Can we get over Marshall McLuhan, already?

Okay, I’m starting to get really sick of the repeated dronings from all around the Internet about how computers are such a different medium from X, Y, or Z. My particular area of expertise is books. I’ve worked in the book industry, on and off, for 14 years, so I think I know a bit about books. And of course, I’ve talked a lot about books here. I don’t like to bring in a lot of scholarly hoo-ha to my conversations online, but I have done some of the “medium is the message/massage” reading as well. I know my McCluhan and my Ong — maybe not as well as the true disciples, but well enough that I think I understand the point.

Yes, oral culture is different from written culture, and written culture is different from print culture, and print culture is different from TV culture, which is different from Net culture. This does NOT mean that a work in one medium cannot be transferred to another without transforming its meaning. If I read a newspaper article online, I’ve read it just as much as if I saw it in print. If I see a movie on DVD, I’ve seen the movie. McCluhan goes into a lot of jibjaw about how TV is different from film, because of how the television image is generated one dot at a time and a film gets displayed frame by frame. To a certain extent this is true, but we don’t retain each individual dot in our memories — it’s quickly transformed into a much more compact representation. Each individual is going to have a slightly different memory of a film they saw, but that memory is affected by many things besides the medium they used to view it — the time of day, the other distractions in the room, the other films each person has seen. To suggest that the medium is the most important influence is simple-minded.

With e-books the distinction between the “medium” of a print book and an e-text is even more strained. Yes, the resolution of a computer monitor is different from a printed page. But most books today are written on computers. Does the process of transforming that e-text into a printed book literally change its meaning? Yes, the reader may have different responses to a text depending on the context in which she reads it, but the medium on which the text is displayed is again a comparativley minor influence.

Will the internet transform literature? It already has. Writers like John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow published entire texts online to attract the notice of print publishers. Later these e-texts were transformed into successful print books. Bloggers get commissioned to write books based solely on the day-to-day rantings. Online writing groups allow writers from around the world to get together and rip each other’s work to shreds from thousands of miles away.

Even when books are published conventionally, the way we hear about them by “word of mouth” has been radically transformed. Amazon reviews have become a cottage industry. There are blogs solely devoted to book reviews, and blogs solely devoted to Amazon.

McLuhan was right in that the way we communicate with each other transforms culture. But we don’t discard older vestiges of our culture when a new medium comes along. Homer has been transformed from oral narrative to written text to print text to film to TV to online text and back to oral narrative. Yes, the message is slightly different each time, but the way we understand Homer has changed even more radically because of other changes that are happening around us all the time. This doesn’t mean we still can’t enjoy the works of Homer sung to the music of a lyre sitting next to a campfire — or even simulate that environment on our computer screens — we’ll just never experience it the same way the ancient Greeks did, because our culture is vastly different from theirs.

So asking whether e-books will “replace” print books is in many ways irrelevant. The internet has already had a huge impact on the way we communicate with each other. There will continue to be “books” — extended texts, whether electronic or printed — based on whether our culture still demands them, and I suspect it will, though I also suspect that the types of books we want will continue to change. Right now, the technology for presenting printed books is better than the technology for presenting e-books. That’s why we haven’t seen an explosion of e-books. As electronic display technology improves, more and more extended texts will published electronically. Will the meaning of those texts be changed by moving to a different medium? Not as much as the surrounding culture will have changed, and not for the same reasons.

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5 Responses to Can we get over Marshall McLuhan, already?

  1. Anne says:

    I advised a thesis last year (an undergrad thesis) that posed just this question: is the digital revolution analogus to the print one? We came, you may be interested to know, to the same conclusion–that the digital is an amazing, fascinating, transformative thing that seems to be extending and changing but by no means replacing print. In other words, hear here for moving beyong McLuhan and Ong!

  2. Dave says:

    Sounds like that thesis should be required reading for a lot of the people out there talking about how digital technology will/won’t change books.

  3. Ray Daly says:

    It is not that one medium disappears. But as the dominant medium, it is no longer print.

    And some things do not translate from one medium to another. A picture is not a 1000 words.

  4. Dave says:

    You’re absolutely right about that, Ray. Many people don’t understand that about media, though. They literally believe that the superficial “difference” between electronic text and printed text supersedes all other influences on the reader and the author.

    Certainly some media are more dominant than others, but the computer is unique in that it can imitate all other media. I’m not arguing that computers don’t change society; quite the opposite. I’m arguing that those societal changes are more important than the physical differences between media.

  5. Pingback: Cognitive Daily » Marshall McLuhan redeemed — sort of

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