The Place of the Other

By Gumpert, Gary; Drucker, Susan J. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Place of the Other


Gumpert, Gary, Drucker, Susan J., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Gary Gumpert recalls: Midway in the twenty-first century, 1952 to be precise, I walked into a speech class of instructor Harry Weinberg at Temple University as I began the lifelong process of aphorism gathering. He introduced me to Alfred Korzybski, S. I. Hayakawa, and Wendell Johnson and intoned, "a map is not the territory." I was a student in quandary. Newton Minow's description of television as "a vast wasteland" was added to my repertoire in 1960. I must have added John Donne's seventeenth century "No man is an Island," somewhere along the way. I had no premonition that variations on the theme of territory would become an over whelming obsession in my intellectual career. Let me skip a decade to 1961 when I met my next live walking aphorism in Marshall McLuhan and "the medium is the message." My encounter with the man would alter my understanding of the impact of communication technology on the nature of transcendence. At that time, I still practiced the art of television directing and had pretentions of fame and glory along with a PhD. We owe much to our mentors, often not recognizing their import until much later when some small crevice in the cerebellum reveals another connection. I had not studied McLuhan before our first meeting and worked with him for a short time in 1960, but the rest of my career would be spent convincing my colleagues, and anyone else who would listen, that there was more to the medium than the transmission of data, that our vision of self and world be irrevocably altered.

I have previously shared my early recollections of working with McLuhan in previous articles and talks, but I recently re-read a brief note that he sent to me in 1965 in which he referred to the establishing of a new center in Toronto:

  The advantage of the concept of the Extensions of Man
  is that everybody can see at once that any extension
  modifies the existing sense ratios, whether in the
  individual or the society. It also becomes easy to see
  why the extension is the crux in effecting change and
  not the content. The "content" is always another medium
  which had its impact earlier.

Since 1985 we (Drucker and Gumpert) have been working together as The Communication Landscapers and in 2004 we established the Urban Communication Foundation. Our focus and preoccupation has been on the nature of public space and the changing shape and function of the urban landscape. We have focused on our changing cities, our shifting allegiance to neighborhood, the values of suburbia, the rise of urban and suburban sprawl accompanied by our increased dependence on the automobile, and on our growing dependence on mediated connections and relationships. But it quite clear our observations echo the McLuhan dictum that "extensions modify existing sense ratios." Consider the addition to our technological cornucopia since 1965-the addition of the cell phone, Internet, Blackberry, smartphone, iPod, iPad, Gameboy, laptop, Kindle, global positioning systems (GPS), flat screen television, 3-D television, Skype, Wii, and Wi-Fi.

Our preoccupation has been on the nature of social relationships in a technological world and the role of place in a technological playpen. We remain attached to location but are increasingly freed to roam, to transcend while fixed in space. The Sisyphus dilemma prevails although the rock seems to be getting smaller. Does the location of the other existing in a virtual dimension matter?

Have you noticed the sidewalk become an obstacle course on which text-messengers dictate maneuverability? When did muttering in public become fashionable and preferred? When did the museum become the studio for photographers? When was the last time you drove to mother--without the aid of a navigational device to guide you? When did the hotel lobby cease to function as a meeting place, but became a place with free Wi-Fi accessibility? When did the cafe become a place to compute rather converse? …

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