The Medium of the 21st Century Is Light;
or, How Earbuds Became Earlids: Field Notes on the Digital Medium for Teachers and Learners in an Age of Data, Bandwidth, Cables, Photo Optics, Scanners, Lasers, Printers, Fiber Optics, and All Other Things Digital and Otherwise in a Post-McLuhan Electronic Age, etc.
Jade E. Davis
Congratulations on making it past the title of this chapter! When we experience a book, or a page of data, the title is the first thing we encounter that lets us know what to expect. It should be short and concise yet specific enough to give the gist of what you will be getting. This means the title above is broken. It isn’t conforming to the medium. It is long to the point of making it meaningless unless we take it in bits to form meaning. Despite its brokenness, we knew the title’s purpose. This is the message of the medium. Why start with a broken title? This is the world we live in. Digital culture means we are constantly surrounded by screens that take us to a world that has more data and information than we can get through in a lifetime. Search culture means we put a word into Google and end up with millions of titles containing our keyword, pulled from an algorithm. We then have to make sense of it. The change in our relationship to information is a change in ratio. With this ratio change, we change tool, and we are writing the script as we go. That is what the title of this chapter is: a fun, dynamic, sensical and nonsensical, hodgepodge of what was said in class. It goes on a bit longer than it should, and crosses all sorts of boundaries much like digital media and the Internet. My purpose in writing this chapter on the medium of the 21st century is to help us begin to imagine together what the world of the future looks like so we can begin to write the script. I hope it helps us remember that rather than being weary of the new world we are creating and scripting, we should embrace it, play with it, and shape it together.
Shaping and Playing: A Class Collective Project
What happens when you give a media and technology theorist the ability to lead a class in the process of co-authoring a book? We talk about the “book” as an idea and as a medium in transition. As graduate students, we chose a life where we are expected to write and publish (I still hear “publish or perish” more often than I’d like to admit). The greatest achievement of academic writing and publishing is a peer-reviewed book published with the right press after going through years of revisions.
This book we’ve created is the opposite of all that. It is a collective book written in pieces, self-published on CreateSpace, with sort of a stream of consciousness meets deep thought meetsfield notes feel, written in half a semester. Many of our sources are our own observations. We have dropped the idea of revision and review, sort of. As a collective, we reviewed and edited each other over the months we worked on this. We also spent more than semester in deep conversation, inviting experts in publishing, the Internet, society and culture, game design, and visual culture, to help us try to understand 21st century knowledge and literacy. In a way, you could say we reviewed the experts. As a collective, after we began our conversations we decided it was worth writing something, and that something needed to be written now. And that something needed to be an e-book. What are we speaking about when we say “book” though? And what makes a book more valuable than say, a blog (we have one of those too)? In terms of knowledge storage and retrieval, books have had a very long run. We mastered the art of academic publishing and turned it into a machine. With digitization and access to information publishing has changed. We are trying to work with those changes by creating this thing you are reading. We are confronting the 21st century book on the new terms of publishing (write it, publish it digitally, and see what conversations start) in an attempt to understand writing a book in the age of “Fast Information”, where “publish or perish” has become “publish everything.” My contribution to this codex consists of thoughts on digital media, in hopes that this contribution will illuminate some aspects of our new media environment. I think approaching this through Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage might help us understand not just the book and this book, but also the potential built into the information and knowledge we produce and share now that things have “gone digital.”
“The Medium Is the Message"
is a bit of a cultural cliché in the area of media theory. Coined by Canadian English professor and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, it is probably the most famous of the phrases that would come to be called McLuhanisms. As recently as April 6th, 2013, Al Jazeera English posted a video special titled “Of mediums and messages” exploring the cultural impact of McLuhan’s work. The Al Jazeera video is a reminder that culturally we are detached from the books that are linked to this phrase, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and The Medium Is the Massage. It exists sort of like a slightly misquoted phrase then gets retweeted hundreds of times until it becomes the official version of what was said. I love Twitter because it is noise. Occasionally you say something that sparks a conversation, but a good portion of the time it is speaking into the air, such as when I tweeted my class prep under the #Duke21C hashtag. This particular conversation set off a spark. Cathy retweeted a tweet that had the full book title, The Medium Is the Massage, and then received an @ tweet telling her that she should let her students know we kept making typos when we were typing the title of the book. While the phrase culturally known is “the medium is the message”, the title of the book definitely says “massage”. But we receive so much information that moves so quickly across the screen that even the things that are right/we write look wrong at times. We also have a tendency to lose sight of the past, especially when things go out of vogue.
We were lucky enough to have Ken Wissoker of Duke University Press join us for our discussion to give us historical view of “the book” as a medium in transition from the publishing perspective. He was also able to give us the lay of the land, a conversation referenced in the previous discussion in this chapter on academic publishing. The best part of having him for me, though, was his reaction to the reading I selected. He found our taking up of McLuhan a bit of a curiosity. The Medium Is the Massage is not a normal book. It is sort of a coffee table book, more photos and images than words and narrative. Ken told us that when the book came out a ton of people bought it because McLuhan was what we now recognize as a “celebrity academic.” He appeared on television around the globe (often to talk about television, a level of meta we are used to now on the Internet) and even made an appearance as himself in a Woody Allen film. His celebrity waned, as celebrity is apt to do, and people sold the book to used bookstores, making it one of the cheapest and easiest books to get a hold of for a long while. Then McLuhan disappeared from polite conversation about media, only to be rediscovered and reconfigured as a prophet of the information age, and now the digital age. McLuhan as prophet has sometimes been characterized as a utopianist—a belief that is quickly dispelled when you watch any of the dozens of interviews or chats he did on various television interview shows now digitized and available online.
Like our book, The Medium Is the Massage was a collaborative project (created by McLuhan with graphic designer Quentin Fiore and coordinated by Jerome Agel). It was a work of art that captured the potential of “the book” as medium. The reader/experiencer is able to understand that though a book is finite and set, there are still multiple ways to engage with and read the information it contains and the reading need not be the same time after time. Further, the book is designed to be memorable in multiple ways. It is composed of page after page of easily memorized McLuhanisms coupled with striking typography and bold photographs and illustrations. It engages multiple ways of seeing to imprint itself in the memory of the reader/viewer. This aspect of the experience of the book was noted when we discussed what it was like reading it:
Tina: “I left my notes at home but the visuals, the pictures were memorable and helped me go right to the pages. So McLuhan.”
Elizabeth: “I appreciated the playfulness. Other McLuhan texts seem denser, more theoretical, and the pictures helped make him less authoritative and more playful”
Our 21st century medium can somewhat mimic the book but more often than not it fails. With this in mind, how can we begin to make our new medium playful, meaningful, and memorable in ways that feel similar to the experience of reading The Medium Is the Massage? The new medium is not a book. The new capabilities that come with our new medium, characterized primarily (but not exclusively) as backlit, user-controlled, moving pixel screens render the book experience too “hot” when done digitally. It is complete involvement without enough additional stimulus to prevent distraction. Whatever we create with it will have different ways of looking and different methods of engagement.
Omar made a comment as we were discussing the change in reception of McLuhan and the life cycle of the book. He said, “Every book is its own gamble.” I’d like to extend that and say every act of creating is its own gamble. We cannot control how it is received. In the digitally augmented world, the things we create, especially when digitized, exist as their own entity. What you are about to read in the rest of this section is my gamble. It is an attempt to conceptualize how I understand the medium of the 21st century and what we can do to use it as a tool for knowledge creation and understanding. I started the class on the day that I taught with one statement: “I think the medium of the digital is actually light.” This is probably why I am a little bit obsessed with McLuhan. Another McLuhanism is, “Light is pure information.” If the digital is light, then of course we are locked into a peculiar and particular information age!
In preparing to lead the class discussion and write this chapter I went to YouTube and watched some of the interviews, appearances, and conversations with McLuhan that are now available instantaneously. He said that he made a mistake when talking about our inability to see the present and the future: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” But lookingin the rearview mirror has nothing to do with seeing the past as the present. Instead the rearview mirror allows us to get a glimpse of the foreseeable future. The foreseeable future is always colored by nostalgia. With that in mind, how can we break free of looking forward to a less mediated world and attempt to imagine...
The World of the Future?
Time travel is possible. We can travel at the speed of light to distant lands, to the other room and to the furthest points in the universe. On beams of light, we move so fast it is like we’ve teleported. While this might sound like a sci-fi fantasy, it is the world we live in now. From light traveling through fiber optic cables deep underground and on the ocean floor all around the globe, to the light of the screens we might be reading from even now, to the light we use to illuminate our world, turning night into day, we use lightto travel around our universe. With digital access, the world we can explore is growing exponentially, day by day. With information growing as fast and big as it does now (something explored in Patrick’s chapter), how do we begin to make sense of its affordances and this new digital world of light we live in?
When someone is smart, we say they are bright. We have a visual cultural idiom of a light bulb going on to indicate someone coming to an idea, a lightbulb moment. When someone clarifies something difficult or says something insightful, we say, “That was illuminating.” When we mark some ideas as more important than others, we highlight them (we’ve even created pens specifically for this task). Culturally, light is associated with not just knowledge acquisition, but also deeper understanding and innovation. Our culturalblindness to understanding the digital as a realm of light has left us unable to see digital media’s potential as a tool for collective knowledge creation and understanding (outside of a few successful examples). Part of it is probably our nostalgic view of the future. Another part, though, is our forgetting that through fiber optics information travels at 200,000 kilometers per second and it is getting faster. There are 31,557,600 seconds in a year. This means if information sent through a fiber optical cable were to stay constantly in motion without hitting any hiccups along the way it would travel 6,311,520,000,000 kilometers per year. With information moving this quickly, our view of the foreseeable future is even more truncated than it is in a rearview mirror. We are stuck in a front-facing camera with shoddy resolution, our faces taking up most of the screen, as the world of information soars around us.The speed of movement of digital information and our relationship and ways of interacting with the digital medium are not evolving at the same speed.
As McLuhan says, light is pure information until we use it to shape our environment. Digital media is pure information until we use it to shape our relationship with the world. We are used to doing this with things like photography. Most of us have interacted with digital photographs, played with them, edited them while taking them or after uploading them. My big question, the one that I cannot answer, is how do we take this level of play we have accepted with photography and move it towards an overall literacy for using digital media in the 21st century (especially when it comes to learning and making sense of all the information we encounter)? How do we use light as its own guiding light?
In addition to being a marker of knowledge, light is an inherently playful medium. We have all experienced “tricks of the light,” or seen things “playing in the shadows.” It is for this reason that when developing assignments and tools designed to tune into 21st century literacies, two things should be factored in: speed and play. When we start moving things to digital interfaces or integrating digital interfaces into our face-to-face interaction spaces, the immediacy granted by speed to a self-created “global” village means that if what is being asked for cannot happen quickly and if there is no “fun factor,” it is more likely to fall flat. In my experience, when people enjoy what they are doing, and are able to do it quickly, they tend to like discussing it with those around them engaged in the same activity. This is something we saw in the activity Cristiane had us do in class, discussed in her chapter. If we see what people are doing, even if we cannot emulate it we want to share in the experience and figure it out.
There are very few times when I see something that blows me away because it make so much sense and I just didn’t think it possible. I think the first time it happened was when I saw video of someone driving on a musical road in Japan. When a car travels over these roads at just the right speed the entire experience of moving through space is transformed into a sensory experience through vibration, sound, visuals, and recognition. The mechanical transportation device (car, truck, etc) becomes a musical instrument. Rather than building a road with traffic signs and an externally imposed speed limit, the rules of the road and the imperative to drive at the legal speed limit is engineered into the driving experience. To create an experience like this required an acknowledgement that the true medium, the thingthat is organizing the social experience and environment of driving and our ability to extend ourselves into it, is not the car or truck. It’s the road. I encourage us, as we move towards trying to understand 21st century literacy, to figure out how to play with the possibilities of information moving at the speed of light and, more often than not, as light, to work with an equation similar to the roads when creating assignments with the digital medium, light, in mind:
speed + immediacy + fun + relevancy + scalability
These components are the meaningful parts of light that impact our 21st century environment. I don’t know if this is a finalized equation, but it is where I am starting.
Pop Quiz Assignment
I teach an Introduction to Media History, Theory, and Criticism course at my university. It is a required class, meaning many of the students are there because they have to be. Students rarely ask questions, so I am often unsure of what they understand, what they are missing, and what I can do to hook them onto the material. Because I have no other way of checking in, I’ve frequently turned to quizzing. Once, rather than having a standard quiz, I decided to give them a group media-making project quiz. I like to call this type of class activity “DigitallyAugmented.”
First, students were placed in groups and given topics/articles from class to work with. I then projected the directions on the screen with the meme image I created (above) to explain why this was happening. The students had 15 minutes to complete their projects.
Digitally Augmented Pop Quiz For this quiz you will be making a Media Meme based on the course readings. In your groups, discuss the reading you’ve been assigned and your understanding of it. Determine what you think the main point of the article is, centered around the listed point of focus. Once you have that down, head over to: <http://www.quickmeme.com/make/> Using the format of meme, choose an image and devise a creative tag to convey your group’s understanding of the concept/ reading you are working with. Once you have created your meme, post it to the class blog.
Once they completed the quiz, the groups came up and explained how they came to finalize their meme image. This is the meme from the group assigned “The medium is the message.”
speed- The time commitment required to understand and create this project was minimal. Digitally it was instantly shareable once created.
immediacy- The results were instantaneous. And it required the group to work together to make sure the project made sense and worked as a meme.
fun - Memes are fun, as is coming up with meme captions in a group setting.
relevancy - The project was relevant to what we were learning in our classroom community, but memes are also a relevant medium for capturing larger cultural contexts
scalability- The meme is reproducible and exists in a larger meme context. We could have made one meme or we could have made thousands.
This equation has worked for me, but it is a work in progress. One of the trade offs in the quest for speed and immediacy is the loss of the rigorous review and revision process that was a cornerstone of previous ages of learning and publishing. As Elizabeth and Barry say, learning in the past was an iterative process.
From Moveable Type to Moveable Pixels
Our digitally augmented world is an ambiguous place. The fact that we do not know exactly what to expect as soon as five years in the future shows that it is a space of experimentation. The one thing that will more than likely not change in the foreseeable future is the speed at which we receive information, as well as the places we are able to access it. We are all becoming more and more connected to devices travelling the world, time, and knowledge, at the speed of light. McLuhan is relevant now because he was writing about an electronic, light-based screen that worked in a similar way, the television. The television was the first screen we allowed into our homes that displayed a constantly moving image. There are three things that make the screens now different than those old familiar screens.
- We have screens capable of higher resolution and faster movement than the television of McLuhan’s time.
- We control what is happening on the screen in real time, in increasingly more ways (touch, speaking, typing, mice, touchpads, or in the case of technologies such as Microsoft Kinect and camera-aware apps, our bodies), something we were trained for by video games.
- As screens have become smaller and smaller, rather than using them as extensions that take our bodies further out into space, we are now keeping them closer to our bodies as we attempt to re-integrate these sources of information. Is this not the impetus behind projects such as Google Glass?
We are in the process of determining how to maneuver and control moveable linear type, type that is stopped when it is placed on paper, to pixels that move in all directions and even when initially placed on the screen are never in a state of stasis. The lack of clarity on what the future of type in a moveable, light-enabled pixel environment is unclear. This book is being made available so that it can be remixed into new things. In a culture of speed and immediacy quantity and drafts are the norm. The idea of a “final version” is something that that isn’t scalable to the 21C. In the age of digital and self-publishing across platforms, everything is forkable, remixable, and hackable. Rather than attempting to create some semblance of version control, it seems this experiment would require us to create this book with those possibilities in mind. We work in layers. I hope this text becomes a base layer for an infinite number of projects and experiments that attempt to show by doing what it means to be literate in the 21st century. The act of creating a book is our nod to the past. Making it digitally born, outside of the two- to five-year cycle of academic publishing, a timeframe that kills relevancy for this type of project, is our opening to invite everyone to help us play with the idea of the book in the 21st century. Reputation does add some sense of value, and we’ve certainly exploited that in terms of whom we’ve chosen to speak with throughout this process.
Traditionally, the practice of reading and writing required a fixed, external light source. The question I hope we continue to explore is what happens when the thing we are reading or writing is the light source? What does this light being in motion do to it? How do we change writing and reading from a practice based on stillness and fixedness to a practice based on movement and possibility?
McLuhan, Marshall. “Full Lecture—The Medium Is the Message—1977.” YouTube. 9 August 2011. Web. Accessed 11 June 2013. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImaH51F4HBw>.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.Print.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.
“Of mediums and messages: We look at the legacy of cultural icon Marshall McLuhan 50 years after his prophetic insights into the future of media.” Al Jazeera. 6 April 2013. Web. Accessed 12 June 2013. <http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2013/04/20134683632515956.html>.
Resources, Sources, and Extras
GIMP (Image editing software):
Koh, Adeline. Interview with Ken Wissoker for ProfHacker. “On Monographs, Libraries and Blogging: A Conversation with Duke University Press, Part One”:<http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/what-is-the-future-of-the-monograph-a-conversation-with-duke-university-press-part-one/48263>
---. “Buying Book Chapters like Music Tracks, and What’s Wrong with Traditional Peer Review Anyway? A Conversation with Duke University Press, Part Two”:
---.“On Open Access, #AltAc and the Future of the Academic Press: A Conversation with Duke University Press, Part Three”:
Marshall McLuhan Speaks, Centennial 2011 (video collection).<http://marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/>
Marshall McLuhan recordings, including an audio collage of The Medium Is the Massage:
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. War and Peace in the Global Village. Vol. 127. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.
Mozilla Popcorn Maker
Popova, Maria, “How McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore Created a New Visual Vernacular for the Information Age”:
Singing Roads - Take a Musical trip in Japan:<http://youtu.be/yTsoP3WWgU4>
Visualization Across Disciplines:
Wissoker, Ken. “The Future of the Book as a Media Project.” Cinema Journal 52.2 (2013): 131-137. Project MUSE. Web. 3 May. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.