McLuhan 4: Mailer And McLuhan

There’s a 1968 TV show called The Summer Way that has been posted online by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation featuring Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan in conversation.

Fabulous it is too: two intellectual heavyweights delicately tip-toeing around one another in front of a live audience and, presumably in those days, also broadcast live. Mailer looks very nervous early on and is clearly at sea, and in the end just muscles his way out of trouble. McLuhan is very calm, very cool, and seems completely in control. He just flies loops around Mailer, and the amused looks on his face at some of Mailer’s comments are absolutely priceless.

It’s about half an hour long and is pure historical gold. [Edit December 2017: original link now broken.]

Quote(s) of the Month

In designing all functions and all data structures, a computer programmer tries always to use variables rather than constants. On the level of the human-computer interface, this principle means that the user is given many options to modify the performance of a program or a media object, be it a computer game, Web site, Web browser, or the operating system itself. The user can change the profile of a game character, modify how folders appear on the desktop, how files are displayed, what icons are used, and so forth. If we apply this principle to culture at large, it would mean that every choice responsible for giving a cultural object a unique identity can potentially always remain open.

Lev Manovich

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration—the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth.

Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan 3: The Medium is the Massage

A couple of weeks ago, in an idle moment, I picked up The Medium is the Massage again and read it from cover to cover. It took me about an hour. Since then, I’ve read it cover to cover twice more, and am constantly dipping into it. I love it.

The Medium is the Massage wasn’t actually “written” by McLuhan:

The book had in fact been composed by Jerome Agel, who had written a profile of McLuhan in 1965, and Quentin Fiore, a first-class book designer. The two selected or commissioned photographs to accompany excerpts they culled and reshaped from various writings and statements of McLuhan’s. […] McLuhan contributed the punning title and approved the text and layouts. Agel and Fiore evidently did their work well: McLuhan changed only one word. Their mix of text and visuals was indeed a virtuoso feat. They used arresting photographs and artwork and performed interesting experiments with type, laying it upside down, on the slant, or in mirror image, switching its size from page to page, switching between regular and boldface, and so on.
Agel referred to the result as a “cubist” production. McLuhan recognized that it was an effective sales brochure for his ideas. (Marchand 1989, p.192)

Exactly forty years on, the book stands up well: it’s very digital media. The book is a riot of collages, visual puns, voice prints, excerpts from newspapers and magazines, cartoons, abstract patterns, extreme close-ups, black- and white-negative space, and runs the whole gamut of typographical experimentation. It’s the sort of thing that would be quite easy to do now, but was probably very difficult in 1967.

Set against and around this visual feast are expertly chosen and edited nuggets of McLuhan’s writing. The text bounces off the images, argues and agrees with them, works in concert and opposition. It resonates. It’s metaphoric.

The Medium is the Massage remains McLuhan’s bestselling book, and it’s easy to see why: the brevity, the condensation, the humour, the life offered by the interplay between text and image. It’s deep and entertaining. As an introduction to McLuhan it is second to none.

Marchand, P. (1989) Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. New York: Tickner & Fields.
McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1967) The Medium is the Massage. San Francisco: Hardwired.

Quote of the Month

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

Pablo Picasso

Generality vs Strength

Back in 1991 I was doing a Post-Graduate Diploma in Music Information Technology at City University. My end-of-year project was on synthesizer interface design, and whilst writing it my supervisor Simon Emmerson suggested I look at a paper written by Barry Truax called The Inverse Relation Between Generality and Strength in Computer Music Programs. It proved very influential at the time, and it became the axis around which my project revolved. Whilst I haven’t thought about it much in the interim, I recently had cause to go back and re-read it. I’ve found it remains provocative. This is my take on Truax’s paper.

The basic idea is that there is a continuum upon which we could place any computer system, where at one end we have what he calls general systems and at the other we have strong systems. A ‘general’ system is non-specific or open-ended, and does not necessarily suggest any particular way of solving a problem: in order to achieve anything, the user will have to generate a lot of input. A ‘strong’ system is the opposite: it will limit the range of options open to the user — with the result that the output will be much more predictable — but it will be much easier to use and many of its functions may be automated. A general system is widely applicable and flexible. A strong system will only have a limited range of uses.

As the title of his paper clearly suggests, Truax only considered this continuum in terms of computer music systems. However, it is equally clear that we can apply it to all computer systems:

  1. Strong: we could imagine a simple mobile phone that is very easy to use because all it does is work as a phone. It doesn’t require much effort because it only does one job, and it has a predictable output (making phone calls). General: a typical smartphone or PDA on the other hand, will be a phone, camera, video recorder, organizer, MP3 player, radio, and what have you. With the added functionality comes the need for greater input from the user, and it’s output is relatively unpredictable because it depends on what function you’re using.
  2. Strong: this blog was very easy to set up and is very easy to use. All it does is work as a blog. It is subject to a large amount of automation. General: by hand-coding XHTML I could build a website of any kind provided I put the effort into it.
  3. Strong: a calculator (simple, easy to use, limited functionality). General: a desktop PC (open-ended, highly complex, can do many jobs).
  4. Strong: Apple’s Soundtrack is drag’n’drop simple and has a predictable output in the sense that the music is almost exclusively created from prerecorded loops. General: Max/MSP requires a huge amount of knowledge and expertise on part of the user just to get any sound out of it at all, but with the necessary expertise you could build almost anything you like (sequencer, sampler, plug-in, etc.).

You get the idea. What is interesting is that Truax says that somewhere in the middle of that continuum is an area of maximum interaction and “learning potential”. In that sweet spot the system is general enough to allow freedom of choice, but has enough automation to allow the user to quickly get some results and, crucially, to generate feedback. To use the XHTML example from above: yes I could build anything I want by hand-coding, but wouldn’t it be a lot smarter to use something like Dreamweaver to save writing out every line of code by hand and to automate a lot of the boring, repetitive bits?

It’s not quite as simple as I’ve made out. As Truax points out, a single system can be viewed hierarchically as being on a continuum of general vs strong. Consider your computer: at the very lowest level it is shunting around streams of binary numbers at very very high speeds. These binary numbers can be made to represent almost anything, and your computer can, in theory, be programmed to do almost anything. At this machine code level, just getting “Hello World” to pop up onscreen would take a pretty significant amount of effort. However, you normally interact with the machine via an operating system which offers you a good deal of automation: abstract concepts, information spaces, and processes are usually presented to you as visual analogues, and these can be acted upon directly as if they were the data. A further layer of automation is called up when you open specific programmes to do specific jobs, and consequently the computer at that moments becomes ‘stronger’ and more predictable: if you’ve got Photoshop open the output will almost definitely be an image, for example.

There you go. It’s a simple idea but one with hidden depth. It’s certainly an interesting way of considering the potential of a system for interaction.

Truax, B. (1980). The Inverse Relation Between Generality and Strength in Computer Music Systems. Interface, 9, 49-57.

Quote of the Month

Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.

Jean Cocteau

Sir Ken Robinson

I came across this last night: a fantastic talk about our education systems which manages to be enlightening, very funny, and moving. Brilliant!

McLuhan 2: McLuhan’s Wake

McLuhan’s Wake is the new DVD release of a 2002 film by Canadian documentary director Kevin McMahon. It doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative, but has three main themes that cycle round each other: firstly, McLuhan’s use of Poe’s Descent Into The Maelstrom as a metaphor for our current situation in relation to the “vortex” of technological change; secondly, McLuhan’s Laws of Media; and thirdly, a biographical strand reconstructed mostly from stills and TV clips. Laurie Anderson provides the main narration, with added commentary from the usual suspects: Eric McLuhan, Corrine McLuhan, Neil Postman, Phillip Marchand, Frank Zingrone, et al.

I’ve watched it twice now and I’d have to say it’s not a great film. For me, there are two main problems with it: one, the visual images don’t always tie in with the ideas that they’re supposed to be expressing. A lot of the footage is quite generic and could be about almost anything given the context, although I suspect much of this may be down to financial limitations (it being an independent production). Two, the soundtrack is mixed quite badly. The interviews are really the backbone of the film and they’ve often chosen to fade them in and out, which means you lose the end of sentences. Frustrating! Also, the mix leaves something to be desired. The voices don’t always sit at the same level and the music is generally too loud.

Having said all that, it’s wonderful to have. There are loads of extras: a couple of hours of footage from the original interviews, hours and hours of audio (including two lengthy examples of McLuhan himself talking), and “hundreds of pages” of documents that include the Director’s notes, McLuhan biog, shooting script, and—joy of joys—a study guide. There’s a full set of subtitles, the navigation is well organized, and it’s Region 0 encoded. Not bad for a tenner!

So there we have it. It’s not really a critical evaluation of McLuhan’s work, but a serious and ambitious attempt to get McLuhan’s complex ideas over to a non-specialist audience. If you’ve never read any of his books and want to know why Wired magazine named a middle-aged conservative and Catholic the “patron saint of the Internet”, this is a good a place to start. It would also make an ideal introduction and resource for an undergraduate course teaching McLuhan.

Narrative 1: An Introduction

One of my main interests these days is narrative: specifically, I am half way through a PhD entitled Narrative Structures In e-Learning, and I teach narrative as part of a Contextual Studies module on the BA (Hons) Interactive Digital Media course at Swansea Metropolitan University.

The problem with studying narrative is that it is an “overloaded” concept (Dettori & Giannetti 2006). Since the so-called “narrative turn” of the early 1980s there has been an explosion of interest in narrative, and untold books and papers have been published in disciplines as diverse as Management and Organizational Studies, Anthropology, Gender Studies, Medicine, History, Psychoanalysis, Art, Multimedia (particularly Virtual Reality environments), Museum Studies, Sociology, Literary Theory, Law, Cultural Studies, Education, and New Media Theory. It is an important topic in both Discourse Analysis and Semiotics.

The problem is that the different disciplines often define narrative in different ways, even when using the same basic terminology. What’s more, these definitions often defy everyday usage: most people use the terms ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ interchangeably, for example, whereas to a narrative theorist the distinction between the two is vital. Even in cases where a basic functional model of narrative can be agreed upon, terminology varies: ‘story’ becomes fabula or histoire, the ‘narrative discourse’ becomes sjuzet or récit or discours, and even a seemingly straightforward and widely-used term such as ‘plot’ becomes problematic.

Another huge issue is that much of the literature on narrative is reflexive, that is, concerned with narratives in literature (and particularly the novel). It is only since the publication of pioneering work by Labov & Waletzky on oral narratives that attention has turned to its role in everyday speech. This is kind of strange, because it seems obvious that thought and speech necessarily predate writing. As Ong puts it, oral expression is our primary modeling system, written or otherwise textualized expression our secondary modeling system. Consequently, a lot of my own research has been focused on looking at narrative as a function of the brain, as a mode of thought, as the primary means of human expression, and therefore as a cultural artefact crucial in the formation of both personality and culture in general.

Of course, it is precisely because it is so fundamental to human thought and expression that this multi-disciplinary research into narrative is going on in the first place: narrative is what Herman has called a “domain-general” cognitive tool. It’s everywhere, everyday, for everyone. As Brooks says, we’re immersed in it.

For those wishing to investigate this fascinating topic a little further, here’s my Introduction To Narrative (96k .pdf file).

Brooks, P. (1984) Reading For The Plot. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.

Dettori, G. & Giannetti, T. (2006) A Concise Introduction to Narrative Learning Environments. Course material, VDS Workshop on Narrative Learning Enviroments. From

Herman, D. (2003) Stories as a Tool for Thinking, in Herman, D. (Ed) Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

Labov, W. & Waletzky, J. (1967, 1997) ‘Narrative Analysis: Oral Version of Personal Experience’ in Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7 (1-4), 3-38. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy. London: Methuen & Co

McLuhan 1: An Introduction

What can I say? I’m a BIG fan of Marshall McLuhan. I first came across him sometime around 1992 and I’d just completed my Post-Graduate Diploma in Music Information Technology. Just as I was finishing my dissertation (on synthesizer interface design) my research somehow led me to Understanding Media and it completely blew me away. Since then I’ve read most of his major works, his published letters, a biography, and several other books about him and his work. I’m the very proud owner of a First Edition of The Mechanical Bride.

His writing remains unique, especially for an academic. Most obviously, he deliberately and self-consciously avoids the expositional logico-scientific structures of the academic paper, preferring instead a kind of mosaic – or what he would probably call a ‘field’ – of fragments, references, allusions, metaphors, puns, and killer one-liners. These spiral around the subject under discussion like a swarm of determined and very clever bees.

For example: chapter 2 in Understanding Media is entitled ‘Media Hot and Cold’. The second paragraph begins with some basic definitions and is quite easy to read and understand:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided.

Straightforward enough, no? But then over the next 10 pages he develops this simple idea, taking in along the way hieroglyphic vs ideogrammic writing, ballet, Freud, steel axes and the Australian Aborigine, Newton, Blake, Frank Lloyd Wright, anxiety, boredom, jazz, Margaret Mead, W.H. Auden and Shakespeare, a rationale for the great period in Athenian culture, Calvin Coolidge, traffic calming, Glenn Gould and Stravinsky, dark glasses, James Joyce, Constance Rourke, and Dr. Johnson. Phew!

Like all intertextuality, understanding and evaluation is only possible if you know the sources, and his range of references is extremely broad. It can make for exhausting reading, but at the end of the day there is no-one like him. No matter whether you love him or loathe him, agree or disagree, his work is challenging and visionary and more relevant now than it was when he wrote it (Understanding Media came out in 1964). He reminds me a bit of Freud, in the sense that – although many of his ideas may have been misguided, off target, or just plain wrong – his work has completely changed the way we think about the world (and ourselves).

Here’s a little snippet of him in action. It’s short, but it really does give the true flavour of his dense, aphoristic style:

As you can probably tell from the giveaway title for this post, I plan to write more on McLuhan. I hope that over time these might mount up to something substantial. But to round off today’s introductory sermon, I thought I’d end with one of my favourite quotes of his – McLuhan’s definition of politics:

Yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.

Totally. Ciao!