05 March 2013

Schools and Experts

N. Postman talking Technopoly on BookTV in July 1992.
While chasing down supplementary material on Neil Postman, I happened upon his most excellent graduation speech. Although (to my knowledge) Postman never had an opportunity to recite these words at a commencement ceremony, the sentiment and message rank this as one of the better graduation speeches I've heard or read (DFW's speech at Kenyon is pretty damn moving too). The tone of this speech is similar to the Neil Postman I found in the latter sections of Technopoly -- engaging, encouraging, optimistic (albeit hesitantly). In fact, Postman's speech echoes many of my own interests in asking technological--cultural questions, pursuing a teaching career, etc. Also, it is prefaced by a statement promoting open access -- well ahead of his time with regard to communal knowledge/sharealike/creative commons/etc. "If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation." What a great introduction! I wonder if he would have made similar remarks on the occasion of beginning the speech?

Aside from functioning as an inspirational (graduation) speech, the aforementioned piece also encouraged me to rethink Technopoly. This is not to suggest that I did not appreciate the text. In fact, I found it rather engaging and appropriately controversial/thought-provoking. Since my previous  post paid a lot of attention to Postman's outmoded view of the culture-technology relationship, I want to stress how valuable Technopoly (and Postman more generally) is to framing a critique of technology in education. Although I find components of his argument a bit fraught, I appreciate how Postman conceptualizes technology's cultural role. Of particular interest are his thoughts on the controlling capacity of experts and schools.

At great length Postman discusses the dubious role of bureaucracy and expertise in the 20th century. In current and soon-to-come Technopolies, these two phenomena become more prominent and problematic (At the time of publication, Postman saw the US as the only true Technopoly. I wonder which other nations Postman would add to the list in 2013?). In such situations "There is no aspect of human relations that has not been technicalized and therefore relegated to the control of experts." [Well said! This is indeed the veiled truth of 21st century life.] This becomes even more troubling when considering that Technopoly's experts tend to be ignorant about any matter not directly related to their specialized area. Thus experts are not expected to have [even superficial] knowledge beyond their area of expertise. Clearly this must change -- for the betterment of education in particular; for the betterment of civilization in general. Like bureaucracy itself (with which an expert may or may not be connected), Technopoly's experts claim dominion not only over technical matters but also over social, psychological, and moral affairs. Isn't it concerning if the "role of the expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, sift through all that is available, eliminate that which has no bearing, and use what is left to assist in solving a problem"? Doesn't everything have (or at least could have) a bearing? Postman explains that this sort of intellectual reductionism "works fairly well in situations where only a technical solution is required and there is no conflict with human purposes...works less well in situations where technical requirements may conflict with human purposes ...and it is disastrous when applied to situations that cannot be solved by technical means and where efficiency is usually irrelevant." Given the experts' lack of breadth, one must worry about their ability to properly direct non-technical matters. In fact, I argue that a lack of breadth makes technical experts poor advisors for technical matters. If experts cannot understand the full complexity of the web into which their technical decision will be introduced, should we rely upon their so-called expertise? Shouldn't expertise involve more a connection-making process? It seems critical for experts to understand how little pieces into larger (and ever-larger) webs. At its core, Postman's analysis of the powerful control of near-sighted and narrowly-focused experts seems a robust argument for cultivating interdisciplinary people and teams.

Further complicating the function of expertise and schooling is the notion of testing. While I do not wish to recap the entire argument here, suffice it to say that these invisible technologies reduce the types and quantities of information admitted to a system. Moreover, tests transform "an abstract and multifaceted meaning into a technical and exact term that leaves out everything of importance." Two prime examples: IQ tests and SATs. There is the implied assumption that IQ tests truly measure an individual's intelligence quotient (or that there is a measurable quotient of the multidimensional concept of intelligence) and that SAT scores actually indicate a student's scholastic aptitude. Nevertheless, we rely upon these invisible technologies to tell us who should have access to knowledge, to what extent we should deify them as experts, etc.

We become so accustomed to these invisible technologies it is an imposing challenge to think of new approaches. How can we measure intelligence without standardized tests? How can we learn without a college course? The answer to these and other questions is often an emphatic, "We can't!" Caught in the momentum of the invisible technology/cultural structure, we aren't only reluctant to change, but we are wholly unaware of that there could be (or in many cases should be) alternative modes of operation.

Invoking his friend Alan Kay (For a quick summary of Alan Kay's critique of technology in education, read this interview from Cult of Mac), Postman suggests that problems schools cannot solve without machines, they cannot solve with them. Yes and no. As Kay and Postman explain, it isn't that technology in education is a bad idea (pencils, paper, and books are all pretty revolutionary educational technologies), but we are failing to use technologies to their full educational potential. Alan Kay is more outspoken on this matter, but Postman conveys similar sentiments regarding the shortcomings of "computer technology" to generate radical and substantive changes in society and/or education.

Postman explains that Technopoly is a sociocultural order and mental state of mind that is based upon the deification of technology. Although certainly disheartening, this is by no means an unescapable condition. More problematic than the mental state are the social institutions that function as control mechanisms
…sometimes they do their work simply by denying people access to information, but principally by directing how much weight and, therefore, value one must give to information
For Postman, the school (at all levels -- primary, secondary, post-secondary) is one of the main social institutions that functions as a mechanism for information control. In summary, the school certifies what students should or should not think about. Relying upon curricula, course descriptions, degree programs, and other standard institutional apparatuses, the school effectively includes and excludes what information/knowledge (I've conflated the two terms here, but would like to return to a discussion of how [if necessary] these concepts are [or should be] differentiated) is accessible to students. Under such systems of information management, educational institutions (and the educational system) define what constitutes legitimate knowledge. Via the regulation and valuation of information/knowledge, educational institutions are effectively enacting and perpetuating theories about the purpose and meaning of education. If at all reliant upon the exclusion of information/knowledge, these theories and subsequent practices are not only detrimental to the educational mission, but also to the development of  engaged 21st century citizens. Indeed, the exclusion of information is a major obstacle for 21st century education (and cultural) reform.

It is important to understand (or at least question) why we do things the way(s) we do them. Only under such inquisitive circumstances can we rethink, revise, reinvent, etc. Alas, it cannot stop after one iteration. This is an endless process of re-creation. We must be a fully attentive culture! Neither immediately dismissive of nor instantly enamored, we must find balance in our approach to technology. Critical consciousness with regard to technology (in education and elsewhere) is absolutely necessary!  We must not grant exorbitant prestige to experts (who are viewed with priestly charisma) armed with technology. So, as we graduate to a new stage of the technology-culture relationship, may the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.

For more on Neil Postman, sift through the treasure trove of online texts and interviews. Oh, and be sure to page through his other books. I have a copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity sitting on my bookshelf, perhaps this is the perfect motivation to pick it up and continue my feverish reading and annotating of N. Postman. Should probably also find copies of Teaching as a Conserving Activity and The End of Education.

Full of greats from Western philosophy and depictions of esteemed knowledge, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino's (aka Raphael) 16th century fresco The School of Athens (or Scuola di Atene), offers a visual reminder of the breadth of knowledge emphasized during Ancient Greece (as updated for the Italian Renaissance. While some modes of ancient knowledge are no longer en vogue and some distinctly contemporary concerns need inclusion for the 21st century update, Raphael's fresco is a fine reminder of the importance of being a Postman Athenian. It isn't easy an ideal to achieve, but it is undeniably important. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

27 February 2013

Relationship Advice from Neil Postman

Cover image from neilpostman.org
Although he wasn't the most vocal participant during last weekend's roundtable discussion, Neil Postman still contributed plenty of insight regarding the culture and (digital) technology relationship. In many ways, Postman's work maintains a conversation that found popular expression in Marshall McLuhan's cultural critique of technology. Postman's roundtable colleague Sherry Turkle branches off from this broader topic to tackle a more specific set of concerns within the culture-technology relationship. Much of what Sherry Turkle says about robots is easily (and near seamlessly) applicable to education/technology (as well as other areas, but education/technology is my current focus). Despite her impressively detailed focus on robots and relationships, Turkle is really addressing some of the more pressing questions regarding technology's ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives. Hope, promise, progress, connectivity, alienation -- all of these are attributes to the major stories about the dynamic culture--technology relationship. Certainly not exclusive to robots, digital technology, or 21st century scenarios, these adjectives are broadly applicable to historical and sociological questions concerning technology. Just as the themes of Alone Together find expression during conversations regarding educational technology, so too does Postman's examination of the American tendency to turn over to technology.

Postman's book is fascinating, but I think he starts off on the wrong foot. Perhaps a byproduct of the social/cultural environment in which he was writing, but Postman's focus on technology vs. people fails to appreciate the nuance of the dynamic relationship that binds technology and people. What's with the front cover comment from the Dallas Morning News? "A provocative book...a tool for fighting back against the tools that run our lives." Really? A tool for fighting other tools? Granted this blurb cannot be attributed to Postman, but it seems to suggest a mode (or mood) for interpreting Postman's text. Moreover, it isn't really (at least not any longer) about fighting against technology. Is it? At least I hope not.

No longer does it seem helpful to frame this as an "us vs. them" scenario. We all have (and continue to make) choices regarding technology. Sometimes these choices aren't readily apparent, nor often easy, but we must acknowledge and embrace our agency in this situation. We must be critical and engaged consumers/users of technology. It is important not to be automatically convinced of technology's inherent-and-always awesomeness. Technology is not always an unmixed blessing. Sometimes technology is great. Yet, it can just as easily be good, ok, bad, awful, or any number of other adjectives. In short, the awesomeness (clearly an abstract term, but generally refers to some combination of utility, reception, public opinion, innovativeness, etc.) of technology depends. Upon what? Well, a lot of different variables: timing, context, application, infrastructure, etc.

Rather somberly, Postman explains the complex intertwining of information and technology:
Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without  defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty to imagining reasonable futures.
A tricky situation to say the least! However, I cannot agree completely with the dire inevitability presented in Postman's example. Simply because we start down a path doesn't mean we must continue along that path forever. Even if our relationship with information and technology is flawed, can't we initiate a change? Isn't that what this and other projects are seeking to accomplish? Sure, such change requires leadership and thoughtfulness, but it must be possible!

We (individually and collectively) must take some measure of responsibility. Humans are a part of the technological equation. Postman suggests that technology destroys our humanity. Well, yes and no. Maybe. It seems more accurate to say that technology creates a new (mode/form/conception of) humanity. New humanity thus creates new technology. And so on ad infinitum. Nothing is static.

Initially, I wanted to wholly disagree with Postman. The early parts of the book present a very bleak binary. As the text evolves, Postman reveals more nuance and displays a deep understanding of the culture-technology relationship. Early sections of the book convey a technology vs. culture binary that quite deliberately (or so it seems) incites a reaction from readers. Emotionally and intellectually invested in the controversy portrayal of technology in the first half of the book, readers are perhaps more likely to read feverishly, pulling out intellectual nuggets, scribbling marginalia, asking questions, making connections. Or that might be the case if your reading of Technopoly was in anyway similar to mine. Maybe the tone and tenor conveyed in the early sections of the book are designed to hook the reader?

Postman focuses on our (in the context of Technopoly, pronouns refer to America and Americans) tendency to be generally (and often overwhelmingly) enthusiastic about new technologies. Fair enough. Broadly speaking, we (writ large) do seem to focus on what new technologies will do for us (positive), but rarely consider what such technologies will undo (negative). Yet, there is more to the technology-culture relationship than unquestioning embrace. Clearly we should not seek to deify technology (as Postman fears we were already doing in the 1990s), it is not omniscient (although arguably omnipresent), but certainly technology has some role to play in our lives and learning. Right? Or is desire to include technology the consequence of my position within the technological-cultural matrix?

Just as with any healthy interpersonal relationship, it is important to cultivate individual personas. Separate, but connected entities, digital and analog (or perhaps more accurately, non-digital) technologies each have a place in the vast landscape of learning. It's not about choosing digital at the exclusion of analog (or vice versa). Perhaps it may have seemed this way during the early stages of the internet era, but no longer can we operate within an outdated binary construct. We live in an age that can benefit from approaches that incorporate digital and non-digital. Each has its benefits. Each has its consequences.

From physical text with handwritten scribbles to digital medium with embedded content and hyperlinked connectivity, this is a clear example of the digital/analog merger

Some of my marginalia (can you call it that when it spills well beyond
the confines of the margin?) from the first few pages of Technopoly.
By no means is this to suggest that Postman advocates the elimination of technology. For Postman it isn't technology in itself that it problematic. Rather than originating from artifact, the trouble lies with our cultural beliefs about technology. Postman certainly raises some insightful points about our conceptualization of technology:
  • technology is assumed to be our friend
  • technology does not invite close examination of its own consequences
  • technology is both friend and enemy (a frenemy if you will)
Strong language, but the point is well taken. An unexamined embrace for all technology is a surefire recipe for disaster (or at least dissatisfaction). In essence, all technological change is a Faustian bargain (simultaneously gives and takes). Among other things, Postman encourages us to ponder the sacrifices (intellectually, culturally, etc.) we make when so vehemently and unquestioningly embracing technology. Postman is adamant about technology's Faustian role. Not only does it solve problems, but technology also creates them. And so, in a seemingly endless cycle -- to address new problems we create new technologies, which give rise to new problems requiring new technological solutions....

Richard Roland Holst's 1918 poster promoting
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's tragic play Faust
While this role as giver-and-taker may seem to betray some of the bifurcation presented in the initial section of the book, it is in fact a byproduct of Postman's borderline Luddism. While not bestowing the title of anti-technologist upon himself, Postman does embrace his role as technological indifferentist. Not a Luddite, but certainly not a technological-optimist, Postman articulates some important things to consider when evaluating our relationship with technology:
  • technical progress is not humanity's supreme achievement
  • technology is not the solution to our most profound dilemmas
  • information is not an unmixed blessing
The final of these points is particularly complex with respect to education. Think about the various initiatives to "improve" education from recent years. The majority involve some technological component. For example, there is a ambitious program that aims to introduce laptops into the world's poorest classrooms. Now, don't get me wrong, I think opening the worldwide web (arguably this generation's greatest learning tool) to a vast assortment of learners who have previously had little or no access to the internet is an outstanding idea (although certainly not an educational cure-all). Additionally, it is evident that the thinkers behind One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) put serious thought into program design, implementation, and sustainability in order to foster "collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning." Despite the great benefits attributed to OLPC, any education program that relies upon technology (in this case laptops) is bound to encounter some unique problems (e.g. cost, support, training, hardware/software, cultural appropriateness, etc.). Still though, I don't share Postman's lament regarding our inability to defend ourselves against inevitable technological deification. No doubt there are some that (consciously or unconsciously) deify technology as an educational savior. OLPC seems to counter this tendency by stressing, "It’s not a laptop project. It’s an education project." Emphasizing their role as an educational organization that consciously decided to employ technology to accomplish its educational aims (not vice versa), OLPC seems to avoid (or at least minimize) technological deification. The decision-making processes and belief systems that influence technology's cultural role that are most concerning for Postman. We must be skeptical users/employers of technology. Whether in the classroom, boardroom, laundry room, or any other room, we must always ask why. Moreover, we must also remain open to alternative solutions (be they digital, analog, or some other technological variant).

Given my complex relationship with Neil Postman, I'm going to let this ruminate for a bit and return to Technopolgy in a few days. More thoughts on Postman, technology, and education forthcoming...

24 February 2013

No Man is an Island...Well, Maybe Sometimes

Cover image courtesy of Turkle.
Purchase a copy @ Amazon, BN, Powell's, or your local bookshop.

The technology-connectivity paradox. Throughout the text, Sherry Turkle (professor of awesome stuff [otherwise known as the Initiative on Technology and Self] at MIT) reiterates the notion that we (individually and culturally) expect increasingly more from technology and less from other people. In short, we're more connected, but seemingly also more alone. While there is ample observational material and historical data to support this claim, I think a slight caveat is warranted. Don't we also expect more (educationally, productively, etc.) from each other? Maybe this is a different conceptualization that what Turkle has in mind, but it seems worth consideration. With all the various nodes and connections and the ease with which they can be (re)created, aren't the expectations heightened? We expect more from each new robot or iOS app, can't it also be said that we also expect more from the users?

Perhaps not always explicitly or consciously, but it seems as though teachers now expect more of students (with the presumed ease of access research should be more in-depth, dots should be connected quicker, wow-factor should increase exponentially), students expect more of teachers (who should resemble a walking/talking Wikipedia Google), employers expect immediate responses and instantaneous recall from employees (digital cogs in the machine with ever-faster processing chips). A range of technologies now make it easier than ever before to access information and connect with people. The increased volume and velocity of access has also boosted expectations for how to utilize/repurpose the information. To me, this appears a classic example of co-evolution -- we create new technologies and in turn the technologies shape how we live. Since this co-evolving dynamic is something we cannot overcome, we therefore have a responsibility to understand it, perhaps even directing it.

Seizing just this sort of opportunity, Turkle probes our relationship with specific technologies in order to suggest the values and purpose driving our relationships with technology in general. With a range of subjects (young and old; men and women; human and robotic), Turkle's research suggests overarching patterns, but also identifies generational-specific tendencies. Reading Alone Together through an educationally-oriented lens, the material about connectivity and networking ("Part Two" of the book) is particularly applicable to my aims. Although the sections about robotic eldercare, sociable toys, mechanical toddlers, etc. are outside my immediate interests, the information is both engaging and illustrative. Indeed, much of what Turkle says about robots is translatable to the educational realm. Hybridity. Rorschach. Prostheses. Relationship. Simulation. Power. Expectation. All of these concepts Turkle uses to examine the human-robot relationship are equally at play for understanding the technology-learning relationship. Beneath it all is a question of why, quickly followed by what if. Why are we doing what we are doing? Is there another way to do this...what if?

In recapping her long (30+ years) history of research on technology/connectivity/communication, Turkle mentions the drastic and profound shift she's noticed during recent decades. In the early history of computing, there was focus on power of one-on-one interaction (user-computer). More recently, the attention has (understandably) shifted toward the potential for one-on-infinite interaction (user-computer-infinite users) where the computer (or other device) acts as an intermediary. For me, this is a foundational point for reconsidering the role of technology (computer and otherwise) in education. It is important to think not just in terms of what one person can do as an individual plugged into a computing device. Rather, the real potential resides with many individuals connected (via computing devices) as a community. There is tremendous opportunity for the internet as the medium of informational/educational/creative connectivity. However, before such potential can be fully realized, it is necessary to understand

Turkle's work is impressive, albeit also a bit intimidating. Her research is fascinating, engaging, and remarkably important. For a burgeoning researcher/writer with similar technological/cultural interests, Alone Together provides an ideal template toward which I can strive. The mix of historical analysis, in-depth fieldwork, and clinical interviews (very similar to fieldwork, but in a controlled environment) affords Turkle a unique understanding -- what she call an "intimate ethnography." Incorporating these various perspectives, Turkle is well-suited to understand the complex dynamic relationship between humans (individual and social) and technologies. Daunting as the scope and depth of Turkle's research is, it also offers a great reminder of the importance of this type of work.

Turkle is definitely a 21st century public intellectual. To be clear, this is a great thing! A much touted, but not always well-practiced concept, public intellectualism helps bridge the town and gown divide, promotes engaging/understandable research, encourages broad based discussion of pressing topics. Academics no longer wear clerical gowns (or at least most don't, save for commencements), but there remains a rather distinct barrier between a lot of academic research and public consumption (this is, in part, what the White House public access memorandum is about). Whether writing digestible books,  tweeting about her (and tangential) research, appearing on various media outlets (including the spot-on interview with Stephen Colbert embedded below), Sherry Turkle takes great effort to reach beyond the traditional academic venues, adding her research and voice to the public dialogue. 

In fact, Turkle's research has such crossover appeal that comedian Aziz Ansari (this guy is seriously funny and his material [evident by watching just a few moments of his role as tech-dependent Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec] connects to Turkle's research in amazing and insightful ways) made explicit mention of Alone Together during an interview with The AV Club.
I’m also reading Alone Together by Sherry Turkle—this lady is at MIT and has done a ton of research about text-messaging. Here’s a notion she threw out in a TED talk that’s well worth watching—it blew my mind. From her interviews, she found young people are so used to texting that they can’t have proper in-person conversations, because they are accustomed to being able to wait, write, and rewrite their sentences when having conversations over texts. Isn’t that terrifying, and doesn’t it make sense? I’d love for her to see my new show. Sherry, if you are reading this, hit me up. Stuff like that really gets my mind inspired to write. I just find that so intriguing. 
Aziz Ansari - actor, comedian, tech scholar, Turkle PR manager
Ansari pinpoints the widespread importance and appeal of Turkle's work. Not only does his comment indicate why we mush race to answer the questions posed in Alone Together, but it also suggests why Turkle's work is so important to the future of higher education. If young people (i.e. students) are inhabiting in a world that inhibits the communicative maturity, think about what this suggests for learning, creativity, critical thinking, discussion, post-classroom on-the-job problem posing. Turkle directly addresses how the latest generations are growing up in an environment of continuous connectivity. While this constancy may provide various benefits, it also creates new obstacles and insecurities. Volume and velocity can help, but just as easily hinder learning. Moreover, since they've never known anything other than a culture of rampant information and constant connectivity, young people are particularly vulnerable to the aloneness created by device-mediated relationships.

Just like Ansari, "Stuff like that really gets my mind inspired to write. I just find that so intriguing." For me the big ah-ha moment of Alone Together came late in the book. Don't get me wrong, the entire text was interesting, but my most frantic underlying and copious marginalia is found around the discussion of what Turkle calls realtechnik. Other writers have expressed similar concepts, but Turkle's version is strongly linked with issues of connectivity, which I see at the heart of the technology-in-education. According to Turkle, "realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphant or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology." In short, realtechnik is critical thinking about technology and our relationship with it. Technology isn't a savior, nor is it a demon. It won't fix everything, but it certainly won't ruin everything. Really, it comes down to connections. How do we connect with tech, information, environment, people, ourselves?

It's about promise, but also about problems. The either/or binary is outmoded. It is not a matter of no technology or all technology. The 21st century requires a dynamic this/and approach. We must acknowledge and address the pros and cons of technology in tandem. Turkle offers not a cautionary tale, but a conscientious one. She stresses the importance of thinking critically about the how and why of technology. This is a mode of thinking that can be applied to various technological realms -- to robots and to education.  Technology isn't going away. We need to learn how to maximize its educational potential. 

Want to know more about connectivity in a device-mediated world? Get a nice synopsis of Turkle's argument and its significance for our daily activities by watching her 2012 TED Talk (embedded below). You can always dig deeper -- read the book, explore the Initiative on Technology and Self website, listen to Turkle on NPR, or follow the developing narrative on this blog.

and, just in case your curious...

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~ John Donne, excerpt from Meditation XVII (1632) 

12 February 2013

Understanding Mr. McLuhan

abstract and contemplative image courtesy of Gingko Press
"The medium is the message." Enough said. Right?

Well, not quite. Arguably his most famous aphorism, this is (unfortunately) the extent to which many people are familiar with the scholarly and cultural contributions of Marshall McLuhan. Undoubtedly catchy, McLuhan's memorable phrase finds its way into various conversations, but not always in the way in which the author intended. Well, maybe that's not quite right.

As Woody Allen so poignantly demonstrates, many people miss the mark when it come to McLuhan.

As satisfying as that moment may have been for Alvy Singer, maybe it doesn't really matter if people don't fully understand what "The medium is the message" means. (Although, inaccurate parroting of the phrase certainly doesn't help disseminate McLuhan's insightful contributions to media studies.) McLuhan was quite aware of how his rhizomatic mode of thinking and  writing style posed a challenge to readers. A venerable treasure trove of aphorisms and witticisms (some more insightful, others mostly playful), Marshall McLuhan was more interested in probing than explaining. As such McLuhan relies on a prose style that explores rather than explains. Although sometimes frustrating for readers, this style and its heavy reliance on aphorisms is one of the great lasting benefits of McLuhan's writing. The style as well as the substance are indispensable tools with which McLuhan sought to prompt and prod  readers into developing an "understanding of how media operate" and to provoking reflection. Maybe, in the midst of the confusion some readers will dig into McLuhan and explore the connecting thoughts/scholarship and piece together a more complete understanding of how each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message.

It's intriguing to speculate what McLuhan might have to say today, nearly 50 years after publishing Understanding Media. With chapters devoted to topics such as "The Photograph: The Brothel-without-Walls," "Movies: The Reel World," "Radio: The Tribal Drum," "Television: The Timid Giant," and "Automation: Learning a Living," McLuhan had volumes to say about mass media's grip on everyday life. Thanks to the never-ending reach of mass media, McLuhan actually still says a lot about the relationship between culture and technology. In addition to numerous websites and digital archives, Marshall McLuhan continue to participate with active Twitter feeds (of the nearly 40 McLuhan-specific Twitter profiles, I favor @marshallmcluhan and @mcluhanspeaks) and thousands of YouTube clips (the Marshall McLuhan Speaks channel is particularly robust). From beyond the grave McLuhan provides his perspective on "the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves."

You cannot help but be intrigued by a guy so prodigious that he continues to guide the conversation posthumously. McLuhan was so prolific that there is a term (McLuhanisms) to signify all the catch phrases and witticisms he added to the popular lexicon. Sure he was a bit obtuse and sometimes heavy-handed, but one cannot discount McLuhan's contributions to our understanding of how mass media affect human behavior. In an era of new forms and tropes of advertising, rapidly increasing communicative connectivity, and changing cultural dynamics McLuhan was both a scholar concerned with mass media's grip on everyday life as well as himself an object of mass media attention. While McLuhan hoped his writing would facilitate exploration and the reliance of aphorisms would expedite the intellectual probing, he and his stylistic devices often led to confusion. Owing to his radical view of media, technology, and culture as well as his cryptic style, McLuhan achieved a certain level of pop culture celebrity. In addition to his Annie Hall cameo, McLuhan routinely appeared on talk shows, conducted radio interviews, and became a well-known public intellectual who weighed in on all matter tangental to media. Although Tom Brokaw is quick to point out McLuhan's lack of political credentials and McLuhan's theories receive some tongue-in-cheek treatment or even outright dismissal, McLuhan's presence on a morning television program is significant. That particular medium, at that particular cultural moment (the morning timing is also important), provides McLuhan with an opportunity to both explain and illustrate how "The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs." McLuhan's analysis of the Ford-Carter debate is a useful example of what McLuhan is saying about the necessity of understanding a particular medium in order to fully interpret a message. Illustrating the crux of McLuhan's theories, this clip should reverberate loudly in the 21st century. No longer are we merely a "television-conscious society," but a media-inundated and communicatively-saturated society, thus understanding various mediums (as separate, but also interconnected) will help us to better understand the messages we are constantly receiving and sending.

When published in 1964, Understanding Media presented a radical view of electronic communications that rattled the scholarly establishment and ignited popular conversations. With much to say about society and technology, McLuhan's introduced his theories during a period of transition marked by growing skepticism about the promise of better living through science and technology. Given the historical circumstances and long reputation attributed to the book, it is unsurprising to find a wealth of material about modes of communication, culture, technological systems, etc. What I did not anticipate when beginning with McLuhan was his attentiveness to education. In hindsight, the educational component makes complete sense. McLuhan writes at length about the need for continuity, complete involvement, creativity, exploration, simultaneousness, interdisciplinarity (often when referring to the shortcomings of specialization).

In fact, part of the impetus for McLuhan's dedication to media analysis stemmed from his experience in the classroom. When conducting courses as a young faculty member at UW-Madison, McLuhan felt there was a gap inhibiting him from fully connecting with his students. Not much older than his students at that time, McLuhan determined the gap wasn't generational nor intellectual, but was the consequence of  different modes of learning and understanding. This is exactly why I see my proposed project as so important. We must strive to understand students, technology, and the relationship between the two is we are to develop a pedagogy (suited [yet adaptable, evolvable, scalable] for the 21st century educational and sociocultural environment) that encourages creativity and deep learning.

Regardless of how McLuhan's theories were initially received, I think few would dispute that mass media have undoubtedly decentralized our 21st century lifestyles and helped turn the world into an interconnected global village. What McLuhan writes about the "Wheel, Bicycle, and Airplane" applies with equal validity to computers, internet, and mobile devices. “The medium is the message” because it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”

If we consider (as McLuhan does), media as any and all technological extensions of human bodies and minds, what does this mean for contemporary (and future) education? One thing is certain, we must not dwell solely on the impact of media, but also consider the whys, hows, and consequences -- Why might we [knowingly] introduce a particular media into education (there is a whole other level to deal with when considering unknowing introduction of media)? How are media introduced, integrated, leveraged for learning and creativity? What are the consequences after initial impact?

During our age of electronic communications (although I am primarily interested in digital media, I do admit [as McLuhan also discusses] that there is long history of non-electronic communication media that shaped human interaction; what is particularly interesting/significant/different about electronic [and now digital] communication is the speed and scope of its shaping power), it is important to understand how media influence our (individual and collective) experience of the world. Not just the physical world or the social world, but also the educational world. Aren't they all overlapping and interconnected anyway? We must examine how media affect experience in the world(s) of higher education.

The "mass" of McLuhan's famous mass media* refers not (only) to the massive size of communication empires (although this still holds true), but to the involvement of the masses. It's simple. Media is everywhere and connects all types of people, places, things, ideas, etc. Nevertheless, "Media, or the extensions of man, are 'make happen' agents, but not 'make aware' agents." This for me is a critical point when talking about technology in higher education. In fact, this statement forms the crux of my approach to technology use in education. Media can definitely extend and amplify us (as individuals, as learners, as societies, as various conceptions), but media at the same time can amputate and silence us. Regardless of the name, media, technology, etc. create an opportunities to open new doors, boost creativity, inspire learning, etc. At the same time, these same tools, technologies, concepts can dull the learning experience, create rout activities, minimize exploration. Through understanding and critical utilization we (educators, learners, thinkers, etc.) can leverage the amplification and minimize the amputation. McLuhan saw it in the 1960s, "Education has become everybody's business in our society. The globe has become a community of learning." We certainly aren't any less of a global community of learners in 2013 than in 1964. The constant and co-existing media matter at least as much now as 50 years ago. So, "With teaching becoming the business of everybody, round-the-clock, and round-the-globe, what becomes of the older roles and relations of teacher and student?" We have a tremendous opportunity (and a wee bit of an obligation) to rethink the dynamics of learning.

Excited to see what forms the ghost of McLuhan assumes in the upcoming parallel read of Turkle and Postman.

And just in case you want to know more about McLuhan's aphoristic style, here's another memorable clarification from the man himself...

*granted McLuhan did not invent the term "mass media" but he is primarily responsible for its popularization and addition to everyday conversation

08 February 2013

McLuhan Primer

Get ready, next up is the incomparable Marshall McLuhan. A creative-thinker, problem-poser, and flexible non-follower who is sometimes difficult to understand, but encourages us to "Watch what happens...Where you don't know what's going to happen, but you follow the crumble."