The term ‘medium’ comes into English usage in the 12th century to describe ‘something which is intermediate’ or ‘between’ two points.
A medium could be a thing, a substance, a relation, even a person.
An artist uses paint as a medium to convey an image.
From the 1500s a medium was understood as a person or institution that orchestrated relationships of exchange. A bank acts as a medium between traders.
From the nineteenth century those inclined to the occult could visit a medium – like a psychic or clairvoyant – who acts as a conduit between the world of the living and the dead.
Also in the mid-nineteenth century the term began to be used to describe channels of mass communication like newspapers, and then radio, cinema and eventually television.
During the twentieth century we came to talk of ‘media’ as that set of institutions and technologies that create and circulate meaning in society.
And by the mid-twentieth century, with the emergence of computing, a medium also came to mean a substance that stored data like a tape or harddrive.
In this century media also refers to the series of digital platforms and devices we use to create, share, and access information.
Media then are always in the process of being invented, put to use and redefined.
In media studies, the convention is that media is plural, the exception is when talking about ‘the media’ as a single set of institutions. In this case, it is OK to refer to the media as a singular noun, and this is common in everyday speech. But, for the most part, use media in the plural when writing and making arguments in this field.
By reflecting on the use of the word media through history we can see at least three critical elements come into play.
The circulation of meaning.
The recording and storing of data.
Media are one of many technologies to increase in importance of the past several hundred years as humans have come to live in complex urban societies. In some respects media are like medicine and healthcare, utilities like water and electricity, and institutions like the school and church: all necessary technologies in managing large and dense populations.
The study of media then is, like other social and cultural fields of study, about examining the social structures and technologies we invent to orchestrate a shared life in the world with other humans, animals and the natural environment.
To get started at least, there are two basic building blocks.
Meaning: the human capacity to use our bodies to communicate with one another.
Machines: the human capacity to create material structures, tools and institutions that alter our lived experience and the world around us in durable ways.
In meaning we get the ‘symbolic’ dimension of media: words, images, sounds.
Via machine we get the ‘technical’ dimension of media: devices that capture, store, process and transmit signals, data, and impulses.