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Tag Archives: marshall mcluhan

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.

Sir Ken Robinson

Last night I attended Sir Ken Robinson’s talk at Vancouver’s Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. During my bus ride home, I was surprised to find that many people had been tweeting about the talk using the hashtag #sirkenyvr, with some even going to White Spot to meet and discuss in a Tweetup. The times they are a-changing…

Anyway, back to Sir Ken Robinson. Having watched his two TED talks, the RSA animate video he narrates, and recently read his book The Element (as mentioned in a quick review yesterday), I pretty much knew what to expect in terms of the content of his talk. Many of his ideas and anecdotes have been presented before, and I suppose that’s inevitable once you become a famous author. Even so, I felt like I got a lot out of this presentation and discussion, and was thoroughly engaged the entire time. I jotted down some quotes and notes during the talk, and will try to decipher these into coherent thoughts.

“Make education personal”

This is one of Sir Ken’s most frequently cited suggestions, and with good reason. Many students are disengaged and uninterested in learning because they’ve been presented with an Industrial Age one-size-fits-all model of education. Sir Ken referred to mainstream education as riding the ‘rails of conformity’, a phrase which brilliantly illustrates the convergent nature of our systems as well as alluding to the railway, perhaps the most recognizable and enduring image of the Industrial Age. In the digital age, we have the tools and capabilities to bring education back to its roots, so to speak, allowing learners to pursue their passions and develop themselves as human beings, rather than cogs in a system doing “clerical work”.

Human beings are not mechanistic

Similar to the argument presented towards the end of The Element, Sir Ken points out that human beings are organic rather than mechanistic creatures, and our systems of learning should reflect this obvious fact. It is tough to break old habits, and the remnants of the mechanical age are no exception. Our manufacturing, transportation, city structures, and yes, even our education systems were built on the backbone of the Industrial Age. We’re transitioning into the digital or electric age, and these types of transitions are disruptive. Marshall McLuhan noted in the 60’s that as we shifted to living in proximity to our neighbours through the instantaneous connections of the electric age, we were returning to a tribal culture unseen since preliterate man. Could it be that the electric age of television, computers, and the internet  is actually more natural and organic than the mechanical age of factories, steam engines, and railroads?

Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970's.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “We live today in the Age of Information and of Communication because electric media instantly and constantly create a total field of interacting events in which all men participate.” And he wrote this thirty years before any of us had ever used the Internet! He goes on to explain that “electricity is organic in character and confirms the organic social bond by its technological use in telegraph and telephone, radio, and other forms.” Much of McLuhan’s work was built upon the idea that each new technology is an extension of man, and the discovery of electromagnetic waves extended our central nervous systems beyond our bodies. If this is so, then Sir Ken’s suggestion to return to more organic metaphors for learning make perfect sense. The digital age provides us with the means of communicating with more speed and precision than ever before, and we’re truly becoming a global village – with the ability to view (in high definition) events happening around the world. We’re not becoming dehumanized by our technologies, we’re simply being provided with an improved means of communication which is actually more natural and organic than we might think at first glance. As McLuhan so poignantly said:  “The simultaneity of electric communication, also characteristic of our nervous system, makes each of us present and accessible to every other person in the world.”  In my opinion (which is quite contrary to McLuhan’s pessimistic view), this extension of our nervous systems and the improved communication that comes with it are great steps for humanity, and we should be embracing them in our classrooms.

The hidden curriculum

Sir Ken contends that in education, we “create problems not deliberately but systematically” which results in an “embedded structure of the curriculum” in which we segregate subjects, create disciplines, and then arrange them in order of importance. (His words remind me of Neil Postman at times.) He told an interesting story about a girl (I think it was his daughter but I might have missed that) who after finishing a dance class was asked “What did you get out of this class? Did you gain from the experience?” to which the girl replied, “I got a B.”  We’ve come to create a culture in which standards and grades are more important than personal growth and development, and the kids don’t know any better. What would John Dewey think?

The relationship between teacher and learner

In theatre, one can remove the curtain, the lights, the director, the script, the props, and even the stage, and still maintain the essence of theatre. For theatre is really about the relationship between actor and audience, and that’s it. Similarly, education is not about curriculums, policymakers, technology, textbooks, or even subjects – it’s about the relationship between teacher and learner. At its heart, Sir Ken points out that “education is about facilitating learning.” As Sir Ken so eloquently stated (and I noticed it was re-tweeted numerous times), “when kids walk in the classroom and you close the door, you are the education system.”

Sir Ken ended the night with a quote from H.G. Wells which emphasizes the importance of transforming education: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” The optimist in me wants to think we’re making great strides in the digital age, and that inspirational speakers like Sir Ken Robinson are leading the way for education to win the race, leaving the McLuhanesque pessimism predicting catastrophe in the dust.

Thank you Sir Ken Robinson for the engaging and inspirational talk last night.

 “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.

“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.