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Posts Tagged ‘McLuhan’

17 FEBRUARY, 2012

Design Legend David Carson Brings Marshall McLuhan’s “Probes” to Life

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One of the greatest living graphic designers reframes the greatest dead media theorist.

“McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics, levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness,” Philip B. Meggs once wrote. Though his most famous concept-catchphrases remain “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan originated hundreds of other “probes” — cryptic aphorisms designed to push the reader or recipient into completing a thought process.

In The Book of Probes, Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son, partners with media theorist William Kuhns and David Carson, considered by some the most influential graphic designer working today, to bring to life McLuhan’s sharpest probes culled from his books, speeches, classes, and various writings published between 1945 and 1980. Since McLuhan was as much a master of textual provocation as he was a co-conspirer in a new visual vernacular for the Information Age, Carson’s bold, thoughtful visual metaphors — all 400 gripping pages of them — present a powerful lens on McLuhan’s legacy that is at once completely fresh and completely befitting.

Terrance Gordon, author of the authorized biography Marshall Mcluhan: Escape Into Understanding, writes of the McLuhan-Carson pairing in one of the featured essays:

McLuhan’s words are about words, and Carson responds with a map about maps.

[…]

Unlike the spines of a cactus in their tidy rows, McLuhan’s prickly probes zigzag across a vast thoughtscape. Following him, keeping up with him, we have no time to rest or recognize a new location before he beckons us to move on. David Carson comes to our rescue. As translation into the local idiom and bearings for our current whereabouts, his art work roots us for a moment, even as McLuhan pulls us ahead. But Carson does not deliver comforting postcard views; his visual mosaics can leave us just as breathless as the punches of McLuhan’s prose. Snap and shoot, but no snapshots from either artist or writer.

The McLuhan-Carson partnership works constantly to turn symbiosis into synergy.”

The probes themselves, wrapped in Carson’s equally provocative and thought-provoking visual micro-narratives, reveal not one McLuhan but many — the social psychologist (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), the linguist (“Languages are environments to which the child relates synesthetically.”), the artist (“Color is not so much a visual as a tactile medium.”), the scholar (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), and a near-infinite number more

(Cue in Paola Antonelli on humanized technology.)

Kuhns points to four recurring keywords that define McLuhan’s probes: conditions (the idea that understanding hinges on the ability to remove oneself from a situation just enough to see the connections between various elements at play), space (the question of the human family’s confines and whether escape is even possible), resonant (the inescapability of our sound environment, which is a prison if we let it but an escape mechanism if we know what to listen for), and tribal drums (the concept of the resonant utterance, inspired by James Joyce’s vision for a western world retribalized by electric technology).

Other critical terms and themes also recur throughout McLuhan’s thinking and writing — the relationship between perception and conception (“Effects are perceived, whereas causes are conceived”), the interplay of figure and ground (“Ground cannot be dealt with conceptually or abstractly — it is ceaselessly changing, dynamic, discontinuous, and heterogeneous, a mosaic of intervals and contours”), semiotics and language (“The right word is not the one that names the thing but the word that gives the effect of the thing”).

Gordon observes in a featured essay:

All media of communications are clichés serving to enlarge man’s cope of actions, his patterns of association and awareness.”

(A note is due here on Gordon’s disappointing use of “man” and “his” to connote all of humanity — while the politics and semantic landscape of McLuhan’s era may have made such gender-skewed umbrella terms culturally acceptable, one would hope half a century of progress might demand a more balanced relationship with pronouns.)

The end of the book features 100 pages of selected precepts, fragments, and probes by McLuhan, including themes of intense timeliness and urgency:

The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.*

The print-made split between head and heart is the trauma that affects Europe from Machiavelli to the present.**

The media tycoons have a huge stake in old media by which they monopolize the new media.***

The amateur can afford to lose. The expert is the man who stays put.****

Symbolism consists in pulling out connections.*****

Candidates are now aware that all policies and objectives are obsolete. Perhaps there is some comfort to be derived from the fact that NASA scientists are in the same dilemma. While pursuing the Newtonian goals of outer space, they are quite aware that the inner dimensions of the atom are very much greater and more relevant to our century.”

Ultimately, The Book of Probes offers a prescient perspective on the present through the cerebral alchemy of McLuhan’s past-future. Kuhn concludes:

We cannot avoid being inundated by the powerful forces of the culture and technology that make up our environment, but we can look at their different effects and form strategies for controlling our destiny in the midst of the electric maelstrom. When we are faced with information overload, McLuhan tells us, the key to understanding is pattern recognition. The Book of Probes offers us that key.”

* See A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

** See David Brooks on the dangerous and artificial divide between reason and emotion and Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott on intuition vs. rationality.

*** See this 1923 critique of everything that’s wrong with modern media in a media equation where the “circulation manager” (once of newspapers, now of pageviews) has replaced the editor.

**** See Steve Jobs and other famous creators on the fear of failure.

***** See famous authors on the power and meaning of symbolism.

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10 FEBRUARY, 2012

How McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore Created a New Visual Vernacular for the Information Age

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The rise of the experimental paperback and how ‘typophotography’ paved the information superhighway.

One faithful day in 1965, the most monumental and legendary typo in media history took place: someone switched a letter in the title of what soon became an era-defining book by legendary media theorist Marshall McLuhan*, best known for coining the catchphrase “the medium is the message.” Thus The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects was born, thanks to a unintentional error most McLuhan biographers sweep under the carpet. But, the legend goes, once McLuhan saw the typo, he exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great and right on target!” The title of the book was suddenly open to four possible interpretations — a play on “Message” and “Mess Age,” or “Massage and “Mass Age.” The book soon came to be referred to simply as Massage. But what is most curious — and least known — about it is that it was developed explicitly for young readers, relying on graphic materials to engage younger audiences with big-idea nonfiction. (Sound familiar?)

Massage, however, was part of a bigger and much more significant picture — it was one of eight books developed by Jerome Agel (1930-2007), a kind of transmedia, cross-disciplinary publishing puppeteer, who collaborated with trailblazing graphic designer Quentin Fiore to distill the complex and important ideas of thinkers like Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan, Herman Kahn, and Marshall McLuhan into digestible and viscerally absorbing narratives for the general-interest reader. These paperback books had a wholly novel visual vocabulary and a new way of entering the mass market as full-spectrum media events that, long before the days of sleek book trailers, boasted $100,000 publicity budgets.

The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan / Agel / Fiore and the Experimental Paperback tells the fascinating story of these collaborations and how they created a new media form “designed to put into popular form, or into more understandable form, some of the greatest ideas of our time.” Zooming in on the nine-year window of innovation in mass-market publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford Humanities Lab founder Jeffrey T. Schnapp peels away at the sociocultural and technological factors that gave rise of this bold new graphics-driven storytelling and transformed the paperback into a kind of stage and screen for “typographic pyrotechnics.” The promise of that story is a deeper understanding of contemporary visual culture, the convergence of highbrow and lowbrow, the vernacular of advertising, the dynamics of newspaper and magazine publishing, the creation of avant-garde mass culture, and a wealth in between.

The purpose of this inventory is to draw a circle around a body of objects; to take stock of their common properties; and to tell a story about where they came from, what they were, and where they led. Their variety is such as to sustain a multiplicity of narrative threads: about the rise of a new photo-driven graphic vernacular; about the triumph of a certain cognitive/cultural style; about criss-crossing between high and low, the erudite and the mass cultural; about the shifting boundaries between books, magazines, music, television, and film.”

Together, McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore engendered a sweeping shift in the filed of mass communication, whose impact still reverberates in the present wave of publishing disruption. But among the trio’s greatest feats was the radical reshuffling and remixing of traditional specialized silos, wherein writers write in solitude, editors edit against impossible deadlines, designers design with purely aesthetic concerns, and booksellers sell based on rigid categories engineered around a stale market. In the foreword, Adam Michaels observes the “pedagogical prejudices” that have created a chasm between education in design and education in writing:

Most educational superstructures ensure that the art student and the liberal arts student shall never meet. The alienation between text and image production is learned early on and reinforced by increased professionalization over the course of life.”

(For the ultimate testament to higher education’s failures to foster this cross-pollination of disciplines, look no further than Steve Jobs’ iconic 2005 Stanford commencement address, in which he recounts the serendipitous breach of this chasm that sparked the founding philosophy of Apple.)

McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore embraced “the book’s intrinsic strengths as a site for synthesis and surprise,” as Michaels eloquently puts it, and forged a visionary model in which the unconventional intertwining of form and content engaged audiences with new, almost cinematic modes of delivery.

Fiore also redefined the role of the designer as author** and pioneered a new visual genre that came to be known as “typophotography,” a neologism coined by media theorist László Moholy-Nagy to describe “the visually most exact rendering of communication,” an elastic new form of visceral storytelling. Steven Heller writes in the introduction:

[Fiore] strongly believed in experimentation and was not just attempting to navigate through McLuhan’s disjointed prognostications, sarcastically mocked by [critics]: he was actually attempting to construct what eventually evolved into a primitive iteration of ‘the information superhighway,’ using the paperback book as its bedrock foundation.”

As for Agel, what made him an exceptional visionary were his faceted interests. (Something Jackson Pollock’s dad would approve.)

Jerome Agel […] had a keen appreciation for photography and narrative as fine arts. But he was, first and foremost, a journalist equipped with a mile-a-minute, omnivorous mind and a genius for public relations.”

Agel and Fiore’s most celebrated graphic masterpiece was their 1970 collaboration with Buckminster Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb: Environment and Man’s Future, which repeated the formula of Massage — a bold and highly visual distillation of big ideas for young people — with even greater precision.

Agel saw the book as part of show business and McLuhan was among the first to recognize the cultural significance of this paradigm shift. In the modern bible Understanding Media, he wrote of “the phenomenon of the paperback”:

[It is] the book in ‘cool’ version … transformation of book culture into something else… The paperback itself has become a vast mosaic world in depth, expressive of the changed sense-life of Americans, for whom depth experience in words, as in physics, has become entirely acceptable, and even sought after.”

A foretaste of the technique in question can be found in the September 1965 issue of Books, the front page of which led with 'The McLuhan Galaxy,' a montage of cartoons and quotations radiating outward from a book-slaying, television-antenna-crowned McLuhan. It was accompanied by a lengthy 'interview' that hails Understanding Media as the 'must read book in the country today' and implements what will later become the method of the McLuhan/Agel/Fiore inventorying of media effects: a sequence of quotations fired one after the other, interrupted only by questions -- 'why is everyone reading field Marshall McLuhan?' 'what the hell is going on?' 'OK, WHAT'S THE MESSAGE?' -- and designed to swarm the reader with information. In the interview's midst, Agel dutifully inserts McLuhan's call for the 'fresh air reeducation of book culture.'

Ultimately, The Electric Information Age Book is about what made this collaborative book innovation — which McLuhan called “the mosaic of instantaneous communication,” “the process rather than the complete product of discovery” — extraordinary at the time, but also about how it paved the way for the tectonic shifts happening in media today, with our customizable iEverything and highly visual neo-magazines a-la-Flipboard. Schnapp observes:

[These inventory books] all communicate some version of the following script to the reader: even if this book is ‘by’ a major thinker, you fill in the blanks, you connect the dots, you navigate the book forward or backward to find the tasty tidbits; look for the patterns, ideas, and story line yourself They tender the promise that, if you follow these instructions, in return, you will discover that not only is this ook about you, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your world, but also about how to make them yours.

* For more on McLuhan, see Douglas Coupland’s excellent almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, as well as this 1984 biographical TV segment on McLuhan by none other than Tom Wolfe.

** For a contemporary meditation on the evolving role of the designer as Internet futurist and entrepreneur, see Cameron Koczon’s necessary article, “An Important Time for Design.”

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30 DECEMBER, 2011

Marshall McLuhan on New Forms and Old Assumptions (1960)

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What the golden age of television has to do with human nature and today’s Internet intellectuals.

It seems fitting that we conclude the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan with one of his timeless and remarkably timely observations, which in just 30 seconds manages to capture in 1960 a folly of human nature that rings all the more true in 2011 as we trek forward into this constantly evolving media landscape.

When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.”

The segment comes from the tribute site Marshall McLuhan Speaks, originally featured here in July. (Though, it warrants noting, the lack of embedding capability for their footage is particularly ironic in light of McLuhan’s words above.) It is also adapted in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by McLuhan’s daughter and with a foreword by Tom Wolfe offering a 21st-century perspective on McLuhan’s life and work. (To be supplemented with Douglas Coupland’s fantastic Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.)

What McLuhan gets at, of course, could also be said not only of media but also of media theory itself, especially today. As Internet scholar Evgeny Morozov writes in The New Republic:

Our Internet intellectuals lack the intellectual ambition, and the basic erudition, to connect their thinking with earlier traditions of social and technological criticism. They desperately need to believe that their every thought is unprecedented. Sometimes it seems as if intellectual life doesn’t really thrill them at all. They never stoop to the lowly task of producing expansive and expository essays, where they could develop their ideas at length, by means of argument and learning, and fully engage with their critics. Instead they blog, and tweet, and consult, and give conference talks—modes of discourse that are mostly impervious to serious critique.”

(Thanks, Kristen.)

So, where does this leave us as we round out McLuhan’s centennial? With more questions than answers, no doubt, but the questions about the future of information abundance, the future of journalism, and the future of the Internet might be a good place to start.

Thanks, Bob

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