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 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.
- From the French Essai, meaning “trial” or “attempt,” and the origin of Montaigne’s invention of the essay genre. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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.). ↩
- The Medium is the Massage, 26. ↩
- 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. ↩
This semester, I’m teaching a course for Winthrop University: WRIT 502: Cyber-Rhetoric: Literature, Theory, Technology. It is, in short, a course in digital English studies. The catalog description of the course is as follows:
This class will examine the challenging possibilities now open for literary study and literary theory. It considers works from Blake to Borges to cyberpunk; works with online materials and literary archives; wrestles with modern rhetorical and digital theorists; and experiment with creating online texts and critiquing them.
As I put the course together, I found myself leaning towards incorporating more digital humanities and comparative media studies while addressing how digital technologies are changing our notions of texts and textual engagement, literature, pedagogy, and composition. As I put the syllabus together, I ended up with a fairly long course introduction, but decided to keep it. I thought I’d share it here.
“Any shift in the traffic of information can create not only new thoughts, but new ways of thinking.” – Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, Rhythm Science
“It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage
“It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur […]. The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.” – A.N. Whitehead, Symbolisms: Its Meaning and Effect
“As the era of print is passing, it is possible once again to see print in a comparative context with other textual media, including the scroll, the manuscript codex, the early printed codex, the variations of book forms produced by changes from letterpress to offset to digital publishing, and born-digital forms such as electronic literature and computer games.” – N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era
“It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” – A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
In the months of May and June, readers of the New Republic were treated to articles about the end of English Departments, soon to be killed off by technology in the guise of the digital humanities. In his article, New Republic Senior Editor Adam Kirsch decries the doom he believes technology is wreaking. Less alarmist, James Pulizzi also sees the end of the traditional literature department as all but inevitable, not because they must die but because they must shift and adapt to the new digital environment.
It is true, as Pulizzi suggests, that literature departments, especially English departments, are changing, even need to change. But that’s nothing new. English departments have always been changing. We might point to the 1800s where at schools like Harvard one of the most prestigious professorships was the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, or to the late 1800s when American English departments did not teach American literature – the first American professor of American literature had to jump ship from his literature department for a department of history. Or we might point to the 1940s and the rise of the then New Criticism, or to the 1960s as the start of a series of waves of post-structuralist and post-modernist theories and perspectives including but not limited to feminism, gender studies, New Historicism, postcolonialism, multiculturalism and ethnic studies, ecocriticism, trauma theory, memory studies, New Materialism, object-oriented criticism, and speculative realism. Or we might look again to the 1960s and the revival of classical rhetoric and the beginnings of contemporary composition studies, followed later by the growth of professional writing and technical communication.
Kirsch, however, is right in sensing that something is different. This is not just a change in the practice of theory or the object of study, but a change in the very way we are structuring our culture. We are no longer a culture of print. We are, instead, a transitional culture moving from the print to digital age. In arguing against the study and use of digital technology, Kirsch asks, “Was it necessary in the past 500 years for a humanist to know how to set type and publish a book?”
Kirsch believes that the answer is no, and therein lies the problem with his attempt to defend the humanities from technology. Renaissance Humanism was born within the newly established printing houses of Europe. The first Humanists did not just learn how to set type and publish books, they embraced the printing press; got their hands on as many hand-written manuscripts of Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science as they could; set them to type; and published, published, published.
Kirsch is unaware of these facts because he is trapped within a catch-22. To be aware of how the printing press gave rise to Renaissance Humanism, Kirsch would have had to have studied the history of media technologies, something which he seems loathe to do because he believes it to be antithetical to humanistic concerns.
As Hayles and Pressman argue, that we are transitioning from a print to a digital culture allows us to more readily recognize that print and its modes of thought, patterns of behavior, and organizational structures were a temporary condition fostered and encouraged by a technology around which we shaped our culture. That era, the Age of Print, is ending, just as the manuscript culture of medieval scholasticism ended with the rise of print.
And that is what this course is about: In recognizing, as DJ Spooky reminds us, that shifts in the traffic of communication will alter modes of thought; in seeking to understand the workings of electronic and digital media, as Marshall McLuhan suggests we need to do, so that we might understand the social and cultural changes around us; in revising the ways we practice English studies even as we maintain our symbolic codes so that we might, as A.N. Whitehead argues, stave off cultural stagnation.
If “the business of the future is to be dangerous,” then the answer is not to hide from it but, as McLuhan suggests, “to contemplate what is happening.” Or, as Michel de Montaigne, the Renaissance writer and inventor of the essay – a genre thoroughly entwined with the rise and logics of print – once wrote, “The thing of it is, we must live with the living.” That is what this course is about: To understand how English studies might live within a digital world.
The Variable Media Questionnaire is resource for helping creators think about sustainability and preservation of their digital work, originally designed by Jon Ippolito while working in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim and now faculty at the University of Maine’s New Media Department. The project, in its third generation, is now being developed by the University of Maine’s Still Water lab under the direction of John Bell.
The Variable Media Questionnaire is designed to help a work’s creators and users write guidelines for translating their works into new media once the original medium has expired. This Questionnaire is unlike any protocol hitherto proposed for cataloguing or preserving works. It requires creators to define their work according to functional components like “media display” or “source code” rather than in medium-dependent terms like “film projector” or “Java.” The variable media paradigm also asks creators to choose the most appropriate strategy for dealing with the inevitable slippage that results from translating to new mediums:storage (mothballing a PC), emulation (playing Pong on your laptop), migration (putting Super-8 on DVD), or reinterpretation (Hamlet in a chat room).
Ippolito has a short article on the questionnaire, “Accommodating the Unpredictable: The Variable Media Questionnaire,” which is taken from the book Permanence through Change: The Variable Media Approach.
I regularly promote Charles Stross’ novel Accelerando which traces three generations of the Manx family as we pass into the Singularity. It’s one of my favorite SF novels. I’m currently rereading it and stumbled upon the Accelerando Technical Companion, a glossary of various concepts and terms in the novel, useful for even some regular SF readers and a godsend for anyone teaching the book.
You haven’t read Accelerando? You should give it a try. In fact, Stross offers it for free download in the following formats: ePub, MobiPocket, Aportis, and Rich Text Format.