The Medium of Digital Humanities

[This is a thought piece written for HIST946: Digital Humanities with Professor William Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. This week’s reading was Marshall McLuhan, *The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. You can find related posts here.]*

“All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, pyschological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty–psychic or physical.”

Marshall McLuhan

With the publication of his “nonbook” marrying together text and image, Marshall McLuhan upends the discourse of Gutenbergian linearity. An important take away is to consider how his ideas shape our own understanding of digital text. Written text is said to be linear, following a sequential, logical, reasoned unfolding of narrative. Digital text is different through its flexibility. We can link hypertext; we can break down the linearity of the book.

We can compare books to the Internet to illustrate McLuhan’s point. Imagine that the book includes a companion website. Both media have the ability to communicate the same content to the user, but because each media is different the content is experienced in different ways. Books are linear, and all the readers of a book experience the media in the same Gutenbergian linearity following a sequential, logical, reasoned unfolding of narrative. The creation of regularized alphabets and mass printing have determined the design of the medium in which text is produced and disseminated. But move this content to the web and the experience is dramatically different. Primarily, websites break down the linear narrative experience. Instead, sections of the website might contain all the information related to specific parts of a book – important people, significant events, useful documents, context, analysis. The users is left to decide how to consume the content and reach conclusions. Beginning, middle, and end are absent in the nonlinearity of the web.

The key question, then, becomes how we can take advantage of digital technology in the humanities, which, I think, also gets us deeper into McLuhan’s ideas. Namely, the Internet and other forms of digital technology allows scholars to deliver content to users that may otherwise be impossible to access. The Internet has given us our “global village” and a new way of disseminating information. We have, argues McLuhan, come full circle to the tribal mentality and have discovered a way to divorce ourselves from written literacy. We have opportunities to truly engage in the possibilities and potentials of new media. The issue, as McLuhan writes, is that “our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old” (81). Look around us today: the Nook, the Kindle, and other reading devices that have been created to replace – but recreate – the book, to perpetuate linear text. Today’s reading devices have yet to embrace the nonlinearity that digital text and hypertext affords.

McLuhan thought of medium as an extension of the body or senses that allows for change to flourish. So, McLuhan media can be anything humans have created, invented, innovated, or thought. But his key point – that the content is not central, it is the medium that has value – seems misguided. The message is what is important – not the medium the message arrived in. The act of sharing is the real value. We can return to the example of the electronic reading devices. Amazon is not in the business of selling Kindles – they are in the business of selling ebooks. The medium (the Kindle) is not as important as the message (the text). McLuhan expected electronic media to upend the stability of word; however, word seems safer because of electronic media. The real value of McLuhan’s ideas is not the disappearance of text; instead, it is the new forms of electronic narrative.

07 September 2011 · @jaheppler