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Watch and See: The Medium Really Is the Message

How communication technologies shaped the arts and sciences.

Cesar Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, would like you to…By Kevin Berger

Cesar Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, would like you to know that Marshall McLuhan was right. And he has the datasets to prove it. In a new paper, “How the Medium Shapes the Message: Printing and the Rise of the Arts and Sciences,” named after the media philosopher’s renowned phrase, “the medium is the message,” Hidalgo and his MIT colleagues show that communication technologies, “from printing to social media, affect our historical records by changing the way ideas are spread and recorded.”

“We completely agree with McLuhan,” Hidalgo said to Nautilus. “What he was saying was not that messages were irrelevant, but the medium by which they were transmitted was more consequential. The famous example is the Nixon and JFK debate. People who watched on TV thought the good-looking JFK won, and ones who listened on radio thought Nixon won. It was the same content but what people observed, or what they thought happened, was very different depending on the medium they were using. We found every communication technology changes the way in which we interact.”

Hidalgo and his colleagues composed the short video below to give props to McLuhan and show how mediums, from oral culture to printing to TV, transformed society. During the oral age, political and religious leaders were the talk of the town. But the advent of printing gave rise to artists and scientists, while TV spurred the rise of entertainment and sports heroes. Causation or correlation? Watch and read the MIT group’s work to find out.


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