Marshall McLuhan - Technologically Determinist - 1964
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) foresaw the approaching changes in that it would bring about a new society characterized by greater connectivity and networking:
Whereas in the mechanical age of fragmentation leisure had been the absence of work, or mere idleness, the reverse is true in the electrical age. As the age of information demands the simultaneous use of our faculties, we discover that we are most at leisure when we are most intensely involved, very much as with the artists in all ages - Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The extensions of man (1964).
McLuhan was viewed as a Technologically Determinist in that he viewed technology shaping us, rather than viewing people dictating how the technology will be used.
He is probably most famous for declaring that the medium is the real message (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964). Later, McLuhan and Quentin Fiore wrote and illustrated the ability of media to “massage” a message or content (The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 1967):
The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. Understanding Media, N. Y., 1964, p. 8)
However, later in life, he came to a different conclusion. In Paul Saettler's The Evolution of American Educational Technology (1990, p. 274), Saettler writes, “During the last years of his life, McLuhan changed some of his earlier ideas. He became less certain, for example, in ascribing a causal link between media and personal perception. Where he once saw the human being as a passive responder to media, he came to believe that individuals are active creators of their own environments.”
Saettler further writes that McLuhan's provocative pronouncements stimulated much of the creative thought that we now have about media. Thus, the medium is simply the carrier, while what we do in or through media are the real promoters of learning. Get the learning methodology correct and the media, rather it be large classrooms, small group activities, or asynchronous eLearning will simple be a vehicle for transporting that methodology to the learners.
In his later years, and partially as a response to his critics, McLuhan, along with his son Eric, wrote Laws of Media: The New Science (1988), in which he develops a scientific basis for his thought around what he termed the tetrad— four laws for looking at our culture, framed as questions, to a wide spectrum of humankind's endeavors. He postulates that all media exhibits these four types of effects:
- Enhancement or extend: new media provides improved performance over the old
- Obsolescence: new media renders previous models passe
- Retrieval: new media contains existing elements from the cultural inventory
- Reversal: we tend to overdo the new until we run out of benefits and into detriments
Thus, four questions may be asked of any new media or technology:
- “What does it extend?” — For a bicycle, it would be the foot, for a phone it would be the voice.
- “What does it make obsolete?” — The bicycle makes walking obsolete, and the phone makes the telegraph unnecessary.
- “What is retrieved?” — a bicycle allows travel, while a phone allows a sense of community.
- “What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?” — An over-extended bicycle culture longs for the pedestrian lifestyle, and the over-extension of phone culture engenders a need for solitude and face-to-face conversations.
This is a fairly important concept for it allows us assess the cause and effects of new technologies. For example, elearning:
- Intensifies multimedia presentation as a form
- Renders classroom training as obsolete
- Retrieves many elements of training
- Is reversing itself into a blended approach for greater flexibility
- Intensifies the speed of access and networking
- Makes distance and print monopolies obsolete
- Retrieves media such as text and pictures
- Is reversing into obsession with data and information overload
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