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To deconstruct a text with the use of any philosophy involves evaluating the implications of the text with respect to the bias of the philosophy. To deconstruct a text with no apparent implications (such as the chalkboard) by using a philosophy that views the notion of epistemological virtue as irrelevant (such as meme theory) would therefore seem to be akin to doing a radio broadcast of a lamppost. However, no self-respecting postmodern philosophy would let the notion of an idea devoid of meaning go unchallenged, and meme theory does make a fairly bold declarative statement with respect to the ideas it examines: all of them, it says, are occupy positions of prominence (to whatever degree) in the human mind solely because they are good at attaining positions of prominence in human minds. In addition, this prominence both determines and is dependant on the landscape of human thought and culture, which accordingly is far from static. When a major shift in predominant thought occurs, a meme must either adapt or perish. Just such a shift is described in the media theory of Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan discussed the effects of media in terms of hot and cool types as well as their detribalizing and retribalizing influences (concepts that will be explored in full later on.) As a meme and a medium, the chalkboard is profoundly impacted by both of these theories. As will be shown, by using these theories we can argue that the chalkboard has adapted to survive in an environment that has been retribalized due to the spread of electronic media and associated memes.

Meme theory is based on the concept that ideas spread and evolve in ways that are analogous to the way in which genetic material spreads and evolves. These individual units of thought, which have been dubbed "memes” , are continually engaged in competition for a limited amount of space in the minds of human beings. A meme with no redeeming characteristics, at least from a self-replication standpoint, will quickly become extinct. It is important to note that this self-replication needs have no relation to a given set of moral standards. In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennet explains the premise thus:

According to the normal view, the following are virtual tautologiestrivial truths not worth the ink to write them down:

"Idea X was believed by the people because X was deemed true."
"People approved of X because people found X to be beautiful…"

The meme’s eye view purports to be an alternative to this normal perspective. What is tautological for it is:

"Meme X spread among the people because X is a good replicator." *

To put it another way, while all ideas must be good at thriving within human minds to survive, not all ideas that survive are seen by human minds as being good. This can be helpful in explaining why ideas that are almost universally seen as having a negative moral value persist in spreading, but it can also be helpful in explaining why ideas persist despite not being overtly valued one way or the other. We can observe that the chalkboard is not generally assigned a subjective value by those who interact with it; nevertheless, it is so widespread as to be found in virtually every place of education on the planet. While we do not generally hear people extolling the virtues of the chalkboard, we are nevertheless possessed of the idea that the chalkboard is a useful and necessary educational medium. Since it is doubtful that we come by this opinion a priori, we must look for reasons why we believe this to be the case. In meme theory, we find these reasons in patterns of communication. Like genes, memes have the capacity to be passed down from parent to child, as well as to be spread epidemically like a virus. In refining this idea further, it has been suggested that there are seven broad categories or modes of communication for memes. Of these, the ones that best describe the spread of the chalkboard meme are ones that rely on horizontal, viral transmission: the proselytic, cognitive, and motivational modes.

The proselytic mode, as the name implies, describes communication of a meme by adherents to others through oratory. This would initially seem to contradict the earlier statement that the chalkboard as an idea is not publicly advocated. However, it is not necessary for the chalkboard itself to be the subject of overt promotion. In fact, a single authoritative position is inherent in the function of the chalkboard. In using the chalkboard to further an argument, and contending that the information written on the chalkboard is true, the implication that the chalkboard communicates true information literally goes without saying. Similarly, saying that the chalkboard spreads through the cognitive mode, meaning that people are more likely to accept the meme because it is accepted by people that are viewed as intelligent, does not necessarily mean that the intelligent people in question encourage others to use chalkboards. Instead, the message is communication by example: Chalkboards are found in places of education, and are typically used by people that are viewed from a societal standpoint as being intelligent. By association, the chalkboard is seen as a tool of intelligent people. Finally, the motivational mode encourages the spread of a meme by suggesting to a potential host that accepting the meme will be beneficial to them . Nowhere is this more evident than in the emphasis our society places on the importance of getting a formal education in order to be successful. This attitude suggests in no uncertain terms that paying close attention to the chalkboard will result in achieving one’s ultimate goal (where, by contrast, to ignore the chalkboard is to be doomed to ignominious failure.)

These modes all attribute the chalkboard’s success to its connection to the education meme, which has its own replication modes in and of itself. However, while examining the fitness of the education meme is not the purpose of this essay, we can still question how the chalkboard meme has managed to remain viable in a time when the theories behind education (in addition to many other concepts) are being seriously rethought. Certainly, it is not enough to posit that any meme that has been associated with education will remain viable so long as education itself is viable. There are many examples of educational memes that have long since passed into obscurity or disregard; slide rules, for example, or standardized testing (not quite dead yet, but soon...) In presenting a possible explanation for a phenomenon, it is a good idea to provide a foil by suggesting influences that may act in opposition to the theory. One such detrimental influence on the viability of the chalkboard meme is the development and spread of electronic media, particularly as analyzed by Marshall McLuhan.

Marshall McLuhan is perhaps most famous for his motto; “The medium is the message. ” What this means is that the effect that media have on the surrounding environment is quite independent of the content that the media are being used to spread. This is important, because it applies especially to media that would seem to have no inherent meaning:

What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs and patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. (McLuhan 1975)

This means that the chalkboard, in its capacity as a medium of communication, influences the environment it inhabits by promoting behaviours that reflect structures that are inherent in the form of the chalkboard. However, the environment in which the chalkboard is immersed has been significantly altered in recent years by the spread of electronic media. Since these media act as extensions of ourselves, McLuhan argues that it is ourselves that are changed. In particular, McLuhan focuses on the effects that result from the infusion of new media into a culture:

The medium of money or the wheel or writing, or any form of specialist speed-up of exchange and information, will serve to fragment a tribal structure. Similarly, a very much greater speed-up, such as occurs with electricity, may serve to restore a tribal pattern of intense involvement. (Ibid.)

In this case, a tribal structure is one that is based around modes of communication that are high in participation. Speech, for example, requires a great deal of participation from the listener, since the listener must fill in bits of information that are implied rather than explicitly spelled out. By contrast, printed text requires very little participation, and serves to reduce dialogue. McLuhan argues that a switch between these two modes of communication constitutes a massive change in the skills required to exist within the culture.

The implications for the chalkboard are immediately apparent. Surely, as a representative of the pre-electric era, its viability as a medium must have been swept away by the electronic revolution? However, we see today that the chalkboard remains extremely widespread and is still used with a fair amount of consistency. From the standpoint of memetics, this implies that the chalkboard has adapted to survive in the new environment. What would be required for this to occur? Given McLuhan’s argument that electricity has served to reassert a tribal structure on Western culture, it would seem to follow that, in order for a medium or a meme to be viable in the new environment, it must be able to accommodate high levels of audience participation. Does McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message” preclude the chalkboard from making this jump? Not necessarily, as we shall see.

The examples used to this point is describing the effects of shifts in environment due to changes in media have pointed to situations in which complex media have had profound effects on cultural perception. However, this also results in a shift in other media. As McLuhan points out:

The ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked ‘What is the content of speech?,’ it is necessary to say, ‘It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.’ (Ibid.)

In this respect, the change is effected in a top-down manner: changes in complex media result in changes in simpler, “content” media. However, it should also be possible for content media to have an effect on complex media. As an example, the highly mutable nature of computer software as a medium means that is entirely possible to have complex media that react to changes in content media. Does the chalkboard possess a similar mutability? Certainly there are no constraints on what is written on the chalkboard (beyond the strictly physical, that is,) but even so the content of the chalkboard is primarily the written word. Can the written word exhibit mutability? McLuhan suggests that it can:

The heavy and unwieldy media, such as stone, are time binders. Used for writing, they are very cool (tribalized) indeed, and serve to unify the ages; whereas paper is a hot (detribalized) medium that serves to unify spaces horizontally. (Ibid.)

It would seem, then, that the influence of the medium can be varied, depending on the resultant effect of how it is used. Certain characteristics of the chalkboard would seem to be ideal for use as a “hot” medium, or one that has a detribalizing influence. The chalkboard is set up in such a way that there is typically a single position of authority from which the content of the chalkboard is derived. By promoting the single oratory position, and accordingly the lateral, sequential spread of information, the chalkboard can act as a hot medium, which would have been ideal for the detribalized Western culture of the early parts of the last century. However, the chalkboard is not constrained in layout as some other media. A word processor, for example, has a clearly defined order in which the typed characters appear. The chalkboard, on the other hand, has the capacity to express information in a non-sequential manner. This is a highly essential point, because the major effect of the introduction of electric media to Western civilization was the gradual breakdown of the sequential concept of reason, and, by association, intelligence. Because electricity eliminated the interval that had traditionally defined a sequential thought process, the latter half of the twentieth century saw an increased emphasis on non-linear thinking, or “thinking outside the box.” The feature that allowed the chalkboard to adapt, then, was that its treatment of spatial definition was mutable enough to allow for tangential, non-linear connection of ideas in a visual medium. This is a feature that many of the media of Western civilization, even the most modern, have yet to incorporate. Because of this capacity for adaptation, the chalkboard is able to persist as a low-tech medium in a high-tech world.

The immediate implications of this finding are pointedly underwhelming. Most people do not care about chalkboards. However, as a matter of philosophy, there are some interesting points raised from this investigation that are worth examining. For one thing, as a matter of epistemology, it is interesting to wonder what will happen if we begin to develop the ability to predict what we will begin to think, and why. While typically as human beings we have historically attempted to influence the thoughts of others, it is only now that we are beginning to examine that nature of the mechanics of belief. Also, there is the matter of how our thoughts define us. Typically, we would imagine ourselves to be the primogenitors of our thoughts, and our thoughts to be the things that shape our environment, but to what extent do our thoughts shape us? These are questions that go to the very nature of consciousness. However, if we are to address them, perhaps we need to become more aware of the environment in which we live. After all, what does it say about us when we can look at a thing that helps to shape who we are, and still see only a blank slate?


Works Cited: Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Dennet, Daniel C. “Part III: Mind, Meaning, Mathematics and Morality.” Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 1995..

Lynch, Aaron. Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society. New York: Basic Books, 1996..

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man. 3rd ed. Toronto: McGraw﷓Hill, 1975.

* Sadly, my nicely footnote-endowed copy of this document got fubared (thankfully after I handed it in,) which means that I have lost the page numbers for the quotes in this essay. Sorry.

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