Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Notes on Marshall McLuhan--"Classrooms Without Walls"
(Preface: I had intended to have this essay posted last week, but it ended up going through a few drafts and a few different directions. It's part of my attempt to see writing projects through to completion, no matter how long they take. I used to have a problem with starting pieces, getting bored, and moving on to other ones. Hopefully, with this essay, I've broken out of that habit. Time will tell.)
In a previous post outlining some basic thoughts on the pros and cons of Internet publishing, I tossed in the quote "the medium is the message" by Marshall McLuhan. While I believe that I used it in the proper context, I was a little disappointed in myself. There was (and still is) so much about McLuhan that I didn't know, and had I used that quote in an academic setting, I conceivably would have left myself open to that ignorance. On top of that, I've had the book Understanding Me in my possession for over three years, having used it for a research paper in one of Joseph Tabbi's literature/technology courses. I have distinct memories of giving a two day presentation on John Donne in high school, but absolutely no memory of what I gathered from Understanding Me, a collection of essays and lectures by McLuhan.
To say that he "predicted" the rise of the Internet and computer technology on the arts is akin to saying that George Mikan and Bill Russell "predicted" the rise of the center position in basketball--the statement is true, but there's much more to be said. McLuhan didn't create the Web like Tim Berners-Lee, nor did he make sketches in the style of Leonardo DaVinci's helicopters. He primarily lectured and wrote, and in the process used humor and clarity to foresee the future of communications. After reading and studying the book again, I don't feel as bad about "quote-dropping." Every lecture and essay is full of phrases that can be easily applied to twenty-first century media studies.
"Educators naturally feel that their job is to maintain the educational establishment, and to preserve and advance the values so long associated with its procedures/One effect of the commercial movement of information in many media is that today we live in classrooms without walls (McLuhan 2, 7)."
In a wonderful example of perfect timing, I read these passages (from a lecture given in 1959) not long after the state of Washington began airing commercials for an online high school. The ad lists the benefits. Students can study anywhere and at any time with a government-issued laptop and printer. When I first saw the ad, I sided with the "educational establishment," merely out of selfishness. If I had to wake up early and be at my high school by 8:00AM, why should today's students catch a break? Not much later, I began to see the value of the idea and realized that McLuhan was right nearly fifty years ago. Technology helps education; it doesn't take away from it. Perhaps in my lifetime, all schools will be digital, with CD-ROMs and files replacing books. This also used to upset me, because of my love of the book as a physical property. But I take solace in the fact that books will never disappear.
"For example, our present concern about closed-circut television in education is parallel to the sixteenth-century concern about whether print and the vernaculars could do a serious educational job. It is actually asking whether the car can ever supplant the horse. We are losing precious time in such static retrospection (McLuhan 8)."
We just need to embrace change. Doing so will not necessarily make old technologies obsolete. For example, look at vinyl records today. Sure, the technology of music has changed drastically, but records will never totally die out. In my mind, the same is true about the print medium. As McLuhan noted, "the content of any technology is inevitably the older technology (91)."
Another aspect of McLuhan that is astounding is how perfectly comfortable he would have been had he lived into the 2000s. He went against the mold of a "stuffy" professor, but was rather naturally tuned into youth culture and its relationship with technology. In the introduction to Understanding Me, Tom Wolfe stated that McLuhan would have loved the Internet. This is very true, and taking it further, he would have loved the explosion of blogs, zines, and underground communications.
"Today, Xerox and other forms of reprography tend to make every man a publisher. This massive reversal has, for one of its consequences, elitisim. The nature of the mass production of uniform volumes certainly did not foster elites but rather habits of universal reading. Paradoxically, when there are many readers, the author can wield great private power, whereas small reading elites may extert large corporate power (McLuhan 179)."
This passage supports my opinion, but I feel that McLuhan contradicts himself when he says that the power of Xerox lends itself to elitism. In fact, I feel that it goes against the other statements. As I've alluded to in the post Literature and the Internet, Xeroxing (and the blogging/self-publishing boom of today) actually distances itself from elitism, because it mass-produces literature and information with the intent of moving beyond traditional publishing methods. Then again, perhaps McLuhan means that Xeroxing mass-produces on a smaller scale, not intended for large groups of readers, but instead for an "elite" few. I also kept noting that Xerox is always capitalized. Obviously, this is because it's a trademark name, but on another level, it goes beyond that, giving a mark of legitimacy to a means of publication that actual elitists might criticize.
"A mass medium is one in which the message is not directed at an audience but through an audience, as it were. The audience is both show and the message. Language is such a medium-- one that includes all who use it as part of the medium itself (McLuhan 25)."
I want to conclude this essay with thoughts on McLuhan's ideas in conjunction with his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. The above quote, from a lecture given seventeen years before the film was released, can actually be used as a kind of summary of the scene. Allen's Alvy Singer character works as a representation of the audience, voicing concerns and analysis directly to the screen (breaking the "fourth wall"). The scene represents a fantasy that most of us have, to silence a blowhard with the most unrefutable information available (in Alvy's case, this information is McLuhan himself). Therefore, the mass medium (film) flips McLuhan's statement, allowing the audience to vicariously absorb the message through Alvy. The audience is indeed "both the show and the message"--whether they realize it or not.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Me. Copyright 2003 by Stephanie McLuhan.