Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘media’

17 FEBRUARY, 2012

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


One of today’s greatest graphic designers reframes yesteryear’s greatest media prophet.

“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 (public library), 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 scope 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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30 JANUARY, 2012

The Death of the Editor and the Rise of the Circulation Manager


A 1923 critique of everything that’s wrong with media today.

Recently, The New York Times asked me to weigh in on SOPA. Partly under the pressure of an impossibly short notice, and partly because I was hesitant to reduce such a complex problem to the slim word limit, I didn’t go into what makes SOPA just one manifestation of a deeper, wider, much more worrisome issue, which is this: So long as we have a monetization model of information that prioritizes the wrong stakeholders — advertisers over readers — we will always cater to the business interests of the former, not the intellectual interests of the latter. SOPA exists because we have failed to create an information economy in which editorial integrity and reader experience are the only currencies of media merit. Instead, we have a value system based on advertising metrics, and the reason for this can be traced to our chronic tendency to fit old forms to new media — the funding model for media and journalism today is a near-exact replica of the funding model of early newspapers.

Last week, David Skok over at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab unearthed a 1923 essay titled “Our Changing Journalism” (original text below) by Bruce Bliven, former managing editor of The New York Globe and eventual editor of The New Republic. In it, Bliven exquisitely encapsulates the brokenness of this media model, as reflected in the newspaper industry of the era, identifying eight deformities of journalism that map onto some of their contemporary equivalents — SEO-centric headlines a la Huffington Post, linkbait infographics, click-grubbing slideshows — with astounding accuracy. Among them:

…a steady tendency to condense newspaper articles into mere tabloid summaries. This is due to the great increase in the physical volume of advertising, and the desire to hold down the bulk of the paper.

This, of course, is a perfect summation of the strategy behind today’s content farms, as well as the increasingly prevalent and increasingly worrisome practice of over-aggregation. (Something I myself frequently grapple with as Brain Pickings articles are regurgitated by the Huffington Post and others of the same ilk.)

…a wider and wider use of syndicated material, so that newspapers all over the partially identical from day to day in their contents. This is true not only of telegraphic news, obtained from one of the three great news-gathering associations, but also of ‘feature’ articles, drawings, even editorials.

The homogenization of curiosity is something that keeps me up at night, as does the thickening of the filter bubble, from mainstream churnalism to smaller and niche publications’s propensity for regurgitating MetaFilter or Reddit headlines — our modern-day newswires.

…the great invested capital and earning power of a successful paper to-day. Because of this fact — the result of the increase in advertising — ownership has slipped out of the hands of the editor, whose type of mind is rarely compatible with large business dealings, and has passed to that of wealthy individuals or corporations. This means that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the editorial attitude of the paper reflects the natural conservatism of these ‘capitalistic’ owners, or is of a wishy-washy type which takes no vigorous stance on any subject.


…[newspapers’] race for added sales is reflected editorially in the production of journals which more and more represent, not an editor’s notion of a good paper, but a circulation manager’s notion of a good seller.

This, precisely, is the fundamental folly of media today. (And is the reason why, for the past six years, I’ve been running Brain Pickings as a donation-funded, advertising-free, and thus unconcerned with “circulation” — or, in modern terms, pageviews — editorial project.)

Whether it’s Hollywood, as in the case of SOPA, or the pageview overlords, as in the case of content farms and over-aggregators, today’s “circulation managers” still dictate the editorial direction and vision for most of the information we consume. Until we, as an information culture in general and as media producers in particular, figure out a way to reinstate the editor as the visionary and the reader as the stakeholder, the Internet will remain a dismal landscape for intelligent, compelling media.

Excerpt from Bliven’s essay follows.

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30 DECEMBER, 2011

Marshall McLuhan on New Forms and Old Assumptions (1960)


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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