Thinking Outside The Lines, Living Within Them

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan introduced revolutionary concepts regarding mediums of communication, stating that “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media in which men communicate than by the content of the communication” (p. 8) Up until the proposition of this idea, emphasis was placed upon what was being communicated across history, as opposed to how it was being communicated.

The entirety of this book is an example of how mediums of communication influence our entire way of thinking. It is not written in exclusively linear text, indexed or broken into subjects, and it does not follow one progressive, step-by step train of thought. These are all aspects of the written word that McLuhan considered characteristics of an “old” medium — printed text — and of nineteenth century ways of thought. He argues for the urgent recognition of the uselessness of old mediums in a world of new mediums. He says “our ‘Age of Anxiety’ is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools — with yesterday’s concepts” (p.9) We have been living in an Age of Anxiety for half a century, and the world McLuhan was writing in would seem benign compared to our world today. If our psychological processes are shaped by the modes in which we communicate, than it would make sense that this age of stress is the result of a disconnect between a societal structure influenced by linear print and mentalities that are reflective of the continuity of modern mediums.

McLuhan uses the example of education to develop this idea, pointing out that classrooms are an environment designed by a print-influenced mindset — desks are in rows all facing the front, where the expert teacher instructs the ignorant student. This is an outdated and ineffective way to conduct a learning environment in a world that is increasingly non-linear. He says that education must shift from instruction to discovery. The idea of an expert information source is increasingly irrelevant — the idea of multiple perspectives converging to develop a truth has become more meaningful. McLuhan notes that classroom environments are now shifting toward moveable desks that can be arranged into circles, and that student discussions are often encouraged. This is more reminiscent of oratory environmental structures, and that is actually one of McLuhan’s most famous arguments — that we are returning to an oratory culture, but on a grander scale, in a Global Village.

Young people today “reject goals. They want roles…that is, total involvement. They do not want fragmented, specialized goals or jobs” (p.100) McLuhan was writing about the necessity for education to be reformed in a way congruent with modern medium mentality back in the 1960s, and this still has only a scattered implementation today. How can we expect to educate young people when the way of thinking required to understand the method in which information is being delivered to them is not relatable, and seen as increasingly irrelevant? To put it differently, tradition states that we must instruct students to think one way — linear, “rational,” concrete, following instructions, memorizing stagnant facts — and is dispelled to students as if this is the only correct way to think and succeed within academia. McLuhan argued against this, wisely, half a century ago. Current ways of viewing the world — all-encompassing constantly evolving, multi-faceted, instant, ever-changing — are what McLuhan argued we must embrace. His theory propositions that people who use modern mediums of communication think in this way, and it would make sense that as modern mediums develop, this way of thinking will only become more exaggerated. The more there is conscious recognition of the connection between communication mediums and how they effect psychological processes, the more we will be able to collectively rebuild society in a truly functional and progressive way— a way that mimics our thoughts not as linear and defined, but as fluid and constantly evolving.

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