Monday, 18 July 2011

The medium is the message is all about technical influences on culture.

Culture changes when new techniques are applied.

Probes into our times. Taking up Marshall McLuhan’s ideas.
What if your only communications medium was story telling? You were so good at it that members of your band or clan remembered your stories and passed them on. You are prehistoric because you have no permanent way to record your history. In fact recording anything is a completely foreign idea to you. You live in the moment and important things in your past experience are encoded in stories and tales for the campfire. 
Your history is only as good as your oral traditions. You had no phonetic alphabet and no way of recording your culture for the future except by orally transmitting it to your smartest child to remember and then pass it on again. That condition sets up a certain mind set and way of looking at the world. The concept of future may not be in your experience because you live each day at a time. The oral medium is the message.
Contrast the prehistoric situation above with your own today. You are surrounded by media, personal computers, all connected on the internet. You possess all manner of ways to record and transmit your culture. You are also your media. The media are the message because your culture is created by their existence. Media builds an influence that is separate from any content the media may carry.
If this basic idea is true then the technical environment created by media is the message. The form is more important than the content. Content is altered by the media and seen by its transmitters and receivers in the context of their technology. If your technology is oral then you rely of memory and stories. Even an oral culture with language changes or perhaps contributes to the evolution of humans and certainly it alters how they think.
Using this argument then our high technology culture must be having an evolutionary or at least a profound alteration to the culture itself. We cannot be immune or stay the same surrounded as we are by ubiquitous information and knowledge techniques. 
Lets return to our prehistoric example. I do this to simplify the argument that the medium is the message or the technique is the message. Stone technologies abound in prehistoric times and this technique as it developed altered how culture developed.
It is one thing to chip a pebble into a cutting edge to slice meat or into a hand ax to split bones for their protein rich marrow but it takes insight and knowledge passed on orally to create the next level of stone technology -pressure flaking. Stories can be practical.
A culture steeped in oral transmission of information and knowledge created pressure flaking. This technique transforms stone into ultra sharp razor edged implements. It’s a good idea with high utility and so it is readily adopted by all who see it.  Because it is useful they want learn how in prehistoric times. In contrast how do we learn our current high tech communications environment?  The medium is the message. 
Pressure flaking creates a very sharp edge. The flint stone is literally squeezed off the edge by another piece of flint or wood in smaller and smaller refinements until the edge is very sharp. Spear points made in this way penetrate large game and stay in. Combined with a spear throwing stick -the hunters transform their ability to safely kill big game from a distance. Hides could also be scrapped easier and faster for making clothing. The medium is the message. The technique itself transforms the culture. It also demonstrates another McLuhan idea "learning a living".
If this argument has merit then imagine just how much our culture is being transformed by sophisticated techniques not only in communications, information and knowledge at the speed of light. McLuhan called this the ‘Electric Age”. However the subtle influences of techniques in our times such gene, genome, and nano techniques may be worth pursuing so we can understand the influences of our tools on our lives.  An excellent pressure flaking demonstration. This information was only available at the campfire in prehistoric times.
A visual (images) Google search “pressure flaking”. How does this ability to pull up such a comprehensive array of information and knowledge alter how your culture works?
© Copyright 2011, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved

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