“The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.” Sound like it could have been in today’s paper? Maybe a squib on the internet about blogging or some other social media? In fact, it’s from the opening statement of a tiny book first published in 1967, a book responsible for widely popularizing its author’s name, and for taking viral one of the great aphorisms of the century. That book was The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan, a title that plays on McLuhan’s oft repeated phrase “the medium is the message” which first appeared in his 1951 book, The Mechanical Bride, was further examined in Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (1964), and echoed again in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962).
Long before Annie Hall and Wired’s declaration of him as its “patron saint”, McLuhan saw mankind as nomadic gatherers of information, craving more and more from the rapidly expanding and intrusive media. Seemingly an “over-night success” by the early 70s, McLuhan had in fact been writing about the media and its effects on content for nearly a quarter century before the world woke up to his enigmatic aphorisms and pronouncements.
And that’s where most of us reside today, about 25 years behind realizing what in fact is going on all around us.
On the door to my office, as it has been on all my office doors for the past 35 years, is another aphorism and constant reminder from a very different time and place: “The fish is often the last to notice the water in which it swims”. So, I try to begin each day by paying attention to what is swirling all around, much of it often hiding in plain sight. As the office computer began arriving in the late 80s to replace its predecessor, the “typeball” IBM Selectric, it quickly became apparent to many of us that something quite profound and innovative was taking place, something that was bringing a change to the way we worked together, our productivity and communications. In less than ten years during the 90s, typesetters virtually disappeared from most of print publishing as Macs and PCs helped publishers move first to digital editing and type, and then into many of the digital design functions as well. In both print publishing as well as the music business, it slashed production costs, improved operating incomes, and internalized and democratized a more connected process of work flow from author/musician, to editor, to production and distribution. That digital interconnectivity was to have a profound effect on writers and musicians, as well as their business models, as the internal office and production network began to emerge into a much larger world of interconnectivity: the internet.
An even more recent transformation along these lines has occurred in photography, a particular interest of mine. Much like what happened in music as it moved from record to tape to CD to download, giants of the camera and film industry like Kodak have been left behind as its business model continued to rely too heavily on its film technology. Now consumers are in complete control of the entire process; anyone can buy a cameras that can carry hundreds of digital images, which in turn can be downloaded onto laptops, corrected in a personal Photoshop program, printed on a home printer or downloaded over the internet to friends or websites. Once again, that interconnectivity in the digital work flow has begun to materially change how we regard photography, how it is used, and how it is becoming an entirely new art form, unique to this century.
Writing, music and photography, heavily influenced, modified and re-structured through their respective democratizing technology and digital world views, are all evolving along similar lines, though their outcomes will be dramatically different from anything even Marshall McLuhan might have imagined. In particular, writing and photography share many of the same creative concerns as their readers and viewers struggle with questions of what is the true nature of the reality contained within their respective arts. I hope to explore this comparison further in future entries.