technologies rather than content is an extension of people’s capacities and thus play a critical role in shaping society and culture (Strate, 2017). On the contrary, Raymond contends that message cancels all attention to established and developing social institutions (Durham & Kellner, 2009). The medium, therefore, does not run itself but is controlled by powerful individuals that send subliminal messages to the audience (Durham & Kellner, 2009). The message portrayed in the medium creates an understanding and responses to various political, environmental and economic issues (Freedman, 2002). Since the technology is not the primary message, Raymond differs with McLuhan by contending that differences in content conveyed on different medium determines public opinions on social issues such as whether climate change is anthropogenic or caused by natural factors.
For McLuhan, technological development is an autonomous process that unravels predictably and alters the world where it is born. Thus, historical patterns can be used to determine and predict the emergence of communication medium (Strate, 2017). For example, the enlightenment age was preceded by the discovery of the printing press while the information age succeeded the internet revolution. On the contrary, William’s states that technological development does not occur in isolation; instead they are a series of complex inventions happening in different fields (Laing, 1991). In particular, the development of television was a combination of past and emerging creations in the 20th century including Caray’s electric and the multistage amplifier (Durham & Kellner, 2009). Equally, new social norms such as industrialization create needs that require the intervention of communications systems. After the Second World War, the self-sufficient home concept emerged prompting the development of radio and television (Laing, 1991). Rather than occur in isolation as proposed by McLuhan, communication media develops in current social structures and processes and thus maintains existing power relations and reproduces existing patterns of use.
Link between the Theories and Response to Technological Change in Modern Organizations
In the context of digital media and internet, McLuhan’s and William’s frameworks generate insight on adoption and use of communication technologies. Contemporary organizations operate in an environment characterized by extensive use of the internet and in particular digital media (Strate, 2017). Customer behavior, for instance, has evolved rapidly as most clients prefer purchasing products online rather than in physical stores. Therefore, organizational policies must focus on developing structures that facilitate interactions with customers using modern technology. William position that society shapes technology is highly applicable in such an environment. The concept focuses on the decisions made in the adoption and development of existing and emerging media technologies (Laing, 1991). Thus, people and organizations can choose media technologies and determine feasible alternative uses for the adopted tools. Equally, McLuhan’s view that the medium is the message is factual. In the current business environment dominated by increased use of digital media, a medium is a powerful tool than the content it holds (Durham & Kellner, 2009). For instance, without mediums such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram among others, contemporary organizations will be unable to broadcast marketing information. Regardless of the content organizations can make intelligent decision to use a medium such as Facebook which has over 1 billion users to interact with a global audience.
The contemporary understanding of communication media and its effect on culture and society emanates from the theories developed by McLuhan and Raymond. McLuhan’s approach is based on technological determinism while social constructivism is the foundation of Raymond’s framework. Based on technological determinism technologies are an extension of people’s capacities and thus play a critical role in shaping human culture. On the contrary, social constructivism contends that society shapes technology. Besides acknowledging the communication technology alters the world, both theorists agree that media is a platform for intermingling social, cultural and economic issues. However, McLuhan and William differ in terms of the medium and message. While McLuhan contends that the medium is more important than the content, Raymond states that the information determines the understanding and responses of the audience. In the digital age, both theories define the communication technologies that organizations adopt and the tools they use. Overall, methods of communication, and by extension human culture depend on popular technological forms; therefore, the medium and the media influences both how and what people think.
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Freedman, D. (2002). A’Technological Idiot’? Raymond Williams and Communications Technology. Information, Communication & Society, 5(3), 425-442.
Hart, A. (2006). Understanding the media: A practical guide. London: Routledge.
Jones, P. (1998). Technology is not the Cultural Form?: Raymond Williams’s Sociological Critique of Marshall McLuhan. Canadian Journal of Communication, 23(4).
Laing, S. (1991). Raymond Williams and the cultural analysis of television. Media, Culture & Society, 13(2), 153-169.
Smith, M. R., & Marx, L. (Eds.). (1994). Does technology drive history?: The dilemma of technological determinism. Massachusetts: MIT Press.