Is the medium really the message?

Two sides of a coin : technology vs society


Based on multiple views of technology and its role in shaping human society, or whether it has any role at all, I would like to analyze the growing popularity of wearable technology in recent years. There are three main perspectives to consider: one which states that technological inventions determine the society, another that argues that the advancement in technology is separated from the needs of society, and, lastly, a view that emphasizes social influences on the shaping of new technology.

McLuhan famously coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” He believed that technology, as a medium, is an extension of human senses, and that it shapes the ways in which society forms and behaves. He completely disregards the ‘contents’ of the medium as “the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (McLuhan 18) and that its effect is negligible to the changes of behavior and pattern in society. One example he gives is the railroad system. “The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium.” (McLuhan 8)

In recent years, I’ve observed growing interests in maintaining healthy lifestyle. Close friends and many other are joining weekly running clubs, eating healthier than before, biking, running marathons, etc. — people have become more active. According to McLuhan’s theory, the rise of wearable devices would have caused such change, as most wearable devices are portable — small, light, easy to carry (the contents of these devices, which are geared towards fitness and health, should be considered irrelevant to such changes in behavior). Did people suddenly get more engaged in such activities due to the invention of wearable devices?

On the other hand, Kittler argues that technology develops in isolation and its application in society happens as people find uses for such invention — that it can be considered “anything but accidental” (Kittler 35). As he discusses technological developments in televisions and films, he directs his attention to the relationship between technology and war. “It is no accident that the age of media technologies is at the same time also the age of technical warfare” (Kittler 42). He stresses that the strategic needs for faster transfer of information in military setting, “crucially accelerated the explosive rise of optical media over the last hundred years” (Kittler 42). Likewise, wearable technology has been progressing for past decades for soldiers. However, such devices haven’t been marketed for the mass until recently. Is it really an accident that wearable devices are getting ever so popular nowadays?

In my opinion, two perspectives above on technology do not quite explain the rise of wearable devices in recent years; McLuhan asserts that technology drives social changes, and Kittler considers social changes as offshoots of technology. Both do not consider societal influences that can direct technological inventions. “Such an interpretation would differ from technological determinism in that it would restore intention to the process of research and development. The technology would be seen, that is to say, as being looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in mind. At the same time the interpretation would differ from symptomatic technology in that these purposes and practices would be seen as direct: as known social needs, purposes and practices to which the technology is not marginal but central” (Williams 7)

As technology market is being saturated with smart phones, reaching a plateau, there is a sense of competition in the tech industry to come up with the next break-through product to meet the consumer demand. As giant tech companies are noticing the growing trend of health and well-being, they are looking to accommodate such needs. As other supporting technologies for wearable devices are getting developed — such as small GPS, natural language user interface, network across different platforms, etc — many companies are recognizing wearable technology as a big business opportunity. “A need in which corresponds with the priorities of the real decision-making groups will, obviously, more quickly attract the investment of resources and the official permission, approval or encouragement on which a working technology, as distinct from available technical devices, depends” (Williams 12).

Analyzing the three primary perspectives on relationship between technology and the society, I believe that technological inventions cannot be made without purpose — whether it is for military use or mass use, whether its end use aligns with the original intention or not, there is always a group of decision makers that pushes the technology to a certain way.


— Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” “Media, Hot and Cold,” and “The Gadget Lover,” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964). (Box.com)

— Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, (Malden, MA: Polity, 2010), “Theoretical Suppositions,” 29–46. Optional introduction (of use for discussion leaders and understanding Kittler’s background): John Durham Peters, “Kittler’s Light Shows.”

— Raymond Williams, “The Technology and the Society” and “Effects of the Technology and its Uses,” Television (London: Fontana/Routledge, 1974).