Issues with inevitability in info tech discourse (pt. 1)

Posted in The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , ,

This post originally appeared, in a less-edited form, on The Socratic Librarian (new window).


Photo of page from “The Medium is the Massage” by Marshall McLuhan (via Mark Surman @


In attempting to talk of emerging technological tools and platforms for use in virtual reference for my library science class on Emerging Web Technologies, we must daintily walk the lane which strays between simple pragmatism and visionary indiscretion in our approach to technological developments.  A reference to Marhsall McLuhan (new window) will be useful here, but it’s not as if we hadn’t been expecting him anyway…

Now, I haven’t read enough M.M. to adequately explain him, but it appears that McLuhan’s approach in The Medium is the Massage (new window) aims to be no mere boost or knock on technological development.  Rather, the book is an “inventory of effects” which aims to characterize the new social relations via electronic tools and platforms, and further, explain the idea that social environments are mediated.  The implication is that the development of new information and communication technologies affect and impinge on the subjectivity of their users.  In doing so, he opens the question of how we should relate to new developments in technology, especially when they appear to be revolutionary, perhaps even representing paradigm shifts (new window) in a Kuhnian (new window) scientific revolution (new window)-like fashion.

Yet, if McLuhan’s great axiom or his thought in general is responsible in any significant way for how we currently understand the development of human relations to technology – Coupland’s biography characterizes him as a visionary – then I fear we may also find him “blameworthy” for the insurgence of the reductive perspective known as technological determinism (new window), which suggests that new technologies will completely remake human society.

From Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang

Now, I’ll need to spend another post elaborating this term and its implications for libraries, but it suffices to say that this perspective has taken McLuhan’s “visionary” statements and run with them, often using them to propose new technologies as generating sweeping, holistic and inevitable changes in culture and society, in which older or traditional modes of thought are supposedly sent off to the dustbins of history.

For this reason, I really appreciate some of the non-reductive approaches that Rettie and the Sessoms articles read for this class bring to understanding new tools and platforms for virtual interaction in libraries.  They aim to answer more straightforward questions of “How might these new technologies differ from old ways of communication?” and “How can we apply them in libraries?”  These claims have good substance and are generally un-muddied by the essentialist rhetoric which might suggest certain inevitabilities regarding the effects these technologies on people or libraries.  Which is admirable.  But as nice as the pragmatic approach is, in the Socratic tradition, I would like to know a little more.

Thanks for the help,

So I return to confront the problem of the “visionary” in information technology discourse, because we need to address the question of how we should relate to these developments in electronic tools and platforms?  Coupland characterizes the current situation as a “triumph of the internet” (and other associated electronic technologies) and suggests that McLuhan actually saw these developments “coming a long way off.” (15)  Yet, even though McLuhan himself seems particularly disposed to be speaking in generalities of the we/us who are being “[worked] over completely” (The Medium…) by media, this already implies too much inevitability in a time of uncertainty.  In fact, it jars with other passages of McLuhan that manifest a bit of his own ambivalence for these developments.  SO, I will submit my own preferred (if a bit paradoxical) quote by McLuhan and postpone this greater confrontation until next post:

“There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”


Coupland, Douglas. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Penguin, 2009. (Excerpt, p. 1-35)

Rettie, Ruth. “SMS: Exploiting the Interactional Characteristics of Near-Synchrony.” Information, Communication & Society 12, no. 8 (2009): 1131-1148. DOI: 10.1080/13691180902786943

Sessoms, Pam and Eric Sessoms. “LibraryH3lp: A New Flexible Chat Reference System (new window).” Code4Lib Journal 4 (2008).