COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY DEMANDS THAT WE STOP LOOKING BACK
DAVID D. THORNBURG
Almost a decade after Marshall McLuhan's death, Oxford recently published The Global Village ($29.95), a book he wrote with Bruce Powers. Many years ago, after reading his Gutenberg Galaxy, I wondered what McLuhan would have thought about the communications revolution spawned by the personal computer. The Global Village provides insights to this question.
A simplistic perspective on McLuhan's philosophy can be found in his famous quote, "The medium is the message." Many philosophers have suggested that the language in which we express our thoughts influences the thoughts we express. For example, Eskimo languages have many words for snow, thus allowing these people to see subtle details in their landscape that would be invisible to the rest of us. In the world of computer languages, most programmers would agree that certain types of programs are more naturally written in some languages than in others. For example, expert systems are naturally written in languages like LISP and Prolog, while other types of programs might be better written in languages like C or Forth.
While this notion of relationship between language and the range of expression is powerful by itself, McLuhan goes one step beyond this by suggesting that our media of expression influence the message expressed. Print journalism differs from television news, for example, because its medium of expression influences the ideas it communicates. The fast-paced multimedia presentation of television allows no time for pause and reflection. The sequence of presentation is determined by the network and can't be modified by the viewer. On the other hand, print-based news reports can be scanned briefly for main points, read in depth later on, or completely bypassed. Just think a moment about the way you read COMPUTE!.
Because of fundamental differences between communications technologies, each medium finds itself better suited for the presentation of certain types of material. Television can excite the emotions with the same ease that print can engage the intellect.
While print may afford greater interactivity than video, truly interactive media, such as personal computers, afford opportunities not found in any other medium of expression. And yet we've barely started to explore the implications of this tool, largely because we've chosen to view it as an extension of other media rather than as something new unto itself.
McLuhan and Powers suggest that our tendency is to look backward. Just as the Renaissance citizen of the fourteenth century looked back to classical Greece, we are looking back to the nineteenth century for the conceptual metaphors we apply to our tools. Word processing, for example, is a twentieth-century technique for emulating the nineteenth-century typewriter. The keyboard layout on your computer (or the fact that you even have a keyboard) provides continuity with old ways of thinking that have little relevance today. The scrambled arrangement of the letters on your keyboard resulted from an attempt to overcome the mechanical limitations of early typewriters. Millions of computer users are denied access to far more efficient ways of typing because of our insistence on preserving technological tradition.
Meanwhile, communications technologies have shrunk the planet. East is meeting West in commerce and ideology. As the authors state, changes are occurring so rapidly that looking backward is inappropriate. You don't need a rearview mirror when you are traveling at the speed of light.
With this perspective in mind, look at the box on your desk. How many twentieth-century applications can you think of for your personal computer? For starters we must eliminate word processors, databases, and spreadsheets. These are just efficient extensions of nineteenth-century ideas. While these applications are both useful and appropriate, they mirror the past rather than point to the future.
Even a major twentieth-century concept like hypertext has roots in the past. Most hypermedia projects I've seen are elegant, computer-based versions of nineteenth-century encyclopedias.
The computer offers the ability to leverage our intellect into new domains that reach far beyond what we've seen before. Computers are allowing us to explore new branches of mathematics like chaos theory and fractal geometry. As work continues in these fields, we may see a paradigm shift as events that were thought to be random turn out to have a complex and subtle pattern that we couldn't see before because our media of expression couldn't convey the message.
We've created marvelous tools with which we can craft any reality we desire. As we enter the last decade of this century, let's face forward and move ahead rather than back our way into the future