Back in 1964, Canadian educator and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined an expression to forever be associated with his name:
“The medium is the message.”
McLuhan maintained that the forms and methods (the “media”) used to communicate information have a significant impact on the messages they deliver. He argued that modern electronic communications would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical consequences, to the point of actually altering the ways in which we expose, experience, and exploit the world.
Yet, the medium is the message cannot stand alone; it must be understood as part of a communication paradigm.
In its simplest form, “communication” is what happens when a sender (or source) delivers a message to a receiver. The plot thickens, however, when two essential ingredients – encoding and decoding – are added to the recipe, each of which has a tremendous impact on the flavor and taste of the message.
To communicate such that a message is understood, reacted to, and action taken (or not), that message must move from being an idea to a message by translating or “encoding” what the sender is thinking into words and images sent to the receiver. For his or her part, the receiver must “decode” or decipher the message to be understood.
It’s quite complex when the sender’s assumed meaning of words, images, and actions aren’t the same as the receiver’s. Think about the differences between connotation and denotation. Or, for that matter, the challenge of translating words and expressions from one language to another. Though we might use words which are technically correct according to our culture, background, and experience, they may come across as something entirely different to another person in a different time, place, and/or society.
For instance, the Bible. Or the Constitution of the United States.
Experts are relied upon to adjudge the current meaning of words and phrases used back when these documents were created. We cannot assume that their meaning is stagnant or unchanging from then to now, there to here.
It is here that Marshall McLuhan’s theories must stand the test of time.
McLuhan focuses on the role, purpose, and meaning of the message itself—one of the three components of communication—downplaying the other two.
According to McLuhan, a “message” may comprise one of three elements:
• The person or people involved. Think of Jesus, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Oprah, Franco, Trump, FDR, JFK, MLK, Fidel Castro, the Queen. For the Portuguese, especially, Amalia Rodrigues … who embodied the essence of fado which, in turn, defined the people she sang about—and others similarly aligned. It doesn’t matter what they were saying or how and where, as such people (and others) were the word or message incarnate.
• The medium. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, blogs, the Internet. CNN or Fox News. The New York Times and The Daily News. Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn. McLuhan believed that real communication occurred by neither the persons involved nor the composition of the message. It all depends on the medium involved, he held. Fox News fans will eagerly dispute what’s being said on CNN or MSNBC, just as vice-versa is valid. Those who rely on the New York Times or Washington Post aren’t receptive to the same information if brought to them by the New York Post, The Sun, or tacky tabloids. What Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity report is acknowledged or dismissed, depending on their fans. Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation further cloud a medium’s message, which is why so many have abandoned the mainstream media in favor of the players, platforms, and banners that cater to their own viewpoints. Welcome to the world of pandering podcasts and YouTube channels.
• The message. Forget about the people and the medium, say some. They’re but extensions at best, complications at worst. The message is the message. Period. End of story. Except, as those in marketing have known forever, it’s not about trains but transportation. It’s not about clothing, but how we feel. It’s not about perfume or cologne, but allure. Most of the money spent on creating and delivering messages boils down to human wants and needs, no matter how healthy and humane or dismal and depressing: Lust. Greed. Gluttony. Fear. Thrift. Anger. Hatred. Love. Compassion. Comprehension. Prejudice. Greed. Gluttony. Selfishness. Strength. Weakness. Nationalism. Tribalism. Territorialism. Imperialism. Capitalism. Democracy. Socialism. Communism. And the list goes on …
Which brings us to today.
Today’s big issue is focused on Ukraine. What’s the intrinsic message? The people: Putin and Biden, basically. The media: Breaking news, breaking news, breaking news. (Turn down the noise and clutter, please!) The overt messages: A nation’s sovereignty must be sacrosanct and never allowed to be invaded; or, perilous forces are getting too close for comfort and we have every right to self-preservation.
Take any issue and ask yourselves what’s the overt – and covert – messages implied: Climate change. Equal rights. Black lives (Asian, Jewish, Muslim, Women’s, LGBT, et al) matter. Poverty. Human trafficking. Police brutality. Social injustice. Fiscal policy. Party politics. Pandemics. Whatever …
It’s enough to make one’s head spin and stomach churn.
That’s one of the aspects so meaningful to our lives here in Portugal and Spain. We’re able to go about our daily lives, dealing with the bureaucracy and tuning out the noise and news. Sure, we can access them through television, high-speed Internet, and mobile devices. But why? Whether on a patch of land or village row house and café on the town square, we’ve adjusted ourselves to a less complex life in a simple but satisfying country.
Perhaps we’re fools, feeling safe(r) and more secure. So what? After all, there’s always amanhã and mañana.
Walter Cronkite, the kindly father of TV newscasting, used to lament that his biggest challenge was to determine what wouldn’t air on his nightly, 30-minute newscasts. Because, back in the day, if it wasn’t part of Uncle Walt’s message, it wasn’t news or worth worrying about.
And, that’s the way it was … and ought to be again.
Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read its current issue and subscribe — for free! — online: https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/