McLuhan, the iPad is the message

Marshal McLuhan‘s work is one of the cornerstones of ‘media theory’. His view on media as an extension of ourself and the effect they have on our society are profound. I was introduced to McLuhan by Mark Federman at Agile2008. Although it would take years of study to fathom the depth of McLuhans insights, one convenient tool to get more insight into any (new) medium is the quadrant with four questions. These questions help you understand the true meaning and effect of a medium. The focus here is on the medium itself, not the content, that’s why McLuhan is often quoted saying ‘the medium is the message’. The medium can have a far greater impact on society than the content, television being a good example of this.

When exploring a new medium, four interesting questions to ask are:

– What does it improve or enhance?
– What does it neglect, displace or make obsolete?
– What does it bring back from the past that has been neglected recently?
– What does it overturn? (When pushed to its extremes, a technology fosters side effects that are opposite to the effects that were first expected, both positive and negative).

Now you could ask yourself these questions regarding the iPad, which is a new medium for conveying information and is quite visible an extension of its user. Using it as a knowledge base, navigating, helping us communicate with others it extends our natural abilities.

Back to the questions, let’s give them a try, perhaps your answers would be different, that would be a great start of a discussion of what the iPad actually means. Think sociological effects, not just purely functional. What helps is to image everyone having an iPad and/or using it for everything, what would be different in such a world? Answers can be both positive and negative.

What does the iPad improve or enhance?

  • It increases the time spent behind a computer (in the park, in bed, on the train etc.)
  • It enhances people’s ability to interact with data and software, it helps computerize society

What does the iPad make obsolete?

  • Some people thought it would make the laptop or net-book obsolete. I’m not too sure about that, but you might say it makes the laptop less favorable for watching movies or pictures. But that’s is not a sociological effect in itself.
  • Books, encyclopedias, cook books, news papers.
  • It makes staying at home or at a desk obsolete (when consuming data)

What does the iPad bring back from the past?

  • The touch interface obviously brings back the tactile experience which other computers don’t have. Before the age of computers, dealing with information and entertainment was much more tactile, we had books and magazines and games were physical as well (board games). The iPad brings back interaction using our touch senses.
  • It brings back the book, but improved. Perhaps reading and engaging in stories will get an impulse.

What does the iPad overturn?

  • You could imagine that if everyone stopped using PCs and laptops and only iPads, users would consume only bite-sized data and though the iPad is an information-sharing device, if it’s the only thing you use, you might stop producing data. In effect limiting the information sharing.
  • Can’t think of more, this one is hard… 🙂

Hopefully this has raised your interest in McLuhan and made you think a bit more about what sociological effects a new medium (like the iPad) has, often they have a far more profound impact on our society and way of thinking than we initially presume.

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McLuhan, the iPad is the message