I've heard a lot about Marshall McLuhan over the years, most recently in an excellent article by Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab, so when I passed him in the library, I thought the time had come.
The basic idea of the book is that printing didn't simply alter the economics of book production, it actually altered how we think. Prior to printing, we lived in an oral culture. Ideas came in through our ears and out our mouths. Teaching methods were (it is thought) centred around discussion, dialectic and the scholastic method - very open and verbal.
After printing, the book length argument became the quantum unit of knowledge. Ideas now came in our eyeballs, and out of our hands. We became a visual culture. With that, we lost something. You can't argue with a book, except maybe by writing another one. The book becomes an eternal Authority. It establishes a monopoly, and the idea that any idea not in a book form is somehow trivial.
The implications for the development of higher education are interesting. With the book comes the text book, and the idea that one course maps to one (or a small group of) text books which the course aims to help students understand. The book and the course became symbiotic, containerised learning blocks.
McLuhan's book also raises the idea (in 1962!) that what he called 'The Electric Age' was undoing this transformation, and putting a closing bracketed on a 500 year period of book centric history - 'The Gutenberg Parenthesis". McLuhan saw that the media of the day was moving people back from a print and book centric culture to an oral culture. We've seen it accelerate since, from the radio talk shows on to the internet, bloggers and twitter, as the quantum of knowledge gets smaller again. Later ideas like Connectivism make the case that the knowledge doesn't really sit in a fixed, static object like a book any more, but resides in a network of connected people and resources. We've moved from an audio/oral culture with a small quantum of knowledge, to a visual/text culture with a large quantum of knowledge, and now back or onwards to a multimedia (visual and oral) mode of culture where the quantum of knowledge is small again. The Megan Garber article I linked to above demonstrates it nicely, putting short text, a piece of video and hyperlinks in one easy to digest quantum of learning. The medium is the message, as McLuhan says.
The implications for the future (and present) of higher education are substantial. The quantum of learning shrinks back down again from a book sized argument to 500 word blog post, a 6'40 second Pecha Kucha presentation or even a 140 character tweet. The quantisation of knowledge into Bologna Standard modules stops making sense again just when it has been formalised. The Gutenberg age is over, knowledge is now sized for Fedex Box, or a postcard, not a Shipping Container.
In terms of style, I was surprised to find McLuhan is a pain to read. The book opens with a lengthy discussion of King Lear as a metaphor for something or other. It all sounds clever, but like King Lear, I have three daughters. Being thus driven mad already, I didn't follow it. Perhaps on a second reading it would become clear, but there are 100 million books, and life is short. No second chances. His prose assumes an easy familiarity with folk like Kant and Heidigger which will put a some of the book out of reach for many. Some writers bring the reader along on a journey and make them feel clever. McLuhan just makes me feel dumb. And yet, when I approach a point of giving up the book for a bad job he trots out a line like "As the book market expands, the division between intellect and commerce ends". As clever, thought provoking and quotable a sentence as any I've read. That's a whole book right there in twelve worlds. It's a shame about all the other ones. It's telling that his insightful ideas on how printing created authors didn't mention how it created editors too.
Would I recommend it? If you're a humanities wonk who eats Kant and Derrida for breakfast, knock yourself out. Please. Otherwise no. He has great ideas but save yourself the time and just read the Cliff notes.