Skip navigation

Category Archives: Good Reads

I recently read a fun little book called Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer, who I just researched and realized is the younger brother of writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Eating Animals, and more). Despite its title, the book is not about Michael Jackson’s trademark dance move, nor Albert Einstein. The subtitle, The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, is a bit more indicative of the subject matter. (The title comes from a mnemonic technique Foer used, in which a person or object is imagined to perform a memorable action.)

Foer covered the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship (yes, that really exists – with events such as Names and Faces, Speed Cards, and Poetry) as a journalist, and became entranced by the underworld of competitive memorizers. He spent the next year training for the 2006 championship, and this book chronicles his trials and tribulations. In addition to learning about the peculiar world and zany characters of the competitive memory circuit, Foer also investigates the act of memorization itself, its history, and its place in a world where virtually all of our memories have become externalized in the form of books and more recently, extremely well-indexed websites. Foer discovers that most competitive memorizers make use of an ancient Roman mnemonic device known as the method of loci, more commonly as the memory palace. Using the technique, memorizers conjure up mental images of well-known places from their lives, such as a childhood home or a favourite workspace. When memorization of a list or set of numbers is needed, the memorizer mentally walks through the palace, placing items on doorsteps, piano benches, and staircases, which makes the process of recall a simple matter of visualization of locations which are already well known. The items on the list are made physical and given context, at least in the person’s mind.

The techniques were developed in a world that predates the written word, when vast internalized memories were a sign of great intelligence. In a world of Google and Wikipedia, with knowledge and facts at our fingertips, are we losing the art of memorization, and does it really matter?

On education:

Foer’s book got me thinking about how, what, and why we test students in the classroom, and he delves into the subject of education on numerous occasions. He interviews a Mr. Matthews, who works with a group he calls “The Talented Tenth” at a high school in the Bronx, training them in memorization techniques to help them compete in memory competitions, and more importantly, on their exams.

Foer ponders the purpose of schooling:

“The success of Matthew’s students raises questions about the purposes of education that are as old as schooling itself, and never seem to go away. What does it mean to be intelligent, and what exactly is it that schools are supposed to be teaching? As the role of memory in the conventional sense has diminished, what should its place be in contemporary pedagogy? Why bother loading up kids’ memories with facts if you’re ultimately preparing them for a world of externalized memories?”

“I don’t use the word ‘memory’ in my class because it’s a bad word in education,” says Matthews. “You make monkeys memorize, whereas education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you can’t have higher-level learning — you can’t analyze — without retrieving information.”

“You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can’t memorize without learning.”

He later interviews the controversial Tony Buzan, best known as the creator of the Mind Mapping technique. Buzan makes an important point that I certainly agree with, stating that “Students need to learn how to learn. First you teach them how to learn, then you teach them what to learn.” I think that sometimes we focus so much on the content, that we forget about the process. Say what you want about mind mapping and memory palaces, but they at least bring some focus to the development and cultivation of the learning process itself, rather than bludgeoning the student with facts, figures, and dates.

On books:

In the chapter called The End of Remembering, Foer also delves into some interesting observations about the evolution of the book, which struck me as very McLuhanesque.

“As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory.”

“Now we put a premium on reading quickly and widely, and that breeds a kind of superficiality in our reading, and in what we seek to get out of books. … If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.” 

After walking through Chapters and BestBuy recently and seeing the explosive growth of eReaders and tablets this holiday season, I have to wonder what our books are evolving into. Are we becoming even more superficial in our reading, as we read quickly and widely, dwelling upon nothing? With thousands of books in a tiny <$200 device, and millions more just a download away, are we changing the very nature of what it means to be a book? I’d like to be optimistic and hope that the new technologies of eReaders and tablets will inspire and encourage a new generation of readers, but the pessimist in me worries that the fancy apps, games, and communication capabilities of the devices will prove to be more attractive than the hundreds of pages of text buried within ebooks.

I am starting to feel like a bit of a Luddite, with my ever-growing collection of good old fashioned books taking up more and more space on my shelves, with the dog-eared pages and penciled-in notes a reminder of the slowly-read books I’ve dwelled upon over the years.

Final thoughts:

Moonwalking With Einstein is a fun read, full of quirky stories, some light science, and insightful ponderings about the history and future of our brains and our memories, both internal and external. Definitely worth a rental from the library at the very least.

The new Steve Jobs biography is an incredible read so far. Perhaps it’s because most of this is new to me (I’ve never been much of an Apple fan or followed the Steve Jobs story) or perhaps it’s because Walter Isaacson is an extremely engaging writer. Regardless of why, I’m greatly enjoying the read about the fascinating depth of the polarizing Steve Jobs, the birth of Silicon Valley, and the rise of Apple.

In the opening chapter, entitled Childhood, there are a number of passages and quotes that stood out to me as being oh-so-true in regards to education. Here are a few of them:

On school and curiosity:

Even before Jobs started elementary school, his mother had taught him how to read. This however, led to some problems once he got to school. “I was kind of bored for the first few years, so I occupied myself by getting into trouble.” It also soon became clear that Jobs, by both nature and nurture, was not disposed to accept authority. “I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.”

His parents’ view of the situation:

“Look, it’s not his fault,” Paul Jobs told the teachers, his son recalled. “If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault.”

Both of his parents, he added, “knew the school was at fault for trying to make me memorize stupid stuff rather than stimulating me.”

On his fourth grade teacher:

“I learned more from her than any other teacher, and if it hadn’t been for her I’m sure I would have gone to jail.”

After starting middle school at Crittenden Middle, located in a neighborhood filled with ethnic gangs, Jobs pleaded with his parents:

“I insisted they put me in a different school. When they resisted, I told them I would just quit going to school if I had to go back to Crittenden. So they researched where the best schools were and scraped together every dime and bought a house for $21,000 in a nicer district.”

On the counterculture of the late 1960s:

It was a time when the geek and hippie worlds were beginning to show some overlap. “My friends were the really smart kids,” [Jobs] said. “I was interested in math and science and electronics. They were too and also into LSD and the whole counterculture trip.”

Steve Jobs didn’t fit in to the traditional classroom, and it took one very good fourth grade teacher to keep him motivated and engaged. I wonder how many future “geniuses” (and I use the term cautiously) have had their curiosity beaten out of them and their motivation stifled at a young age? Did they go on to do great things anyway?

I highly recommend picking this book up. It’s only $25 at Chapters – not bad for a brand new hardcover book that clocks in at nearly 600 pages.


The book's cover (left), and two pages expressing the idea that "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror."

In the past month, I’ve stumbled across a couple of great finds at Pulp Fiction books on Main Street. First, I found Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1967), which is the more accessible follow-up to his landmark book, 1964’s Understanding Media. The Medium is the Massage is unique in that there is very little text in comparison to graphics.It was co-created with graphic designer Quentin Fiore, and it’s a pleasure to hold in your hands and flip through the pages. It dawned on me that this book simply could not work as an e-book, and that the physical nature of the pages was every bit as important as the text and graphics scattered throughout.

A couple of weeks later I found Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada 2, which, like McLuhan’s Massage, is dominated by graphics rather than text.

The cover and a few pages of Coupland's Souvenir of Canada 2.

I’d estimate that both books’ pages are comprised of about 20% text, and 80% graphics or white space. Coupland’s collection of Canadian artifacts is humorous, simple, and understated. It’s the kind of book you leave on your coffee table, to have your friends and family mull over the images of Nanaimo Bars, hockey sticks, and a hunter’s workbench.

If we all shift to reading e-books, will anyone leave books on their coffee tables anymore? The book’s charm lies partly in its physical nature, and its mostly white cover with the Canadian goose begs for it to be picked up and skimmed through. Can you skim through an e-book? Could this book even exist as an e-book? Would anyone want to publish it? Would anyone want to read it?

Perhaps authors and publishers are well on their way to figuring out how to make unique graphic-heavy books come to life electronically. The next generation of tablets looks promising, and I’ve seen children’s picture books look incredible on an iPad, complete with crisp graphics and even animations. Who knows what the future of reading looks like? History has shown us that media is full of surprises.

Sure, we’re getting great new mediums to tell stories, but a part of me is wondering what we’re giving up in the process. Neil Postman, a friend and advocate of Marshall McLuhan, built upon many of McLuhan’s ideas in his countless books, essays, and lectures. He noted that when new mediums take over, “the result is not the old culture plus the new medium, but a new culture altogether.” What is our new culture of reading going to look like? Are books still extensions of the eye, something more, or something less?


Four consecutive pages from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage.

I recently read The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin. I started it at approximately 11:00PM, and next thing I knew it was after 2:00AM, and I was nearing the end. I hadn’t read a book in a single sitting in years – I’d become too easily distracted by my smartphone, PVR, and laptop. The Lost Art of Reading is not a long book, with only 150 short pages, and in fact you could probably classify it as an extended essay rather than a novel. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s ever categorized their personal library or smiled at the smell of a large, slightly musty used book store.

Ulin begins with the tale of his teenage son who is forced to not only read but annotate The Great Gatsby for homework, which causes his son to complain that “it would be so much easier if they’d let me read it.” After finally finishing the book, Ulin’s son suggests “This is why reading is over. None of my friends like it. Nobody wants to do it anymore.” If you’ve talked to a teenager recently who owns a smartphone, laptop, and video game system, you’ll realize how realistic this is. How many teachers have ruined teenagers’ interests in reading in some similar manner? The tale of his son’s Great Gatsby homework is woven throughout the essay, as Ulin deliberates his son’s proclamation, wondering if perhaps he’s right. He reflects on his own childhood, and his obsession with books, book stores, and authors, noting that he “frames the world through books.” This book critic loves reading and everything associated with it, including wondering about what the future of reading will look like.

This book had a lot of really great passages which I dog-eared, and I hope it’s okay to share them. If nothing else it should encourage everyone to go out and purchase this book (no, that’s not an affiliate ad) – it’s a great quick read. The first passage that struck me was Ulin’s description of his teenage bookshelf.

On Bookshelves:

Ulin writes of  the bookshelves he had as a teenager, and how he arranged his books on large “floor-to-ceiling shelves stretching across one long wall of my bedroom”, with his favourite authors “on a shelf in the center of the wall, everything else radiating outward from that core. In my mind, this was the library as virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell. To populate this city, I bought books at sales and in secondhand shops, by writers I often didn’t know.”

“Some of them I read (….) and some I never got to. But there they were, all of them, on those shelves together, my attempt at mapping the literary city in my mind. Although I don’t want to make too much of this, looking back I can’t help but see it as a strategy for turning concrete something that might otherwise have remained the most elusive of abstractions, as if only by thinking metaphorically might I take my interests, tastes, desires, even my aspirations, and make them three-dimensional and solid in the world.”

Isn’t that what a bookshelf really is? It represents your interests, tastes, desires, and in the books you have purchased but not yet read, perhaps some of your aspirations. Books give form to these ideas, making them substantial and tangible.

Ulin’s voice is ultimately optimistic (yet realistic), as he explores what it is that reading has to offer us. Next I’ll take a look at what book stores mean to him.


This is a review of Technophobia, an Isaac Asimov essay which appeared in 1982’s The Roving Mind. It’s an excellent collection of writing on all manner of topics: creationism and evolution in schools, the relationship between technology and science, and even beyond the solar system (and the present) in essays on space exploration prospects, the emerging computerized world, and even the hotels of the future. It’s sometimes eerie to read about his visions of our future world, writing in “The Ultimate Communication” that we will soon have “a universal videophone capable of transmitting and accepting sound and image. We would want it small and mobile, but very complex and versatile, and yet stable and reasonably foolproof.” Sounds a bit like an iPhone, Android or Blackberry smartphone, doesn’t it? He later goes on to write about how computers will be able to offer personalized learning, describing a system which sounds an awful lot like the Internet, which of course piqued my curiosity. (But I’ll leave that for another post.)


“I hate signing up for new websites!” “I don’t want to learn how to use some new computer program!” “Do we have to do this? Why can’t we just make a poster or a binder?” “I can’t keep up with these new laptops and phones! I like my old one better.”

We’ve all heard something along these lines in all walks of life, but I’m finding that these sentiments tend to be much more prevalent in the world of education. I always thought that I was not very tech-savvy, but I was amazed at the level of incompetency in a variety of technological skills and the absence of motivation to learn new tools displayed by some of my colleagues at the start of the year, and was dismayed to find that the problem seemed to exist in most schools as well. Why is it that teachers and teacher-candidates seem so unwilling to learn new technologies?

I discussed my observations and concerns with some more tech-savvy friends and colleagues, and tried to pinpoint the nature of this unwillingness. Why is it that we are so against signing up for a new website, or switching to a different email provider? I recently picked up Isaac Asimov’s Roving Mind, as per the  recommendation of Maria Popova (7 Must-Read Books on Education), and was delighted to find that Asimov had articulated the problem more perfectly than I ever could have imagined, in his brilliant essay Technophobia.

Asimov defines technophobia as “a morbid fear of technological advance” and in a few short pages, provides examples (both general and personal), metaphorical comparisons, and remedies to the problem. Technophobia exists in a variety of forms, and Asimov focuses his essay on the form “that involves the fear of a new advance in technology on the part of those whose professional career is actually involved with technology, and who clearly stand to benefit from the advance.”

“Human beings learn how to handle numerous complicated devices in their lifetimes. The learning is not always easy, but once the complications are learned – if they are learned properly – it all becomes automatic. The thought of abandoning it and learning something else, of going through the process again, is terribly frightening.”

Asimov thus defines technophobia as “the fear of re-education” and explains that “we invent reasons for resisting the change, but the real reason is that we dread the process of re-learning.” We see this fear rear its ugly head in all shapes and forms: business executives refusing to implement new software, the American public fearing a transition to the much more logical metric system, and writers (Asimov included) who fought the adjustment from typewriters to computerized word processors.

Asimov uses the example of his resistance to the word processor (this was written in 1982) in order to illustrate some valuable insights. He resisted the transition to a computer from a typewriter not because he loved his typewriter, but because he had put so many hours into learning how to use that typewriter. He did not want to have to learn something new, especially when (as far as he was concerned at the time) the new tool offered little improvement in quality over the old tool. In 2011, I’d argue that point – as we now see just how fluid and dynamic digital text can be, and the freedom we have as a result. Asimov makes another good point in saying that “re-education must be recognized for the highly difficult (and even more so) embarrassing process it is.” He goes on to explain that he only agreed to switch to a computer when his publisher sent Radio Shack employees to his home, so that he could learn the new tool in private, away from the eyes of more experienced users of word processors.

I think that this is an important insight for educators who want to bring new tools into the classroom. Perhaps we can utilize virtual classrooms and blended learning in order to give students (and teachers) access to new websites and software from the privacy of their own homes, away from the judgmental eyes of their peers.

Continuing to slowly make my way through Maria Popova‘s list of 7 Must-Read Books on Education, I recently picked up #2 on the list, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson. It only seemed fitting to read it this week, as I am going to see the man speak tonight at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre.

Ken Robinson is perhaps best known for his TED talks (Do Schools Kill Creativity? and Bring on the Learning Revolution) and as the narrator of the brilliant RSA animate video, Changing Education Paradigms:


Celebrities and Creativity

In The Element,  Robinson gives us countless examples of famous (and sometimes not so famous) people and the struggles they endured on the way to finding their passions. We learn that Paul McCartney hated music class as a teen, Aaron Sorkin wanted to be an actor, and that Meg Ryan wanted to be a writer. We’re treated to stories of people who defied the odds and pursued their passions, including Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, and Fleetwood Mac founder Mick Fleetwood. At times I found myself getting a little bit tired of all the celebrity worship, although this format tapers off a bit towards the latter third of the book as Robinson begins to write at a more personal level. He provides some background about his own childhood and the hardships he faced in dealing with polio, realizing he would not be a professional soccer player, and then later excelling in school as a young teen, perhaps due to a fortunate change in policy in British education.

While the stories and interviews provide entertaining segues into the content of the book, the most enjoyable and rewarding passages come in spurts when Robinson goes into editorial mode, offering his views on particular topics. For instance, in comparing human beings to the rest of the species on Earth, Robinson notes that:

“Other species communicate, but they don’t have laptops. They sing, but they don’t produce musicals. They can be agile, but they didn’t come up with Cirque du Soleil. They can look worried, but they don’t publish theories on the meaning of life and spend their evenings drinking Jack Daniel’s and listening to Miles Davis. And they don’t meet at water holes, poring over images from the Hubble telescope and trying to figure out what those might mean for themselves and all other hyenas.”

For which he offers this explanation:

“What accounts for these yawning differences in how humans and other species on our small planet think and behave? My general answer is imagination. But this is really about the much more sophisticated evolution of the human brain and the highly dynamic ways in which it can work. The dynamics of human intelligence account for the phenomenal creativity of the human mind. And our capacity for creativity allows us to rethink our lives and our circumstances – and to find our way to the Element.”

It’s a valid point, and if my memory serves me correctly, is similar to the message conveyed in the final chapters of Thomas L. Friedman‘s The World Is Flat. Imagination is what makes us human, and gives us the power and capacity to progress and evolve. Robinson goes on to define “creativity as applied imagination” which I think is a very insightful way to put it. We can imagine in our heads, but it takes creativity to turn our thoughts into meaningful products.

Transforming Education

I was first introduced to the notion that our educational institutions (and many other industries) were built on the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution in Don Tapscott’s and Anthony D. Williams’ Macrowikinomics. After a year in the education program at UBC, I’ve seen and heard this idea countless times in articles, lectures, and hallway conversations. Ken Robinson offers similar suggestions, noting that:

“For more than three hundred years Western thought has been dominated by the images of industrialism and the scientific method. It’s time to change metaphors. We have to move beyond linear, mechanistic metaphors to more organic metaphors of human growth and development.”

He goes on to offer a more organic metaphor relating to plants, farmers and gardeners: “The plant grows itself. Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth.” The metaphor is quite similar to one offered by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning (#3 on the list), in which they suggest we should think of classroom culture as behaving more like a bacterial culture growing in a petri dish, cultivated by a teacher who acts as lab scientist, providing structure and conditions for growth.

Robinson believes that we face enormous challenges in the 21st century, and we are in need of a transformation:

“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. The key is to embrace the core principles of the Element.”

I found this book to be enjoyable and inspiring, even if some parts of it were repeating points we’ve all seen in his TED talks. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ken Robinson, and even more so to seeing him speak tonight.



 “Through the discovery yesterday of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane, the physical influence of each man, formerly restricted to a few miles, now extends to hundreds of leagues or more. Better still: thanks to the prodigious biological event represented  by the discovery of electro-magnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and see, in every corner of the earth.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

McLuhan foresaw the level of connectedness this discovery of electro-magnetic waves would bring, and he did it when television was still a relatively new media. He made the majority of his fascinating insights in the 1960’s, decades before any of us would use YouTube, Facebook, or Wikipedia; before the words download and upload; and before Google and tweet were verbs. Do his ideas still have relevance in the 21st century?

Gary Wolf of Wired magazine wrote a cover story about the man in 1996, in which he interviewed McLuhan’s ghost using the Internet (certainly an apt medium for an interview with the ghost of the media guru). Wolf only poses the fictional McLuhan two questions,which are well worth the quick read. Another (much longer!) read, and perhaps the best introduction to McLuhan and his ways of thinking, can be found in a Playboy interview from 1969. As further introductions, the Wikipedia entries for his two most well-known books, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, are certainly fine places to start.

Last week (July 21, 2011) marked what would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday, and I’ve seen a number of articles in the past few days about the eccentric English professor from Edmonton. People debate his legacy, argue his importance, and write him off as a bumbling eccentric who cashed in on the naive and impressionable public of the 60’s, but the more we progress into the digital age, the more we hear the validity of his poetic words.

“You know nothing of my work!” 

Who would be up to the task of writing a biography of McLuhan for the Extraordinary Canadians series? Fittingly, it was Vancouver’s Douglas Coupland. He has written a very engaging biography of the media theorist, entitled You Know Nothing Of My Work! (a line from McLuhan’s only movie appearance, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) which is equal parts biography of McLuhan and of the media landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries, filled with observations only Coupland could voice. (Which reminds me, I’m still upset that I wasn’t able to make it to the event a few months ago at the Waldorf, in which Coupland hosted a night of YouTube watching in honor of McLuhan.)

Why is McLuhan more important in the 21st century than he was in the 20th?

So far, in the 11 and a half years of this century, we’ve seen digital technologies such as computers, smartphones, and perhaps most importantly, the internet continue to grow and astonish us on a daily basis. The global village of the internet is more connected than ever before with the rise of social media. Social components are permeating every aspect of the online experience, from videogames and Facebook to Flickr and YouTube. Every site has a Share button, increasingly making the internet more  organic, crowdsourced by its network of users. The news has even become social, with every television station, newspaper (that’s an antiquated term if I’ve ever heard one), and sportscaster Tweeting nowadays.

The media of the internet has radically evolved to become much more social, and McLuhan was perhaps one of the first to see it coming. Of course McLuhan did not explicitly predict much, but that’s not to say he didn’t know what he was talking about. As Coupland points out, reading McLuhan “is a poetic or artistic experience – you get a sense of the future rather than a prescription or a prediction.” He was a man ahead of his time, and reading his books is a bit like stepping into a time machine with eyes pointed both forwards and backwards.

Some say McLuhan is the ultimate pessimist, while others contend it’s much more complicated than that. Here Coupland describes McLuhan’s view of humans as social creatures as hopeful or optimistic: “Call it religion or call it optimism, but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent needs as individuals.”

The Global Village

In the 21st century, we express intelligence through the content we post online. Sure, there are sites dedicated to lolcats and plenty of pictures on Facebook of frat boys getting wasted, but there are also engaging thoughts being exchanged on Twitter, and beautiful art being displayed on Flickr. Eric Fischer has mapped this expression of digital intelligence, by expressing geotagged Twitter posts with blue dots and Flickr photos with red dots. If the area contains both, the dot is white.


Photo from Eric Fischer's Flickr


I couldn’t help but look at these beautiful photos and realize that McLuhan’s global village is more real than he would have ever been able to imagine, and he probably would have hated it. Or would he have? While on the one hand, McLuhan has expressed countless times in his writings and interviews that he has “nothing but distaste for the process of change” he prefaced that statement with the acknowledgement that he could see  “the prospect of a rich and creative retribalized society — free of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age — emerging from this traumatic period of culture clash.” I have to wonder what McLuhan would think – has the internet returned us to our tribal roots? Are social media allowing us to free ourselves of the fragmentation and alienation of the mechanical age? Would McLuhan be an avid Tweeter? Something tells me his aphorisms and paradoxical statements would be perfectly fit for 140 characters, and he would begrudgingly make use of the medium. But who am I to make that guess? I know nothing of his work.


The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
by Marshall McLuhan

What is The Gutenberg Galaxy? It is McLuhan’s term to describe the post-printing press world, and it is home to a whole lot of knowledge, thoughts, and ideas. In short, you might say that the galaxy consists of anything that’s ever been printed. The Wikipedia page for this book has an estimate for just how big the Gutenberg galaxy might be: in 2004/2005, the British Library had more than 97 million items, while the Library of Congress had more than 130 million.

Reading The Gutenberg Galaxy was kind of like what I imagine running a marathon feels like – grueling and intensely difficult, but ultimately rewarding when you get to the finish line and reflect on what you’ve just done.

This book took me an extremely long time to get through. The text is dense, full of paradoxes and passages you might have to read two or three times to obtain even 25% comprehension (or maybe that’s just me), and the writing style seems almost arcane. It must have taken me at least three months to read this book. Granted, I’ve been extremely busy with teaching and tutoring, but that’s still a long time (even for someone like myself with self-diagnosed reading ADD).

I was relieved to read that Douglas Coupland is with me on this one. In his biography of McLuhan, he describes The Gutenberg Galaxy as “possibly one of the most difficult to read yet ultimately rewarding books of the twentieth century. It explains so much, all the while taking the reader on side journeys into charming cul-de-sacs and odd dead ends.”

The side journeys, cul-de-sacs and odd dead ends are mostly due to McLuhan’s odd mosaic style and bizarre ability to jump from one obscure text to the next, surfing his way through many passages picked out from all areas of the Gutenberg galaxy.

The mosaic is composed of 107 short chapters, most of which consist of dissecting a passage of text from a book, poem, article, or some other piece of writing. For instance, in one chapter entitled The modern physicist is at home with oriental field theory, McLuhan pulls a passage fromWerner Heisenberg (the physicist who is credited with developing the uncertainty principle of quantum theory), who had quoted a tale of the Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu in The Physicist’s Conception of Nature. In this tale, a peasant farmer is presented with the opportunity to enter the Industrial Age and use mechanical machines to do his farming. But the farmer replies:

“I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machine does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.”

After each passage in the book, McLuhan offers his thoughts on the piece: ‘“uncertainty in the strivings of the soul” is perhaps one of the aptest descriptions of man’s condition in our modern crisis; technology, the machine, has spread through the world to a degree that our Chinese sage could not have even suspected.’

These are McLuhan’s words from 1962, but oddly, they seem more fitting in 2011. I can only imagine that people in the year 2061 will think the same. 49 years after McLuhan wrote of the machine’s spread, our world’s technology has devoured us to a point that even McLuhan could not have possibly imagined. Every 12 year old has a 1 GHz processor in his or her smartphone, Tweet and Google are verbs, and we’ve become so addicted to our gadgets, we’ve had to create laws so we don’t use them while we drive. What would Marshall think?

This is the first book of McLuhan’s that I’ve read (although I just picked up Understanding Media at Pulp Fiction books a little while ago), and I’m in the process of reading Coupland’s biography of McLuhan at the moment. Marshall (as Coupland refers to him) was simply a fascinating individual, and it’s a shame that more Canadians aren’t aware of his contributions to the 20th century. If it were up to me, I’d make some passages of his writing required reading for high schoolers in Canada. I think that through analyzing McLuhan’s work and seeing our history broken up into 4 eras (Oral tribe culture, Manuscript culture, Gutenberg galaxy, Electronic age), many students would be able to realize just how different the world has become in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I get the impression that kids in our school don’t really appreciate how different it was to grow up without the internet, for example. I’ve told my students before that they’re about the same age as Google, and they’re shocked! They can’t believe that I was in already in grade 8 the first time I used Google to search for something. Reading McLuhan would give many students some context – a macroscopic look at our world’s history, told through the lens of media.

The copy of the book I had came from the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), and having this old hardcover copy to read was especially fitting for a book such as this. As I contemplate buying an eReader, analyzing the pros and cons of print and digital books, it was surprisingly refreshing to read a book that is nearly 50 years old, turning its yellowing pages and even seeing past readers’ pencil marks, notes, and musings. I actually really enjoy it when I get something from the VPL and there are thoughts jotted down in the margin (at least if it’s done right). Whoever was marking this book appears to have been  a professor who was using the book for his or her class. It was neat to see which passages stood out to that reader, although I have to wonder if these markings influence my own reading of the book, drawing attention to things I might have interpreted differently in a brand new copy. Will this form of reading be lost in the digital age? What will eReading eventually look like? Will we be interacting with other readers of the book in interactive editions? Will books just become shorter? Will anyone care to read something like The Gutenberg Galaxy in an era of eBooks?

For my last question, my guess is no, and that’s a shame. At the very least, the Wikipedia entry for The Gutenberg Galaxy is a good start, and at least lays out the structure of McLuhan’s major ideas. I think there are passages of sheer brilliance contained in McLuhan’s book, and I hope to be able to utilize them in a classroom some day.

Note: This started out as a review of the book, but gradually became something else. If you’ve actually read this far, hopefully reading this post didn’t feel like running a marathon. I feel like I’ll be coming back to McLuhan’s writings at least a few more times in my life, and I hope to soon dig deeper into some quotes and passages from this book. I took a lot of notes for this one.

What do I actually do on the Internet? I have been thinking about this and more, as I contemplate what the Internet is doing to our brains, culture and society. By reading The Shallows (Nicholas Carr), Macrowikinomics (Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams), and a host of others, such as some of BrainPickings‘ list of seven must-read books about the future of the Internet, I’m realizing that this can be quite a polarized debate. Clay Shirky’s latest, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, gives us a rational, optimistic, and grand view of what the internet is doing to us, how it’s happening, and what it means.

In this quick and thought-provoking read, internet guru Clay Shirky writes about the effect that the Internet is having on our society. He defines and explains the book’s title in the opening chapter: “The cognitive surplus, newly forged from previously disconnected islands of time and talent, is just raw material. To get any value out of it, we have to make it mean or do things. We, collectively, aren’t just the source of the surplus; we are also the people designing its use, by our participation and by the things we expect of one another as we wrestle together with our new connectedness.”

The book opens by comparing our transition into the digital age to that of the Industrial Age in 18th century London. (If this sounds very familiar, you may have read something similar in Tapscott and Williams’ Macrowikinmoics, or seen Tapscott speak about it on CBC’s Mansbridge One-On-One.)

Shirky tells the story of London’s excessive gin drinking, brought on by society’s inability to adapt to the massive change that was going on around them. The gin drinking consumed all aspects of the Londoners’ lives, taking up most of their free time. In our shift to the digital age, Shirky says that our escape, our gin so to speak, has been the sitcom. The Londoners of the 1720’s drank gin; the North Americans of the 20th century watched Gillian’s Island. We watched Cheers, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons. When we came home from work, we turned on the TV, even if we had nothing to watch.

Internet > TV

In 2011, that trend is shifting. When we come home from work, we open the laptop. We don’t even really need to check anything in particular; we just turn it on out of habit. Our Gilligan’s Island no longer exists. The Internet creates diversity by offering personalized content, and for the first time in human history, offers to the masses the ability to produce and contribute to the media, rather than just consume and observe. Increasingly, more people are spending their free time on the Internet, contributing their cognitive surplus to the world wide web. The effect this is having on society is profound, and Shirky looks at how our tools connect us more than ever before, why we contribute and share with strangers, and what it ultimately means for mankind.

The Paradox of Revolution

In one of the book’s strongest sections,  Shirky compares this digital revolution of the 20th and 21st centuries to the 15th century’s transition into a world of print. He tells the story of Gutenberg and his printings of Bibles and indulgences (granted by the Catholic Church after the sinner has confessed and been forgiven), which at first glance seemed like they would further strengthen the “economic and political position of the Church”. Instead, just the opposite happened.

According to Shirky, “This is the paradox of revolution. The bigger the opportunity offered by new tools, the less completely anyone can extrapolate the future from the previous shape of society. So it is today. The communications tools we now have, which a mere decade ago seemed to offer an improvement to the twentieth-century media landscape, are now seen to be rapidly eroding it instead.”

The changes happening in our world as we adjust to the digital world of computers and the connectivity of the Internet are comparable to the changes that occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries as a result of the printing press and the subsequent flood of information.

The Spectrum of Internet Use: Personal, Communal, Public, Civic

In chapter 6, Shirky demonstrates how “the organization of sharing has many forms” and points out that “we can identify four essential points on the spectrum”. The four essential points are:

  • Personal sharing: “done among otherwise uncoordinated individuals” (eg. ICanHasCheezburger, most general uses of Facebook etc)
  • Communal sharing: “takes place inside a group of collaborators” (eg.
  • Public sharing: “when a group of collaborators actively wants to create a public resource” (eg. open-source software such as Linux and Apache, WordPress, Wikipedia, etc)
  • Civic sharing: “when a group is actively trying to transform society” (eg. Pink Chaddi, organized protests in Tunisia, Egypt etc.)

Shirky argues that personal sharing is not as beneficial to society:

“We should care more about public and civic value than about personal or communal value because society benefits more from them, but also because public and civic value are harder to create.”

He goes on to he draw from a previous reference to the Invisible College, a group of intellectuals in 17th century England who shared ideas and laid the foundations for modern science. Shirky cleverly lays out the choices the internet offers us:

“The choice we face is this: out of the mass of our shared cognitive surplus, we can create an Invisible University – many Invisible Colleges doing the hard work of creating many kinds of public and civic value – or we can settle for Invisible High School, where we get lolcats but no open source software, fan fiction but no improvement in medical research. The Invisible High School is already widespread, and our ability to participate in ways that reward personal or communal value is in no imminent danger.”

As we move further into this digital age, we have to be aware of how radically different our world is becoming, especially when comparing it to the industrial age our parents and grandparents grew up in. The digital age makes necessary “a huge increase in the number of people paid to think or talk, rather than to produce or transport objects”. As others have said before him, Clay Shirky makes it extremely evident that we are living in a world of bits, not atoms. For instance, in analyzing Napster’s success, Shirky writes that “Napster, like all forms of digital data sharing, took advantage of the fact that music could now be shared like thoughts rather than like objects.”

Music shared like thoughts, rather than like objects. Bits of information, rather than atoms of matter.

This distinction makes a world of difference.

Final Thoughts

Shirky’s book has made me acutely aware of what I’m doing on the Internet. Is it personal, communal, public or civic? Am I contributing my free time, my cognitive surplus, to a greater, collective cause? Perhaps by writing Wikipedia articles or by providing homework help for math students? Or am I laughing at lolcats and looking at people’s photos and commenting on statuses on Facebook?

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky will make you realize just how dramatically the world is changing due to the Internet and how important it is to be aware of the changes in order to influence the future.

“Why history and geography? Why not cybernetics and ecology? Why economics and algebra? Why not anthropology and psycho-linguistics? It is difficult to escape the feeling that a conventional curriculum is quite arbitrary in selecting the “subjects” to be studied. The implications of this are worth pondering.”

“What’s worth knowing? How do you decide? What are some ways to go about getting to know what’s worth knowing?”

– a couple of the many questions asked in the chapter “What’s Worth Knowing” from Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Neil Postman

As I’ve been “learning how to teach” for the past six months, I’ve been reading a number of Neil Postman books in my spare time. Postman has been called a media theorist, cultural critic, and a teacher, to name a few. He is the author of 18 books and over 200 articles or essays, many of which were concentrated on the role of education in society, such as 1995’s The End of Education, 1993’s Technopoly, and 1967’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co-authored with Charles Weingartner). I read The End of Education and Technopoly back-to-back (you can read a bit about them here) a short while ago, and have now started to read this older book, written over 40 years ago.

As I’m reading Teaching as a Subversive Activity, with all of its references to the Cold War, these new machines known as computers, and the new education (aka education reform), I’m taken aback by how relevant the book still feels. Many of the questions Postman ponders, the critiques he slams down, and the suggestions he makes are still entirely applicable to the world of education in 2011.

Why is that? I think that many of the suggestions made in Postman’s 1967 work were so radical for their time, they are just now seeing the light of day in North American classrooms. It takes time for change to occur.

The Historical Perspective

The Historical Lens (from DeviantArt's ami46)

Neil Postman has a countless number of ideas about the role and process of education. One of the ideas that has stuck with me is that he believes every subject should be taught from an historical perspective. That is, the content of the course should be given context by examining it through an historical lens. One should learn and teach some history about the subject, rather than just teaching the basics of the subject. For example, in Science class, if your goal is to teach high school students about the stars and planets, you have to guide them to discover what people used to think, and how they discovered what they know. You might want to teach students that for thousands of years, humans thought the Earth was the center of everything, with the Sun, moon, and “wandering stars” (the planets) moving around the Earth. It wasn’t until the 16th century that this idea was formally turned on its head by Nicolaus Copernicus (among others) and it would be much later until the general public accepted this idea. By approaching a topic such as the solar system with an historical approach, students would see that science is a ongoing process and realize that what we know now is not the end of the line. There are still many discoveries to be made, and understanding the past can guide us towards understanding the present and perhaps more importantly, the future.

Exploring the past helps us to understand how we got here, which in turn assists us in comprehending where we’re at in the big picture of Earth’s history, and can ultimately help to direct us to where we’re going. I think that this historical approach can be used effectively in any subject, from Math and Science to Art and PE.

The McLuhan Connection

One thing I recently discovered is that Postman was good friends with perhaps the most well-known media theorist, and cultural critic of all time, the man Wired magazine named its ‘patron saint’, Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and media critic. He was perhaps most famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message”, in attempting to explain the influence that our media have on us. I’m just recently discovering McLuhan’s writings, and am eager to get reading them. I recently had some good finds at used book store, picking up McLuhan’s most well-known book, 1964’s Understanding Media (for $4.50!) and Donald Theall’s analysis/biography, The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. And the new Vancouver Public Library site has lead me to The Gutenberg Galaxy and Douglas Coupland’s biography of McLuhan. Hopefully I can find some time to read them during my practicum.