An inventory of preliminary effects

Wow, I sat down for a good two hours this afternoon while the chilluns were asleep and made my way through the first part of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, and I have to say that just about everything folks have been saying about the changing nature of the web and its impact on every facet of or life is touches upon within the first 70 pages of that text.  It’s kind of wild to hear it ll, so I’ll use this post to get down some of them and then swing back around the try and make some more sense of McLuhan’s unbelievable handle on our particular moment.

The lead in quote by A.N. Whitehead is just the first of so many gems:

The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur. (6-7)

Or, how about this for an opening paragraph:

The medium, or process, of our time–electric technology–is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. it is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing–you, your family, your neighborhood, your government, your education, your job,cyour relation to “the others.” And they’re changing dramatically. (8)

Or this one :

It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media. (8)

Or this:

The older training of observation has become quite irrelevant in this new time, because it is based on psychological responses and concepts conditioned to former technology–mechanization. (8)

McLuhan on the “Age of Anxiety”:

Innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools–with yesterday’s concepts. (8-9)

Another quote by Whitehead that I think really puts into sharp relief the place of emotion in understanding a shifting moment like the one we are in:

“In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hard-headed clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode which human intelligence functions Our reasonings grasp at straws for premises and float on gossamers for deductions.” (10)

And McLuhan on learning and the educational process, maybe my favorite quote yet:

Learning, the educational process, has long been associated only with the glum. We speak of the “serious” student. Our time presents a unique opportunity for learning by means of humor–a perceptive or incisive joke can be more meaningful than platitudes lying between two covers. (10)

I think this quote exonerates much of the antics I pull on the bava regularly, for I see humor and fun as the  key ways of thinking through the ideas and concepts we are all facing in this shifting moment. Not only to is protect you from taking your self too seriously, but it might also force you to re-invent how you say something which might prevent you from the dessicated approach of the essay without the “I” or the dreaded white paper. Blog it, bitch!

Once again on “your education”:

There is a world of difference between the modern home environments of integrated electric information and the classroom. Today’s television child is attuned to up-to-the-minute “adult” news–inflation, rioting, war, taxes, crime, bathing beauties–and is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth-century environment that still  characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules. It is naturally an environment much like any factory set-up with its inventories and assembly lines.

The child was an invention of the seventeenth century; he did not exist in, say, Shakespeare’s day. He had, up until that time, been merged in the adult world and there was nothing that could be called childhood in our sense.

Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up–that is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice. (18)

McLuhan on “your job”:

Under conditions of electric circuitry, all the fragmented job patterns tend to blend once more into to involving and demanding forms of works that more and more resemble teaching, learning, and “human” service, in the older sense of dedicated loyalty. (20)

That quote above is about the best description I have yet to read about how I feel about what I am doing as an instructional technologist.  This idea of human service and dedicated loyalty frames my relationship to my job as an individual, not necessarily as a part of an institution–although that still remains a key element of it.

The Renaissance Legacy.
The Vanishing Point = Self-Effacement
The Detached Observer.
No Involvement!

The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once.  No frame or detachment is possible. (33)

And that’s just a peek.  What truly blows me away after reading this book is how much of what he was talking in the first 60 pages of this book (which was at the time pointed at TV and other mass media of the moment) was intuiting the potentia for so many of these forms that were never really realize in terms of particpation and re-framing the institutions. Yet so much of what he is saying is what we have all been hearing so many others repeat again and again over the last several years—including myself.  And this in many ways is kind of the optimists companion to the far more pessimistic perspective on technology in Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees. Which sees nostalgia as a salvo to the rather invasive and controlling presence of technology, which becomes more akin to an extension of corporate dominance and military power than an individual/societal return to the Global Village that McLuhan suggests.  And this may be where I part ways with McLuhan on some kind of return to another “primitive” way of seing, knowing, and communicating. Yet, I still need to read more and figure this out, but what I do know thus far is that so much of what McLuhan says in 1967 is as relevant for the world I find myself in at this moment than anything I have read in the last 10 or 20 years, perhaps only Dostoevsky speaks more eloquently of the implications of a complete and utter conceptual shift within a culture.

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4 Responses to An inventory of preliminary effects

  1. Ed Webb says:

    I think one of my first comments to you when we started this reading experiment was how utterly contemporary this work is. I’m now working my way through more slowly for a second reading, and everything I read confirms that first impression. I’m happy to see us in agreement on that. And looks like we have the same favorite quotation, too, about bringing the fun back in to education (although the Whitehead quote with which he closes the book, and which I took as the title of my first post – – runs a close second for me). Onward!

  2. Chris Lott says:

    Seneca and Montaigne nailed it before electricity, but I digress…

    Seriously, McLuhan’s optimism is memorable (I read TMitM quite a while back… sounds worth revisiting) but perhaps even more unjustified now than ever, seeing what never happened since the time he wrote. Could “this” turn out to be just another peak on the hype-wave machine?

    I try to be optimistic, but being a determined foe of creeping technological determinism (and trying to sound an alarm piercing enough to wake the technological somnambulists), my second-most important point when I talk with people about the mind-bendingly revolutionary aspects of the changes in tech/comm/culture/ed (the “ed” part making it possible to talk a bit less abstractly) after “you have to walk the walk” is “none of this is guaranteed.”

    Academia hasn’t transformed in a long time, nor a viable alternative emerged, despite many movements and possibilities. It is a large-scale version of the quandary of decades of unchanged pedagogy in the face of brilliant and inspired attacks and alternatives. Emergent ideas upset the equilibrium a bit, but to push over and through takes intentional determination by all the groups whose differences are unimportant in the larger picture of change: the people who care enough to be edupunk and care enough to be upset or irritated by the edupunks, the connectivists and the constructivists, the social software gurus and social media mavens and second live devotees and the men and women who love and hate them… people like you.

    I hope people will look back and see ancient artifacts like the BavaBlog and wonder how great it must have been to be part of something that changed the world rather than with the nostalgia that McLuhan (so far) inspires…

  3. Reverend says:


    yeah, you nailed it, and I am really impressed with the Whitehead stuff, I have to find out where he is quoting from. I might be Whitehead’s The Aims of Education (1916)–which might be an interesting next work to read. I’m excited my thuis book and when you get to the pages where quotes are printed backwards, or upside down, so much of the sequential, fragmented logic of the alphabet and print is actually visceral. Wild stuff.

    Yeah, I had really similar experience. I was blown away by how the actual phrasing he McLuhan is using in this book, almost down to the word, is everywhere being repeated by tech evangelists and Web 2.0 faithful. But like you, I’m also very wary of the optimism of a kind of return to some kind of supra-national global village–espeically given the way technology is first and foremost a means of spectral control. And the Global Village seems like a neo-liberal catch phrase after Hillary Clinton popularized the idea 🙂 And The Glass Bees would make a really interesting read side-by-side with this one, for they are both visionary works that intuit the future, yet from completely different perspectives on the question of power and control that is mediated through these electric communications.

    I too wanna believe that all this work folks are doing will make a difference, and I delude myself to thinking this is all truly new, but given how beautifully McLuhan called so much of this stuff, and how little of it came to fruition, I too wonder if it isn’t just a moment that will ultimately be sucked back into the corporate wellspring of greed, profit, and control. I pray that it won’t, but praying ain’t exactly my forte.

  4. Ed Webb says:

    Whitehead, indeed, I’ll track it down. Should we be looking at John Dewey, also? And I got the library to pull out of storage for me the following gem, from which I may be quoting as we go along:

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