Thursday, December 8, 2011

From New York to Nepal

No, I haven't made a trip to that Asian nation, not that I'd mind going to Kathmandu (hey, that would make for a great subject for a song, don't you think?), but that's not it.  But a couple of days ago I received an email message from Dharma Adhikari, who is the Secretary General of the Media Foundation in Nepal.

Dharma has been a member of the MEA listserv, and he reminded me that we had been in touch a few years ago about his research on McLuhan.  So anyway, he informed me that he had organized a McLuhan Centenary to be held on December 8 (that's yesterday), apologized for the short notice, and said

I was thinking if you could send us a brief message to this gathering with your thoughts on Marshall and his global relevance today, especially to journalism and media practices. We are inviting a guests from the cross section of Nepali society. This event is being organized by Media Foundation Nepal, in collaboration with Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research- IACER, and Creative Press.

 So, I thought that my message sent from New York to Nepal would make for a worthwhile addition to Blog Time Passing, and something that you might like me to share with you (and if not, then, oh well...).  Not that there's anything especially new and noteworthy about the content of the message, but still and all, there is something to be gained from variations on a theme.  So, here it is:

Dear Dharma,

Thank you for your note concerning the Marshall McLuhan Centenary event that you have organized in Nepal.  Yours may be the distinction of being the last Centenary event of the year, but as we say, it would not be the least.  It is indeed encouraging to know that over this past year, the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth has been celebrated in every corner of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica.  It is indeed fitting that this McLuhan Centenary extend now to the "roof of the world" as it ought to mark McLuhan's permanent ascension into the intellectual canon worldwide.

Marshall McLuhan's approach to understanding media was so far ahead of its time when he introduced it back in the mid-20th century that many people, including a number of otherwise bright and well-educated scholars, were not able to appreciate it.  It was not until the popularization of the internet and digital media in the 90s that a McLuhan revival began, and it is that wave that we are riding today.  When McLuhan argued that an era dominated by print media and mechanical technologies had given way to a new era shaped by the characteristics of electronic technologies and telecommunications, many were dumbfounded and in denial.  Today, we are witness to the disappearance of newspapers, the marginalization of the printed book, the decline of letter writing and downgrading of postal services, and the longstanding shift away from industrialism.  When McLuhan suggested that literacy had altered the functioning of our nervous systems, and that electronics were doing so again, many, even among those sympathetic to his views, considered his intuitions to be nothing more than wild and unfounded speculation.  But in recent years, research on brain functioning has shown that he was right, that learning to read and write actually rewires the brain, and that watching television and playing videogames alter brain functioning as well.  When McLuhan connected the adoption of television to the social and political disruptions of the 1960s, many were skeptical.  Today, there is no denying that movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are made possible by various new media such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the use of mobile devices.

That we live today in interesting times, as your neighbors to the north have been known to say, there is no doubt.  That we desperately need to understand our times, and understand the environment that gives rise to the events we are witnessing, there is no doubt.  And that we need, therefore, to study McLuhan there ought to be no doubt.  Through McLuhan, and through broadening that study to include the field of media ecology and the scholars that influenced and were influenced by McLuhan, we can understand that we occupy media environments, environments of our collective creation that in turn create us and recreate us in their own image, individually and collectively.  Through McLuhan and other media ecology scholars, we can understand that human life and human culture in its most basic form is born out of a media environment of speech, of the spoken word, an acoustic space, powered by symbols, by language.  And we can understand that the shift from tribal societies to what was traditionally called civilization, large-scale settlements, cities, with codified law, government, concepts of property, specialized occupations, education, etc., goes hand in hand with the development of systems of writing, the single most important invention in human history.  And it was the invention of the alphabet by the Semitic peoples, and its further modification by the ancient Greeks, that gave the west its distinctive characteristics, as well as forming the basis of later Arabic and Hindu cultures.  And when the printing press with moveable type, based on alphabetic writing, was introduced in 15th century Europe, it ushered in what we refer to as the modern world, and the ascendency of the west for the centuries that followed.  And today, we find ourselves in a new electronic environment, one that we are still trying to understand, one that promises some form of what McLuhan called the "global village" accompanied by various forms of neo-tribalism that McLuhan also spoke of.  And we can either try to understand what is happening, and through understanding try to influence the course of events, or we can stick our heads in the sand and let our technologies take control.

McLuhan said, "the medium is the message," and this goes to the heart of his media ecology, which is the study of media as environments.  It is a wake-up call, first and foremost, a call to become aware, to observe what is going on all around us.  Environments tend to be invisible because they become routine.  We ignore them, they fade into the background, and we find ourselves, for all intents and purposes, blind to them.  McLuhan asks us to open our eyes, to pay attention, and to contemplate what is going on all around us.  He characterized his ideas as probes, tentative explorations, not dogma, because he wants us, all of us, to use our senses and open our minds, to look and to think for ourselves.  It's not about theorizing.  It is about making connections, seeing the whole world as interconnected, an ecology, and studying the relationships, the networks, that exist among the various phenomena that we typically regard only in isolation from one another.  And to begin by considering the means, the methods, the modes by which we relate to and act upon our world, and our fellow human beings, by considering our technologies, our languages, our codes and symbols and tools and containers and our art forms, by considering our media.

On behalf of McLuhan scholars all around the world, and on behalf of the Media Ecology Association, which is dedicated to spreading and advancing McLuhan's approach, I extend greetings from my home town of New York City, and the fact that I can do so in this way is just one more indication of McLuhan's supreme relevance to us today.  I applaud the organizers and sponsors of this Centenary celebration, Media Foundation Nepal, the Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research IACER, and Creative Press for their hard work.  And I wish you all the best of luck in your proceedings, and know that I wish I could be with you in person right now, as, in the end, there is nothing quite like the medium of human presence.   I am certain your discussions will be stimulating and inspiring, and it is my sincere hope that when it is all over and done, you will all do the following:  Be the medium, and spread the message.


Lance Strate
Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University

Dharma has since emailed me to let me know my message was read out lout at the conference (I imagine that it was not the only one), and that the event went very well.

And here is a photograph of Dharma Adhikari holding forth on the subject of the media guru.  Congratulations to Dharma and his colleagues on putting on and pulling off another successful centenary event!

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