It was interesting this week to hear the responses to McLuhan’s theories. After some clarification in the lecture, we entered a tutorial-wide discussion surrounding what was mostly a question of “do you agree that the medium is the message?” Of course, this is one of the cornerstones of McLuhan’s work and a turn of phrase that many people have heard, even if they don’t know of its source.
What was interesting to discover was that most people assume message = content and therefore don’t agree with McLuhan’s catch-cry. In fact, McLuhan is referring to the effect of the medium on our culture at large. It was the introduction of new technologies that altered the way we function as society and that is the message McLuhan is trying to express – the content is almost irrelevant. Of course, the message of every medium is another medium and that’s where we started talking ourselves around in circles.
One powerful point made by the tutor which supports McLuhan’s phrase, was a reference to Twitter. We find that many people sign up to follow the Twitter updates of hundreds of celebrities, but what important information are we getting from these tweets? It’s hardly life changing to know that Barack Obama just enjoyed his plane trip. It’s in fact the technology that we are embracing, not its content. We want the illusion of connection to these people, perhaps in the same way that shopping aisle tabloid magazines shout about the latest ‘baby bump pics’ of Angelina Jollie. Do we really care? Probably not, but we feel as though we are sharing a part of their life, just by reading the magazine.
There were also those that leant more toward Williams’ viewpoint (which seems to be more accepted by those studying Communications, whilst us art school nerds are often more drawn to McLuhan). Williams states that without human decision, new technologies will not emerge. He suggests that we are the God-like selector of our own technological destinies, whereas McLuhan thinks that technologies will appear, with or without our choosing.
More widely though, most people sat somewhere between these opposing views. In fact, they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to take such a hard-line stance. I was pretty much in agreement, when I picked up Understanding Media again and read the following…
“Even specialist learning in higher education proceeds by ignoring interrelationships; for such complex awareness slows down the achieving of expertness.” (p. 110)
…it’s a quote that not only went some of the way to explaining why these men take such a strong point of view, but also made me realise that the vast majority of people passionate about any topic (philosophy, politics, art, and so on) can seem to lose sight of the bigger picture. They’re too focused on achieving ultimate knowledge in their field, that all else fades into the background.
The first of two readings for this week was Remediation: Understanding New Media (Bolter, Grusin. 2000). Unfortunately, I struggled with this one: a weekend up the coast for my Mum’s birthday made getting any uni work a bit difficult (she seems to have discovered her inner party animal in her old age). Reading and re-reading these relatively dense passages on the plane didn’t really allow me to get a good understanding of the Immediacy, Hypermediacy and Remediation chapter. I’ll have to tune in carefully this week to see if I can get a better grasp of the topic.
There were however a couple of passages within this reading that caught the attention of my highlighter, when discussing the subject of immediacy…
“Immediacy is our name for a family of beliefs and practices that express themselves differently at various times among various groups… The common feature of all these forms is the belief in some necessary contact point between the medium and what it represents. For those who believe in the immediacy of photography, from Talbot to Bazin and Barthes, the contact point is the light that is reflected from the objects on to the film. This light establishes an immediate relationship between the photograph and the object.” (p. 30)
Our textbook – which is thankfully written in more straightforward language – continued on with the ideas of Bolter and Grusin, by summarising their concept of remediation…
“A third possibility is that put forward by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999) who, following an insight of Marshall McLuhan, effectively tie new media to old media as a structural condition of all media. They propose and argue at some length that the ‘new’, in turn, in new media is the manner in which the digital technologies that they employ ‘refashion older media’, and then these older media ‘refashion themselves to answer to the challenges of new media’ (p. 15). It seems to us that there is an unassailable truth in this formulation. This is that new media are not born in a vacuum and, as media, would have no resources to draw upon if they were not in touch and negotiating with the long traditions of process, purpose, and signification that older media possess. Yet, having said this, many questions about the nature and extent of the transformations taking place remain.” (p. 48)
As this passage suggests, we will no doubt be connecting these ideas to that of McLuhan last week. I will just need to find a little more time in what will be a hectic week to get to the bottom of all these concepts.