Friday, May 2, 2014

Marshall McLuhan and Web Conferencing: What Message Is Our Medium?

I've just read a fascinating chapter by Mark A. McCutcheon which reflects on Web conferencing, Marshall McLuhan's thinking, and intellectual property issues. The print version appears in McLuhan's Global Village Today: Transatlantic Perspectives (Pickering and Chatto, 2014, ISBN-13:9781848934610) and a "pre-copyedited, pre-print version" is available here. The author covers more than I can describe here (and does a better job than I can), but I'd like to explore a few points specifically related to the Web conferencing medium.

McCutcheon was asked to present a paper at a conference which, as it turned out, he could not physically attend. Instead, he used Web conferencing to present his paper. But what does that mean, he asks? "I was neither present at the event, nor presenting a paper, as denoted by academic tradition, so much as orchestrating an audio-visual 'presentation,' at once a performance and a recording" (emphasis added). He presented "a digital slideshow, video images of my talking head and of the room of delegates..., and my microphoned voice, as I spoke the text of my paper." The session was recorded and can be "called up, replayed and paused, and distributed as a link with a password."

Web conferencing, says McCutcheon, "blurs the lines between performance and recording, between presence and representation." He goes on to describe a "dubject" created by this kind of technology, "assembled through technologies of mechanical reproduction, and distributed through networks of electronic distribution that blur the boundaries between ... consumer and commodity, the organic self and technological others...." We who use Web conferencing and similar technologies to reach distant audiences and/or future audiences are using "dubjection": "a technological doubling and spacing of the self."

He describes the spacing vividly:

On the day of the proceedings, I wasn't at Marburg, or at AU... If the conjunction at connotes a sense of place, of position - a humanistic, common-sense expression of live, embodied presence - then in that sense, I was somewhere, of course: I was at a neighbour's house. But that place became neither here nor there, so to speak, for the duration of my attendance at the conference. Would it be more precise to say that, at that time, I was "@" a number of spaces at the same time?... My image and voice projected into the Marburg town hall, racing unplumbed lengths of cable and unknown airborne frequencies, translated into strings of ones and zeroes as dense and complex as protein chains. Routed and rerouted through data centres and ISP addresses across the Atlantic (and quite possibly elsewhere), my dubjected presence traversed any number of relays and channels in the global IT network, less a village, certainly, than a vast electric ocean.
 All of us who have practiced Web conferencing are familiar with this disconnect. We're "here" and "there" at the same time, and our audience is "there" but we want them to be "here" while we're communicating with them. We want to see them and gauge their reactions, inspire them, motivate them, connect with them. The technology allows us to do some of that - more than we expected, in many cases - but it can't (yet) hide the "dubjection" effect. McLuhan said once that "media are a means of extending and enlarging our organic sense lives into the environment." That's why we confer (Confer) through Web conferencing.

The medium (Web conferencing) may well be the message. McLuhan proclaimed famously that "it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action" (p. 9) and that "the 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs" (p. 8). To ignore the change of scale, pace, and pattern that the virtual classroom engenders is to disconnect with the experience and the audience(s) we're trying to address. This evolving medium has the capacity to enrich our perceptions, insights, connections, and understanding of one another, provided we exploit its potential and help students and audiences to adapt to it.

1 comment:

  1. Correlation between web conferencing and McLuhan's Global Village Today: Transatlantic Perspectives!!! What a brilliant attempt by the author to describe the significance of web conferencing in an innovative manner!!! This article is enriched with quality and informational content.


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