[The following is a Media Culture essay that I wrote on the subject of Marshall McLuhan’s view of media, comparing it to the evolution of publishing. I figure I might as well start posting these things once they’ve been marked!]
“In a culture like ours . . . it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operation and practical fact, the medium is the message.” Such is Marshall McLuhan’s introduction to a revolutionary concept in media studies (1964, p. 7). Written over a half-century ago, McLuhan’s view on media holds remarkably firm in a modern context. In this essay, we will be examining how “the medium is the message” applies specifically to innovations in publishing. After first examining the impact of the invention of the printing press in its day, we will contrast this historical event with more recent developments in the publishing industry; specifically, how Amazon, Inkshares and other companies are encouraging a move towards self-publishing. In comparing the media’s impact on the world both before and after McLuhan’s time, we can see that his famous statement on the nature of the medium consistently applies to the development of our worldwide culture.
McLuhan, in the first chapter of Understanding Media, is laborious in defining the meaning of his claim that “the medium is the message”, and equally laborious in defining what it does not mean. “Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message”, he posits, before firmly contesting the notion (McLuhan, 1964, p. 7). He explains that “the ‘content of any medium is always another medium’, and that when we focus on the content we fail to understand the bigger picture (ibid).
McLuhan defines the message of any media “as the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” (ibid., p. 8) This is what he calls, in his book’s very title, the extensions of man. This extension, then, can be thought of as an improvement of humanity’s abilities. McLuhan observes that something as simple a change in speed can change the world, referring to the invention of movies as key example. He summarises this innovation as a speeding up of the mechanical process which “carried us . . . into the world of creative configuration and structure”(ibid., p. 12).
It is exactly this principle of media changing the world through the extension of mankind that we will test, beginning in application to the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century. Although it is often cited as a factor in the rise of the Protestant reformation and the fall of the Catholic Church as an absolute political power, McLuhan and his disciples notably go so far as to posit that the printing press was the cause of the reformation (Levinson, 2015).
Not all writers on the subject follow this school of thought. One such writer states that “Printing provided a catalyst, a precondition, but did not of itself cause the movement” (Cameron, 1991, p. 6). In continuing to protest the theory of direct causation, this writer argues that “The press existed for some sixty years” before the major Protestant figures arose (ibid.). This particular argument seems weak; the lack of immediacy in revolution does not decide culpability for said revolution one way or another. Another writer comes closer to McLuhan’s stance in noting that “the invention allowed ‘renaissance’ to affect many more minds” preceding the reformation (Chadwick, 2001, p. 7).
More illuminating is a comparison made on the subject by a biographer of key reformation figure Martin Luther. In his book, Bernard Lohse makes note of John Huss, a predecessor to Luther who was killed by the Catholic Church for his religious ideas (Lohse, 1987, p. 11). In comparing Luther to Huss, Lohse observes that the spread and discussion of Luther’s ideas was “only possible because the art of printing had already been developed for a few decades . . . The resulting powerful effect on public opinion on Luther’s work made it impossible for Luther to be done away with as quickly as Huss had been.” “Thus”, Lohse concludes, “the art of printing is of considerable significance for the end . . . of the Middle Ages”.
The enhanced speed of the spread of information was, to follow McLuhan’s theory, the message of the printing press. This message caused a major shift in the balance of societal power across Europe. In today’s society, we are seeing a new message in the world of publishing, and it can again be categorised as a change in speed.
With the rise of services like Amazon, authors are being offered a way to circumvent the practice of appealing to large publishing companies. This is coupled with the possibility of instantaneous publishing through the medium of e-books. Paul Levinson, a disciple of McLuhan, refers to this development as a “revolution [that is] a profound game changer for the author” (Levinson, 2014, p. 71).
One such author is screenwriter Gary Whitta, who has written screenplays for movies such as The Book of Eli (2010) and After Earth (2013), and is in the process of publishing Abomination (2015), his first novel. In a podcast interview, Whitta remarks on how strides in the industry affected his mentality when writing the book: “In this self-publishing age, I didn’t even have to worry about getting a publisher. I knew that even if all the publishers turned it down, [I could] just go on Amazon and press a button” (Whitta, 2015).
“If you’ve never been published, it takes an enormous amount to break in”, says Levinson, “the people who benefit most from Amazon are not [established] authors like me” (Levinson, 2015). Both Levinson and Whitta refer to the success of sci-fi novel Wool (Howey, 2013) as a landmark in the rise of self-publishing. The author, Hugh Howie, found his audience when he published Wool on Amazon in e-book format. In an interview he remarks, “There’s a better market for writing out there now than there ever has been” (Dunn, 2013).
By speeding up the process by which the publication can reach the end user, self-publishing tools are moving power away from the publisher and to the author. Levinson describes the traditional publishing process as a “freezing haze” that can take years to pass through, with little information given to the author (2015). He declares that with the possibility of instantaneous publishing, “physical bookstores are irrelevant” (2014, p. 71).
This newfound speed is also giving unprecedented power to consumers. By marginalising the importance of traditional publishers, an author’s success now more fully relies on their ability to appeal to their audience. Encapsulating this dynamic shift are services such as Kickstarter and Inkshares, where content creators pitch their projects to an online community. In a journal on the subject, Paul Booth notes that “Individuals are empowered as part of a community to contribute meaningful value” to crowdfunding campaigns (2015, p. 155).
The crowdfunding environment that empowers these consumers can be described as a participatory culture, where “members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connections with one another” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 7). Booth is careful to note that this does not give fans the same level of power as producers; it instead allows an audience a clear avenue of participation (Booth, 2015, p. 156).
Inkshares is an example of a tool that channels the force of crowdfunding into independent publishing, in both e-book and print format. Gary Whitta has chosen to fund and distribute his first novel Abomination (2015) through Inkshares, which he describes as an “all-in-one service”. “The gatekeepers are going away”, he says, and content producers are more able to directly reach their audience (Whitta, 2015).
Crowdfunding is not only being utilised by independent projects; indeed, some have criticized it as being “used by media conglomerates to exploit fans and supporters”, and that “successful artists are using the scheme to take money away from genuine independent producers” (Bennett, et al., 2015, p. 142). Although power is being given to independent publishers and the end consumer, the changing market is not necessarily devastating to large companies. Proponents of crowdfunding argue that it is “leading to a new business model for the financing of artistic projects that is free from studio or network intervention” (ibid.).
With crowdfunding, an alternate set of conditions has been introduced for the author. Rather than succeeding based upon appeal to corporations, their success “ultimately rests on their ability to service fans that are marginalized within mainstream media industries and on a willingness to serve the fans that finance their project” (Scott, 2015, p. 179). This new set of conditions has major implications for modern culture. Because of the message of independent publishing and crowdsourcing, minorities and marginalized communities have a new gateway to exercise influence in society.
In conclusion, we have seen that McLuhan’s idea of the message of the medium carries well into today’s world, fifty years after he first made his statement. As Levinson aptly observes, “the fulfilment of McLuhan’s vision in our digital age has set the world of writing and publishing on a course as revolutionary as the printing press and the alphabet were in their originating times.” (2014, p. 72). Something as simple as a change in speed can change the world: It has caused uprisings that reshaped government in the past, and even today new developments in the “extensions of man” causing unprecedented transformation in the worldwide community.
[The essay got an A+, my first this year. I hope I’ll be keeping that up!
After Earth. 2013. [Film] Directed by M Night Shyamalan. United States of America: Columbia Pictures.
Bennett, L., Chin, B. & Jones, B., 2015. Crowdfunding: A New Media & Society special issue. New Media & Society, 17(2), pp. 141-148.
Booth, P., 2015. Crowdfunding: A Spimatic application of digital fandom. New Media & Society, 17(2), pp. 149-166.
Cameron, E., 1991. The European Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chadwick, O., 2001. The Early Reformation on the Continent. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dunn, S., 2013. Breaking Out: An Interview with Hugh Howey. [Online]
Available at: http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/blogs/the-baby-seal-book-club/8599642/Breaking-Out-An-Interview-with-Hugh-Howey
[Accessed 26 February 2015].
Howey, H., 2013. Wool. London: Arrow Books.
Inkshares, 2015. Abomination. [Online]
Available at: https://www.inkshares.com/projects/abomination
[Accessed 25 February 2015].
Jenkins, H., 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
Levinson, P., 2014. The Kindle Arrives in Time and Makes Everyone a Publisher. Journal of Visual Culture, 13(1), pp. 70-72.
Levinson, P., 2015. Paul Levinson Keynote Address: McLuhan 50 Years after Understanding Media. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=somk7CpeOcI
[Accessed 24 February 2015].
Lohse, B., 1987. Martin Luther. Edinburgh: St. Edmundsbury Press.
McLuhan, M., 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge.
Scott, S., 2015. The moral economy of crowdfunding and the transformative capacity of fan-ancing. New Media & Society, 17(2), pp. 167-182.
The Book of Eli. 2010. [Film] Directed by Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes. United states of America: Alcon Ettertainment.
Whitta, G., 2015. This Is Only a Test Episode 287 – Gary’s Back (Again) [Interview] (5 February 2015).
Whitta, G., 2015. This Is Only A Test Episode 288 – The Opposite of On Fleek [Interview] (12 February 2015).