Lost in the Gutenberg Galaxy

By David Banerjee | February 24, 2006


Toronto is a relatively young community of immigrants drawn from without and within Canada . It is, therefore, a community in the process of developing its collective cultural memory and there is no Newton or Voltaire that it has claimed as its intellectual emblem.

But maybe that emblem has been here for some time.

Marshall McLuhan, the creative alchemist of media science who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”, already figures prominently for many Torontonians as our most renowned scholar. The fruition of his ‘information highway’, predicted in his 60’s classic Understanding Media, has recently secured him as one of the city’s towering intellects. Assuming that the Americans lay claim John Kenneth Galbraith, McLuhan probably also has the honour of being the most quoted Canadian in history. His work has given the world an eccentric but roughly coherent paradigm from which to view human communication and technological development. As an English professor at the University of Toronto and almost universally acknowledged visionary, Toronto can turn to him as a slightly less conventional alternative to Fredrick Banting or Northrup Frye as Toronto’s most outstanding mind.

McLuhan’s creativity and imagination helped to popularize emerging ideas about the primacy of language and communication in the modern world, and when allowed to run amok among related disciplines the result has been a revolutionary synthesis of ideas about how we communicate and about the productive and cultural impact of electronic communications. It was his unrelenting hubris and intense conviction about the truth of his ideas that transformed interesting theories into the dogma of the Electronic Age.

Un fortunately, his prose is so uninviting, repetitive, and hermetic that I suspect few people get past the summary elements of his books. Were they to parse the entire opus, McLuhan would likely be dismissed as the most utopian futurologist since St. Simon. Instead of analysing how media influences communication in a coherent fashion, McLuhan subjects his reader to a cascade of related insights and intellectual propositions that he never explains, but rather simply intuits, and then develops theories upon these. Readers are left with an unscientific account of the history of technology and an array of occasionally far-fetched prognostications about the future of electronic communications.

I have no wish to malign McLuhan, who deserves much of the acclaim he has received. His ideas are important and, in many respects, original, and they are valuable aids in helping us interpret both history and current culture. While I remain confident that most Canadians don’t believe that the medium really is the message, it remains a tempting entrepreneurial concept, one that has gained further currency in the last few years. McLuhan has been thought of as a ‘media guru’ for three decades, and today he has become an unassailable point of reference for those convinced that the Internet is the key to a better world. These are the salesmen who, eight years ago, also proclaimed to the naïve that the Nasdaq’s growth was a harbinger of a happy world of peace and plenty, who brought us the spectacular rise and fall of the New Economy’ during the late 1990s. Those were heady days, when McLuhan’s creative visions of information superhighways and global villages validated trusting corporations like Nortel with one’s life’s savings.

The sublime confidence with which McLuhan wrote and talked conveyed a sense of inevitability about his predictions, as if they were an unavoidable part of human evolution. But to believe that ideas are solely products of media and technology, and not the converse, is to distil McLuhan’s thinking too aggressively. He was not shy in proclaiming that the content of a message is largely secondary because it is completely shaped by the dominant media. As a practicing Catholic, McLuhan believed that the visual, linear, and fragmented nature of the phonetic alphabet was the cause of Western individualism, and he not only ignored the myriad of alternate social, philosophical, and historical factors, he dismissed them.

That he felt so compelled to propagandize his theories to the general public and, in particular, to the business community is something we ought to pay closer attention to because it betrays a fundamental contradiction. It was a sign that he still believed that the idea is the true message, and not just inconsequential fluff compared to the media through which it is communicated. Examined in that light, it seems intensely ironic that he would bother to write books, something he considered inherently detrimental to human progress and a technology soon to be obsolete.

That ideas – the content of a message – do have important consequences is easy to overlook, and this idea in particular ran against his very determinist and behaviourist axiom that our actions and beliefs are the products of our media and modes of communication. Electronic media does lend a bias towards communication but it does not determine what we think and who we are, which is the first rule of McLuhan’s theory of communication. McLuhan became so preoccupied with the impact of media on communication that he forgot why we communicate in the first place. At the risk of sounding completely trite, exchanging an idea by means of spoken language, print, or television is still the exchange of an idea, although the media through which an idea is transmitted will admittedly shape how we interpret it. McLuhan’s arrogance and entrepreneurial persona caused him to unremittingly overstate his case. But it is also provided the energies that made him famous.

It is because media is an important component of the message and not the message itself that the implications of McLuhan’s thought are relevant to anyone interested in the education of children. If the medium is the critical component of a message, then teaching children to read beyond a certain level of competence would be a waste of time and resources. Instead, television could allow us to effectively communicate relevant details with a good deal less hassle and cost, because television needs no decoding skills or sophisticated abilities to contextualize. Complex concepts that can only be articulated in books could be reserved to a few expert members of the community, a notion reminiscent of the pre-20th century agrarian attitude that children are for labour, not learning. We could happily avert a great deal of childhood drudgery by simply ending most literacy training at grade five.

As a society, however, we demand that children spend at least a decade and a half developing the literacy skills with which to competently communicate in a complex world. We promote and sometimes force this upon our children because we understand that the content of the message is the critical part, even though we acknowledge that different media convey the meaning of human experience with different degrees of efficacy. The paradox here is that media is relevant precisely because it isn’t the message; it is the content – the ideas – that create meaning, and that meaning cannot be effectively transmitted, understood, and recreated without a sophisticated understanding of the powers and the limitations of different media.

We read because print is the most effective method of communicating complex ideas. While it transmits meaning, to a large extent the reader is forced to assemble the meaning by him or herself, which speaks to the ultimate importance of narration and fiction, not to communications. Certainly our ideas are shaped by factors such as language and media, but the soundness and the depth of our culture are determined by our ability to reflect upon ourselves and transform this meditation into effective action in both collective and individual arenas. As a democratic society we have decided that literacy is a key component to creating a culture that is worth living in. The Marxist critique of literacy as being linked to the needs of production is accurate as far as it goes, but falls short of explaining our insistence on fourteen years of immersion in print that ranges from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare.

What I’m arguing here is that the goal of universal literacy is not merely a hangover of the Protestant obsession with Biblical truth. It is the key to a dynamic and sensitized culture filled with people who have the capacity to expand their potential both personally and socially. It also happens to be the non-negotiable condition for a democratically-engaged populace.

In the midst of the hand-wringing that currently goes on among literacy experts, there seems to have been very little careful discussion of the role of television, despite the wealth of research on the subject. While television has its uses as a sales and propaganda tool, its ability to communicate complex ideas is limited by the very nature of the medium. Far from integrating the senses as McLuhan believed, it privileges the visual to the near exclusion of any other form of cognition. It may convey information, but it does not allow the viewer to study or contextualize the transmitted meaning to the extent that print does.

If you’re not sure what I mean, try to imagine watching this essay as a television program. A quick look at the most watched programs dictates that we’re not engaged in tremendously meaningful viewing, unless NFL football and Desperate Housewives, however engaging and entertaining they may be, are now deemed meaningful reflections of our collective experience. They aren’t, because television resists analytic processing, and is altogether too prone to frog-march its narrative along a commercially-determined chronology. From a democratic perspective, television concentrates the ability to communicate in the hands of a minority of producers who have the ability to create and distribute their content. It is, in other words, not democratic at all, but the tool of commercial demagogues intent on gagging us all with bonbons and widgets.

Television has steadily gained cultural influence in our society and it is worth reviewing some of the statistics that testify to the rapidity and degree of its penetration into our culture. In 2001, the average American watched more than four hours of television each day; in a 65-year life, that makes nine years of television watching. The average American youth spends 900 hours per year in school–compared to 1500 hours per year watching television. Reams of similar statistics are available, most of which can be deemed trustworthy because they’re the statistics used by the $US60 billion advertising industry, which uses these figures to regulate and shape a highly lucrative commercial marketplace.

Perhaps most importantly, the underlying aim of television is not to communicate ideas at all. With the exception of TVO and several smaller quasi-public educational networks, the purpose of television is commerce. Far from presenting a radical analysis, phenomena such as “Sweeps Week” are testaments to the fact that those in the television industry see advertising product as the primary purpose of television. While television may inform, amuse, and provoke, its foremost goal is to promote consumption. To think otherwise is not merely wishful; it is dangerously naïve.

Placing current practices of literacy education beyond reproach and examination has serious consequences as well. Following the general trend in contemporary education, the ends and means of literacy have become confused. Instead of being treated as a tool with which we can exchange ideas and make meaning, not to mention experience the joy of a good story, literacy has become an end in itself. Perhaps it is because there is so much more to learn now, or because of the simplifying force of television, or because children are getting dumber, that educators are in a frenzy to imbue children with the ability to read and write.

Educators must remain vigilantly aware that, as Neil Postman writes, public education creates a public. As such, public education must address the needs of the public, which tend to change faster than curricula can. With the shift in community, religious, and family patterns, traditional social institutions may not be able to provide the requisite skills for human beings to relate to one another and find their place in this highly complex society. The ability to work together and create some semblance of harmony will be the skills that will see us through what promises to be a very eventful century. Literacy is only a part of this; schools have to address their children’s social needs, their need to interpret meaning in context, and to be constantly pushing beyond our paradigms – a talent that is an essential component to critical literacy. It sometimes seems like our education system has become so obsessed with equipping us with the proper tools that it has forgotten what the tools are to be used for.

This makes sense because so few educators are – ironically enough – readers, and hence lack the critical practice to examine the ends of things like literacy and education. In order to properly teach reading, one must instil and nurture the love of reading and the love of stories. Reading must be the joyful activity that it is supposed to be. To micromanage literacy education, to obsess about benchmarks, outcomes, and assessment standards is create a sterile learning environment that ultimately stifles interest in reading. We seem to have realized this in our approach to mathematics, but our current apprehension over literacy, especially boys’ literacy, is a clear indicator that maybe literacy is no fun if it leads to endless tests instead of wonder and delight. Reading isn’t easy, especially when compared with television, so we need to give children a compelling reason to bother with it. If we are serious about teaching our kids to read, we will first teach our parents to model the love of reading. And the first step in modelling the love of reading is to turn off our televisions. And for educators to dare to presume to tell parents how to live their lives, they must be the first to tune out.

Making an empirical exploration of McLuhan’s ideas about the impact of particular media on our sensory equipment will probably undermine his general theory. But instead of rejecting it, we need to accept it for what it actually is: an exercise in creative licence within which the errors are as important as the insights . His assertion that phonetic literacy is the root of Western individualism is, for instance, as unfounded as his prophecy that television would bring about a ‘retribalization’ of humanity into an inclusive global consciousness. Judging by the above numbers, we should have achieved this state of being by now, if not several times over. We haven’t, and by any measure we’re further from a peaceful global culture today than we were in 1964 when Understanding Media was published. That said, the educational implications of McLuhan’s ideas need to be more intelligently exploited so that we can find the proper balance between literacy and electronic media in our society.

Teachers, who are permanently on the frontlines of human development, could offer badly needed perspective on the impacts of the various media on children. Some teachers are beginning to explore different ways to raise this concern. True to their nature as the ‘literary brahmins’ McLuhan derided them as being, their ability to articulate their arguments will determine to what extent ideas matter at all. Perhaps the deafening silence on the issue means that television has completely usurped print’s role as the dominant media, and McLuhan stands vindicated. But you’ve bothered to read this far, so maybe the battle isn’t over yet.

2515 w. February 23, 2006


  • David Banerjee

    David Banerjee is a guy that lives in Toronto, and writes in his apartment. He teaches creative writing courses, but mostly to four year olds who would rather be playing with blocks.

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