Tuesday, May 7, 2013

New Media and Old: "The Message" is Personal Communication

The internet is not such a strange place. I have never really agreed with the famous line of Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the message." The medium affects the message. The medium can distort the message. It can also bring out and emphasize certain aspects of the message. It can be distracting, but it can also open up new areas of focus.

But the "message" is something more. A message is the expression of a person in search of meaning, or trying to communicate meaning. A message is a sharing of perceptions, an expression of values, a cry for help. The medium is always some external reality that a person uses to communicate with other persons, in the hope of establishing or sustaining some sort of sharing.

Media connect persons and generate interpersonal relationships and environments. These may or may not be constructive for people. Media tend toward cultivating certain kinds of environments and contexts, and not every medium is appropriate for every message. The determination of this, however, involves various factors.

For example, the medium of text messaging can be used by me to express to my wife that I love her. I can text, "I love you." Is this medium appropriate or constructive for expressing love? You can't answer this question without knowing more about the circumstances. If I said, "I text her, but I don't tell her face to face," you might conclude that this is a bad thing. But what if I added that I am ten thousand miles away working on an essential project, and the only thing I have access to is a cell phone? In that case, we might say, "Thank God for text messaging!"

These questions about how to use media, and how they affect our communication with one another and our relationships as persons, are very important. However, they are not easy. This is a realm where concrete judgment and personal responsibility are very much called into play. There are various tendencies, possibilities, and dangers of different media that must be considered in addition to the nature of the message.

One important consideration is this: "What exactly do I have on hand to use for communication?" If I want to write a letter, I will use a good pen. If I have no pens, I'll have to settle for a pencil. If the letter is urgent enough, and all I can find are crayons, so be it. Or perhaps it must be charcoal on the wall, or scrapings on a stone. "Peter is here" -- so say the scratches on the stone excavated under St. Peter's Basilica. Dear anonymous first century brother, thanks for the message.

On the cultural plane, I certainly should pay attention to how and where people are actually communicating, and present what I know or what I am seeking to understand within these environments if possible. This is because I think I have things worth saying, and because I want to be able to listen and be available to communicate with others.

There are basic questions about the form and content of any communication, "What? When? Where? Why?" Context conditions both medium and message.

A person on a street corner in Manhattan starts burning a pile of wood and sending up plumes of smoke. As the police arrive to take him away, you ask him, "What are you doing?" He responds, "I'm just trying to say, I'm Here! I'm Here." You probably think, "well, that's New York City alright. Every kind of nut case can be found here." But another person finds himself stranded on an island after a shipwreck. He starts burning a pile of wood and sending up plumes of smoke. When the rescuers fly over the island and recognize patterns of smoke, everyone is glad that this person had a way of communicating his message, "I'm Here! I'm Here!"

Media cannot be understood apart from messages and the persons who seek to communicate them. In our circumstances and with the media we have, let us struggle to make good judgments and to communicate in a way that is worthy of persons who share a journey together and who help one another.