The medium is the message?

A couple of days ago I received a letter from an old friend, whom I have known since we were students together (though not studying for the same degree programme). He is the same age as me, but his attitude to technology and gadgetry is not, as you will see in a moment, the same as mine. But he is a highly respected scholar, now occupying a chair in a well respected university.

Here is his problem. His university is currently reviewing its strategy, and he has been asked to participate in the process and has joined the strategy steering group. All members of the group have been asked to circulate their thoughts on some of the main topics, by email. But now, my friend does not own or use a computer, he does not use email, he says he doesn’t actually understand what a ‘wordprocessor’ is (or rather, he writes that this term is meaningless unless it is a reference to the brain). So he used his old Olivetti typewriter to write out his ideas, admittedly also adding handwritten comments in the margin. He then gave the 10 pages so filled to the secretary of the group. Who gave them right back to him and said he must arrange to have his thoughts produced in an MS Word-compatible file submitted electronically; otherwise, no circulation.

My friend proposes to overcome this obstacle by photocopying his sheets of paper – actually no, I don’t believe he can operate a photocopier, there must be some clerical assistant involved in this part of the story. Anyway, he will have paper copies and will send these by internal mail to the other members of the group.

His letter to me is full of humorous asides about all this – but he wants my advice on whether, in truth, it is time for him, as he writes, ‘finally to switch on the great machine and step through the looking glass.’ So what should I write in response?

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30 Comments on “The medium is the message?”

  1. Niall Says:

    Ask him to ask the clerical assistant the scan the pages and paste these to a Word document. Then everyone will be happy. Or at least equally unhappy.

  2. Peter Lydon Says:

    I think it is clear that he has already come to the inescapable conclusion.
    I think he is seeking solace in his request for advice.
    Of course you cannot give advice – for you cannot ever understand the world as he does. But you can tell him what you would do in that situation. As he has asked you for advice, he clearly respects your opinion, so the question now becomes ‘what would you do if you were in that situation?’
    Alternative choice: He is part of a learning organization, he needs to demonstrate, even to his colleagues, that he can learn also. Time to ‘get with the programme’.
    Alternative Choice No2: Get the Clerical Assistant to type up and email the document.
    Alternative Choice No3: Retire.

  3. Wendymr Says:

    I’m just astounded, given the barrage of information now sent electronically everywhere, including in universities, that this man has managed up until now without having to ‘switch on the great machine’. Presumably he employs someone to convert his thoughts to bits and bytes in order to submit for publication? And to check his email for acknowledgements of receipt, requests for edits and so on?

    Seriously, is it actually possible in 2011 to survive in a full-time university position without using computers? Even more than seven years ago, when I still worked in a university, so much paper had been converted to electronic documents, and most departmental communication and a lot of consultation was via email.

    But he is a professor – I assume he’s regarded by his colleagues as a harmless eccentric who will no doubt soon retire, and so it’s not worth the trouble of trying to drag him kicking and screaming into the 1980s?

  4. Rachel Says:

    Ferdinand, according to your account your friend is worried about how he will be able to circulate his thoughts to the other members of the group. Is he also worried about whether and how he will be able to receive theirs?

  5. Vincent Says:

    Has to be the Classics. No one else can tell the university pressure people to rack off and educate yourself before you even approach.
    Has to be a Scholar so respected that when he publishes he has an editor. Therefore, books.
    But asking you advise about computers is that not a bit, well, like asking a nymphomaniac if one should give up virginity.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Ah but you see asking for advice is like asking for the seduction to occur and then Ferdinand’s friend seems to have already grasped the ‘immersive’ aspect of the technology by imagining the new digital world via the ‘looking glass’ literary metaphor…

  6. adivinglife Says:

    What would you have advised if he was a scholar in the 1440’s whose only means of communicating his thoughts was via laboriously hand written copies, who had just heard about the new fangled thing called a printing press invented by a fellow called Gutenberg but was not sure about it?

  7. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Yes he should learn. My granny has managed it fine and she’s 94. And she’s not hooked on facebook, it’s not taken over her life, she just uses it for emails and then turns it off again.

  8. don Says:

    I remember back in the mid-80’s here at the uni where I (still) work when PCs were becoming commonplace, particularly with us Mac nerds. Special funds were identified to permit academic staff (mostly) to purchase their very own computer which they could now use to do all sorts of wonderful things like type and edit their own correspondence, publication submissions, data sets and all the other stuff that would leave typing pools, carbon paper, Tippex and Letraset in the past. It was a real seduction and while, no doubt, the PC has empowered many academics to better control their outputs it has also enslaved some of them to endless draft re-writes, and a burgeoning email in-tray of mostly meaningless tosh. There are however, some benefits to workplace desktop PCs, this blog being one of them. To answer your question, I suggest that your friend be given a PC as a retirement gift (together with a tutorial on its use) which he can use at home if only to partake in your blog. Otherwise, leave the poor man alone. Anyway, he’s not that alone, as where I work there are somestaff, mostly maintenance and housekeeping, who don’t have ready access to a workplace PC or even have a workplace email address, yet management persist in sending out important work related correspondence by email only…

  9. Dan Says:

    As a 23 year-old, I really cannot identify with your friend’s situation enough to give any advice – I just want to note that there is a large part of me which envies your friend.

  10. For me the interesting part of my friend’s question was his reference to ‘through the looking glass’ (i.e. Lewis Carroll) – I think only Anna picked that up. He is suggesting that if he ‘switches on the great machine;’ he will be transported to another universe in which all logic and rationality is turned upside down. Is he right?

    • Rachel Says:

      No, he isn’t. He is an academic and all that is being suggested is that he use email for communicating with colleagues about work matters, like everybody else does. Ferdinand, you are a university president – if a member of staff in your university, even in your office, regularly missed important communications related to her or his responsibilities because of a refusal to use an email facility provided and maintained by the institution, would you think this was reasonable?

      • On the whole, no, I wouldn’t. But sometimes in universities you have to make allowances. But not always.

        • Wendymr Says:

          Of course, another way of looking at this situation is from a ‘terms and conditions of employment’ point of view. At some point in the past couple of decades, it became an implicit, and in many cases explicit, condition of white-collar and professional employees’ employment that they be able to use computer technology, at the very least word-processing, email and internet. Now, one is unlikely to be hired without these skills (and just this week my own organisation subjected applicants for an intake counsellor position to a computer skills test, something that’s not unusual either these days).

          But when did your friend become employed at his current institution? If it was before the use of computer technology became widespread and expected, was there ever a point when university management made clear that employees were expected to use these tools to do their work? Most of us who have been in the labour market for more than twenty years just became accustomed to the mass implementation of IT: suddenly we were given computers, and asked to sign user agreements; we were presented with email accounts, and assigned into groups, and when we finally figured out how to access this new world we discovered lots of messages waiting for us… and bit by bit it accumulated. I don’t remember ever being told that from this point forward I was expected to become competent in all of these tools, or even seeing the topic come up in a union/management negotiation meeting, and yet for many staff members it represented a huge change to their working practices – including doing many things themselves that previously they would have passed on to support staff, and being available (and increasingly more so) to students beyond class-contact time and the weekly consultation hour.

          Oh, some of us had no problem with the technology: it was interesting, it was fun and it allowed access to a whole world we never knew existed – but clearly some, like your friend, would have fought it kicking and screaming the whole way, as he clearly still is.

          There were debates – and industrial disputes – in the late 1980s and early 1990s in some sectors of industry over the questions of whether computer technology resulted in deskilling for some workers, the loss of jobs for others, and work intensification for others still. Banking, the print media, and local and national government were affected, as I recall – but unless my memory’s failing me badly, I don’t recall any debates or concerns expressed in the HE sector, yet – again, as your friend exemplifies – the widespread use of IT has changed the role of an academic significantly, and increased workload in many areas even as it’s made other parts of the job easier.

  11. anna notaro Says:

    Not surprisingly Alice in Wonderland has been a favorite starting point for publishers who wished to exploit new media and media scholars trying to define what lies ‘beyond’ the computer screen, i.e. cyberspace. An ‘expanded book’ version, called The Annotated Alice, was one of the first titles published on floppy disc by the Voyager Company in 1993. Now, with e-readers such as iPad and Kindle, Alice has returned to the digital platform and is one the most successful e-books so far published.

    great trailer at

    Definitions of cyberspace have embraced the most dystopian and techno-utopian ones with equal fervor, not surprisingly the term itself was coined by a novelist William Gibson, who also provided the first definition:

    Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..(Neuromancer 1984)

    Cyberspace has even been identified as some digital version of Heaven, the perfect realm to be found not behind the biblical ‘pearly gates’ but the electronic gateways ‘com’ and ‘net’. Christian metaphors aside, I think that this is not an entirely new concept, as Henri Lefebvre, the great philosopher of space would put it, the ‘production’ of cyberspace cannot be reduced to its physical component. This kind of space demands us to suspend our familiar logic to develop a new one, or better new forms of networked rationality for a communally shared world(view). This new immaterial space might be, as some argue, the contingent answer to our contemporary spiritual needs, maybe …or maybe just like Alice discovers thorough her adventures, there is no univocal vision of space so much so that in order to find poetry we need to hold it up to the mirror…

  12. Regina Says:

    Surely this is a sweet lifelong (teaching and) learning challenge in bridging the digital divide, and one little device like an iPad could do the trick, don’t you think? With a little help from his old friend, he could easily learn to photograph his notes, and at a push, email them. As a skilled typist he could probably manage a lot more. And the iPad would surely fit inside his timeworn notebooks and slip into his coat pocket. On a dark day, the same device would make for a good mirror, or a flashlamp to illuminate all kinds of other possibilities…down all sorts of other rabbit holes

  13. Triona Says:

    To me this seems like a no brainer, the answer is yes. First of all, adapting to technology would only benefit him as well as all the people he works with, in a general sense. Secondly Group dynamic is hugely important in any project such as that and in this particular situation his use of old technologies would only inconvenience and slow down the rest of the group as well as take away from the process somewhat. In my time at university I found technology to be a phenommenal learning tool. The classes taught by the lecturers who didn’t make use of noodle ended when the lecture did. Whereas the classes taught by those who did continued to engage throughout the rest of the week

  14. revd rob Says:

    My mother in law took up using a PC at age 65 and has done courses on MS Word, Excel and Access. She uses email, photo shop, picassa, and creates and designs her own cards.
    Your friend is may need a translator instead of an assistant. He may well find that his English vocabulary will become so limited that he will no longer be able to communicate in any written format. What I mean by that is BTW, IMHO, CUL8R etc!

  15. Isabelle Says:

    Well, Ferdinand, you got plenty of excellent advice here.

    Easiest thing would be to e-mail your friend the hyperlink and let him read it all for himself in peace and quiet… 😉

  16. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    First things first. Mouse usage is the first new skill he will need to learn.

    To become familiar with the use of the mouse, he must play the “Solitare” program for at least and hour, and possibly two. I am quite serious. That is what the program is there for; to train people in how to click and drag. That’s the reason it’s been included in every OS since time immemorial.

    Once this is done, the concept of window switching and program starting can be introduced as they are now able to actually physically perform these actions.

    Second step. WordPad. WordPAD. Not Word. WordPad or a similarly minimal program will be an absolutely essential aspect. If Word is introduced the computer introductee will either a) be driven away from computers altogether by the complexity or b) will become enamoured of all the knobs, bells and whistles and will spend so much time dressing up their work that they will get nothing done.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest notepad, but you will want to stick to a very basic editor. Spelling and grammar checking is completely optional for this person, and moreover is probably dangerous as if it defaults to the US spelling they may become infuriated with it. Stick to txt or rtf formats for all saved files. Put a short-cut to the program on their desktop.

    Thirdly, introduce the concept of saving files and more importantly PRINTING files very quickly. This person is used to dealing with paper and they will need printouts of their work. Set them up with a reliable laserjet printer on day one. Show them how to print their work.

    Be clear about where their files are being saved. Set up a folder on their desktop with their given name, e.g. “Dave”, and give it up to five subfolders such as “work”, “personal”, etc. This will help introduce the concept of files and folders early on. Tell them to save their work regularly, and always save it in the right place. Show them how to find it again by double clicking that folder on the desktop. The folder MUST be on the desktop!!

    That’s it. Do NOT introduce them to email at this stage. Do NOT introduce them to the internet at this stage. The computer at this point is a replacement typewriter only and is not an all singing all dancing tech gadget. If they ask for email or the internet, tell them no as of yet. They must become proficient enough with the basics so that the computer at least replaces their previous work methods.

  17. I would tell the secretary to the Group that Word is a stupid format in which to distribute documents of this kind, and by the way why such an intransigent stance was taken towards someone who clearly needed help not reproval.

    Word is fine for producing works-in-progress but the completed document should be in a read-only-by-default format such as PDF. PDF has the virtue of also being viewable in mobile devices. It bugs the crap out of me when I find Word documents linked on web sites.

    I would try and find your friend a photocopying outlet with the facility to do Optical Character Recognition scanning to PDF, which would preserve the “old school” typescript with a reasonably accurate text underlay for copy and paste should the other group members care to quote the material in follow up documents.

    • Wendymr Says:

      But the advantage of Word for this kind of consultation exercise is the ability to comment inline on documents, which you can’t do with PDFs. A PDF is fine for a final report; not at all for works in progress.

  18. Stephen Kinsella Says:

    Your friend managed to get a chair at a respected university without a computer, he communicates with his friends and colleagues perfectly well it seems. I doubt his life will be enhanced by the electronic looking glass, given that he has been able to successfully avoid it for so long. I’d advise him to resign from the committee. Without the ability to speak in their medium he will hinder their effectiveness, and even if he tries to learn Word in time, it’s likely he’ll make everyone bald with stress. Or just hand write the notes and hand them to the secretary to scan and send around. But really it’s about his life, which seems to be just fine as is, being altered to fit something else. He’s troubled by his lack of fit with the organization, that shows he cares enough to attempt to change. Maybe he shouldn’t.

  19. anna notaro Says:

    or your friend might like this ‘The USBTypewriter™ a new and groundbreaking innovation in the field of obsolescence’.

  20. no-name Says:

    Ferdinand, are you not, in fact, yourself, the best person to advise your friend because of your expertise in labour law? As I understand the situation your friend is in, it is that the departmental secretary, either of his/her own volition, or at the direction of some supervisor, refuses to accept into professional communications a contribution in typescript or handwritten form. This must mean that this person has never been served with a legal summons. I’m personally not aware that these are submitted in Word format. I would suggest that you determine what violation of employment law is at stake — maybe restraint of trade, illicit exclusion, etc., and, in light of that violation, have the secretary and his/her boss served with written communications, on paper only, about the violation from the offices of a lawyer or from a court. See if the reply is in the form of a MS compatible, digital submission.

  21. Helen Finch Says:

    Lots of excellent advice here. I’d just like to add that no-one seems to be mentioning the enormous burden of work that Ferdinand’s friend is causing for his colleagues by his refusal to use technology. If he won’t photocopy, someone must do it for him. If he won’t use wordprocessing, someone must scan his work and distribute it. If he won’t respond to email in email time, but only by post or telephone, he delays important decisions, renders audits difficult and expects that his colleagues are present in the workplace to receive communications by his preferred means (rather than granting them the freedom to work from home that email allows). If he won’t use the VLE at work, disabled, distance-learning or second-language students can’t access his teaching materials in the format best suited for their needs.

    I do have sympathy for elderly technophobe academics, but very often it is young and female university workers who end up running around enabling their refusal to use computers.

  22. Perhaps your friend could take a look at Italo Calvino’s essay Lightness in Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Penguin Books 2009. Calvino is exploring the values of lightness (as opposed to weight) mainly through classical mythology. Lightness, he argues, allows us to move imaginatively and creatively through time and space looking at the world from a different perspective, a different logic and from fresh ways of understanding. To exemplify this he evokes one contemporary scenario of the interplay between lightness and weight – that of software to hard ware. He suggests that despite the obvious interdependence between the two, it is software that drives the energy for us to evolve more and more complex technologies – ‘weightless ‘bits’ in a flow of information travelling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses’p8. If the step into digital communication is a way to dissolve the solidity of the world (momentarily), it would appear quite an exciting step to take, a medium of lightness so to speak alongside others such as poetry, telling a joke, recounting an experience, making a link in response to an invitation such as this..

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