Interview with Gordon Gow

© Gordon Gow and Figure/Ground
Dr. Gow was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. June 21th, 2011.

Gordon Gow is Associate Professor of Communication and Director of the Graduate Program in Communication and Technology (MACT) in the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta. From 2003-2006 he was lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, where he was Director of the Graduate Programme in Media and Communications Regulation and Policy. Dr. Gow is also affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Gow’s research interests revolve around the impact of social media and other new communication technologies in the areas of public safety, public health, and community engagement. His current projects include a SSHRC-funded study on emergency alerting at Canadian post-secondary institutions, as well as a KIAS-funded study on the use of information technology to support sustainable farming practices in developing countries; Dr. Gow has also been involved with an IDRC-funded study on the use of mobile phones for health surveillance in Sri Lanka and India. IN 2009 he received a grant to develop a facility at the University of Alberta in order to examine the potential for mobile phones and other wireless devices to support scholarly as well as community-engaged research projects. His research projects typically involve close collaboration with community stakeholders, and he has organized several workshops around the theme of communications technology and public safety. Participation at these events has included representatives from community and industry organizations, as well municipal, provincial, and federal agencies. Dr. Gow is the author of two books and numerous journal publications. He currently teaches a graduate level introduction to social media and supervises graduate students in the MACT program.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice? 

I decided after completing my MA at the University of Calgary that I wanted to do a PhD and continue working in academia.  I enjoy the intellectual autonomy that comes with the position, as well as the opportunity to work with students in areas that otherwise would not come to my attention.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

The Internet was not widely known when I was an undergraduate. One big change that I have seen is that the university and the professoriate really were the arbiters of knowledge prior to the Internet. That role has not diminished per se but it has changed significantly. It used to be that one had to go to the library or go to class to simply gain access to knowledge. Now of course, the situation has reversed and the students with laptops and wireless can be fact checking and challenging claims in the middle of a lecture. That is a game changer. I think the professor now has to be more accountable to the student in terms helping them to negotiate/navigate the knowledge that is available to everyone. The other aspect is that professoriate has to be willing now to engage in that debate about the social construction of knowledge itself.  It is no longer acceptable to simply delegate it to a closed group of peer reviewers and wash your hands of it.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by social media and information overload?

It is, and always has been, about how one tells the story. Good story tellers will always command attention. How that story is told may vary depending on the technology of the day but it is still about telling a compelling story. The professor has to make the student want to learn if they are to be effective. Humour always helps too.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

Learn the art of storytelling. Listen to your students, don’t lecture them (Socrates, of course, is the model here). Realize and accept that you can’t know everything in your field but that your experience and guidance is what students are seeking out.

From 2003 to 2006 you were a lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, where you were also Director of the Graduate Program in Media and Communications Regulation and Policy. How was your experience in London compared to previous experiences in Canada?

Good question. Well, I have to say that London is an extremely cosmopolitan city, and there is a richness that comes out of that that, just generally as a context to begin, is extremely stimulating. The place being what it is, and with its history, really brings in a diverse range of people and intellectuals, and particularly when working at LSE, the opportunities of “brushes with greatness” abounded. So I found that environment extremely exciting to be in, and the combination of the kind of intellectuals that came through the LSE to give presentations, the quality of the faculty there, the diversity of their research interests, and then as well the students. There were graduate students from a diverse range of countries: North American students, Chinese students, students from Africa and other parts of Europe, and it made for a really diverse set of perspectives and engaging discussions in the classroom.

I remember, for example, with regards to these moments with these great intellectual figures, having Lawrence Lessig drop in and give the graduate students in the Law class a seminar at lunch; and then him coming by later that year at some point and giving a talk on copyright reform in the UK, so these kinds of opportunities really make that place really vibrant from an intellectual standpoint. I did find that it was a very competitive environment, and in terms of balancing teaching and publishing and supervising, that was an ongoing challenge. As I understand from others who are still there, it continues to be a challenge balancing that load.

You just spoke of the quality of the faculty at LSE. Now, going back for a moment to our previous question about what makes a good teacher today – and you already mentioned the art of storytelling as a useful pedagogic technique –, how did your experience in a place like LSE contribute to your own grow as a university professor?

Well, I think this idea that in a place like LSE, faculty members are immersed in the latest domain of thinking in an area; being in the cutting edge and being exposed in casual ways to different perspectives is great. In other words, the beauty of being at LSE is that, by virtue of your position, different opportunities often show up at your desk: invitations to seminars, events in London, conferences, workshops, these kinds of things, which means that you find yourself in this really interesting space with interesting people doing interesting things that are at the leading edge of their field – whether that is information technology, intellectual property, and so on. The key is, of course, really to be able to impart that onto the students, as a teacher; and that’s where storytelling comes in – to thread it together as an interesting and relevant account. Good teachers have that ability: they make it easy to follow the story and get excited about it.

In what respects is the European conception of communication studies as a discipline similar or different from the way in which we think of communication studies in Canada and the USA?

This is interesting. Coming at it from my background, which is the look at the social impact of technology as a branch of communication studies, will impart of course a certain perspective, as compared to other people who have different scholarly interests. From my research perspective – that is, the social impact of technology, technology policy and philosophy of technology to some extent – there are some interesting differences. One is that there is a different emphasis around the role of the state in public broadcasting; that was something I noticed, because in the UK for example, the BBC is such a strong presence both domestically and internationally, a lot of students are drawn into the regulation and policy areas with an emphasis on broadcasting and public broadcasting. I don’t think that we see that to such a great extent here in North America, because the predominance of the US in the field, and the state of public broadcasting, isn’t as prominent. And certainly, I think, from a policy perspective, you might see a little more openness to ideas that look at state intervention and the role of the state in communications policy and public polity – there seems to be a little more openness to that in the European context that you don’t typically find in North America because we are driven by a free market conception.

The other point, I suppose, and this relates probably to Canada, is conceptualizations around space, which are also quite different. In Europe, you deal with large populations, so public sphere and audiences are different, but in North America and particularly in Canada, the role of space and physical space plays out in our policy debates and thinking about communications policy in a much more prominent way than it does in Europe. This makes sense given Canada’s geography and the fact that we are always dealing with huge tracks of space in a relatively small population – this plays out continuously in our discourse around communication studies in Canada. Also in Canada, of course, there is the issue of our proximity to the US. We see a little bit of this in the EU discourse, but certainly in Canada this notion of cultural policy and the need to carve out a unique niche for Canadian culture within the North American culture is still there, even today with the Internet; we still see that debate being played out in broadcasting and telecom. I suppose in some ways there are some similarities along those lines to the European prospectus, because within the EU there is a discourse about the importance of culture. But I don’t think we see the kind of concerns that we see in North America, because the US is such a strong influence on Canada; I think in Europe is a little more balanced, but clearly there is an underlined discourse around cultural policy as well.

In the case of Canada, you spoke of there being a distinguishing emphasis on space: You spoke of the challenge of keeping the country together and the role of communication technologies in that unifying process. Would it be fair to say that we have a conception of communication studies here in Canada that is much more ‘ontological’ than in other countries? I may be awfully wrong here, but when I was in Europe, given the importance of mass media and state propaganda in their tradition, I got the impression at times that when they spoke of communication studies they were really thinking about information studies…

How would you define the difference between information studies and communication studies?

Well, I’d say that communication studies – Canadian communication theory at least – amounts to a “transformational theory,” as opposed to information studies which, to paraphrase McLuhan, is really a “theory of transportation” with epistemological underpinnings, concerned with moving information from point A to point B with minimal interference. I’d say that information theory has a stronger emphasis on the dissemination (coding and decoding) of messages, whereas in the work of somebody like McLuhan at least, there is a lot more being said about embodiment, the sense, and mediation in a broadest sense…

Well, it’s an interesting distinction. I would not necessarily characterize it as more ontological, but the ontological basis of the two may be different. I guess my observations would be similar in some ways. Definitely in Canada, looking into Innis as the fore-father, there is a greater sense of awareness of the physicality of communications than there may be in other places, and that is in part because of the distances. So in setting up a telecommunications network, for example, you can’t ignore the “physicality” of the Canadian landscape – and that is a particularly ontological focus. Also, geographically, because the space is so huge – we cover about five time zones in Canada – that again too reinforces that physicality. You see all this of course played out in Innis’ work. If you trace communication studies back to Innis, you realize that it comes out of a physical manifestation of communication – the fur trade and staples theory – and then it gets gradually translated by Innis into that world of information.I think in the Canadian tradition that is always grounded with this great sense of awareness of the physicality of how it is that these symbols and signs move around.

McLuhan, of course, takes this and embodies it in the body; he is interesting because he takes the idea of physicality and locates it in our sensorium. But also, when he talks about The Medium is the Message, he sees media as environmental; and that plays out in his dimensions of visual and acoustic space. So here is that lineage right back to Innis – space, physicality and how we relate to information in spatial terms – I think that connection can be traced back to the dimensions of North America being huge with a relatively small population in Canada. One of the experiences that one has in Europe as opposed to other countries is the intensity of the information environment, because of the relative density of the population, particularly in large cities: Paris, London, Shanghai, etc. It is a very intense information environment, and because spaces are smaller, you de-emphasize the spatial dimensions because there are not obstacles in the way they are in North America.

This leads nicely into our next question. One of your areas of expertise is precisely Canadian communication theory. What attracted you to the works of Innis, McLuhan et al?

Coming out of Simon Fraser University, at least at the time I was there, McLuhan and Innis had a prominent place in the curriculum. In part because the faculty legacy was there, you were presented with Innis and McLuhan early as an undergrad. I was intrigued by this idea of moving beyond the content and looking at the structural dimensions of media as being influential. And while content is obviously important, I got a sense of excitement by thinking that we could look at media and go a little deeper to try and find more persistent influences that they might have; I find that continuously fascinating.

Once I got hooked into McLuhan – his approach, his way of writing, his way of characterizing history, his way of conveying idea – for me it all generated a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. I found him unconventional; I found it irreverent, and also because he was Canadian, I felt I could connect on those terms as well. But certainly, I as a student found a mode of delivery, McLuhan as a medium, to be one that really inspired questioning and learning.

Somebody to think with perhaps?


Now, how would you say background in media ecology and Canadian communication theory informs your empirical research?

Well, my work has always exhibits and awareness of the role of the medium, so I carry that forward into all of my work – a strong sense of awareness that the medium itself has a structuring effect on social relations. I find that, even though sometimes this principle will operate in the background on certain research projects, it remains a set of ground rules.

Canadian communication theory, media ecology, the Toronto school of communication – is there a difference between these terms? 

Conceptually, in terms of their lexicon and their concepts, they blur together. If I had to separate media ecology and the Toronto school, I would distinguish them historically. In my view, to speak of the Toronto school of communication is to speak of Explorations, and the ground that came together around Explorations: McLuhan, Carpenter, Innis, that gang. And then, if you want to push it and include the generation that followed that, you can include Postman in there, Ong, that generation of scholars that emerged under the strong influence of McLuhan and the Toronto school.

Media ecology, in my view is a more diffuse body of thought that the Toronto school gave birth to.

How so? 

Well, you can look at McLuhan as the forefather or grandfather. Postman picks it up in N.Y. and media ecology is more centered in N.Y. – NYU was the home of it for a while – so physically is not in Toronto. Furthermore, the group of scholars, even though they may be rooted in McLuhan, it has become a more ambitious and diffused project. So I think media ecology it is an outgrowth of the Toronto school, an evolution of the thinking that first crystallized in the Toronto school. I characterize it in that way because I see it as a growing field, and as such, the future for it is quite bright; in fact, there are a lot of opportunities to connect it as an interdisciplinary field.

Speaking of this interdisciplinary emphasis – and I believe I mentioned off the record the McLuhan/Heidegger/Merleau-Ponty interface that I am currently working on – what other possibilities do you see in terms of advancing or moving beyond McLuhan?

I think the four laws of media, as a kind of encapsulation of his thinking, there is a lot more work that can be done with that. So, taking those four laws and seeing where they go in terms of their interpretive approach. And this ties back to media ecology: I think there is a lot of opportunity in that contribution for us to begin to explore in a more relational way the impact of digital and social media and understanding the social impact of technology. One of the things that I always thought and I have been meaning to put down on paper is this notion of McLuhan studies and media ecology as a branch of constructive technology assessment. So I can see some very interesting opportunities to bring together the work that has been done around constructive technology assessment in Europe, such as Johan Schot’s work from the early 1990s. I like this notion of trying to disrupt path dependencies by early engagement with technology, which is McLuhan’s project writ large. Another element that I would include in there is the study of metaphor. I think there some rich ore to be mined in McLuhan’s work and around technologies as active metaphors. I don’t think that that’s all been played out yet. Lakoff and Johnson sort of did some early work in the book Metaphors We Live By, and I wrote to something about that in a piece on McLuhan and spatial metaphor in the Canadian Journal of Communication. I think there is something deep and significant about technology and metaphor that has yet to be fully appreciated. And I think those two come together with this notion of technology assessment as an applied outcome of this intellectual pursuit.

Let’s move on. This coming June, the University of Alberta will be hosting the The Twelfth Annual Convention of the MEA. This will be a very special occasion because Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, and this year he would have turned 100. Do you think McLuhan has finally received the recognition he deserves? 

I suspect the centenary is going to reinvigorate scholarly awareness and to some extent public awareness of McLuhan’s unique and prescient insights into the impact of media on society. To the extent that it inspires students to pick up Understanding Media and scholars to go back and revisit McLuhan, or at the very least re-inject those questions into the discussion around the impact of technology today, I think that would please McLuhan. And to give you another perspective, my summer reading includes two books: one is Nicholas Carr’s bookThe Shallows, and the other is James Gleick’s The Information, which is a fascinating account of the history of the concept of information. Both books are prominent publications in the field, and both authors mention and draw on McLuhan as an intellectual framework for their studies. That’s an indication that McLuhan retains a certain relevance, and although his insights are often mischaracterized, he remains a key figure in terms of trying to understand what the impact of ICTs on society. He remains a touchstone for many scholars.

It is interesting how you think of McLuhan himself as a medium, as somebody to think with. My impression of a book like Understand Media, for example, is that it is such a classic because it is essentially inexhaustible, interactive, engaging and inviting…

Absolutely, and on a couple of levels: When I re-read it now and read parts about the telephone, for example, there is some interesting historical work that he did in writing that, which comes out as your awareness of the history grows; but at the same time, you can bounce it off things like Twitter, and like you say, it brings new life into his observations. And I think his style of writing, being proto- or pseudo-poetic, lends itself to that kind of reading.

Definitely, and the feeling when I read it is that it’s never complete, always in the making, a stretching-and-awaiting sort of experience…

Yes, there is a fascinating study of McLuhan as a media pundit (Marchand calls him an intellectual comet – and notice that he uses the word comet, because a comet returns, whereas a meteorite burns out). It’s interesting how he was picked up in the 60s by Madison Avenue and turned into this figure at a very interesting time historically, right around 1968. If you think about what was going on, it shows parallels in some ways with where we are today: there is this new medium making a new impact on society – at the time it was television –, everybody is trying to make sense of it, and here comes McLuhan who can capture in a mythic way these complex dynamics and give expression to them; his insights may have been perplexing but also very stimulating and somehow compelling, and that is an interesting study onto itself. Then you have McLuhan as the poet, which is a more enduring reading of him around how he picks up these lines of thinking and how he draws together these influences from Joyce and Thomas Nash and the early modernists – it’s fascinating there. So I see him as figure with those two different qualities, and he can be explored equally on both accounts.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a number of research projects, and what I am really interested in now is particularly the impact of mobile communications technologies around communities of practice. One of the questions that I have been pursuing with my colleagues is the sustainability of technological interventions in areas around public safety and public health with a focus on the developing world. I have been involved in a couple of projects where we looked at introducing mobile phones as a way of addressing a need, but one of the persisting concerns is how you sustain and advance the use of those technologies in settings where there are structural challenges in the form of either economics or political effects that inhibit the sustained use of new technology. So along those lines I am quite interested in understanding how peer production and social networks themselves can be forces for sustaining these kinds of projects; rather than simply throwing money at them or mandating them politically, is there a way that you can draw on social and peer influences as a way to maintain an interest in the technology.

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Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2011). “Interview with Gordon Gow,” Figure/Ground. June 21st.
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