Saturday, April 01, 2006

Marshall McLuhan on Blogging - Snowballs at the Speed of Light

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher who looked at media through an anthropological lens. He wrote in aphorisms, played a lot and invented Paris Hilton (long before she was born) in an essay called the Mechanical Bride. He is very readable. He reviewed history and saw how changes in media precipitated wars because they change hierarchical structures. McLuhan would have said that the internet made the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan necessary, for example. For McLuhan, media is the extension of man.

But smallfirmlife firmly eschews philosophical meanderings and hews closely to the theme of how the little guy lawyer can make her way through all of this nonsense (while paying the rent). Every communication has its emotional tone. Sending a messenger is not sending a fedex is not sending a certified letter is not sending a fax is not sending a first class letter is not sending an email is not leaving a voice mail. And lunch is not a phone call. And an oral statement at a public meeting is not a "reply to all" email is not a conference call is not a podcast.

All of the foregoing are tools in a lawyer's toolbox. We can take them out to fix things or to break things, depending on the occasion. The medium has its consequences, its shelf life and its reincarnation (look out confirmation hearing!!!). Instinct and calculation lead us to choose the proper salves and liniments, or the appropriate weapons. These are the same types of calculations McLuhan made, evaluating these extensions of ourselves.

Chapter 2 of McLuhan's Understanding Media analyzes media as "hot" or "cool". Radio is hot. Television is cool. Cool media requires the recipient to fill in much of the information. Hot media fills the senses. McLuhan goes on and on - every bit worth reading, very accessible now, but years ago I couldn't understand what the big deal was.

Print is a cool medium. I think blogging as interpreted by the acculturated practictioners is super cool. I'm new to blogging, this post is hot (although in a cool medium). Full, expository sentences --- not one link. Very print media. Looking at supercool blogs -- you can't understand many posts without taking action: linking and clicking to sites that the blogger has referred to cryptically. This is the function of poetry in literature - to grab the imagination and make you work.

McLuhan also analyzed the delivery system of a medium. RSS, a blog's delivery system, is superhot. It delivers to nodes that the recipient has hardwired for maximum impact to the exclusion of all else - at a speed approaching the speed of light. Not just one recipient, but a willing community. And that community's superheated response approaches the speed of human cognition.

By launching a blog, a lawyer is entering a superhot snowball fight. I recently noticed one of the top attorney blogger/critics (almost) apologizing for having criticized a consultant for an attorney launching a blog for putting up a 'static' page. When I interviewed experienced bloggers, they talked about the emotional effects of blogging. The Chilling Effects website boomerangs cease and desist letters on lawyers. I think that perhaps lawyers in the blogosphere will be very very careful to be constructive to newbies. For their own survival. Compelling blogging may mean taking emotional risks or exploring ideas outside one's specialty. A confession of ignorance on a blog (in the legal profession ordinarily a sign of weakness) may result in friendships, information and allies. The large firm (all knowing mainframe computer) as opposed to linked small firms (networked small computers). To network properly, the small firm practitioner must be truthful about strengths to receive assignments. To receive proper assistance, the small firm practitioner must confess a need or ignorance.

Is the blogosphere the place for all of that to happen? Tune in. Exchanges of emails or legal briefs fosters petty linear vindictiveness, and the emotional climate of schadenfreude (the guilty pleasure of watching others suffer). I don't think that will be the emotional tonality of the blogosphere. If you've ever been hit with a soft, powdery snowball by a friend, you know it's one of life's great pleasures. If someone threw iceballs, you just walked away. Getting 86'd from a blogroll may be the extreme sanction, McLuhan's global village's equivalent of ostracism and exile that was the ultimate punishment to the Ancients.


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