Acoustic Space – McLuhan

McLuhan, M. (1997). Media research: technology, art, communication: Routledge.

In many preliterate cultures the binding power of oral tradition is so strong that the eye is subservient to the ear. … In our society, however, to be real, a thing must be visible, and preferably constant” (39).

I largely concur with this direction of thought. In the era of primary orality, the spoken word was the main means of communication. However, I’d argue that that was experienced in combination with and simultaneous to the visual, the ability to see the speaker’s appearance and all of his or her non-verbal cues. But, today, we are certainly a visual species; we trust the eye, finding more faith and understanding when we see it in addition to experiencing it with other senses. In some ways, this view is also relevant to social presence theory and the media theories (richness, synchronicity, naturalness) that rate communication methods on hierarchical levels, each placing FtF communication as the highest and most rich, synchronous, natural, etc. method, since FtF includes visual, aural, and immediacy.

“Auditory space has no point of favored focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It is not pictorial space, boxed, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. It has no fixed boundaries; it is indifferent to the background. The eye focuses, pinpoints, abstracts, locating each object in physical space, against every background; the ear, however, favors sound from any direction. We hear equally well from right or left, front or back, above or below. If we lie down, it makes no difference, whereas in visual space the entire spectacle is altered. We can shut out the visual field by simply closing our eyes, but we are always triggered to respond to sound” (41).

While the inclusion of this entire paragraph quote may be a bit indulgent, it is representative of the essay and also presents a quality account of the differences in how we perceive information visually as oppose to aurally. This is also a discussion I have blogged about (here, among other places) in regard to Ong’s discussion of it in Orality and Literacy. Essentially, information received visually and aurally are very different. One can close his or her eyes and still receive an oral message, perhaps even more effectively at times, such as in the case of listening to an orated story, since a lack of visual leaves the listener’s imagination to create the visual (as oppose to watching a speaker, which occupies that sensory mode). A paused visual, such as a recorded video, creates a still image. However, a paused audio file creates silence.

But, instead of juxtaposing the two, we should really look to the value of receiving both visual and audio communication. There are various ways that we communicate daily that do not include both visual and audio elements, such as on the telephone, Instant messenger or email, and even nods and waves of people we pass. However, when speaking with someone in a FtF setting, we seem to get a better immediate understanding of the message and likely retain it better in memory, although a recorded conversation, such as with email, does offer an archived record, which allows us to not rely on memory, since we can retrieve/review it. I would suggest that we tend to make knowledge by associating things with which we’re familiar. So, if we’re more familiar with FtF communication, and arguably get more from it, then the OVC also offers a certain level of social presence (with text overlay) that might be a better way than other online communication methods for participants to make knowledge, because they’re familiar with it.

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