My favorite part of The Last Lecture, which to me is also the most moving part, is the twist ending: Randy Pausch head-faking all of us into believing that his 76-minute aphoristic speech was intended primarily for the general audience.
Oddly, after yesterday’s seminar–to date, the most poignant for me–I began to feel this same sense of being pleasantly (and movingly) hoodwinked. Something about Bill Viola’s essay and the wonderful commentary provided by my colleagues and presenters Jim Kendrick and Rob Rogers crystallized something in my brain. To their credit, I don’t think I could have teased out as much meaning from Viola without their presentation. Another read of “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” is surely in order. To Gardner’s credit, sequencing the Viola essay after McLuhan was a stroke of genius.
In doing the required readings for NMFS and blogging haphazardly, and in listening to presentations and ideas being brought forth about the many topics we’ve investigated, my assumption has been that the proper focus of this class is the New Media itself. Like the typical student, I’ve progressed through readings and discussions with a lingering refrain in my head that goes, “Ok, so that’s interesting. But what’s the most important thing about this? What do I take away from all this?”
After yesterday’s seminar, something clicked. I had a mind splinter all evening and into this morning. Call it a moment of clarity, if you like, but I think I’m at the precipice of real understanding here. The most startling realization for me is that we have, in fact, been head-faked: This class is NOT about New Media at all. It’s about Us (with a capital ‘u’). It’s about our need for finding meaning in everything that we do and see and hear, and it’s about HOW we go about constructing that meaning for ourselves, cognitively speaking. It’s about the human brain–although, “mind” sounds better to me–and how it devours everything in the pursuit of truth and beauty “steadily and without any resistance.” It’s about how memory and the act of remembering IS like art: Every waking hour, we’re constantly editing, rearranging, and combining our memories all for the sake of telling stories and teasing out meaning from life. And it’s about how we instinctively and incessantly project those cognitive tendencies into the material world in the form of media, all again for the sake of making sense of it all.
But this is a class about New Media, after all. So what’s the point? The point is this: For the first time in human history, we have the most complete and elegant mechanism for extending our minds–THE most important part of ourselves–into the material world. Beholding the Internet with all of its attendant weirdness and beauty is like standing back from your own brain as you would admire it in some glass case in a museum: There we are, perfectly externalized in technological form, warts and all! (Only, you’re not looking at just your brain, but a billion others, too).
Marshall McLuhan writes that “We become what we behold,” but I’d wager the opposite is just as true: That what we behold becomes us. As Viola demonstrates with his water wall technology via video in “Ocean Without A Shore,” the better technology becomes, the more it enables us to convey ideas like the thin wall separating life and death, for example, exactly as that idea might have occured in a dream. That’s to say nothing of the fact that, not only can we now map our minds into our own data spaces; we can also connect to shared data spaces and take advantage of collective intelligence and creativity that exists there.
Again, my mind goes back to McLuhan. I can finally understand why modern computing as a medium (although, to be correct, it should be “media” because computers allow us to call on all media at once) is conceptually more important than all the bits and bytes that make it possible–or more important than all the individual tools and services that we as educators and technologists feel compelled to incorporate into the classroom. As for the message:
” … the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change
of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”
The standard response of the technophobe is that computers are making us all into robots. But if like McLuhan we accept the notion that any medium’s message alters the scale of our sense ratios to the extent individual senses are emphasized over others, then the greatest promise of our digital age is that the Internet may in fact help to make us more fully human since it represents our collective brains “externalized in technological form.” It means that learning and creating with New Media means we are doing something more fundamentally innate and human than if we were locked away in our own rooms reading the printed page. And I think this is what everyone from Bush, Engelbart, Nelson, and Kay were getting at in their individual essays when they pointed to the power of computing and its ability to more fully replicate our thought patterns and the promise that it could make us smarter by allowing us to collaborate more richly.
Finally, I came away with another notion yesterday that’s harder to verbalize or pin down in a single blog post, but it has something to do with how life is really a lot like art. Every breath represents another opportunity to create, to remember, edit, and rearrange our own stories and ideas in our own data spaces to find meaning. What’s even better is that I can now share my data space with you, just as you can share yours with me.