Enter the post-McLuhan age, Grandma

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES -- I have seen the future and it works, but not for Grandma. It is a two-page advertisement in living color spread across every magazine I saw last week. The advertiser is Hewlett-Packard, and the product it is pushing is called "The HP PhotoSmart PC Photography System."

The system includes a digital camera and a printer, which with Microsoft's "Picture It!" software "can adjust exposures, change colors, crop and manipulate images -- all as creativity dictates." The ad promises "the first pictures of the future."


And it delivers. The first of the pages offers Kodak-like reality, a family photo in front of a Christmas tree. Mom, Dad and daughter Megan are dressed all in Gap, but son Patrick is in leather, boots and a flaming red-spiked Mohawk. On the second page, the photo has become a card. Under "Season's Greetings, Grandma!" everything is the same except for Patrick, now in a pullover and chinos, his hair brown and short. The headline: "Grandmother spared holiday shock, heirs breathe easily."

What happened? Technology happened, says the copy: "Photo of the Clifford family, after scanning in and manipulating earlier photo of Patrick from pre-collegiate period -- sparing Grandmother a shock, which might have led to possible designation of new heirs."


Going to HP's Web site, I was told by Vyomesh Joshi, general manager of the company's Home Imaging Division, that this is all about shoe boxes full of memorabilia somewhere in the back of a closet. "Take shoe box collections of slides, prints and negatives from the last 100 years," he said, "and enhance them for insertion into collages, family histories and posters."

Amazing technology

He was right. It was amazing. I could move people and trees and anything from one photo to another. The best ones in my family were not in shoeboxes, though. Because of our particular family history, we kept them in a safe-deposit box. I had great fun with them. You know the picture of Saddam Hussein and me dancing in that basement disco? I made him into Madeleine Albright. The one of Grandpa shaking hands with Hitler? I made it Roosevelt.

I made that all up. The last paragraph, I mean.

The advertisement and the technical stuff are all as real as negatives used to be.

One manipulable image is worth more than a thousand words, perhaps more than a thousand books or a thousand readers.

Technology happens. Fast. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, there was no PhotoSmart or CD or PC or fax. Going back 20 more years to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, communications depended on such artifacts as flashbulbs, mimeographs and carbon paper.

That was pre-Marshall McLuhan, just before the Canadian professor changed thinking about such things by telling readers that the medium was the message. We are already post-McLuhan, as described by Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's magazine, in his introduction to a new edition of McLuhan's "Understanding Media":


"The world that McLuhan describes has taken shape during my lifetime, and within the span of my own experience. I can remember that as recently as 1960 it was still possible to make distinctions between the several forms of what then were known as the lively arts. The audiences recognized the differences between journalism, literature, politics and the movies . . . But then the lines between fact and fiction blurred, became as irrelevant as they were difficult to distinguish. The lively arts fused into the amalgam of forms known as the media. News was entertainment and entertainment was news."

All as creativity dictates. If that is too much for Grandma, we'll take care of it with PhotoSmart.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/21/97