31 May 2011

McLuhan - designer or prophet?

I recently had a brief Twitter exchange with Stanley Frielick of Auckland, that lead me to a thought on McLuhan and technological determinism, and a paper by Norman Clark (1993) explaining the role of television in training our reception for technology in a technopoly. Could it be, that McLuhan's influence on anyone interested in media and technology, has coached their imaginings, and so coached our reception of their media and technology artifacts?

  • enactivist: RT @brainpicker: If you read one thing today, make it this: Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert http://j.mp/jMU8SZ #longreads #mcluhan
  • leighblackall: @enactivist That Wikipedia article didn't go anywhere! I thought is was going to lend weight, instead it gave another sales pitch!
  • enactivist: @leighblackall not sure what it's selling? for me the point is learners are doers not recipients and McLuhan / Wikipedia are teachers..
  • leighblackall: @enactivist It dismissed critics of Internet and crowd sourcing, and quoted McLuhan uncritically. I was hoping for the opposite. Still good.
  • enactivist: all..will lose their..private identities...knowledge...will be available to all...everybody will be nobody.. http://bit.ly/j5qLaZ #mcluhan
  • leighblackall: RT @enactivist: To what extent might we think #McLuhan designed the Internet rather than foresaw it? http://bit.ly/j5qLaZ #natureornurture
  • leighblackall: @enactivist While searching 4 open copy of that McLuhan paper, found: reinforcement and compulsion of technology http://j.mp/klkG4L

As usual, the limitations of Twitter caused me to come across with aggression. Thankfully Stanley knows me. My aggression is well intended :)

In the article Stanley originally pointed to, Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert by Maria Bustillos, I was excited that this might be an article that looked into such a proposition - disembodied expertise. Instead, it followed the familiar format of argument that promotes Wikipedia, crowd sourcing, and the challenge to authority, leaving me unsatisfied that the proposition in the title was fairly treated.

It starts with a familiar history of Britannica vs Wikipedia, (I'd love to see interviews with Britannica people these days) then extends to an equally familiar history of academia vs Wikipedia and the Internet, then uses Marshall McLuhan to validate the ideas today as forecasted, using that point to introduce contemporaries like Clay Shirky to carry the line forward.

Don't get me wrong, I am just as guilty (and largely convinced) of this format of argument myself. But I'm trying to question it more, firstly to better understand the contemporary Luddites, and secondly because in my experience, to be honest, it hasn't been all its cracked up to be. Very few people in my real world use the Internet in the ideal way described by most social media commentators, I'd say its a new class of people - the technocrats. Yet the ideologies conveyed by commentators have had significant destabilising affects in my local network despite the lack of locally sensed evidence for what the technocrats describe, and because I worry about the absence of critical consideration, in projects like Gov2.0, open education, Creative Commons, etc. But I'm getting side tracked..

In the excellent comments to Maria's Wikipedia and experts article, was one by MikeBarthel (#1,884).

Not to be a boring ol' academic, but quoting McLuhan uncritically seems pretty problematic, and the fact that the only modern cosigns you could find aren't in the fields of media or technology studies (SCT) is telling. McLuhan's view is worrisomely prevalent among amateur theorists on the Internet, and in particular his underlying assumption that technology is deterministic makes us all a lot less critical about technology and humans' own role in creating it and shaping how it's used. 
Anyway, I have to go to office hours and you already know how I feel about Shirky, so etc. etc. etc. I mean, it's not like collaborative projects weren't extremely common before the digital age (they form the basis of the modern academy, kind of!), and there's always been lots of amateur-generated knowledge out there, so I dunno how this is a shift, I guess.

This somehow lead me to wondering, to what degree might McLuhan himself, have determined the trajectory of technology and media? Hence the question to Stanley on Twitter:

leighblackall: RT @enactivist: To what extent might we think #McLuhan designed the Internet rather than foresaw it? http://bit.ly/j5qLaZ #natureornurture

So, I went searching on the question.. and didn't easily find much in the ocean of search results with the word McLuhan in it! But I did find a paper by Norman Clark titled, 'Open Hailing Frequencies, Data': Television's Reinforcement and Compulsion of Technology in Communication, where he uses the TV series Star Trek to consider the use of, and behaviors around, communications technology in the show, and consider the coaching influence that has on us the viewer, as we too face similar technology emerging in our real world (technopoly) communities.

With the rise of technopoly, society loses any transcendent narrative for moral underpinnings, social institutions lose their strength to control and filter information, and technology rushes in to take control. Doctors and patients feel they must use all of the available technology, even if it is unnecessary. Students think they can't write a paper without a word processor. Statistical objectivity becomes the only source of authority; statistics abound on television, granting newscasters a status equivalent to the oracle at Delphi. Scientism becomes religion as we use natural science to study human behavior, try to organize society around "scientific" principles, and place our deepest faith in science. Traditional sacred symbols are trivialized and used to sell anything (look at Christmas), an action Postman calls "cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition" (p. 170). This "secularization of imagery" ("She wants her TV," 1991, p. 50) depletes and degrades the content of our symbols; the "interesting" symbolic content of the Sistine Chapel for most American visitors is the techniques and technology used to restore the paintings!

Now that reads more like the disembodied authority I was hoping for in Maria's article!

The control of technology is reinforced in the various communication technologies; the content of our media is often the promotion of the technologies of our media. Television provides us with images of technology that "presume the efficacy of the contemporary technological society, itself a result of the confluence of science, cultural practice, and economic formation" (Banks & Tankel, 1990, p. 24). Technological progress is not critically confronted since technology is the prejudiced cultural symbol system. The presumption of efficacy allows television to uncritically promote the propagation and proliferation of technology. Television in a sense retums the favor of the technological power that created it by reinforcing and compelling society's consumption of further technologies.

So, similar to the saying, who watches the watchmen? I'd like to ask, what do the scriptwriters read? What I mean is, in the similar way that television coaches its viewers to receive technology, academic theory and other literature coaches science fiction writers to depict technology. So, to what extent has Marshall McLuhan, through his sheer epic proportion of influence, actually designed the media and technology we have today, by coaching designers, engineers, and developers to think about their work, in a way he determined? A kind of butterfly effect, or in McLuhan's case, a typhoon effect.

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