When you plug something into a wall, something is getting plugged into you

When you plug something into a wall, [something] is getting plugged into you.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, p. 7

Postman was fond of saying, following McLuhan, that when you add new technology to an environment, you change the environment. Hence the big idea of media ecology. If you add an XBOX to your living room, you don’t just have your old living room plus an XBOX. You have a new living room – a new environment. Something fundamental in the environment has changed that will affect the total atmosphere/ecosystem.

The idea that when you plug something in, it gets plugged into you, is a helpful summary of this concept. When you plug your smartphone in – when you put it in your pocket – you don’t have you plus a smartphone in your pocket. You have new version of you.

This is not always bad (and Postman never claimed it was), but awareness is key. I often quote the GI Joe PSAs I grew up watching – Knowing is half the battle.


Tension and Attention in Turning Pages

You’re reading a book – or at least you call yourself reading it. You zone out. You’ve turned two pages and come to the realization that your eyes have covered the words on those pages but hardly any of them has moved from the eyes to the mind.

I was reading a book while my kids were taking a bath. They came into my room and started talking. I was half reading the book and half listening to them. After turning a page I realized that by half reading and half listening I wasn’t actually listening or reading at all. Not a word on the pages registered and not a word my kids said registered. Perhaps this is a metaphor for life?

It goes back to an idea I’ve discussed on the blog before: ignore-ance (not ignorance). Ignore-ance is the conscious decision to ignore something. I needed to decide in that moment which object was a) more worthy of my attention and b) more worthy of ignoring. I found both to be worthy of attention and neither worthy of ignoring. The net result was the opposite of what I intended: they both got ignored.

We flip through pages without the words penetrating our souls. We flip through life without people penetrating our souls. And we are surprised to find that we are shallow in our intellects, emotion, and experience.

Ignoring What You Notice, Noticing What You Ignore

The challenge is a tricky one: We must create an anti-environment so that we can ignore what we notice and notice what we ignore.

-Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

So, yesterday I mentioned the idea of purposeful ignore-ance: cultivating a life that intentionally ignores some things so that it can focus its attention on others. This is where the idea leads. We do not want to ignore things to the point that we become completely oblivious to them. Rather, we want to notice what we ignore while being able to ignore what we notice.

Federman makes the point that this demands the creation of an ‘anti-environment.’ If you are submerged in an environment, you will either not ignore what you notice or not notice what you are ignoring. That entails complete assimilation on the one hand or blind acceptance on the other. The one means that you buy in completely to the environment. The other means that the environment smuggles in its trappings right under your nose.


…Everyone is vying for the most precious and valuable commodity to be sought – our attention. Think about it: Every advertiser, every potential vendor and company desperately wants your attention, and will go to great, and sometimes outrageous, lengths to obtain it. If attention is the most valuable commodity, our most valued asset, it may be said that the most valuable personal skill to be effective these days is ignorance, literally ignore-ance – the ability to selectively and appropriately ignore that which is irrelevant or merely distracting.

Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

Is your attention like a tax automatically deducted? Is it something you spend without thinking? Or do you consciously choose where and how you will spend it?

Are you able to ignore? That’s a great question, and it is certainly a discipline to be cultivated. I’ve never seen ignorance on a list of spiritual disciplines, but…

Does this mean that we will ignore everything? Of course not. But it means that we will be selective in how we distribute it. Everyone is selective with their attention in some ways to be sure. The issue is making a conscious decision about where we will focus it.

More to come in the next post…

Four Questions to Ask of Technologies

Building on the work of Marshall McLuhan, Mark Federman gives us four questions we should ask of any new technology:

The first probe is asked like this: What does the thing – the artefact, the medium – extend, enhance, intensify, accelerate or enable?…

A second probe: When pushed or extended beyond the limits of its potential, the new thing will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. Into what does the new medium reverse?…

The third Law of Media Probe: If some aspect of a situation or a thing is enhanced or enlarge, simultaneously, something else is displaced. What is pushed aside or obsolesced…?

And the final Law of Media probe: What does the new medium retrieve from the past that had been formerly obsolesced? This reflects the aphorism that, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun,’ and essentially asks, ‘How did we react as a society the last time we saw a medium with analogous effects?’

-Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

So, if you want to ask good questions and really think about a new technology or trend, you ask, What does it extend? What is the opposite it might reverse to? What does it displace? What does it revive from the past?

You can probably remember that with the acronym RODE: Revive, Opposite, Displace, Extend

Of course, McLuhan would probably tell me I know nothing of his work… (If you’ve never seen Annie Hall, please watch the video at this LINK to humor me).

Looking for the Obvious Things that aren’t so Obvious: Smuggling Wheelbarrows

In The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village, Mark Federman tells an interesting little parable. Allow me to paraphrase At some obscure bordertown, for years, a man crosses the border almost daily with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Each day border security digs through the dirt looking for contraband; and each day it’s the same story – it’s just dirt. He’s filling up a hole. Years later, a retired border patrolman runs into the wheelbarrow man in a social setting. He’s just got to know the real story behind the dirt. “There’s no way you were just bringing dirt across the border; what were you really doing?”

The reply: “I was smuggling wheelbarrows, of course.” ______________________________________

The point of the story is that the obvious isn’t always so obvious. I’ve heard someone say that the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton point out much the same thing. Father Brown is always asking the most basic question that no one else seems to be asking. This is how he solves crimes when others can’t. A Christian critique of our culture, whether it regards social-moral issues or media ecology, is going to have to come to grips with the fact that we are often missing the obvious. We need to train ourselves to look for the obvious things that aren’t so obvious. Often we’re so busy rifling through the dirt that we miss the wheelbarrow. Federman’s solution, based on the work of Marshall McLuhan, is as follows:

The challenge in achieving the awareness to notice the formerly unnoticed – what we call achieving ‘integral awareness’ of our total environment – is to create an appropriate ‘anti-environment.’

The fish in the water doesn’t notice the water. He has to get out of the water. The church should provide the greatest of all anti-environments. Yet, as we engulf ourselves in worldliness, and manage simply to mirror the world, what we are really doing is crippling our ability see the obvious all around us. We cannot critique the music of the world because we are too busy humming along.

Critiquing from the Inside

Our culture’s most impressive achievements usually have to do with technology: the space shuttle, advances in digital communications, instant availability of information via the internet. Albert Borgmann speculates that one ‘reason for embracing technology might be the understandable desire to embrace what’s distinctive about our culture. It’s difficult to accept the notion that the things that are most characteristic of our lives should not be most central.’ In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels, such as The First Circle, it is striking how many Soviet citizens were unable to critique the downsides of Stalinism – and not only because of the threat of punishment. Even people imprisoned on false and trumped-up political charges were likely to defend their own country’s political system. When Christian churches dominated medieval culture and their cathedrals commanded city skylines, it was hard to challenge abuses of faith. If technology is at the center of our lives, how frightening it must be to suggest that perhaps there is something wrong at the core of what our civilization regards as most worthwhile.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, pp. 182-183

Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, wrote,

The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted,’ he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ ‘Well-adjusted’ courtiers, having vested interests, saw the Emperor as beautifully appointed. The ‘antisocial’ brat, unaccustomed to the old environment, clearly saw that the Emperor ‘ain’t got nothin’ on.’

Old Testament prophets were Israelites who had been summoned to the courts of Heaven (on earth, as the veil was drawn back before them) before the presence of innumerable angels in festal gathering, before the very presence of God. Isaiah saw the LORD, high and lifted up, with his train filling the heavenly temple. He saw the cherubim. He realized he, and his people, were unclean. He needed an outside-in perspective. He needed to see his own culture through the eyes that were not of his culture.

G.K. Chesterton writes this about prophets:

…If we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope – the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt…

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself…It is a strange thing that men…have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed (from the Introduction to The Defendant).

If anyone is going to speak with a prophetic voice in our time and place we are going to have to get a perspective on our culture that doesn’t come from our culture. We are going to have to, as insiders, look at ourselves from the outside. How are we going to do this? My own focus is on two things: First, counter-cultural church. If the church tightly resembles our culture, we will never be able to critique it, or ourselves. Second, old books, especially the Scriptures.

In Alister McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis, he writes,

For Lewis, the reading of literature – above all, the reading of older literature – is an important challenge to some premature judgments based on ‘chronological snobbery.’ Owen Barfield had taught Lewis to be suspicious of those who declaimed the inevitable superiority of the present over the past.

…Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enable us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (p. 187).

It’s not secret why Lewis and Chesterton were able to point ‘that longest and strangest telescope’ on the world in which they lived. It was because they very often had their feet in another world altogether. Most of that was due to old books. If the sky isn’t rolled back as a scroll for us, if we do not see the heavenly vision of the prophet in the flesh, the closest we will ever get is in old books. The Bible provides 66 of them. And the church, though imperfect, has provided many, many more.

The Computer as a Psychological Metaphor

The decade of the 1950s is generally recognized as the beginning of the cognitive revolution -a shift in psychology from the behaviorist’s stimulus-response relationships to an approach whose main thrust was to understand the operation of the mind. Chomsky’s critique of Skinner was only one of many events in the 1950s that reintroduced the mind to psychology. These events provided a new way to study the mind, called the information-processing approach – an approach that traces the sequence of mental operations involved in cognition. One of the vents that inspired psychologists to think of the mind in terms of information processing was a newly introduced device called the digital computer.

-E. Bruce Goldstein, Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, p. 12

I came across this quote early on in my Cognitive Psychology class this summer. It’s a good illustration of the principles of media ecology: technology changes the way we see ourselves – like Narcissus looking into the water. As early as the 50s, folks were already starting to see their brains (I will not say minds) as computers. It’s no longer about wisdom my friends; it’s all about the pentiums.

Blogging through The Medium is the Massage (Message)

This week I will begin blogging through The Medium is the Massage (Message) by Marshall McLuhan (written in the 1960’s). McLuhan is considered one of the fathers (probably the father) of Media Ecology, a subject that I am quite interested in. Media Ecology, in a nutshell, is the idea that forms of media affect, and create, environments. In other words, when you use a particular technological medium of communication or entertainment, it produces a certain kind of environment and thus affects any existing environments that it comes into contact with.

Neil Postman was highly influenced by McLuhan, so I figured it was time I got to the source. I look forward to interacting with the book from a Christian perspective.

The Essence of Media Ecology (Technopoly)

Here is Neil Postman’s simple description of media ecology:

Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean ‘ecological’ in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival; the same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has had none. This is how the ecology of media works as well. A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 18

I have heard a pharmacist say, ‘When we added computers to the pharmacy it changed the pharmacy.’ It wasn’t that the old pharmacy stayed virtually the same with the addition of computers: it became a new pharmacy; the pharmacist’s job acquired a new job description entirely. I’ve also heard church folk say the same about adding big screens in the sanctuary. It isn’t the old environment with the addition of plasma: it’s a new environment. The same goes for the boardroom, the classroom, the living room, the bedroom, and anywhere else.

This is not to say that change will always be bad. A new environment may cause the inhabitants to flourish. But we need to count the cost before making the change. We need to thoughtfully consider whether a total change in the environment is wanted or needed.