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The medium is the message and we can do little about it

By Barrack Muluka | September 5th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Marshall McLuhan famously said the medium is the message. The Canadian philosopher, and teacher of communications and literature, floated this epigram in his 1964 book, titled ‘Understanding Media: Extensions of Man’. He wrote in part, “...a medium is not something neutral – it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It rubs them off, it massages them and bumps them around...”

Almost six decades later, scholars are not agreed on McLuhan’s witticism. In our village of Emanyulia, we think however that we understand what this iconic professor meant. We know him to be saying that the message is as good as the medium that conveys it. We have turned McLuhan around. We see him to be saying that the message is three things. First, it is the substance. But it is also the messenger and the channel. We cannot separate the three. Hence, if you should send the village night runner to us, we will not take you seriously.

Yes, we have two or so night runners in Emanyulia. We know them by face and by name. We understand they must have their own space in the night. Apart from disturbing our peace and sleep, these fellows are really harmless. They are gifted with absurd levels of adrenaline and capacity for bizarre activities. The juice gives them a kick out of running in the night, bumping around on people’s doors in the dark. They rub themselves against windows and do offensive things, like loudly breaking the wind outside your window.

If you could somehow ignore them, you could still sleep on, as if nothing was happening. But if someone gives them a message to deliver to the village the next day, nobody will listen to them. For, the medium is the message. We live with these fellows, allow them their space and tolerate them because they are our kinsmen. But they cannot stand up to address us, in important village assemblies. The message is as despised, as is the night runner.

Emanyulians take solace in the fact that they are neither the first, nor the last, people to tolerate such characters. We are familiar with the groundlings of the Shakespearean theatre, in the 17th century. Too lowly to pay for seats in the three levels of the theatre, they thronged the pit in front, at the foot of the raised stage. They were thoroughly unschooled and unsophisticated. They barely understood the activities that went on up stage, even as they strained their necks to see the actors. Theatre critics called them “stinkards.” Others said “penny stinkers.” And they stank, these people. Later critics called them yahoos, or yodels. 

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The yahoos spent their time distracting decent people from the action in the theatre. They made faces at the thespians and the decent society in the audience. They threw about scandalous remarks, unclear about the distinction between the actor and her role on the stage. Just like the night runners of Emanyulia, they tampered with the quality of air in the theatre. You did not make such persons your messengers, if you had a message. 

It is difficult to tell what McLuhan or Shakespeare would make of the murky media today called the social media. McLuhan predicted the coming of the Internet 30 years before it arrived. He coined the expression “the global village.” He believed, in the 1960s, in the future, the entire world would be connected through a world wide web (www) of computers. There would be instantaneous sharing of information with every corner of the globe. The world would become a global village, through ICT.

What McLuhan and other communications scholars may not have reckoned with was that instead of creating a social media, the www would create a dirty media. It would fall into the hands of latter-day groundlings in the global theatre of communications. Anyone with a smartphone in their hand would become an expert in everything. It would create a school without standards, where university professors would compete for space with everybody else in the pit below the stage.

Twittersphere and Facebook are the latter-day groundling spaces. Sundry pansophists scramble in these spaces, to be the first to libel universal common decency. They will create fake accounts and assign them to decent men and women. In an exercise called phishing, they will brazenly send out false messages in your name. How could a whole global civilisation sink so low? For avoidance of doubt, I have no twitter account. If you should see anything in that space claiming to come from me, treat it with the contempt it deserves. But also be tolerant to those who created it and those who indulge them, for they are living their lives in their space. Don’t answer them.

Regardless, the messages in these spaces should be treated just as what they are. Some are fake news. Others are pure diatribe, even from persons we have called professors. A professor of law easily pales into the shadows of academia. He sinks from the rigours of intellect in the academy to degenerate into a peddler of cheap merchandise in the dirty media. Rumours are his new wares. 

In the nervousness to be the first to report, or comment, her reputation sinks with her message. To recast McLuhan, the medium distorts itself into the message and the message into the medium.

- The writer is a strategic public communications adviser.


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