Archive for September, 2009

Response: Todd Kappelman’s Overview of McLuhan

September 27, 2009

I may get ostracized for saying this, but I guess I should have expected this out of a bible thumping end-is-near type. While this is a solid examination of McLuhan’s work, and there are a lot of cases where Kappelman breaks everything down to examples and modern English, the main criticism I have of his analysis is that he, like McLuhan, fails to recognize innovation as a process.

Like McLuhan, Kappelman tosses humanity into the arena of the helpless mass in his “Objects of Desire” critique. Just as McLuan describes man as helpless to resist the power of media, now apparently ad men employ their “totalitarian techniques of American advertising and market research on the unsuspecting consumer.” The notion that the “advertising men succeeded in creating a market where one did not previously exist” is a crock. Man has been buying, selling, and trading goods since the beginning of time. A 15th century trader was always in competition with another 15th century trader, hoping the consumer would do business with him and not his counterpart. Advertising is not a fabricated force, as Kappelman asserts.

Where he does hit it out of the park is in his explanations of “extensions”. I kind of wish I had read this first before McLuhan’s piece. Where this falls flat though is his – and McLuhan’s – amputation theory. Personally, I side with his analysis of the automobile as amputating walking culture. As someone who moved from car-centric southern California to here (and sold my car) I’m definitely for an urbanized walking culture. So personally, I agree that this extension and it’s subsequent amputation of a culture has had some negative effects. However, this is only assuming that an extension fails to continue to innovate and evolve. This is operating, to take the car example, on the assumption that we’re all still driving the gas-guzzling heaps of steel that were prevalent in McLuhan’s time.

My point is further validated in “The Dangers of Over-extended Technology.” We “choose to accept the disadvantages because there is a privileging of all types of technological extension” because as rational and intelligent humans, we know that for an extension to be relevant it must continue to be tinkered with and improved by its innovators. Kappelman contradicts himself in the example “An over-extended automobile culture longs for the pedestrian lifestyle, and the over-extension of phone culture engenders a need for solitude.” If a phone culture engenders a need for solitude, then why are we “made to think about the time we spend alone in our cars isolated from other humans”? I cannot say it any simpler. The “reversal of the benefits” is only due to an extension’s failure to  innovate and evolve.

But, Kappelman probably doesn’t believe in evolution anyway.

(Aaaaand feisty post closed.)

Response: Critique of McLuhan’s Technological determinism viewpoint or lack of one thereof

September 27, 2009

Cana’s assertion that McLuhan lacks a point is a bit harsh. But it is true that there are inconsistencies (which he could have helped) and certainly instances where it cannot be properly applied to media today (which he could not have foreseen).

Cana’s biggest argument is that McLuhan does not allow for the process of innovation to be considered as an extension of man, only the medium. Of course, this is a “chicken or the egg” kind of argument. While McLuhan is arguing that media shapes a (supposedly) helpless humanity, Cana argues that the very process of innovation – and the process in which content for a particular medium is defined – is shaped by humanity itself. It’s a fairly obvious assertion, plus, I think we’re all a little more comfortable with it. I mean, it’s nicer to feel in control of your destiny than a helpless pawn to the forces of media, right?

Secondly, the issue of contextual content is huge. McLuhan obviously concedes that different media have different forms of content in his “hot” or “cold” argument, but Cana further asserts this in probably the most important (and my favorite) passage: “…it is the face or the posture of JFK or Nixon that makes a difference on how they are viewed on TV.”

Response: Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

September 27, 2009

I remember having to read excerpts of this in undergrad. My program at Butler University was, at the time, primarily focused on television production; thus, all discussion revolved around how television today was changing society vs. how TV and electronic media was changing Western culture in McLuhan’s day. Of course (and I’m dating myself here), the web and new media today are very different than they were in 1999-2000. Thus, relating McLuhan’s thoughts to the culture of media today is different….kind of. A lot of the same arguments still apply, which I guess, in turn, makes McLuhan right on a lot of things.

The first passage in the intro that struck me was McLuhan’s assertion that “…the action and the reaction occur almost at the same time. We actually live mythically and integrally, as it were, but we continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age.” I think it’s important to note the context – the early 60’s, in the time of the Vietnam war. As he says in the next paragraph, “we necessarily participate…in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner.” Public reaction (especially negative) to the Vietnam war, outside of it’s moral context, was obviously shaped by electronic media which was not nearly as present and prevalent in prior conflicts. It could be said that McLuhan was making the argument that a lot of the domestic unrest was spurred not by reaction to the real situation in Southeast Asia, but rather in response to the medium.

McLuhan’s assertion that “As electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village. Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together…has heightened human awareness… It…alters the position of the Negro, the teenager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained…they are now involved in our lives,” hearkens back to the social dimension that Turnley detailed in “Towards a Mediological Method,” The advent of electronic media, as both have pointed out, gave voice to previously under-served groups. Of course, as electronic media has progressed, the global village has not turned out to be as inclusive as many had thought (or hoped), but nevertheless has changed the dimension of how we communicate and interact with other cultures around the world and in own communities.

One of the more interesting points that I found is “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” And, as electronic media becomes richer and more involved, the mediums keep getting deeper and deeper. But where McLuhan says that the content of speech is an actual process of nonverbal thought is where I think he strays. It would appear to me that he holds speech in the highest regard as far as extensions of man. But aren’t all extensions, electronic media or otherwise, based on a nonverbal process of thought?

Another area where I think McLuhan is a bit off is electronic media’s initial impact on culture. If De Tocqueville believes (and McLuhan backs up) that print homogenizes culture, then McLuhan’s argument regarding the “remote natives” sounds a bit fishy. “But with electric media Western man himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native… We are as numb in our new electric world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture.” Even if, as both point out, printed media homogenizes small cultures, was Western culture not prepared for this particular extension?

As someone who has worked in radio for about 7 years, I found it odd that radio is referred to as a “hot”medium, where other auditory means of communication are referred to as “cool”. I think there’s just as much left open to interpretation with radio as with a telephone conversation or speech, as McLuhan asserts.

Response: As We May Think – Vannevar Bush

September 21, 2009

Mind-warpingly amazing.

Touching on many currently available technologies such as the camera, voice recorder/playback, video,calculator, etc., the most impressive description is that of the “Memex” and how accurately he describes the process of a search engine. The fact that in 1945 Bush described certain technologies that only within the last few years have become universally used – windows and tabbed browsing, histories, bookmarking, tagging, suggestions, wikis, and blogging – is unbelievable.

His initial argument is also interesting, in that he argues for the scientific exploration and production of these new recording technologies as necessary. With the abundance of press and record loomed the possibility that the proper information might “become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.” It’s of course necessary to point out that, historically, war has always been a catalyst for new scientific innovation, and this was written at the end of World War II.

One last bit of information that I almost overlooked was his mention of universal language. The creation of a universal language could mean leaps and bounds forward for the sharing and aggregating of good and necessary information. Translators can only begin to do part of the work, as his argument was for a universal language in recording information. HTML and XML do this to a certain extent – but formatting can only go so far.

Response: The Machine is Us/ing Us – Dr. Michael Wesch

September 21, 2009

I think I might be the only web-savvy guy not using an RSS feed.

The element of how tagging is essentially “teaching” the computer how to interpret human-created content is fascinatingly true. My roommate who works for the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern told me about a new technology that’s being developed there. A Machine Generated Sports Story is created by plucking photos, key elements of box scores, player names, etc. and piecing together a news story – all based on a system of tags. Of course, this again raises the question of ownership and authorship. Who really created that content? The engineer? The guy who entered the box score?

Response: Turnley, Melinda – “Towards a Mediological Method: A Framework for Critically Engaging Dimensions of a Medium

September 20, 2009

Turnley, Melinda: “Towards a Mediological Method: A Framework for Critically Engaging Dimensions of a Medium”

Technological Dimension

We can all agree that different technologies and delivery systems determine the way it is perceived and consumed. The first important academic type quote I remember learning in undergrad was “The medium is the message.” (From “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” Marshall McLuhan, 1964) This is as true today as it was in McLuhan’s time.

As far as the creation of media, this passage brought to mind one of my favorite reads as of recently, “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel H. Pink.

“…although some technical knowledge is necessary for multimedia production, writers/designers also must engage in rhetorical practices which integrate “knowing how and when to use appropriate technologies…and how to prepare the material for the context in which it will be used by its intended audience” (p. 130). …Deterministic narratives often reduce media to their technical components, but to be critical producers and consumers of media, we must complicate these reductive framings and situate our practices in relation to multiple mediological factors.”

What this means to me is that creators of new media, in order to publish rich and relevant material, the rhetoric and tasteful use of new technologies must be equally important as technical skill. I rage about flash-heavy websites all the time, as most often, it seems as though a web designer is just throwing the kitchen sink at a project to flex his tech-muscles, ignoring the practical use of said site.

Social Dimension

The idea of an “inclusive global community,” as Turnley points out, has been around since the early days of the web. Of course, we see how that all turned out. While the web has become a great tool for social organization and inclusiveness, it’s also served equally as a harbor and medium for hate-speech, rumors, and racism. The social dimension of new media has simply magnified already existing human behaviors. I’m not saying it’s been equally bad and good in that for every good deed there has been a bad one. My point is that the political agendas that are so easily put forth are not always the best intentioned – which is the same as it ever was.

Wikis and other user-controlled content – let’s take Craigslist for example – have again simply magnified traits already existing in western culture. We’ve seen the wonder of a community-enforced arena bringing out the inherent good in people. The lack of a central editor or editors is what makes the entire web unique as a medium. (I could write for pages about net neutrality here.) Aggregators and page rankings are simply a community editing itself via social norms.

Economic Dimension

Similar to the social dimension, lack of a central editor affects the economics of new media as well. By “challenging this value system through their dispersal of media distribution and production,” digital media has presented itself the problem of sourcing original content and making content creation at least mildly lucrative. I know this is going a little off topic, but the first thing that I thought of was Rupert Murdoch’s announcement during a News Corp earnings call that it was his plan to begin charging for online content on websites such as and

The issue that Murdoch (like him or not) raised was that without some sort of economic structure in place for content, we are diluting the quality of journalism and media. His gamble is that 1) a large portion of media outlets will follow suit at the same time, and 2) that users will pay for (arguably) better content.

Turnley’s piece, however, quotes “Traditional Western, print-based economies have privileged individual authorship and ownership (Purdy, 2009, p. 73). So are we taking a step backwards if paid news content really is the future?

Archival Dimension

Once again, socioeconomic factors are the biggest influence of a medium’s dimension. “The ways in which a medium frames the storage of and access to information…are bound up in relations of power and involve questions such as: who decides what information should be preserved and distributed…, does one have to be an expert…, how is expertise constructed…, and what degree of status or credibility is associate with information…?”

Every medium has allowed for a revisionist history to take place by placing the power and responsibility of archives in the hands of the socioeconomically privileged. New media is no different. Despite the potential for archiving being limitless, access to archival technologies still lie in the hands of those who have the economic means to decide and control where and how this content is stored and accessed.

Aesthetic Dimension

Right-brain design and aesthetics are the most important features in the creation and development of new media. Again touching on Daniel H. Pink’s book referenced above, aesthetics are much more than just visual. The user experience is a multi-dimensional, living, breathing thing, and as Turnley points out, no medium is doing it better right now than video game manufacturers. I am not a gamer. Never have been, most likely never will be. But I’ve got friends who work for video game companies (Rockstar, Sony), and I’ve got friends who are web designers for firms and independently, and the amount of resources dedicated towards an aesthetically pleasing user experience is astoundingly lopsided in favor of the gamers. Traditional media as well as simpler online media can learn from the development of user experiences in gaming systems.

Subjective Dimension

I call the subjective dimension the “Real World” dimension. As Turnley points out, audiences must navigate the societal norms and assumptions that are generally accepted as necessary to properly use a medium. But when viewing and using media, we often will assign roles and characters based on life experiences and these same societal norms, which is why “…such roles are embedded in assumptions about race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other markers of cultural difference,” when media is created. In the age of telling a compelling story, most of the time, we need characters who (we think) we already know some things about.

In that sense, considering that the “Real World” television franchise was created in the early 90’s, reality television was somewhat prophetic for what new media has become today. Not only is the source of media crucial to an individual’s perception, but the medium itself changes how we consume and view it.

Epistemological Dimension

Again, socioeconomic factors have a large influence on a particular dimension of media. Since “Fluency generally requires access and instruction” and is “distributed differently along the related axes of race and socioeconomic status…the knowledge systems supported by that medium easily can reinscribe social hierarchies.” The key word here is reinscribe. The social dimension (at least the early stages) and economic dimension have, in some sense, broken down and shifted many of the hierarchies we had come to accept with other forms of media. But what Turnley is really saying is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The temporary destabilization of these hierarchies are significant enough for study.

The issue of web sites being “relevant sources of information” also brings up a familiar concept of an editor or a gatekeeper. Does a gatekeeper or editor of online content really make it more relevant? Of course it’s less speedy, but in the Web 2.0 era, speed is king. For example, why do we even know who Perez Hilton is? (I refuse to link there. My blog, my rules.) It’s not the quality of the content, but the speed at which it’s delivered vs. traditional web content that makes the pop-trash site so highly trafficked. The breakdown of linear dissemination in Web 2.0 has brought into question the quality and reliability of some content, but again, speed is king.

Response: Campbell, Scott – “Giving Up My iPod For A Walkman”

September 18, 2009

Campbell, Scott:  “Giving Up My iPod For A Walkman”

I had to laugh when I read the line “It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape.

The biggest thing I took away from this piece is how much that technology and the way we communicate gets lost and forgotten. I remember my grandparents telling me about “party line” telephone systems (not what it sounds like…) where two or three families would share a telephone line and there was (I can’t recall the story specifically) a different ring or an operator to connect the call to the proper household.

The other quote that stuck was from the comments section. “Walkman forces me to listen to the whole album and sometime I discover some hidden nice songs. Now, I just skip…” That of course begs the question in terms of on-demand non-liner media: what are we missing?