McLuhan, Value, and the Message

I’m sympathetic to Claire’s and Lauren’s assertions about technology itself being value neutral, and echo their claim that it’s how we use the technology (or the medium, since this is McLuhan’s week) that makes it positive or negative. And it is easy to criticize McLuhan for over-reaching and over-synthesizing by reducing the message to the medium and visa versa.

But I fear that stopping at such critiques might make us miss the important things that McLuhan got right, especially the insight about how new media not only condition how we do or experience something, but facilitate a kind of interaction and creativity that opens up more possibilities (and yes, “expands human intellect”).  Like Lauren, I am very interested in the implications of this transformation for my field, which I’m going to claim broadly here as “doing history.”  I could (should?) go on about this for a long time, but wanted to take up her invitation here to (briefly) think out loud about the change in “containers” as it affects historians.

For us, the shift from (printed) book to on-line databases and journal articles is both exciting and perilous.  Like any mode of knowledge production and dissemination, history definitely benefits from having endless (and ever expanding) amounts of information, data, texts, etc. on-line and instantly accessible beyond the physical walls of the library and the printed page of the book.  But shifting “the book” from a codex-paper-format to a digital medium involves much more than changing the container for a certain kind of information. On the one hand, the possibilities are eye-poppingly awesome: hyperlinking and multi-media could liberate most, if not all, of the web of documentation and example that supports the analysis and narrative of the book from paper repositories (archives and libraries) that few readers will ever visit or experience.  There have been a series of discussions in the field about the shape of born-digital history works to come, and Writing History In the Digital Age, just published by the University of Michigan Press, offers many intriguing possibilities.
On the other hand, however, the “e-books” promoted by commercial vendors for research libraries are merely digitized versions of print books with minimal functionality and maddening limitations on their use.  On a good day, these “ebooks” might work for key word or phrase searching, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully “read” one.  And this seems like a real problem, because a book is not just a container for information.  It isn’t a database or a catalogue. It’s a coherent, organized, structured presentation of knowledge and interpretation — A product of human intellect.  New media are transforming the book, and I think we owe it to ourselves to make sure that happens in a way that augments human intellect and makes books better.

I leave you with the parable of the cereal: