The medium is the message

By Edwin Hübner, October 2021

“The medium is the message” was one of the fundamental insights of the Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980). According to McLuhan, media are not only about the content conveyed, but above all about the respective device that makes the conveyance technically possible.

Photo © Charlotte Fischer

Because every medium prescribes a certain form as to how we have to deal with it. And this form shapes us – regardless of the content. This applies to all technology. The car only allows certain sequences of movements if you want to move without an accident, the dishwasher requires hand movements adapted to it when sorting the dishes, when looking at a screen you should sit still and not jog or drive at the same time.

The message of the medium

All media – be it texts, images, films or sounds – cancel out the coherence of the senses. A person experiences the content conveyed by the media space with only one or two senses. They are split as a sensory being: they stay in the medial world with his eyes and ears, while the rest of their body remains in real space. They are in the virtual with their consciousness, but live in the real.

This leads to the body being largely immobilised. Our embodied being becomes a disembodied spirit that enters a virtual spirit land. To exaggerate, we can say: all media – this also applies to books – convey a message that makes us forget our own body: leave it in the armchair and come with me into my world. For adults, this need not be a problem. For children, however, who first have to assimilate the spatio-temporal relations of the body, escaping into the world of the screen is unhealthy; it hinders the development of the body.

Development steps

In the first years of a child’s life, the focus is on the maturation and mastery of their own body. The child must learn to master their gross and fine motor skills, develop their language and imaginative thinking. Above all, however, they need a variety of stimuli in order to develop their sensory motor skills in all respects because only through them can they perceive the diversity of the world and act skilfully in it.

With the transition to school, the body’s motor skills expand. The child learns to use simple tools and to play a musical instrument. The child learns to balance on a skateboard and to ride a bicycle. They learn to swim, to climb, but also cultural techniques such as arithmetic. Above all, however, children learn to master humanity’s first great medium: handwriting.

Their increasing mastery of the world is supported by the teaching of foreign languages. Their view of the spatial environment is expanded into the whole world through local history and geography and then the ever-widening geography lessons. Through the many subjects taught, they acquire more and more of the cultural content of humanity which they need to understand the world and be able to act meaningfully in it.

An essential developmental step happens during puberty. The adolescent mentally detaches themselves from their previous environment and at the same time seeks their own roots in the world. This results in several developmental tasks for them. Through emotional emancipation, they become aware of their individuality. This leads them to the more or less conscious existential question of their self. They must find and develop their own personality. This is connected to a second question, namely that of social relations, the relationship with the peer group. This question changes in later adolescence to the problem of how they find their “place” in existing society where they can help shape life. The healthy formation of the own body, the ability to empathise, to take the initiative, to be interested in people and the world, as well as a good general education thus become basic tasks of adolescent development.

Educational challenges

In the last ten years and more it has been increasingly found that young people are less and less able to cope with the demands placed on them when they enter higher education or begin their working lives. An internal survey of philosophical faculties in Germany, the results of which became known in 2012, revealed, among other things, a widespread lack of ability among students to describe longer trains of thought accurately or to summarise texts at a higher level of abstraction.1

In 2018, the educationalist Volker Ladenthin described an analogous observation under the headline: “Something is going very wrong”.2 In 2019, the economist and social scientist Gerald Lembke summarised his experiences, which he gained in business enterprises and in universities, in the observation that we are squandering the potential of the young generation.3 These observations can be summarised on three levels:

·      Many young people find it difficult to step back from the concrete level of perception and action and to look at what they have experienced from a higher level of abstraction. Creative, concentrated, critical thinking is difficult for them.

·      Personal social skills such as empathy, the ability to hold a successful, empathetic, constructive conversation, or elementary manners are underdeveloped in many young adults.

·      Moreover, Lembke noted that “a lack of self-efficacy experiences is one of the most formative deficits of young people today” (Lembke 2019, p. 57).

Growing up in a digital world seems to make it difficult for children and young people to acquire key personal and social skills in the course of their development. That is why the focus of all education and teaching must be redirected by looking first and foremost at physical and emotional development and not at so-called “media literacy”.

Media literacy has been discussed for more than a quarter of a century. There was the “Schools on the Net” initiative at the end of the 1990s, schools all over the world were already being equipped with computers and laptops at that time, countless initiatives were supposed to show that learning improves through the use of these devices. There was even talk of a “revolution in learning”. The reality is that these widespread hopes have not been fulfilled – on the contrary.

The “human factor” has been forgotten. The young person must first be emotionally and spiritually stable within themselves because only out of such stability can they cope with the demands and temptations of the devices. This is self-evident when driving a car. We still have to learn it when dealing with information technologies.

First real, then analogue, finally digital

All education must be development-oriented. The natural developmental steps of childhood must be supported and promoted, as they are the basis on which media literacy can be built. Developmental orientation can be summarised in three short sentences:

·      The newborn child must first settle into the real world that can be experienced with all their senses by developing their own body. This can only happen in confrontation with real, not virtual, experiences and this takes time.

·      As the child gradually grows into the school years, it is important that they learn to master mainly analogue techniques: swimming, handling tools, musical instruments, bicycles, etc., but above all handwriting.

·      Around the age of 12, when the child enters puberty, their physical development – especially their brain development – enables them to understand the basic logical-causal principles of how digital technologies work; then they can also gradually learn to use them in a meaningful way. But that is a long path.

An education oriented towards the development of the child supports the formation of a strong personality. The coronavirus crisis clearly showed: young people who had a strong personality, who were able to work independently and whose family background gave them support coped with the challenges of the time and made academic progress in spite of everything. A number of young people who did not have this basis could not cope with the demands.

Responding to the message of the media

The author Howard Rheingold characterised very succinctly what skills are needed in everyday digital life: “Digital media and networks can empower only those people who learn to use them – and pose dangers to those who do not know what they are actually doing. Certainly, it is easy to drift into distractions, to become a victim of misinformation, to let our attention fracture rather than be focused. But these mental temptations only pose dangers to the untrained mind. Learning the mental discipline to use thinking tools without losing concentration is a price I am willing to pay to gain what the web has to offer.”4

Rheingold pointed out that digital media and networks can only be used meaningfully by those who have acquired certain mental skills:

·      mental discipline that allows us to use thinking tools without losing concentration;

·      a good general education that makes it possible to distinguish sense from nonsense, i.e. to check information for its factual accuracy;

·      the ability to be actively involved in something instead of just passively consuming it;

·      finally, knowing how to protect privacy in an increasingly intrusive digital environment.

Attention, concentration and discipline – these can be practised in all lessons, but especially in the manually practical and artistic subjects; but also at home, for example, when parents ensure that children can do their homework undisturbed and in peace, that screen media are not available in the child’s room without control; when parents insist that children do not consume media products on the side, but turn to them consciously.

At a time when devices are working more and more independently through artificial intelligence, parents and school must encourage independence in a compensatory way. After all, there are many opportunities in everyday life where school children can take on responsibility appropriate to their stage of development – they can and must be expected to do so!

The media educator Christian Doelker (1934-2020) once remarked that Marshall McLuhan would formulate his famous slogan differently today: “The medium is aggression”. In McLuhan’s lifetime, a person still had to go and fetch media products, today they force themselves on people from all sides. Doelker therefore asked “whether [...] something like a mediation between media and meditation could be striven for, a combination of a culture of hectic activity and a culture of thoughtfulness.”5

This, too, is part of the response to the aggressive message of the medium, that human beings learn to create moments in life in which they step out of their embeddedness in everyday life and turn to a quiet, self-chosen activity. This would also help children a lot in their development if they could experience in us adults in an exemplary way how one can cultivate a culture of silence in the midst of turbulent life.

About the author: Dr Edwin Hübner is a professor at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy and the author of several specialist books on the topic of media education.

Notes:

1 Pany, Thomas (2012): “Studierende mit alarmierenden Lese- und Schreibschwächen.” In: Telepolis, 24 July 2012. Online: https://t1p.de/0jz3, accessed: 27.06.2021

2 Ladenthin, Volker (2018): “Da läuft etwas ganz schief.” In: Forschung & Lehre, online: https://t1p.de/qbdq, accessed: 27.06.2021

3 Lembke, Gerald (2019): Verzockte Zukunft. Wie wir das Potential der jungen Generation verspielen. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz.

4 Howard Rheingold: “Aufmerksamkeit, Erkennen von Unsinn und Netz-Bewusstsein.” In: John Brockman (2011): Wie hat das Internet ihr Denken verändert? Die führenden Köpfe unserer Zeit über das digitale Dasein. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, p. 202ff.

5 Doelker, Christian (2005): “Medien als Umwelt. Environmental turn der Medienpädagogik.” In: Kleber, Hubert (ed.): Perspektiven der Medienpädagogik in Wissenschaft und Bildungspraxis. Munich: kopaed, p. 15-21.

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