The 100th anniversary of master communicator Marshall McLuhan’s birth was celebrated July 21, 2011. McLuhan was a leading expert in communication theory, his most famous saying being: “the medium is the message”. But what exactly did he mean by that?
All communication requires an environment to contain it – its medium. McLuhan was saying that the specific form of a medium is actually embedded in the message that is being communicated. In doing so, there is a relationship in which the medium itself affects how the message is perceived. That is, the line between the information and the container of that information is blurred.
An example of this is a TV news story about a terrible crime. The message presented in the news story may not be so much about the crime, but more about our negative attitudes towards crime, attitudes that are influenced by the very fact we are viewing in our home the news about this crime. That is, the medium (TV) is transmitting and influencing our perceptions of crime in general. The subtle message is that crime is everywhere, even in your home, on your TV.
McLuhan was a tremendous visionary and forward-thinker because many of his ideas can be applied to modern media and technology. Information technology has changed a great deal since McLuhan’s time, but his principles remain relevant.
Comparing old and new technical communication technology and processes can give us insight into the message of the new medium. The following sections list the major differences:
The type of documentation delivered.
- Traditional: paper, PDF, local help files
- Modern: online (websites, discussion groups, help files, blogs)
Managing Content and Form
How the the information itself (words, graphics, diagrams, and so on) and its form (its physical appearance, including formatting) are managed.
- Traditional: a writer manages the information and its formatting simultaneously using a WYSIWYG editor
- Modern: the information is separated from its form using an XML editor; a information developer creates and categorizes the raw data; an information architect designs the visual form the information will take; the same information can be published to different formats (PDF, online help, website, RSS feeds, tablets, smart phones and so on) using different publishing targets
Reviewing and Markup
The process reviewers follow to indicate their changes to a draft.
- Traditional: reviewers mark up paper copies or send emails
- Modern: reviewers mark up an electronic copy; the writer directly incorporates these changes into a working copy; multiple reviewers can review same copy simultaneously and see each other comments; a record of all comments and changes are kept, allowing the writer to revert to any previous version
The degree to which the source document can be updated by the writer and viewed by the end user.
- Traditional: the document can only be edited on the writer’s system and can only be viewed on the end user’s system
- Modern: the document can be edited anywhere via a secure online server and can be viewed online anywhere
How current the information is; the frequency with which the document can be updated to ensure the end user is viewing the latest version
- Traditional: the end user’s version is only as current as the product itself; changes do not appear until the next release
- Modern: the writer can update information at any time; the end user can view the changes online in real time
End User Feedback
How easily end users can comment on the documentation.
- Traditional: writers review the document with the end user in person, a time-consuming and expensive process
- Modern: users can rate and submit comments directly on specific topics via the web; the writer receives an email notification of the comments
The message of this new technical communication medium is that information should be free for both its creators and consumers. A writer should be able to access and update their source files anywhere. End users should be able to view the information anywhere, and know that they are viewing the latest version. They should also be able to give immediate feedback on the quality of the information. These are the obvious messages.
The deeper message is that we can all be creators and consumers of information, and that we demand much greater control, and a greater say, in the content and accessibility of this information. Information is power, and we all desire more power over this power. That is the true message.
Finally, this blog is a part of this new medium, and therefore embraces this message. I can access and update it anywhere (and frequently do.) All changes are published immediately. Using the Subscribe to: Posts link at the bottom, you can view these postings in any RSS reader. And you (the end user) are free to comment on these postings.
The medium and the message have become one.