The Railroad’s “Green Pasture” & New Media

09Sep11

by w thomas on September 9th, 2011

This week’s reading for our Digital Humanities seminar included Marshall McLuhan and Quinten Fore’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects and Helen J. Burgess and Jeanne Hamming’s new piece in Digital Humanities Quarterly“New Media in the Academy: Labor and the Production of Knowledge in Scholarly Multimedia.”

Marshall McLuhan undertakes among other things a brief discussion of the railway and its social effects in almost the exact center of what one student called his “non-book book.” The railroad, McLuhan explains, “radically altered the personal outlooks and patterns of social interdependence.” He predicts that the “electronic” media in post-war America will have different effects however. The electronic age will produce not suburban worlds but a “circuited city,” an “information megalopolis.”

The railroad, according to McLuhan, created a mythic past even as it transformed society. Clearly drawing on Leo Marx’s 1964 classic The Machine in the Garden, McLuhan calls this effect “the myth of a green pasture world of innocence.” But, my students were interested in the way McLuhan’s polemical piece “runs into the other end of his own ideas.” One student suggested that McLuhan calls for a return to a childlike perception, exemplified in the aural not visual and in the non-linear not linear. Is this not also a green pasture? Does the way media “work us over” circularly create a green pasture?

So, much of McLuhan’s text and presentation rings true forty years later of course. These quotations elicited the most discussion not surprisingly:

“societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

“all media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”

“in the name of progress our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”

The Age of Anxiety is “in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools–with yesterday’s concepts.”

To many of these students, we are currently in academe forcing the new media to do the work of the old. In fact, this is what so disturbed them about McNeely and Wolverton’s apparent disregard for blogs, wikis, and other forms of scholarly creativity. Pointing out that McLuhan’s celebration of the amateur had special relevance in this context, one student cautioned, “digital humanists ought not overly professionalize. Creativity, especially the creativity that sounds outlandish to professionals, is key to innovation.”   http://railroads.unl.edu/blog/?p=570

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