Brecht / McLuhan / Christensen – A blog post about session 2 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

Last week we considered the ideas of a radical German dramatist who lived and worked through both world wars, a Canadian intellectual who published influential works in the post-war period on how communications technologies affect societies, and an American Harvard professor, working today, who specialises in innovation and growth.

‘Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.’ – Bertolt Brecht

So, what do they have in common? Brecht had many ideas about what a play should be but perhaps the dominant one is that it is essential that the artificiality of a production (and Brecht was a producer/director as much as playwright) should be visible and palpable to the audience at all times. No suspension of disbelief; always a clear appreciation of the limits of the medium of theatre. As the quotation above suggests, Brecht wanted his audience to see the artifice in the real world – to see that structures and conventions were contingent rather than necessary, with all that this implies for politics and the possibility of changing society.

Marshall McLuhan coined the now familiar terms “the medium is the message” and “global village”, though his key works pre-dated the internet by several decades. The meaning of “the medium is the message” is not easy to define simply from McLuhan’s writings but is generally taken to mean that a mode of communication – and the 20th century saw several new ones establish themselves widely – is not a neutral channel for the communication of information but itself must filter and otherwise bias the information it carries in ways that we would do well to be aware of, though it would be very easy (perhaps in a way reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World) to ignore. This certainly seems to chime well with Brecht admonishing audiences for participating in escapism.

Clayton Christensen has also coined an influential term/concept – that of “disruptive innovation”. This theory explains what mobile phones did for fixed-line telephony, or what the PC did for the mainframe. Essentially, as an incumbent provider of a product or service refines its offering to serve its best customers and maximise its profits, this upward journey leaves a gap at the bottom that can be exploited by a new offer (maybe a technology but not necessarily) to a different customer with less to spend and fewer expectations. The enterprise that is successful in filling this need can soon find itself dominating the market and undermining the business model of its established competitors. The list of professions and industries that have at least been shaken up, at most reinvented from the ground up, thanks to the internet, is a long one. Again, what we might think of as immutable laws because that’s what we and our recent ancestors grew up with, can prove to be very changeable indeed.

People who work in publishing have been feeling the heat for a while now.

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