Media Determinism: two views of the social dimensions of communication media


1)    The media determinists: e.g. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marshall Mcluhan, Walter Ong.

a.     The medium which transmits a message has its own powerful social effects, irregardless of the message transmitted.

b.    These social effects are universal; they are due to interaction between the inherent (physical) properties of the medium and the inherent (physiological) properties of human beings.

c.     The most fundamental difference is oral v.s. written cultures. Speech is natural, keeps senses balanced and harmonious, makes people closer to each other and closer to nature. Writing is artificial, detached, and encourages lying, social fragmentation, and alienation.


2)    The media anti-determinists: e.g. Jacques Derrida, Sherry Turkle, James Clifford.

a.     Both analog and digital representations are equally capable of transmitting the same information. Some people are better at lying with analog (face expression, voice tone, gesture) than with digital (writing); vice-versa for others.

b.    The linguistic part of spoken words is digital; speaking can be thought of as writing in air instead of ink.

c.     IT revolutions occur in tandem with dramatic social changes, so it may appear to be the cause when it is not.

d.    Rousseau and McLuhan are just repeating the Christian story of the fall from the garden of eden. It is also a myth told by colonial powers to keep indigenous people from gaining civil and economic rights (e.g. apartheid was justified on the grounds that Africans would suffer when they were “tainted” by European modernity; same for US Indian reservations).