13 March 2011

Is the medium still the message?

On Twitter yesterday I said:
"@ @ @ all information handling is literacy. Form hardly matters since adaptable "
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
Not everyone was disconnected from future possibility. The 1910 French illustration above, demonstrating "re-processing" books into audio, seems stunningly prescient, as does the selection of music in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, or the reading Frankenstein I blogged about a little while ago. Though really, the events at technological change moments, say, the writing down of Homer's poetry after 400 or 700 years, or the conversion of language into dots-and-dashes in the 1840s, surely hinted at a media conversion different from the adaptation of a myth into sculpture.

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


Brian Kuhn said...

Nice little history lesson embedded in your post... I think too often we think in black and white, either-or. I think each medium can contribute value even as new ones come along. I like to think in both-and terms. I like to read a newspaper (a physical one) sometimes, other times I use my iPad, I read on my laptop, I listen to the radio, I watch TV, I search youtube and live streams. It really does depend. I think students need to be fluent in multi-media and able to understand the difference and then choose for themselves which types they prefer.

It's an ever changing world we live in - we need to be adaptable for sure...

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that McLuhan's mistake was a confusion of aesthetic criticism. Going to a movie in a theater is a social experience, whereas watching the same movie at home on Hulu can be solitary. Neither experience is the same, even though the content (and maybe even the specific medium) is identical.

I think that a functional definition of literacy involves being able to identify propaganda, including seeing accusations of media bias as themselves potentially corrupt. I can understand teachers not wanting to take on this political minefield, and defining literacy in more neutral terms. Maybe teaching kids to lie effectively so they can understand when others do it...


Bill Genereux said...

This past week I was discussing with my college-level digital media students what I consider to be the essence of being an expert in digital media- having the ability to transfer and transform information from one form to another.

My class had just completed a digital sound recording assignment, and about half of them didn't submit digital audio recordings in the specified mp3 format, but instead turned in whatever default audio format was created by the device or software they used.

In the two decades I have been working with digital media, the most common task I have is simply getting the media into whatever format is needed. This fluency is nothing more than media literacy. And I agree with you Ira- schools that focus exclusively on print literacy are shortchanging students. I'm teaching my own kids these skills, and even though they are only primary school aged, they are remarkably adept learning this stuff when given a chance to try it.

However, I think many schools assume that because kids are growing up in a digital world, they will learn the media skills they need by osmosis. My recent experience with my college students (just one of many such experiences) demonstrates this isn't always a safe assumption.

Unknown said...

I do believe that content/function is more important than form, but I also know that in "the real world," the one still more or less controlled by the oligarchy, form influences function. It's a matter of rhetoric. If you're trying to get your point across effectively to a certain audience, you have to woo them. You have to prove your clout by speaking in a language they deem acceptable.... Which makes me think about creating alternative acceptable forms just to drag down the powers that be. On the other hand, I do like having parts of my language common and understandable. I still maintain that there's nothing inherently "right" about formal, "correct" English, for example, but I do think that the rules we have (and frequently change, I might add) are "for the greater good." An agreed on but fluid canon of language law makes things simpler for all. This comment did not address your larger questions of genre, but the first few quotations of your post intrigued me ;-)