illustration by Metagramme

The medium is the mold

Charting the messages of content carriers

I’ve been thinking about the differences between oral and written storytelling. About the hardwired human urge to document and share our experiences. When we speak and write we organize and externalize sensory input, confirm its existence and thereby our own, and create shared meaning through dialogue. Our senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch take things in, but our mouths and hands are unique in that they send information back out into the world. Through spoken and written stories we prove, if only for a few fleeting moments, that we’re not alone.

With each new innovation in mass communication, the ways people think and behave have shifted radically. In the last 150 years alone, no fewer than six major paradigm shifts have occurred. We’re in the midst of yet another sea change with the rapid advance of digital publishing and mobile technology. It’s worth our time to sit up straight, look away from the screen, and take in the macro view.

I won’t pretend to offer groundbreaking new research. This space is insufficient for more than a sketch. I simply want to foster critical observation of how our content carriers mold us.

McLuhan’s lens
In his classic 1964 work Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message.” This statement has often been misunderstood as a declaration that mediums have become more important or valued than the content they deliver. But McLuhan was concerned with the big picture, beyond the content conveyed by mediums: how do our communication tools shape us, individually and collectively? To that end, he defined a “message” as “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that a new invention or innovation “introduces into human affairs.” [1] It's through this lens that we'll look at some of the messages behind past and present mediums.

Before the Sumerians invented cuneiform around 3500 BC, all knowledge was shared orally. Some of these oral cultures, i.e. cultures with no written knowledge of their own, are still with us. In fact, predominantly oral cultures are still in the majority. Even among the 3,000 some-odd languages currently in use, only 78 have literature. [2] Granted, the largest extant cultures are among the literate 78. But the sheer number of oral cultures that still exist is surprising nonetheless.

Just how different are oral and literate cultures? Research in recent decades has shown the gulf to be vast. In his excellent treatise Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong recommends both diachronic (historical) and synchronic (coexistent comparison) methods to fully illuminate distinctions between orality and literacy, and the lessons they can teach each other.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll call these two groups oralites and literates. Whereas literates often learn by studying – abstract, sequential, categorical, explanatory examination of information – orals learn by apprenticeship, i.e. observation and absorption. [3] They learn by watching and listening. They also learn by formula, mnemonic and rhythm, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

Druids and clichés
Oralites possess prodigious memories by necessity. In Western history, one of the most prominent oral cultures were the Iron-Age Celts of western and central Europe. Before Greek, Roman and Christian influence, almost all of their knowledge was shared verbally. Cultural, historical and religious heritage was entrusted primarily to druids. At the height of pre-Roman Celtic culture, druids fell under several sub-classifications as priests, royal advisors, healers, poets, musicians, singer/songwriters and lawyers. The sheer volume of information they had to memorize – and could retrieve verbatim on demand – are overwhelming to the modern literary mind.

However, oralites are not without systems and supports that allow them to store and retrieve information. Their feats of memory seem more attainable when we consider their reliance on verbal rhythms, formulas, repetition and even cliché. They thrive on redundancy, both for the sake of the speaker as he runs through his mind in search of the next thought as well as the listener, who unlike literates and post-literates cannot go back and retrieve a recorded piece of information or press the rewind button. In order to collect and convey complex ideas, oralites use metaphors and maxims that have through repetition been tattooed on their culture’s consciousness. They are therefore able to package new ideas in simple, efficient containers that require a minimum of mental effort to deliver. More importantly, these systems make it easier to recall and retell a story later on. [4]

These systems seem quaint, even uncreative to deeply literate cultures. Many ancient writings like the Bible, Bahavad Gita or the Iliad come off as simplistic at first blush. We must remember that while these stories were set down by somewhat literate writers, they were relatively new to chirographic communication and drew almost exclusively upon oral tradition. We have to look past the repetition and clichés that are frowned upon in contemporary literate cultures. Deeper study of these stories rewards the reader with a rich depth and nuance that can be difficult for analytical, linear minds to express. [5]

Ong says that “written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit.” To a lover of letters such as myself, pure orality seems like a dangerously unmoored way of sharing and gathering information. But it’s also liberating. Consider the scant possessions of an oralite. The only inanimate objects he needs are clothing, tools, and housing. Literates have shelves populated with books that repeat their stories in reassuringly immutable object-words. Oralites have stories that exist purely in the abstract between tellings, as infinitely mutable possibilities. Literates are runners, traveling the same paths time and again, albeit in various weather conditions and moods. They are connoisseurs and collectors on good days. Hoarders on bad days. Oralites are surfers. Though they may spend a lifetime surfing a small number of spots, they never ride the same wave twice. Like rolling stones, they gather no moss. They are more connected to the moment, the here and now, because they lack artifacts.

The voice of God
An unanticipated byproduct of literacy has been a general shifting of focus from the present to the past and the future. For many of us literates, the present is something we merely straddle as we reach into the past in order to plan the future. And as much as I love the written and illustrated word – as a typographer I’m more inexorably yoked to the artifacts of language than most people – I think there is something profound we can learn from these unencumbered cultures.

Ong reports on ideas from psychologist Julian Jaynes that have interesting implications. Jaynes describes the state of consciousness found in primitive societies as ‘bicameral,’ meaning that the right hemisphere of the brain produced uncontrollable messages often attributed to spiritual sources, which the left hemisphere translated into speech. He characterized early cultures as lacking introspectivity, analytical mastery, concern with the individual will, and the ability to clearly differentiate past from future. The internal ‘voices’ began to fade between 2000 and 1000 BC. Jaynes believed that the invention of the alphabet around 1500 BC was a driving cause behind this change. For example, he noted evidence of bicamerality in the unselfconscious characters found in the Iliad. He believed the Odyssey, written some 100 years later, marked the beginning of the modern mind. Odysseus, unlike characters in the Iliad, is self-aware and no longer governed by internal ‘voices.’ [6]

Bicamerality is essentially the profile of oralites, both in the past and today. As someone who believes in the spiritual realm, I can’t help but wonder if ancient man, possessing an uncluttered intuition, was more in tune with the metaphysical world than modern man. How much of the preliterate spiritual pathways in the human mind have been paved over with the bricks of analytical literacy? And if this is what we’ve done with our many inventions and innovations, how can we get back to the garden, so to speak, without losing too much of our rational prowess? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

Residual orality
After Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 and the demand for books rose from all corners of society, reading and writing became increasingly pervasive. But many elements of orality persisted until the late 19th century. The “flowery” speech and writing we find through the Victorian era is not merely the product of growing chirographic and typographic literacy. As noted above, oralites thrive on repetition and redundancy. Broadening literacy and deep analytical growth during and after the Enlightenment combined with residual orality to produce texts of meandering lengths that bore or bewilder modern readers. [7]

Consider the thought patterns and syntactic structure of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, published a few short decades after Isaac Newton discovered gravity. In Crusoe, which was relatively simple in style for its time, we encounter sentences such as the following, which I’ve truncated because it stretches beyond 250 words in length:

“He bid me observe it, and I should always find, that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind; but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were, who by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances, on one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet, on the other hand, bring distempers upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtues and all kind of enjoyments ... ”

Such run-on thoughts were literary staples from the 16th–19th centuries. Even classic works of fiction like Moby Dick require heavy mental waders to traverse, at least by current standards. Can you imagine today’s high school students trying to slog through Robinson Crusoe with such low-hanging fruit as The Hunger Games lying around? This is due in part to the need for efficiency effected by writing. It's easier to wax eloquent in speech, as long as you have ample water to drink and attentive listeners. But fingers tire more rapidly, even when typing. And paper or screens make poor audiences. In addition, we’ve absorbed more meta-lessons from our inventions than we realize. Our speed- and efficiency-driven inventions such as the telephone and the internet have led to a brisk shorthand that literates from a mere few centuries ago might have considered hasty or lazy.

Full circle
Others have noted before me that we’re living in a new kind of literacy, one informed by images, just as much if not more than words. As more of the messages we consume and convey are visual and/or aural, I wonder if some of the old image- and sound-based pathways of perception are reopening in our minds. In the 20th century, we saw communication become more fluid and less driven by logical processes. We came to appreciate intuition more fully. Unlike true oralites, our new paradigm is as visual as it is oral, if not more so. We’re more aesthetically agile than ever, especially when it comes to information architecture. But we’re also more desensitized. The fact that it takes more to shock us means that it takes more to delight us.

These days, analytical reasoning is of course still with us, although its stock seems to have slowly declined since Modernist philosophy peaked in the early 20th century. I find that the average person under the age of 50 values rational thought less than their parents’ generation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A more balanced appreciation for reason and intuition allows more room for mystery. Art, music, and films that offer more questions than answers have become increasingly common.

The importance we place on efficiency has grown exponentially as we have shed almost all of the old orality in favor of a constant influx of new ideas, facilitated by increasingly superior recording systems. Consider the 4,940 year lapse between the invention of cuneiform and the printing press. A mere 436 years passed before the next arguably major shift came about with the telephone. (The telegraph came first, but had far less cultural impact). It was only about 20 years later that Louis Lumière and others developed motion pictures. And the time that passed between the debut of PCs, desktop publishing, and public internet, well – you get the picture. We’re reaching a critical velocity. Time between innovations is collapsing as the earth shrinks into a single global village.

On tradition and innovation
Oralites possess deep respect for their elders. Their priests and sages aggregate great stores of lore over their lifetimes, and are thus treated as cultural treasures. By stark contrast, contemporary literates don’t have to repeat things to remember them. We’re able to pare away all of the old formulas and tired maxims in favor of new ideas. This has played a major role in our current fixation on youth. We’ve come to value newness over experience and innovation over tradition. [8]

We’ve covered vast scientific, technological and ecological ground in recent history, but groundbreaking philosophies are not our forté anymore. It seems to me that many of us move too fast for our own good. Deep thinking requires sustained disconnection, and many of us are unwilling to visit such a quiet place. Smartphones and social media have ushered in an age of ultra-connectivity. The PC gave us desktop publishing. Mobile phones and social media have given universal, constant access to micro-publishing. Everyone is a publisher today. On the positive side, great ideas have been enabled by democratized and streamlined communication. Platforms like Kickstarter, where creative ventures are crowd-funded, has created a radical shift in the way many businesses are getting off the ground. This is a wonderful thing. It’s also nice that we can easily stay in touch (to some degree) with family and friends from all corners of the world. But when we take connectedness too far, we stifle creativity, isolate ourselves from real relationships, and foster envious discontent by ogling the apparent abundance of other people.

Our collective attention span was already shortening through the Industrial Revolution and into the age of television. It’s reached a fever pitch in the 21st century. The sheer amount of information flooding across our synapses is bewildering, and increasingly full of meaningless prattle. We’ve trained ourselves to navigate user interfaces with a dexterity that baffles our grandparents. I can even see a significant speed increase between myself and the average teenager with lightning-fast LOLing thumbs. But as micro-publishers, we’re more easily distracted by the musings of others and are losing the critical ability to separate wheat from chaff. By having the power to publish snippets of thought 140 characters at a time from concert floors to camping trips, we dull the edge of our creative hunger just enough to keep plodding. Our desire for knowledge is temporarily satiated by regular visits to Facebook, Twitter or news feeds. But that sort of information doesn’t feed anyone’s soul.

Emerging messages
One of the messages we receive from television and film is that we’re entitled to entertainment. We’ve become increasingly motivated to pursue stimulation. Millions of ads have told us we deserve it. The internet hasn’t helped this problem. Seeking stimulation is certainly healthy, but not when we think the universe owes it to us. When that happens, we skive off work, neglect loved ones and ultimately deprive ourselves of lasting fulfillment. When good things are received as gifts rather than entitlements, we live happier lives.

So what are the message of social media and smartphones? Hyper-connectivity with little depth, for one. Another thing observers have noted is the rapid decrease of privacy. I’ve seen a tremendous shift just in my adulthood. It used to be that when you were away from home or the office, you had no phone with you and were therefore unreachable. These days, the thought of phoneless travel terrifies us. I don’t hear many people mourning our lost privacy. We don’t even value it anymore: the instant gratification of micro-publishing is too powerful.

Another message is the broader acceptance of vanity. When I was a kid, the idea of sharing pictures of your new hairdo or omelette in a public forum would have seemed frivolous and narcissistic. Now it’s commonplace. Apps like Instagram or Vine can be a great source of inspiration; they can also be abused. Like most things, there’s a fine line between healthy use and overindulgence.

I think the cultural leaders of tomorrow will have to be radically disconnected from all this noise in order to cast a vision for the future. I wonder, will the pendulum swing back at a certain point? Will there be a mass rejection of speed and connectivity and a return to slowness, nature, reflection? Or will our thirst for newness strip us of all wisdom and rob us of the ability to determine whether a goal is worth pursuing?

At my company, I’ve decided to focus our energy on projects that will encourage people to slow down, reflect, and enrich their lives. I don’t want to contribute to the noise. I want to provoke reflection and create open spaces for people to roam, whether it’s a tiny book or a spacious environment. Yeah, we can put a Facebook link on that page. But does your audience really need it?

Bibliography & further reading
1. What is The Meaning of The Medium is The Message?
2. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005, page 14.
3. Ong, page 15.
4. Ong, pages 37-44.
5. Ong, pages 40-41.
6. Ong, page 34.
7. Ong, pages 43-44.
8. Ong, page 44.
9. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical Edition. Berkeley: Gingko Press, 2003.

Love Letters

Insights on creative practice and mindful living from the desk of Matt Steel

Matt Steel

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I’m a designer who writes, father of four, and husband of one.

Love Letters

Insights on creative practice and mindful living from the desk of Matt Steel