Saturday, May 21, 2005

What disturbs me most about Michael Bugeja's Inside Higher Ed piece The Medium is the Moral is that he characterizes McLuhan's "the medium is the message" as a truism "based on 40 years of communication scholarship." Bugeja's basic argument, or at least his conclusion, is that Duke's iPod experiment failed because "even the power of this compact device --- its incredible storage and future academic potential -- may not be enough to overcome the message of music downloads at $1 per pop." Bugeja seems ignorant to the play involved in McLuhan's oft quoted statement (see Meyrowitz's comments in my Machina Memorialis post).

While I'm not going to argue that an iPod is an optimal content delivery system or even that Duke's idea was a particularly good one (though as a rabid MacAddict I was thrilled when they announced the plan). Duke's plan seemed to fail mostly on the grounds that it was pedagogy practice imposed from above, it was implemented too quickly (how much time was anyone given to develop a curriculum around iPod use?), and declared a failure before most people had a chance to figure out what they were doing. In short, it goes against my basic rules for integrating technology into the classroom, which always revolve around some combination of "take your time," "your pedagogy should drive technology rather than technology driving your pedagogy," and "experiment and feel your way around."

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At 7:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What disturbs me about your post concerning Marshall McLuhan and Michael Bugeja is the use of the word "ignorant" in association with a short column on iPods by a communication scholar who has written a book that you haven't read, which also cites Meyrowitz at length.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger John said...

Thanks for your comment, which got me to return to Bugeja's piece and think about what I really don't like about it. First however, in case it's not clear, I want to note that what I wrote was that he "seems ignorant to the play involved in McLuhan's oft quoted statement." Ignorant in this usage means "unaware" rather than "without education or knowledge." Maybe he is aware of the play Meyrowitz notes. In this column, however, I don't see it.

I read Bugeja's column as saying that the medium is the only factor that matters -- in the context of this article the medium is the marketing rather than the iPod itself. As he sums up in his May 26 post in the forum section of his article, the educational uses of the iPod "cannot overcome the widely marketed music downloads and applications." My problem with this is that it argues, or seems to argue, that the medium is the only factor that matters. It implies, or seems to imply, a reductive view of medium theory. It seems to ignore that "the medium is the message" is, as Meyrowitz notes, a pun, a play on meaning, intended to point out that, to quote Meyrowitz," the subtler and more persuasive societal influences derive from the form of the communication, not from the particular messages that are sent through the medium" (80). Part and parcel with this is that there are other factors at play. Factors, which Bugeja's repeated insistence that Duke's iPod program failed because of $.99 music downloads (i.e., the medium -- marketing -- is the only force that matters).

As I said, Bugeja's use of McLuhan's "the medium is message" to tell us that Duke's iPod program failed because of marketing comes across as reductive. He argues in the article and in his summarizing comment, that the medium (marketing) is the only force that matters. It may be that in his book Bugeja makes a more subtle argument, that in his book he acknowledges marketing as one of many competing and interacting forces. But he doesn't do that in the article and he doesn't suggest it in his follow up comments. So, whether or not he is aware of McLuhan's word play and of Meyrowitz's explication of McLuhan, the article does not demonstrate this awareness. In other words, it "seems ignorant" of McLuhan's larger meaning or the understanding of medium as but one factor/force.

Yes, the Inside Higher Ed piece is a short column in which it is difficult to develop a sustained and detailed argument. However, I don't think it's too hard to say "the marketing of $.99 music downloads" is one additional factor Duke failed to take into consideration." My major problem with Bugeja's argument, however, is that he fails to consider the role pedagogy plays in the success or failure of this educational program.

As I noted in my post about Bugeja's article, I think Duke's plan failed because their use of the iPod was not based in pedagogy and curriculum. The choice of the iPod as an educational technology was made not by those doing the teaching but by the administration. It was a case of the administration choosing a technology and then telling instructors to create a pedagogy and a curriculum around it (and they did it without much time to boot). This top down introduction of educational technology rarely works, and never works without the investment of much support, training, development, and time. This, I would argue, was a much greater problem for Duke than the iPod's marketing image because any educational program not rooted in good pedagogical practice is has failed even before it's begun.

But let's take a look at Bugeja's claim that marketing governs how we think of and use the iPod (i.e., that it's about $.99 music downloads). If we take Bugeja's argument as a "strong" claim, which I believe is a fair reading considering the follow up comments he makes in the discussion forum, PodCasting shouldn't have come about. To think of PodCasting is to think counter to the marketing message. But PodCasting came about, Apple embraced it, and it is, I would suggest, the app which holds the most promise for iPods as an educational tool.

PodCasting was a bottom up phenomena dreamed up not by Apple but by a user. At the heart of PodCasting is the hack (the playing with and extending existing features and functions, the active rather than passive use and interaction with our technologies and environments) and the network (social interaction). Unlike Duke's iPod plan (and marketing, I might add), the hack and the network are bottom up rather than top down processes.

Bugeja's focus on marketing as an overarching force (again, the book may not be so reductive, but I'm not critiquing the book) ignores the roles hacking and networking play in the lives of the digital generation. Everything from "American Idol" to customizing their accessories to their attitudes towards sex and relationships are rooted and reflect an ethos the hacking and networking. In other words, while marketing is a powerful force, it's never the only force at play.

Or maybe Bugeja's right. Maybe it is all just marketing. Either way, I would argue that he's missed the real message of iPods, the message that Apple is really marketing. By only seeing the marketing of iPods as a message of $.99 music downloads, Bugeja misses all the other marketing messages Apple promotes: "Rip, Burn, Mix," "personalized play lists," "life is random," and, of course, being part of cutting-edge cool. All these messages promote and/or embody the hack and the network, which are but two of the defining forces in what it means to be digital.

And what's ironic, I think, about Bugeja's read of the
$.99 music download is that he misses the point that it's not just about cheap legal music . It's about choosing the music you want rather than having to buy what is prepackaged for you. In other words, Apple's iTunes Music Store, driven by its iPod, hacked the music industry.

By insisting that the marketing message of the iPod is the $.99 music download and by arguing that Duke's plan failed because it can't overcome this message, Bugeja misses on both counts. As for Duke, he misses the role of pedagogy in developing an educational program. And as for the iPod, he misses Apple's real marketing message, which is not cheap music downloads, but about being digital.

Beginning with the iMac, Apple's "i" line of products has always been about hack and the network. The iMac not only brought color to our computer cases, it was marketed as the computer that would get you online within minutes of taking it out of the box. The iPod, with its play lists, its "rip, burn, mix," its carry all your music with you, and even its $.99 music downloads, is an extension of Steve Job's vision of Apple products being at the center of a digital lifestyle. Bugeja, with his insistence that the $.99 music download is the iPod's dominant message, even misses what Apple is really selling.

It may be that Bugeja and his book aren't as reductive or as unaware (i.e., ignorant) of the forces that shape culture, technology, medium, and pedagogy as his short column seems to imply. It could be that a short piece in Inside Higher Ed wasn't a good medium for his message. Whatever the case, the ideas expressed in the column seem unaware, seem ignorant of, the greater complexity surrounding the Duke iPod plan, educational tools, and digital culture.


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