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On the Shelf: Mediums and Messages, Generation Xers, and Senior Mavericks

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Anniversaries are great. I’m not talking about personal anniversaries like your wedding or the day you brought your dog home. I’m talking about public anniversaries like bicentennials, the Civil War, or the invention of peanut butter. A more cynical person would call them a marketing gimmick and honestly, sometimes they are, but they’re also a time to focus on an otherwise forgotten occasion. Oftentimes they introduce people to someone or something previously unknown.

Recently, the 100 year anniversary of Marshall Mcluhan’s birth brought this fascinating media-philosopher to my attention. Wikipedia bills Mcluhan’s work as “one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory”. The Marshall Mcluhan website describes his first book, Understanding Media (1964), as focusing on “the media effects that permeate society and culture.” The entry explains that “McLuhan’s starting point is always the individual, because he defines media as technological extensions of the body” — a forward notion at that time and one that is much-echoed today by our own forward-thinkers.

What struck me about Marshall Mcluhan was his poignancy delivered brilliantly in sharp aphorisms—his most famous being “the medium is the message” followed up by his coining of “the global village”. Being a sucker for aphorisms—and who isn’t?—I was sucked into the celebration. It’s a good thing public broadcasting shares my enthusiasm because over the past week or so there’s been an outpouring of favorable remembrances of the man. You can listen to a great To The Best of Our Knowledge episode devoted to him alone. Australian radio’s Big Ideas had a roundtable discussion with media-thinker Douglas Rushkoff and electronic musician DJ Spooky (the first 20 minutes or so is an intro by the mediator).

If you’re wondering why DJ Spooky was invited to speak about Mcluhan, you can check out his essay on his work and download a track he created using Marshall’s words.

On Mcluhan’s official site, maintained by his estate, you can watch Tom Wolfe’s introduction to the man and his work and check out some “Mcluhanisms”.

Here’s a print interview Marshall conducted with Playboy in 1969 and the video “The World is a Global Village” from 1960 on Canadian television (opens with sound).

What do you think of our mediums today? What do they say about the messages we receive?

What’s on the Shelf?

The Medium is the Message by Marshall Mcluhan
I always endorse reading primary sources—as opposed to books about a particular book—if the author is accessible. The publisher says The Medium is the Message remains Mcluhan’s most popular work and that it “is still one of the most insightful and provocative works ever to have been published on our modern culture.”

Marshall Mcluhan, You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland
Coupland’s biography of Mcluhan has seen some mixed reviews but appears to be a worthy place to start if you’re looking for some background. Here he is discussing the book with The Paris Review. While we’re talking about Douglas Coupland I’d like to endorse his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a book whose originality changed the way I viewed reading. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I owe my current voraciousness to Coupland and this book. While the book Generation X did not coin the term it did make it popular.

Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff
The publisher says this of the book: “In this spirited, accessible poetics of new media, Rushkoff picks up where Marshall McLuhan left off, helping readers come to recognize programming as the new literacy of the digital age––and as a template through which to see beyond social conventions and power structures that have vexed us for centuries. This is a friendly little book with a big and actionable message.”

You can watch a video of Rushkoff at SXSW discussing his book. If you’re convinced and you’re now looking for some good programming books, check out O’Reilly Media’s books.

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly is a founding editor of WIRED magazine and is currently on staff as their Senior Maverick. Last year he published a sweeping history and forward thinking book on technology called What Technology Wants. Cory Doctorow on his site boingboing summed up the thesis as: “technology has its own internal logics and rhythms that are distinct from (and sometimes adverse to) the desires of the humans that create it. Technology creates itself, using humans to do its bidding, and our normal view of inventors creating technology is a kind of romantic fairy tale that ignores the fact that nearly every great invention is invented nearly simultaneously by many people at the same time, all over the world.”

I truly enjoy listening to Kevin discuss technology and suggest you check out a few of his talks available online. Here he is on the future of the digital media landscape (opens with sound). For more you can check out Kevin’s page on the TED Talks site where they have a few short videos and you can find a great interview with Kevin on To The Best of Our Knowledge. If you’re craving more here’s his talk at the New York Public Library last fall with fellow big thinker Steven Johnson. The discussion was moderated by Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich.

What’s on your shelf this week?


Written by Gabrielle

July 28, 2011 at 6:00 am

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