If the medium is the message, what are pandemic-era video conferencing telling us?
In the 1999 movie, in the air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant whose job it is to fly across the country to sit down with and fire the employees of his many clients. It’s a profitable venture for their employers until Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a bright young consultant, comes up with a better solution: firing the employees via video conferencing. Ryan objects: The new medium is very cold and impersonal. It’s a perspective and bias he’s earned through thousands of personal finishes and millions of miles in the air (he’s about to become the youngest person ever to join the ten-million-mile club). Before his boss pulls the trigger on the new program, he asks Natalie to mentor Ryan on some personal terminations. Why? So she can learn more about the art – if not the science – of shooting people.
in the air That’s what came to mind last month when I was on a Zoom call with Andrew McCluhan, the grandson of famed 1960s/70s media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the man behind the mantra “the medium is the message.”
Zoom was the medium of choice This one meeting for various reasons.
Just a few days ago, I met Andrew at Gray Area Arts, a local non-profit exhibition in San Francisco whose mission is to “apply art and technology to create social and societal impact through education, incubation, and public events.” Is.” I knew one of the founders, Peter Hirschberg, a marketing guru/impresario who knows more about media than almost anyone I’ve ever met. The title of the exhibit was “Distant Early Warning,” a metaphor coined by McLuhan to describing work by artists who can see the future before it arrives.In a Cold War tone, McLuhan was referring to the Distant Early Warning Line (known as the DEW line), a series of radar stations set up in the Arctic in the early 1950s to detect incoming missiles from the Soviet Union stationed in the circle. , Grandson Andrew – whose father Eric was both Marshall’s son and closest colleague – inherited a vast and generous library of images, papers and artifacts to support The McLuhan Institute in Wellington, Ontario, to establish a small community where Marshall did most of his work Life, at the University of Toronto.
It was the opening night of a multi-day festival where a cast of contemporary artists ‘interrogated’ the media around us in a McLuhan way. But within an hour of arriving, I decided the subject of my article would be McLuhan himself (Andrew, not Marshall), and there was no further delay. I am still in the recovery phase from the terminal illness and I prefer to communicate with people via Zoom rather than in person. Yes, perhaps the medium is the message of this story.
Mcluhan on zoom
So here we were Saturday afternoon, him in San Francisco and me in Oakland. I was willing to do McLuhan-esque studies with Andrew, looking at the ways technologies like autonomous driving and cashless shopping are experiencing what so many of the world is experiencing. But when Andrew appeared on screen, I realized I was thinking about the wrong techniques. I’ll lead the conversation to explore something else.
Easing into the topic, I asked him to help me understand the role of the artist as seen by his grandfather. This is something he knew a lot about, not only as a curator of the McLuhan Museum, but also as an instructor of the curriculum available through Gray Area Arts. The course examines McLuhan’s masterpiece, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), The scope of the course, like the scope of the book, is vast: 36 three-hour lessons, spread over a year and a half, provide a detailed, nuanced look at the many ideas Marshall presented freely and spontaneously without attachment. Did it Often, when his thinking was rejected, he replied: “If you don’t like that idea, I have other ideas.”
To appreciate McLuhan, it may be helpful to see him also as an artist, not as the literary critic he was trained to be. It is not scientific rigor that matters as much as artistic experimentation and play. And make no mistake, Marshall praised the cast. Among the artifacts in the Gray Areas exhibit was a framed quote from Ezra Pound, a poet and critic who greatly influenced Marshall during his long academic training. Ezra wrote that the performers were “the feelers of the race”. To which Marshall responded with an early version of the DEW metaphor:
“Art as radar serves as an ‘early alarm system’, so to speak, allowing us to identify social and mental targets in time to prepare to deal with them.”
Andrew revealed at this point: “Artists are uniquely able to see what is happening. They experience things first hand. But he added that Marshall had no respect for the aesthetic value of art alone. Marshall was held in the highest esteem”influence Artists have the world around them. (given importance). When I asked him about a project at the Gray Areas exhibit that had such an impact, he mentioned YACHT, a Portland indie band that computer accent, a recent documentary about an album that combines AI-generated sound and lyrics with human orchestration. I closed my eyes this morning and listened to a song. It felt like a robot nurse was massaging my scalp. I thought, This isn’t a bad early warning for my future nursing home care.
what understand the media Ultimately, it gives you a perspective to explore media that serves as an “extension” of yourself. In a later book, the media law (1988) Marshall and his son Eric wrote of the tetrad as “a means of directing awareness to hidden or unappreciated qualities in our culture and technology.” He argued that whatever media we consider, we can see it in four ways. For a discussion – say a Zoom discussion about Zoom – we might ask: what kind of experience does Zoom improve? What kind of experience makes Zoom obsolete (obsolete)? What kind of experience does it gain from the past? and finally (although these effects can occur simultaneously), what kind of experience it inverts, or inverts, as the medium approaches its limits.
Andrew was a game to play with. We started with the simplest question: what is amplified? Zoom has clearly accelerated the creation of meetings. In the post-pandemic world, both felt like a curse (too many meetings, leading to zoom fatigue). But as an association we could meet on the work floor. For families and friends torn apart by the lockdown, there was a channel – albeit a weak one – to stay connected in a way better than phone calls. For professions that required convening groups of people—take theatre, one of the worlds I operate in—it provided a way to advance within a new set of constraints.
The great need to summon the pandemic world was undoubtedly the fuel in the rocket ship Zoom. But at the same time, the widespread availability of video conferencing began to render obsolete the experiences Zoom served as proxies: in-person business meetings, in-person classrooms, in-person theaters that preceded them by decades. itself struggled, as regional and local businesses failed to attract a younger audience. It is difficult not to see these two poles of the quadrilateral – growth and aging – as two sides of the same coin. Zoom out of the pandemic era helped reshape society in a way that could never be better or worse.
But further. When Andrew and I came up with “What kind of experiences Zoom gets from the past,” I looked at the screen and saw his eyebrows frown. This was a tough one.
“The thing about knowing what has been gained from the past is that you have to know a lot about the past.” Which is not to say that one has to grow old. A media history course might help. But together Andrew and I found an answer, at least a temporary anchor others could build on. One experience Zoom has helped reclaim is seeing each other face-to-face.
People forget. Zoom isn’t the first company to provide widespread access to video conferencing. In fact, the founder, Eric Yuan, was a manager at Webex when he got the idea to launch a more consumer-friendly business video conferencing alternative. Before the pandemic hit, Zoom was on the cusp of becoming the video platform of choice Company. But when the pandemic hit, Zoom took off.
I remember then noticing a big change in behavior. More and more people started sharing their faces on screen. Before the pandemic, many people on other platforms chose to turn off their cameras. Zoom brought back face-to-face (F2F) because of the intimacy it offers. And that same price has made zoom theater – with its obvious limitations – viable. The nuanced acting that can be done on camera has made theater both more cinematic and more accessible to some audiences. So cheers to Zoom for its effect on bringing back sight.
And then we come to the last pole of the quadrilateral, which we thought was the most important. what kind of experience does the zoom flip, or backwards, while the medium reaches its limit. Note: Zoom is designed as a location proxy Not everywhere, but in many places. “So what if there’s only one place left in your life? Yours place, your house,” Andrew asked.
I have a good feeling. My recovery from liver disease is possible thanks to technologies such as zoom. I never have to leave the house for my work. When I’m hungry or need groceries for the house, I order from Amazon. To relax, I read or watch movies online. One week in October, a very busy week, I didn’t leave the house for five days in a row. Of course, I had a Robinson Crusoe experience supporting web technologies, including Zoom.
This gave me confidence. But it also highlighted the cost of having one.
I often talk to clients about how Starbucks built an empire by shaping its destiny around a simple sociological insight: that it was a “third place” for busy professionals—a place that didn’t work. Has no houses, but something in between. Times have changed for many. Forgot third place. Now there is “a place”.
What does this mean for the future? Early on, sociologists warn of an alarming increase in loneliness, especially among young men who are less social and increasingly live alone. But has this future already been predicted by artists who may have realized that video conferencing would lead to isolation? In in the air (1999), based on a novel by Walter Keirn, the medium actually alludes to alienation. The protagonist, who has lived on an airplane most of his life, has an empty apartment in Omaha, home of Berkshire Hathaway. He knows that one day new technology will make him obsolete. But in the end, he finds himself in an airport, staring at the destination sign, wondering where to go next. That is exactly the question we should be asking ourselves today.
For more information on Andrew McLuhan’s classroom, visit here.