The Medium Is the Massage as Multimedia Event

In 1966-67, The Medium Is the Massage was released in five different mediums: Book, record, film, multimedia “magazine,” and lecture. Quotes from The Medium Is the Massage provides quotes from all five versions as well as links to a video walkthrough of the book, a recording of the record, a video of the film, an archive of the multimedia magazine, and a record of the lecture. Each section includes alternate versions as well, including both the 45 rpm promotional single of the record and Paul Miller/DJ Spooky’s remix of the LP. There’s also quotes and audio from Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Adam Michaels’s The Electric Information Age Book and The Electric Information Age Album.

The Medium Is the Massage Film

In addition to the book and LP, The Medium Is the Massage was also made into a 54-minute film distributed by McGraw-Hill Education in 1967, and was broadcast on NBC on March 19, 1967. McLuhan Galaxy has a larger write up about it, and The Medium Is the Massage film is available on YouTube.

Five for Rhetsy

Collin Brooke has issued a call for a list of five things — books on your night stand, books you want to read this year, songs you’re playing in heavy rotation, recent games you’ve played, snacks in your cupboard, etc. — with the results to be shared in the next issue of Rhetsy. Here’s a list of the most recent games I’ve played on a computer or iPad:

  1. Dwarf Fortress
  2. Minecraft
  3. Carcassonne
  4. Stone Age
  5. The Battle for Wesnoth

Why I Teach The Medium Is the Massage

The following is a revised version of a blog post I wrote on July 16, 2010. I rewrote it and posted to the Cyber-Rhetoric course blog as the last lecture on The Medium Is the Massage, and thought I’d repost it here. When I wrote the first version back in 2010, it wasn’t my intention to explain why I believe teaching The Medium Is the Massage is so important, as I assayed1 the subject, I found myself ending up doing just that.

From the July 16, 2010 Inside Higher Ed‘s article “Technologically Illiterate Students“:

“Say you are an employer evaluating college students for a job. Perusing one candidate’s Facebook profile, you notice the student belongs to a group called “I Pee My Pants When I’m Drunk.” What is your first thought?

It should not be that this student is unemployable for being an intemperate drinker, said Susan Zvacek, director of instructional development at the University of Kansas — though that it might mean that, too. Mainly, though, it should suggest something else — something that might be more relevant to the student’s qualifications.”

“What it tells me,” Zvacek said, “is that the student is technologically illiterate.”

The piece then goes on to offer  Zvacek’s definition of technological literacy:

“The digital divide used to be about the hardware haves and have-nots,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is that it’s less about who has hardware, but who has access to information; who has those problem-solving skills. And that’s going to be the digital divide that we’re going to see in the future … the ability to deal with information.”

The assumption that today’s student are computer-literate because they are “digital natives” is a pernicious one, Zvacek said. “Our students are task-specific tech savvy: they know how to do many things,” she said. “What we need is for them to be tech-skeptical.”

On the one hand, I want to stand back and suggest that the issue raised in the anecdote isn’t about technological awareness but rhetorical awareness, about the construction of the self. And it is. At the same time, however, Zvacek is getting at something else. Zvacek is responding to the US Department of Education’s definition of technological literacy as knowing how to use a computer, and in doing so, she’s not alone.2

I want to push this issue farther though, push it beyond the concepts of computer literacy or technological literacy. In fact, I want to push us beyond the use of the word literacy itself for a whole host of reasons, first and foremost because literacy is, technically, about letters, about the written word, and that positions the issue squarely in a particular techno-cultural-noetic milieu.3

I was fumbling with this very subject when I wrote about technological literacy in The Making of a Technorhetorician: A Technological Literacy Collage, which I wrote earlier that year as an example for students working on their own technological literacy collages. I’m unhappy with what I wrote there, as unhappy, in fact, as I was when I wrote it. The problem, I’ve realized, is that I fell into the trap I try to push students away from. I let the imperiousness of literacy muddle my thinking4 The issue, I so fumblingly hinted at in my technological literacy collage is not literacy of any sort but awareness rooted in orality-literacy studies and media ecology. Its the kind of awareness that Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong spent their careers trying to teach us.

As long as we keep basing this issue in particular techno-cultural-noetic contexts, we’re going to keep fumbling along, never to get it right. The awareness I’m talking about here, and the awareness I think Susan Zvacek is getting at without realizing it, is rooted in an awareness of McLuhan’s dictum/maxim “The medium is the massage,” that “[a]ll media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”5 That is,  McLuhan’s awareness of how media work as environments:

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a working knowledge of the way media work as environments. (26)

It can be hard, at first, to convince students that I’m talking about something relevant to their lives when we jump around from such topics as the difference between alphabets, syllabaries, and logograms; Renaissance perspectivism and railroads; Homeric myth and encyclopedias; Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Absurdest theater, and the Fluxus Movement; John Cage and Charlotte Moorman, the TV-bra wearing cellist and performance artist. As McLuhan knew, you’ve got to pull the rug out from under our feet before we can get beneath the surface and understand the deep structures.

Making the mistake of being too rooted in a particular techno-cultural-noetic perspective leads us to focus on the wrong things. My go-to example here is the belief that oral poets must be illiterate. Early scholars of oral tradition too quickly jumped to this conclusion that oral poets must be illiterate because the oral poets they studied were illiterate, even while there was evidence to the contrary, and it mistaken notion was perpetuated for far too long.6 As Ong argued, writing is imperious. It clouds our perspective. We are so rooted in literacy and in print culture that we far too often fail to realize it’s not our natural noetic state or that it’s not inherently better than other noetic states. This is the reason why we use literacy as the metaphor for everything, and in doing so, we fail to recognize that when we think we’re talking about literacy we are sometimes actually talking about awareness of media as environments.

I believe this is important because, as McLuhan and Fiore reminds us through the use of the A.N. Whitehead quote at the end of the book, “The business of the future is to be dangerous” (160). Yes, the business of the future is to be dangerous. As they reminded us at the beginning of the book, with another A.N. Whitehead quote, “[t]he major advances of civilization are processes that all but wreak the societies in which they occur” (6-7). However, as McLuhan and Fiore assert in the introduction to the book, “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (25). The Medium Is the Massage, as with much of McLuhan’s other work, is his attempt to give us the tools necessary to contemplate what is happening, to understand how media work as environments, so that we can help determine our own future.

Ultimately, this is why I keep teaching The Medium is the Massage, why I keep returning to it semester after semester even as I resist becoming one of those teachers who always teaches the same thing semester after semester. Back in 2009, when I was teaching at Creighton University, a student told me our university president walked by, saw the student reading The Medium is the Massage, and said, “People still teach that?” Fortunately, this particular student had gotten McLuhan’s message by that time and she explained that she found it to be an important book. She had come to understand McLuhan’s message and its relevance to her 21st-century life. I keep teaching McLuhan because it is relevant to all our 21st-century lives and it will be relevant to the lives of our 30th-century ancestors as well.

  1. From the French Essai, meaning “trial” or “attempt,” and the origin of Montaigne’s invention of the essay genre.
  2. For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, let me suggest Cindy Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention; Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher’s Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives from the United States, and Stewart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age as three good starting points.
  3. See, for instance, Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s “Blinded By the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy for a Metaphor for Everything Else?” in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies.
  4. If you’re really curious as to what I mean by this, see Walter J. Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” (The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Ed. Gerd Baumann. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. 23-50; Rpt. in Faith and Contexts. Vol. 4: Additional Studies and Essays 1947-1996. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999. 143-168.).
  5.  The Medium is the Massage, 26.
  6. Scholars of oral tradition, including such people as Albert Lord who was one of scholars who first promoted the error, have also worked to correct this perception. For a good, introductory text on this subject, see John Miles Foley’s How to Read an Oral Poem.

Hot and Cool Media

When teaching Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage, I find that I need to spend a bit of time teasing out what McLuhan meant by hot and cool media. This isn’t surprising since the book relies upon the concepts but doesn’t go into them in depth, and, moreover, while television is one of the book’s primary go-to examples of cool media, students today are accustomed to television as a high-definition technology. Since I’m teaching an asynchronous online course this semester, I’ve distilled my talk on hot and cool media down to this:

As W. Terrance Gordon explains in McLuhan for Beginners,1 a hot medium is a high-definition medium that “gives a lot of information and gives little to do” and a cool medium is a low-definition medium that “gives a little information and makes the user work to fill in what is missing” (51). As Gordon notes, the amount of information involved is not the facts and knowledge we’re getting but “how our physical senses respond to, or participate in, media” (51).

Some things McLuhan tells us are hot: radio, print, photographs, paintings, movies, lectures.

Some things McLuhan tells us are cool: telephone, speech, cartoons, mosaics, television, seminars.

Here is a list of hot and cool media, paired together to help illustrate the comparative nature of “high definition” and “low definition.” The hot media are in red and the cool media are in blue: (radio | telephone) (print | speech), (photographs | cartoons), (paintings | mosaics), (movies | television), (lectures | seminars).

As you compare the painting and cartoon below, the “Florence, Piazza Della Signoria” by Giuseppe Gherardi and a Peanuts cartoon respectively, notice the amount of visual detail in the painting compared to that of the cartoon. If you’re familiar with the Peanuts, you know that Charley Brown lives in a free-standing house and that Snoopy’s dog house is in a fenced backyard. Only, we only ever see the fence when it’s important, such as when Snoopy is perched on top of it pretending to be a vulture or when he’s interacting with the neighbor’s cat.

We, as viewers of the painting, are presented a fully detailed scene. It’s a high definition image and there’s little for us to “fill in,” or, in Gordon’s terms, there’s little work for us “to do.” As we look at and read the Peanuts cartoon, on the other hand, we see that there’s very little detail. We’re supposed to remember that Snoopy’s dog house is in a fenced backyard rather than off by itself somewhere with nothing but snow and a little bush off in the distance (3rd panel). The Peanuts cartoon is a low definition image and we have much work to do in filling in the context.

Florence, Piazza Della Signoria

Peanuts Cartoon

Peanuts Cartoon

So, having looked at the two images, let me offer one more example: the lecture vs. the seminar.

In a lecture, someone stands before you and talks at you. You might be able to ask a question and get a response, maybe even engage in a bit of an exchange, but the point of a lecture is to lectured to. High amounts of information and little for you to do other than absorb (or tune out) that information. This is why a lecture is a hot medium.

In a seminar, on the other hand, you and the other seminar participants are gathered together to discuss ideas. The instructor might act as the discussion leader, but it’s quite common to have students take charge of discussions for at least part of the time. Because there are multiple, sometimes competing, ideas being expressed, the seminar resembles something more like a mosaic or a mixed media collage than a painting. You, as participant, are responsible for sharing ideas, filtering through information, asking questions, and making connections. Compared to a lecture, a seminar gives little in the way of straight-forward information and it requires its participants to fill in what information there is. This is why a seminar is a cool medium.

In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which McLuhan offers an extended discussion on hot and cool media (22-32), he also notes that we can heat up a cool medium and cool down a hot one, or that a medium can “overheat” and reverse itself by cooling down (33-40). When thinking about hot and cool media, this is worth remembering.

For our immediate purposes, however, it might be worth noting that at the bottom of page 125 of The Medium Is the Massage, McLuhan tells us that the images of the cool medium of television wrap around us in a “sort of reverse perspective which has much in common with Oriental art.” If you’re wondering what McLuhan might be getting at here, turn to pages 143-145 in which he quotes from the ancient Chinese philosopher and poet Laotze, who gives us what we might call a “reverse perspective”: the idea that a spoked wheel is a circle is because of the empty spaces between the spokes; the idea that a pitcher gets its form from the absence of clay; and the idea that doors and windows are valuable because of what is not there (the lack of wall allows us to move through doors and see through windows).

This Asian perspective (the East), McLuhan tells us, is much cooler than the North American and European Western perspective. Immediately following the Laotze quotes, McLuhan tells us that electric circuitry is “Orientalizing the West” (145), by which he means that it is disrupting our uniform, continuous, and connected linear patterns of thought that have their roots in the alphabet (44-45) and were fostered with the advent of print (46-61), and is instead replacing that with a sensibility that is more flowing, unified, and fused (145). In other words, electronic circuitry is cooling down the hot perspective of Western print culture.

  1. Gordon, W. Terrance. McLuhan for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1997.

Curation, Museums, Memory

The following is a reading response to a number of readings I read for Introduction to Digital Curation I’m taking through the University of Maine’s Digital Curation Graduate Certificate Program.

I’m tempted to discuss Harvey Ross’ “Digital Curation: Scope and Incentives”1.  because it won me over with the first sentence which argues that digital curation is “central to professional practice in all digital environments” (3). Before class started, I’d already decided this is going to be the central argument in the presentation I’m proposing for next year’s Computers and Writing conference. Ross’ first chapter has already offered me plenty of ideas to develop a presentation for members of the computers and writing, digital rhetoric, and digital humanities communities. In spite of that, however, I am instead going to focus my response on Rahel Aima’s “Desiring Machines” and Edward Alexander and Mary Alexander’s “What Is a Museum?”2 Both illustrate key issues in Justin Wolff’s lecture and do so in ways that particularly resonated with me.

Aima’s “Desiring Machines” caught my attention off the bat, starting off as it did with an image from the Atari arcade game BattlezoneBattlezone, you see, was the first video games I was really good at. Good enough that I could walk up to any Battlezone game in any arcade and get myself on the high score list. While the image caught my attention, what I want to highlight is Aima’s discussion of curation within the context of the New Aesthetic, coded space, and the panoptic nature of both.

I read Bruce Sterling’s Wired article on the New Aesthetic when it was released and I’ve seen Bridle’s tumblr, so I was familiar with what was being discussed. As I started reading, I began to wonder why we were assigned this article, and then, about the time of the pull-out quote, it hit me: Through gathering all these disparate images, video, and quotes – “Drones mapping, mirror worlds, machine vision, surveillance infrastructure..render ghosts, nostalgia for the glitch, 8-bit reveries, #botiliciousness…” – Bridle wasn’t just collecting or aggregating; in creating The New Aesthetic Tumblr Bridle was defining a new artistic sensibility. In other words, by bringing all these things together in once Tumblr under the title “The New Aesthetic,” Bridle was adding value to all these digital objects by presenting them as parts of a whole.

Adding value to data and objects, Wolff stressed in his lecture, is one of the key features that differentiates acts of mere collecting or aggregating from acts of curation. (Ross and the DigCurV “What is Digital Curation” video stress the importance of adding value as well.) Important to note here is that through his acts of curation, Bridle both made us aware of this new artistic sensibility and shaped our perceptions about our relationship with these “eruptions of the digital into the physical,” our digital environment, and our existence within coded space. And it is here that we see the power inherent in the privilege of curation that Wolff warns against in his lecture, that is a key concern in Tony Bennett’s “The Political Rationality of the Museum,” and is discussed in the Alexanders’ “What Is a Museum?”

A page 137 from McLuhan and Fiore's The Medium Is the Massage

McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage, p. 137

While I was familiar with The New Aesthetic, the terms “code/space” and “coded space” are new to me, but I’m finding them useful terms to think about in a number of contexts from my professional and personal life, everything from studying, teaching, and exploring networked writing environments; to my consumer habits being tracked and logged; to my current hobby of playing with Arduinos. (A regular joke in our household revolves around the idea of me rigging up an internet-connected Arduino to send us text messages when the mail is delivered, but I could just as easily have that information sent to an online data logging tool like Phant, and then use that information to look for trends in our mail delivery times.) Coded space is inherently networked, and just as I could easily use my coded space to surveil my mail deliverers, others can, and are, using their coded spaces to surveil me. My go-to example about how retailers track our buying habits for predictive purposes is the story of how a father learned that his teenaged daughter was pregnant because Target told him she was based what they were buying at Target – and no, they weren’t buying baby stuff. Wolff touches on this in his lecture as well, in the context of Foucault, noting that Foucault argued that we would move from a centralized panoptic structures to more fluid, dispersed forms.

Also of great interest to me this week was the Alexanders’ “What Is a Museum?” I have a particular interest in rhetorical and social memory, and I couldn’t help but read the article within that context. Just as the image of Battlezone caught my attention at the start of “Desiring Machines,” the connection between the origins of museums and the muses immediately caught my attention in both Wolff’s lecture and in “What Is a Museum?” The Muses, you see, are the daughters of Mnemosyne, the personification of memory in Greek mythology. (In Wax Tablets of the Mind Jocelyn Penny Small connects the domains of each of the Muses to a different form or channel of mnemonic encoding – dance to movement, epic poetry to writing (Calliope’s emblem is a writing tablet), lyric poetry to rhythm, etc. – noting that the more channels of mnemonic encoding we engage at one time, the easier it is to commit something to memory.) With that connection between the memory and museums already established, how could I avoid thinking about museums as anything other than artificial memory systems?

I should probably point out here that our notion of memory is far more narrow than it was during the Classical and Medieval periods. Back then, memory was not just about storing and retrieving information but was regarded as something more akin to our contemporary notion of creativity. While mnemonic practices were concerned with storage and retrieval, the goal was not rote memorization and remembering in and of itself but to use one’s memory inventively. (See Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought or ask me to rant sometime – we still use our memory systems inventively, it’s just that we don’t recognize most of our practices and technologies of memory as practices and technologies of memory.)

So, as I’m thinking about “What Is a Museum?” and thinking about the museum as an artificial memory system, I’m thinking about what I call the rhetoric and poetics of memory as curation.3 The museum, as an institution involved in the collection, conservation, research, exhibition and education of artifacts (both natural and human created) and information, is a space of memory, an institution of memory, and a system of memory wrapped all in one.

While we tend to think of memory as something that just happens (we remember), memory is actually an active process regardless of whether we’re talking about our personal memories or social memory. As an active process, it’s something we curate if for no other reason than we are interpreting what we remember and applying it or repressing it for a specific purpose. Memory, as I like to argue, is about making meaning, both for ourselves and for others. (It is, after all, one of the canons or parts of rhetoric.)

So, museums, as institutions of memory, are institutions of curated memory. And, likewise, curation is itself a practice of memory. As both Wolff’s lecture and various readings argue, curation is more than archiving and preservation. It’s about the whole lifecycle of an artifact (physical or data) and adding value to that artifact for reuse. People of the Classical and Medieval worlds, as I’ve noted above, regarded memoria as more than issues of archiving and preservation. They understood memoria to be about using our memory systems to make meaning (adding value) through reuse.

Postscript: The New Aesthetic, in making us aware of the “eruptions of the digital into the physical,” functions as what Marshall McLuhan calls an anti-environment. “Environments,” McLuhan explains, “are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall paterns elude easy perception” (The Medium Is the Massage, 84-85). Art, McLuhan argues, has the ability to reveal our environments to us, and we see that in Justin Wolff’s discussion of the art of Mark Dion which focuses on the environment of the museum itself. While McLuhan’s never that far from my mind, I lectured today on the sections of The Medium Is the Massage that includes environments, the role of art, and, yes, museums.

  1. from Harvey Ross’ Digital Curation: A How-to-Do-It Manual.
  2. From Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Foundation of Museums. 2nd ed.
  3. It may help to know that Classical and Medieval thinkers were concerned not with memory in terms of what we held in our personal memory and what was outside us, but in terms of natural memory (unaided remembering) and artificial memory (memory that relies upon a mnemonic, with the understanding that a mnemonic includes writing, monuments, song, mementos, etc.