Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian author who lived between 1911-1980, is widely credited at the first “media critic” whose work in dissecting the epistemological effects of the TV on society is still in use today in many classrooms (particularly the advertisement or marketing classrooms).
In The Medium is the Message McLuhan defines a medium as anything that has the capacity to produce social change. Thus a medium could extend beyond things designed to or even capable of conveying information like newspapers and TVs to seemingly innocuous items such as light bulbs. For example a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness, thus having an impact on everything from our social habits to our sleep patterns.
This concept was made clear to me in a recent family vacation to Cumberland Island. During the tour of the mostly deserted and well-preserved island we learned that the Carnegie’s used to own most of the island and used it as their primary summer vacation destination. Being wealthy and powerful the Carnegie’s added state-of-the-art amenities to the island such as an ice-house where they imported ice from as far north as Maine. The Carnegie’s also invested in one of the earliest forms of electric outdoor lighting and had one of the earliest designs installed on their island near their luxurious mansion. Our guide told us how, in their journals, guests described these lights as emitting a very loud buzzing, sometimes to the point of drowning out conversations that were several feet away. My initial reaction to this was to think how unfortunate this was (given modern lighting technology) but our guide went on to mention how the guest didn’t mind putting up with the relatively minor nuisance since the lights allowed them to carry on well into the night.
The lights created an environment that had not previously existed, a true social ‘night life’.
Of course this means that the concept of “medium”, by this understanding, ends up being very broad and abstract. However I believe that in spite of it’s vagueness it is still able to help awaken us to the world around us and how every aspect of it communicates something.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, after all, Romans 1:18-21 tells us that all of nature reveals something about it’s Creator.