“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.