Media Ecology in the East & West
Efei Wang has recently published an excellent post summarizing the differences between the Asian and North American schooling systems. The difficulty level of Chinese schooling has risen dramatically: Chinese elementary school students are taught algebra, science, and literature; calculus is an opening high school math course in China, whereas in North America calculus is not taught until grade twelve; in short, North American education is quite obviously inferior to that of Asia. The disparities between the two continents are eerily dramatic, and undoubtedly fuel the paranoia of those who suspect that the era of American world supremacy is drawing to a close. The following is a brief summary of how North American students’ seeming inferiority may disguise significant assets of North American habitus which will likely contribute to the persistence of American hegemony.
Marshall McLuhan was an extremely influential media ecologist in the mid-20th century. He noticed that since the popularization of the television, a distinct break could be noticed in people’s patterns of thought (patterns which were shaped by the predominating “sense ratios”). He also (controversially) denied the importance of content, in favor of the nature of the medium itself. He came to separate ‘print culture’ (marked by its intensification of the visual sense, which led to modes of thinking focusing upon uniformity, linearity, and breaking things into their component parts) from ‘audial-tactile’ culture (marked by nonlinearity, mulitiplicity, and emphasis upon difference).
Before the printing press, education had been primarily oral in nature (and medieval manuscripts lacked the uniform typescript that allows readers to simply read without conscious deciphering, hence it was much more ‘tactile’). The printing press, however, brought about a complete shift in values, as mentioned above, which contributed greatly to the development of capitalism, science, etc. However, the introduction of the television promoted audial-tactile thinking once again, which filtered into business, science (the most abstruse of contemporary physics tends to now use non-visual & non-linguistic models), and culture (loss of a sense of progression, nihilism, etc.). The reason that McLuhan was able to identify these trends (‘paradigms‘, if you prefer) was precisely because of this drastic change: before television, visual culture was taken for granted, and in more audial-tactile nations was attributed to ‘backwardness’. McLuhan died before the internet was popularized, but he would certainly hold that our era is defined by a distinct mix of these modes of thinking, and that it is very beneficial to be able to switch from one to the other.
The problem with the Asian schooling system is that in so limiting the scope of its pedagogy, Asia loses precisely what gave it its comparative advantage in the first place. Asian countries, that is to say, formerly had a distinct advantage in science, business, and marketing precisely because they were attuned to the electronic (i.e. audial-tactile) zeitgeist: their society was organized according to audial-tactile values such as community (rather than atomistic individualism), integration (compare Oriental holistic medicine to the traditionally mechanical & part-separating medicine of the Occident), and polymathy (rather than Western specialization).
If Efei Wang’s description is accurate, then the Chinese are bound to lose this audial-tactile attunement, while North American industries have for decades been gravitating precisely toward audial-tactile attunement. There will, of course, always be a place for visually-focused work, but much of contemporary managerial (in a broad sense) work tends toward integration of disparate fields (cf. Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizome) rather than breaking it apart (cf. D&G’s ‘arborescence’), and, as mentioned above, visual & linguistic models are becoming insufficient for contemporary cutting-edge science.
It is of course better to know more than to know less, but McLuhan shows that the main difference between the Asian and North American schooling systems is not solely a difference of quantity. With the popularization of the internet, print has returned to prominence, but amidst a wide array of other media. Hence, contemporary North American students are unconsciously developing the ability to shift back and forth between paradigms to suit their needs, even during their time which is solely devoted to leisure. Therefore, there may likely be a decline in Asian proficiency for audial-tactile industries (such as computer programming, theoretical physics, and information-management) and an increase in visual industries (such as engineering, genetics, & astronomy), whereas the converse will likely occur in North America.
**Edit (11.07.05): I entirely forgot to mention the popularization of Pinyin, a phonetic writing system, among the Chinese. McLuhan very much emphasizes the role of the phonetic alphabet in bringing about the isolation of the visual sense: because it abstracts sounds down to uniformly repeatable symbols which require no conscious interpretation, the ‘tactility’ of interpreting manuscript letters is lost.
- The kinds of media which predominates in a society shape the way its people think (McLuhan).
- Print media leads people to think one way, audial-tactile media another.
- Since the mid-20th century, audial-tactile media, and thus thinking, have been at the fore of industry.
- Asian schools currently focus on literacy (visual thinking) at the expense of audial-tactile thinking; traditionally, Asian society has been primarily audial-tactile.
- Hence, Asian productivity in audial-tactile industries can be expected to decrease.
- Because North American pedagogy (as well as home life) balances between visual & audial-tactile thinking, the impact of their education being less rigorous is not as dramatic as it seems to those who view the difference solely in terms of quantity of education.