The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 1

Last week, posted a review of Tim ChalliesThe Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion from engineer Erik Eekhoff.

One thing that caught my eye was Eekhoff’s critique of Challies’ use of terms like mediated and unmediated (it caught Justin Taylor‘s eye as well). Eekhoff brings up some great points, some of which will be applicable to my own book on technology and faith (out August 2011, hint, hint) so in the next few posts, I want to spend some time distinguishing between various ways we use terms like medium, mediated, and mediator in hopes of providing some clarity on such matters.

Note: For the plural of medium I use the term mediums rather than media because media can be associated with so many other ideas like “the news media.”

What is a Medium?

In the simplest and broadest definition possible, a medium is a thing between two other things, like the medium sized Carl’s Jr. drink you see pictured above.

But when we talk about mediums in relation to technology and communication, we are concerned with how that middle thing transfers (or mediates) something between the two things on either side of it. We use the two terms I’ve introduced (medium and mediate) and their derivatives (mediator, mediated, immediate, etc.) in a variety of uses in different contexts which I’ve divided into five categories, the first two of which we’ll cover here.

1. Medium as Connection

When I was a kid my dad – who was doctor – showed me how to hear by brother’s heartbeat with his stethoscope. He also helped us make a telephone from two cans and a long strong which my siblings and I used to send secret messages to one another. Both of those devices – the stethoscope and telephone – function as mediums because they literally and physically stood between two people mediating sound between them.

Three things are worth pointing out about mediums that physically stand between two parties. First, for the medium to work properly the people on either end of it must use it synchronously, or at the same time. Second, the medium will enable an interaction that humans can’t naturally do. Thirdly, the medium will at the same time disable something that humans can naturally do in the absence of the medium.

For example, the telephone enables physically distant people to hear one another’s voices, but while we are using it our ability to interact directly with the people around us is disabled. Likewise, the stethoscope enables a doctor to hear a person’s heartbeat, but it temporarily disables normal speaking.

But not all mediums function in this direct relationship as we’ll see in the next case.

2. Medium as Transference

Several years ago, my brothers and I backpacked through Europe and while passing through Paris we visited the Louvre and saw the famous Mona Lisa. We also use the term medium to refer to the material an artist like Da Vinci uses – in this case canvas and oil paint. But as I stood there in the Lourve, the painting wasn’t literally between Da Vinci and me. (In fact, if Da Vinci were still alive, he could stand behind me making me the medium point between himself and the browless beauty!)

Even when something isn’t directly between two people, we still refer to it as a medium because it transfers (or mediation) something between two parties. But unlike the direct mediums above that must be used synchronously, the use of these mediums is a two stage process.

First, the painter (or writer or photographer) creates something with a medium. Then, later, a second person consumes the content that resides on the medium. Letters, movies, photographs, and stone tablets are all mediums where creation and consumption of content happen asynchronously.

You might have noticed that in the above paragraph I made a distinction between content and medium, but one of the big points that is often made about mediums is that the medium and the content can’t always be easily separated. For example, the Mona Lisa (the content) wouldn’t be the same if it were remade using a different medium like cartoons or movies. This is in part because people react to the same content differently depending on the medium used to mediate the content. By now, we’ve probably all learned this the hard that people often interpret the same content differently depending on whether it comes in an emails, text messages, hand-written notes, or in person.

One way of explaining this is to go beyond the simple idea that mediums only transfer content and instead say that the medium itself is “content,” or that the medium itself has meaning.

But when we do this, we’ve introduced a tricky problem that we’ll deal with in the next post under Medium as Environment and Medium as Language.


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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

6 thoughts on “The Messy Multiple Meanings of Medium – Part 1”

  1. We are so used to “media” that we even use it as a singular, was that why you chose to use “mediums” instead?

    Mediums always makes me thing of weird seances ;)

    1. You guessed it! I originally had a note at the top of the post, but then I took it out at the last minute. Perhaps I should put it back in.

  2. One medium, multiple media.

    The “medium as language” phrase sounds suspiciously McLuhan-esque, “The Medium is the Message.” Looking forward to the next installment.

    1. Glad to hear you’re looking forward to the next one!

      Note: I intentionally use “mediums” because “media” is sometimes associated with “the news media” rather than the plural of medium. Also, since I’m using something that’s technically wrong, it often alerts readers who might skip over “media.” I’ll add a little note to the post to make this clearer.

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