Media and Culture

Scot Wheeler
Published in
4 min readJun 23, 2022


Given the breadth and depth of any individual’s exposure to media today, it seems inconceivable that the phrase “Media” and the concepts associated with it would at one time have required an introduction to popular thinking, but in fact there was such a time not that long ago, and the man who made the introduction was Professor Marshall McLuhan.

And as with anything that has become as commonplace and ingrained in daily life as “media” has for us, it can be valuable to step back and really examine what we have come to accept as part of our environment without a considered understanding of its composition and role in shaping our life. In our cultural environment, media is like the air of our physical environment. Many people are surprised that air isn’t all oxygen, but is in fact 78% nitrogen. What surprises can we find about media if we step back and look deeper?

McLuhan’s 1965 book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” introduced the concept of “Media” where previously there had simply been notions of independent communication technologies such as “the press”, “radio” and “television”.

McLuhan observed that these and many other information and communication technologies and practices not only work together and proceed from one another, but that in doing so they actually extend the perceptual power of individuals and mediate communication and thinking in ways that significantly influence culture and human affairs; thus his application of the term “Media” to these mediating “extensions of man”.

Media as we think of it is the predominant mediating structure to serve as a conduit for the thoughts that reside beyond us to come to reside within us. As articulated by Marshall McLuhan, media includes any such conduit. Human speech is the first purest form of media in this sense, imparting meaning & concepts from and to ourselves that let us make (cause & effect) sense of the world with others.

From the narratives that were mediated through early utterances and cave paintings came new mediating structures including storytelling and drama, numeric systems and alphabets, mathematics, laws, religions, governments and organizations, painting, sculpture, architecture and engineering, schools, publishing, radio, film, television, chemistry, physics, information science and digital media.

Within and from each of these structures and others like them, we can experience themes of drama, tragedy and comedy (whether as intentional products, a level of interest or engagement in a problem of practice in these areas, or just “office politics”). We are engaged by the color and forms of visual art, and by musical melodies and harmonies. By the thrill of engaging in or watching competitions. By the silly resonance of memes. By the holidays and ceremonial rites that carry significance, mark transitions, and give us comfort and a sense of connection to larger patterns in our universe. By the sense of right and wrong and value that we find we must share with others to have a true connection with them. All of these are elements of culture.

Culture, Society and The Self

Culture is not synonymous with society. If we accept Terrance McKenna’s metaphor that “culture is your operating system”, then society is the hardware that is adapted to high compatibility with a primary operating system (dominant cultural values) and grinds slowly when it tries to run anything else. All societies are built around cultures. Societies create institutions that enforce “norms” based on the dominant values of a culture. Society cannot advance without culture. But cultural shifts can proceed societal change. Culture is the bridge from the personal to the social.

Culture begins with a personal relation to meaning. Shared resonance is established through shared narrative about personal meaning. But what creates personal meaning?

Fundamentally, every person operates from a mental “home base” that we consider our “self”. Our mental and emotional life that precedes our physical life is grounded in a self-identity that defines us as a unique entity, and from this sense of self-identity emerges our understanding of our being; what we value and why we take action. There is also a corollary social identity, which is how we try to convey our self-identity into how we are seen or thought of by others.

A degree of self-interest is a natural requirement for personal survival, while excessive amounts simply become selfishness or self-centeredness. Self-respect, self-worth or self-criticism all come from our perception of ourselves intersecting with our perception of how others see us and treat us. Self-consciousness comes from concern with how we are perceived by others.

Effective media, or more specifically the content delivered through media, turns perception to a moment of attention or concentration, and uses that moment to try and make a message meaningful to the perceiving “self” in some way related to that self’s place in the world.

By understanding narratives that resonate with each person’s ongoing affirmation of their definition of “self” and their consideration of self-interest, content producers are able to use media to market a product or an ideology or belief as something that will fulfill a need or want that is important to the individual’s self. The more individuals find products or ideas or beliefs relevant to themselves, the more these become culturally resonant narratives.

Such narratives can become unifying or divisive, and the pervasiveness and predominance of narratives of each type shape our lives from each individual’s sense of fit to the culture around them, to the way in which society operates as cooperative or conflictual structure.



Scot Wheeler
Editor for

Author ‘Architecting Experience’. Former Adjunct Lecturer, Digital Analytics at NU’s IMC Masters program (2012–2017).