The Medium IS the Message

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As explained in the book “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert, during the 1960s, Balinese dance became so popular to watch that the damp cold temples in which they were performed became overcrowded. In order to help the friendly, Australian tourists feel more comfortable, the dances were taken to the resorts. The dancers were happy, the tourists were happy, the Balinese priests were happy. But not everyone was happy.

The more “high-minded” of the Westerners were beside themselves with disgust. How could they perform these sacred holy dances in a tacky resort? Utter sacrilege. And so they marched on down to the priests to voice their disappointment.

The priests could not understand why the high-minded Westerners thought so poorly of the resorts, nor why the tourists should not have the right to witness divine beauty, but obliged anyway. As a way of solving the problem, it was decided the sacred dances would go back to the temples and new “divinity free” dances for the tourists would be invented. Once again everyone was happy and, most of all, the high-minded Westerners could now relax, as their distinction between sacred and obscene had now been safely returned to its rightful place in the universe.

Over time, the dances performed at the resorts became even more divine, captivating and beautiful that locals were convinced that these were also sacred.

These dances had in fact transcended our world and were channeling a higher power, and so they became more popular than ever before. The Balinese priests then deemed them just as sacred as the stale old ones and brought them into the temples; sending the high-minded Westerners into a complete spin.

Few can say they were forced to come to China as a result of war and conflict abroad; for many it was a choice. Most go through a whiny stage after being in China for a while. The honeymoon phase dies down, frustration hits and high-mindedness may set in. Cultures abroad have indeed experienced social change that has shaped the way people from those cultures think, feel and behave. However, is not this distinction between sacred and obscene derived from opinion only?

Generations of expats in China have expressed their right to vent about cultural differences they find troubling or difficult to deal with; in the appropriate confines of the local bar or institution that they are in. Not until now has the expat community been illuminated under a slightly darker spotlight.

With the dawn of WeChat and our increasing reliance on it for pretty much everything, social interaction has now shifted from the safety of the pub, to the windowless confines of the WeChat group. Despite a cap of 500 users, it is still a very large audience of real people, from all over the world, with standards of thought vastly different from one another. But most important of all, a large majority of that audience is Chinese.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The Medium Is The Message”, which became an intensely popular phrase to describe many things to do with how messages are conveyed. But most of all, it was (and is) used to highlight the higher impact the medium itself has on the viewer over the content itself.

As explained by Federman M. in What is the Meaning of The Medium Is The Message, “As society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realise the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of”.

“The lightbulb is a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a lightbulb creates an environment by its mere presence. Likewise, the message of a newscast about a heinous crimes may be less about the individual news story itself; the content; and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crime are in effect brought into the home to watch over dinner”, Federman goes on to explain.

So, could it be argued that by using WeChat as the medium is that not, in effect, damaging the message itself? While Ms. Gilbert highlights making distinctions should be reserved to opinion and in fact could play less of the desired effect on the host country’s perspective than intended. Mr. McLuhan helps us see it is not the message that could be damaging, it could be the medium used for such interactions that does the most damage. Perhaps the most damning of all is to be tarnished by the interactive brush when it is 
slanderously swiped across us all online.

Some may say it i just a case of keyboard courage, heck negative online interaction is not a new phenomenon by any means. But with Chengdu rap groups recently releasing songs such as “gua laowai” and China’s supposed “rising nationalism”, using the wrong medium may no longer convey the right message.

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As an Australian journalist living in Nanjing for many years, Renée Gray has a background in research, print and online publishing, taking great pleasure in discovering more about Nanjing with every article. 作为在南京居住多年的澳大利亚新闻工作者,Renee Gray有着调研以及印刷品和线上出版物的工作背景。她总是乐于在每篇文章里发现关于南京的内容。