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Painfully Coming to Grips with ‘The Medium is the Message’

by on October 29, 2011

We are now in week #7 of the New Media Faculty Seminar. This week, there were two readings by Marshall McLuhan, an excerpt from Gutenberg Galaxy and The Medium is the Message. I found both (particularly the first one) to be particularly difficult partly due to all the references (many to writers, philosophers, or academics that I do not know) and partly due to the internal inconsistencies in his writing.  As I read, it felt like he was arguing the opposite point to his original – or maybe I just wasn’t following?  I was greatly relieved to find that my fellow NMFS-ers felt the same way.

Willow Shenlin facilitated our discussion and did a wonderful job, diligently leading us through her favorite McLuhan-isms, as well as the parts that she found particularly confusing. And that’s what is so great about these weekly meetings – not only do they provide a structure to force you to read material you normally would not, but you get a chance to wrestle with the parts of it you don’t understand and benefit from the insights of the group.

Willow Shenlin's set up for our meeting in Second Life

About mid-way through our 90-minutes, we took a field trip over to Willow’s property in SL to see a few exhibits that she’s put up, to help with the readings and bring them to life.  She’d put up a media viewer through which we watched this fondly remembered scene from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out to counter a blowhard who was standing behind him in line at a movie theater (god, I love that scene).  She also showed us this amazing TED talk by Nathalie Miebach (Art Made of Storms) which, as Willow put it, just make you itch to hear a Marshall McLuhan response!

Marshall McLuhan "bot", compliments of Willow Shenlin

Willow also had a Marshal McLuhan “bot” (automated character) – pictured to the right – that spouted McLuhan quotes from a menu when you clicked on him. It was hilarious – and helped me to relax and let the readings wash over me a bit more.

When I reflect on the McLuhan readings, there are a couple of “nuggets” (to borrow Gardner’s term) that are really sticking with me. The first is his idea of sense ratios.  How is information coming to us – through our ears? Our eyes?  Our fingertips?  McLuhan makes the point that people adapt to their environment by way of a certain balance, or ratio, of the senses and that changes to those ratios have consequences.  For example, with the invention of the alphabet and written communication, we shifted from a strong dependence on hearing to a more visually oriented culture.

The other McLuhan-ism that I am only now really beginning to understand is his classic “the medium is the message”.  I thought I knew what it meant (it certainly has a prominent place in our culture!), but I now realize that I didn’t. What’s worse, like the blowhard in the Annie Hall movie, I had been misrepresenting it. Oy. In his essay, McLuhan points out that we over-emphasize the importance of content.  Let’s say, for instance, that we are looking at an image of a family, sitting around the dinner table. We would argue that it doesn’t matter if the image is a photograph, an oil painting, a screen shot, or a water-color – the important thing would be the content of the image – who is that family and what is happening in that dinner scene?  The content, as they say, “is king”. But McLuhan’s point is precisely the opposite. That the way that content affects us, the way we are able to experience ourselves in relationship to it, will change depending on the medium in which it is expressed. That it matters whether it’s a drawing, a movie, a book, or a television show. He goes on to say that content actually distracts you from what happening technologically. As McLuhan puts it, “content is the piece of juicy red meat that is carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”  So, according to McLuhan, it’s vitally  important to be aware of the medium and the tradeoffs and impacts of that medium on us, every step of the way.

“It is not the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it. We must look beyond the obvious and seek the non-obvious changes or effects that are enabled, enhanced, accelerated or extended by the new thing.”

One of the ways McLuhan tries to make this clear is through the concept of “extension”. He explains that media is not just a tool, it becomes a part of us – an extension of what we can do.  I had a breakthrough on this when I listened to the podcast conversation between Gardner Campbell and Alan Levine for the McLuhan session of a past NMFS series, on the heels of our Wednesday session (I wish I’d listened to it before!).  Gardner used this perfectly simple and powerful example to explain what McLuhan means by “tools as extensions of ourselves”.  Here goes…

“If you pick up a hammer, and hold it in your hand, what do you have?” Gardner asks. Our answers immediately jump to capabilities (“you can build a house” or “now you need a nail”).  But Gardner urges us to, instead, think in terms of the most basic, the most obvious thing.  You have a hammer in your hand.  Simple.  And the, he says, McLuhan goes further. What McLuhan would say  is that you don’t have a hammer in your hand, what you now have is a “hammerhand”.  You’ve changed the hammer.  And you’ve changed your hand.  A new union, that neither one was before you picked up the hammer.

Aha. The penny dropped for me. And my next immediate thought was how very wrong I’ve been in a key element of my thinking about new media technology (this is the painful, blowhard part). In my work, I spend a lot of time with teachers and students, talking with them (coaching them) about the use of new media as it’s applied to teaching and learning.  What I regularly say, in an attempt to soothe and reassure them, is that all of these wonderful web tools are just that – they are tools.  Not unlike a pencil or a chalkboard or a microscope.  What you do with the tool is what makes it worthwhile.  What you plan, create, devise is what has meaning.  Gawp.  Exactly the opposite of what McLuhan is saying.

As I sit here and type on this computer  (and create this blog entry), the computer (and the blogging platform) have become an extension of me. We are now united to do something that I (or the computer, or the blogging platform) could not do without each other. The computer and the blogging platform are not just tools. They have changed my thinking and the very way I interact with the world.  We are united and have moved together to a different understanding.

One of the McLuhan quotes that I’ve always loved (and used quite often) is his lament that man is “shuffling toward the 21st century in the shackles of 19th century perceptions”.  In his lifetime, he didn’t see the laptop computer, the cell phone, or the tablet – but he did give us a way to think about them, a way to make sure we are in right relationship with our tools and the way we use them.

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