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Categorized | V48-N4-Summer 2011

From Aristotle to Marshall McLuhan and Beyond

The phenomenon of communication seems to be more topical than ever with its many layers of meanings yet to be discovered. This, of course, multiplies with the current explosion of modern technology devices, idiomatically coined as social networking tools. What further complicates this trendy algorithm is a spontaneous creation of a system of codes that could be potentially identified as a new human language. Various acronyms and drastically shortened words are used among a new generation to accelerate the communication process. The competitive race against time, and perhaps space, has just begun.

 The first known theory of communication goes back to Ancient Greece. Aristotle, disciple of Plato, came from the great school of Athens known for its peripatetic style where the dialogue was the main form of building and creating knowledge both in oral and written form. When a speaker was ready to convey the speech (message) he was at the centre of the communication process with the intention to influence or persuade the (passive) listeners. However, most important was the content of the speech.

 Illustration: Plato and Aristotle from the fresco of Vatican Palace, by Raphael Sanzio in 1509, decorating the private library of the pope, the Stanza della Segnatura. Plato points to heaven while Aristotle points to earth – symbols of their teachings.

 Plato and Aristotle

 Source: Socrates (2005)

 The Aristotle model of communication remained highly effective and applicable particularly among scholars for over 23 centuries. Although many changes happened with the development of technology – the invention of telegraph or radio, for example – that greatly improved the communication process, there were not any significantly new theoretical models of communication theory until Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver published “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” in 1949. This theory was a prototype of “a model which reduces communication to a process of ‘transmitting information” (Chandler, 1994).

 Schematic diagram of a general communication system

  Illustration:Schematic diagram of a general communication system. Also known as mathematical (information) model of communication.

Source: Shannon & Weaver (1949)

In its core this model presents the transmission of the electrical impulse from one point to another. However, its mathematical logic was quickly spread to social sciences and humanities. The message at the receiving end might not be exactly the same as when the transmission started due to obstacles (noise) in the process. This was very much appealing to non-exact sciences. Although empirical in its essence, this model was missing error correction or feedback.

 Perhaps, after the invention of the telephone, there was no more fascinating communication device than the personal computer. Among those who envisioned its potential in shaping global communication was Marshall McLuhan, born in Edmontonin 1911. Marshall McLuhan’s work was rather observational and reflective. It is said that when working on his theses in Cambridge, England, he was influenced by the works of English philosopher Francis Bacon, a well known empiricist.  McLuhan refused to recognize theory as the method of his thinking and preferred throwing probes to his listeners (McLuhan, 2008). His published pieces though reflect an undertone of a theoretical approach to understanding communication.

 Resembling the peripatetic style of ancient times, we gathered on the 21st of July to mark the Marshall McLuhan centenary. The former coach house, which became a home for the newly established (in 1963) University of Toronto Centre for Culture and Technology in 1968, has not changed much. This place, where McLuhan held his rhetoric Monday evening seminars, brought back vivid memories to his former students and gave a rare opportunity for us who signed in for the DesignMeets session to connect to what it might have felt like.

 The interior walls of the Coach House, painted in white, carried the art works of Robert Bean who has been commissioned to create a site-specific exhibition for the CONTACT festival. The exhibition was organized with McLuhan100, the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology of the Faculty of Information Coach House Institute, University of Toronto.

The “Illuminated Manuscripts”, a selection of photographs depicting communication technologies of the past, exhibited alongside video projection of 100 of McLuhan’s original manuscripts from Library and Archives Canada, made a perfect backdrop for the celebration of what would have been McLuhan’s 100th birthday. The birthday cake and drinks made it real.

The Coach House

Illustration: McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology – the Coach House – at 39a Queen’s Park Crescent E, Toronto.

 Photo by: D.T.

 The DesignMeets McLuhan + You was one of many festivities that took place to honour the life and reflect on the work of a remarkable Canadian thinker. This event on the hottest day of July was special in many aspects.

 Upon registration, each guest was given a McLuhan Probe to reflect upon and present at the Coach House as an opportunity to initiate a discussion with the group. The Probe I received was: “Today computers hold out the promise of a means of instant translation of any code or language into any other code or language” (McLuhan et al., 2003, p. 112-113).

 It felt like providence.

Frequently, I have thought about language as a set or system of codes. It made me understand better the theory of literature during my studies back in Belgrade and helped me in reading.  Today, we have Google Translate which is becoming an extremely reliable tool that provides “instant translation”.  What cannot be ignored, or treated as a side effect of social networking technology, is the fast development of a new system of codes – a new language used and understood predominantly by youngsters whose lives depend on gadgets like smart phones and electronic tablets of all sorts. Will this rather spontaneous development that came as a desire to pass on information using fewer characters (codes) like in Twitter in the fastest possible way, spending the shortest amount of time, lead us to develop a unique set of codes for all humans to use and understand without a need for translation or interpretation?

 Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase: the medium is the message. The concept, often misunderstood when created some 40 years ago, seems so obvious now. It appears that we are closer then ever to identifying ourselves with the medium – emphasizing the instrumental aspect of communication. However, we have to keep in mind that the Turing test has not yet proved the supremacy of computers over humans (Turing, 1950).

 We live in an electronic era and our modern communication devices are based on this technology. The explosion of electronic publishing requires e-readers that are becoming better, more affordable and easier to use as we speak.

 And, as we are getting used to reading Tolstoy or Shakespeare on the newest Kindle, Kobo or Sony reader, Stephen Hawking is thinking about how to transfer the message from our planet Earth into space and communicate with aliens. Perhaps, it won’t take long before we talk about a different set of codes, a completely new language to develop and learn in order to communicate with the universe.

 References

Chandler, D. (1994). The transmission model of communication. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/trans.html

McLuhan, E. (2008). Marshall McLuhan’s theory of communication: The Yegg. Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition, 1(1), 25-43. Retrieved from http://www.gmj.uottawa.ca/0801/inaugural_mcluhan.pdf

McLuhan, M., Carson, D., McLuhan, E., Kuhns, W., & Cohen, M. (2003). The book of probes: Marshall McLuhan, David Carson. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Socrates, S. (2005). Raphael’s School of Athens. Retrieved from http://www.ancientsites.com/aw/Article/555679

Turing, A. M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59, 433-460. Retrieved from http://www.loebner.net/Prizef/TuringArticle.html

 

  Recent research interests of Darinka Tomic are in effects of modern technology on the development of communication theories. She holds degrees in theory of literature from University of Belgrade and library and information science from University of Western Ontario. Darinka works with iDivision of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and can be reached at darinkatomic@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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