The Written Word - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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The Written Word. Source: Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media. This is actually about printed and written words . as well as typed words. McLuhan’s most famous statement is: “The medium is the message.”

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The Written Word

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The written word l.jpg

The Written Word

Source: Marshall McLuhan

Understanding Media

This is actually about printed and written words l.jpg

This is actually aboutprinted and written words

as well as typed words

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  • McLuhan’s most famous statement is: “The medium is the message.”

  • This encapsulated his philosophy that media are environments: people change in response to their changes in “environment” so communication innovations cause social change

  • McLuhan was a technological determinist

  • His argument depended on the idea of “rebalancing” of the senses

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Re-balancing the senses

  • Every communication medium extends the senses in a certain way

  • Analogy: a hammer extends the fist; a pliers extends the fingers; a wheel extends the foot

  • Media too

    • Telephone extends the ear

    • Camera extends the eye

    • Television extends the “active sense of exploratory touch” (why would he say this)

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  • Did you adjust to the change from black writing on a white background to white writing on a black background?

  • Were you aware of adjusting?

  • What if the show had started with white on black?

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  • How was it adjusting to the font on the previous slide?

  • Would you prefer not to have to keepadjusting your perception?

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Why am I doing this to you?

  • The process of perceptual adaptation is generally subconscious

  • It takes rather severe and sudden changes in our media to make us aware of it

  • Perception involves the separation of “figure” from “ground” (what might make this difficult?)

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Rebalancing the senses (again)

  • We adapted to the color schemes by recognizing which color was ground and which was figure

  • FIGURE/GROUND contrast is the basis of perception and communication whether we are talking about colors and fonts or more conceptual aspects of message context such as familiar and unfamiliar images.

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Perception and Communication

  • Another issue in perception and communication is whether people write with sound signs (an alphabet) or idea signs (pictograms and ideograms)

  • People in an alphabetic culture develop a kind of perception that is different from people’s perception in an ideographic culture

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Alphabetic Writing (according to McLuhan)

  • Linear & Sequential (each letter & word has a specific place in a long line, between the first and the last elements in the series)

  • Analytical (breaks down speech into sounds, thought into units)

  • Rational (a function of signs not symbols)

  • Inclusive (understood by most adults)

  • Visual (I’m not so sure of this)

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What is an alphabet?

A collection of sound signs (very roughly corresponding to the phonemes used in a language)

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Alphabetic versus Ideographic Writing

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Ideograms (according to McLuhan)

  • Non-linear (the elements are as important as the order)

  • Mosaic (eye & mind moves in all directions)

  • Magical (“hieroglyph” means sacred writing, words were believed to have powers)

  • Exclusive (understood only by specialists)

  • Aural (auditory) (I’m not so sure of this)

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CHINESEWhat part is the same? What part is different?

Does written English give any indication that monkeys and apes are related and similar animals?

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Ideograms (e.g. Chinese, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Aztec)

  • Each word has a unique symbol

  • Shape of symbol is essentially arbitrary, though words of similar meaning may share elements (radicals) in their ideograms

  • Knowing how a word sounds may give you clue to how it is written, but not predictably

  • Knowing how a word is written generally gives you no clue what it sounds like

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HIEROGLYPHS (pictograms + ideograms with sound symbols)


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AZTEC (pictograms + sound symbols)


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By the way…How do you feel about a completely B&W presentation?

Want some color?

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Perhaps color stands in for the mythical/magical elements that have been lost from communication in an alphabetic format.

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Shift to alphabetic culture

  • Importance of tribe declines, eventually states emerge

  • Growing emphasis on individuality

  • One is a citizen instead of a subject; more autonomous yet also more self-disciplined

  • Thought, explanation, and logic must be framed in terms of causality whereas before it was framed in terms of overall patterns (e.g. feng shui, astrology)

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  • His significance is not really as an inventor

  • The Chinese already had moveable type

  • The role of Gutenberg’s press was to speed the diffusion of books and thereby promote literacy in Europe

  • This in turn shifted power away from the Pope and the monarchies toward popular visions of Christianity and the nation

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  • The use of alphabetic writing makes learning to read and write much easier

  • Printing press gives ordinary people access to information and social critiques

  • Reading & writing are no longer arcane skills known only by scribes and elites

  • People who can read and write for themselves can take control of their own information-gathering process, and eventually tend to question authorities in both government and religion

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  • The printing press is the first machine for mass production

  • Its elements are interchangeable, which suggests a new way of thinking about things: the idea of components

  • The workers of an industrial society could not be as ignorant as peasants

  • The accelerating flows of capital and investment required daily news, which was only possible with a printing press

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