Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Marshall McLuhan as Micro Blogger

Marshall McLuhan died on the last day of 1980 - not only years before there was Twitter, micro-blogging and blogging, but a few years before e-mail and commenting on Web pages.

In 1986, I wrote a piece for the IEEE Transactions of Professional Communications entitled "Marshall McLuhan and Computer Conferencing," in which I said that the pithy bursts which characterized his writing - his great works from the 1960s consisted of chapters often not more than a page or two in length - were actually a form of web writing ("computer conferencing") decades before the Web and online communication emerged. I've attached that article below.

Just today, I realized something more about McLuhan's writing. The memorable titles he gave to his short chapters - for example, "The Medium is the Message" in Understanding Media (1964) or "Nobody ever made a grammatical error in a non-literate society" in the Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) (which has 107 of these gems) - were actually micro-blogs.

Blogging in his page-or-two chapters, micro-blogging in the titles or "glosses" (his term) he gave them. All of this back in 1962 and 1964.

McLuhan was in touch with a mode of expression, a vehicle of the human intellect, which was clear and comfortable in his mind, even though the technology of its delivery was still decades away from invention.

**Note added 25 February 2009: Section on McLuhan as Microblogger in "Twitter" chapter of my new book New New Media, to be published September 2009


by Paul Levinson

First published in IEEE Transactions of Professional Communications,
March 1986, pp. 9-11.

As far as I know, Marshall McLuhan never owned a
personal computer. He never was part of a computer network,
and never engaged in computer conferencing. Certainly his
landmark Understanding Media (1964) and The Gutenberg Galaxy
(1962) were published years before the development of personal
computers and the types of communication they make possible.

But even had McLuhan's contributions been made 20 years
later, they no doubt would have been made without the services of
computers. For McLuhan was a firm believer that those in the
belly of a technology were blind to its effects, and he
credited much of his perspective on media to his habitat in
Canada several miles above and beyond the media milieu of
the United States.

Yet for all their aloofness from the electronic world they
detail, McLuhan's writings epitomize a kind of Joycian, stream
of consciousness flow that can best be described as
electronic. Critics never tired of citing McLuhan's writing
style as the best evidence he offered in support of his
contention that writing had become outmoded, and much of the
popular misconception that McLuhan was "against" writing and
print stemmed from his admitted attempt to break free of
traditional typographic styles of narrative and composition.

And so the question of how to understand McLuhan, what
to make of the relationship between the structure and the
content of his work, continues to interest all who
write about him. I raise this issue once again because I
think I have found a most astonishing key, an unexpected
Rosetta Stone, that goes a long way towards answering
this question. Architects of computer conferencing most likely
paid little or no attention to the style of McLuhan's writing
in design of their programs. And McLuhan simply couldn't
have had any knowledge of computer conferencing when he
wrote his main works. And yet recent experience in the
medium of computer conferencing struck me with how
literally the prose collages of McLuhan's books resemble the
transcripts of computer conferences.

What Is Computer Conferencing?

In the spring of 1984, I was hired by the
Western Behavioral Sciences Institute to teach a course by
computer teleconferencing for their School of Management and
Strategic Studies. Faculty (known as conference moderators or
facilitators) meet in person with students (known as conference
participants) at the Institute's premises in paradisiacal
La Jolla for week-long seminars twice a year. Thereafter
faculty and students scatter to the far corners of the
Earth (students in my class come from Australia,
Sweden, and Colombia, though most of the participants
are business, government, and non-profit executives located
in the U.S.), to give and receive instruction and
enlightenment entirely through the Kaypros, DEC-Rainbows, and
assorted other personal computers in their homes and places of

Before detailing some of the features of computer
conferencing, let me give a little background on the more
general medium of electronic mail of which computer
conferencing is a part. In a sense, electronic exchange
of written information began with the telegraph and continued
with the telex, long before personal computers and
electronic networks for consumers became feasible. But the
privacy and convenience of the telephone quickly usurped
the lion's share of electronic communication from the
telegraph, and until the past decade the telephone and the paper
mail system constituted the main long distance communication
options for most people. Communication via computers provides
an important and in many respects superior third
alternative, offering the privacy, immediacy, and
convenience of the telephone, with the permanence and
opportunity for formality afforded by the written word.

Although direct, unmediated communication between
personal computer and personal computer is
technologically possible, it is at present expensive and
inefficient, with the result that most communication between
computers is conducted via larger third party computers
that serve as clearing houses. Such an approach of
course tends to reduce the likelihood of immediate
exchanges (though two computers "on-line" with the central
computer at the same time can easily communicate with each
other in real, immediate time), but has the advantage of
offering ancillary services such as storage of long
documents, sending of simultaneous messages to large groups,
etc. which are difficult or impossible for many
personal computers. In the standard procedure, I send you
a message by composing it on my home computer and
electronically transmitting it (through telephone lines)
to the clearing house computer; you receive my message by
using your home computer to electronically contact
the clearing house; I receive a confirmation from the
clearing house that you've received my message (and a response
from you if you've provided it) the very next time I
contact the central computer after you've received my
message, and the central system will usually keep a copy of my
message to you on hand (for our eyes only) for a specified
period of time.

The Western Behavioral Sciences Institute
conducts its computer conferences through the Electronic
Information Exchange System (EIES, pronounced
"eyes"), situated in a mini- computer at the New Jersey
Institute of Technology in Newark. In a typical conference, the
faculty moderator sets the agenda with a few
introductory comments of about 25-50 lines in length, and
assigns a few background readings (often summarized
in other comments available on-line). The
conference system allows all participants (usually anywhere from
5 to 75 students, and 5 to 10 participant faculty in
addition to the moderator) to enter comments into the
conference and to read all comments entered by others
(procedures exist for allowing some people to read only
or write only in a conference, and the moderator has a
seldom used authority to delete a participant's comment
deemed unseemly). In the month's time allotted for most
conferences, 5 to 15 participants along with the
moderator regularly contribute 5 to 10 comments per
week, while the other participants for a variety of
reasons choose to read only or comment very infrequently. The
end of the conference usually yields a total of 100 to 150
comments of about 5 to 100 or more lines in length,
loosely integrated around a central theme.

Andrew Feenberg (Professor of Philosophy at San
Diego State University) ran a conference for WBSI on
"Utopia and Dystopia" in June 1984. Feenberg, associated
with the Institute since its entry into computer conferencing
in 1982 and an old hand at moderating these events, describes
his experience in June as "a bit like a publisher working
together with peers and colleagues to produce a sort of
magazine in which all readers can become writers."
Although the multi-authorship makes the magazine metaphor
apt, the length of each comment (too small) and number
of total comments (too large) are not consistent with most

I propose, then, a different way of looking at the
products of computer conferences. I suggest that,
notwithstanding the fact that these conferences are multi-
authored, their results are virtually identical in texture
and rhythm to the so-called electronic, reader
directed, pre-computer writings of Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan as Computer Conferencer

McLuhan was quite deliberate in pursuit of a
writing style that many viewed as incomprehensible, overly
playful, or an outright slap in the face of conventional
scholarly form. In his Introduction to Harold Innis' The
Bias of Communication , McLuhan extols the "mosaic"
approach that both writers employed: It offers snap shots
from various angles of the big picture, rather than a series
of descriptions that attempt to construct a larger whole in
an orderly, step-by-step fashion. Because each snap shot or
piece of the mosaic is equidistant from the central theme
and the other snap shots, each can serve as an entry
point, review, or food for further thought on the main topic.
A book of such pieces is thus accessible from any
point, and can be read backwards, forward, from the
middle backwards and forward, and indeed in any way the
reader chooses. In this sense the reader becomes
the writer of McLuhan's books. (Although Innis' work was as
imaginative and compressed as McLuhan's, it was a good deal
more traditional in its narrative approach, and never fully
achieved the mosaic style that McLuhan attempted.)

McLuhan offered the mosaic as essential to capturing the
complexity and speed of the electronic age, but the roots
of this approach of course go as far back as Nietzsche and
indeed the Greek mystics who served as Nietzsche's (and
no doubt McLuhan's) inspiration. Nonetheless, McLuhan's
style has quite rightly become identified with the attempt of
the written word to come to grips with
electronic culture, and is quite consistent with what has
more recently been termed the "holographic" method of
understanding reality (after Karl Pribram's observation
that the cells of the human brain function redundantly,
each containing traces of the information contained in
all others, in much the same way as pieces of a holographic
plate each contain the whole, three dimensional picture
recorded on the original, intact plate.)

Dig out your yellowing paperback of Understanding Media,
or better, The Gutenberg Galaxy, if you have it. (GG,
predictably out of print in the United States, was
McLuhan's quintessential work, acknowledged as such by the
author. The more widely known UM is actually a
bit more traditional in style, while subsequent works such
as The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the
Global Village are much more drastic in their
eschewal of any narrative thread.) After a brief, agenda-
setting introduction, The Gutenberg Galaxy proceeds
with 107 pieces, about 50-150 lines in length, on topics
ranging from Greek art to Descartes and Heidegger. Pieces are
occasionally grouped around specific themes such as the
effect of the alphabet on Greek culture, but they
nonetheless manage to be free-floating,
overlapping, self-contained, reinforcing little essays
spinning like satellites around the globe of what impact
written forms of expression have had on human life throughout
the ages. Like the holographic cells noticed by Pribram,
each contains a blueprint and entree to all others.

Now let us look at Feenberg's June 1984 computer
conference on "Utopia and Dystopia" (or, if you like,
at virtually any other computer conference conducted on EIES,
The Source, Compuserve, or any network of your choosing).
After the moderator's opening remarks, a group of about
six including the moderator generated 122 comments ranging in
length from several to more than a hundred lines each.
Again, comments were often grouped around subthemes such as
rationality and its perversion in dystopias (and moderator
and participants often made a deliberate effort to
respond specifically to earlier comments), but the general
result was a constellation of free-floating tiny essays,
each providing more or less equal access to the central theme.

The two striking differences in composition of a
computer conference and a McLuhan book are that computer
conferences are group efforts produced in a month and
McLuhan's books were the work of one person (later two)
certainly at toil much more than a month. Yet the
similarities in outcome of these two sharply different
modes of production suggest that the many creating for
a brief period in some way balance the one creating for a much
longer time.

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that
the results of computer conferences (at least those of
which I am aware) have in any way yet equalled the scope and
originality of McLuhan's writings. It is the congruence
in style and organization to which I am calling attention,
and which I believe holds an important message for those
who have learned from McLuhan's work, and those many more who
have been frustrated by it.

McLuhan was no clairvoyant. The unwitting fulfillment
of his writing style in computers a few years after his
death and decades after his major work is evidence of
something quite else: striving mightily to transcend
the limits of print stuck to paper, struggling against
the professional norms of his time and a backdrop of
electronic media that conveyed only sounds and pictures,
McLuhan somehow managed to produce a corpus perfectly suited
to an electronic medium not yet invented. The apostle
of medium over content created content that defied the
media of its day and hung around waiting for the world to catch
up and on. Not so much ironic is it as another example --
perhaps the best yet -- of how profoundly in tune
McLuhan was with the tempo of our century.
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