The Global Hive

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Half a century ago, when Marshall McLuhan launched the modern era of media studies with his groundbreaking book The Gutenberg Galaxy, television, cinema, radio, and record players were the dominant electronic media, so it was only natural that McLuhan would focus on the shift he saw taking place at the time from a text, or print-based, culture, to an aural and image based culture.  Such a culture would mark a radical change in consciousness, McLuhan predicted, a departure from the logical form of thinking fostered by the linear structure of alphabetic writing, and a return of sorts to a more ancient oral/visual consciousness in what he called the “global village.” With the rise of the Internet and related digital technologies, McLuhan’s predictions have been considerably complicated.  This is due to the fact that while digital technology, too, is an electronic medium saturated with visual images and aural content, it has also brought back the (digitally) printed word into popular culture and consciousness.  Indeed, in the earliest online progenitors of social networking sites—what we once called “chat rooms”—printed texts were all that appeared.  And with the subsequent rise of the blogosphere in the latter part of the 1990s, not to mention the online posting of such traditional print media as newspapers, magazines (does anyone remember “zines”?), fiction (does anyone remember “hypertexts”?) and so on and so forth, the digital proliferation of print appeared to refute one of McLuhan’s most fundamental observations about media history.  Indeed, things seemed to be going back to Gutenberg. With the obliteration of MySpace—which in its heyday tended to be plastered with visual imagery and aural content—at the hands of Facebook, which made sheer printed text the dominant feature on the screen “page,” this return of the font appeared to be even further accomplished.  Sure, there was still YouTube, but Facebook was really getting much of the attention. But while it is far too early to predict any eventual demise of Facebook (I certainly wouldn’t do that, but a number of technophilic pundits are doing just that right now), something new appears to be happening, a differential shift in the high-speed history of digital culture.  And it is the appearance of a difference that signals the need for a semiotic analysis. This difference involves the emergence of such sites as Twitter (still print based but reduced to a kind of digital shorthand) and Tumblr, which, in its presentation of “microblogs” is heavy on uploaded images and light on printed text.  Facebook, too, has largely supplanted the much more text-based world of the original blogging site, while purchasing Instagram as if to hedge its bets in a suddenly image-rich Net-world.  Add to this the continued popularity of YouTube and many other sites devoted to the uploading of an endless video stream contributed by a ubiquitous arsenal of iPhones, Droids, Galaxys, and whatnot, and you have a veritable tsunami of images: pixels, not fonts. So maybe it is premature to rule McLuhan out.  Perhaps the global village has arrived in the form of a global hive, a buzzing crowd of digitally connected Netizens who appear to be unable to let go for a few minutes to concentrate on an actual here-and-now as they hook up with a virtual elsewhere.  Heaven knows what it will be like when Google Glass arrives. And maybe it is also premature to equate digital literacy with the literacy that college composition courses are tasked to teach and develop.  While the ability to make a video or post a tweet is indeed a kind of communication, and critical-thinking based exposition is also a kind of communication, that does not make the two forms of communication equivalent.  College composition courses exist to train students in what McLuhan identified with the linear, logical, and rational structure of discourse that emerged long ago with the advent, first, of alphabetic writing, and, later, with the invention of the printing press.  Digital technology appears to be developing a very different sort of thought process and a very different sort of writing.  Judging between the two as the one or the other being “better” is not a very useful exercise.  But when writing teachers from around the world speak of a “literacy crisis,” they are referring to an inability to think and write in a linear, logical (and grammar, too, is a form of logic) fashion.  Given the way that digital technology is trending towards image and sound (that is, to non-linear, alogical signs), it is not evident that this is a useful pathway to teaching the kind of critical-thinking-based writing that we are trying to teach. Post Script:  as I completed this blog, I came across the following Inside Higher Ed from John Warner.  It provides a nice complement to my argument.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.