“The medium is the message”

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

The Covid-19 crisis has affected the ways and methods we communicate: teachers are replacing classroom instruction with internet viewings, doctors are replacing in-office patient visitations with telephone consultations and many workers are telecommuting rather than congregating in the office. All of this and much more will leave a permanent mark on our society and how it’s organized. However, things won’t just be status quo with a slight change in the communication method.
More than 40 years ago, Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) gave us the insight that “the medium is the message.” Thus, in education, moving from classrooms to the internet redefines what and how the students learn. To be effective, an internet lecture must be different from a teacher presenting the lesson to an empty class. There’s a similar reformulation for ‘virtual’ medical consultations. With a personal visit to the doctor, the patient expects some possible delay – waiting around – as the doctor treats other patients.  But with a telephone or digital consultation, the time is fixed, and the patient expects a more rigorous time schedule. Also, the questions asked of or by the patient tend to be different. Digitizing the medium does more than provide the same message in a new format.
Some of the biggest changes may come at the workplace. Working from home has already been tried in some limited and special circumstances. Here again, much of how productivity is measured, how teams are organized and what is considered work changes.  But the biggest transformations may come in how our cities and towns are structured.  With workers telecommuting, the need for big office towers in the downtown core becomes redundant. With less travelling, there will be less air pollution. What about school buildings if most students are using the internet for their education?
But what will become of home life? If parents are working from home and children are schooled from home, what will home life be like? Will living quarters have to be redesigned to accommodate the new relationships of living, working, and learning at home?
Today, we are still a long way off from fully functioning living by the internet, and the COVID crisis has shown us we are not ready for the interconnected global village. Much of what has been tried by way of distant education, work-from-home, and medical consultation via the telephone has had limited success. The main reason for this is failure to realize just how much of the message depends on the medium used to convey that message, which greatly impacts our perception of the meaning and significance of the message.
How the message is conveyed is more important than its contents. Our society must adjust to new medium – this is the lesson from COVID-19.