"@donalynbooks @ruth_ayres @alansitomer all information handling is literacy. Form hardly matters since adaptable #mra11"
and Dr. Troy Hicks responded:
"#mra11 "all information handling is literacy. Form hardly matters since adaptable" Form AND function matter. http://bit.ly/dKwx3K"
The link is to one of the "information age"s most famous phrases, and to the study of media by the University of Toronto's brilliant Marshall McLuhan. And, yes, I deeply respect both McLuhan's and Hicks' work, so I began to read (that is, to listen to audio conversions of text), and I began to think.
When Marshall McLuhan began writing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the book famous for the phrase "the medium is the message," the world of "media" looked a bit different than it does now. The book was published in 1964, a culmination of ten years of research and papers. And so, as McLuhan worked toward publication...
If you read a daily newspaper the ink, still applied by letterpress printing presses in a process pre-dating Gutenberg, smeared off on your hands. And every letter in that newspaper had been set there mechanically via Otto Mergenthaler's Linotype machines.
Television was a black and white medium, shown on screens no larger than 19 inches (diagonal), with programming choice never exceeding New York City's nine stations. News was delivered at specific moments in the day. Only the most momentous events moved television news away from 7:00 am - 8:00 am and 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm time slots.
"Book" was undeniably a physical form. Though paperbacks - "Pocketbooks" in one widely used corporate name - had lowered costs, books were heavy, expensive, slowly-produced items, smelling of wood pulp and the alcohol-dried inks. Door-to-door salesmen moved through North America selling extraordinarily expensive sets of The World Book and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. You could pay more and get yearly hard-bound updates. The World Book even had plastic overlay pages in certain articles which allowed you to see maps and other things "transform."
Radio stations had moved away from storytelling, mostly to specific music formats. A
Top 40" station like New York's WABC - 77 could pull a third of the New York radio audience along with millions more through a "clear channel" signal. The very first "All-News" radio station in the United States, New York's WINS - 1010, would not switch from Murray-The-K rock-and-roll until a year after McLuhan's book came out.
"Records" - those spinning, newly vinyl, discs, held a maximum of three minutes per side (7" 45 rpm) or 17 minutes per side (12" 33-1/3 rpm). Automatic changers which could move you through one side each of up to five records were now common, "stereo" was just becoming available. Consumer grade audiotape players did not exist, though, by 1964, researchers at both RCA and Philips/Norelco were playing with the concept of "cassette audio."
Phone calls over "long distance" could still not be directly dialed in most places in the United States until after McLuhan's book sat on bookstore shelves. The "push button" phone, introduced at the World's Fairs in Seattle in 1963 and New York in 1964, wouldn't be "mainstream" until well into the 1970s.
And film was presented in huge auditoriums in the dark, on newly wide screens, sometimes incredibly wide. Film was uniquely uninterrupted storytelling, and was, in the aftermath of Hitchcock's Psycho and other "spectaculars," switching from a "sit all day, come in when you want, double-feature" format to a "see the show once, then leave" model of ticket sales.
In other words, when McLuhan looked at media forms, and saw the forms constructing as much meaning as the content, he was living in a world of fixed and separated media. Books were books - yes, for the price of a small car you could convert one to Braille but audiobooks were still a thing for the future - and television was television and radio was radio. A "reader" could not pick the films he/she wanted to watch at home (except for those with 16mm projectors and access to "adult" or "educational" films), or pick an audiobook for in-car listening, or time-shift a television program or convert a phone message to print or a printed message to sound. Nor was the concept of these kinds of media-shifting really in the public mind. For McLuhan "media-shifting" meant the difference between Gone with the Windand Gone With The Wind, or, far worse, reading Shakespeare.
|1910 France imagining the school of 2000|
Thus the question, for me, becomes this: Is McLuhan still really valid? Does television truly link you to a story today in a form very different than "film" (which is really just another high-definition digital image)? Is an audiobook truly cognitively different than decoding inked alphabetic text? Is reading a newspaper on your tablet a fully different experience than reading it on paper? Is taking in the news from the BBC World Service intellectually different than reading The Guardian?
And my answers are, "yes," and "no," but really, "it depends." And it is in the "it depends" that the learning issues for education lie. Suppose listening to a dramatic reading of The Great Gatsbyby a fine actor is different than reading it on paper, is the same true if you pull the Project Gutenberg text and let Balabolka read it to you? What if you hear, but do not see, the local news? Is that different than watching the BBC vs. listening to their radio feed? How so? And how do you teach - how do you help students learn - that difference?
Which all brings me back to what I said at the start, "all information handling is literacy. Form hardly matters since adaptable," and let me agree and disagree with myself. I truly believe that, "all information handling is literacy," but I also acknowledge that Troy Hicks and McLuhan are sometimes right, sometimes the form does matter - as when the picture, for example, overwhelms the words - but also, sometimes, the cognitive processes are not truly possible to differentiate, as in letting Text-To-Speech read Gatsby to you. But either way, our students need to learn what is happening, how to adapt media in these times when that is infinitely possible, and how to operate within these different effects.
Media is not the same, which means that literacy is not the same. If literacy, in your school, looks like the literacy Scott Fitzgerald knew as a Minnesota school boy, then your students will have serious problems negotiating the world they live in. And your school is failing - not faux Arne Duncan failing, but really failing.
- Ira Socol