In class today I proposed a re-working of Mount Rushmore. Essentially, I suggested blasting Washington, Jefferson, and Roosevelt (with permission of course, and we’ll keep Lincoln for now) and replacing them with Emily Dickinson, Miles Davis, and Marshall McLuhan.
I know McLuhan is Canadian, but America could use a little more Canada. And, anyway, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, so they aren’t really American if you believe that “America” stands for the self-evident truths outlined in The Declaration of Independence. I realize I’m establishing an impossible litmus test, since Lincoln was no champion of true equality, but if I contradict myself, then, well, I contradict myself. The multitudes, and so on.
My point is not to blast dead presidents, but to suggest that Marshall McLuhan’s head will continue to swell as we speed toward some kind of media singularity. We will soon say Darwin and Marx and Freud and McLuhan and we will have our icon cartoons of intellectualism all lined up to explain how we left traditionalism behind and became modern humans, whatever that may mean.
I can’t stop thinking about something I read in Understanding Media last night:
If the student of media will but meditate on the power of this medium of electric light to transform every structure of time and space and work and society that it penetrates or contacts, he will have the key to the form of the power that is in all media to reshape any lives that they touch.
On one level, this is an obvious observation. Yes, Marshall, we know that the invention of electricity is a big deal. We turn on the lights, the television, the stove. So what? And sometimes he is accused of poeticizing the obvious. (Not that anything is wrong with that.)
In fact, this is where the true power of McLuhan’s thinking lies. His work is a wake-up call. We do not realize the extent to which mediums like electricity, television, print, and (though before his time), the internet create the structures, agendas, and outcomes for our perceptions of reality. All phenomenological experiences arise from an ecology of media, like mushrooms popping up from the forest floor.
It would be odd indeed to hear those mushrooms say, “Dead wood doesn’t affect me much.”
“Electricity is the reason we are gathered here today,” says the preacher at the wedding of space and time. If there are gods, those gods are current, circuit, data, and an endless field of waves.
This is why, according to McLuhan, the Odyssey could not be written today. The Odyssey was a product of an oral culture. Write it down and you have a different poem. Put it online and you have a different poem.
This is also why, according to the living ghost of McLuhan, if you convert a traditional course into an online course, you have a different course. In fact, your traditional course is already a different course because of electricity and television and the internet.
For example, “reading” now means “skimming.” “Research” now means “surfing.” “Thinking” now means “retrieving data.” “Learning” now means……What in the Hell does learning mean? Connectivism? Collaborating? Googling? Traditional ideas are breaking down faster than suitable replacements can be conceived. This is a central point made by contemporary McLuhan-ite Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody (a reference to Finnegans Wake, a book central to McLuhan’s thinking.)
Here is main point: point main is Here.
We are traveling forward looking in the rear-view mirror. Early television televised radio. Early online courses (the period we are in right now) put traditional courses online. Some day we’ll realize we’ve shifted mediums. It seems obvious, but bears endless repeating: we are online now. When will we actually realize it? More importantly, when we will really actualize it?