Defining the Understanding Media project

At the end of 1958 or, more likely, early in 1959,1 McLuhan wrote an overview of a contemplated major NAEB research project to be titled2 Understanding Media. As in his December 1, 1958 letter to Skorina he highlighted the need to bring together “in-school and out-of-school experience” with media both as the definitive goal of the needed medium of understanding media3 and as a ready test of movement towards that goal. He concluded the overview by defining the aim of the project as a contribution towards the dis-covery of the elemental structure of media (their “lines of force”) which, alone, might inaugurate that medium: “To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception,4 is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media.”

Project in Understanding New Media

In the broadest sense, the object is to devise a means of bridging between in-school and out-of-school experience. Since the sheer flow of information outside of school is out of all proportion to the in-school information flow, this fact alone without regard to the forms and modes in which this flow occurs indicates a new educational need.

A possible new strategy presents itself from the fact of the interaction of multiple media today. In teaching writing and language, the great changes in recent decades have arisen from the fact that print now exists as only one among several major media. Photography, film, audio tapes, radio and television have all x-rayed, as it were, the older medium of print, enabling us to see its structure as a form of experience. This structure was not visible in the ages of printing but what the new media have done to print they have also done to one another, rendering themselves structurally luminous from within.

To understand media in this over-all structural way offers a real short cut to the education of perception and judgment. For the various media exert a direct non-verbal pressure upon all habits of perception and judgment. It has not been sufficiently noticed that these powers exercise an almost exclusively non-verbal and subliminal pressure upon the assumptions within our experience.

For example, the telephone has changed the patterns of decision-making to such a degree as to make the older structure of delegated authority in business and management not only obsolete, but a threat to the continued existence of management functions. This clash between telephone and typewriter has received only incidental appraisal in Parkinson‘s Law. It has caused the sudden rise of many management centers which attempt decentralization by means of over-all training of specialists.

The impact of new structures such as photography and film upon habits of learning and judgment are, of course, far greater than that exerted by the telephone. Obsession with “content” seems infallibly to obscure the structural changes effected by media.

The future of navigation in education at any level depends upon an exact knowledge of ever-changing lines of forces exerted by new media structures, and beamed irresistibly into our personal and social modes of awareness.

To provide ways of discerning these lines of force, these currents not of opinion but of perception, is the aim of the Project in Understanding New Media.5

  1. This undated one-page overview appears as the last page in a 1958 NAEB file immediately after a draft proposal wrongly dated to January 1958 (instead of January 1959). This may have led to its misfiling, but it was not in any case unusual at the NAEB for letters or documents to be misfiled in the wrong year folder. While there is nothing in the overview that could not have been written by McLuhan at the end of 1958, it was more probably written as part of the process in the first months of 1959 to put together a proposal for funding under Title VII of the National Defense Education Act which had been signed into law in September 1958. As will be detailed in future posts, the NAEB closely followed developments leading to this NDEA. It may well have contributed to some of its language and it courted the Office of Education assiduously (to the point of sponsoring a joint conference with it in Washington in May 1958 at which McLuhan was an invited speaker). When the law was finally signed into effect by President Eisenhower on September 2, 1958, the NAEB was well aware that an application under Title VII had to be made quickly if funding were to be secured. (See Becker on NDEA Title VII funding.) Harry Skornia seems to have decided already in early 1958, if not even in late 1957, that McLuhan’s writings and energies presented the best opportunity for such a proposal. He therefore promoted McLuhan within the NAEB by inviting him to speak at two NAEB conferences in 1958, republishing McLuhan’s talks on those occasions in issues of the NAEB Journal and frequently mentioning McLuhan favorably in his columns in the NAEB Newsletter. Opposition to McLuhan as a newcomer and wild thinker was never absent in the NAEB, but it did not find its voice until the project had already been defined, submitted and approved. It was then too late to do much but grumble.
  2. This title was first proposed in a McLuhan letter to Skornia of December 16, 1958.
  3. See The chemistry of the interior landscape.
  4. The genitive in play here in the phrase ‘of perception’ must be considered closely. On the one hand, all human experience is ‘of perception’ as a subjective genitive. Such bias as we inevitably bring to our experience is not to be overcome — all experience necessarily belongs to our take on it. On the other hand, perception according to McLuhan is subject to media such that an objective genitive is also operative here — lines of force of what? of perception! As usual with McLuhan, then, the genitive is dual and misunderstanding will result if this complexity is not followed.
  5. Skornia pushed the understanding of new media as a key to the approval of the funding proposal. McLuhan agreed to this as a tactic, but insisted at the same time that new media could not be understood aside from an understanding of media per se. The (elementary nature of the) medium is the message.