August 20, 2007
by PH

Quote of the Month

The emerging sense of a self-directed, self-aware person takes place within the context of symbolic systems that are increasingly only internally referential. Awareness is not of the world but of the systems of mediated representation. An increase in personal knowledge about the world equates with the extension of mind ever deeper into the mediated systems of representation and meaning. Individual choice and personal freedom thus become based on the ability to discriminate between a limited number of elements presented and represented in the mediated world, whether shampoo or political candidates.
I am encouraged to frame my experiences into the shop-worn clichés of a language that drones perpetually through the airwaves and over the broadband connections.
Rather than arising out of local, human experience elaborated though conversations with other people, language now comes prepackaged and reflects not the need of human beings but the values of capital, the machine, and the technological system.

Gary Krug

August 4, 2007
by PH

McLuhan 5: Two Biographies

I recently bought Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding, a biography by W. Terrence Gordon. Originally published in 1997, the book has become available again due to the Gingko Press‘s laudable and long overdue McLuhan reissue programme.

However, before reading it I decided to re-read the first McLuhan biog, Phillip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium And The Messenger. This was originally released in 1989 (but again remains available in the form of a 1998 MIT reissue with a new introduction by Neil Postman). I read it sometime in the early 1990s—a long time ago—and my getting the W. Terrence Gordon book seemed like an ideal opportunity to revisit it:

It’s a very good book: it’s written very clearly and really does attempt to get McLuhan’s difficult ideas across in plain English. The facts of McLuhan’s life are presented in a straightforward narrative, and in particular his difficult relationship with his influential mother really leaps off the page.

Gordon’s book is quite different. Although the basic narrative remains the same—the facts of McLuhan’s life seem unproblematic—the emphasis is quite different. McLuhan’s mother barely registers, whereas the relationship with his wife is touchingly and convincingly portrayed.

Far more of the book is given over to McLuhan’s ideas, which is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand Gordon really does try to (say) fillet out and summarize the complex ideas in Understanding Media in a compact form, but on the other hand his explanations can be as confusing and as jargon-laden as the ideas he’s trying to explain. As a linguist and semiotician he’s far too immured in his own academic discourses.

The two books have many similarities. Both are written by ex-University of Toronto students. Both begin with almost identical opening sentences that unfold into stories outlining the authors’ initial contact with McLuhan. And as I’ve said, their basic narratives of McLuhan’s life are almost identical, albeit with different emphases. Perhaps the biggest difference between them, therefore, is the fact that the Gordon book comes from the Internet age whereas the Marchand book just precedes it. In those intervening ten years McLuhan’s ideas gained new currency as a result of the profound integration of computer networks into society, and the resulting (and ongoing) reconfiguration of all levels of society that this provoked. Gordon’s book therefore reflects this current re-analysis and re-evaluation of McLuhan in ways that Marchand’s book simply cannot.

For myself, I came away from these books with a renewed respect for McLuhan, and—ironically—a sense that I understood his work less than I did before. However, what this really means is that I’ve discovered new levels of meaning that I didn’t even know were there: McLuhan’s work on the Trivium (and the implications of this); his in-depth understanding of ideas like ’cause and effect’; the origin and effects of his compressed and aphoristic writing style; metaphor; etc.. I’ve discovered that even many of his most obvious and oft-used ideas are not straightforward: for example, what exactly did he mean when talking about ‘acoustic space’? Why is ‘visual space’ three-dimensional and ‘acoustic space’ only two-dimensional? And finally, is McLuhan a linguist? A communications theorist? Surrealist poet? Not that he would have cared what you called him, but you get the idea…

Truly fascinating stuff.

July 30, 2007
by PH

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.]

July 13, 2007
by PH

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

June 13, 2007
by PH
1 Comment

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.

May 18, 2007
by PH
1 Comment

Quote of the Month

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

Pablo Picasso

May 15, 2007
by PH

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.

April 27, 2007
by PH

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

April 25, 2007
by PH
1 Comment

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!

April 6, 2007
by PH

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.