I do indeed say that writing is artificial, and maybe one of our divergences is due to my not having explained that I do not consider being artificial necessarily bad at all, but rather of itself good. Nothing is more human than artifice. Only human beings can make products that are truly artificial–extensions into the outside world of the interiority of human consciousness or, if you wish, appropriations of the outside world into the interiority of consciousness. — Walter J. Ong, from a letter in the “Literacy and Orality in Our Times” publication files, dated Dec. 14, 1978.1
I first posted this back in March 2007 at Notes from the Walter J. Ong Colletion, where I blogged while processing the Ong Collection. As I wrote in that post, I love the sentiment and world view Ong expresses here. As McLuhan would say—has said repeatedly, actually—we shape our tools and then they shape us. We fashion out of the interiority of our consciousness new environments which in turn become the environments in which we live. One of the most profound insights brought to us by the pioneers of media ecology is the understanding that media beings and cyborgs aren’t limited to our present and future but our always past.2
As the semester looms, I’m working through the revision I’m making to the “Media and their Effects” themed first-year composition course that is based around McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. In the past, I’ve focused the course around the idea that “the medium is the massage,” that is the idea that the forms our communications take (i.e, face-to-face talking, printed books, radio broadcasts, text messages) have a larger affect on society—how we think, work, interact, communicate, organize, construct, and participate—than the ideas expressed in those communications.
This time around, I’m centering our attention on the A.N. Whitehead quote at the end of the book: “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”3 The purpose of The Medium is the Massage is to help instill in us the awareness, the consciousness, necessary to navigating the dangerous future. As McLuhan tells us much earlier in the book, a statement I always return us to when we reach the A.N. Whitehead quote, “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as their is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (25).
The critical lens of media ecology gives us an awareness of how we create the environments in which we live and how those environments then exert their influence upon us. It is through this awareness, this ability to understand what is happening, that we have the ability to shape our future.
- The letter can be found in the The Walter J. Ong, SJ Manuscript Collection, housed in the St. Louis Room of Pius XII Memorial Library at Saint Louis University. [↩]
- McLuhan defines media as “extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical” (The Medium is the Massage, 26). [↩]
- In fact, I almost renamed the course from “Rhetoric and Composition: Media and their Effects” to “Rhetoric and Composition: The Business of the Future is to Be Dangerous.” [↩]