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The ideas were not easy to grasp at Dawson College's Centre for Literacy last week. A room full of academics, teachers and communications students (and one columnist) often found themselves reeling, unable to keep up with a virtual bombardment of theories, concepts and new ways of seeing the world.
Eric McLuhan was in town.
Son of famed media-studies guru Marshall McLuhan, editor of the journal McLuhan Studies and currently heading the organization his father founded, Eric McLuhan has devoted his life to understanding the complex inter-relationships between art, technology and culture. In a media and technology-soaked society like our own, listening to McLuhan speak is like getting a backstage pass to the puppet show. It's a little unnerving to suddenly see the wires, and become aware just how the technology that is supposed to serve us actually manipulates and changes us in unexpected ways.
And those changes are not necessarily obvious. Since the invention of the telegraph, for example --the first electrical means of communication-- reading and writing has changed profoundly, McLuhan says. Before the late 19th century, all writing was written to be read aloud. Silent reading was so rare that those special few who could practice it were considered miracle workers.
Externalizing the means of communication, however, "putting the world's nervous system on the outside" as McLuhan explains it, changed the way we relate to print. An external medium became an internal one. The external performance of reading aloud became the internal movie playing in your head as you read.
Similarly, television and computers are changing the way we relate to print in other ways.
"The alphabet, because it emphasizes abstraction to such an extreme degree," explains McLuhan, "and because it emphasizes the split between the conscious and the unconscious, is the agent solely responsible for putting the left hemisphere of the brain to work in our culture. TV and the computer do precisely the reverse."
Electronic reading and writing on video monitors are simply not equivalent neurologically or culturally to cold type on paper says McLuhan. Computer-text, like TV and unlike books, is processed by the right side of the brain, the emotional, irrational half of the brain's two hemispheres.
"The very name 'word processor' ought to tip you off that this isn't books," he claims. "It's word processing. You're doing something different. The book on the screen doesn't have the impact of a book. It has the impact of TV, and it's a different sensibility.
"The computer screen has a very short attention span. The left side of your brain, the logical side, likes long sentences. The right side doesn't."
The last sentence was edited, by the way, just in case your attention was wandering.
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