by Stan Cutler

Some very complicated things can be summarized simply: E=mc2, “the rich get richer,” “no pain no gain,” etc. In the 1960s, “The Medium Is the Message” entered the lexicon to express the relationships between communication technologies and society. Anthropologist Marshall McLuhan wrote a book with that catchy title during the early days of television. He explained that when Johannes Gutenberg developed a technology to reproduce books, he initiated a profound alteration in society – the Age of Enlightenment.

Without the medium of print on paper, a way of reproducing identical words an infinite number of times, the modern era would not have happened. McLuhan speculated that television would have as profound of an influence as movable type.

I was a graduate student of Speech and Communication at the time. My area of interest was political persuasion. I was then, and remain, fascinated by the ways that public perception is affected by political messages.

My professors introduced me to the foundation of such studies in Aristotle’s writing on rhetoric and politics. His summation was almost as catchy as McLuhan’s – “the speaker, the audience, the message,” or “ethos, pathos, logos.” Aristotle did not address media because, in his world, messages were delivered in person by politicians who stood speaking and gesticulating in front of small audiences of voters. I learned that we have always been susceptible to flash and dazzle, and that democracies have always been manipulated by showmen.

McLuhan and many others, like Neil Postman, who wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” were concerned that people would stop reading because television is easy, and because it conveys messages in ways that require minimal intellectual engagement. They speculated that democracies would be more easily influenced by the superficial qualities of electronic messages, that showmen would have the advantage over deep thinkers and that people would believe ideas without understanding the logic that supported them.

They worried about education and learning in a society where ideas are presented to children as entertaining, moving images. They wondered whether kids would understand complicated concepts if they did not read about them or immerse themselves in the linear logic required by print media. Now that kids carry TVs in their pockets, the worries have intensified.

I work to save libraries, like our Chestnut Hill branch, because I don’t believe that we are doomed to stupidity. I am convinced that people enjoy complicated ideas because we have an unquenchable need for intellectual nourishment. Public libraries will endure because they are media centers that provide us with amazing content via old and new technologies. For example, we have just installed state-of-the-art audio visual equipment at our branch.

Join your neighbors for education, enlightenment, cookies and conversation in the Community Room of your public library at 8711 Germantown Ave. All multi-media presentations are free and begin at 1:30 p.m. (Please register to attend at Here are the next two presentations:

WHAT’S IN YOUR DNA? WHAT’S NOT? Mary Lee Keane, Tuesday, Oct. 15 – DNA testing raises many questions. Are they accurate when they say you’re 75% Italian/25% Ashkenazi? (Yes and no) Will the results uncover family secrets? (Possibly) Will they help you build your family tree? (Yes!) What can they tell you about your health? (Lots) Are there reasons not to take the test? (Sometimes) Mary Lee Keane teaches a genealogy course in Temple’s OLLI program and has worked with DNA results since testing first became available.

HEROES AND VILLAINS IN CHESTNUT HILL, Len Lear, Tuesday, Oct. 29 – Want to know about the most remarkable people in your community? Storyteller Len Lear has been a reporter and editor for the Chestnut Hill Local for 25 years. A Philadelphia resident and journalist for 52 years, he has won more than a dozen awards and has covered tumultuous controversies in Chestnut Hill.