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In our second LAPIS lecture of the term, we continued to discuss the philosophy and history of publishing. In a continuation of last week’s discussion of the distinction between form and content, inspired by Walter Benjamin, we discussed the works of the Canadian philosopher of communication and media, Marshall McLuhan. One of McLuhan’s best-known ideas is that “the medium is the message”, as expressed in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: that the medium through which content is communicated is of greater importance to society than the content itself. This is because different forms of media cause different social effects due to their inherent characteristics: for example, content that is communicated by radio is consumed in a fundamentally different way from content communicated by television, or the print media. The video below features McLuhan elaborating on his theories in a televised question-and-answer session.

The idea itself is now over fifty years old, yet has retained its fundamental importance as one of the cornerstones of modern media theory. It continues to remain relevant, as new forms of communication media continue to emerge; most obviously those associated with the growth of the Internet. One notable trend of recent years is the growth of media which demand extreme brevity on the part of those who transmit messages, for example the 140-character limit of Twitter or the six-second video loops on Vine.

McLuhan himself divided media into “hot” and “cool” types. The former, which include film and radio, engage one sense completely and require little active participation on the part of the consumer. The latter require greater participation to “fill in the gaps” of the experience with one’s own imagination, and include telephone conversations, comic books, and (perhaps surprisingly) television. I wonder what McLuhan would have made of the Internet, which is extremely participatory in terms of user experience, multimedia in form, and increasingly immersive in nature?

The growth of the Internet leads me in nicely to another important lecture topic: disruptive innovation. A concept that originated with business professor Clayton Christensen, it refers to a new technology that at first disrupts, then later completely supersedes its predecessor, whilst retaining some of its main identifying elements and hence resulting in long-term progress. The publishing sector has been severely disrupted by the emergence and growth of Internet-based technologies—notable examples include the development of self-publishing as a viable business model, the development of e-readers, and the replacement of traditional encyclopaedias and reference sources with free, crowdsourced alternatives such as Wikipedia—and we will explore the wider effects of this disruption upon society, and how the publishing sector is reacting, in future lectures.

One important societal shift caused by the disruptive innovation associated with the Internet that we briefly touched on appears to be the development of a Sharing Economy from the earlier Knowledge Economy model first espoused by Peter Drucker in the 1960s. Drucker argued that modern society consisted mostly of knowledge, rather than manual, workers, and that this preponderance had significant ramifications for society. The Sharing Economy takes this approach one step further: now that information is recognised as a commodity, and that this commodity has never been so easy to share, it follows that its value increases for everyone when it shared. This in turn has redefined publishing, according to John Feather, as “the commercial activity of putting books into the public domain”. This naturally has a wide range of repercussions, as we will again investigate later in the module.