Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Medium and the Message: An Obligate Relationship

I honestly had a hard time accepting the fact that “the medium is the message.”  The statement seems bleak and quite contrary to everything I have learned prior to reading McLuhan’s essay.  For me, the content has always been important.  When I am reading a textbook and trying to understand an idea, I am not thinking about the book in my hands, I am thinking about the content in front of my eyes.  I suppose I fall into the category of those who are “long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control” but in all honesty, who from my generation does not/did not belong to this category?  For it is part of our homogenized culture, the accepted and rational way of solving problems, of thinking about and viewing the world.  After all, McLuhan states himself that the “criminal appears as a nonconformist.”  Who wants to be classified as a criminal?  For that very reason, I am going to be the “nonconformist” here and voice my confusion with this material.  Hopefully I will work my way to the solution through the questioning of his ideas.

Why yes, I am a perfectionist and someone who revels in the feeling of “control” which for me has been achieved through a step-by-step, “sequential” process.  When did that become such a problem?

I guess it was in my senior year of high school, when words could not  simply be memorized anymore.  I believe I was reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and I realized there was no possible way I could memorize all the vast concepts that were discussed.  It was that moment that I realized my education was missing something, I had been numb to the information –  “…sounds did not echo nor thought develop” before this day.  I had read all of those words before, therefore the content was nothing new however it caused a shift in the way I approached learning, “a change of pattern” introduced to my every day customs.  Does that make the medium the message?  When considering the meaning of context, I think so.  If the medium is the channel through which an idea is communicated, wouldn’t that make context, the parts of discourse that surround a word or give meaning to a passage, a type of medium?  I think so.  If this crazy idea makes any sense to you then the McLuhan’s statement that the “content of any medium is always another medium” will provide some insight into my thinking.  Wouldn’t this sort of recursion indicate that the content is equally as important as the medium?  Again, I think so.  If this is the case though, how can one even decipher between the “medium” and the “message”?  Maybe that is the whole point of McLuhan’s signature phrase.

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Generational Technology

I think today’s computer users take for granted the immense capabilities we have.  It was only when I read Personal Dynamic Media that I had this epiphany.  Kay and Goldberg envision a computer system that handles information “in quantities” similar to “human sensory systems” (394).  That sounds pretty spectacular if you ask me and that is precisely what I have, what we have, at our very fingertips, at this very moment.  A system that processes information faster than we can even fathom, a system comparable to something we only marvel at in a biology lecture when the workings of our nervous system are broken down.

The idea of not having a “personal computing medium,” tailored to my specific needs sounds absurd.  It’s amazing how different technologies become the defining factor for different generations.  Generation Y (my generation) is characterized by an increased use of digital technology and media.  The following generation, “Generation Z,” is characterized by even more advanced technologies, like tablet computers and the iPad and iPhone.  How appropriate that the next generation is referred to as “iGeneration.”  It is interesting to think about this, especially when I browse through the delicious stack entitled “Humans are Machines” because the stuff on there sounds a little science fiction to me but I know that with time, these far-fetched ideas will become our reality, just as Kay and Goldberg’s Dynabook did.

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Discovering Tie-ins

After completing Nelson’s essay, I couldn’t help but hone in on the small section about big and small approaches.  I think it especially tied in to my previous post which questioned the futility or usefulness of curriculum division and task specialization.  I am wondering if the “Piecemeal” approach, or correct me if I am wrong in making this connection, the “Bottom-up” approach, assists in the extreme division that seems to take place in our minds more and more as we progress through the education system.  It seems to me that this approach focuses on the “knitty-gritty” too much and too fast.  I can make no sense out of the idea that to teach a subject, the teacher should start with the small and complex details; to me, that sounds a lot like skipping a step.  The “Big Picture” approach, which is perhaps synonymous with the “Top-down” approach” comes across as much more logical; seeing an overview first and then starting with the subsystems that are semi-familiar sounds like a more sensible way of learning.

Just as Nelson said, the importance of the differences between these approaches is the epitome of “McLuhanism” and his idea that “the medium is the message.”  The way the “content” is presented to the student expands or limits the destiny of that specific content.  By destiny I mean, if the information is actually retained and relayed to others or if it takes the typical route of “in one ear and out the other.”  Isn’t that the purpose of an education?  Aren’t students supposed to absorb all this knowledge that is being thrown at them in order to “spread the wealth” in the future, whether it be in passing conversation or in their field of work?  When knowledge is shared, various points of view are formed. Discussion and the sharing of ideas makes the world a better place to live in because it creates balance.  If content is being shared in a fundamentally-wrong way, starting in the classroom, then society as a whole will suffer.  Maybe we are suffering right now.  Maybe the way in which approaches to teaching subjects are having an effect on the way people in different occupations share their knowledge.

I might be bouncing all over the place here but I truly believe that Big and Small Approaches, McLuhanism, and mind divisions which occur in schools and jobs all tie together.  I didn’t even realize how interrelated these topics were until I started typing this blog post.  It is amazing to see how useful this blog is becoming, as it provides a MEDIUM for me to reflect on the assigned readings.


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“Dividing the Universe”

I only got through about half of Nelson’s “Computer Lib/ Dream Machines” but so far, I have thoroughly enjoyed his insightful thoughts.  Something he talks about that really interests me is how knowledge becomes power.  He also makes the relevant point that knowledge leads to a sort of “priesthood” because people who hold power become selfish of it.

Experts in their respective fields tend to “hoard” their knowledge but often times don’t realize it.  It’s like there is this preconceived notion that each field in the workforce or each subject in the school curriculum must be precisely divided.  Outsiders of a specific field will not understand what is going on within that field just like “tie-ins to previous interests and knowledge” are not encouraged when focusing on a specific subject in school.  With all this division, it is hard to make the relevant and necessary connections needed to relate similar ideas and get a holistic view of the way things truly work in everyday life.

Then there’s this idea of “specialization” which is hailed as the defining factor in the human race.  Many people attribute the success of homo sapiens over neanderthals to the development of trade and to the specialization of tasks.  Is this the reason why we humans are so eager to organize things according to subject or field?  Is it maybe ingrained in our being?

Nelson doesn’t seem to think so.  He talks about how the education system actually creates “chains” for the free-born human mind.  Nelson thinks we should view the whole picture when it comes to working and learning instead of making divisions where we see fit according to the way our brains are organized.  I cannot decide if these divisions that exist in the minds of many people today are natural or nurtured.  I also cannot decipher if the divisions inhibit or activate intellectual thought.  I suppose I will reflect on this post when I complete the reading.


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The Internet: a Tragedy of the Commons?

I couldn’t help but wonder as I was reading “A Research Center for Augmenting” if Engelbart is truly satisfied with the evolution of his work.  In the introduction, the author writes that “computer interfaces should be optimized for expert use.”  That is what Engelbart had in mind at least.  After watching parts of the Bootstrap Seminar in 1992 and hearing him discuss the futility of training wheels in teaching a child how to ride a bike, I am curious as to how he feels about the highly “user-friendly” Internet we use today.  It seems that Engelbart envisioned a system of “creators” rather than “users” which may be evident in the highly complex description of the project.  If his goal was to truly to “allow people to work together to solve difficult problems more easily”  then he may be slightly disappointed if you ask me.  Frankly speaking, a lot of the “problems” discussed online through Yahoo! answers and various search engines are  reflections of laziness and a mere continuation of the learning style that we have been proactively criticizing in class and through our blog posts – someone seeking an answer simply types in the question and there is the answer.  Next step, skim over the description of how the said answer was reached (if a description is even provided) and just cut to the chase!  Then you can prove to your teacher in this graded homework assignment how well you know the material and of course, you will be rewarded with an A, right?

Maybe the Internet, this vastly helpful tool, was only meant for the experts.  If you think about it, the Internet is a public good, meaning we can’t eliminate those who will undoubtedly abuse it.  As with any public good, overconsumption is likely and then we have a “tragedy of the commons” on our hands.


Although we have “maximized the coverage of our documentation” as discussed in the essay, it seems we have done so to a point of overconsumption, is this whole thing just a means to an end – an end of complex, innovative thought?  An end to thinking for ourselves.  Not to tie in another economic term, but maybe this user-friendly interface has enabled the “free-rider problem.”  Now anyone can reap the benefits of a “free software movement,” not just the experts.  It all depends on the probability of abuse.


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Selective Computing: Good or Bad?

After watching the 1968 Demo I am really stuck on the idea of the NLS (computer system)  serving as a tool to navigate through complex structure with the utilization of hypertext links and the mouse (a.k.a. the “bug”).  It really relates to the idea of “associational thinking” and the idea of “hierarchical structure” as the user can select exactly what he/she will learn.  So when we think of the computer as a means of education, it is interesting to think of it in this way.  Some would say that this ability to see what you want to see whenever, wherever, is desirable and enables a cultivated perspective on any given concept.  Some would also argue, as I learned a few semesters ago in an introductory political science course, that the constant availability and accessibility of information complicates the decision-making scene.  My professor expounded on this point by asserting that computer technology is powerful in making barriers and filters stronger and higher (more of a selective, intentional, purposive process) and in turn keeps many users limited to their own viewpoint, because we only seek out concepts we can “grok” if you will.

I cannot decide which viewpoint I believe and I think it truly depends on the user and relates back to the idea of how our education system is designed.  Students who are only concerned with the grade, who only seek out the answer rather than value the process, will most likely filter out foreign ideas and concepts where as students who truly want to learn and become more educated on a truly useful  and applicable level, will seek out concepts that present a challenge, that engage innovate ways of thinking.

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From One Paradigm to the Next

As much as I hate to say this, after struggling through Engelbart’s report, I experienced recursion: while I was trying to understand how computers could “augment human intellect” I was using the computer to “augment” my own “intellect.”  The reading was lengthy and on the complex-side so I was utilizing the Internet to help me understand what exactly was being discussed.  I was able to find a small description on wikipedia, in addition to an array of blog responses.  These sources, along with the interview posted by Dr. C, enabled me to better grasp and understand the report.

Something I honed in on while I was reading the interview was the idea of a paradigm holding us back because it is a widely accepted and assumed idea, value, object, action, etc; a social “norm” if you will.  Prior to what the interview calls Engelbart’s “epiphany,” there were three computers in the country.  We can see how things have changed as I am currently sitting in the math empo surrounded by an overwhelming amount of these machines.  Since then, I believe we have surpassed one paradigm in respect to computer technology; it was once considered a pretty basic device that could only be used to assist in computations.  Today, we use it as a means of “augmentation” to an extent but I do not think we have reached what Engelbart had in mind…not yet at least.  We use computers and the Internet as an accessory.  It is something we find extremely convenient and useful.  However, I think most people would agree they could survive without this convenience.  If we can better utilize this technology to enable us to more accurately address “complex problems” then I think we will have fulfilled Engelbart’s vision.  This class is a prime example of how his vision can be carried out as we focus on using the Web to gain a more comprehensive view of the world and its challenges.  If we can learn to enhance our current capabilities to create a more useful learning environment, to educate students in a way that promotes a focus on the process and question aspect instead of the mere answer aspect, then we will have successfully and sufficiently “augmented the human intellect” using the computer; we will have established a new paradigm.  However, once established, keep in mind the dangers of getting comfortable, of maintaining “status quo” and remember the radical idea Engelbart had over half a century ago.

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