What Shall We Talk About?

“The medium is the message” – Marshall McLuhan

Heinrich Zimmer lived from1890 to 1943 and was a German-born professor of South Asian art, language and civilization. His best known work centered on sacred myths and symbols derived from the history and traditions of India. He has been widely quoted as saying: “The best things cannot be talked about. The second-best things are almost always misunderstood. So we spend our life talking about the third-best things.”

When is the last time you had a meaningful conversation? The tyranny of the urgent too often diminishes the opportunity for deeper discussion about some of the better things. Our knee-jerk reaction is to assume that advances in information technology have created social distance in human interaction as technology-mediated communication is now becoming the norm. We isolate ourselves in homes and offices, hiding behind email addresses, cellphone numbers and websites. Conversations tend to be about arranging activities and coordinating logistics. We describe but do not enrich understanding. We inform but do not educate or enlighten. Does it really have to be this way? Is technology really the culprit?

In his 1964 book entitled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase: “The medium is the message.” He was suggesting the method for communicating impacts the content of the message. Accordingly, our perception and interpretation of the message is affected by the medium in which it’s presented. More than 40 years later, the Internet and social networking have taken this to a whole new level.

What’s different now is the capacity we have to communicate the same content through many different media channels simultaneously. Communication is now facilitated by highly flexible interactive technologies. The live experience of a webcast, a Skype session or a conference call create time and space for the exchange of ideas and understanding. The webpage, podcast and YouTube video provide archival information for retrieval as needed to reinforce information and ideas previously communicated. McLuhan was right. The digital world has changed us as a people, and by extension the content of our communication. It’s time to refocus.

Meaningful conversation is different in this world. It may be synchronous or asynchronous. It may be delivered in text, audio, video or all three. The challenge for the future is to worry less about the medium and more about the content. The quality of our discussion is what matters most, even when it is mediated by technology. The cultural transition is not easy. Our minds are occupied by the dizzying innovations that feel more like a revolution than an evolution. Our determination to elevate the discourse in our everyday lives will gradually shift our emphasis from the medium back to the message.

Let’s have a meaningful conversation. What shall we talk about?

For more of the president’s writings, go to www.central.edu/go/president

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