Impossible Rates of Exchange

Reading Baudrillard’s (2001/1999) “Impossible Exchange” in the midst of 2009’s international liquidity crisis, a reader experiences an unexpected form of déjà-vu in response to Baudrillard’s description of the hyperreal and, in particular, his description of the “Great Game of Exchange” (p. 7), a game grounded in an endless exchange of nothing; a game that leads in the end to the liquidation of everything and “passing around the debt, the unreal unnameable thing you cannot get rid of” (p. 7). The déjà-vu stems from having read of the international financial crisis in the contemporary press, where it and its causes are described in language that could easily have been written by Baudrillard’s simulacrum (were it not dead).

            Consider a paragraph from a special issue on liquidity published by the Banque de France in 2008 written by two American economists:

The heart of the recent crisis is a rise in uncertainty – that is, a rise in unknown and immeasurable risk rather than the measurable risk that the financial sector specializes in managing. The financial instruments and derivative structures underpinning the recent growth in credit markets are complex. Indeed, perhaps the single largest change in the financial landscape over the last 5 years has been in complex credit products: collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), and the like. Because of the rapid proliferation of these instruments, market participants cannot refer to a historical record to measure how these financial structures will behave during a time of stress. These two factors, complexity and lack of history, are the preconditions for rampant uncertainty.

Driven in large part by the creation and hyperactive circulation of highly abstract (complex) credit instruments, financial markets are paralyzed by uncertainty, by the inability to forge meaningful relationships between a real estate and debt, between the real and a sign that stands in for the real (in order to be circulated within sphere of financial markets).   They can no longer test or trust the value of signs; the value of signs no longer rings true in relation to the real assets they were intended to guarantee.

            Baudrillard saw this coming.  He would not depend upon the safety of his investments in retirement savings within this indeterminate market (if he had invested at all) knowing that: “When there is no longer any internal reference system within which exchange can take place (between production and social wealth, for example, or between news coverage and real events), you get into an exponential phase, a phase of speculative disorder” (p. 6).  He would also find it ironic that the American banking system (recently nationalized without reference to that word) was now developing out a new complex means to wrap up toxic debt so as to allow, once more the free flow of credit.  That such a move is necessary to allow for the impossible exchanges that need to take place to support the international finance system provides empirical proof for Baudrillard’s take on the system: 

Behind the exchange of value and, in a sense, serving as an invisible counterpart to it, behind this mad speculation, which reaches a peak in the virtual economy, behind the exchange of Something, we have, then, always, the exchange of Nothing.

It is likely that Baudrillard would be quite entertained by the sight of so many financiers nervously peering into the chasm, the void that has opened beneath the market like a sinkhole for a sign of a bottom.



 Baudrillard, J. (2001). Impossible Exchanges. (C. Turner, Trans.). London: Verso. (Original work published 1999)

 Cabellero, R., Krishnamurthy, A. (2008) Musical Chairs: A Comment on the Credit Crisis. Banque de France, Financial Stability Review, 11, 9-11.  Retrieved March 30, 2009 from

The Hyperreal

Production is dead, long live reproduction.

 Just what kind of environmental suit does one need to survive in Baudrillard’s stark and parched “desert of the real”?  In a world no longer enveloped by the imaginary production of natural relations or comforting similarities based upon our belief in a system of reference to an actual reality, Baudrillard suggests we are left in the blasted zone of the hyperreal: “the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (p. 167).  Gasp! 

In this vacuum, exposed to the fatal radiation of endless recombinatory excesses, certainty dissolves with the “liquidation of all referentials” (p. 167), and those who placed wagers that our skills in producing representation would secure the real within discursive and representational practices through art, politics and religion no longer have tokens with any value outside of the system itself.  As such, no further bets can be taken using the collateral of real-estate. In any case, reference to the real is no longer the point.

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody.  It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” (p. 167)

Mimetically capacious machines deter any reference to the real, and it is sufficient for us to substitute a Main street model in Disneyland as a means of reaffirming, of feeding our belief in the values associated with such a mocked-up representation of the real.

            For Augustine, “God is an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everyone, and whose circumference is nowhere” and within the atmosphere of this “intelligible sphere” Augustine and those who followed his philosophy had a referent that guaranteed all meanings.  For Baudrillard, such a belief is possible in an economy of the sign that sees representation as a reflection of reality (and guaranteed by the presence of “Nature” of “God”).  Such certainty is not to be found in the world of simulacrum where the model precedes the real, and where the real is produced not by reference to some mirror (or conceptual image), but from “miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models” (p. 167), from the code.  Baudrillard inverts Augustine’s “intelligible sphere” so as to reproduce the atmosphere of the hyperreal:

What if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence?  Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference, and within this atmosphere” (p. 170).

Caught in this feedback loop, our critical tools are at risk as interpretation is endlessly recursive, unavoidably indeterminate, short-circuited by what Baudrillard the  “precession of models” (p. 175).  Attempts to critique power or to counter ideology have no purchase in the world of the hyperreal; worse such actions are merely part of the deterrence machine that Baudrillard sees as “set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real” (p. 172). 

One can only hope that there are sufficient reserves of oxygen and water in our environmental suits to allow us to survive in Baudrillard’s hyperreal. 


Attenuating Circumstances: Student Attention Under Digital Conditions

de Castell’s and Jenson’s analysis of the attentional economy in the context of education in their 2004 essay, “Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning,” offers important insights into the contemporary challenge educators face in attracting and retaining the attention of their students. While the idea that students might not be paying attention in school hardly seems like a new phenomenon, de Castell and Jenson suggest that we are witnessing a new challenge created by both political and technological changes in conditions under which information and knowledge is organized in schools. Part of this is driven by a shift to learner-centred or contructivist approaches to education wherein the position of the student is more centrally the focus of teaching efforts. Another part is driven by technological changes particularly in terms of the broad range multimodal tools and networked communications environments within which students have grown up. Acording to de Castell’s and Jenson, in the contemporary world, the

“school’s traditional forms of authority for commanding student attention, along “unimodal,” text-based lines, offer diminishing returns to both teachers and students….the technologically supported transformations of both individual and collective attentional structures toward multimodality and multitasking impacts most profoundly on youth, who have never known the text-bound world from which their elders have come.” (p. 383)

From the perspective of those who grew up with and gained their authority within unimodal, text-based practices, these multimodal and multitasking youth lack essential skills and perhaps appropriate respect for the sanctioned knowledge defined by the school’s curriculum. In short, they don’t pay attention to what educators are trying to teach them.

At the same time as their attention is attenuating in relation to classroom attention, youth have a growing fixation and enthusiasm for the types of learning that can be found in games. de Castell and Jenson recognize the threat that such games potentially pose (or seem to pose) to traditional cultural institutions like schools and homes. As they indicate, with the pervasiveness of digital environments in all aspects of our lives, despite the fact that parents and youth live in the same physical spaces, they “inhabit different worlds, speak in new languages, write in new forms, and communicate using media in ways and for purposes their parents can scarcely comprehend” (pp. 384-385). This dichotomy exists, too, for teachers and students, with disastrous results in terms of the efficacy and engagement of educational practice. In a fashion that recalls McLuhan’s own attitudes concerning the need to critical study the transformations of media (even though he did not personally advocate or endorse these changes), de Castell and Jenson emphasize that the study of gaming as a site for learning is critically important:

Understandable as the repudiation of computer gaming may be, the benefits to education of engaging with an learning from commercial gaming’s phenomenal success, popularity, and its effectiveness as a learning environment, might far outweigh the benefits of attempting myopically to ignore or suppress it – something that, in any case, is unlikely to succeed in the long term. (p. 385)

While, indeed, for most parents and teachers, “playing is the opposite of school” (p. 385) there are vital things that we need to better understand concerning the reconfiguration of the attentional economy as a consequence of technological change. Ignoring the presence of games, or merely categorizing them as a waste of time overlooks potential lessons educators can learn from the engagement and full attention that youth give to these games. As de Castelle an Jenson put it

Within the environment of a computer game, the mobilization of players’ attention and intelligence through interactive game play can encompass the acquisition of motor and perceptual skills, the completion of increasingly complex interlinked tasks, the learning and systematic pursuit of game-based narrative structures, the internalization and enactment of appopriate affect, and a range of other attendant forms and conditions of learning. (p. 396)

Surely it is time for educators and the educational system more broadly, to get into the game.


de Castell, S. and Jenson, J. (2004). Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning. Educational Theory, 54, p381-397.


Of course, in light of the present educational crisis, I’m not sure there isn’t something to be said for making possession of an LL.D. a felony.

Marshall McLuhan (1969)

In his 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan talks about a crisis in education that was driven largely by a clash between the then current TV generation of children and their predecessors, inheritors of visual, print-literate culture. McLuhan (1969) sees education as an “instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age” (p. 249). He goes further to describe the educational system as “totally review mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation” (pp. 249-50). The children of the television generation – a generation of which I am a member since I was entering kindergarten in 1969 – encounter great difficulties within the educational system. As McLuhan puts it:

The TV child finds it difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electric media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns. But suddenly and without preparation, he is snatched from the cool inclusive womb of television and exposed – within a vast bureaucratic structure of courses and credits – to the hot medium of print. (p. 250)

Herein lies the problem for McLuhan, for the TV generation and, of course, for the authorities who are struggling to reproduce in the next generation the dominant values of visual culture: the clash between visual and electric cultures is not something that can be addressed with more of the same techniques in schools. According to McLuhan (1969) “the sensory and attitudinal revolution has already taken place before the child ever reaches school, altering his sensory existence and his mental processes in profound ways” (p. 251).

Despite the passage of 40 years, and almost two generations since McLuhan made these comments, the same tension between visual and electronic ages seems to be in play, though it has perhaps been recast in the terminology of the digital age, an age that sees the convergence of all media (as McLuhan predicted), and a remarkable shift to a world where consumers become producers of all manner of content (from video to audio to writing) on the Internet (something that MLuhan also predicted before the arrival of this contemporary global nervous system). Donald Prensky (2001), for instance, talks about a division between the ages similar to the one identified by McLuhan in his essay Digital Natives Digital Immigrants.” In some rather harsh criticism of the contemporary education system, Prensky identifies “Digital Natives”, youth who have grown up with digital technologies, and “Digital Immigrants”, older people who were born before the advent of digital technologies (particularly the Internet). According to Prensky, “our digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (p. 2). And while it is possible for digital immigrants to learn to become digitally literate, it is unlikely that they lose their pre-digital accents.

Curiously, while a lot of tensions still exist within most levels of the education system concerning traditional notions of, say literacy and goals of education cast in the stone age of the industrial revolution and its dependence on specialist knowledge, whole fields of research and scholarship are undergoing quite dramatic changes as a result of digital and communications technologies. The medium of modern scholarly discourse is now digital, and while a vanity press still cranks out printed texts and articles (particularly in those fields that have made a fetish of the printed book), increasingly, the fields in which researchers play are defined by the tools of digital culture. Training students to be bookish will hardly do if we actually want them to have critical and practical tools to engage with the modern world.

I’m sure McLuhan would still characterize a lot of the attempts by digital immigrant educators to use digital techniques as desperate glances into the rearview mirror, with a focus on replaying literate cultural heritage through the frames of digital media. That said, multimodalities and multiliteracies are increasingly defining philosophical and research approaches to teaching and learning, so perhaps there is a growing possibility of some kind of hybrid culture in education spanning the generational, technological gaps that define the divergent cultures of print/TV, TV/digital cultures.

McLuhan, Marshall (1969). “Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan — A Candid Conversation with the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media,” Playboy (March, 1969) in Essential McLuhan, eds., Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Basic Books: New York, 1995), pp. 245-269.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. NCB University Press, 9(5), 1-6.

Laws of Media

“The goal of science and the arts and of education for the next generation must be to decipher not the genetic but the perceptual code.  In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer-finding is of no avail: one is surrounded by answers, millions of them, moving and mutating at electric speed.  Survival and control will depend on the ability to probe and to question in the proper way and place.  As the information that constitutes the environment is perpetually in flux, so the need is not for fixed concepts but rather for the ancient skill of reading that book, for navigating through an ever uncharted and uncharitable milieu.  Else we will have no more control of this technology and environment than we have of the wind and the tides.”

 “Media Poetics” in Laws of Media, McLuhan and McLuhan


As far back as the Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan (1962) was interested in the manner in which technologies represented extensions of the human body, new organs through which we perceived the world.  Much of his critique of literacy focused on how visual space (as structured by the phonetic alphabet, Euclidean geometry and accelerated by print technology) biased the eye and, with this bias, lead to a reconfiguration of human sense ratios.  Thus outered into the eye, the other senses were necessarily reconfigured, leading to a new balance, one that locked the eye on lines of perspective that ran deeply into the horizon of progress.  What was lost when the visual became a closed system unto itself was a previous state of interplay between the senses, a synesthetic correspondence that involved all of the senses that McLuhan associated with acoustic space.  This same issue comes up in Laws of Media, where McLuhan (1964) states that “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (p. 57).  What started as an outering of one organ, the eye, now becomes an outering of all of our organs through electronic media.  McLuhan sees quite important (and great risks) associated with this situation:

By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls – all such extensions of our bodies, including cities – will be translated into information systems.(p. 57)

There is a key difference here for McLuhan.  Whereas previous media fragmented and isolated our senses, electronic media by allowing for the extension of our nervous system itself, has the potential of returning us to a more acoustic state of interplay.

            Thirteen years later, in his essay “Laws of Media” McLuhan (1977) once more focuses on the idea of technologies as extensions of human organs and technologies as metaphors.  The play on Robert Browning returns (from Understanding Media), “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor” (p. 7).  With this aphorism,  McLuhan points to the idea that metaphors, through their bridging of one thing across to another, create a resonating gap, an interval that has characteristics of tactility:

Each “side” of the resonating interval is an area of “touch,” and in the sensory experience of “touch” there is never a connection but always a gap or an interval.  Between the wheel and the axle, the interval (and not the connection) is “where the action is.”  That is to say, there is a large acoustic factor in touch and in metaphor alike – the audile-tactile” (p. 7)

The audile-tactile space, the gap between things created by technologies (by metaphors or by words – the outerances and utterances of ourselves) defines nature for McLuhan. Living at the speed of light requires us to think where the action is, to maintain the resonating interval, the gap between two sides that actually defines touch.  It is much like McLuhan suggests concerning the goal of science, arts and education to decipher the perceptual code, i.e., the information system that we receive via our outered senses.  In the book Laws of Media published after McLuhan’s death that grew out of his essay, McLuhan and McLuhan (1988) emphasize the significance of the audile-tactile space that we now inhabit due to electronic media and the interplay of our extended nervous system:

Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of coexistence among out technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history.  Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience that demands that they become collectively conscious….Now, sight and sound and touch and movement are simultaneous and global in extent.  A ratio of interplay among these extensions of our human functions is now necessary collectively as it has always been for private and personal rationality. (p. 226)

We’ve moved beyond the isolated extensions of individual senses, to a total system, one that is global and moving at the speed of light.  Such a state certainly demands a new science, one that is capable of responding to the variation in the organs of perception.


McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M. (1974). “The Laws of Media” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound.  Eds. Eric McLuhan & W. Terrence Gordon.  Corte Madre, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.



Living at the speed of light

“I should always add that anything I say is the way it seems at the moment.”

“Living at the Speed of Light,” McLuhan (1974) 

          McLuhan’s public lecture makes for entertaining reading, in part because he seems to be having such fun “playing the old story backwards” to his audience made up of the general public and students and teachers from the Faculty of Education in the University of South Florida.  Sprinkled through his address are a series of playful pokes, bad (and really bad) jokes, and deftly launched series of probes concerning various commonly experienced aspects of life at the speed of light such as literacy, education, politics, entertainment and work.  McLuhan is poised on the edge, flipping from old to new, from mechanical to electrical, from visual to acoustic, to reveal the true focus of his approach to media studies, which is on the transformative effects of media, not on mere transportation of messages between Shannon and Weaver.  This lecture also provides one of McLuhan’s clearest descriptions of his famous aphorism, the medium is the message.  In describing the transformation brought upon society by the motor car, McLuhan  offers this description:

When I say that the medium is the message, I’m saying that the motor car is not a medium.  The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil companies.  That is the medium.  In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car.  When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone.  The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects.  The car is a figure in a ground of services.  It’s when you change the ground that you change the car.  The car does not operate as the medium, but rather as one of the major effects of the medium.  So “the medium is the message” is not a simple remark….It really means a hidden environment of services created by an innovation, and the hidden environment of services is the thing that changes people.  IT is the environment that changes people, not the technology. (p. 242)

Those that would claim that McLuhan’s critique is overly technologically deterministic would benefit from considering the transformative focus of McLuhan’s approach, particularly as his analysis of medium is, by his description of the hidden environment of services, really a focus on the socio-cultural and economic ground within which particular technologies are effects.

            Speaking as he is, in front of a group of educators, McLuhan’s comments on literacy, the education system and schools in general are quite provocative.  In the electronic age, the type of specialization that educational institutions have typically trained its students to achieve could well be problematic.  And viewing the story backwards from the vantage point of 2009 (35 years after this lecture), McLuhan seems to have been quite prescient about many things.  Interdisciplinary studies are increasingly important to the organization of education, particularly in the health sciences.  The idea of schools being driven by answers (or by content in the classroom), seems increasingly archaic and insufficiently critical.  McLuhan’s idea that we should be putting questions, not answers inside the school is one way to describe the increase in learner centred, constructivist, problem-based and situated learning theories that inform the practice of so many teachers.   And now, as the service environment of the university, the ground upon which the campus sits is being transformed by multiple modes of delivery, interdisciplinary studies, service learning, and fusion buildings that support informal and formal student spaces like the Ike Barber Learning commons, it is fair to predict that the classroom will change.  Whether or not “the ivory tower [will] become the control tower of human navigation” as McLuhan (1969) calls for in CounterBlast, is still not a decided question.  Just as many of the educators who were sitting in the room listening to McLuhan speak in 1974, many educators today are still morbidly staring at the flip from visual literacy to electronic acoustic spaces, and wondering to themselves if this is indeed, the end of the road!


McLuhan, M. (1969) Counter-Blast. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

McLuhan. M. (2005).  “Living at the Speed of Light.”  In (S. McLuhan & D. Staines, Eds.) Understanding Me (pp225-243).  Toronto: MIT Press.



The new media are not bridges between man and nature: they are nature.

McLuhan (1969), Counter-Blast

Nature with a capital N, according to McLuhan, was a creation of literate Greeks, an act informed by the phonetic alphabet with its visual bias and the acts of classification by cultures that had exchanged an ear for an eye.  This visual world of Euclidean space and compartmentalized knowledge allowed for absolute control over perspective and thus enabled a detached point of view where abstracted continuous spaces could be extended to enframe the world and define all phenomena according to its “Natural Law”.  The civilized children of “Nature” lived in an environment “surrounded by an abstract explicit visual technology of uniform time and uniform continuous space in which “cause” is efficient and sequential, and things move and happen on single planes and in successive order” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p . 19). 

            Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth and, therefore, for McLuhan, the first extension of Earth, pushed aside Nature as laid out within the grid of visual space and retrieved the idea of ecology, or dynamic interplay and involvement as the key characteristics of the world. McLuhan associated such ecological thinking with tribal cultures, cultures that lived in an acoustic world immersed in and involved with one another.  In an elliptical orbit approximately 1000 kilometers above the Earth, Sputnik circled the planet every 96 minutes at a speed of 29,000 kilometers an hour.  For 22 days, Sputnik’s beeps were heard by people all around the world, and these sounds signaled the birth of the global village, a world where we are all involved, tribally, in one another on the planet.  As McLuhan put it, because of Sputnik, “ ‘Spaceship earth’ was recognized as having no passengers, but only crew.” Being all on the same ship makes a detached point of view seem positively irresponsible (if not downright dangerous!). 

            A further impact of Sputnik for McLuhan was how, by encircling the plant, the satellite turned the world into content or an information environment that could be programmed. First in a series of beeps and then, over the years, in an increasing data stream of information, these orbiting extensions fed back to the earth information about itself using a range of imaging and remote sensing technologies. And now, with public access to satellite imagery available in real time, it is possible to use applications like Google Earth to explore not only images of the Earth, but layers of data created by private and public groups to highlight local and global issues and experiences.  The planet can, in effect, be programmed visually, using such data, and these programmed spaces have an impact on socio-political and cultural ideas concerning how we cohabit the planet.   With our nervous systems outerred and orbiting our planet, we can’t help but engage in ecological thinking.  These orbiting extensions of ourselves have reconfigured and transformed our relationship to our planet and to one another.



Marshall McLuhan. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Marshall McLuhan.  (1969) Counter-Blast. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Marshall McLuhan. (1977) “The Rise and Fall of Nature.” Journal of Communication, 27, 80-81.



Innis – Empire & Communications

In his chapter on chapter “Paper and the Printing Press” in Empire and Communication, Innis (1950) analyses the impact of print upon the world across approximately 500 years.  With particular emphasis on Europe and North America, Innis probes the relationship between printing technology and the socio-political and economic developments that he saw as highly influenced by the speed up of communication afforded by technological innovation and the sudden expansion in the availability of printed material (particularly printed material on secular topics).  Innis appraises this relationship with the eyes of a political-economist and repeatedly draws attention in his continental and trans-Atlantic tour, to the cultural disruptions that he saw as driven in large part by the force of technological change.

            The scale of the change is truly extraordinary, especially if one just considers the main product of the increasing numbers of printing presses: pages, Bibles, secular tracts, political pamphlets, plays, poems, books, newspapers.  Both the number of printed materials and the speed of their printing saw dramatic increases.  For instance, Innis talks about the printing press blazing away at the speed of 20 to 200 leaves per hour in 1538 in France.  Approximately 150 years later, in 1701, Innis refers to the development of the first daily sheet, the precursor to the modern newspaper. The technology now supported the production of 250 sheets an hour, or 2000 sheets in an 8 hour shift, a long shift for the printers who still worked the presses by hand.  With the introduction of steam power in the Industrial Revolution, the rate of production increased dramatically.  Between 1814 and 1853, according to Innis, the “production of newspapers was increased from 250 to 1000 copies an hour, then to 12000 copies an hour” (160).  This increase in speed especially favoured the formation of print monopolies like that of The Times in London.  Innis mentions a further jump in speed in the United States a mere 30 years later. “The cylinder press, the sterotype, the web press, and the linotype brought increases from 2,400 copies of 12 pages each per hour to 48,000 copies of 8 pages per hour in 1887, and to 96,000 copies of 8 pages per hour in 1983” (161).  Therefore, in the 350 odd years that Innis sweeps through during the early development of this technology, the printing press accelerates the rate of information production from approximately 200 pages an hour to approximately 768,000 pages an hour.   In this wake, the modern world is born and whole societies are transformed.

            It is interesting to consider Innis’s points concerning the impact of the speed of communications in relation to what we see today with the development of the Internet. In 1994, the World Wide Web, a medium contained within the communications network of the Internet, was emerging as a powerful new way to exchange information across a distributed network of connected machines, dubbed the “Information Superhighway”. Marc Andreesen started an exciting new company called Netscape, and introduced a way to access pages that combine text and graphics.  At this point, in Canada most people were connecting to the Internet using 28kbps or slower modems, so it was only practical to exchange text or simple graphical information. In 2004, data traffic on the Internet was estimated to be in the range of .006 Terabytes per second. Video conferencing was possible, but still only practical between specialized facilities and dedicated networks using high-speed network or satellite connections.  This was, of course a very expensive and complicated way to connect people.  Educators were very excited about the amazing opportunities afforded by the almost limitless expanse of 640 MB on a CDROM.  Such amazing multimedia CDROMS were possible because of the power of the latest computer: a Pentium processor running at 90 Mhz with 16 MB RAM, 4 MB of Video RAM and a 500 MB Hard drive, running Windows 3.11.  A powerful desktop computer like this cost in the range of $2000 US.

In 2004, the World Wide Web, or the Web, as it was then called, reached into almost every area of human communication.  People connected to it using everything from desktop computers, to small personal digital assistants to cellular phones to, even, refrigerators!  Broadband connections now extended into homes in many parts of the world, with penetration of high-speed connections with Cable, DSL and Optical lines reaching over 50% in places like South Korea, Sweden, and Canada.  The rate of data was now over 30 terabytes a second.  Good quality point-to-point video conferencing from desktop computers was now within reach of anyone through high-speed connections (for video and audio) and even 56k for audio-conferencing.  And while CD-ROMs were still being produced by textbook publishers to support multimedia delivery of learning resources, people were now excited by the possibilities of DVDs and 4-8 gigabytes of storage.  High-speed computers could easily handle these multimedia and networking challenges: $2000 US would buy you a 3.4 Ghz Pentium 4 processor, with 512 MB RAM, 250 GB of storage, a DVD burner, running Windows XP.

In 2009, the Web is now ubiquitous and reaches into most other media, creating a curious convergence of other media formats within its own network.  Almost any media, from television, to radio, to movies can be found within the Internet (or are actually broadcast via the Internet, and this reality is having a dramatic impact on the knowledge monopolies of dominant sectors of society.  The usage of the Internet in countries like Canada now is approaching 84% of the population.  The rate of growth in data seems to be somewhere in the range of 100% per year, with Internet traffic in the range of 160 terabytes per second.  Point-to-point and multi-point video conferencing is now readily available with consumer grade computers (and some cell phones).  With optical media, music CDs are dying and a new format, BlueRay, is trying to usurp DVDs with the promise of 50 Gigabytes of storage.  The future of physical optical media, however, is being challenged already by the increase in streaming media both at standard and high-definitions.  The latest computers are no longer simply chasing after greater speeds or storage limits, and increasing numbers of users are choosing portability over speed.  Netbooks (small, low-powered notebooks that take advantage of network based media and software) and cloud computing platforms (where applications are based on the network rather than on a local computer) now allow for computers well below a thousand dollars, not to mention phones or music players that are, essentially networked computers.

Innis would certainly marvel at the rates of change that recent telecommunications and computer technologies have achieved, though he would likely have little trouble in extending and refining the tools that he honed in examining the development of Gutenberg technologies into the 21st Century.

Innis’ Cloud Chamber

Innis’ Cloud Chamber

In his 1964 introduction to the first reprinting of Innis’ The Bias of Communication, McLuhan revels in the mosaic structure that he associates with Innis’ later writing style, and draws comparisons between Innis’ approach to social historical writing on communications and the artistic strategies of artists to modern culture, particularly artists associated with symbolism like Baudelaire and Mallarmé.   According to McLuhan, this mosaic approach emerged later in Innis’ career and it allowed him to move away from a conventional, academic point of view to a more dynamic form of analysis that worked to reveal interface relationships, or dynamic interplay between different elements.  For McLuhan, this rhetorical style of “juxtaposing without connectives” is highly generative of new insights, in part because it mimics a form of communication that is closer to dialogue than written exposition but also because it directly involves readers in a series of tests concerning the characteristics of technology and its influence upon different social and historical contexts.  McLuhan likens Innis’ approach to that of a physicist using a cloud chamber: “By bouncing the unknown form against known forms, he discovered the nature of the new or little known form” (9).  The trails made by Innis’ experimental probes outline the cultural disturbances he associated with sudden extensions of communication.  Through these tests, Innis teaches us, as McLuhan sees it “ how to use the bias of culture and communication as an instrument of research.  By directing attention to the bias or distorting power of the dominant imagery and technology of any culture, he showed us how to understand cultures” (11).

McLuhan explored similar ground in a letter he wrote to Innis in 1951.  In that letter, McLuhan provides more details about the importance he sees in the symbolist perception. 

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences. … Retracing becomes in modern historical scholarship the technique of reconstruction (221).

Such retracings or reconstructions are evident in several of the essays collected in The Bias of Communication as well as in Empire and Communication and, indeed, this same technique can be seen in McLuhan’s work in the early 1960’s, particularly with The Gutenberg Galaxy a book that McLuhan refers to as a “footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing” (8). 

An intriguing characteristic that emerges in McLuhan’s introduction is just how much seems to have changed in the media landscape in the thirteen years between the first publication of Innis’ book and the publication of the second edition, particularly with respect to electronic communications.  McLuhan draws attention to what he considers to be examples of Innis failing to be true to his own mosaic method when he analyzes electronic media, particularly radio and television and goes far to say that this “technological blindness” in Innis is a form of “the nemesis of creativity” (12).   For McLuhan, Innis did not quite manage to recognize the emerging electronic space as a new space rather than merely an extension of mechanized communications media.  This limited perspective is also evident in Innis’ “Appendix 1: A Note on Communication and Electromagnetic Resources in North America”, where Innis gets so caught up in calculating the amount of space that radio stations can broadcast across that he doesn’t notice that space is collapsed and decentralized by the advent of multiple sites of communication.  As was discussed in our class, a significant shift in centre/margin relationships comes about with these new extensions of communication technologies.  The resulting cultural disruptions would be more significant than any of the changes documented by Innis in his earlier works on the cod fisheries or the fur trade and, perhaps, as significant as that brought about by print technologies. 



Marshall McLuhan. (2005). “Introduction to: The Bias of Communication” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M., Molinaro, M., McLuhan, C., & Toye, W. (1987). Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada.

Minerva’s Owl

Innis’s mosaic writing approach can seem a bit overwhelming at times, particularly when historical examples spanning thousands of years are crammed together within the space of several sentences or paragraphs, often without any rhetorical mortar to demarcate clean and definite lines of relationships, of order, that readers have come to expect from fastidious historians or diligent scholars.  Stepping back from the clipped and carefully juxtaposed details provided by Innis, however, it is possible for an engaged reader to discern dynamic pairings that provide a resonating tension or dialetic for Innis’s analysis: temporal-biased and spatial-biased cultures; monopolies of knowledge and the vernacular; central or imperial power and marginalized or peripheral emergence of new power. Innis arranges the history of Western culture in a manner that draws attention to the interval or oscillation between states, the ripples or disturbances resulting from “sudden extensions of communication” (32).  By putting these states into tension without stepping in to resolve things, Innis invites his readers to make connections within and beyond the immediate text or period.

Coming back to Innis’s  (1947) “Minerva’s” after several years, I find myself dwelling on the relationships between monopolies or oligarchies of knowledge and vernacular, probably because in our contemporary world, there is so much evidence that Minerva’s owl has taken wing with respect to dominant forms of mass media.  When Innis wrote “Minerva’s Owl” in 1947, he was concerned about the danger of the “large-scale mechanization of knowledge” a trend “characterized by imperfect competition and the active creation of monopolies in language which prevent understanding and hasten appeals to force” (32).  Mass media concentrated in the hands of limited numbers of people kept Western culture poised on the edge of an anxious now, tensed up in the present moment, unable to draw upon reflection or dialogue to negotiate difference, and certainly the recent-lived experiences of the Second World War, its deadly nationalism and the extension of communications technologies for command and control warfare reinforced Innis’s concerns.

Moving forward beyond Innis’s considerations of electromagnetic resources (radio and television) to a world of 500 cable channels not much changes in terms of the consolidation of knowledge production and specialization in the hands of a limited few.  However, with the advent of networked telecommunications and the Internet, it is clear that we are seeing significant cultural disturbances, particularly in terms of communication media.  Whereas printed newspapers and corporate television networks dominated channels for public discourse, a range of internet-based technologies now are shifting power to the vernacular, to social interaction within informal networks of self-selecting groups.  And, significantly, within such a network, the power of publication, of broadcast, or distribution is as much in the hands of the oligarchs as it is in the hands of individuals.  I’m sure that were he alive today, Innis would be looking closely at the realignments in culture that are being brought about by the force of electronic communications and the Internet.  Whether or not Innis would see in electronic communication the same potential that McLuhan and Ong saw with respect to a return to an aural condition, or secondary orality, is a question for a later response paper.

References: Innis, Harld Adams. (2008). The Bias of Communication. (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Bourdieu – Habitus

According to Bourdieu, habitus comprises a set of dispositions acquired through one’s inculcation into any social milieu.  Habitus marks the site of a socially inscribed subjectivity: a space that defines a person’s sense of place in the world; a space that influences a person’s sense of value in the fields or markets that define all aspects of exchange and interaction.  The habitus is strongly shaped by one’s experiences growing up, a time when we acquire not only language, but also a sense of our particular and potential value in the markets we (and our families) inhabit.  The dispositions we acquire through our history-how we talk, how we deport ourselves, how we dress, how we look at the world-become structuring systems that determine how we act in the world, either with a degree of comfort or discomfort. Habitus becomes second nature, but not in a deterministic way. The dispositions that we acquire certainly can and do reproduce existing structures and are therefore durable, but they also have the capacity to generate new behaviours and responses on the part of an agent.  This generative potential is particularly evident as people experience new social contexts or fields, such as school, social groupings, and institutions.

Just as Bourdieu sees subjectivity as socially conditioned, he also sees language as operating within a market, exchanged by agents who, themselves, are characterized by their position within society.  While anyone might have the ability or competence to utter a sentence, not everyone has the authority to compel others to listen, and it is the authority that is imposed by those who define legitimate language within the social milieu that ultimately determines what space we occupy, and the value we (and society) place on our own utterances.  Bourdieu defines a subset of habitus, called linguistic habitus, a set of dispositions that we acquire as we learn to speak within particular contexts.  This linguistic sense of place strongly influences how we consume the symbolic signs of wealth and authority that set the market conditions for how we price ourselves and our own acts of production.

My own habitus has been defined by my experience growing up in a white-collar family in a predominantly blue-collar neighbourhood.  Both of my parents were professionals who strongly valued education and took great efforts to reinforce the value of learning within our home.  My father’s experience was particularly influential on me in this regard.  He grew up in Zehner, Saskatchewan, and became known as quite a smart kid because he completed his grade 8 within 4 years, read every book in the library, and seemed to have a vast capacity to learn.  Unfortunately, his family was quite poor, so instead of continuing on to high school, he had to work in the family’s store and then, ended up enlisting in the navy during the Second World War.  After the war, he wanted to go on to university (which was being offered to those who had returned from service overseas) but was prevented from doing so because he did not have his matriculation.  Financial circumstances again dictated that he go to work instead, so he began to work in a warehouse and in the course of his career moved up from being a dispatcher to being a buyer for the province.  My father loved words and constantly pursued new words as well as challenged his kids to develop their vocabulary.  He was also an avid crossword puzzler, working on increasingly difficult puzzles and acrostics.  What I remember so well about my father at those moments is how excited he became when he had managed to decode a particularly devilish acrostic.

While I was a typically kid in most ways, not paying a lot of attention to school, and generally not seeing the direct relevance of why I needed to spend time trying to build up my vocabulary, I did become a voracious reader and quickly stood out in terms of my reading abilities amongst my classmates.  I assume that I did learn a thing or two from my teachers in terms of formal grammar, spelling and such, but I don’t think that those lessons had nearly as much influence on me as did my family’s influence on developing my perception that I could learn anything I wanted to learn.  This disposition gave me a lot of confidence, particularly in certain areas of study, though it also meant that I was not too patient (and often quite stubborn) when I faced a teacher whose style or approach did not allow me a considerable amount of flexibility or responsibility in how I approached my work.   The Catholic school system was not renowned for such approaches.  In most of the educational contexts I found myself in, in primary and secondary years, I typically had sufficient skills to get through.

It was not until I entered university that I encountered any serious challenges to my perception of myself as capable agent able to manage social interactions with my dispositions.  Suddenly, I found myself failing in an Engineering program and this concrete reality did not align very well with the perception of myself that I had been nurturing from the time I was quite young.  This situation also created a lot of tension with my father who couldn’t quite fathom how his son could be failing Calculus so many times, and when I found myself also working in my father’s warehouse for a year after being offered an early sabbatical from my university, I realized that I was in a very different social milieu, one in which my ability to shift weight was valued much more highly than anything that I might say or write.  It took me a bit of time to re-orient myself to my new circumstances, and as I took on new skills relating to the tasks at hand, I had to deploy new strategies to get along with the people I was working with, as well as find ways to re-considered my sense of myself as a member of that community.  The physical labour of the job dominated most of my energy, so I can’t say that I learned much new about language other than the value of economy in its use.  I also gained considerable knowledge of swearing, refined skills in spitting, a new sense of fashion (torn and patched clothing) and various other dispositions that seemed to fit in better within the particular market I now inhabited.   Ironically, the experience of working in the warehouse gave me some credibility when applying for an academic teaching job at a college a few years back, as it was considered to be a “real job”.  The distinction of having rough hands and the smooth tongue of an academic seemed the right mix for the hiring committee!

After a year, I returned to university and, once again, had to re-orient myself, this time inscribed with my experiences having failed on a previous attempt at post-secondary, and also having a certain amount of shyness and awkwardness due to suddenly being around so many people again.  My confidence in my ability to succeed in the academic environment did not seem to be part of my habitus, at least initially.  It took several years of interacting within that community before I started to feel more comfortable that I actually belonged in that space.  Of course, my first year of graduate school did a lot to undermine that confidence once again, but as before, I found that the previous radical changes in my environments (and therefore in my habitus) had equipped me with practices and perceptions to help me to find and recreate my space within this institution.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Every second evening, sometime between seven and eight, I engage in one of my favourite acts of parenting: reading bedtime stories to my son.   Cozy and warm in a strategically darkened room, surrounded by toys that have been smuggled into bed, my five-year-old son listens to me read.  I read one, two or three books or, now that we have progressed into the world of chapter books, multiple chapters before the light goes out.  Then he has to endure the stories I weave together for him in the dark as I try to lull him to sleep while doing my best to keep myself awake and on the path of a coherent and not too boring story.  These sessions-which can last from a matter of minutes to well over an hour-represent some of the most wonderful, calm and rewarding moments of being a parent, but they also represent subtle battles of will between an all to wakeful child and a tired parent.  Through the materiality of the books that I read to him, a host of cultural values and power positions are played.

On one recent night, I read to him a picture book by Oliver Jeffers called The Incredible Book Eating Boy, about Henry, a young boy who absolutely devours books, literally.     Henry begins by nibbling on single words and sentences before eating whole books, and then multiple books at a sitting.  As he eats the books, he gets smarter and smarter until he begins to feel that if he just keeps eating books, he will be the smartest person in the world.  Things go wrong, however, when he starts to have trouble properly digesting the books he is eating, and soon he has to give up eating books entirely.  That is when he discovers another way to consume books, through his eyes by reading.   He can’t devour the books as quickly, but he has no further problems with indigestion.  The book does have one corner bitten out of the bottom of it (with what appears to be Henry’s teeth marks), so it is clear that Henry still tucks into his books from time to time.  The book itself is multi-modal in its presentation, with typewritten text and handwritten script mixed in with wonderful illustrations of Henry consuming books.  The pages are a pastiche of literate culture: fragments of book covers and torn pages; old office forms and ledger pages with various remnants of writing on them; ruled note pages and graphing paper; snippets of newspapers and index cards.  The visual space of the book is instantly recognizable to an adult as containing elements of the world of literacy, but from the perspective of a pre-literate child (born long after many of these artifacts of literacy have ceased to be in common use), it is likely that the images merely form interesting textures and surfaces upon which the story unfolds.

Jeffers’ children’s book is a productive site for considering the concept of mediated action in that the act of reading a book (particularly in the charged relationship with one’s child) nicely illustrates the dynamic relationship between an acting agent and the meditational means, in this case a significant cultural tool, a book.   As well, significantly, at the same time as I use the book as a means to achieve multiple goals (such as strengthening my relationship with my son, entertaining him with fun and interesting stories and getting him to go to sleep!), with this cultural tool, I am inculcating him with values of literate culture, which includes the regular consumption of delicious texts.  In defining the characteristics of mediated action, Wertsche (1998) asserts that meditational means are always material and that their use results in changes in the agents that use them.  I long ago gained mastery in the use of the cultural tools associated with literacy (in part thanks to my own experience of being read to by my parents who undoubtedly were trying to get me to go to sleep), and my own skill in using this cultural tool resulted in changes in how I conceive of the world.  The impact of the materiality of this mediating means is also evident in my son as he learns to recognize the importance of the codex as a container of words, sentences and narratives: structures that will influence how he organizes the world he is increasingly able to explore; structures which also will influence how his brain organizes itself in relation to the world.

I was particularly intrigued by Wertsche’s point that the material nature of meditational means plays an important role in determining how internal processes develop in agents as evident by the skills that they develop in using cultural tools. Wertsche cautions those who want to apply a sociocultural approach that they need to be careful about how they use the term internal or internalization, since most mediating means (like the pole vault example he offers) rarely make it to an internal plane.  The materiality of the book may not, itself, be interiorized, though the process of reading or literacy is more likely to be a skill that is internalized and by being internalized, forever alters how the brain processes information.  I am influenced in this matter in part by Maryanne Wolf’s (2007) book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.  Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, uses data from brain imaging of people who are dyslexic in comparison to people who are able to read and asserts that the scans reveal that the brain creates specific pathways or neuronal circuits that assist in the pattern matching processes between what people see and what they hear (in those who can read), and in pathways that are less efficient in doing so (in those who cannot read).   Certainly imaging technologies establish a particular focus on what is important for study (being an apparatus of cognitive neuroscience), but some of Wolf’s research seems to provide support for some of the earlier conceptions of differences between oral and literate cultures in the work of people like Walter Ong, in Orality and Literacy.

My own son has not yet internalized literacy, though I am seeing more and more evidence that he is able to decode words that he encounters in his daily life (as he has now cracked the alphabetic code).  Perhaps the best evidence that he has not yet mastered the skill of literacy is the fact that alongside the teeth marks of the fictional Henry, who took a bite out of the book we were reading, are some rather recent teeth marks of my own son, who couldn’t resist taking a nibble of the book.  I still have a bit of time before he stops eating books whole.