In attempting to talk of emerging technological tools and platforms for use in virtual reference, as we plan to do for Week 6 (bibliography below) of my class, we must aim to daintily walk the lane which strays between self-assurance and indiscretion in our approach to conceptualizing technological development. (A reference to Marhsall McLuhan will be useful here, but it’s not as if we hadn’t been expecting him anyway…)
Now, I haven’t read enough M.M. to adequately explain him, but it appears that McLuhan’s approach in The Medium is the Massage (or message, if you like) aims to be no mere boost or knock on technological development. Rather, the book is an “inventory of effects,” which suggests that the goal is to describe not just tools and platforms but to explain the idea that social environments are mediated, which for our purposes is to suggest that information and communication technologies affect and in some ways impinge on the subjectivity of their users.
Yet, if McLuhan’s great axiom or his thought in general is responsible in any significant way for how we currently understand the development of human relations to technology – signified by his visionary status in Coupland’s biography – then I fear we may also find it “blameworthy” for the insurgence of the peculiar perspective called technological determinism.
Now, to elaborate this term I’ll need to spend more words in another post discussing it and its implications for libraries, but it suffices to say at the moment that people have taken McLuhan’s “visionary” statements and run with them, often using them to propose new technologies as generating sweeping and holistic and inevitable changes in culture and society (sometimes provocatively referred to as paradigm shifts – in which older or traditional modes of thought are supposedly sent off to the dustbins of history – another term, that requires much unpacking).
For this reason, I really appreciate some of the low-level approaches to understanding new technologies that Rettie and the Sessoms bring to the issue of tools for virtual interaction, trying to answer more straightforward questions of “how might these new technologies differ from old ways of communication?” Sessoms’ piece makes fairly-limited but pragmatic assertions about accommodating IM sessions into libraries that all seem fine on a certain level, though it stays mostly on the surface of describing the LibraryH3lp system and doesn’t offer much descriptive or critical analysis of user’s relations in the IM environment, though it does offer an approach to libraries using IM technologies to collaborate in reference services.
Rettie does a bit more descriptive analysis, but mostly rests at the attempt to characterize the “near-synchronous” environment of SMS communication; this is interesting though a confusing way to characterize synchronicity: texts do approach a synchronous tech, able to be composed, read and replied to quickly, which “[intensifies] geographical time-space”; yet responses may not demand response and, if they do, responses can be pondered over, which provides some sense of an asynchronous tech. (A question here might be, isn’t the SMS medium’s capability to approach synchronicity itself mediated by the asynchronous possibilities of text composition? Can we even generalize to it being near-synchronous?) Anyway, one would be hard-pressed to find anything in these articles which suggest certain inevitabilities about the effect of these technologies on people or projections regarding the nature of the future, and that is admirable. And even though it may not be their intention to provide it, I would like more.
I return to emphasize the problem of the “visionary” in media studies, which is also implicit in Coupland’s characterization of McLuhan, because it focuses our concern about the way some might present of our relations to the future in info tech discourse. Coupland characterizes the current situation as a “triumph of the internet” (and other associated electronic technologies) and suggests that McLuhan actually saw these developments “coming a long way off.” (15) Yet, even though McLuhan himself seems particularly disposed to be speaking in generalities of the we/us who are being “[worked] over completely” (The Medium is the Massage) by media, this implies too much inevitability for my taste and in fact jars against other passages of McLuhan’s own writing, manifesting a bit of his own ambivalence for these developments he saw. SO, I will submit my own preferred (if a bit paradoxical) quote by McLuhan and postpone this greater confrontation with the future of technology. Until next post:
Week 6 Readings (Emerging Web Technologies):
Coupland, Douglas. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Penguin, 2009. (Excerpt, p. 1-35)
Rettie, Ruth. “SMS: Exploiting the Interactional Characteristics of Near-Synchrony.” Information, Communication & Society 12, no. 8 (2009): 1131-1148. DOI: 10.1080/13691180902786943
Sessoms, Pam and Eric Sessoms. “LibraryH3lp: A New Flexible Chat Reference System.” Code4Lib Journal 4 (2008), http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/107.