The Spoken Word: Flower of Evil? – McLuhan

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

“Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and the body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement” (113).

McLuhan begins this essay with an example of a rather animated radio DJ that reacts with sounds, comments, groans, etc. to his own comments, noting that it is in this way that the audience participation is created. This is a condition of the one-to-many broadcast. Of course it is arguable that by merely passively listening, the audience is participating. However, the DJ’s reactions perhaps make it seem more active, since operating solely in the spoken and not written realm of experience, he may feel the need to put forth those emotions and reactions, which one might normally draw out more in a written work, since the author tends to add richer detail to prose.

Contrasting the spoken word to the written word, McLuhan writes, “Although phonetic writing separates and extends the visual power of words, it is comparatively crude and slow” (112). Writing can draw out the intensity, meaning, and emotion of a word or idea, but it takes a relatively long time to craft such prose. Conversely, the spoken word is more immediate and reactionary. In this form, we also express natural emotion and gesture to add emphasis, subtlety, attitude, etc. The element of immediacy is also apparent in the fact that the spoken word is generally used in the presence of one or more other individuals, whereas the written word is generally manufactured and experienced individually. Note that I am not considering the individual oration, such as a speech or television broadcast, in this discussion due to the fact that most of those are scripted and therefore constitute some element of the written word.

To bring this back to the discussion of the Online Video Conversation (OVC), individuals produce the videos alone and seemingly with some forethought put into their message. However, the videos remain conversational and somewhat reactionary in that unless a video is an initial one in a thread (so too with a FtF conversation, one must be the first to speak), they are responses and reactions to something someone else has “just” said. These conversations are asynchronous, so there is a lag in each retort, which raises the question of just what effect that lack of immediacy has on the conversation and on the speaker. Clearly, it allows each speaker more time to craft his or her response, either formally with some script or outline (a situation seemingly quite rare from my experience) or even just mentally considering one’s statement before recording. Also, that one is recording this video response means that he or she can re-record if some situation calls for it, such as an interruption, a mispoken/awkward verbalization, etc. This is not a condition of the live, FtF conversation with its element of immediacy that makes any spoken statement final.

The fact that one can add textual comments within the timeline of someone’s video also adds a unique element to this conversation. In many ways, it can be seen that the spoken word and the written word become much closer in this setting than in McLuhan’s original perspective quoted above. With the OVC, one can take the time to craft either a spoken or written response and the written statement is rarely long and explanatory. The electronic nature of this communication method also allows one to scan the textual comments–a benefit only of the written word–while still having the experience of watching the video, which portrays a richer presentation of human expression, gesture, and reactionary emotion.

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