Now We Know How the Monks Felt

I’ve been using this McLuhan quote at the beginning of my research focus statement.  It’s from The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962:

“An age in rapid transition is one which exists on the frontier between two cultures and between conflicting technologies.  Every moment of its consciousness is an act of translation of each of these cultures into the other.  Today we live on the frontier between five centuries of mechanism and the new electronics, between the homogenous and the simultaneous.  It is painful but fruitful” (p. 141).

I contend we stand at a similar frontier right now.  And nowhere is it better illustrated than in David Rothman’s rant about Second Life.   Here we see what McLuhan calls an “advantage” of being on the frontier of a culture class: the ability to generalize.  Rothman, after complaining about a software upgrade that had eaten his password, decides that he would rather spend his time with books but, more importantly, he assumes that his opinion must be shared by millions: “On-screen instructions say I should contact tech support, but should I bother? I’d rather catch up on my book reading and on RSS feeds relating to books and e-books. I’ve got enough media in my life, thank you very much, and millions of other people would probably feel the same way.”

I’m sure there are people who feel that way along with people who prefer having this particular media, and frankly, that’s what makes it pretty darn exciting. I am a bibliophile like Rothman.  I prefer nothing more than curling up with a good book and am still in the process of reading pdf files without printing them out.  But, every other week, I take a visit to Second Life to meet with other teacher-educators from all over the world.  Yes, there are plenty of other ways we could meet virtually (chat, elluminate, forums), but I find doing it in SL fascinating.  Rothman, probably, would be OK with this use as he sees value for specific kinds of uses of SL.

But, I sometimes visit just to sit quietly with my avatar along the river or ride the intertube that someone had thoughtfully created.  It is winter, I am in graduate school, and I miss my kayak.  I visit the planetarium or chat with folks outside an art exhibit.  My involvement with SL has not diminished my commitment to typography; it is completely different.  If anything, the media I have begun to abandon is broadcast television.  I can watch whatever I need to online when I am ready.  So, it is rare for me to reserve time to watch television.  I am what Jenkins calls a zapper…I move restlessly from channel to channel.  But increasingly, I am not turning it on at all.

However, I am not going to make the generalization leap that Rothman does:  I do know from talking to people that others have also indicated that they tend to watch less television than they used to because they have adopted other media for getting the news or entertainment.    But I also know that lots of people still watch television.  They may also consume other media related to that television program, but they also sitting down at a specific time to tune into a specific television show.

I would suggest, in an addendum to McLuhan’s ideas about generalizations, that these frontier moments open the possibility for a wide variety of media relationships that may, in some cases, be determined by the analog lens that you apply to the new media.  For instance, people of the book come into the World Wide Web looking for ways to share information about a printed technology.  Librarything, Librivox, and Book Crossing are just a few of the websites that celebrate Gutenberg’s technology.  And, for Rothman, that’s as far as he wants to go.  And, that’s fine.  We each make personal decisions about how we are going to get involved in any media, both old and new.

Not to sound like a Pollyanna here (it’s a literary reference, BTW), but I would like to see us embrace the diversity of relationships that we may have with media, and try not to generalize our experiences for others.  As I begin my own research into the literacy practices of students and teachers, I want to uncover the individual voices and experiences, beginning as Lemke (2006) does “with the study of how people make meaings and experience feelings across real time as tehy interact wiht rich, complex multimodal artifacts and environments” (p. 9).

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