Lawrence O’Connor on Chapters 32 and 33 for #UMRG

Lawrence O’Connor wrote to me: “[My summary] was to have loads of illustration and music, I wanted it to be as poetic as my experience of the text but underestimated the task so it is speech only.”

His wonderful audio summary (using his actor’s voice) is available here:

Lawrence also provided two links as reference: Behind the Banner and Why I Hate School But Love Education.

He would like us to think about the following questions:

  • In what ways do you experience being free/not free from ‘fragmentary specialism’ to enjoy being a ‘nomadic gatherer of knowledge’?
  • What are your experiences of the ‘literary’ and ‘artist’ roles?
  • What are your experiences of engagement in the War of the Icons? Can there be a neutral position?
  • What are your experiences of your ‘armour being abandoned’ to create more weapons?
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Will Monroe on Chapters 30 and 31 for #UMRG

Will Monroe wrote to me “I’m glad I was able to work with these chapters; they were among the most interesting that I’ve read so far.” Below his summary on chapters 30 and 31.


Chapter 30 – Radio: The Tribal Drum

“How does one understand Marshall McLuhan? The answer is a quintessentially McLuhanesque paradox: To understand McLuhan, you must read McLuhan, but to read McLuhan, you must first understand McLuhan”
On Reading McLuhan (p. 1)

Raised on Radio (Journey album

I’ve found reading Understanding Media to be something that has surprised and puzzled me but my ability to organize what I’ve read is proving to be quite difficult. Chapter 30 is no exception. Rather than event attempt a summary, I’m going to offer a few quotes from the chapter and provide my own reflections on it. Everyone has offered wonderful summaries so far, so I apologize for this lack. But, I would recommend both Mark Federman’s On Reading McLuhan and Terrence Gordon’s McLuhan for Beginners as excellent guides for someone who is struggling to learn how to read McLuhan, as I have.

“Since literacy had fostered an extreme of indvidualism, and radio had done just the oppositie in reviving the ancient experience of kinship webs of deep tribal involvement, the literate West tried to find some sort of compromise in a larger sense of collective responsibility” (p. 403)

“Radio is provided with its cloak of invisibility, like any other medium. It comes to us ostensibly with person-to-person directness that is private and intimate, while in more urgent fact, it is really a subliminal echo changer of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords. All technological extensions of ourselves must be numb and subliminal, else we could not endure the leverage exerted upon us by such extension.” (p. 404)

The above quote is McLuhan re-presenting one his main themes in Understanding Media, first presented in Chapter Four: the application of Hans Selye’s theory of disease, originally intended to describe physical trauma. McLuhan uses this theory to describe the psychic trauma created by the shock of new media. Although I struggle to understand how radio effected the early 20th century cultures of the United States, England, and continental Europe, I finally feel that I have a grasp of McLuhan’s use of this theory, and what he means by “trauma”, “shock”, and “numbness” that he so often uses in the book. At this point in my reading, I appreciated Federman’s description of what it’s like to read McLuhan:

”His arguments and examples are easily caught, mainly because they are reiterated throughout all his works — if you miss it the first, second, third or seventh times through, you’re sure to catch it the tenth or fifteenth or twentieth time you see it.”

“…commercial interest who think to render media universally acceptable, invariably settle for ‘entertainments’ as a strategy of neutrality…[this] ensures maximal pervasisveness for any medium whatever…[this also] ensures maximum speed and force of impact for any medium…Just as we now try to control atom bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defense is the print medium. The educational establishment, founded on print, does not yet admit any other responsibilities” (p. 408)

This quote is fascinating. I think I can easily grasp what McLuhan is saying about how entertainment insures that a medium is adopted rapidly and deeply. And I think his prediction of a need for “media fallout” is prescient. What intrigues me though is his admonishment of educational institutions that are based upon print and are thus unprepared to address the effects of newer media and his assertions in Chapter 31 about the best way to be “inoculated” against media effects:

”’What possible immunity can there be from the subliminal operation of a new medium like television?’…To resist TV [or other new media], therefore, one must acquire the antidote of a related media like print.” (p. 436)

Again, On Reading McLuhan offers some helpful advice for the reader who might be tempted to question her grasp of McLuhan, “his body of work is remarkably consistent, except when it’s not. His evidence is clearly presented, except when it’s obscure.”

Question: As someone who works in an educational institution with the application of technology in learning environments, I’m keenly interested in understanding the shortcomings of an educational culture “founded on print”. But McLuhan seems to be suggesting that a medium like print is also the “antidote” to the effects of new media. My question for my fellow readers would be, what could McLuhan mean when he discusses “shortcomings”? How would they differ now with the array of new media that have emerged in the last 50 years? Also, in light of those shortcomings, what programs of “inoculation” would be reasonable? Is it even appropriate to think of organized “programs” of response?

Chapter 31 – TV: The Timid Giant

Now that I’ve already jumped into Chapter 31, I’ll continue with some quotes from this, the longest chapter in Understanding Media.

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poes story Descent into the Maelstrom by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919.

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed reading McLuhan so much is how refreshing I’ve found his advocacy of perception over judgment. Elsewhere in the book, McLuhan describes the narrator in Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström as a model for this perception. In Chapter 31, he reinforces this point:

”For good or ill, the TV image has exerted a unifying synesthetic force on the sense-life of these intensely literate populations, such as they have lacked for centuries. It is wise to withhold all value judgments when studying these media matters, since their effects are not capable of being isolated.” (p. 420)

By now in my reading, I’m more comfortable with McLuhan’s notions of hot and cool media. Yet I’m still unsure about his characterization of a TV as a cool medium that demands audience participation. By contrast, film is a hot medium. This seems to be based on his assertion that, ”The TV image is visually low in data” (p. 418). But how this leaves much more for the viewer to do and how it demands more audience involvement is still unclear to me. It’s possible that his point is lost on me as a contemporary reader whose experience with films and TV has been blurred by years of watching “films” outside of theaters and the impact of high-definition televisions.

McLuhan also describes TV as a tactual or tactile medium in several places:

“One of the most vivid examples of the tactile quality of the TV image occurs in medical experience. In closed circuit instruction in surgery, medical students from the first reported a strange effect—that they seemed not to be watching an operation, but performing it. They felt they were holding the scalpel.” (p. 436)

”The TV image…is an extension of the sense of touch. Where it encounters a literate culture, it necessarily thickens the sense-mix…it blurs many cherished attitudes and procedures. It dims the efficacy of basic pedagogic techniques, and the relevance of the curriculum.” (p. 443)

Still from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983)

This chapter merits much more attention than I’ve been able to provide but it is fascinating and the more I encounter McLuhan’s observations on education and the effects of media on child development, the more I appreciate the applicability of his ideas to my work as an instructional designer and teacher.

Question: My final question begins with McLuhan asserts that TV has created a need for roles rather than jobs in younger people:

”The TV child expects involvement and doesn’t want a specialist job in the future. He does want a role and a deep commitment to his society. Unbridled and misunderstood, this richly human need can manifest itself in the distorted forms portrayed in West Side Story.” (p. 443)

If McLuhan’s assertion holds for TV what could we say about the expectations of involvement for the “internet child”?

Dennie Heye on Chapters 26 to 29 for #UMRG

Dennie Heye has written the following about chapter 26 to 29.


To be honest, it took me a while to get into McLuhan’s writing. It reminded me of the theoretical books and articles I read during my university studies – but with the difference that McLuhan makes you think at least once every chapter and his thinking is still valid after decades.

Below my mindmap based on the chapters typewriter, telephone, phonograph and movies for others to peruse. It’s an interactive (expandable) PDF of the mindmap, hopefully this works for all.

Click to download/open PDF

Click to download/open PDF

I have outlined the questions that I would like to offer for discussion below. Unfortunately I will not be present during next week’s call to take part in the discussion:

1. McLuhan states that the telephone has decentralized every operation and bypasses hierarchical arrangements in business. This made me think how e-mail instant messaging and now social media has continued this trend. to this day. But still many (older?) organisations are still run via hierarchical “command and control” structures, although everyone knows that these structures are not how things get done, communicated or decided. Why do organisations still put so much effort and “respect” in hierarchical (management) structures, when the current set of technology tools could lead to more transparent communication, better informed decision making and more fluid operations?

2. In the chapter about the telephone, McLuhan writes: “”In any given structure, the rate of staff accumulation is not related to the work” and “The work to be done is actually the movement of information”. I have always worked in complex, global, large organizations and I am sometimes amazed how much staff is involved in moving information around. We handle, reprocess, (re)validate, re-work, discuss, re-route information all day – just look at the job titles nowadays: process owners, business analysts, information architect, compliancy officer etc. .I wonder how much of this work is part of a “ritual” (or perhaps even busy work?) or actually work that is crucial to make the organization realize it’s goals?

3. On the last page of the chapter about the phonograph, McLuhan puts a great set of short definitions:

Telephone: speech without walls
Phonograph: music hall without walls
Photograph: museum without walls
Electric light: space without walls
Move / radio / tv: classroom without walls

How would McLuhan have defined the Internet in the above list?

Rhonda Jessen on Chapters 23 to 25 for #UMRG

Rhonda Jessen has used Haiku Deck to create a visually stunning summary of chapters 23 to 25.


You can download a PDF version of the slides or watch them on Haikudeck by clicking the image below.

Ads, Games & Telegraph on Haiku Deck

Ads, Games & Telegraph on Haiku Deck

Rhonda would like us to talk about the following questions:

  • If both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized; then is the increasing specialization of games and technologies a result of increased stress or improved technological know-how?
  • McLuhan suggests that we sent our nervous systems outside our bodies with the telegraph, and extended our nervous systems with satellite broadcasting. Would he have argued that social media throws our consciousness into the universe or that it compresses it to mere narcissism?

Questions about Games and McLuhan for #UMRG

In anticipation of Kars Alfrink joining us this Monday I thought I would post some questions about games (for Kars and the others to ponder on) on the basis of his chapter on the topic.

McLuhan sees games as an extensions of social and group selves:

As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image.

This means we can learn a lot about a society through observing its games:

The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.

My question would be: What does the current world of gaming (e.g. the gamification hype or the move to virtual rather than physical world or any other trend) tell us about our current society?

McLuhan seems to think that games need specators:

Art and games need rules, conventions, and spectators. [..] Great teams often play practice games without any audience at all. This is not sport in our sense, because much of the quality of interplay, the very medium of interplay, as it were, is the feeling of the audience.

My question: Is this indeed the case? What is the difference between participation and observation? What does a spectator add?

Finally, McLuhan seems to say that games make us whole:

We think of humor as a mark of sanity for a good reason: in fun and play we recover the integral person, who in the workaday world or in professional life can use only a small sector of his being. [..] Art and games enable us to stand aside from the material pressures of routine and convention, observing and questioning.

They can even help us be more creative and break out of our regular patterns:

Men without art, and men without the popular arts of games, tend toward automatism. [..] John Kenneth Gailbraith argues that business must now study art, for the artist makes models of problems and situations that have not yet emerged in the larger matrix of society, giving the artistically perceptive businessman a decade of leeway in his planning.

My question is the following: Could games be used as a tool to help people be more innovative in the corporate world (meaning the world of business)? What would the impact be? In which ways is work a game already?

Looking forward to our discussion!

JR Dingwall on Chapter 20 for #UMRG

JR Dingwall has posted a summary of Understanding Media’s chapter 20 on his blog. I’ve copied the text and image below.


I have only had an opportunity to reflect on this chapter thus far, and will be unable to present my questions on Monday as I have a time conflict.

I find the comparison between photography and its subjects, and brothels intriguing and bothersome. It would seem that the interpretation of photography here is in advertising and the mass media. At the time of writing, the consumption of photography is by the group, but photography can still be produced in the same way the author states writing takes place – within the individual. It also seems that the artistic approach to photography has been overlooked.

  1. What aspects of photography have been overlooked here that divorce photography from being compared to a brothel? (The author does state that before placing value in something it should be examined.)
  2. How is photography understood in different disciplines and mediums? (I would like to hear about how photography is understood in your fields of study. How does it manifest itself, and how has it impacted your field from the transition of the ‘literary man’ to the ‘multimedia man’)

Lastly I have attached a small mind map of things that stuck out to me in this chapter. Perhaps as a follow up activity new topics or missing pieces in existing topics could be suggested.

Thank-you and take care.

Click to download as PDF

Click to download as PDF