Wednesday, December 19, 2007
The title is not mine; rather it belongs to the video at the bottom of the post. But it's a phrase that makes me think immediately of the great Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). The height of McLuhan's career was in the 1960s when most of his important works --- The Gutenberg Galaxy(1962), Understanding Media (1964) and War and Peace in the Global Village(1968) --- were all published, although his celebrity would really peak in 1977 with his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall.
I think that perhaps the most important thing that Marshall McLuhan left us was not any single work, nor any single observation, but rather a particular approach to seeing the world. McLuhan looked at all media as technological extensions of the individual body, and he considered that the use of these extensions would change not only the world but us. Although people once had difficulty accepting such ideas, McLuhan's approach now seems like so much common sense. As W.H. Auden said of Sigmund Freud, "he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion." Most of us now accept that we are being changed by the media and the technology we use; although to say exactly how, and to what degree the benefits are in balance with the disadvantages is naturally more difficult.
One of the things I have been thinking of lately is the traditional association between architecture and thought. For example, Cicero used to memorize speeches by associating each section with a room, or hallway, or stairway, so that his process of thought would have a sort of architectural solidity (v. Frances Yates, The Art of Memory). But is there a means of memorizing, of assimilating information that would be more effective for us in an age in which the model for information exchange is no longer rooted in location, but in the internet, wherein the free exchange of ideas in all directions at once has delivered an information revolution with hints of evolutionary consequences? The internet certainly has immense advantages as a means of assimilating information over the traditional structural model, but to what degree can such a system of association convey meaning? Is it (not the content, not the individual sites and pages, but the system itself) perhaps just too close to the way we already think to bestow a meaningful structure upon our thoughts for repackaging and delivery to others? Is Cicero's architecture, or the idea of shelves, somehow still necessary as a foreign structure to impose on our thinking? Can we really, as the cliche has it, "think outside the box"? Or will boxes---however external to our favourite boxes the new, more innovative boxes may be---always be necessary to us?
At any rate, the point about the difference between the traditional structural basis for organizing information and the new non-located network approach is illustrated beautifully in the following video, Information R/evolutionwhich was made by Mike Wesch as part of the Digital Ethnography project.