Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘media’

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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12 OCTOBER, 2011

How Radio Broadcasting Works: An Animated Explanation from 1937

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From oscillator to audience, or how the music of the orchestra travels from the studio to your home.

In 1909, radio pioneer Charles “Doc” Herrold made his first broadcast in what would soon become KCBS news radio, the world’s first broadcasting station. Even though he didn’t invent radio itself — Marconi did — Radio quickly became a powerful disseminator of culture, entertainment and, as 40 years of NPR attest, necessary critical thinking. But how does radio broadcasting actually work? In 1937, the Handy (Jam) Organization (which you might recall) produced On The Air, a fascinating piece of vintage edutainment explaining exactly that, from how the microphone converts sound waves into electrical currents to how audio waves travel from studio to audience, in under 10 minutes.

For more on how radio revolutionized modern communication, see Anthony Rudel’s excellent Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2011

The Conscience of Television

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What Lucille Ball has to do with the dot-com bubble, or why 2001 was the beginning of the end for TV comedy.

I may have given away my TV set in 2004 and fully endorse Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus but, as a devoted Marshall McLuhan groupie, I’d be the last to renounce the medium as culturally inconsequential. Television, for all its ills and follies, still commands a remarkable portion of our collective conscience — and, it turns out, it has an implicit conscience of its own, as TV executive Lauren Zalaznick demonstrates in this eye-opening, stride-stopping TED talk, using GapMinder, the statistical visualization software made famous by TED rockstar Hans Rosling.

From the intricate balance of moral ambiguity and inspiration, humor and judgement, to the normative shifts scripted television can ignite, to the evolving ideals of motherhood, Zalaznick illustrates not only how history has shaped the medium, but also how the medium itself is shaping cultural history.

Moral ambiguity becomes the dominant meme in television from 1990 for the next twenty years.”

For a related treasure trove of fascination, you won’t go wrong with Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, the fantastic McLuhan almost-biography by beloved novelist and cultural critic Douglas Coupland.

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