The Psychology of Communication


10.2 Toronto School Of Media Studies

John A. Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister, said "Canada has too much geography and too little history". Canada thus need transportation and tele-communications to hold the country together. It is held together with railway lines and telephone wires. It is no surprise then that the two greatest communication theorists are Canadian. The Toronto School of Media Studies was founded by Harold Innis (1894-1952) whose work was continued by Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), whose work is being in turn continued by a group of scholars considered by their supporters as new McLuhans.

It is easy to write the history of an individual medium. The history of film or of television, for example, is simply a chronology of events. What is difficult is the description of the structural shift in society taking place as a new generation of media is assimilated. A basic focus of the Toronto School is such paradigm shifts. Since Innis died in 1952, before the assimilation of the third generation of telephone and television, his work will be used to describe the first shift; since McLuhan died in 1980, before the assimilation of the fourth generation of multimedia and internet, his work will be used to describe the second shift; since the new McLuhans are still with us, their work will be used to describe the third shift we are currently all experiencing.

Harold Innis began his career as a political economist, working within the staples theory of the Canadian economy. Canada began largely as a rentier nation exporting its abundant natural resources and buying back the finished goods. Innis conducted careful studies of the fur industry, the cod industry, and the forestry industry.

However, under the influence of Thorstein Veblen, an eccentric economist at the University of Chicago, he realized that one should look at economics within the larger framework of ecology. An economy based on the consumption of non-renewable resources was disastrous for our ecology and doomed as an economic policy. If we sit back on our assets, we would become a Third World country in a post-colonial world in which the developed countries transform our raw materials into finished goods and skim off the profit. We would be "hewers of wood and drawers of water" until we ran out of wood and water, when we would be unemployed. Looking at the larger picture, Innis realized that what was printed on the paper was as important as the paper itself.

Thus began his studies of various civilizations in terms of the surfaces on which they chose to write their words and draw their images. If a civilization chose to use stone tablets, then they would conquer time (note that much Egyptian writing is still with us); whereas if a civilization chose to use parchment (the skin of animals), then they would conquer space. It is easier to carry around parchment than stone tablets. Note that the Romans were able to administer most of the known world using parchment. His final two books were wide-ranging explorations of civilizations, in terms of their relative emphasis on the conquest of time and space as a function of the media they used [INNIS 1950, 1951].

Since he had come from a study of paper to a study of what was written on the paper, he never lost sight of the importance of the medium. His most famous student, Marshall McLuhan, encapsulated this insight into his familiar aphorism: The Medium is the Message. McLuhan considers his work as a footnote to that of Innis. Part of that "footnote" is a metaphor for the structural shift as we assimilated the second generation of print and film. We traded an ear for an eye.

The major difference between the ear and the eye is that we have much more control over the eye than over the ear. We can choose not to see by closing our eyes. We have no earlids. We can train our eyes to focus on a point in space to see more clearly, but we can't train our ears to focus on a point in time to hear more clearly. What we see remains, what we hear is gone as soon as we hear it. We can train our eyes to move more precisely along lines and to jump from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line. When information is presented simultaneously to the eye and the ear as in television, the video dominates the audio channel in the famous vampire effect. When we moved from an oral to a literate society with the invention of writing, we thereby traded an ear for an eye. That is, we traded a time-based for a space-based communication system.

Innis had focused on the impact of the second generation of print. His major books, published in 1950 and 1951, were too early to pick up on the impact of the third generation of television. McLuhan took up his theme of the profound impact of media on society, and extended it to include the impact of our third generation of media - telephone and television. With this third generation, we crossed the digital divide from an infrastructure of transportation to an infrastructure of tele-communication. He also shifted focus from the level of the institution to the level of the individual. The various media were viewed as extensions of the person, as indicated in the subtitle of his major book: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [MCLUHAN M].

The timing of a theory is very important. If it is presented too soon, it is greeted as preposterous; if it is presented too late, it is dismissed as obvious. People say What! when innovators first present their ideas and, then - when the passage of time reveals their ideas to be sound - the same people say So what?. You have to time your theory to appear between the What! and the So what?. McLuhan seems to have suffered the fate of many innovators - his theory has gone all the way from preposterous to obvious.

  Why were the ideas of McLuhan once preposterous?
He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong message and the wrong medium.
  Why are the ideas of McLuhan now obvious?
There is a new medium emerging and a new science evolving.

He is the wrong person. An English professor is expected to concentrate on the specifics of a particular writer in a particular time at a particular place. Thus, having studied the novels of James Joyce in graduate school, he should have settled down to a lifetime devoted to identifying the Dublin landmarks described in the novel Ulysses or whatever. He is not supposed to expound general theories about writing in general, far less all media, and far far less all human artifacts. If he is also a devout Catholic, then he is doubly suspect. Science is the province of the science and not the arts faculty, of agnostics and non believers. McLuhan has ignored the trespassers will be persecuted signs on the academic lawn.

In the wrong place. Canadians have a delightful diffidence, which can be most politely described as an excess of democracy. Self-deprecating statements by Canadians about Canadians include:

Canada has never been a melting pot; more like a tossed salad.
(Arnold Edinborough)

In any world menu, Canada must be considered the vichyssoise of nations --- it's cold, half-French, and difficult to stir ---
(Stuart Keate)

A Canadian is someone who can make love in a canoe. ---
(Pierre Berton)

John Kenneth Galbraith and Marshall McLuhan are the two greatest modern Canadians the United States has produced.
(Anthony Burgess)

The downside of this diffidence is that anyone who raises their head above the masses is in danger of having it chopped off.

At the wrong time. His theory is preposterous partly because it is premature. Theories are not supposed to predict the future but to postdict the past. McLuhan died in 1980 - that is, just before the explosion in multimedia and internet (our fourth generation of media) - which vindicated his theories. His genius was the recognition that the next step after the transmission of information electronically (third generation) was the storage of information electronically (fourth generation). He anticipated the dropping of the other shoe. It was only when we were startled by the sound of the second shoe dropping that we were able to be amazed that McLuhan anticipated it.

With the wrong message. In a lecture at McGill University, Bill Kuhns argued that the message of McLuhan is dismissed for the same reason as were those of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. Each of those innovators required us to break a discontinuity which we had erected to protect ourselves from a harsh reality. Copernicus broke the discontinuity between our planet and the rest of the universe. He tore us away from the centre of the universe and placed us on a broken-off fragment of a suburban star. We tried to burn him. Darwin broke the discontinuity between our species and our furrier friends further down the phylogenetic scale. We burned his books. Freud argued further that we are not the rational animal but a creature propelled by unconscious mechanisms. We simply burned. Kuhns argues that McLuhan is destroying a fourth discontinuity between the person and the machine. By arguing that our machines are extensions of ourselves, he is requiring us to take responsibility for them. There is still a whiff of burning in the air.

Using the wrong medium. If you proclaim the end of the medium, it is probably not a good strategy to use the doomed medium to do so. It is too easy to dismiss a book proclaiming the death of the book.1 Nor is it a good strategy to use language in that book which is not appreciated as scientific. McLuhan's puns and probes were too playful for an academic public which is serious about science. McLuhan did not understand the importance of being earnest.

The theory of Marshall McLuhan has become obvious, because of the emergence of a new medium and the evolution of a new science. For a time, I considered using Understanding Multimedia: Further Extensions of the Person as a title for my book A History of Media. This title - which is (with a small adjustment for political correctness) an exact parallel to Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man - was designed as a homage to McLuhan. It concedes that all I am doing is updating the basic thesis of McLuhan that the media are best considered as extensions of the person. Homage to McLuhan is contained in Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge [RUCKER ET AL]. Of the 51 concepts listed as characteristic of the new edge , the only name is Marshall McLuhan. Further homage is paid by Wired magazine, which lists him in their masthead as their Patron Saint and includes a quotation which demonstrates that an obscure English professor from Toronto who died two decades ago best exemplifies the leading edge of technology and culture today.

McLuhan anticipated multimedia, which is clearly an extension of the person. Since it is integrative and interactive, it simulates the function of the corpus callosum, which integrates the left and right hemispheres and enables the interaction between the cortex and the rest of the body. It enables intelligence amplification, since it is finally a positive prosthetic which fits perfectly. He also anticipated the internet - the network of computer nodes interlinked by telecommunications. This infrastructure is the nervous system of the planet and thus the foundation of the global village. It is the means by which each person can extend him/herself around the globe.

When I took a sabbatical in the 1970s, it seemed obvious to go to California. This was, to use William Irwin Thompson's phrase, the edge of history [THOMPSON]. That was where one went to see the future now, and smile at some coming attractions and shudder at others. When I took a sabbatical in the 1990s, I gravitated through force of habit to California. However, it is no longer the edge of history. Because of multimedia and the internet, we have indeed moved into the global village, where, according to Marshall McLuhan, the centre is everywhere and the periphery is nowhere. Sitting here in the Smart Room of my Electronic Cottage in the village of Hudson, with my computer potentially linked to millions of other computers around the globe, I am as central as anyone in New York or London or Cupertino, California.

Kristina Hooper-Woolsey was showing me around the Apple Multimedia Lab. One of her colleagues, on hearing I was from Montreal, embarked on an enthusiastic exposition on a project on Glenn Gould he had just seen there. It was by Henry See, who had started by working on my 128K Macintosh during the night when I was not using it. At a conference on Virtual Reality, Ted Nelson suggested I go to Glasgow to meet Liz Davenport, the European representative of his Xanadu Project. She introduced me to two colleagues at the University of Strathclyde who were publishing Hypermedia, the first academic journal in the area. They in turn suggested I go to Copenhagen to visit Jakob Nielsen who had just published his book in the area, Hypertext and Hypermedia [NIELSEN]. Despite the ironic fact that he, alas, was in California, it became clear that the global village had arrived.

McLuhan was criticized for being unscientific. There was no coherent theoretical framework but simply a series of probes. Now that his son, Eric, has published Laws of Media, which started out as a revision with his father of Understanding Media, he has presented a coherent theoretical structure. Now, it is dismissed as not a conventionally correct theory.

However, it is a theory designed not for the sociosphere or the ecosphere, the domains respectively of the social and natural sciences, but for the technosphere. This domain, which Herbert Simon calls the sciences of the artificial [SIMON], has been relatively neglected by philosophers and practitioners of science.

One principle that is clear, however, is that this is the domain of tools rather than of theories. This is what is implied by the statement that, in the MIT Media Lab, the motto is Demo or Die rather than Publish or Perish [BRAND]. You do not ask of tools if they are true but if they are useful. The tetrad (The major focus of Laws of Media) is a tool rather than a theory. This system of four questions requires us to think about the structural shift in the media system required by the assimilation of each medium. Is it useful? Emphatically yes. It permits us to consider systematically the complex structural shift produced by the introduction of a new medium on the system of media which precedes it. Each shift in our four generations of media is such a paradigm shift, yielding qualitatively different systems - from speech to speech-print to speech-print-video to speech-print-video-multimedia. This structural shift, rather than a sectorial shift, is the basic characteristic of organic systems.

To understand such a shift, we need a tool such as the tetrad. The ubiquitous is paradoxically elusive. The fish will be last to discover water. The tetrad introduces the fish to water, the person to the media in which we are immersed. Media may not be as broad as Eric McLuhan suggests (the over-generalization to all artifacts may be one reason why Laws of Media has been dismissed by critics), but it is broader than we tend to think. We tend to lose sight of media which is too close or too far. Thus, the first generation of speaking is so close that we see it as a part of ourselves rather than an extension of ourselves. Thus, the fourth generation of multimedia is so far, for those who are not yet familiar with it, that they see it as separate from themselves.

This brings us to a second distinguishing characteristic of the technosphere. Whereas the sociosphere has observer effects, the technosphere has participant effects. Those who view multimedia as a tool to extend themselves see it as a means of liberation, those who view it as a constraining environment see it as a means of oppression. The debate continues because self-fulfilling prophecies provide both sides with evidence for their position. A medium only becomes an extension of those who use it. If you do not use it, it becomes an environment. Those who do not grasp it as a tool, and thereby extend themselves, are victims of it because its use by other people creates the environment in which they are living. If it is not part of your solution, then it is part of your problem. Or, as the cyberpunks more rudely phrase it, if you are not part of the steam-roller, then you're part of the road. A number of young scholars, each heralded by their supporters as the "new McLuhan", are carrying on the Toronto School tradition of Innis and McLuhan. Whereas Innis focused on the first transition, McLuhan on the second transition, those young scholars are focusing on the third transition which is currently taking place.

The first of those (in order of seniority) is Robert Logan (1939- ). His three major books within the Toronto tradition are The Alphabet Effect [LOGAN 1986], The Fifth Language [LOGAN 1995], and The Sixth Language [LOGAN 2000].

The second is Paul Levinson (1940- ). His most recent books are The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution [LEVINSON 1997] and Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium [LEVINSON 1999].

The third is a McLuhan literally as well as metaphorically. Eric McLuhan (1941- ), a son of Marshall McLuhan, worked with his father on Laws of Media [MCLUHAN M & MCLUHAN E]. Although this book started out as a revision of Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, it finished up when finally published 8 years after his father's death to contain as much of the point of view of Eric as of Marshall. Eric has since published a book on his own entitled Electric Language which continues to explore his perspective [MCLUHAN E].

The fourth is Arthur Kroker (1945- ) who, as the only Montrealer in the Toronto School, is appropriately more flamboyant. After a traditional book, Technology and the Canadian Mind in which he brilliantly surveyed the work of Innis, McLuhan and George Grant [KROKER 1984], he has produced a spate of un-traditional books on the fourth generation of media - for example, Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music, Electric Flesh [KROKER 1993] and Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class [KROKER & WEINSTEIN].

The fifth is Derrick de Kerckhove (1946- ), who was a student and colleague of Marshall McLuhan before taking over his position as Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. His two major contributions to the Toronto tradition are his recent books - The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality [DE KERCKHOVE 1995] and Connected Intelligence: The Arrival of the Web Society [DE KERCKHOVE 1997].

The "baby" of the group is Bruce W. Powe (1955- ). He wrote a book describing Marshall McLuhan (along with two other Canadians, Pierre Trudeau and Glenn Gould, an almost-Canadian born on a yacht off Amherst, Nova Scotia, Wyndham Lewis, and an Italian, Elias Canetti) as The Solitary Outlaw [POWE 1987]. No doubt impressed by a country in which the Prime Minister for 16 years can creditably be described as a "solitary outlaw", he went on to do a very unCanadian thing - he presented a glowing picture of our country as A Tremendous Canada of Light [POWE 1993]. His exploration of the impact of the fourth generation of media continues with Outage: A Journey into Electric City [POWE 1995].

Although his major focus is the role of the intellectual in a world of declining literacy, Powe could be better described as a poet rather than a scholar. Of the other five "new McLuhans", only Levinson is trained within the discipline of communication studies. The others are scholars in various different disciplines - Logan is a physicist, Eric McLuhan followed his father into English Literature focusing on the work of one of his father's heroes, James Joyce, Kroker is a Political Scientist, and de Kerckhove was a Professor in the Department of French. In this sense, they also follow in the Toronto tradition - Innis studied political science and McLuhan studied English Literature. All members of the Toronto School transcended their disciplines to become generalists. The diversity of points of view they therefore bring to Media Studies accounts for much of the richness of the tradition. The continuation of the Big Story of historical time - the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions - is in good hands.

1   When I was author-in-residence at Wadsworth Publishing Company, I told Jim Leisy, the President, that the book was dead. Since he made his living producing books, this was not good news. Who said that? Marshall McLuhan, said I, pulling one of his books off my shelf. He said it in a book, said Jim, thus clinching the argument.