Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Galaxy Reconfigured (Part 1 of 4)

(or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society)

I may have mentioned that I am participating in a seminar that is discussing the impact of the new forms of media made possible by the computer on life and education. We are working our way through a collection of "essays" written over the last century that discuss the ideas and possibilities that computers offer. One of these essays is entitled "The Galaxy Reconfigured, or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society", by Marshall McLuhan. The piece is followed up by what has become a communications theory standard: "The Medium Is the Message."

The engineer in me tried an experiment that I hope you'll find interesting. After I tell you about it, I'll give some more thoughts on education that it brought up (follow up post).

The Old Media Reader

If the book we are pulling these essays from can be called the "New Media Reader," McLuhan's essay ("The Galaxy Reconfigured") is certainly the Old Media Reader. Here McLuhan presents a history of media, ideas, and how we spread them and shape society. I made it through a whole page of the essay, filled with references to everyone from Quintilian to Arthur Rimbaud, before I gave up. I had NO IDEA what he was talking about. I take some solace in the fact that even people who study McLuhan haven't got a clue.

So I skipped to the next essay by McLuhan that was on the docket ("The Medium Is the Message"). This one clicked a bit, I think. One of the main ideas is exactly what the title says: the content (e.g. the words on the page) is not the main message, but rather the medium (e.g. book, newspaper, movie) communicates something much more important. Deep, my head hurts about the implications.

My Experiment: The Medium is the Message

I started out reading "The Galaxy Reconfigured" from the book. Its a standard textbook-sized volume, hard cover, no color. As I mentioned above, it didn't take too many references to 18th Century poets for me to lose track. I admit my literary background is a bit weak, and so the significance of the people he references was completely lost on me.

In this static, one-way-through-it book, I got the message loud and clear:


I tried something different. I scanned the article to PDF (hope Big Brother doesn't find out, but I'm not distributing) and tried to re-read the article on my iPad. 

Suddenly the whole thing felt different.

When I came across a reference I didn't understand, I switched over to the internet and searched for the person. Within a few seconds I had found articles, selections of their work, and biographies on these people. I found enough context to grasp some of what McLuhan was saying.

The message changed entirely:

It might take some work, but YOU CAN DO THIS, and it is BEAUTIFUL

By the end of the article, I saw how beautifully McLuhan unpacked the history of media and ideas, and actually appreciated his closing comments:

"Our most ordinary and conventional attitudes seem suddenly twisted into gargoyles and grotesques. Familiar institutions and associations seem at times menacing and malignant. These multiple transformations, which are the normal consequence of introducing new media into any society whatever, need special study..."
The Galaxy Reconfigured
Marshall McLuhan, 1962

Oh, I learned some new words too: parataxislinealsomnambulism, and chiasmus.

Ok, Ok, I know what you're thinking....

Obviously, sitting in a library or at my computer I could have done the exact same thing. The iPad didn't really do it for me. Fair point, but I don't typically read while sitting in front of a computer, and unfortunately I don't spend as much time in the library as I'd like. I take these types of articles with me, and read them as 15-minute mental "snacks" to break up a day filled with jet engines, pitot tubes, and thermodynamics. Lugging the full book around is cumbersome, and I typically don't carry my computer with me.

Can we do better?

Of course. Wouldn't it be nice if the iPad (or other tablet device) were capable of embedding those links for me? I'd like to be able to click any word, pull up a small summary on it, and go back to reading without ever leaving the "page" I'm on. We could embed other forms of media, links to commentary, current discussions, etc. My fairly linear march through the article could have been a much more valuable experience with a bit more flexibility that something like a computer is already capable of. 

By scanning and looking up the links myself, a word used frequently last week by Janet Murray comes to mind: Remedial. My little "trick" is a band-aid, barely scratching the surface of what the iPad/Tablet medium is capable of. Let's do better.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

-Jerusalem, William Blake

Continue the 4 part series: Kaizen Was Here (Part 2 of 4)

1 comment:

  1. Amen, brother, amen!!

    I'm having a similar experience with the "text" - but reading your post gave me some new insights as well...

    First of all - when we were discussing McLuhan we talked about a society being limited by what they know and experience, in the context of challenges in just plopping new technology into it... but it strikes me in a new way that the opposite is true too... Our experience and expectations that are shaped by technology not only challenge us in moving forward, but also in moving "backward". As you are, I prefer to read on the go - when it's convenient and I'm able to, and in a way in which I can pull more information into it. Going "back" to static text is often cumbersome. Interesting.

    Secondly - I think some technologies/platforms have started moving toward the built-in interactivity you're talking about toward the end. But you highlight some amazing remaining opportunity. You know those webpages (not all, I'm not sure how or which ones are programmed for it?) that highlight some words or concepts as links? And in e-readers, many have a built-in dictionary that allows you to look up any word... and you can see what others have highlighted, and with what frequency... WHAT IF you could right-click on any word or selected phrase in electronic media and get a pop-up menu with options like "look up," "search related concepts," "search related media," "find related quotes," "find related commentary"... Hmm, that could be really cool.