November 02, 2012
First we build tools, then they build us.
There’s a famous phrase from Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan that gets a regular workout in media columns. "The medium is the message" has been quoted so many times that using it is almost a cliché. Media aficionados attempt to interpret this phrase in a number of different ways, and it even has its own Wikipedia article that explains the meaning: "McLuhan describes the content of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind." Looking past the florid writing style and larceny metaphors, McLuhan's point that while we get distracted by content, we can miss the changes and developments that are instigated by the medium itself. This is never more accurate than when applied to mobile. We've had mobile handsets in our pockets for 30 years, and in that time we've been so absorbed with what content we could push onto our handsets, it's only relatively recently that people have started to pay attention to the multi-screen world we now find ourselves in.
McLuhan first used his famous phrase back in 1964, and here we are, almost 50 years later, using our mobiles to consume and experience more media than ever before. We now spend vast amounts of time on the mobile Internet, playing games, streaming media and using apps. The initial discussions about the impact of mobile screens on more traditional media, such as TV, seem to have been put to bed. It turns out that viewers didn't swap one screen for another, they just looked at more of them; often simultaneously.