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Medium theory is the name assigned to a variety of approaches used to examine how the means of expression of human communication impact the meaning(s) of human communication(s).
Joshua Meyrowitz originated the term in his 1985 book, No Sense of Place. Other scholars with work relevant to medium theory include Marshall McLuhan (1963, 1966, 1988) and Neil Postman (1985). Currently, medium theory occupies a marginal position within U.S. communication and media studies (Croteau & Hoynes, 2003:305). The majority of U.S. communication and media studies place their emphasis on the content of communication (e.g., sex and violence) not the medium of communications. In Canada and elsewhere, the theory continues to inform studies that assess large-scale social changes that follow the adoption of a new medium. German media theory operates along similar lines and is influenced by McLuhan, though it occupies a more central location in German academia.
Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) uses the term 'medium theory' to refer to the body of literature that focuses on the technological aspects of media beyond their content. It aims to look beyond the content to the medium which reveals the key to its social impact (Croteau & Hoynes, 2003:305).
Marshall McLuhan is best known for his phrase "the medium is the message". McLuhan believed that we should observe not only the media itself but 'the ways in which each new medium disrupts tradition and reshapes social life' (Croteau & Hoynes 2003,307). He believed that the social impact of the media was that they became 'an extension of our senses, and alter our social world' (Croteau & Hoynes, 2003:307). In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) McLuhan argued that when new media technologies were introduced into society, the balance of our senses were reworked, highlighting some at the expense of others. For example, print intensified the visual and separated it from our other senses; in particular sound. "McLuhan even argued that print media helped create a sensory environment that produced Western capitalist societies - an environment that was bureaucratic and organized around mass production, an ideology of individualism, and a commitment to the nation-state as the fundamental social unit."
Medium theory has always been criticized by its technological determinism. Raymond Williams is one of the most ardent critics of this concept. He believed that technological determinism 'emerges' from Technical study and experiments and then changes the sector or society in which it emerged from. Which means that we adapt towards the new technologies that arise because it is the new modern way of doing it. The deterministic approach says that technology in itself has the power to change societies and the power to condition humans even though humans are the ones that's using said technology. Although McLuhan strongly believes that the introduction to any new media will change the way we live, Williams argue that the new technology in itself has no real significance to social value unless it has been adapted to existing social and economic conditions.
- Laughey, Dan (2007). Key Themes in Media Theory. New York: Open University Press. p. 46.
- Croteau, D. and Hoynes, W (2003) Media Society: Industries, Images and Audiences (3rd Ed) Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks