Issues with inevitability in info tech discourse (pt. 1)

Photo of page from “The Medium is the Massage” by Marshall McLuhan (via Mark Surman @ commonspace.wordpress.com)

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).

From Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang

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.

Thanks for the help, memegenerator.net

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:


There
is
absolutely
no
inevitability
as
long
as
there
is
a
willingness
to
contemplate
what
is
happening.

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.

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About Jeremy T. Bold

Librarian (sometimes anArchivist) Intelligent and outgoing (sometimes ridiculous ;) Capable of entertaining faculty, students and the general public. Skills in multimedia print, audio, and video productions. And I like Catz. Yes, the animalz; I've never seen the musical.
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3 Responses to Issues with inevitability in info tech discourse (pt. 1)

  1. amandaglassman says:

    I was inspired to re-read this last week as well–it feels too relevant to the material we’re covering to ignore. On the surface, it looks like McLuhan may be actually be suggesting a paradigm shift: “The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of the new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view” (68). It’s easy to derive from this the assumption that our old “fixed point of view” does not take into account our present situation, and that we must develop a new one compatible with the new media, which is textbook Kuhn. However, a second look allows the interpretation that any “fixed point of view” is flawed–the trick is to unhinge yourself from all paradigms, to achieve real understanding.

    He also brings up Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (calling it “the” descent, either an oversight or a stronger way to parallel our situation with the protagonist’s–our descent is certainly not any old descent, to be prefixed with “a”), where the hero “staved off disaster by understanding the action of the whirlpool” (150). I think the point here might be the root of some of your concerns with inevitability: it seems like the whirlpool is inevitable, but drowning in it certainly isn’t. To paraphrase your quote, nothing is inevitable with a willingness to understand it–and that “willingness” implies free will. So how to reconcile personal freedoms, and a possibility of escape, with the claim that “all media work us over completely,” “they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered” (26)? How can we achieve truly free will, and the escape from “a fixed point of view,” when media has reshaped our will and our point of view to its own ends? McLuhan’s apparently soft determinism turns out to be hard when you look at it too long.

    • Jeremy says:

      I know right…wish I was able to spend more time reading the other parts of McLuhan to actually sort out his theories regarding what may or may not be inevitable. I kind of agree – he seems like something of a soft determinist, but he doesn’t really offer much in Medium is the Massage to suggest how we remain separate from the medium in which we interact. My own suggestion, which i expect to express in more detail soon in part 2, is that this implies a certain interpretation of technology along a certain line of interpretation of the paradigm shift. It would presume that a new technology may do more than just offer a new way of interacting with and experiencing the world – it may reshape the people that are using it. But it depends on a certain interpretation of paradigm which presumes that human subjectivity will shift all at once or not at all, an interpretation of technological innovation that I’ve become much more skeptical of lately, especially considering the Alexis Madrigal article on “What’s Wrong with ‘X is dead.'” So, I suppose McLuhan might be beyond redemption, but how do you feel about it beyond that? Are you leaning one way or the other?

  2. amandaglassman says:

    This New Yorker article (which is quite relevant to the class, actually) has a point that starts to get at how I feel:

    “…at any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity. When there were automatic looms, the mind was like an automatic loom; and, since young people in the loom period liked novels, it was the cheap novel that was degrading our minds. When there were telephone exchanges, the mind was like a telephone exchange, and, in the same period, since the nickelodeon reigned, moving pictures were making us dumb. When mainframe computers arrived and television was what kids liked, the mind was like a mainframe and television was the engine of our idiocy. Some machine is always showing us Mind; some entertainment derived from the machine is always showing us Non-Mind.”

    What I drew from this: every new technology feels like a paradigm shift. Every invention makes us afraid that our lives are changing irreparably. Every advance is both terrifying and exalting. The human mind is shaped by these changes, but not in the way we assume: change is a slow and subtle thing, not something that can be pinned to one or another machine or toy. We can’t see where the change will bring us, so we hurry to declaim the obvious causes–because it’s easier and safer to say “television makes us stupid” than “television and many other inventions are slowly changing the way we think and interact with the world.” We want a scapegoat, because it’s unnerving to think of your own mind as something constantly changing through thousands of influences, and much more comforting to think of cognition as something essentially unalterable that one evil new technology is seeking to alter. So we cling to the idea of paradigm shift, because it makes us feel like our minds are under our control. When, in reality, our response to technology is really a long history of change and development, a continuum of subtle tweaks and shifts that started with Gutenberg, if not before. Technology changes the way our minds work, certainly, but it’s never all at once.

    Which backs up the idea that technologies don’t “die”–they overlap and layer, but no one new tool ever immediately makes another obsolete. We listen to sounds from LPs, cassette tapes, CDs, midi files, mp3s, .flac files, and more: 60 years’ worth of technologies, all side-by-side. And the abortive attempts along the way–8-tracks, DCC, DVD-Audio–prove that there’s none of the linear progression that Anderson claims. We just forget the branches that lead nowhere and focus on the trajectory that’s brought us where we are.

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