No New Medium Replaces a Former Medium

When I first began the research for a PBS series on the media, I had the opportunity to hear Marshal McCluen give a talk at NYU. It was the late 70’s and “The Medium is the Message” had burst onto the scene and for many of us, radically changed the way we looked at the media.

The President of NYU gave an introduction, filled with hyperbole. McCluen got up, walked humbly to the podium, and began his talk in what seemed like the middle of a sentence. After about an hour and a half, the President looked at his watch and stood up. McCluen turned and noticed, and walked away from the podium, in the middle of a sentence.

I remember two profound things he said that day, that I have never forgotten.

He mentioned that “No new media ever replaces a former medium. It frees the former medium to do what it does best.”

For instance, when talkie Movies came in, people said “There goes Live Theatre. They will just set up a camera, third row center and get the greatest actors to do all the great plays.” It did not happen. It was perhaps great theatre, but it was really boring movies.

Television was supposed to replace radio ( the soap operas etc. ) but it freed radio to do music and talk, and to continue to operate in the imagination. But people no longer sat around the radio to get news. Television was supposed to replace movies, yet if you want spectacle, or if you want to share an intimate experience with strangers in the dark, or if you are a teenager with no place to go and make out, or if you don’t have AC in the summer, you go to the movies. Television has freed movies to do more “spectacle.” Look at the growth in IMAX theatres. Also, one of the magic aspects of watching a movie in the dark, with no visual distractions is the concentration on the moving image. It can become like a dream, where the dreamer is both watching the dream, and experiencing it from the inside as the protagonist. One watches the movie, and through empathy, becomes emotionally involved with the characters.

The VCR, DVR and streaming TV shows, changed network viewing habits. Why watch a canned show (like a sit com on Thursday at 8? Why not watch it when you want, skip through the annoying commercials interruptions? Also, a half hour show can be seen in 20 minutes; an hour show in 40 minutes. But for breaking news and sports, for that you go to TV. It is what TV does best: Share a live event with billions of people around the world. Hence the rise of CNN, MSNBC etc. or the huge amounts paid for the rights for the Olympics, the Super Bowl, or the World Cup etc. For the finals of the World Cup or the Super Bowl, so many people need to see it LIVE, as it happens, moment to moment. When Barack Obama was elected President, I needed to see him walk out onto the stage in that park in Chicago. Learning about it on the internet did not have the emotional resonance, although the information was the same.

The internet is truly a new medium. It has many remarkable uses and applications, and it is almost impossible to imagine a world without it now. With out it, who would I be writing this for, and how would it reach you?

When the piano was first introduced, it was mainly used as the harpsichord was used. (So often a new medium just imitates a former medium.) It took a Bach and a Beethoven to show the world what this new thing could do, that nothing else ever before was capable of doing. I am waiting to see the Bachs and Beethovens and Mozarts of the internet emerge, and show us all what this new art form is capable of doing.

By the way, the other memorable thin McCuen said that day was: ”The greatest invention of humans, since the wheel, is ‘instant replay.’ Because it takes the event out of the content.” You don’t watch to see what happens, but rather how it happened.

© Mickey Lemle 2009