The Medium is the Message

One thought stands out from the writings of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s –“The medium is the message.” Step ahead 50 years and that statement now seems prophetic. The medium is the electronic technology such as e-mail, and as we remain focused on the messages we receive, the medium takes over — impacting how we manage our time and our lives.

There is an expression I used for over 30 years: “We are so busy doing things that we don’t realize we’re not getting anywhere.” I’m sure I didn’t come up with this originally since it’s doubtful I’ve ever had an original thought in my life. But combined with McLuhan’s statement, it warns us that we should not be so focused on the beauty of the trees that we are unaware of the dangers of the forest.

Technology is a beautiful and wondrous thing. We can shop online, do online banking, send electronic greetings to our family and friends, download music, watch movies on our laptops, dictate to our computers using voice-activated software, and read electronic books on portable handheld devices — among hundreds of other things unavailable in Marshall McLuhan’s lifetime.

I see nothing wrong with reading e-books or performing any of the above activities with the aid of technology. But I do question what’s happening to us if we stop reading altogether, remain cocooned in our homes, infrequently meet personally with friends and relatives, and spend more time watching movies than interacting with our children.

Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book, Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains, claims he has noticed changes in his own reading. He loses concentration after a page or two, becomes fidgety, loses track of the storyline and looks for something else to do.

The ability to focus is one of the most critical brain functions according to Barbara Strauch, author of The secret life of the grown-up brain. And this ability depends on the strength of our executive skills, which are currently under attack by the unrelenting impact of technology.

Multitasking taxes the brain, and gets progressively worse as we age. Have you ever been distracted by a telephone call only to forget what you were going to do before the distraction? The other morning I found myself brushing my teeth with after shave lotion! (But others might attribute this to senility.) Research indicates you can have several motor programs running simultaneously, such as steering a car, chewing gum and reaching for a cell phone; but you can only focus your conscious attention on one thing according to Shelley Carson, author of Your creative brain, because your brain thinks sequentially.

Our lifestyle seems to be changing to one of constant rushing to get more things done, and researchers studying people’s behavior at traffic lights have spotted people combing their hair, applying makeup, eating, reading newspapers, talking on cell phones and even using laptops. To quote Barton Sparagon of the Meyer Friedman Institute in San Francisco, “Hurrying is a struggle against time — and that’s unhealthy.” And Faith popcorn, author of The popcorn report, claims “Speedeating has developed into a fine art.”

Cramming more activities into a day causes stress, and stress causes sleeplessness, and lack of sleep causes impatience and the ability to concentrate. It’s a vicious circle. Is technology to blame? No, we are to blame. Because we failed to heed Marshall McLuhan’s warning that the medium is the message.

In my next blog I will describe how this is affecting our time, our health and our personal productivity, and what we can do about it.