The Rabbit Warren

My son wrote on his personal blog about a media experience which struck me as something that Marshall McLuhan would recognize as tending to confirm his ideas about the kind of mentality print media – in this case newspapers – creates in its users as opposed to the mentality created by electronic media. He talks further about the future of newspapers here on his corporate blog. I’m not sure if my son had McLuhan in mind when he wrote it. But it doesn’t matter – both articles address the impact of the form of newspapers, as opposed to their content.

I was on an overnight to Orlando this weekend..and I had occasion to read a real life, dead-tree Newspaper. It reminded me of how nice it is to just hold a newspaper, bend it any way you want, flip through the pages soaking up the ads and articles. It reminded me of how computers still feel inhibiting to me from a visual and kinesthetic perspective. Newspapers feel expansive – the Internet and a monitor feel claustrophobic by comparison.

The biggest takeaway though was one of it being easier to digest. I thought about that for a long while, since I do so much writing on the superiority of the Internet. I came to the conclusion that the natural limiting of a newspaper’s total content – that it is just so big (both the sections and overall paper) was far less daunting than being online where the possibilities disappear down rabbit holes.

I like that – hypertext as rabbit warren where you soon forget where you started and sometimes find it hard to get back there. I was born into the radio era in a bookish household populated with the New York Times, the Saturday Review, and Harpers. My children were born into the TV era in a household full of books and the New York Times and magazines like Popular Photography and later computer magazines. My father was born int0 the early electronic world where news traveled instantaneously by telegraph, but still had to be printed in the newspaper before it could be known by the public. Three generations. Three media environments. But we all have the newspaper in common. Here is how my son describes the impact of his experience on himself:

My newspaper read made me feel like I had a good sense of what was going on – that I had checked off a to-do, and had done so efficiently. Yes, I could have done the same thing on the NYT web site. Yes, I could have digested or scanned RSS headlines. But I didn’t and I’m glad for it.

McLuhan’s Understanding Media was published in 1964 and McLuhan then spoke of how the the segmented, uniform, and sequential style of thinking that he saw as the result of print technology was being overwhelmed by the the instantaneous, all happening at once, world of electronic media. He describes the transition in terms of a critical moment in a novel (p28 Understanding Media Critical Edition):

A Passage to India by E. M Forster is a dramatic study of the inability of oral and intuitive oriental culture to meet with the rational, visual European patterns of experience. “Rational,” of course, has for the West long meant “uniform and continuous and sequential.” In other words, we have confused reason with literacy, and rationalism with a single technology. Thus in the electric age man seems to the conventional West to become irrational. In Forster’s novel the moment of truth and dislocation for the typographic trance of the West comes in the Marabar Caves. Adela Quested’s reasoning powers cannot cope with the total inclusive field of resonance that is India. After the Caves: “Life went on as usual, but had no consequences, that is to say sounds did not echo nor thought develop. Everything seemed cut off at the root and therefore infected with illusion. “

I think my son’s experience is a minor reversal of Adela Quested’s moment of truth. A rediscovery of that pristine. ordered mental world that print technology creates. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place,’ McLuhan describes it at one point in Understanding Media . So my son had a moment of enjoying a single point of view in a multifaceted world. A little vacation from running the endless tunnels of the rabbit warren.

If you are unfamiliar with McLuhan that may all seem a bit cryptic. The core of McLuhan’s view of media is that every medium is an extension of ourselves and that we have a strong tendency to be distracted by the content of a medium and remain unconscious of the impact of the form itself. Again from Understanding Media (p31):

The “content ” of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as content. The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The “content” of writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware of either print or speech.

So for McLuhan it follows that as new media arrive on the scene and change the media environment our inner mental landscape changes, our way of conceiving of the world, even out very experience of it changes. So I think my son’s experience with the newspaper documents a momentary rediscovery of the older, more clam and ordered, world created by print.

McLuhan died in 1980, well before the Internet became what it is today, and we can only guess what he would have said about it. But it is possible in a moment like my son recorded, to get glimpses into the form of the new media environment created by the Internet. I think the metaphor of the rabbit warren is apt and useful. It is truer to our surfing experience than the too obviously patterned ‘web’, and catches the slightly claustrophobic feeling imposed by quirky interfaces and small screens.

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