Movies: The Reel World – McLuhan

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1st MIT Press ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

In this chapter, McLuhan begins by noting that movies, which for the purposes of this post only certain aspects refer also to video, merges the mechanical and the organic in a special way. On the base level, the idea of a camera (mechanical) recording something organic like the growth of a flower or the fluid movement of someone walking is such a merging. However, on a somewhat deeper level, film takes something that may not be organic and makes it seem so by presenting a sequential series of still images into a moving picture, such as making a chair walk across a room. Film also links technology with print in that they both generate fantasy in the viewer or reader.

“The business of the writer or the film-maker is to transfer the reader or viewer from one world, his own, to another, the world created by typography and film” (384).

While this statement is true in most cases, including with much of my own writing on orality, writing, and media, it suggests that the Online Video Conversation (OVC) has a different purpose or effect. Truly with both fiction and nonfiction, with both drama and documentary, the writer or film-maker is putting forth a formalized argument for the reader/viewer to experience from the creator’s perspective. The OVC is not such a formalized one-way presentation. Rather, it is used as a conversational tool, with each participant exchanging comments as one would sitting across a table. Therefore, there is a certain element of bringing one into the speaker’s world: in a FtF conversation, the participants are in a mutually agreed-upon location, be that a classroom, coffee shop, living room of one participant, etc. Yet, with the OVC, each participant is in his or her own chosen location and so draws all other participants into that environment.

I would be remiss to ignore the perspective that any such conversation is an argument with some persuasive element. However, I see a great difference in the author/film-maker’s intent, that of constructing a textual or visual argument with a pre-meditated intent; and with the 1:1 conversation that does not always have such a specific intent beyond communicating perspectives that are generally reactions to preceding statements.

McLuhan notes that, like the manuscript, the television is not really a device for solitude. “It is not pleasant to turn on TV just for oneself in a hotel room, nor even at home” (391). His point is that the pre-typography manuscript, based on oral communication, and the television, with its mosaic image, really call for dialogue and debate. Additionally:

“One of the major pressures of TV has been to encourage the “teaching machine.” In fact, these devices are adaptations of the book in the direction of dialogue. These teaching machines are really private tutors, and their being misnamed on the principle that produced the names “wireless” and “horseless carriage” is another instance in that long list that illustrates how every innovation must pass through a primary phase in which the new effect is secured by the old method, amplified or modified by some new feature” (391-392).

Therefore, the television (and manuscript, but we’ll not discuss this older technology further here) calls for additional discussion because it is one-sided. The uni-directional broadcast puts forth a tale or perspective, but does not allow the viewer to retort in disagreement, to request clarification, or any other dialogue. The OVC takes that idea of watching television/video and makes it interactive; participants can watch a video post and respond in the same manner through as many exchanges as they desire until a conversation reaches some mutually-decided upon completion. In this way, the academic (or tutorial) realm is an ideal location for this new ‘teaching machine,’ since it offers the ability for instruction with the ongoing dialogue.

It is worthy to note that the OVC can now be yet another technology to add to the list of those that must be modeled on (or at least thought of in relation to) a preceding medium or technology with some new feature, an idea that relates directly to Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation– the process of creating new meaning in a new item by applying a module of another medium to it. The OVC is essentially just online video; it does not offer any radically new feature beyond what has been available for quite some time: a video repository to which one can upload and store videos and make them public (or private, available only to a select audience). The ability for viewers to comment within a video’s timeline is relatively unique in that it is not a common feature with all repositories; however, the really unique aspect to the OVC is the way in which it is used. Video as a communication tool is generally used in a synchronous manner with tools such as Skype, video IM, and teleconferencing. Conversely, the OVC takes place asynchronously, which allows participants the ability to ponder responses before posting, respond at any time, rerecord a response before posting it live, go back and re-read/watch previous posts, and search archived conversations.

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