Joho the Blog » We are the medium

We are the medium

I know many others have made this point, but I think it’s worth saying again: We are the medium.

I don’t mean this in the sense that we are the new news media, as when Dan Gillmor talks about “We the Media.” I cherish Dan’s work (read his latest: Mediactive), but I mean “We are the medium” more in McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” sense.

McLuhan was reacting against information science’s view of a medium as that through which a signal (or message) passes.

shannon's communication diagram

Information science purposefully abstracted itself from every and any particular medium, aiming at theories that held whether you were talking about tin can telephones or an inter-planetary Web. McLuhan’s pushback was: But the particularities of a medium do count. They affect the message. In fact, the medium is the message!

I mean by “We are the medium” something I think we all understand, although the old way of thinking keeps intruding. “We are the medium” means that, quite literally, we are the ones through whom information, messages, news, ideas, videos, and links of every sort move — and they move through this “channel” because we decide to move them. Someone sends me a link to a funny video. I tweet about it. You see it. You send a Facebook message to your friends. One of them (presumably an ancient) emails it to more friends. The video moves through us. Without us, the transport medium —” the Internet — is a hyperlinked collection of inert bits. We are the medium.

Which makes McLuhan’s aphorism more true than ever. In tweeting about the video, I am also tweeting about myself: “This is the sort of thing I find funny. Don’t I have a great sense of humor? And I was clever enough to find it. And I care enough about you— and about my reputation — to send it out to you.” That’s 51 characters over the the Twitter limit, but it’s clearly embedded in my tweet.

Although there are a thousand ways “We are the medium” is wrong, I think what’s right about it matters:

  • Because we are the medium, one-way announcements, such as a tweet to thousands of followers, still has a conversational element. We may not be able to tweet back and expect an answer, but we we can pass it around, which is a conversational act.

  • Because we are the medium, news is no longer mere information. In forwarding the item about the Egyptian protestor or about the Navy dealing well with a gay widower, I am also saying something about myself. That’s why we are those that formerly were known as the audience: not just because we can engage in acts of journalism without a newspaper behind us, but because in becoming the medium through which news travels, some of us travels with every retweet.

  • Because we are the medium, fame on the Net is not simply being known by many because your image was transmitted many times. Rather, if you’re famous on the Internet, it’s because we put ourselves on the line by forwarding your image, your video, your idea, your remix. We are the medium that made you famous.

It is easy to slip back into the old paradigm in which there is a human sender, a message, a medium through which it travels, and a human recipient. It’s easy because that’s an accurate abstraction that is sometimes useful. It’s easy because the Internet is also used for traditional communication. But what is distinctive and revolutionary about the Internet is the failure of the old diagram to capture what so often is essential: We are not users of the medium, and we are not outside of the medium listening to its messages. Rather, we are the medium.

31 Responses to “We are the medium”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Weinberger, Euan Semple, Bruno Boutot, Bruno Boutot, Cody Brown and others. Cody Brown said: RT @dweinberger: "We are the medium" says something obvious that I've been thinking for a long time. http://bit.ly/gjQYjD [...]

  2. Perhaps it’s more like McLuhan’s “The medium is the massage.”

    :-)

  3. David,

    As important as it is to take in McLuhan’s insight and to not ignore its bearing on how we speak, and where, and when, et al, it seems to me to be equally important not to ignore the equal and opposite notion that we are not the medium. Otherwise we assume a transparency about media that is in fact not given, nor provable. We as medium does not explain “medium” because it is not coextensive with “we,” nor is it simply assimilable to us. We are language, but we do not understand it, and we need it to understand both it and ourselves. One would not wish to ignore the opaque otherness of the medium by thinking it’s just us, would we?

  4. Good point, Tom. But why would anyone think that we understand ourselves, especially in our we-ness? :)

  5. We are the message, and we are the means of production: the means to produce the message. In a knowledge economy, the currency of exchange is human expression — and connection to the means by which is is captured, amplfied, and disseminated. That’s a more worrisome issue for those defending the status quo.

  6. More so than McLuhan’s point, I think Kevin Kelly’s 2004 epic “We Are The Web” for Wired is apropos. Thanks for the reminder, David.

  7. Thanks for the reminder, Terry. I am a big fan of Kevin Kelly.

    But I think in that piece he’s getting at something else (albeit very closely related): Most of the article reminds us that we are the source of the Web’s content, whereas I want to point to the way in which we are literally the medium through which content moves.

    Then, at the end of the article, he goes off on the “web brain” angle, which does not resonate with me.

  8. Great post Dave. And as Jay Rosen put it, deceptively simple, but actually quite profound. Among other things, I like it because it restores the sense of fleshy disruption that stands between packets of information. So often, when we talk about digital communication, we speak of it as if it was frictionless.

    I wonder, though, if by emphasizing the “we-human-ness” of the interlinked digital medium, you’re putting *too much* emphasis on the social or the human. In other words, we are the medium, but the medium is the medium too. In other words, it’s hybrid. It’s both human and technological together. A cyborg, if you like.

    – Chris

  9. Thanks, CW. Yes, the Net is there as the bit transport medium. And since it has certain affordances that affect the social layer as well, I agree that it’s important to keep that in mind.

  10. As your diagram suggests, electronic technology facilitates horizontal communication where ‘we’ have both the capacity to transmit and receive messages either created by us or by others.

    Vertical technology, the technology of the sacred experienced through meditation and shamanism(See Merce Eliade’s, Shamanism, The Technology of the Sacred), and the technology of the imagination (Coleridge’s primary not secondary imagination as defined in his Biographia Literaria), allow us to receive and transmit a different kind of knowledge.

    For both sacred and everyday communication, human consciousness lies at the center of a network of a larger more universal consciousness. To use a machine metaphor, we are capable of both receiving and transmitting messages.

    Consciousness itself may be the true and only medium, while human selves are merely physical forms that have evolved the capacity to allow consciousness to pass through us.

    This line of thinking leads back to primary philosophical debates concerning whether consciousness is an attribute of mind, mind is an aspect of body, body is an aspect of mind, or as I would suggest, all are aspects of consciousness itself.

  11. David – You are dead on that the messages that we choose to transmit (you used twitter as an example) often convey considerable information about ourselves. In fact, sometimes that information is more valuable than the information we are passing along (especially in the age of instant ReTweets/Linkbacks/etc.).

    But I like you point and perspective. In many cases we are the medium, which is an interesting perspective considering that much of what we (the human element) act as the conduit for often lacks a human element (the battle between information as news vs analysis as news is far from over).

    Enjoyed the post. Looking forward to the next.

    Fred

  12. [...] original here: Joho the Blog » We are the medium Related Posts:Top 20 Social Media Resources Social Media is scattered around the whole diversified [...]

  13. I agree with Tom Matrullo on his point. I also believe it is difficult to consider the internet novel as a mode of communication – which is to say, I’d like to critique the idea that the internet is a uniquely new medium which might be contributing to the change toward a “We are the medium” perspective. Your description just makes it sound like conversation via data stream.

    Furthermore, I am skeptical of the idea that we can suggest “We are the medium” constitutes a significant enough paradigm that can overcome and shift from the conceptual models of information’s past. Is this not merely an alternative paradigm? And why imply that we should, in some ways, avoid relying on the old epistemological model for understanding communication? My full arguments are here:
    http://socraticlibrarian.tumblr.com/post/3033711272/we-may-not-be-the-medium

  14. [...] David Weinberger updates McLuhan: “We are the medium” [...]

  15. The original etymology for medium refers to something in a middle position.

    The traditional use of this word in communication theory leads one to think of the medium as that technology which conveys or transmits information between a sender and a receiver. In this model the technology is placed in a central position between human senders and human receivers.

    I believe David’s point is important. We are the medium. We are placed in a central position. The new paradigm will seek to expand our understanding of what it is we are in the middle of.

    Our technologies are tools and extensions of human consciousness. Yet our current view of human consciousness is extremely limited to logic, reason, artificial intelligence, and the pervasiveness of logical positivism.

    Thinking is only one quadrant of a consciousness that is inherently quadrivertical. Carl Jung delineated four functions of the psyche: thinking,sensing,intuiting, and feeling.

    I am developing a similar paradigm based upon four quadrants of consciousness. On the horizontal axis, human consciousness is in a middle position between sensing and thinking. On the vertical axis, human consciousness is in a middle position between intuition and imagination.

    A medium has also been defined as an individual who is held to be a channel between the earthy world and the world of spirits.

    I would define a medium as a human being who has centered his consciousness so that she may be able to be a channel between the horizontal axis of sensing and thinking and the vertical axis of intuition and imagination.

    Human Consciousness itself lies in the middle position surrounded by reason, sensation, intuition, and imagination.

    We are the medium.

    We must now remember what it is that is positioned around us that makes us so central.

  16. If the old media is the content of new media according to McLuhan, then web 1.0 would be the content of us, the new medium. The websites, the blogs, the videos are made into small urls and tweeted or pushed out as a status about us.

    Thanks Dave, this is something to think about. I had been thinking that Facebook is the new medium to old media of web sites, but I suspect it is a bit broader as you state.

  17. what if we stretch this ‘we are the medium’ notion to the full extent of mcluhan laws of media ?

    once a medium effect reaches its full potential,
    we might not be there yet but seams we can see it from here,
    the medium reverse into its opposite

    being ‘them’ the opposite of ‘we’
    will we end up erasing all our cultural identities in this process ?

  18. [...] Fame Us “…if you’re famous on the Internet, it’s because we put ourselves on the line by for… [...]

  19. [...] giving this interview I came across two great posts – this one by David Weinberger states how we are the medium, as well as John Seely Brown and John Hagel’s contrarian views on how to engage in [...]

  20. [...] seat which are a floral print of off white and yellow beige. My end table and coffee table are a medium to dark brown and I have book shelves which are a birch medium to light [...]

  21. strange how the medium becomes just another fashion accessory, or favorite method & route to a destination, or the pace and swagger of one’s step — all signifiers that we use to “understand” one another in the world around us.

    does twitter add the tone of a mid-life crisis red convertible or the high school short bus? depends on who receives the message, i suppose.

  22. [...] Quelle: Joho the Blog! Share| Posted in: Daily Blogroll [...]

  23. [...] Harvard prof David Weinberger has a short, thought-provoking post offering a 21st-century update on Marshall McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the [...]

  24. Joho the Blog » We are the medium…

    Joho the Blog » We are the medium…

  25. In other words, everything is viral.

  26. gordon pask offers that we are the medium in the direct sense of PROCESSORS — ideas inhabit and are propagated and evolved through language across our nervous systems. obviously, language cannot be ignored.

    concepts are therefore supra-human species. [no i don't adhere to the Singularity.]

    his distinction of “communication” versus “conversation” i also find useful, scan http://pangaro.com/pask/pask%20limits%20of%20togetherness.pdf.

  27. [...] (via David Weinberger.) [...]

  28. [...] We are the medium- David Weinberger, January 31, 2011 [...]

  29. I once wrote a post titled “The Medium is the Meaning We Consume and Create – Together”. Seems similar .. ?

  30. [...] We are the medium. Not fully thought out yet, but there’s something [...]

  31. [...] il celebre aforisma di Marshall McLuhan “The medium is the message”, menzionò su Twitter un post del suo blog digitando in meno di 140 [...]

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