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What will the impact be of the Web on education? How is knowledge sharing and learning changing?

Fig. 1. Father and daughter

From four or five months after conception with the formation of the brain, to the moment of brain death we have the capacity to learn, subconsciously as well as consciously.

Whether through interlopers before birth, in infancy and early childhood, or through family and carers in our last moment, days, weeks, months or years. At both ends of life the Web through a myriad of ways can advise, suggest and inform, and so educate, like never before. While for all the time in between as sponges, participants and students we can access, interact, interpose and interject in an environment where everything that is known and has been understood is presented to us. The interface between person and this Web of knowledge is a fascinating one that deserves close study for its potentially profound impact on what we as humans can do as people and collectively:  Individually through, by, with and surfing the established and privileged formal and formal conveyor belt of education through nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary centres of learning. Individually, also through expanding opportunities globally to learn unfettered by such formal education where such established opportunities don’t exist unless hindered through poverty and politics or a lack of communications infrastructure (a robust broadband connection to the Web). And individually and collectively alongside or beyond whatever formal education is provided or exploited by finger tapping into close and expanded networks of people, materials, ideas and activities

Open learning comes of age.

By seeking to peg answers to the role the Web is starting to play, at one end to the very first opportunity, at the micro-biological level to form a thought and at the other end to those micro-seconds at the end of life once the brain ceases to function – and everything else in between, requires an understandings neuroscience and an answer to the question ‘what is going on in there?’ How do we learn?

From an anthropological perspective why and how do we learn?

Where can we identify the origins of knowledge sharing and its role in the survival and domination of homo sapiens? And from our migration from the savannas of Eastern Africa to every nook and cranny of Earth, on land and sea, what recognised societal behaviours are playing out online? And are these behaviours mimicked or to a lesser extent transmogrified, warped or elevated by the scope, scale and speed of being connected to so much in such variety?

A history of learning is required.

From our innate conscious and subconscious capacity to learn from our immediate family and community how has formal education formed right the way through adding reading, writing and numeracy as a foundation to subject choices and specialisms, so momentarily expanded in secondary education into the single subjects studied at undergraduate level and the niche within a niche at Masters and doctoral levels. And what role has and will formal and informal learning continue to have, at work and play if increasing numbers of people globally have a school or university in their pockets, courtesy of a smartphone or tablet and a connection to the Web?

The global village Marshall McLuhan described is now, for the person connected to the Web, the global digital fireplace.

It has that ability to gather people around. Where though are its limits? With how many people can we develop and maintain a relationship? Once again, how can an understanding of social networks on the ground inform us about those that form on the Web? Multiplicity reins for some, flitting between a variety of groups while others have their niche interests indulged, celebrated and reinforced. Is there an identifiable geography of such hubs small and large and if visualised what does this tell us? Are the ways we can now learn new or old?

In relation to one aspect of education – medicine – how are we informed and how do we respond as patients and clinicians?

The journey starts at conception with the mixing of DNA and ends once the last electrochemical spark has fired. How, in relation to medicine does the quality (or lack of), scale and variety of information available on the Web inform and impact upon our ideas and actions the length of this lifetime’s journey At one end, parents making decisions regarding having children, then knowledge of pregnancy and foetal development. While at the other end, a child takes part in the decision-making process with clinicians and potentially the patient – to ‘call it a day’. Both the patient or person, as participant and the clinicians as interlocutors have, potentially, the same level of information at their fingertips courtesy of the Web.

How is this relationship and the outcomes altered where the patient will know more about their own health and a good deal about a clinician’s specialism?

The relationship between the doctor and patient, like others, courtesy of the connectivity and capacity of the Web, has changed – transmogrified, melted and flipped all at the same time. It is no longer them and us, though it can be – rather, as in education and other fields, it can be highly personalized and close.

Can clinicians be many things to many people?

Can any or only some of us cope with such multiplicity? A psychologist may say some will and some won’t, some have the nature for it, others not. Ditto in education. Trained to lead a classroom in a domain of their own, can a teacher take on multiple roles aimed at responding to the unique as well as the common traits of each of their students? While in tertiary education should and can academics continue to be, or expected to be undertake research as well as teach? Where teaching might be more akin to broadcasting, and the classroom or tutorial takes place asynchronously and online as well as live and face-to-face.

Disaggregation equals change.

In relation to one aspect of education in medicine and one kind of problem, what role might the Web play to support patients so that they can make an informed decision regarding the taking of potentially life saving, if not simply life improving, medications? Having understood the complexity of reasons why having been prescribed a preventer medication, for example, to reduce or even eliminate the risk of a serious asthma attack, what is going on where a patient elects, sometimes belligerently, not to take the medication. Others are forgetful, some misinformed, for others it is the cost, or the palaver of ordering, collecting and paying for repeat prescriptions. Information alone isn’t enough, but given the capacity of the web to brief a person on an individual basis, where they are online, what can be done to improve adherence, save lives and enhance the quality of life?

My hypothesis is that a patient can be assisted by an artificial companion of some kind, that is responsive to the person’s vicissitudes while metaphorically sitting on that person’s shoulder i.e. in the ‘Cloud’ and on their smartphone, tablet, headset, laptop or whatever other assistive interface will exist between us and the Web.


Fig. 2. Where it ends … more or less

At a parent’s side when they die is a profound experience. The breathing stopped and a trillion memories drained away. To what degree will this no longer be the case when a life logged digitally becomes a life in part preserved?


The Shallows – Nicholas Carr – I’m about to give up after Chapter 3

In Chapter 3, ‘Tools of the mind’, after a potted history of maps (not cartography) and clocks (not horology), we get an equally potty view of the plastic mind and neuroscience. Carr is no neuroscientist – three decades ago he took a first degree in English Literature (Dartmouth College) followed by a Masters in American Literature (Harvard). He should stick to what he knows.

Though ‘The Shallows‘ is meant to be unavailable online I started to read a version someone has uploaded before the book arrived in the post. If I had the energy I would cut and paste the digital version into a two column table, landscape view, and write my notes alongside – like a translation. This is what I do with academic papers when they require and deserve close scrutiny. ‘The Shallows’, like any Airport best seller is only worth a once only skim read – I’m questioning my resolve even to do that.

It is like being asked to eat six plates of jelly (jello) and custard.

As a book it is a remarkably satisfactory artifact. Even in paper back the cover has a wonderful fine grittiness to it – like sand. I even open the book and breathed it in. For this experience 10/10. All publishers, especially those online, need to take trouble with the Art Work too. Of course the plaudits sing out ‘buy me, buy me’ but as reviews go they are about as helpful as one liners on the latest blockbuster.

Carr writes well enough, not quite Bill Bryson, but an easy and intelligent read, an amble through the relevant technologies to the present day.

Carr can be accepted as a cultural and social historian, his mistake is to want to want bash this evidence into shape to support his conception of the Internet and its dangers. It is like saying that ‘rural man’ is different to ‘urban man’, that the motivations, pace and opportunities are different. Whilst this may be true, the sorts of changes to the brain that Carr suggest are not occurring.

Carr’s conception of mind is both out of date and misconstrued.

I wonder if I have the strength to read on, not even to refute what he says chapter by chapter. I risk polluting my mind. The pleasure is the history, the cod science is irritating and unnecessary.  Carr is well read and would be a pleasure at a dinner party, but I don’t suppose he’s much of a listener, nor someone whose views are likely to change no matter how convincing the evidence that his hypotheses are mistaken.

My inability to concentrate on this book has nothing to do with what Carr will claim to be by Internet altered mind.

I have some 8 books on the go, 4 eBooks, the others in print form by the bed. It simply fails to engage me, even on the level of making me angry. I suspect that Carr takes an evangelical view on his perspective and couldn’t be changed – I tried telling something reading the Da Vinci Code that it was all made up but they wouldn’t believe me. We human’s have it in us to take things on blind faith. Clearly this is a trait that has brought us in evolutionary terms a long way, but if you want a scientific perspective on the Internet you won’t get it from Carr. If anything, from 2000 when I started buying books in bulk from Amazon and from 20101 when I started consuming e-Books voraciously, the Internet has increased my hunger for books – for their content. My preference is for e-Books for their versatility.

I used always to read with a pen and notebook by my side.

I now do everything on the one device, adding notes, highlighting, bookmarking, sharing snippets to Twitter and Facebook along the way and blogging chapter by chapter too. I stop to check the meaning of a word, or to read a footnote, even to download and read a reference where it helps my understanding. I buy books that are only available in print – Marshall McLuhan, Christopher Alexander, Gordon Bell, Robert Gagne, Engestrom’s Activity Systems (certain specific editions).

At no stage has Carr done either a research degree, or has he studied engineering or computer science or anything that might touch on the workings of the Internet such as e–learning.

He should have studied criminal law as he is good at is constructing a plausible, one–sided argument. Nothing by Carr, from what I can see, has been published in an academic journal – it would not be accepted. Those who have studied the Web, psychology, and neuroscience, would shred him. p.48 on the mind is the exact same shallow and ill–conceived thinking touted by that other writer of bias and conjecture – Marc Prensky (the digital natives debacle is largely his, though currently he’s denying he started that ball rolling).

The structural changes to our brains are infinitesimally minute and extraordinarily complex – a Mozart who has studied and played the piano, or a mathematician such as Einstein, have the same brain just as they have in human terms the same arms and legs. If their personality profiles are to be understood, one could imagine Mozart being the easily distracted, eclectic, butterfly online, while Einstein one imagines would treat it as a tool and an opportunity to stay even closer to the topics that mattered to him. One, in Kirton’s terms an ‘innovator’ the other an ‘adaptor’.

This is where Carr’s lack of understanding of human psychology is so telling.

‘Although the workings of our gray matter still lie beyond the reach of archaeologists’ tools, we now know not only that it is probable that the use of intellectual technologies shaped and reshaped the circuitry in our heads, but that it had to be so’. p.49

This is twaddle on so many levels it feels no more possible or desirable to refute than the enthusiastic chatter of a child. Carr doesn’t strike me as someone who easily persuaded when he has something wrong.

  • everything touches our minds
  • everyone is different
  • not everyone has access to the Internet
  • even those who do use it for a myriad of different things in a multitude of ways.
  • years of solitary confinement, or years in the trenches on the Western Front affect different people in different ways.

The Internet, as a changing and fluid platform of content, now on smartphones on smart TVs since Carr wrote ‘The Shallows’, where it impacts and changes our lives, the effect on each of us varies.

Human kind is not homogenous.

Carr’s thinking is shallow.

I got this kind of thing written on my undergraduate essays, in particular when I’d skipped lectures and based my research on back copies of the Financial Times (this would have been for a module on Southern Africa). ‘Journalistic’ was the put down.

This is journalism to be serialised in a Sunday Colour Supplement – it would be acceptable if the view were balanced. I have in mind a book to complement ‘The Shallows’ – a snappy title might be ‘The Deep’ or ‘The Corrections’ but both of these have been used.

Any suggestions?

An equally plausible stance would be to take everything Carr says and imply that it means the exact opposite – this would be just as imbalanced as ‘The Shallows’ though. The idea that the Internet is making ‘us’ profoundly smarter, that we are being re-wired into a super-race.

My own view is that the Internet is producing a glossary expansion in learning, increasing the depth and scope of education

‘The internet lies at the core of an advanced scholarly information infrastructure to facilitate distributed, data and information-intensive collaborative research’. (Borgman, 2007, xvii)


Borgman, C.L. (2007) Scholarship in the digital age: Information, infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


What is the Internet doing to our brains? Not much. Though Nicholas Carr begs to differ.


The Shallows : What the Internet is doing to our Brains?

Nicholas Carr

Love it or hate it the Internet is here for keeps.

I had might as well say forever, as we would all surely agree that everything we’ve got so far will only become more pervasive during our respective lifetimes.

I had hoped to get an objective view from Carr but ‘The Shallows’ fails to say what
the Internet is doing to our brains.

I would love to time travel and stop my ancestors from what they were doing 35,000 years ago so that I could have shared with them what making stone tools would do to their brains and where it would lead.

What’s different? Not much.

They would have been too busy to listen, or, as we are doing, they would listened but pressed on

Carr lacks the credentials, training or inclination to answer the very question he poses.

Journalists and authors, Nicholas Carr is both, want to sell copy so he has to take a stance – he is against.

‘The Shallows’ is an apt title as his research lacks depth. Look a bit closer and many of the authors he cites say as much to counter the arguments as support them, take the Nobel prize winning Eric Kandel who on the one hand identified the ‘plasticity of the brain’, but also showed that through habituation a sort of boredom sets in – hardly the case that Google is taking us over as Carr would gave us believe.

Whatever our attractions and distractions, unless we have behavioural or cognitive issues, the
Internet is no more a trap, no more changing how we think than the book, TV or radio in the past. Despite the Internet we still sleep, make friends, go to school or work, shop, make love, raise kids …

the human world is too complex, too fluid to have been taken over in the way Carr suggests.

What the Interent ‘does to our brains’ is no different to anything else if we engage or apply ourselves for long enough. Carr has a US-centric view too, and a US where everyone of course has Internet access, a smartphone or laptop. He projects this scheme of things onto the rest of the world as if it is the same in North Yorkshire where there is limited broadband access, or to Lake Nakuru, Kenya where there is none.

In his ignorance or arrogance he assumes that everyone is like him and his friends, borderline ADHD, easily bored, addicted to the early adoption of whatever comes along. If half an audience agree with Carr when he suggests that the Internet is taking over their mind and this is a bad thing, the other half will say that it is not – that it is a tool there to do their bidding.

Personally, I come over giddy with excitement when I start a quest to research and read, just as I got each morning when I entered a different library as an undergraduate at Oxford. Then amazed at the knowledge before my eyes that could be called up in a few hours or days. Today equally gobsmacked by tools and resources courtesy of the Open University Online Library that offers up just about anything I can find and want to read in seconds. I’m mot the slave to a platform
or a piece of kit – I move around in both the physical and the virtual sense from different access devices – smartphone, iPad, laptop or desktop as well as through different portals. There isn’t
the sameness to it that Carr implies.

There is variety everywhere you turn. And this is my unique and personal perspective. To avoid
regression to the mean in large scale research on use of and behaviours as a consequence of using the Internet I would invariably be discounted anyway. Far from discounting the few
people Carr speaks to he holds them up as representative of all of us. Proper research could well conclude the opposite to what Carr thinks.

Carr chooses his metaphors to support his perspective – this is natural, but he wants us to think he is speaking in absolute terms, that we all ‘forage in the thickets’. It is a passing phase. Get out of a taxi in a country we have never been to before and we all feel a little lost and overwhelmed. We get over it. Sitting on the fence, as academics do, doesn’t sell books.

They don’t scaremonger. If nothing has changed they say so. ‘What’s the Internet doing to our brains? Not much’ isn’t going to see a title, book or magazine, flying off the shelves. People, in their purchase, like to declare ‘I am for or against’. If Carr had honestly been for he would, like Professor Martin Weller, have published ‘The Shallows’ as open source in a digital form, instead
it is marketed like the latest film staring Sandra Bullock or Nicole Kidman and only made available in analogue form. Carr has a first degree in English literature and a Masters in American literature. He can graze a few articles on neuroscience and webscience but this hardly qualifies him to describe with accuracy how the mind works. Neuroscientists will ponder for decades to come the way we remember. Carr therefore falls back on a potted history, selecting those arguments that support his thesis, rejecting those that do not. He suggests for example that information flows through the eyes and ears to our minds. I’d like to measure that. I’d like
to see that.

Perception isn’t achieved in this way.

No substance flows from one place to another . It is this misconception that must give Carr the impression that his mind is somehow filling up, or getting aggitated by the bombardment of ‘stuff’. The Internet isn’t the problem, rather it is Carr’s own physiological and pscychological response to it. His personal fix, if this is his desire, should be cognitive behavioural therapy. The Net may be
chipping away at Carr’s capacity to concentrate but he and we know that everyone is not like him. Personally, and his is a often a personal, anecdotal story so I can respong from my singular
perspective, I feel as though I was made for the web. The ADHD mind that hungers for everything can in some measure be satisified so long as I give no single interest more than three hours at a time, and I mix up the activities in any 18 hour period when I am not asleep. Carr wants us to believe that the Net is stopping us from being able to concentrate. On the contrary, I find I can now get the exact book or paper I need which I will read cover to cover in eBook or print form. There is less need for compromise. If the book isn’t holding your attention blame the book – find one that better suits you. And finding what does suit you is what the Internet and Google in particular, does do staggeringly well.

Three decades ago my reading pattern was to have six books on the go. I would rotate,
two chapters or two hours on each. Of the six two might be on history, another two on technology, and the fifth and six a novel and a book on design, art or photography. All six might now be in digital for – though the art book is as likely to be large and hardback. And the books may be spinkled with links offered any the author/editor to video or supporting websites. Whether or not I
take up a link is no different to whether or not I stop to read a footnote, or follow up a reference.

The choice is mine, not Google’s. Google enables to my mind, while Carr believes it disables. He is wrong. My handwriting has become illegible. Do I blame Google for the lack of practice, or not having access to a QWERTY keyboard for a few hours yesterday? I coach swimming. I understand adaptation in sport, the phsiological process that links mind to body and action. Your mind and body learn how to do a thing … then you get lazy, or impatient, or come to think of it, resort to scribbling a note with a cheap biro onto the back of an envelope rather than digging out the Sheafer fountain pen and writing, at a desk, rather than propped up on the sitting room sofa
… ‘use it or lose it’ applies to a kid swimming an IM or a Fifty something surfing the Web. If he wants to ‘lose it’ in relation to his behaviours and the Interent all Carr needs to do is something else.

Personally, and I have stated this every year or so in the 13 years I have been blogging, I crave a book – a clear, well–written, single–minded read from end to end, getting into the ‘flow’ of another person’s thinking i.e the Interent has the exact opposite effect on me. But it isn’t just me. Does the ‘Internet’ make us less or more social? Less or more likely to go out and meet up?

Research shows that being sociable online has us wanting to meet face to face. It’s counter intuitive. That’s because the Internet is just a mirror to our natural behaviour. The Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University has a series of labs designed to monitor how we engage with technology, the Internet in particular. To see and measure and understand how we behave with kit and software – we need to listen to the reports they produce and that other institutions such as the IET produce. They will tell us what is really going on because Carr has not. Carr uses research of the past, often the distant past, to inform what is happening today.

The technological distance between Plutarch, Aristotle, Freud and Dewey is too great. Quoting Shakespeare or Arthur C Clarke may provide colour and plausibility, but it doesn’t tell me
what is going on when or as we exploit what can now do, and read, and see and interactive with online. Carr references the ignorant as examples of the informed. I’d describe this as the blind leading the blind. Two fools in a pub can wax lyrical about the ways of the world wide web but the rest of us are none the wiser as a result of listening in. What Carr needs to undertake next, far less sexy that a sensationalist article for the popular rather than the academic press, is research.

To set parameters and to ask a question then set about testing and analysing what is going on. Marshall McLuhan, like Carr fifty years later, knew how to spin an intelligent story. McLuhan then and Carr today read like the transcript of a standup comic for the well read. They both dip into historic greats, but this kind of intellectual name dropping whilst appearing to prop up their arguments starts to crumble when scrutinised closely.

Web 2.0 does this, on the one hand toppling flase prophets such as Marc Prensky and the nonsense of the ‘digital native’. According to Carr ‘we’ must have had minds formed by papyrus scrolls and printed books in the past, just as our minds are so clearly so different courtesy of the Internet.

Who is this ‘we’? It cannot be everyone.

Carr mentions three friends and their experience of the web … as if these people are representative of all human kind. ‘My friend said to me … at a dinner party the other week … a colleague feels that’. Each of these phrases sounds to me as if it could be a transcript from a dinner party. Nothing wrong with conversation if we recognise its context and so long as this isn’t offered as some kind of evidence.

Carr is using this as evidence though. He cites these anecdotes as if they are representative. ‘ ‘The Shallows’ is hear say from one page to the next. He really ought to be writing fiction. No harm in this, at least Aldous Huxley, H G Wells, Arthur C Clarke and even Asimov differentiate between fiction and fact.

Our thought process has never been linear … and book reading certainly didn’t make it so. If anything the way those of us with permanent access to the internet work with information is more in tune with the scattered, fluid, formative nature of thought. Asking ‘What is the Internet doing to our brains?’ could never be answered
by doctoral research.

The question is too broad and ill defined.

‘In using the word processor I had become something of a wordprocessor myself’ p. 13. A statement that can be applied to anyone, at anytime, acquiring an adaptive skill whether at the piano or with flint tools, whether progamming a computer or building a fence. We ‘become’ these things, or rather acquire a additional skills alongside many others. If we use an iPad to take a picture, offer a book, tot up the shopping bill, play music or a TV show, sketch or chat with a friend on the other side of the world what is it that Carr says we have become? We can do all of these things from one device in a shorter space of time – far from defining or confining us I call this liberating.

If Marshall McLuhan talked of the ‘global village’ of the electrical age of mass media, then today these devices put the world at our sides, in our pocket, at our finertips, and courtesy of Google Glass or an Apple device on our noses and wrist. It doesn’t make us one jot the less human, one jot the less a smart, feeble, fallible and mortal creature with all the same pecadillos that Shakespeare so well described 400 years ago. It is p. 14 a ‘high–tech Swiss Army knife’ which may, or may not demand my attention and can be put down, out away or lost, even forgotten about with equal ease.

Reading – nothing quite beats it, does it?

Fig. 1. This week’s reading – almost. I’ve got the stack by the bed too, which includes ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan (half way through) and ‘The Shallows’ Nicholas Carr – which I read wearing boxing gloves to resist removing the pages.

Here we see:

Passion at work: blogging practices of knowledge workers. The 2009 doctoral thesis of Lilia Efimova – who, naturally, has a wonderful blog.

Spaced education improves the retention of clinical knowledge by medical students: a randomised controlled trial. (2009) B Price Kerfoot, William deWolf, Barbara Masser, Paul Church and Daniel Federman – try QStream to get a flavour of this, then read a dozen papers from Dr Kerfoot.

The Music of Business (2013) – Peter Cook. Business with rock playing. He’s an Open University Business School MBA Alumnus, former Tutor on ‘Creativity, Innovation and Change’ a module I did early in 2012.  Should be fun.

In Search of Memory : the emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006) Eric Kandel. I may not be about to study neuroscience of psychology but this may help get my head in the right intellectual space.

Delete : The virtue of forgetting in the digital age (2009) Viktor Mayer-Schonberger. Of the Oxford Internet Institute. On my second read as my interest is in memory and what I consider to be an infinite capacity to learn and gain more knowledge. I know it’s just a film but I do rather think that if we could live forever our minds wouldn’t let us down (Groundhog Day).

Using Computer-based Text Analysis to Integrate Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Research on Collaborative Learning. (2010) Wegerif and Mercer.  As part of the module H809. Already read, reviewed, dissected and taken notes.

A map to get to the University of Southampton Highfield campus from Southampton Central Station.

Your Research PhD (2005) Nicholas Walliman – I’m sure I’ve read more of this than the Kindle suggests, though it must just be very long.

Authoring a PhD: how to plan draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. (2003) Patrick Dunleavy. I’m following the instructions to the letter.  From these two books I’ve drawn up a ‘plan’ on a sheet of A1 paper. I need a bigger sheet, so I’ll double these up or use wallpaper backing paper to plot the detail. I’ve got my head around RefWorks and have a healthy collection of papers to read, usually picking of a couple each day.

H809 Practice-based Research in Educational Technology. Only week 2. This is making me approach anything I read with enormous care. Courtesy of Google it doesn’t take long to track down the authors – I like to know what they have written since simply to get a perspective on where their career has gone or is going. Not the guide that is recommended to judge a paper but when faced with a list of potential papers on the same topic I hope I pick out the authority based on institution and their CV.

Just read:

Evidence for Delayed Parafoveal-on-Foveal Effects From Word n2 in Reading (2012) Sarah Risse and Reinhold Kliegl – A remarkable read, even if it takes a microscope to a piece of text and how we read. Fascinating. 

While still reading:

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) Marshall McLuhan

The Timeless Way of Building (1972) Christopher Alexander

and about to attack

The Shallows (2009) Nicholas Carr


Google is making more of us brighter

Nicholas Carr speaking at the 12th Annual Gild...

Nicholas Carr speaking at the 12th Annual Gilder/Forbes Telecosm Conference on May 28, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Google Making Us Stupid?  (July/August 2008)

Critique of Nicholas Carr’s piece in the Atlantic.


Google is contributing to putting a university in everyone’s pocket – that is if you have a smartphone or tablet and Internet access. So remarked Lt. Col. Sean Brady in his MBA Blog in the Financial Times in 2011.

In 2008 Nicholas Carr jumped on the Internet / Google bandwagon of scaremongering sensationalism by suggesting that the Internet is doing something to our brains.

He did little better with ‘The Shallows’ (2008) of which the Guardian Book review said:

‘Buy it, knife out all the pages, bin a few, shuffle the rest and begin to digest. It may not be what the author intended, but you might learn more, and make some stimulating connections along the way – just like you do on the internet’. (Tucker, 2011)

He  holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A., in English and American Literature and Language, from Harvard University. His BA is presumably in literature, not psychology or engineering or computer science.

He says he’s one of America’s ‘leading internet intellectuals’?  Who qualifies this?

Does this make him an authority on neuroscience or digital literacies or even web-science and the Internet? 

Carr opens and closes this article with images and words from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Stanley Kubrick isn’t the author, that’s Arthur C. Clarke. At least he has a first class honours degree in physics and mathematics. But he is writing fiction – rather like Carr. Anyone can quote H G Wells, Jules Verne or the script writers of the Star Trek Series but this hardly lends credibility.

This is Journalism for a Sunday Colour supplement.

Not science, not academic research – it is closer to stand up comedy.

Carr (2008) writes:
‘I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory’. (Carr, 2008)

Carr may feel these things and express it this way, but this does not mean that this is going on. On the contrary. Carr confuses brain and mind and doesn’t know the difference. What he writes he is a personal view, stream of consciousness, spurious, unscientific and easily challenged.  Just because Carr thinks it and writes it down doesn’t make it so.

If his concentration drifts then this is an internal cognitive issue, not the propensity of what is going on around to distract. Some people are more distractable than others, while our ability to focus or drift will change too. When the chips are down and you have to focus for an exam that is what people generally do.

‘I think I know what’s going on’. Carr writes, ‘For more than a decade now.  I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet’.

Is this put in to support his credentials?

What precisely is he doing here?

Fiddling around in Wikipedia, or writing a blog? His role with Encyclopedia Britannica is pure PR – he had a dig at Wikipedia, is a popular writer of general fiction so they asked for a piece of him. Anyone can contribute to Wikipedia – though I hope Carr is keeping his ideas to himself as the contents of articles like this should and would be very quickly shredded as intellectually inaccurate and weak.

The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Carr says (2008)

There’s a naive view here that the authors or editors who use hyperlinks know what they are doing and even link to information that has validity. Finding text to support your thesis doesn’t meant that either they or you are correct – where is the counter argument? The balance?

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. (Carr 2008)

Does ‘flow’ expose Carr’s ignorance of how the mind works? There is no physical flow, rather there is perception, filtered by various sensors, then physically constructed across a multitude of pathways.  How much does the average person actually spend in front of a screen online? Were similar things not also said about TV frying our minds, and before that Radio, and before than the book?  If you agree with Marshall McLuhan then you must accept that books, radio and TV are still around – we are not being uniquely, exclusively or universally cudgelled by the Internet or Google all our waking lives. Nor does a clever metaphor enhance credibility – this is your feeling and impression, not fact.

Behaviours are very easily changed.

You learn that  you cannot have all the candy in the candy store, that you can’t read all the books in the library, that the paper you pick up you will browse until your eye is caught by something of interest.

Just because ‘ the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation’ does not mean this is the case for everyone else, however much they might nod along in agreement.

‘I’m not the only one’. Carr writes, ‘When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences’.  (Carr, 2008)

Which friends? How many? What did you ask them? Where is it written down? Would you describe as mentioning what you say your friends think as evidence, as objective, as anywhere close to the research that is required before such claims as those you make can be substantiated?

The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Carr says, (Carr, 2008)

Nonsense of course. Let’s do some research. We may find the opposite. That a little reading excited the curiosity so that a lot more is then done. Short and long can be equally good, or bad, it depends on context, author, presentation – a plethora of things. What has been discovered about the use of blogs? That people read more, or less? That people write more or less? With 1.5 million words online my 13 blogging habit may be exceptional, though plenty use a blog to develop books, to share a thesis as it is written, to review books and courses …

“I can’t read War and Peace  anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.” Carr writes, 2008.

So what. This isn’t evidence, it’s hearsay. It’s anecdotal. One person  in response to a leading question and a quote selected for the sole purpose of supporting the hypothesis. These are mental habits so much as cognitive behaviours. You can’t change ‘mental habits’ like buying a new car – how you think, your memories, have all constructed and adapted to your unique experience.

Experiments or research? Does  he  know the difference? And can the tests you suggest ever be done? Internet use can not be isolated from everything else we do in our lives: read books and papers, watch TV, listen to the radio, attend a lecture, watch a lecture online, join a webinar or class, read a letter, an email, a blog, listen to a podcast, look at pictures you’ve taken and those that you haven’t.

But a recently published study of online research habits , conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. Carr writes (2008).

Which ‘scholars’? If they have names provide them. Just as there is no evidence that they went back to read the longer article, there is no evidence to say that they didn’t. In all likelihood having had the opportunity to skim through so many abstracts they saved what mattered and then did go back and read. In the process they gained through serendipitous inquiry that is usually far more structured than you suggest – people click through other papers by the same author, or on the same subject, or from a faculty they are interested in … and may by chance and out of curiosity click on other things too. How do you think research on how people read microfiche were carried out, and what did it find? What about going through newspapers at the National Newspaper Archive where invariably, Internet like, you eyes skims over the page and everything it contains. Whilst some aspects of the world around us is changing – a bit. We aren’t changing at all. We are literate, we live longer … but there cannot be some overnight evolutionary change in what we are.

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. Carr writes, 2008.

Who says? What makes it clear? Who did the research? Where is the research?  It may be clear to Carr but where is the evidence? Where is the data? The research? The peer reviewed papers that support your view?

What are these ‘new forms of reading’ – how do you define old forms of reading? Have you considered how people read fifty years ago, 500 or thousand years ago? From manuscripts, or in cuneiform on papyrus? What we are experiencing is an expansion in the way that we can engaged with content, that’s all. We read different things in different ways from a poster on a hoarding as we drive to a station, to a timetable of train times, the front page of a newspaper, a blog post, business reports, email, text message …

We read, for better or worse, with greater ease or difficulty in part depending on the way the text is presented and the affordances of the webpage or reading software if we’ve downloaded it. We don’t take handwritten notes because we don’t need to. We may opt to read online or in some cases order a physical book. Far from new forms of reading, there is a great deal of effort being put in to retain the best that came out of print – in all its forms, whether a book, leaflet or poster while trying to avoid clutter, fonts, layouts and links that would disturb how we read i.e. the technology is designed to perform to suit us, we are not adjusting to suit the technology – far from it. If something doesn’t work we say so and ignore it.

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. Says Carr, 2008. Medium of choice over what other choices? So, we watched a lot of TV in the 70s, 80s – and 90s and 00s by the way … just as generations in the 40s and 50s sat around the radio. Now we have a multitude of choices – and if our radio, our TV and our paper are delivered to a tablet what is it that we are doing that is so different to these previous ages?

‘We may well be reading more today …’ are we, or are we not? And if so why? And so what. More people are literate. There is easier access to anything. Suggestions based on casual observation or hear say have suggested that people who spend too long online in social networks don’t have a life – the evidence suggests that the social life is an extension of what goes on in the real world and that it encourages people to arrange to meet up.

Maryanne Wolf, Carr tells us,  worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace.

From a review by Douglas (2008)  in the New Scientist I read that ‘Just as writing reduced the need for memory, the proliferation of information and the particular requirements of digital culture may short-circuit some of written language’s unique contributions—with potentially profound consequences for our future’.

The worst error Wolf makes here is to imply that our minds function in any way like a circuit-board, to start with the is the way Marshall McLuhan spoke of what TV and mass media was doing to our brains in the 1960s – a metaphor is a dangerous explanation as it implies something that isn’t the case.  The mind is not a circuit board. This is how Marshall McLuhan spoke of what was going on in the 1950s and 1960s. Using the terminology of the time to suggest that some kind of revolution was occurring and that there would be no going back – not too surprisingly life goes on very much as it did fifty years ago, even a hundred and fifty or a thousand years ago. We grow up, we live, we may have children, we may raise them, we get older, we die. More of us learn to read, more of us go to university, more of us drive and have TVs – and increasingly, though by no means universally, we have access to a computer and/or the Internet.

When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. Carr writes (Carr, 2008) Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

So what? Handwriting is different to typing, and writing in pencil is different to ink pen or biro, and typing on a mechanical typewriter is different to a laptop, iPad or smartphone. The typewriter here as assistive technology, to the able bodied simple an enhancement of what we can do with other kit and tools.

The human brain is almost infinitely malleable, says Carr using his anecdote about Nietzsche as the clinching evidence.  Huh? How scientific is a phrase such as ‘almost infinitely malleable’. Define your parameters. Offer some precision. You don’t because you can’t. And as you’re not after the truth you’re not about to understate any research.

The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away.

So there were no scientific minds before clocks? Ptolemy? Leonardo da Vinci? Others can add to the list. What has it taken away? Rather let’s consider what it has brought in access, accessibility and scale. ‘A university in my pocket’ is how an Open University MBA student described learning online with access to the resources of the course, but also to a wealth of other online content.

The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.

It can be measure and is – there is a figure, however much it grows that we are currently below … what is an ‘intellectual technology’? How do you account for the phenomenon that the Internet through people connecting is sending people out of the house and office to meet fellow human beings to interact away from the keyboard. You find a like-mind you eventually want to talk to them face to face. In this respect use of the Internet has a counter balance – it encourages doing other things.

A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration. Carr writes, (Carr, 2008)

Distractability has less to do with the distractions around us, and more to do with our desire or propensity to be distracted. We all know people who can write essays and revise for exam with the radio on or in front of the TV, while others need the silence of a silent library. We are most certainly NOT all the same which is how Nicholas Carr sees us from the outset.

As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Carr writes, (Carr, 2008)

In the right place, the mind is very capable of doing this, just as we can learn to play the organ or conduct an orchestra, that doesn’t mean we don’t also want the clarity of a movie screen or portrait in a gallery.

Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

No. The technology permits a better way of doing things, playing to the way the mind is … not what we can turn it into.

Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.

Nicholas Carr has now fallen into the trap of using a metaphor of choice, the cliché idea that our minds are somehow either like microchips or the 100 billion neurones that have the options of being connected in multi-billions of shifting ways.

There are plenty of positive futures of a world brain, from H G Wells to Vannevar Bush

That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy, Carr concludes (2008) as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.


Carr extends these anecdotal observations by linking them to the plasticity of the brain, which is constantly being shaped by experience. While plasticity is generally seen as a positive feature — it keeps the cortex supple — Carr is interested in its dark side. He argues that our mental malleability has turned us into servants of technology, our circuits reprogrammed by our gadgets. (Lehrer 2010)

There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.

Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” (Lehrer 2010)


This is a seductive model, but the empirical support for Carr’s conclusion is both slim and equivocal. To begin with, there is evidence that web surfing can increase the capacity of working memory. And while some studies have indeed shown that ‘hypertexts’ impede retention – in a 2001 Canadian study, for instance, people who read a version of Elizabeth Bowen’s story ‘The Demon Lover’ festooned with clickable links took longer and reported more confusion about the plot than did those who read it in an old-fashioned ‘linear’ text – others have failed to substantiate this claim. No study has shown that internet use degrades the ability to learn from a book, though that doesn’t stop people feeling that this is so – one medical blogger quoted by Carr laments, ‘I can’t read War and Peace any more.’

Hoyt: Plugging In Productively (2012)

Although I have at times experienced the “shallowness” that Carr describes, his views and the sweeping categorization of the Internet as a source of distraction are a simplistic reduction of a larger, more complicated problem. It’s easy to label technology as the danger because extreme assessments are easier to adhere to than calls for using technology in moderation.

I’m not certain how to go about regaining this control and moving myself from my current mode of passive over consumption, but I think more intentional and purposeful use of the Internet will help me reduce the sense of information saturation I’ve been feeling lately.


Carr, N (2008) Is Google Making Us Stupid?. The Atlantic. (Accessed 11 February 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/ )

Carr, N (2008) The Shallows.

Douglas, K 2007, ‘Review: Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf’, New Scientist, 195, 2623, p. 52, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 8 February 2013.

Holt, J (2011)  Smarter, Happier, More Productive (Accessed 11 Feb 2013 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n05/jim-holt/smarter-happier-more-productive )

Hoyt, H (2012) Plugging into productivity. Contributing Columnist. The Dartmouth. (October 16, 2012) (Accessed 11 Feb 2013 http://thedartmouth.com/2012/10/16/opinion/hoyt )

Lehrer, J (2010) Our Cluttered Minds. The New York Times Book Review

Tucker, I (2011) Guardian Book Reviews (Accessed 11 Feb 2013 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jul/03/shallows-nicholas-carr-internet-neurology )

I love words


Fig.1 On trying to understand the meaning of foveal

The 15 second quiz

Merriam-Webster – the ‘sticky’ web dictionary using gamification to build the brand and hold your attention.

Who’d have thought it a decade ago.  ‘Sticky’ was the Holy Grail – but applied to an online dictionary?

I love words.

I have used many online dictionaries, including ‘the dictionary’ and the OED, and of course Wikipedia. Increasingly I pick Merriam-Webster from the list offered.

The response page is clean (ish) i.e. you get an unclutted, quick and short definition, which is all you want if you are trying to read a text.

You can, by default, find you are ’embedding’ your relationship with the word by adding a comment.

  • What brings you here?
  • Why were you after this word?
  • You may then be intrigued by the responses other people have left.

Then there’s the quick 15 second quiz.

A crafty way to up your Pub Quiz or Mastermind General Knowledge.

Fig.2 Another distraction in the Merriam-Web online dictionary

And there’s a pithy video clip on some highfalutin stuff about words. Except of course it isn’t, you’d just expect it to be so. They’re very down to earth. There’s the best explanation of the important difference between – its and its – for example.

My distraction? My word(s)

  • Foveal
  • Profoveal

That collection of nodes in the retina we subconsciously use when focusing on the fine detail of something – often used for reading tough texts where the ‘profoveal words’ i.e. those just out of vision and typically a few down the line from your centre of focus could distract if and where the word is bold, in colour, underlined … or the purposes of the research papers I am reading, if the word or phrase has a hyperlink.

Do you want you reader to read at an uninterupted measured pace – or tangle their eyes in barbed wire?

The aim, as they eventually figured out with the printed word, is a form or set of patterns and guidelines that make the reading of text on a screen easier, engaging enough so the the issues and facts begin to stick, without it being a mess.

I often wonder if a ‘porta-pront’ App – so you read as a Newsreader would do, offers the most uncluttered way to read text?

We’re still a long way short of a digital expression of the written word – the guiltiest group are academic papers. These are for the most part highly formalised layouts based on analogue moveable print.

Where I can I cut and paste and entire paper into Google Docs, then reformat so that I can scroll through.

Now what on earth did I get up to do 20 minutes ago?!

Ah yes.

This little gem.

Risse, S, & Kliegl, R 2012, ‘Evidence for delayed parafoveal-on-foveal effects from word n+2 in reading’, Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception And Performance, 38, 4, pp. 1026-1042, PsycARTICLES, EBSCOhost, viewed 11 February 2013.

A fascinating read that debunks the thesis of Marshall McLuhan – not that I was looking for one. It appears we don’t so much see words as perceive them – that there isn’t such a disconnect between oral traditions of communication and learning and the written word. McLuhan is known for the ‘medium is the message’ in relation to mass media in the 1950s/1960s. Other than the fact that he failed to acknowledge that people didn’t stop talking to each other or reading just because they could watch TV, he also likes to ignore radio in this argument. To cite McLuhan in relation to the Internet is a further calumny as it is mixed and multi-media. But, importantly, and no differently to the coming of print or radio or TV we remain human first and prone to communicate as we have always done – either orally, or through interpretation of what we see and do in a mixture of oral and visual terms. 


The spoken word is crucial to understanding.

The spoken word is crucial to understanding.

Fig.1. Meeting face to face to talk about e-learning – sometimes a webinar wont’t do, though more often you have no choice. 

‘I don’t know what I mean until I have heard myself say it, Said Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift

Conversation plays a crucial element of socialised learning.

Courtesy of a Google Hangout we can record and share such interactions such as in this conversation on and around ‘personal knowledge management’. Here we can both see and hear why the spoken word is so important.

Trying to understand the historical nature of this, how and when the written word, or other symbols began to impinge on the spoken word requires investigating the earliest forms of the written word and trying to extrapolate the evidence of this important oral tradition, the impact it had on society and the transition that occurred, after all, it is this transition that fascinates us today as we embrace the Internet.

Humans have been around for between 100,000 and 200,000 years. (Encyclopedia Britannica).

There are pigments and cave painting have been found that are 350,000 years old. (Barham 2013), while here are cave paintings as old as 40,000 years (New Scientist).

Stone Age man’s first forays into art were taking place at the same time as the development of more efficient hunting equipment, including tools that combined both wooden handles and stone implements. (BBC, 2012). Art and technology therefore go hand in hand – implying that the new tools of the Internet will spawn flourishing new wave of creation, which I believe to be the case. This era will be as remarkable for the development of the Web into every aspect of our lives as it will be for a epoch identifying renaissance – a new way of seeing things.

We’ve been seeking ways to communicate beyond the transience of the spoken word for millennia.

McLuhan takes us to the spoken word memorised in song and poetry (Lord, 1960 p. 3) while a contemporary writer, Viktor Mayer-Schonbeger, (2009. p. 25) also talks about how rhyme and meter facilitated remembering. McLuhan draws on 1950s scholarship on Shakespeare and asks us to understand that Lear tells us of shifting political views in the Tudor era as a consequence of a burgeoning mechanical age and the growth of print publishing. (Cruttwell, 1955)  McLuhan suggests that the left-wing Machiavellianism in Lear who submits to ‘a darker purpose’ to subdivide of his kingdom is indicative of how society say itself developing at a time of change in Tudor times. Was Shakespeare clairvoyant? Did audiences hang on his words as other generations harken the thoughts of  H G Wells and Karl Popper, perhaps as we do with the likes Alan de Bouton and Malcolm Gladwell?

‘The Word as spoken or sung, together with a visual image of the speaker or singer, has meanwhile been regaining its hold through electrical engineering’.xii. Wrote Prof. Harry Levin to the preface of The Singer of Tales.

Was a revolution caused by the development of and use of the phonetic alphabet?

Or from the use of barter to the use of money?

Was the ‘technological revolution’ of which McLuhan speaks quoting Peter Drucker, the product of a change in society or did society change because of the ‘technological revolution’? (Drucker, 1961) Was it ever a revolution?

We need to be careful in our choice of words – a development in the way cave paintings are done may be called a ‘revolution’ but something that took thousands of years to come about is hardly that.

Similarly periods in modern history are rarely so revolutionary when we stand back and plot the diffusion of an innovation (Rogers, 2005) which Rogers defines as “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. (Rogers, 2005. p. 12). To my thinking, ‘diffusion’ appears to be a better way to consider what has been occurring over the last few decades in relation to ‘technology enhanced communications’, the Internet and the World Wide Web. But to my ears ‘diffusion’ sounds like ‘transfusion’ or ‘infusion’ – something that melts into the fabric of our existence. If we think of society as a complex tapestry of interwoven systems then the Web is a phenomenon that has been absorbed into what already exists – this sounds like an evolving process rather than any revolution. In context of course, this is a ‘revolution’ that is only apparent as such by those who have lived through the change; just as baby boomers grew up with television and may not relate to the perspective that McLuhan gives it and those born in the last decade or so take mobile phones and the Internet as part of their reality with no sense of what came before.

Clay tablets, papyri and the printing press evolved. We are often surprised at just how long the transition took.

To use socio-political terms that evoke conflict and battle is a mistake. Neither the printing press, nor radio, nor television, nor the Internet have been ‘revolutions’ with events to spark them akin to the storming of the Bastille in 1789 or the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 – they have been evolutionary.

Are we living in ‘two forms of contrasted forms of society and experience’ as Marshall McLuhan suggested occurred in the Elizabethan Age between the typographical and the mechanical ages? Then occurred between in the 1960s  between the industrial and electrical ages? ‘Rendering individualism obsolete’. (McLuhan 1962. p. 1)

Individualism requires definition. Did it come with the universal adult suffrage?

Was it bestowed on people, or is it a personality trait? Are we not all at some point alone and individual, as well as part of a family, community or wider culture and society? We are surely both a part and part of humanity at the same time?

Edward Hall (1959), tells us that ‘all man–made material things can be treated asextensions of what man once did with his body or some specialized part of his body. The Internet can therefore become and is already an extension of our minds. A diarist since 1975 I have blogged since 1999 and have put portions of the handwritten diary online too – tagging it so that it can be searched by theme and incident, often charting my progress through subjects as diverse as English Literature, British History, Geography, Anthropology and Remote Sensing from Space, Sports Coaching (swimming, water-polo and sailing). This aide memoire has a new level of sophistication when I can refer to and even read text books I had to use in my teens. It is an extension of my mind as the moments I write about are from my personal experience – there is already a record in my mind.

What is the Internet doing to society? What role has it played in the ‘Arab Spring’? McLuhan considered the work of Karl Popper on the detribalization of Greece in the ancient world). Was an oral tradition manifesting itself in the written word the cause of conflict between Athens and Sparta? McLuhan talks of ‘the Open Society’ in the era of television the way we do with the Internet. We talked about the ‘Global Village’ in the 1980s and 1990s so what do we have now? Karl Popper developed an idea that from closed societies  (1965) through speech, drum and ear we came to  our open societies functioning by way of abstract relations such as exchange or co–operation. – to the entire human family into a single global tribe.

The Global kitchen counter (where I work, on my feet, all day), or the global ‘desk’ if we are sharing from a workspace …

or even the ‘global pocket’ when I think of how an Open University Business School MBA student described doing an MBA using an iPad and a smartphone as a ‘university in my pocket’. You join a webinar or Google Hangout and find yourself in another person’s kitchen, study or even their bed. (Enjoying one such hangout with a group of postgraduate students of the Open University’s Masters in Open and Distance Education – MAODE – we agreed for one session to treat it as a pyjama party. Odd, but representative of the age we live in – fellow students were joining from the UK, Germany, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates). I have been part of such a group with people in New Zealand and California – with people half asleep because it is either very late at night, or very early in the morning.

McLuhan  (1965. p. 7) concludes that the ‘open society’ was affected by phonetic literacy …

and is now threatened with eradication by electric media. Writing fifty years ago is it not time we re-appraised McLuhan’s work and put it in context. We need to take his thesis of its pedestal. Whilst it drew attention at the time it is wrong to suggest that what he had to say in relation to the mass media (radio and TV) if even correct then, others insight in the era of the Internet.  This process of creating an open society has a far broader brief and with a far finer grain today – , the TV of the sitting room viewed by a family, is now a smart device in your pocket that goes with you to the lavatory, to bed, as you commute between work and in coffee and lunch breaks. It will soon be wearable, not only always on, but always attached as goggles, glasses, ear-piece, strap or badge.

If ‘technology extended senses’ McLuhan, 1965. p.8 then the technology we hold, pocket and wear today, are a prosthesis to our senses and to the manner in which the product of these senses is stored, labelled, interpreted, shared, re-lived, and reflected upon.

If Mercators maps and cartography altered 16th century mentality what do Google Maps and Street View do for ours?

Did  the world of sound gives way to the world of vision? (McLuhan, 1965 p.19). What could we learn from anthropologists who looked at non–literate natives with literate natives, the non–literate man with the Western man.

Synchronous conversation online is bringing us back to the power and value of the spoken word – even if it can be recorded, visualised with video and transcripted to form text. The power, nuance and understanding from an interchange is clear.


Barham, L (2013) From Hand to Handle: The First Industrial Revolution

Carpenter, E and H M McLuhan (19xx) ‘Explorations in communications’. Acoustic Space

Cruttwell, P (1955) The Shakespearean Moment (New York; Columbia) New York. Random House.

Hall, E.T. (1959) The Silent Langauge

Lord, A.A. (1960) The Singer of the Tales (Cambridge. M.A. Harvard University Press)

Drucker, Peter F. “The technological revolution: notes on the relationship of technology, science, and culture.” Technology and Culture 2.4 (1961): 342-351.

Mayer-Schönberger, V (2009) Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Popper, K. (1945)  The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume One. Routledge (1945, reprint 2006)

Rogers, E.E. (1962) The Diffusion of Innovations.


The Gutenberg Galaxy – first thoughts, from the first pages


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 [1962].

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.


The medium is the message – Marshall McLuhan

I struggle with McLuhan‘s point of view  because it can be argued in many ways: is he saying that the message is controlled by the affordances of the medium or by the people running the shows? Or both?

And in plenty of country’s the medium was/is state controlled.

While in the US it is controlled by the advertisers. TV lends itself to a certain form of expression; historically there have been and are producers who create TV magic and get the format right, though there are plenty of experiments too that kick against what is possible and an audience will tolerate.

A shift to YouTube is fascinating.

I watched the Japanese Disaster‘s play out live, first on BBC 24hr News, then CNN, then best of all Japanese TV with English voice over NHK all on Freeview. I thought, having sat through IRA bombs and 9/11 that these feeds were the best source … the closes to being there. My son was getting this on YouTube directly from people’s SmartPhones ‘on the ground’. For the Libyan crisis I am taking Twitter Feeds and watching Al Jexera.

The point I feel is that each medium offers different possibilities: print, radio, TV and now online.

Everyone is their own producer/director if uploading from a Flip camera or SmartPhone. However, artists will come through. Within the communities that we become a part of there will be someone who is more informed, better at expressing themselves or exploiting the platform. Watching a documentary on Japan my son curses the amateur video producers for not keeping the camera still as vast quantities of water smash into buildings and boats. Not meaning to be flippant but he’s probably learning why locked off shots, from a tripod, work better.

From a learning point of view we are ‘there,’ the internet to a greater degree than print, radio or TV ‘puts us on the spot.

Is this not closer to reality, to being physically present, which is how historically (35,000 of human kind) we have learnt? By observation, participation and collaboration? Through mistakes and successes?


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