In 1964, philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed, “The medium is the message.” This now-ubiquitous statement, known as the McLuhan Equation, is regularly taken out of context. It is assumed that “the medium” is exclusively related to mass communications, and “the message” is information or content.
There is no truer expression of the McLuhan Equation than the human microphone put into practice at Occupy Wall Street. The action is a simple call and response, an amplification of a a single voice through a crowd without the use of speakers or microphones (disallowed at Zuccotti Park and other public meeting spaces). The human mic transforms every listener into an active participant - an embodiment of the message. According to McLuhan, “the message” is the change that a new innovation brings to the public sphere, “the medium” is the extension of self, and the relationship between the two - the socio-cultural change the medium engenders - is the point of interest.
I participated in the People’s Assembly organized by OccupyFood Justice in support of the seed organizations, farmers and food NGOs that filed suit against Monsanto for transgenic crop contamination. Before speaking, I was absolutely terrified of the people’s microphone. I was worried I would not be able to get my message across and that I would feel silly waiting for responses or hearing my words repeated back to me.
The space in between - where meaning was created - was palpable. The slow chorus transformed words into messages and listening into engagement. The words I spoke were no longer mine, because every person who spoke them did so in their own voice, with their own emphasis and intonation. Perhaps they struggled with some of the words as they said them (as I did with some of the other speakers) or maybe they felt their conviction grow stronger as they spoke truths that resonated (which I also experienced). Regardless, speaking the words changed our relationship to them. We were, at once, responding to and embodying individual voices and something deeper and collective. In that moment, the words - and all that they held - belonged to all of us.