Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium Is The Message” – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know



Over the last year or so I’ve been trying to cover some of the basic cannon of career theories. One of my desires for my blog this year is to move beyond explicit careers theorists and cover theories which have a lot to say about career but are in a different school.

To this end, I wanted to cover a number of theories that discuss the internet and social medium in some sense and show how they relate to career.

Marshall McLuhan is a seminal figure in media studies. Dying in 1980 he never saw the internet as we know it today but his understanding of media provides a vital lens to understanding the internet and its effect on career. McLuhan’s most famous idea is that “the medium is the message”. By which he means that the important thing about media is not the messages they carry but the way the medium itself affects human consciousness and society at large. In other words owning a TV that we watch is more significant that anything we watch on it. The focus should be on how communication happens rather than what is communicated because the nature of media has a greater effect that any content that the media carries.

McLuhan gave the example of the light bulb to illustrate this. Taking a broad definition, McLuhan argued that a lightbulb is a form of media but importantly one without content. There is no message to a lightbulb but it radically changes the world around it and in turn enables, encourages and makes obsolete various forms of human interaction. A lightbulb is a form of contentless media, it creates a new form of environment without “saying” anything. The lightbulb changes us, how we organise our time and our level of safety but it also changes the knowledge and skills we think are important (which do you find easier starting a fire or changing a lightbulb).

McLuhan moves media from being a tool to convey content to an environment that has a significant social effect. From this point MCluahn argues in Media Studies that human history has largely been determined and driven forward by changes in the media society is built around. This in term makes history driven not by human action but technological change. This makes McLuhan a technological determinist, someone who believes human history and behaviour are largely speaking determined by changes in technology.

When we approach the internet and social media McLuhan asks us how the internet has changed human history and behaviour more than how we can use it. He is more concerned with how technology affects us rather than how humans affect it. From a careers perspective then we may think of the internet as providing a variety of uses such as accessing information, increasing social capital, allowing us to present our identities in new ways etc. McLuhan would ask us a different set of question which are no less important but, in my opinion, often overlooked. Such as how to does the increased speed of information affect our lives? What is the psychological effect of being constantly on display? Wha is the experience of living inside a mass information age? Understanding the experience of being inside the environment of the internet age is as vital for career development as the new tools the internet age gives us.  This may point to new needs for support as the internet changes the world around us and so by extension who we are. It may also ask new questions of us if we see the internet as a new possibility for how we deliver careers content and interact with our clients.



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