By his medium theory – i.e. ‘the medium is the message’, McLuhan presents a critical media theory that focuses on the platform or technology as opposed to the information or content is gives a platform to.
The medium theory suggests that rather than media content providing the subject for analysis in critical media theory, such ‘personal and social consequences… result from the new scale [through which the message] is introduced’ (McLuhan, 1967); for example, the developing technology via which content is broadcast. At its most simple, McLuhan focuses on the example of a light bulb: the ‘information’ content here is light; however it is the medium through which the light is provided (the bulb) that is revolutionary and important (McLuhan, 2006).
This is relevant to McLuhan’s notion that media is an ‘extension of ourselves’ (McLuhan, 1967) – the pen, the knife: extensions of the hand; the wheel, an extension of our feet; and so on. As technology advances, so does the extension it represents (Scannell, 2007). This is as relevant to today as it has ever been, I think. The technology we use is continually expanding and improving the way in which we can access media content. However, the medium itself remains an extension – from hand to pen to keyboard to touch screen.
Let’s look at a tangible example of McLuhan’s media theory in practise today. In media advertising and branding there is often reference to the ‘three screens’. This is in essence the Holy Trinity for advertisers: the television screen, the smartphone screen, the laptop computer/tablet screen. Often it is possible for an advertiser to reach its target audience via the three mediums; and with our increased use of multiple mediums at once this might mean viewing advertising or branded content on two mediums in the same instance (Caspari, 2016). This is a fantastic example of medium over content. Here, the medium is the concern of the advertiser – how they must alter and adapt their content to suit the medium. The same is true in broader media landscapes. For example, as more and more radio listeners invariable use online listening services to tune in rather than actual radio sets; producers are forced to consider their content with the medium in mind. This includes visuals to accompany clips and programming (for example the use of courtroom sketches for the Helen Titchener trial on The Archers on BBC Radio 4).
McLuhan’s medium theory will continue to a relevant and worthy school of critical theory for as long as technology advances. ‘McLuhan was able to see past the surface content of television and radio programs, films, and books in order to analyze the nature of each underlying medium, what was special about it, and how it was different from other media’ (Meyrowitz, 2001).