December 20, 2002

The medium is not the message.

Today’s New York TImes featured an article about early photographer William Henry Fox Talbot. I read it while drinking my morning coffee. Half an hour later, seated at my computer terminal, I called up the same article from http://www.nytimes.com to check the wording of a passage I wanted to ponder.

    [Photographs] concentrate attention on what the eye might not normally bother to notice, which, when set apart on a sheet of paper, becomes strange, new and beautiful. Susan Sontag famously observed: “Nobody exclaims: `Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.’ Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is, `I find that ugly thing . . . beautiful.’ ”

    Everything became potentially beautiful. Artists before Talbot painted banal and mundane things and made them look beautiful. But photography conveyed beauty differently.

    Talbot made a beautiful photograph of books on shelves, perhaps imitating a still life, perhaps suggesting photography’s potential as evidence, legal or otherwise, perhaps implying a self-portrait. The meaning is up to you. Talbot’s genius was to raise the different possibilities. He identified from the start, with what now seems astonishing speed and clarity, photography’s implications, which he laid out in “The Pencil of Nature,” the first book illustrated with photographs.

Marshall McLuhan (famously) wrote that “The Medium is the Message” back in 1964, long before the Internet opened up easily navigated alternative paths to information. (McLuhan popularized the word media and coined the phrase the global village. Wired magazine claims McLuhan as its patron saint.)

What happened with my two readings about Talbot? Same message; different media. I learned something new each time. Clearly, the medium was not the message.

At the breakfast table, I was scanning the New York Times for items of interest. The Talbot item caught my attention because I’m interested in photography and visual learning. I read it because it was there, on the front page of the Fine Arts and Leisure section. Finding this particular article was unintentional.

At the computer, I deliberately searched for the article by surfing into http://www.nytimes.com and clicking a link. This was entirely intentional. I knew what I was looking for. I went after it on purpose.

Because I couldn’t remember how to spell McLuhan, I put medium is the message into Google. I quickly found the spelling, but five hits down, I also came upon Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium is the Message”, an appreciation of his cultural significance by Todd Kappelman. I’d forgotten that no one talked about media before McLuhan came on the scene. I hadn’t known that his epitaph reads “The Trust Shall Set You Free.” These discoveries were serendipitous. I was looking for neither the plural of medium nor the words on Marshall’s tombstone. I found them by accident. My curiosity led me to them. I hoped something like this would happen — that’s why I put medium is the message into Google instead of something more direct, like marshall media. I do things like this all the time, setting myself up for discovery learning by putting myself in a likely spot for it.

My three experiences this morning fall along a continuum of intentionality (happened upon it vs. went after it).


To scan a wider array of news sites and blogs, I “syndicated” them, that is, asked a simple program to display recent headlines on a single page. This was new to me. I knew my blog generated files in XML but I didn’t know how to read them, much less read someone else’s.

How to Read Syndicated Headlines
Surf to http://www.disobey.com/amphetadesk. Follow the download instructions (i.e., download the file & unzip it). Click on the pill icon. Add or delete from the list of sites. Start reading.

Now I click an icon on my desktop to call up a list of recent headlines. With the click of a few buttons, I put items from eLearningPost, eLearnSpace, OLDaily, Learning Circuits blog, JOHO, John Robb, Distrubing Search Requests, Design for Community, DayPop, BlogDex, and, just for kicks, Internet Time Group. When an item catches my eye, I can click its link to pull up its source. [break — I got carried away chasing down interesting stuff for 30 minutes.]

“Syndication” let me put together a personal newsstand on the web, tailored to my current interests. Like a good newsstand, it lets me look over the covers. It’s pushed at me but from the titles I chose. Unlike email lists, I can drop by this newsstand on my own schedule. It’s pull/push/pull.

The Internet medium can be the message. Think “computer as quicksand.” It’s a black hole for personal time. Insatiable. Computing gets in the way of my productivity in other realms. Instead of buying Christmas gifts online, my only choice at this late date, I found myself tweaking my websites. At midnight. And still going at one in the morning. Plugging into the net is like being in one of those Las Vegas casinos with no windows and no clocks, where the action is 24×7 and the sun has no impact.

A week ago, I gave up cutting on my computer for a day. Well, for most of a day. At 10:00 pm, I had to check traffic conditions. The experience, using paper in lieu of keyboard, was worthwhile. I haven’t tried it since.

“He doesn’t read his email.”

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