The Medium is the Massage

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week the reading was The Medium is the Massage]

The pictures, unusual layouts, and other visual irregularities of The Medium is the Massage seek to shock the reader. In a book focused on examining the importance of new media, adhering to the traditions of old media, print, would have been irresponsible. Though occasionally employing what occasionally seem to be over the top measures, the book upsets the normal print media to drive home the point that the medium is the vital to the content.

However, for all the sweeping predictions of social upheaval, from an academic stand point new media has failed to revolutionize academia. In the over forty years since this book was published academia has remained relatively unchanged in its communication of research findings. Traditional print texts, the monograph and the article, remain the favored medium.

Due to new media’s failure to drastically affect scholarship, I cannot support the book’s comparison of the Internet to the railroad (72). The railroad literally changed the idea of time throughout the world . While the Internet has made incredible changes in society, the failure to totally alter reality in the same way that railroads did, leads me to side with McNeely in placing the Internet inside a larger framework of the laboratory.

What then should digital humanists take away from The Medium is the Massage? Two points strike me as particularly relevant to the digital humanities, the distinction between eye and ear communication as well as the distinction between professionalism and amateurism.

The first distinction, between the eye and ear in regards to print and new media, is especially striking. At a basic level, this juxtaposition should remind scholars new media presents opportunities for the communication of research through more than simple text. However, scholars should also take heed to the argument that appealing to the eye through print imposes order on the communication. On the other hand, “The ear favors no particular ‘point of view.’” (111) Scholarship is built on arguments through textual communication. However, is argument the goal of scholarship or is knowledge? If knowledge is the goal of scholarship, then new media presents academics with an opportunity to embrace and acknowledge the importance of new and non-traditional forms of instruction. Ways of instruction, like ancient Greek poetry, which scholars may have dismissed as not serious.

The second distinction, which I find relevant to digital humanists, is the exploration of professionalism vs. amateurism (93). Digital humanists must become technically skilled to take advantage of new media’s possibilities. However, this need for proficiency must be balanced with an embrace of seemingly naïve amateurism. Certainly, digital humanists must understand the tools, which they use in order to know the advantages and limits. However, to imagine new tools and new possibilities, as a field, digital humanists ought not overly professionalize. Creativity, especially the creativity that sounds outlandish to professionals, is key to innovation.

Though The Medium is the Massage overstates its case as to the socially transformative nature of new media, in its zeal, the book’s overall argument about the shaping influence of medium and environment is very much pertinent to digital humanists and all scholars.

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