The Era: What Would Marshall McLuhan Say?
This train of thought actually had its origin in a punctuation dispute. I had used a question mark rather than a semi-colon or comma to break a couple of short clauses, and had neglected to capitalize the letter following the punctuation. To help the reader visualize such a sentence, it was something like the following: Was it interesting? or not? Obviously, if the first question mark were missing, the sentence would read clearly with no added punctuation, and no capital letter in the middle. But add the question mark, and you have a whole different animal.
Mind you, I got no sympathy. The two writers I consulted both agreed with the first person who objected to my usage. All three were in league against me. I went to my grammar bible, The Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, Thirteenth Edition; that, too, stood in opposition to my unorthodoxy. I had to admit defeat. But I am curious that the sentence with the offending punctuation did not offend my sensibilities. Furthermore, I am surprised that what seems to me a rather small and almost negligeable mistake could arouse such strong feelings in readers.
But this is what really intrigues me: I wonder if poor writing would excite as much attention as did a punctuation error. I wonder if errors in fact, rather than form, would be as quickly attacked. Some of this thinking coursed through my mind as I sat listening to the homily at 11:00 Mass this morning over at the Mission. If that seems in any way unrelated, one might bear in mind that the psalm of the day read, "If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts." It was all about speaking out and listening.
It seems to me that we are hearing less today, understanding poorly, impatient with complexity, dull to subtlety. With all the printed matter that passes through our lives, can this really be true? In my case, it was certainly true that my mind only half listened to that homily this morning, as it wove itself around these other concerns.
I read as I watch TV or listen to the radio and think I'm hearing both. Unlike a friend of mine who reads the newspaper from one end to the other, I graze through it. My eyes leap impatiently through long e-mails, wanting to get on with my day. Patently, none of this is in-depth reading or listening. Are we becoming a desultory bunch of samplers?
How typical is the pattern I've described here? Without conducting a survey, I might just note some observations. People tend to have cable television and frequently channel surf. One hears of more people who do not bother to read a newspaper, but rely on a few minutes of network news to keep themselves updated. Libraries actually close--an unthinkable prospect even ten years ago. One by one, the independent bookstores are shutting their doors. We are told that people don't read much any more.
How surprised can we really be? Marshall McLuhan could have told us as much back in the 1960s, when he wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This work actually gave us the term "media," that has remained with us ever since. In this book, McLuhan shows how the medium we use to express or extend ourselves actually molds the way we relate to the world. People who rely on books relate in a different sort of way than do people who rely on electronic media. McLuhan predicted with amazing accuracy the way the world would move into the electronic era, anticipating the way this move would bring us into a single world-consciousness. We may imagine that democracy or corporations or education has brought us to this point, but can it be first and foremost the electronic revolution we have to thank for this?
What do we gain, and what do we lose as the previous era drifts beyond our grasp? Can we pull it back? Can we have the best of both worlds?