The Gutenberg Galaxy – Experiencing a new technology – McLuhan

McLuhan, M. (1968). The gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man: Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

This text, obviously enough by title, largely addresses the effect of the Gutenberg press on both oral and chirograph communication. There is much to this that will be of use to me as I get further into my studies and seek to add more historical foundation. However, of most relevance today is the book’s consideration of what occurs when a new technology is presented either from within or external to a culture.

“[T]he initial shock [of experiencing a new technology] gradually dissipates as the entire community absorbs the new habit of perception into all its areas of work and association. But the real revolution is in this later and prolonged phase of “adjustment” of all personal and social life to the new model of perception set up by the new technology” (23).

As noted before, I do not see the Online Video Conversation (OVC) as a technology remotely close to that of the telephone, television, etc., so radical that it completely changes the way that we communicate and think about communication. It does not engage our senses so differently than other technologies. But it does present a new method of communication and one that is unique enough that it does require some level of adjustment by its new participants. It does have its early adopters, but I do not see some mass wave of “newness” occurring. The OVC is a method that, at least at this point, is likely to advance in general population use quite slowly unless some particular tool that employs it explodes in popularity. Yet, with many uses for this communication method that could be highly effective in education, the workplace, and in social media. Therefore, this “prolonged phase of ‘adjustment,’” a certain “tipping point” could certainly occur as people begin to use it more frequently and ubiquitously.

“If a new technology is introduced either from within or from without a culture, and if it gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all of our senses is altered. We no longer feel the same, nor do our eyes and ears and other senses remain the same” (24).

Again, while the OVC may not radically alter our senses, it is worth addressing this concept/quote, since the OVC is new in that it merges a number of communication methods–that of Face-to-Face (FtF), video, brief text (albeit not “texting”)–into a setting that is not quite any one of these bit is new and somewhat unfamiliar in the way that one may think about it and approach the use of it. Just as McLuhan states of the Gutenberg technology; the components of it were not new. “But when brought together in the fifteenth century there was an acceleration of social and personal action tantamount to ‘take off’” (90).

I suggest that we’re all quite familiar with FtF communication; however, the other listed communications have varying levels of familiarity from person to person. This point, of course plays greatly into how easily one takes to this technology as well as into the individual’s comfort level. In the setting in which I applied the OVC for my research–the asynchronous online classroom–students have a fair level of general computer and internet comfort, since they are all taking the online class. The comfort level with a new communication tool, technology, and method, particularly one that places the student in front of a video camera was a bit newer to them. However, within a few posts from each student they were visibly more comfortable in front of the camera, which at this point I would presume was due to both becoming familiar with the new communication form as well as knowing what to expect from the experience. As a new method of communication, the senses did not feel the same as with other forms.

“It would seem that the extension of one or another of our senses by mechanical means… can act as a sort of twist for the kaleidoscope of the entire sensorium. A new combination or ratio of the existing components occurs, and a new mosaic of possible forms presents itself” (55).

The OVC extends our senses in that we communicate with one or more individuals at any distance while still seeing, hearing, and sensing their presence. That it takes place asynchronously is more a consideration of convenience and the ability to plan one’s response. In combination, this setting does twist our senses in how we communicate. It is not that we are using our senses in such a new way, but rather that it is a new ratio of how we use those senses. Without visual, audio, and other sensory distracters, such as those that might occur in a live FtF communication setting, we can focus more directly on the individual within the video frame. The only distracters are those that might occur in the video, such as a dog walking onto the room, or those that happen on our side of the screen, that which is actually live. So, without the presence of touch, taster, and olfactory sense awareness beyond those that each participant controls in his or her own environment, one is more aware of the sight and sound senses of the individual speaking on video. Add to this the lack of social distraction–mind chatter, nervousness, awkwardness–that occurs when in the FtF presence of another individual, and those two dominant sense in the OVC setting become even more heightened.

Leave a Reply