Do you know what Marshall McLuhan in 1964 really meant when he said "the medium is the message"? His one-liner has become an overused and often misquoted cliché.
A few months ago, The Guardian launched the philosophical Big Ideas Podcast on their website. They kicked off the first edition by discussing McLuhan’s most famous line, with some help from writer and McLuhan’s biographer Douglas Coupland.
Although "the medium is the message" line might be overused, it has never made more sense than in today's hyper-connected world of sharing, tweeting, streaming, smart phones, public voting, Wikileaks, satellites and new technology.
A quick refresher: McLuhan used 'medium' in a broad sense. Every tool that people create is a medium. The wheel, a gps, a hammer, a pen, a guitar, a light bulb, a newspaper, you get it. We shape tools, they shape us.
The Canadian media theorist argued that a medium affects society, not only by the content delivered over the medium (light, information, transportation, music), but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. The effects it has on our human sensorium. Watching a crime report on television may be less about the individual news story itself or the content, and more about the change in public attitude towards crime.
To make his point clear, McLuhan frequently punned on the word "message" changing it to "mess age", "mass age", and "massage", as in the title of his book "The Medium is the Massage" published in 1967. New tools massage our brain. Wired magazine named McLuhan the real patron saint of the digital revolution, being decades ahead of his time.
Although some theorists have attacked McLuhan's broad definition of 'medium' for being too simplistic, McLuhan understood that the most powerful tools of media are those that help convey ideas, like language.
Media and society have come a long way since Gutenberg introduced the printing press in the 15th century, helping spread the ideas of the Renaissance. Very recently, journalism discovered a new tool to transport and explain ideas and complex topics. It's called data visualisation. Synonyms are info graphics, or information design. It's not about simple pie charts, but about using illustration to say more than a thousand words.
You can read a dozen books about how Palestine has shrunk since 1917, or you can look at the diagram that Good magazine made.
If you master some Italian, then the work of art director Francesco Franchi, presented in the monthly magazine Il - Intelligence in Lifestyle, is simply brilliant.
In the Monocle shops you can buy posters that visualise the perfect airplane or train station of the future.
The blog Paris versus New York City shows that information visualisation can also be fun and lighthearted.
Every 24 hours, Fast Company sends out an info-graphic of the day. Last week it explained how drunk you can get at your office Xmas party.
Visualising a message is a powerful aid to human thinking. Show it and you’ll remember it. Just as film has many genres, info-graphics come in different shapes and forms. Combining research, software, emotions and aesthetics, data visualisation rapidly became a field and profession on its own. Way past the point of just using dots, curves and lines.
The 'infobesitas' unleashed at the turn of 21st century democratised information visualisation. Never has there been more data available then now. "The 19th century was about reduction, breaking nature down into the simplest possible elements and defining rules on how these elements interact", which is written in the foreword of Visual Complexity: Mapping patterns of information. "Today, interest lies in understanding phenomena of complexity (chaos theory, climate change), which is reflected in the kinds of visualisations we find appealing."
Manuel Lima, the man behind the book and website visualcomplexity.com, claims that data visualisation is well on its way to becoming as important to 21st century as photography and film were to the 20th century.
"What we are seeing is the ability to have economies form around data - and that to me is the big change at a societal and even macroeconomic level", says Craig Mundie, head of research and strategy at Microsoft. When you glance at The Map of the Future, made by Density Design for the Italian Wired, you get what he means. These are visuals worth putting on our computer desktop and hanging on our walls.
It is not only print media that is experimenting with information visualisation, but it is also tv and the internet. Nederland van boven is a new program on Dutch television, launched last week. From up in the sky, with helicopters and balloons, data journalists look at rhythms and patterns that define daily life in the Netherlands. There are the famous RSA Animate videos, explaining theories about education, choice, the brain. The New York Times use infographics in their newspaper, and interactive versions online.
Art schools and universities are setting up new courses and workshops to learn this profession. Visual journalism is a new way of telling stories and requires cross disciplinary skills. Tashen and Gestalten are publishing books about the trend, Information Graphics is due out in January 2012, Gestalten recently published Visual Storytelling. The blog Information graphics news bundles all the curiosities that happen in this field.
You get the message, and the medium. Graphic journalists, information designers, whatever you call them, they master a skill to help us prioritise and convey structure in a world of abundance and change. Who said print is dead? Praise to the new rock stars!
Elke Lahousse is a journalist, currently living in London. She works for Knack Weekend, the leading lifestyle magazine in Belgium. She introduced Project In-Between for The School of Life, read the previous post here.
Illustration John Grimwade www.johngrimwade.com
llustration Francesco Franchi www.francescofranchi.com