Read Chapter 3

Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan

CITE AS: Strate, L (2016). Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 49 - 65). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 3
Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan
I can’t say when I first heard the name Marshall McLuhan. Growing up in the sixties, there were some names that were simply environmental, part of the cultural (and countercultural) backdrop—names like Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia, Twiggy, Tom Wolfe, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono. Marshall McLuhan was one of them. I may have first seen the name when I was seven years old on a magazine cover or in a newspaper article, following the explosion of publicity that surrounded the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). Maybe I first saw the name on the pocket-sized paperback edition of that book that was published the following year. Unlike today, when larger, trade paperbacks are the norm, at that time smaller and relatively inexpensive books in the format pioneered by Pocket Books were plentiful, sold in many different types of retail outlets, stationary stores, five-and-dimes, drug stores, supermarkets, newspaper stands, and the many small, independent bookstores that once were commonplace. Admittedly, it was most likely to have been a collection of Peanuts cartoons or Mad magazine material that caught my attention, but there were many intellectual, indeed scholarly, books included in the mix, and I did have a wandering eye when it came to reading material. It is most likely that I first heard the name on television or maybe even saw McLuhan in one of his many talk show appearances (in those days authors were featured routinely on such programs). Since my parents were in the habit of watching television news every night, I would have heard the report on November 26, 1967, about McLuhan undergoing what was at the time the longest continuous brain surgery ever attempted, which successfully removed a large, benign brain tumor. If nothing else, I am certain I would have heard Henry Gibson recite the poem “Marshall McLuhan, What Are You Doin'?” in the fall of 1968 while watching the NBC comedy program Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

All this speaks to McLuhan’s celebrity, of course, and not his ideas. Media was not a topic that came up much when I was in elementary school (Public School 99 in Kew Gardens, part of the New York City school system). I do remember going to the auditorium with my class where a television set was placed on stage, so that we could watch some live event—I think it was a NASA rocket launch. And I was particularly struck by the fact that all of us kids burst out laughing when a commercial for some beauty product came on. It was the kind of commercial that we would watch without reaction when sitting in front of the tube by ourselves at home, but something about seeing it in the group context made it absolutely hilarious. And somehow this never happened when we had radio programs piped into our classroom over the PA system or were shown educational filmstrips or movies. There was something different about the television medium and something different about school as a situational context. But we never talked about television as a medium.

We did, however, talk about the press, and I recall learning about the trial of John Peter Zenger as part of American history, and with it the idea of freedom of the press. I think that was in fourth grade, and I believe it was in sixth grade that we had to subscribe to the New York Times for a month. I remember being taught how to read the newspaper, learning that the most important story on the front page appeared in column eight (there were eight columns in those days, as opposed to six now), and practicing the straphanger fold (a technique for reading the paper on a crowded subway or bus). We also had a class trip to the newspaper’s headquarters in Manhattan and received souvenirs in the form of bits of metal type used for printing.

Of course, elementary school back then was mainly about the three Rs—reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic—which is to say that the focus was on language, literacy, and numeracy. Grammar came as second nature to me, and I was fortunate that the dialect of English that I knew was more or less the standard dialect being taught in school. The formal qualities of the written word were the subjects I had greatest difficulty with—specifically, spelling and handwriting—and this heightened my consciousness of the differences between spoken language and its written representation. And while I had no difficulty with the rules of grammar, diction was another matter altogether, and in fourth grade I was sent to speech class to learn how to make the th sound. My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and substituted a zh or dzh sound for th; consequently, I learned to speak in that way as well and needed instruction on how to put my tongue up against my upper front teeth to make the th sound, a phoneme that is not used in many other languages. On the other hand, I was entirely familiar with the hard ch sound that is entirely absent from English, but commonly used in German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Scottish. This served to instill in me an early awareness of speech and language as modes of communication. I should add that I grew up in a multilingual environment, my parents both speaking many different languages and my neighborhood populated by Jewish immigrants from many different nations. My parents spoke German to each other when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, so naturally I started to pick up the language when I was very young, although I never actually learned to speak it. I also gained a limited familiarity with another German dialect, Yiddish, which was a lingua franca spoken in many contexts when I was growing up; relatives and friends of my parents often expressed disapproval that I didn’t speak Yiddish, but in those days immigrants, no matter their origin, wanted their children to speak English and English alone, to become fully American. Nevertheless, I would hear my mother speaking Polish to her sister, my father speaking Hungarian to his friends from the old country, and both parents speaking Romanian to other friends and relatives. And around the time I was sent to have my speech deficiency “cured” in public school, I began my formal religious education with Sunday school on Sunday mornings and Hebrew classes twice a week after school. Learning Hebrew involved not only learning another language but also learning another alphabet, learning the difference between a spoken language and a writing system, and learning how the same writing system could be used to represent the sounds of different languages. Moreover, the most sacred object in the synagogue is the Torah, a parchment scroll handwritten by a specially trained religious scribe, written in an ancient Hebrew that used no vowels, very limited forms of punctuation, and a special, calligraphic style; this introduced me, in a profound way, to a kind of book that existed before printing, before book-binding, and before the introduction of paper as a writing surface. I should also note that not long after I started my religious education, I bought a book at one of the Scholastic book fairs, held periodically at our public school, that put all of this in context for me: it was What’s Behind the Word, by Sam and Beryl Epstein (1964), and it told the story of the evolution of the English language, the nature of words, and the roles played by writing, the alphabet, and printing.

Language and literacy, speech and writing, and even typography all are topics that were not typically associated with the idea of media, at least not before McLuhan published his two major works, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). McLuhan’s background was quite different from mine, as he was an English-speaking Canadian born almost half a century before me (he in 1911, I in 1957). His mother was an elocutionist, which undoubtedly provided him with an early awareness of speech as a form of expression. As a youth, he was befriended by a young S. I. Hayakawa, who went on to become the best known proponent of general semantics, devoted to raising our consciousness of language as a means of mapping reality (Haslam and Haslam 2011). And as an English major who went on to get his doctorate in the subject from Cambridge University, he was particularly drawn to poetry and prose that exhibited a self-reflexive quality, such as the writing of the French symbolists and James Joyce (by way of contrast, I was deeply moved by J.R.R. Tolkien, whose fantasy was based, significantly for this discussion, on his background as a scholar of philology (Strate 2011). At Cambridge, McLuhan studied with I. A. Richards, whose approach to English emphasized an understanding of how symbol, referent, and reference form a semantic triangle (Ogden and Richards 1923) and, therefore, an understanding of how language functions as a medium of expression, a view echoed by the anthropologist Edward Sapir (1921) whose linguistic relativism had a major impact on McLuhan’s thinking (see also Lee 1959; Whorf 1956). Also quite importantly, it was during McLuhan’s years as a doctoral student that he converted to Catholicism, embracing an experience that emphasized an ancient and somewhat alien language. Praying in Latin placed greater emphasis on the sound of the prayer rather than the verbal content, enhancing the spiritual and mystical quality of the experience, and McLuhan was not in favor of the Second Vatican Council’s move away from the Latin Mass. The cathedral itself represents a physical environment that is quite distinct from everyday settings, which includes the powerful medium of religious iconography, stained glass windows, statues, and so on that Saint Gregory the Great had characterized as the books of the illiterate. McLuhan came to his understanding of media through the lens of a medievalist, both intellectually and religiously.

Following the end of the World War II, colleges and universities in the United States began to form Departments of Communication, bringing together scholars in areas such as speech, rhetoric, English, psychology, sociology, and political science. For example, my department at Fordham University was founded in 1946 by merging programs in theater, radio, and journalism. McLuhan joined the faculty at the University of Toronto that same year, having previously taught at Saint Louis University (like Fordham, a Jesuit school), and Ontario’s Assumption University. At Toronto, he was influenced by Harold Innis, a senior scholar of political economy and author of Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), and he began a close collaboration with the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. Both Innis and Carpenter had much to do with McLuhan turning his attention from literary criticism and popular culture, the latter the subject of McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), to an emphasis on communication and media. Carpenter and McLuhan worked together to publish nine issues of the interdisciplinary journal Explorations and an anthology based on the periodical Explorations in Communication (Carpenter and McLuhan 1960), which brought together essays by independent and innovative thinkers such as the noted sociologist David Riesman, literary theorist Northrop Frye, seminal nonverbal communication researcher Ray L. Birdwhistell, historian and medievalist H. J. Chaytor, pioneering popular culture scholar Gilbert Seldes, architectural critic Sigfried Gidion, famed modernist painter Fernand Léger, and well-known humorist and radio personality Jean Shepherd.

McLuhan’s collaboration with Carpenter also led to a grant from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, supplemented by funding from the United States Office of Education, which resulted in his Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960), on which his subsequent work was based. The report was very much concerned with media literacy education and later became the basis of a textbook he coauthored, intended for use in secondary schools (McLuhan, Hutchon, and McLuhan 1977, 1980), which emphasized having students go beyond the classroom to research the components of their media environments, such as light bulbs, newspapers, and, especially, television. I can only guess at what a high-school class based on that curriculum might have been like, my own experience having been quite different.
High School Communication Arts
Language, speech, and symbols, as well as writing and printing, are areas of interest in the field of communication and in the broader study of media that McLuhan introduced, but the only experience I had with any formal study of communication before college was when I took a semester of communication arts which was offered as an English elective in my high school. I should note at this point that I was in the first graduating class at Hillcrest High School in Queens, New York (TV stars Fran Drescher and Ray Romano were both a year behind me), which followed an innovative curriculum and structure based on the educational reform movement of the sixties and early seventies. Many in this movement were influenced by McLuhan’s comments about the difficulty that young people, having been born into a media environment dominated by television and electronic technologies, faced in adjusting to a school environment shaped by print media and mechanical technologies.

As a high-school student, I was unaware of the larger context of the educational reform movement—that reformers had been arguing for greater relevance in the curriculum, as well as for more flexible structures—but I was impressed with all the talk about how innovative Hillcrest High School was. By senior year, however, it became clear to me that the innovations that had been introduced were either not particularly substantial (e.g., instead of semesters, the school year was divided into four quarters) or resulted in a less rigorous and effective form of schooling.

In any event, one aspect of Hillcrest’s innovative approach was to offer elective courses in place of a traditional English curriculum. To be honest, it was only in my last quarter that I took a course on Shakespeare’s comedies, realizing how ridiculous it would be to graduate high school without ever taking any Shakespeare at all. Sadly, I did graduate having studied almost no literature, as I was allowed to take mostly creative writing classes instead. I also took the two English electives that were offered in an area called Communication Arts, a subject I had never heard of before. (Later on, educators would refer to that sort of class as media literacy, but that designation was hardly a blip on the academic radar at that time). The first quarter was on radio, the second on television. I imagine some mention was made of McLuhan at that time, but I can’t remember anything specific, so I doubt there was anything more than a passing reference. All that I recall was being tested on our ability to memorize terms such as pan, zoom, fade, and dissolve, making Communication Arts a progressive subject approached in a regressive manner. I also remember the teacher setting up a video camera and monitor, giving us all a chance to look through the viewfinder, and to stand in front of the camera and see what we looked like on TV, which was quite new and exciting at that time. It was fun, but there was not much there that was particularly stimulating, intellectually. It probably was good preparation for working as a camera operator.

While I was in high school, I discovered another one of those pocket-sized paperbacks: Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler (1970). I bought my copy in a neighborhood candy store, and, incredibly, you could buy the book with a cover in one of four different colors. This seemed altogether futuristic, in keeping with the theme of the book, although it also illustrated one of the characteristics of the syndrome that gave the book its title: overchoice, having too many choices and no basis of deciding on one or another. But the book was exhilarating in its description of the massive social and cultural changes we were experiencing during the mid-twentieth century on account of technological innovation, scientific discovery, and innovations in communication. I found it very exciting to learn that I was coming of age during a pivotal moment in human history. Future Shock was the perfect work to ignite my teenage imagination, as a relatively accessible, popular work. Only later would I learn that it was somewhat derivative and something of a simplification of the work of media-ecology scholars such as McLuhan (and that the term future shock was first introduced by Neil Postman [see Postman 1988]). But Toffler got my feet wet and whetted my appetite for more, and I would eventually discover that many others found their way to McLuhan’s ideas through such popularizations of his thought. Toffler’s concept of future shock was included in an Introduction to Communication Theory course I took in my first semester of college at Cornell University, taught by the late Jack Barwind. It was in that same course that I was introduced to McLuhan’s ideas for the first time, and I immediately found them appealing and inspiring. Also in that same course, I was introduced to related concepts from Harold Innis, Jacques Ellul, and Daniel Boorstin, as well as general semantics, general systems theory, and relational communication. It was not until I became a doctoral student, studying with Postman, that these and other ideas were tied together within the field of media ecology (see Strate 2006, 2014), but this first undergraduate course served as my formal introduction to an approach that McLuhan shared with several other scholars. As it was unnamed, and the scholars not formally grouped together, all that could be said at the time was that they shared a common sensibility. And they were grouped together{AU: Since the preceding sentence says the scholars were not grouped formally, please clarify here in what way they were grouped.} with other concepts and theories in communication studies that I found interesting, if nowhere near as heady. I had enrolled as a biology major, but after a few semesters in which I found the subject too technical for my tastes, I changed my major to communication arts and never looked back.
Reading McLuhan
And now I come to the confessional part of this chapter. My first confession is that when I first read McLuhan’s Understanding Media in an upper-level undergraduate communication theory course, I had considerable difficulty understanding his writing. This was a great disappointment for me. When I first was introduced to McLuhan’s basic ideas in Barwind’s introductory lecture course, they made a great deal of sense to me. I could relate to the perspective and, in fact, embraced it beyond any other set of ideas I had encountered in my education. But McLuhan’s writing style was oblique, full of puns, allusions, metaphors, non sequiturs, paradoxes, and paralogisms, and I had never encountered anything like it. Stylistically influenced by Joyce as he was, my own lack of literary education put me at a distinct disadvantage, although I was far from alone in finding him to be a challenging read. Jerome Agel, who produced McLuhan’s best-selling book The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (McLuhan and Fiore 1967), would later tell me the following joke from the sixties: “Did you know that Understanding Media has been translated into over a dozen languages?” “Oh yeah? Has it been translated into English yet?” And speaking of The Medium Is the Massage, that book was on sale in our college bookstore, not as an assigned text for any course but just in the general reading section (college bookstores used to be more like neighborhood small or midsized bookstores, with only a small amount of space devoted to clothing and collegiate paraphernalia), so I decided to buy a copy. It was very intriguing in being full of illustrations, photographs, cartoons, and novel forms of typography. I had never seen anything like it, and indeed it was an unprecedented kind of book. Some dismissed it as a nonbook, but its innovations in graphic design proved to be enormously influential, not least in inspiring the look of Wired magazine a quarter of a century later.

Of course, I had no idea about any of this; I just hoped the book would provide me with a more accessible introduction to McLuhan’s thought than Understanding Media, so I took it back to my room to read. And now comes my second confession. By the time I got to college, smoking marijuana was pretty much a commonplace activity that most students indulged in at least once or twice. Many indulged in the drug use purely for recreational pleasure, but some were also interested in using altered states of mind to better understand consciousness, both individually and collectively. I did not know it at the time, but Timothy Leary, the great proponent of the much more powerful psychedelic drug LSD, had claimed that McLuhan had given him the slogan, “turn on, tune in, and drop out."  McLuhan denied the connection, but certainly the “tune in” part was derived from McLuhan’s emphasis on the mind-altering qualities of the television medium, and McLuhan did coauthor a book titled Take Today: The Executive as Dropout (McLuhan and Nevitt 1972). The point of all this is that I inhaled, as the saying goes (or as Barack Obama put it in response to a query, “Yes, I inhaled—that was the point." And I inhaled The Medium Is the Massage as well, reading it in about half an hour.

And at that moment, I was able to say, “I got it! I got McLuhan!” The experience of suddenly getting McLuhan has been described as akin to a religious experience by some or in more general terms as an epiphany; to use a term popular during the sixties, I was able to grok McLuhan (grok was coined by the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land to refer to an extreme form of understanding and empathy). In visual terms, it was the kind of experience depicted in comic strips of a light bulb being switched on over a character’s head, which would certainly be fitting, given that McLuhan argued that electric technology and electronic media constituted the basis of a revolution that was reversing the course of some three millennia of Western civilization. Television was the specific electronic medium that had pushed our culture over the edge, he argued, and one of the characteristics of television was its low resolution image, which McLuhan compared to that of the printed cartoon, which elevated the comics medium in importance (see Scott McCloud’s insightful, McLuhan-inspired graphic nonfiction, Understanding Comics [1993]). This idea significance for me because I had been reading comics since before I could read (my parents read them to me), despite the fact that the hybrid medium was often disparaged by teachers and others arguing in defense of elitist literary culture. The fact that comics crossed—or, if you like, transgressed—the boundary between literate and pictorial media contributed to my own developing awareness of differences among media, differences in their biases towards different types of content, differences in their effects on the ways we think, feel, act, perceive, and organize ourselves, differences that McLuhan famously summed up by saying, “The medium is the message” (1964). 

The image of a light bulb turning on is a visual metaphor for an idea (the word{AU: OK?} is derived from the Greek term for seeing) and perhaps the most basic way of describing the effect of my reading The Medium Is the Massage was that I was suddenly able to see the world from an entirely new perspective (in addition to being a field or intellectual tradition, media ecology has often been referred to as a perspective, although I prefer to use approach in order to avoid the visual metaphor). Or, to invoke Aldous Huxley’s well-known phrase, used to describe his experiments with hallucinogens, the “doors of perception" suddenly opened for me. The reference to perception is particularly significant because McLuhan’s specific approach to media ecology emphasized the primary role that sensory organs play in our thought processes.

In this, he followed the philosophy of the medieval Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who argued that all that we know is based on what we take in through our senses, a position that resonated powerfully with the mid-twentieth-century zeitgeist that McLuhan was a part of. McLuhan characterized Western civilization as one in which alphabetic literacy had placed unprecedented emphasis on the visual sense alone, training the eye to focus on the world from a fixed point of view, stressing the linear and sequential and a one-thing-at-a-time mentality. Before writing and the alphabet, the different senses functioned in a balanced and coordinated manner worked out by biological evolution, one in which hearing had particular prominence as the sense through which the word, language in the form of speech, was communicated. Then came the silence of the literate world, which was broken by the electronic media, with its transmission and playback of sound; the linearity of the alphabet was disrupted by the electronic circuit and rippling broadcast waves, restoring some element of sensory balance and giving rise to new forms of tribalism on a massive scale—the “global village,” as McLuhan (1962) put it. This was entirely consonant with the world of record albums, stereo systems, and electronically amplified instruments that I inhabited as a college student. Coming to a clear understanding of the distinct differences between hearing and seeing, between the ways in which the ear and the eye mediate our experience of the world, is essential to unlocking McLuhan’s approach to understanding media (Strate and Wachtel 1995).

One of the currents that ran through this period was the importance of retrieving a prelinguistic state of mind. It was the understanding that our thought processes were mediated and dominated, if not entirely monopolized, by language and that thinking was a kind of inner dialogue or monologue, a narration that interfered with pure perception, with seeing things in a relatively unmediated, novel, and creative way. Many advocated getting back to viewing the world without immediately attaching names and labels to the objects of our perception, from physicists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer to celebrants of psychedelic experience like Huxley and Leary, as well as practitioners of Transcendental Meditation and other New Age mavens (including Carlos Castaneda, whose books made a strong impression on me as a teenager and who turned out to be one of Edmund Carpenter’s students). Through my own experimentation, I learned how to achieve a quiet state of mind and to concentrate on sense perception alone, and that experience with altered states informed and enabled my understanding of McLuhan when I first sat down to read The Medium Is the Massage.

I hasten to add that much of the credit goes to the innovative graphic design of the book itself, which helped show, illustrate—indeed, embody—McLuhan’s ideas in ways that I could relate to and readily absorb, independent of any particular mental state. And by reducing his prose down to smaller, more manageable chunks, like poetry, I could make sense of his philosophy of media. Reading McLuhan otherwise has quite accurately been described as trying to drink from a fire hose. I also want to stress that this was the beginning, not the end, of my story. The door was open, but to enter required many years of study, and as I progressed from undergraduate to graduate work and from an M.A. to a Ph.D. program, I found that I needed a clear head and unimpeded linguistic ability both for reading and for writing. I came to the conclusion that McLuhan’s thought, and the insights of other media-ecology scholars, can be explained in clear and logical terms (see, for example, Strate 2005, 2008). The kind of quantum leap that so many of us had experienced was necessary because of the way that McLuhan communicated, and it was the kind of intellectual slap in the face that was needed at that time to wake us sleepwalkers up from the dream state that three millennia of alphabetic culture had imposed on Westerners. But I suspect that kind of wake-up call is less necessary these days, and I also have found that it is possible to generate the same kind of shift in orientation and approach through less drastic means, by unpacking McLuhan’s ideas and presenting media ecology as a field and intellectual tradition in a straightforward manner (see, for example, Strate 2006, 2014). But McLuhan’s writings remain a great source of scholarly ferment, as well as creative inspiration (e.g., Strate and Karasick 2014), and I take great pleasure in introducing students to books like Understanding Media, The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride, Media and Formal Cause (McLuhan and McLuhan 2011), and of course, The Medium Is the Massage.
Lessons Learned
What I have learned from McLuhan is first and foremost how absolutely essential media education is, not just in producing well-rounded individuals properly prepared for successful careers in a world dominated by electronic and digital communications but for the future of citizenship, justice, and democracy in a society in which public discourse, political action, and our collective business in its entirety is conducted through or with the aid of various forms of new media. Indeed, media education is essential to our reclaiming some measure of control over our world and may well be the key to our ongoing survival as a species. McLuhan made it clear that this has to begin with a wake-up call. Along with other media-ecology scholars, he used the metaphor of the invisible environment to refer to the fact that we tend to focus on the content of communication and ignore the medium used to convey those messages. We are conscious of the medium itself when it is brand new, but as soon as the novelty wears off, the medium becomes part of a routine, fading into the background and becoming functionally transparent to us. Typically, the medium itself will be brought back into our awareness only when it breaks down or becomes obsolescent. The first goal of media education is to restore the sense of novelty, that experience of strangeness, that we so easily lose regarding our modes of communication, to distance ourselves from our media and learn to look at them rather than through them.

The second goal is to focus on their differences and, following Gregory Bateson (1972), those differences that make a difference. As I have noted, this can begin with an understanding of how different modes of sense perception yield different experiences of the world: for example, the differences between seeing and hearing. The body and the nervous system are our primary media, and differences in biological structure lead to differences in perception, cognition, emotion, and behavior. Language is the mode of communication that is most distinctive to the human species, providing us with our tools for thought and shaping our attention, perception, and memory. It follows that different languages provide us with different ways of viewing and experiencing the world and, thus, different ways of thinking and feeling and acting. One of McLuhan’s basic points is that languages are a form of media, and that a medium can be understood as a language in its own right, with its own particular vocabulary and grammar and its own way of helping us to know about the world and ourselves. Media is a plural noun, and each medium has its own biases towards certain forms of expression and understanding.

I prefer not to use terms like media literacy and digital literacy in my approach to media education because I am concerned that they obscure the distinctive quality of literacy as it refers to the ability to read and write, that is, to work with the written word as a medium. When it comes to differences that make a difference, there is no sharper contrast than that between words and images (Strate 2014), which is why a phrase like visual literacy strikes me as a contradiction in terms. Moreover, understanding the differences between speech, the acoustic medium that forms the basis of all human languages, and writing, the visual medium used to represent, preserve, and transmit the spoken word, is central to McLuhan’s approach (see also Ong 1982). For McLuhan, it was language, not literacy, that was the key metaphor, although he was certainly sympathetic to the idea behind media literacy, and his work constitutes an important foundation for the field and movement. McLuhan was, in fact, very sensitive to the role that metaphors play in our thinking about the world, and he argued that media themselves constitute metaphors (e.g., a person is like an open book, life is like a movie, the mind is like a computer) and that technology is a means of translating experience (as, for example, a lever is used to translate force, amplifying it from the arm to the object to be moved). It might follow that I would prefer a term consistent with the view of media as language, and in this respect media fluency comes to mind (which has a nice resonance with the use of flow as metaphor for electricity), but I think the clearest and most straightforward phrase to use in this context is simply media education.

I have also used the term media ecology, in conjunction with McLuhan, to suggest a particular approach and field of study in which media are studied as environments. This is another metaphor, to be sure, but one that emphasizes the idea that media are not only tools that we use but also environments that envelop us, that we find ourselves immersed within, which underscores the fact that they influence and shape us individually and collectively. Language and symbolic communication are what makes us human, and we depended on speech alone for tens of thousands of years, living in tribal societies. The invention of forms of notation, and especially writing, has been associated with the development of complex societies in the ancient world, and the specific form of writing called the alphabet was the basis of the distinctive characteristics of Western cultures. The modern world began with the printing revolution begun by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, continued with electronic technologies beginning with the telegraph in the early nineteenth century, and culminated with television in the mid-twentieth century. Television brought the modern era to a close and thrust us into an entirely new moment in human history, one that continues to evolve through the addition of various forms of digital technology. Media education, in my view, is about much more than learning how to use and decode various types of media; it is about understanding how media have affected and continue to alter the human psyche, society, and culture.

For me, the foundation of media education is the idea that the medium is the message, which I take to mean that we should pay attention to the question of how, that the way that we do things has much to do with what we end up doing and what we end up with when we do them. It means that we need to stop ignoring form in favor of content. We need to learn to recognize the patterns and relationships that surround us by understanding media as a term that refers to all codes and modes of communication: face-to-face situations and actual locations as well as gadgets and devices. It also means attending to methods, to all manner of technology and technique, as they mediate between ourselves and our environment. Media function as our environments because they are the means through which we relate to our world; they are the ways in which we perceive and experience our environment and the ways in which we act on and modify our environment, and they constitute the artificial environment that we have constructed to shield us from the world as it might otherwise exist. For me, then, media education is essential to fully understanding our world, its history, and its future and our place in it as human beings, not to mention what the prospects are for the survival of our species and how we might sustain ourselves without sacrificing our humanity.
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