“The medium is the message.” Or so Marshall McLuhan would have it. The idea behind the catchy line is simple: the medium is at least as significant, if not more so, as the content of a message. In Understanding Media, McLuhan puts it this way:
Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the “content” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. (UM, 18)
Or, in case that wasn’t straightforward enough,
The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb. (The Essential Mcluhan, 238)
This has remained one of media studies guiding principles. However, earlier this week, in a post titled “Content Matters”, Jonah Lehrer offers the following comments on an article in the journal Neuron:
One of the recurring themes in the article is that it’s that very difficult to generalize about “technology” in the abstract. We squander a lot of oxygen and ink worrying about the effects of “television” and the “internet,” but the data quickly demonstrates that these broad categories are mostly meaningless. When it comes to changing the brain, content is king. Here are the scientists:
In the same way that there is no single effect of ‘‘eating food,’’ there is also no single effect of ‘‘watching television’’ or ‘‘playing video games.’’ Different foods contain different chemical components and thus lead to different physiological effects; different kinds of media have different content, task requirements,and attentional demands and thus lead to different behavioral effects.
You can read the study, “Children, Wired: For Better or for Worse,” online. The article makes the case that different content presented by the same medium will impact children in different ways. So, for example, children who watch Sesame Street test better for literacy than do children who watch Teltubbies. The report also concluded that while media that was intended to be educational, such as Baby Einstein videos, can some times have detrimental consequences, media that were intended for entertainment, such as action video games, could sometimes yield positive educational outcomes. On that note, Lehrer quoted the following excerpt:
A burgeoning literature indicates that playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control. For instance, action video game experience heightens the ability to view small details in cluttered scenes and to perceive dim signals, such as would be present when driving in fog (Green and Bavelier, 2007; Li et al., 2009). Avid players display enhanced top-down control of attention and choose among different options more rapidly (Hubert-Wallander et al., 2010; Dye et al., 2009a). They also exhibit better visual short-term memory (Boot et al., 2008; Green and Bavelier, 2006), and can more ﬂexibility switch from one task to another (Boot et al., 2008; Colzato et al., 2010; Karle et al., 2010).
Now perhaps I’m being somewhat of a curmudgeon, but it seems to me that, a heightened ability to drive in the fog notwithstanding, most of this amounts to saying that people who play video games get better at the skills needed to play video games. All in all, I think we might prefer that people learn to make certain kinds of decision more deliberately, rather than more rapidly. In any case, the article goes on to conclude that more research is needed and that researchers are just now beginning to get their footing in the field.
The point Lehrer seizes on, that content matters, is true enough. I don’t know too many people who would argue that all content on any given media is necessarily equal. However, this is not to say that the content is all that matters. The studies cited by the article focused on different content within the same medium, but what of those who don’t use the medium at all compared to those who do regardless of the content they receive. In other words, is there more of a difference between those who grow up watching television and those who don’t than there is between those who watch two different kinds of television programs? Unless I missed something, the article (and the studies it cites) does not really address that issue.
By way of contrast, in “How to Raise Boys That Read,” Thomas Spence cites a study that seems to get at that question:
Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.
The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.
Ignore the unfortunate “Science has spoken” bit — I’m not sure what the capitalization is supposed to suggest anyway — and notice that this study is considering not differences in content within a medium (which is not insignificant), but differences between media.
To use a taxonomy coined by Joshua Meyrowitz, the first study focuses on media as conduits or vessels that merely transmit information. On this model the vessel is less important than the content being transmitted. There is certainly a place for this kind of analysis, but there is usually more going on. Meyrowitz encourages us to look at media not only as conduits, but as environments that have significant consequences beyond the particular effects of the content. As Meyrowitz puts it,
Of course media content is important, especially in the short term. Political, economic, and religious elites have always attempted to maintain control by shaping the content of media . . . But content questions alone, while important, do not foster sufficient understanding of the underlying changes in social structures encouraged or enabled by new forms of communication.
Content matters, but so does the medium (arguably more so).