Interview with Robert K. Logan

© Robert K. Logan and Figure/Ground
Dr. Logan was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. August 18th, 2010.

Robert K. Logan originally trained as a physicist, but he is now a distinguished media ecologist. He received a BS and PhD from MIT in 1961 and 1965. After two post-doctoral appointments at University of Illinois (1965-7) and University of Toronto (1967-8), he became a physics professor in 1968 at the U of Toronto until his retirement in 2005. He is now professor emeritus. During this period, in addition to math-based physics courses, he taught an interdisciplinary course called “The Poetry of Physics,” which led to his collaboration with Marshall McLuhan and his research in media ecology and the evolution of language. His best known works are The Alphabet Effect, based on a paper co-authored with McLuhan, The Sixth Language: Learning a Living in the Internet Age and The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture. The Sixth Language won the Suzanne K. Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form in 2000 from the Media Ecology Association.

Your background is in physics, but over the years you have become a well-respected communication theorist. Would you be able to walk our readers through the path that led you from being a hard scientist to becoming a communication scholar?

I am now physics professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. In 1971 I started a course there called the “Poetry of Physics” to bring physics education to humanities students. I taught physics without mathematics. The textbook for the course also entitled The Poetry of Physics was just published by World Scientific. Back then I was part of a small team of professors promoting inter-disciplinary studies. In 1974 I started a future studies seminars called “The Club of Gnu” at New College. One of the professors that I recruited was Marshall McLuhan. We had a lunch and he asked me what I had learned by teaching the poetry of physics. I said that I was working on the problem of why abstract science began in Europe and not in China, because the Chinese had invented so many things. I attributed that to the fact that monotheism and codified law unique to the West gives rise to the notion of universal law. McLuhan asked: “what else is unique to the West that you left out.” I said, “I do not know” and he said: “the alphabet”. And I realized right then and there that he had connected the alphabet to abstract science and logic. So we put our ideas together and we published a paper entitled Alphabet, Mother of Invention in the journal Etcetera, edited by Neil Postman; and that started my career in media studies. I worked with McLuhan until his death in 1980. I might add that for a while I did both physics and communication studies, but by the mid-80s I switched over completely to communications.

Coming from physics – a discipline within the realm of the natural sciences – how come you did not end up formulating a positivist approach to communication studies? What led you to adopt a more holistic/analogical approach?

From the very beginning, I felt there was a need for interdisciplinary approach to problems. Humanities without science, and science without humanities, doesn’t work. The problem with the positivists is that they are too logical, but they are not comprehensive; they don’t take into account the complexity of phenomena. The way in which my physics informs my work in communications and linguistics is through complexity theory, and the notion of emergence. The components of complex systems self-organize to create a system with properties that none of its components have, and you can never arrive at an understanding of complexity from a positivist stance.

According to your profile page, your current research interests are the origin and evolution of language, social impact and history of media, and knowledge management, among other areas. What do physics and communication have in common?

Everything is related to everything else, and you can’t study one field without studying all the others…

You are an active member of the Media Ecology Association; you were the recipient of the Susan K. Langer Prize for outstanding scholarship in the Ecology of symbolic form; then you became associate editor of Explorations in Media Ecology, and finally, a member of the editorial board of Explorations. Given your vast experience, you must surely be able to explain what “Media Ecology” is…

Media ecology is a term McLuhan used; it was picked up by Neil Postman, and it basically stems from the observation that every medium impacts on every other medium – they form an ecology. As soon the telegraph arrived, it changed newspapers. As soon as the Internet arrived, it changed the music industry, it changed newspapers, it changed radio and television. So every medium impacts on every other medium, and they form an ecology, just like the behaviour of an animal in the biosphere impacts every other animal in its ecological zone.

In the 1970s, you collaborated with Marshall McLuhan for almost six years. How did that experience influence your research interests and the focus of your scholarship? What happened with the book you were co-authoring, The Future of the Library: An Old Figure in a New Ground?

Working with McLuhan changed the focus of my scholarship from physics to communications, media, linguistics, systems biology, information theory. I still have a foot in physics in the sense that I make use of complexity theory, and also I continue to teach the poetry of physics course. I’ve done it for forty years now, and I’ve published the textbook finally this year.

As for The Future of the Library, there are plans for me to update that manuscript with Eric McLuhan – Marshall’s son – and Kathryn (Hutchon) Kawasaki, who wrote City as Classroom with Eric and Marshall.

In fact, you recently wrote a book entitled Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan, which will be published by Peter Lang Publishing in 2010. The book claims to update McLuhan’s 1964 masterpiece, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man. Now, since his death, many books have been written about McLuhan from different angles – do you think that he continues to be misunderstood? How is your book different from other books?

McLuhan continues to be misunderstood because it’s hard for people to study the effects of media independent of their content (so many communication scholars focus on content.) What my book does that is different from other books is I don’t delve on Marshall McLuhan’s personal life, but what I do is I update his book, Understanding Media. So I first write seven theoretical chapters, just as he did in his book, in which I talk about the nature of the new digital media and how they differ from the electric mass media that McLuhan studied. That’s the first part of the book. In the second part of the book, I look at each of the media that McLuhan studied in Understanding Media, and I show how they’ve been transformed by the Internet and the new digital media. And then in part three I then analyze those new media. They include: the Internet, the web, cell phones, personal computers, notebooks, the iPod, wikis, blogs, and social media.

In 2005, you were nominated as one of the top 30 lecturers in Ontario by TVOntario. What makes your lectures so interesting and what advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

McLuhan once said that those who try to make a distinction between education and entertainment know nothing about either. The reason for my success is that I am entertaining. I tell stories, I use history. I explain not just the formulas but I talk about the people who came up with them and why. I also tell the students how they can do well in the course; let them know that I am trying to give them the best grade possible, so I win them over that way. I start out by saying the first day: “here’s what you have to do to get an A.” And then I tell them, you know, read the material before you come to the lecture so the lecture is a review of the material, and then you read them right afterwards. And you do all the homework problems at the end of each chapter: not just the ones I assign you. I give the same kind of test each year that I’ve always given, and if you’re going to earn an A with my system you’re going to get an A, but you have to do what I tell you. And I hope you all earn an A.

One of your books, The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture, was published in 2007. How is your thesis different from that introduced by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their 1998 paper, “The Extended Mind”?

I’ve actually been in dialogue with Andy Clark, who acknowledges my work in that it was done independently of him. It was in 1997 that we both coined the term “The Extended Mind.” My focus is just on language as an extension of the mind; he does much more than language, his focus is also on physical tools. Taken together, his work and my work complement each other, and they fully explore the ways in which the mind is extended by our use of tools and language is just one of those tools.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve written a book called What is Information. It’s before a publisher right now, and hopefully they will accept it. We all talk about information, but do not realize how complicated it is. it turns out that there are different forms of information. Stuart Kauffman and I with a team of system biologists and information scientists showed that Shannon information and the biotic information in DNA are quite different. I have extended that idea to consider the information embedded in a number of other systems including language, technology, science and social systems.

So if I understand you correctly, you are saying that there’s an embodiment dimension to DNA information, whereas in the case of Shannon information tends to be reduced to the status of a symbol…

Right, Shannon information is symbolic, whereas DNA is not a symbol of RNA; it’s the actual mechanism by which RNA is created. RNA is the mechanism by which proteins are created, so an RNA is not a symbol of a protein.

There is one more book I’m working on. I’m doing a book with Alex Kuskis on McLuhan as educational theorist. It’ll build on the entire McLuhan oeuvre. He wrote a lot about education but never in one place. We also plan to extends McLuhan’s ideas tounderstand the role of digital media in today’s educational scene.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Logan
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2010). “Interview with Robert Logan,” Figure/Ground. August 18th.
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