Fig. 1. The Gutenberg Galaxy – Marshall McLuhan (courtesy of Amazon and a US bookseller)
Like visiting a library, having a book as an object in my hand, a singular artifact rather than its substance digitised, feels like a visit to a National Trust property. There’s meaning in it, but that way it’s packaged is all a bit ‘historic’.
Mosaic – kaleidoscope – environment – constellation
These are some of the ways Marshall McLuhan may have written about the changing society he was commenting on in the early 1960s with reference to previous shifts from an oral to a written tradition, with a phonetic alphabetic to the printing press.
We like to visualise the complex – to simplify it.
No less so than in what we perceive as a new era – that of the Internet and ever deeper, faster, more complex and fluid, even intelligent ways to communicate, share and think.
In the prologue p.1 we are told that papyrus created the social environment – how?
Immediately we know that Marshall McLuhan will be talking about an elite as if they represent everyone. authors are constantly guilty of this today, discounting those who lack digital literacies as if all that matters in the world is what these people are doing – as if it is above, beyond and distinct from everyone else. Or should we just tackle this interconnected community and ignore those who are not and may never be part of it – those thousands of millions who do not have Internet access 24/7, just as when dealing with previous eras the illiterate are ignored because they voice could not be captured and disseminated?
Society existed before script – so few could write and read would make the impact of papyri irrelevant to all but the smallest of minorities, the elite who could write and read, own and store such things.
The stirrup and the wheel – is offered as a period of transition.
We are to think of this transition as a revolution, just as the development of print from the time of Gutenberg is described as a revolution – not matter how many centuries it took to evolve, and the development of TV from Marshall McLuhan’s particular is another, as the innovation shines such a bright light that it becomes impossible to see anything else. Far from television replacing the written word it has expanded at a time of vastly increased literacy rates and has been complemented to a burgeoning publishing of cheap paperbacks, journals and magazines.
‘Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies like’. (McLuhan, 1962. p.0).
As an aphorism this may apply – by ‘environment’ Marshall McLuhan is once again searching for words, in conversation in the 1960s I would imagine him saying ‘technological mosaic’ and then correcting himself and saying ‘technological constellation’. Several decades on and we may be better able to comprehend ‘technological system’ in the context of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (Engestrorm, 2006) or ‘technological ecosystem or ecology’ (Bateson, 1972., Lukin, 2008)
Applications of metaphorical notions of ecology, culture and politics can help us better understand and deal with these complexities. (Conole. 2011. p. 410)
Then McLuhan tells us that print created the public – by inference did those who made up the majority in society not exist as a ‘public’ until then?
There is a sense as he later draws on the work of anthropologist X to infer that those with only an oral form of communication are part of an amorphous mass, that literacy empowered a new, though initially quite small group, to gain some kind of status through print.
‘Electric circuitry does not support the extension of the visual modalities in any degree approaching the visual power of the printed word’. Says McLuhan who sees television in the 1950s and the 1960s as something as ephemeral and passing as radio.
Without the research then available that tells us that watching TV is a passive activity that has little impact on the short term memory and next to none on the long-term, McLuhan is saying that electrical forms of the visual have less substance than the printed form of the visual. It isn’t however the means of distribution that is the cause of this, the thesis of all the Marshall McLuhan is remembered for, but the way we behave in front of these technologies – simply put, we sit forward and make an effort to read from a book, even to interpret pictures, but with TV we sit back and let it wash over us. ( Myrtek at al, 1996) Umberto Eco (1989) explains how the read gives meaning to the ‘open’ book, a far more rewarding experienced that the reading of a ‘closed’ text – the same applies to all media -we the viewer, reader, player or participant provide the meaning; the interpretation is our own.
With content from the Internet we can do either or both, or one or the other and the kinds of interaction and engagement that are far more complex and today far more like direct, face to face interaction as we do deals, discuss and debate in live groups and play massive online games.
Bateston (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution and epistomelogy. New York. Ballantine Books.
Conole, G (2011) Designing for learning in a digital world. Last accessed 18 Dec 2012 http://www.slideshare.net/grainne/conole-keynote-icdesept28
ECO, U., The Open Work, trans. Anna Cangogni, Cambridg, MA : Harvard University Press, 1989 .
Engestrom Y, (2006) Learning by expanding. An activity theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki. Orienta–Konsultit.
Luckin, R. (2008), ‘The learner centric ecology of resources: A framework for using technology to scaffold learning’, Computers & Education 50 (2) , 449-462 http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/2167/1/Luckin2008The449.pdf
Myrtek, M, Scharff, C, Brügner, G, & Müller, W 1996, ‘Physiological, behavioral, and psychological effects associated with television viewing in schoolboys: An exploratory study’, The Journal Of Early Adolescence, 16, 3, pp. 301-323, PsycINFO, EBSCOhost, viewed 9 February 2013.
- Revisiting Marshall McLuhan (billives.typepad.com)
- Marshall McLuhan Was At Least Half Right (mayo615.com)
- Musings on Digital McLuhan (smkelly8.com)
- Understanding Online Social Media – 50 years later (lindentweaks.com)