1 October 2014

How much is the medium the message?

Marshall McLuhan (1969) claims that, as humans, we are only aware of changes to our environment when the new “supersedes” the old and that we are actually “always one step behind”. If our survival is “predicated on the understanding of new media” (McLuhan, 1969), we have a responsibility to consider the future of educational learning within a digital realm and make learners aware as much of the medium as we do of the message.

Often, we are presented with a dichotomy of Utopian and Dystopian representations of technological advancement, and McLuhan’s assumption suggests we may be doomed unless we adapt to new media. If we can do what all good pedagogy does and bring what we know to the table as a starting block, we can draw comparisons between the unfamiliar and the familiar, and the abstract and the concrete, as a way to try and understand the assumptions made about new media and ways of delivering learning.

A Utopian perspective presents technology as our salvation - transformative and revolutionary; a Dystopian perspective sees technology as destruction - as attacking and supplanting. Separation of the two is not easy, in fact they seem almost mutually inclusive, particularly in terms of the future of technology and where we are going with it in education. On one hand, we want technology to take us forward and help us out - and there is no denying that the advent of technology makes life easier in some respects. For exampl, Corning's video advert, 'A Day Made of Glass', suggests a future where technology will be fully integrated into our every task and is an interesting view that posits a possible future where every part of our life will be linkable, sharable, reachable. It is a bright, clean, gleaming world that allows seamless integration of technology to transform and revolutionise. This 'Utopia' is taken one step further however in the short film 'Sight' (Sight Systems, 2012), where the gleaming world presented in 'A Day Made of Glass' becomes sinister, clinical and empty. The emptiness and isolation that is portrayed in 'Sight' goes against what I currently like about my technology; the fact it lets me engage and interact with my environment, friends, family and PLN rather than separate me from it by replacing that reality with the virtual. Equally, the notion that our lives may become so much about technology that the line between the virtual and the real is so blurred, our entire existence becomes a game, dictated to by machinery, is more Dystopian - attacking and definitely supplanting.

The integration of the technology over our actual view of the world presented in 'Sight' goes beyond interacting with and using tech for communication; it becomes our actual world. It becomes us. It is us. It reminds me of people I saw once whilst on a safari in Sri Lanka. We had a little camera and captured a few shots of the elephants we were lucky enough to encounter for prosperity, but the real joy came from being in the elephants' environment, in their environment with them, and in seeing the joy on the faces of my children in being so near to them. We came across another jeep containing a couple with expensive looking cameras that did not once leave their eyes. Their experience of the elephants was veiled virtually through a lens; they were so concerned with capturing the experience they never really saw it, they never were really there. In fact, they experienced it so much through a viewfinder they may as well have watched a documentary. Their holiday memories (message) were recorded and experienced through a lens (medium). Their blinkered narrowed focal point meant they missed the baby elephant who ran through the grass right past the jeep; they missed the lone elephant hiding behind the tree to one side; they missed so much in their endeavour to preserve the experience that I wonder how much of the experience they actually remember, compared to how much will comes from their 'preserved' images. It seems so false, preserving images only seen through a lens and not really experienced. There is medium empty of message. The message is the medium. 

What worries me about a future as presented in 'Sight', is that right now, I can often feel empowered by technology, for example going out running with my iPhone and GPS so I don’t get lost, but am not reliant on it, whilst the main female character in 'Sight' is not able to 'see' or experience her run at all - because her tech failed. What worries me is that my experience is the thin edge of this wedge. Do we see through the lens of technology already - how much is real, how much is manipulated, how much are we reliant on it for our experiences each day? Has my day really happened if I have not preserved each significant event (message) in a Tweet (medium)? I don't like the robotic look in 'Sight'; I don't like the clinical feel, the lack of homeliness or emotion, the blankness of the world populated mainly by the virtual. I don't like the idea that tech goes beyond support into control. I want my life to be enhanced not replaced by the virtual world.

'Plurality' takes McLuhan’s media environment to the next level - and I am not sure how he would explain this - by tying tech to our very essence, our DNA, which can be read anywhere by anything - hands on railings, hair against shop-window glass.  Set in 2023, it suggests that we will be safer by control; we lose our right to privacy yet gain a life of safety, a state challenged by 'plurals' who return from a future to challenge this 'ideal'. Many allusions to Dystopian futures abound in this short film that lead us to question the future road our technology is taking us down. The Inspector working for 'The Grid' is named Jacob Foucault - an interesting choice if we consider that the Biblical Jacob's renaming to 'Israel' when translated sees him as one "to rule, be strong, have authority over" but also as a "God contender", particularly thought-provoking when mixed with the French philosopher's ideas of panoptic surveillance to 'discipline and punish', both of which hark back to points I made in a blog post about technology as the new religion. Posters in the background of the film warn of 'Big Brother' alluding to Orwellian surveillance purported in 1984, and the helicopters circling nod to Philip K Dick's 'Eye in the Sky'. Pluralism theory acknowledges diversity of interests; Pluralism as theory considers it imperative that members of society accommodate their differences by engaging in good-faith negotiation. Interestingly however, the 'Plurality', the one who returns to warn and acknowledge difference is the one who does not belong to 2023. Named Alana Winston, nodding again to Winston Smith in 1984, whilst combining with Alana, meaning 'precious awakening', her statement that 'The Grid', the Panoptican state, the all seeing eye has "replaced freedom with the illusion of safety"and her dare to challenge, earns her a sentence to time on Ellis island - ironically, a penitentiary of the future, now living up to its past nickname, "The Island of Tears".

All these films made me question what it is these future states suggest we need to be safe from. Utopian ideals of protection quickly have become Dystopian states that need to be broken down - proving perhaps McLuhan’s point about survival and adaptation. What is it that needs us, in the future, to be hardwired into 'protective grids' and constantly monitored? Each other? Freedom? Choice? What are we being protected from exactly? The message or the medium? Are they the same, or are they different? It brings to mind Dystopian futures portrayed in films such as The Matrix or iRobot, where the machines we create take us over. The lines are greyed; tech needs to be part of what we do NOT what we do. The technology we create - the medium - becomes more than its creator and takes over the message. But is this what McLuhan meant? The idea that technology is what moves us forward is didactic; we create the technology; the technology creates us. How we manage and adapt to this creation will be significant. The machine is us.


“The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan”, Playboy Magazine, March 1969 © Playboy
Retrieved September 24, 2014, from NextNature Web site: http://www.nextnature.net/?p=1025

The CGBros. (2012, August 1). Sight: A futuristic short film HD: by Sight Systems [Video File]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/lK_cdkpazjI

Corning Incorporated. (2011, February 7). A day made of glass… [Video File]. Retrieved from
http://youtu.be/6Cf7IL_eZ38

Lui, Dennis (Dir.). (2012, October 1). Plurality [Video File]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/IzryBRPwsog