Wednesday, 26 October 2011

McLuhan could have been a rockstar

Last year, I took a class called Rhetoric and the World Wide Web with the most eccentric professor I have ever met.  He was new to both the University of Winnipeg and Winnipeg.  He was nearly bald, but he twisted and curled his bangs almost every day.  He wore ties and skater shoes to class.  He was a vegan.  He rode his bicycle everywhere, even during harsh Winnipeg winters.  He was once a pro-BMX biker, and he wrote his Master's thesis on BMX biking.  In a setting where students were used to calling their instructors “Professor X” or “Doctor Y”, he insisted that they call him by his first name, otherwise he wouldn’t respond.  Aside from being a Communications professor at UW, he was a roller derby referee in his free time.

And he was a Marshall McLuhan enthusiast.

The course was heavily laden with McLuhanesque material, including McLuhan himself.  One of the very first things this professor pounded into our minds was the medium was the message.

. . . Wait, what?

It was a long journey that took almost half of the semester, but my classmates and I had finally understood the meaning behind this mysterious, vague phrase.

The Medium is the Message - Guitar Version

After attempting to explain the phrase to us in technical terms, he tried a different approach.  He hastily grabbed his electric guitar (oh, did I mention he played guitar too?) from its case underneath his desk, along with a small amplifier.

My classmates and I looked utterly confused.  We knew he was a new professor, but surely he wouldn’t dream of playing loud guitar while other classes are still going on?  But we also knew that this man was not one to follow conventional rules.

This is what happened next (to the best of my memory).

The professor played his guitar without plugging it into the amplifier.  He told us that we were hearing the message in its purest form.  We are 100% experiencing the message straight from the source.  We nodded and showed little signs of agreement.  Okay, we’re with you so far.

He then plugged the guitar into the amplifier and strummed a few strings (I sincerely apologize for my lack of knowledge of music terminology).  Now we are not experiencing 100% of the message.  The amplifier is the medium from which we receive the message.  The message, which is the sounds of the guitar, is now altered because it is going through the medium, which is the amplifier.

The medium is the message.  The medium shapes the message.  Therefore, the amplifier shapes the sounds of the guitar.

If we had recorded the professor playing his guitar through his amplifier, then the message would again be altered because the new medium would be the camera.  And if we uploaded this video onto YouTube, then the message would be – you guessed it – changed again.

Overall, the meaning of the message is altered and changed each time it goes through a medium.  The sounds of the guitar lost its intended meaning when we heard it through the amplifier, through the camera, and through YouTube.

After that outstanding exhibition put on by our professor, the majority of us slapped our foreheads and cried, “Oh yeah! Now I get it!”  We were also impressed that the new guy would take such a huge risk in annoying the other instructors just to teach us a lesson.

If McLuhan were here today, I'm sure he would have been impressed with my professor's public display of his theory.  He may have even participated.  Yeah, I'm pretty sure he would.

1 comment:

  1. I had totally forgot about this!

    I was in his Contemporary Communication Theories class and he did the same example exceeeeeept he had biked to school in the middle of February with his guitar on his back.

    It didn't sound very pretty and I'm pretty sure he broke some strings!