In 1960, people who watched the presidential debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on television (a nascent medium at the time) thought Kennedy won the debates. People who listened to the debates on radio thought Nixon won.
Why? Television showed a confident JFK and a nervous Nixon. Nixon sweated through the debate. Radio did not convey his nervousness nor did it show him sweating. The visual component of television added a dimension to the communication that radio lacked.
Television influenced the outcome of the election and history. In that era, before image manipulation software became commonplace, “seeing was believing.”
Mediums create their own mutations of reality. During the fifty years since Kennedy’s election, the influence of television became so pervasive that those who mastered the medium reaped political rewards. Sound bites replaced debate as the dominant form of public dialog. The leaders we elected were those who functioned best within the constraints of the medium. Those people then made decisions that shaped our choices as well as the world we live in.
This feedback loop shaped the evolution of society. Mutations in the technology of communication can reorder our world. In the 2008 elections, Barack Obama recognized the power of another relatively new medium, the Internet, to help raise money. He received enough small donations to claim he was not the puppet of special interests and to out-advertise his competitors in television, radio and print by a 2:1 margin.
Mediums, like any environment, favor those who adapt to them and learn to exploit them.
The Message AND The Medium
Mediums also reorder our world by filtering information and coloring our perceptions of events. We are what we eat. To the degree that people are products of their environments, we could also say they are products of their media environments.
The information we consume and the mediums through which we receive it affect our views of the world. Contrary to Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that the medium is the message, the medium and the message both affect our perceptions of the world around us. These perceptions influence behaviors that, in turn, influence events. Mediums that ostensibly mirror reality actually help reshape it.
Rarely has the impact been documented as clearly as in the Kennedy and Obama presidential campaigns. However, each of us can probably point to a similar example in our personal lives.
Looking Through Different Filters
Mediums filter information in distinctly different ways. Being exposed to the same story through different mediums may make you come away with dramatically different perceptions of the same event – especially when you look at them through different reporters’ eyes.
Many of us have had the experience of reading in newspapers about events that we personally attended. After the fact, reading about such an event always seems like a pale imitation of the event itself. No matter how well written, the account lacks the richness of the original experience – the surroundings, sights, smells, noises and crowd reactions.
The in-person experience is three-dimensional, immersive and end-to-end. By comparison, the recounted experience is distant, dispassionate, two-dimensional, compressed and seen through someone else’s eyes. It lacks the emotional impact of the original event no matter how thorough and accurate the reporting. At best, it summarizes highlights, distilling details into essence.
Conversely, many of us have attended events so physically spread out – i.e., golf tournaments or bicycle races – that we felt unable to grasp the big picture in person. Parts of the competition existed beyond our immediate viewpoint and thus restricted our ability to comprehend the full scope and flow. At such events, we often see people carrying portable TVs or radios to extend their range of view, and therefore, understanding.
I once took my family to Paris to see the Tour de France. Hundreds of thousands of people (some estimate close to a million) crowded the Champs Élysées for the finish. All we could see were the backs of spectators’ heads and blurs as riders whirred by at tremendous speed. To learn who was winning the race, we had to watch the finish on television in our hotel room a block away. We then came back down to the street for the victory lap by the winner.
In this example, we simply could not get the information we sought through the medium of personal experience. While the race details we saw on TV have long since faded, the experience of the immense crowd remains one of the most vivid memories of my life.
Experiencing identical things in different mediums fundamentally reshapes the experience:
- Reading sheet music of a symphony has less impact than attending a performance. One takes place in the mind. The other reverberates through the body, overwhelming the senses.
- Reading about famine has less impact than experiencing it first hand.
- Watching a music video on TV can be more memorable than listening to the same song on radio.
- Reading a movie review may carry less weight than a recommendation from a friend.
- Movies seldom feel as compelling as the books on which they are based.
- Stage plays often feel more intimate than movies.
- Seeing a movie in a theater is much more involving than seeing the same movie on television.
What accounts for these differences?
Today, we “learn” about the world in six major ways: through personal observation, conversations with others, reading, listening to radio, watching TV, and the Internet.
I call these different methods of learning “mediums.” I do so to distinguish them from “the media”, a phrase that has become synonymous with journalists. The latter is a subset of the former.
A Whole Different Experience
Different mediums convey different types and amounts of information. They invoke different combinations of senses. They reach different audiences, enjoy different levels of trust, and have different degrees of interactivity. Some are intrusive; others are not. These unique characteristics filter information in ways that affect people and their perceptions of the world around them. This table (Major Differences Between Media) summarizes some of these differences.