Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Intelligent Design

Whither Goest Thou Today?

To: All Users
From: Intelligent Design Support Center (AKA IDSC)
Subject: Reality (Version 2008)

As of 1/1/2008 the present version of Reality 2007 will be superseded by Version 2008. This update of Reality is now open source and therefore not copy protected. You can now create your own Reality. As a consequence, idiosyncratic reality testing must now be conducted at your discretion. All forks to alternate realities will be at the user's risk and expense. To minimize conflicts, Reality Version 2008 can be networked in order to permit multiple realities.

Reality (2008) supports the following:

  • You can have your cake and eat it, too. Calories consumed count only at the user's choosing.
  • Once you've made your bed, you don't have to sleep in it. You can sleep in someone else's bed.
  • You can go home again. If home doesn't exist in your current reality, V2008's windows allow you to go into someone else's home. When leaving one reality for another, please turn off the lights and lock up.
  • Beauty is no longer restricted to the eyes of the beholder. It now includes the nose, ears, and forehead. In addition, beauty is no longer just skin deep, but now extends to underlying muscles as well.
  • Undelete Function: Errors, omissions, faux pas, etc. can now be corrected by issuing the "OOPS" command. This command does not apply to forgotten birthdays or anniversaries, sports events or pregnancies.

There has been considerable confusion concerning the ultimate physical structures that have constituted Versions 1905 and higher. Especially noted has been the lack of macro-level analogies to illustrate sub-atomic activity and the difficulty in dealing with events on a cosmic scale.

IDSC has therefore decided to revert to the structure of Reality Version 400 BCE. All elements will once again be constituted from some combination of earth, air, fire and/or water. The substance of space beyond Earth's atmosphere will be composed of "aether" and all distances in outer space will be traversable within a human lifetime. This revision does not restore spontaneous generation or a geocentric cosmology.

Bugs In Reality Version 2007

Many users have called our attention to so-called bugs in previous versions of Reality, including war, disease, death, poverty, male pattern baldness, and the presence of human life on Earth. IDSC would like to make it clear that these are features of Reality, not bugs.

Note: Due to increased use of our Reality Support Hot Lines, we are forced to limit free phone support to the first ninety days of life. Support after that time will be available at a nominal charge. Increase support staff and additional phone lines should reduce call-in waiting time from the current 1-2 millennia to just a few hundred years. Subscribers will also be entitled to periodic revelations as well as our quarterly manifestations.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Paul Levinson and the FCC

A contrarian stance on media consolidation points out the failures of our Fourth Estate.

My friend and fellow blog critic Paul Levinson (author of Digital McLuhan, The Soft Edge and more recently The Plot to Save Socrates) has an interesting but seemingly counterintuitive post on his blog, Paul Levinson's Infinite Regress. Under the title “FCC Ends Longstanding Ban on Cross-Ownership: Good!” Levinson applauds the FCC’s recent decision to lift cross ownership rules and allow media companies to own both print and broadcast news outlets in the same market:
So why am I applauding the 3-2 FCC ruling - a great example of even a broken clock being right twice a day?

Two reasons:

1. Media concentration is becoming less of a threat to diversity of communication in the age of the Internet. Plainly, there are many more voices on YouTube and countless other web sites than a decade ago, and the net result is even if every major broadcast medium were owned by the same organization, Americans would still have more variety in communication than ever before. The Obama Girl videos and Ron Paul's candidacy are two examples of profound developments in media that had nothing to do with broadcasting - and, in the case of Ron Paul, was actively opposed by mainstream media.

2. Even more importantly, even were the Web not providing unprecedented diversity in media, the FCC relaxation of ownership standards would be a good thing. The FCC is an affront to the First Amendment, and its injunction that Congress shall make no abridging freedom of speech or press. Much as I dislike media concentration, I see government regulation as a far worse threat to our freedom. You don't bring in a snake (the FCC) to control a rat problem (media concentration) - because, obviously, the snake can then slither around and bite you.
So to summarize Levinson’s argument, the multiplicity of alternate information sources on the internet make cross ownership of traditional media insignificant, and, FCC regulation of media ownership is contrary to the First Amendment anyway.

For those of us who are disciples of Laurence Lessig and Robert McChesney, Levinson’s stance is problematic. Clearly, the current concentration of media ownership is a contributing factor to our dysfunctional political system and quite possibly a key enabler in the attempt of the Republican Party to overthrow the Constitution. What good do First Amendment protections do us if the administration blatantly ignores the Constitution anyway? I also worry about the continuing independence of the Internet. The debate over net neutrality underlines fears that major corporations may find ways to choke off the freedom of the internet, rendering internet diversity moot.

While accepting the validity of these concerns, I think that Levinson has identified a significant trend in our information culture. Whether due to media concentration, “Beltway Village” mentality, or just plain laziness, it is apparent that the majority of our Fourth Estate have not been doing their job. As Stephen Colbert pointed out in his now famous White House Correspondence Dinner address, journalism is not stenography. Political blogs have moved in to fill a void left by the non-functioning traditional media press. At the very least, blog writers have required the traditional media to justify their ineptitude.

In addition, blog authors’ willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and deficient journalism practices has had a positive impact on the current election cycle. Though marginalized by the mainstream media, Presidential wannabees like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Chris Dodd have been able to use the internet to their advantage.

So we arrive at a chicken and egg question. Given current and pending concentration of our traditional mass media, if the internet didn’t exist would it have to be created? Paul Levinson would say “yes.” His theory of “media remediation” suggests that no medium impact is inevitable or irreversible. If the internet didn’t exist, the need to fill the journalism void would have precipitated other responses. Given recent United States history, I am not as sanguine.

I believe that America is on the cusp of a transition from a Republic to an Empire. In times of political crisis, some types of temporary intervention in the normal evolution of media ownership may be necessary. For example, the FCC could issue a temporary ruling restraining media consolidation until the net neutrality issue is resolved.

If we, and not our technology, are ultimately responsible for the health of our media ecology, measured interventions are appropriate.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sakai and Social Networking

I'm attending the 2007 Sakai Conference in California this week. The Sakai Foundation, a consortium of colleges and universities, oversees the creation of a new “open source” course management system (CMS).

For those of you not connected to an academic institution (Anyone? Anyone?), a CMS such as Blackboard, WebCT, ANGEL, Desire2Learn and now, Sakai, provides university faculty with computer network resources to design and manage their classes.

Within the confines of their particular university's network professors can post their syllabi online, conduct discussions or chats, run quizzes and other evaluation tools, disseminate copies of their course materials and maintain their grade books electronically.

What Sakai brings to the equation is control. True to the “open source” movement, the Sakai code is completely completely free. This means that not only can any individual or institution take the code and do anything they want with it (use it, sell it, change it) but any corporation could do the same. Meanwhile, Sakai members provide staff and resources to develop the product, approve enhancements and correct bugs.

The open source movement, as compared to corporate software development, benefits from many, many eyes surveying the product and providing suggestions. The process provides for speedier product updates and better, more error-free code. Those of us whom Microsoft still sees as guinea pigs for their latest software (Vista anyone? Anyone?) can appreciate this.

Twice a year those institutions involved in the Sakai initiative gather at some appropriate location to share their knowledge and experiences.

But Sakai and open source software isn't what I want to talk about in this post. I want to draw your attention to an article that appeared this past Sunday in the New York Times Week in Review, available here and to the letter to the editor I submitted which is available here.

The article by Alex Wright, Friending, Ancient or Otherwise, discusses the new ways of social networking enabled by such online sites as MySpace and Facebook. Wright writes:

The growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like “talking” than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that “literature is not remarks”).

In the course of his examination of social networking, Wright quotes my friend Lance Strate who has taking to social networking in a big way (1,335 MySpace friends!) and intends to teach a course on the subject at Fordham University this fall:

“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”

Lance's own blog, that, for reasons I can't fathom, he has titled "Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing" can be accessed here. His MySpace site is here. When Lance first posted notice of his contribution to social networking I offered this comment, which I later modified for submission to the New York Times:

My take on the social networking phenomena is that it represents a retrieval, though sped up to electric speeds, of the culture of correspondence of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I don't quite see how a system of communication based on messages like this, typed into the internet, can reflect the biases of oral cultures, but maybe that's what happens when letter writing is pushed to the extreme and flips into its opposite.

To which Lance replied:

I understand your point, Bob, but part of the distinctive quality of correspondence is the length of time that it takes the message to be delivered. Speeding up the interaction restores some of the immediacy of face-to-face interaction, which is why people tend to fall into conversational modes online, rather than draw on formal letter-writing. And letter-writing was a very pure kind of literary activity, where handwriting was the closest thing to a sense of presence, whereas in social networking we have profile pictures, we also have picture albums that others can check out, and potentially there are sound recordings available as MP3s, and video uploads. It is a multimedia environment that represents something much closer to physical presence than letter writing.

As a model media ecologist, Bob, you know that retrieval is one of McLuhan's four laws of media, but it's probably the most problematic one of all. and yes, you could say that e-mail obsolesces (another law) telephone conversations and retrieves letter writing, but I don't think that begins to cover the enormity of the social networking phenomenon. web 2.0, as it is sometimes referred to, is about adding more flexibility and interactivity to the original world-wide web, which was about making the internet more like a mass medium such as publishing, the internet having been a way to make electronic communications more flexible and interactive. it's been a real information war, as our friend Doug Rushkoff has argued. now, what would Levi-Strauss have to say about that?

And to which I responded:

I can't presume to speak for Levi-Strauss, especially concerning the new media social networks, about which, I believe, he has not stated an opinion.

However, if I did presume to put words into Levi-Strauss's mouth, I might suggest that social networking as it is manifested in places like MySpace and Facebook is neither social nor networking in the classic anthropological sense. It may represent the illusion of social networking, just like Second Life presents the illusion of life. It may be next to (ie "meta") social networking, the way metaphysics is "next to" physics.

Native oral cultures exist within three general systems: kinship, mythological and taboo. Kinship systems, as defined by structural anthropologists, are systems of the mutual exchange of goods and women that define social hierarchies and social obligations. Mythological systems operate to overcome or deny the inherent contradictions that exists in a culture's explanation of the world, thereby reinforcing and maintaining the assumptions, interpretations and belief systems of that culture. Taboo systems define what is touchable and what in untouchable in the environment. All these systems allow their participants to create and maintain categories into which they can divide the concrete elements of their particular environment.

The New York Times article mentions that you have 1,335 MySpace friends. That makes me think of the old joke about Chicago's Mayor Daly who would throw parties and invite 10,000 of his closest friends. Surely our definition of "friends" must change as the number approaches the thousands.

So Levi-Strauss might argue that the internet based "social networks" do not meet the requirements of the traditional social networks of oral societies, and so must be something else. We call them social networks the way we first called the automobile the "horseless carriage" or the radio the "wireless."

My own impression is that social networks have more to do with "I" than "Thou" and so represent, not social networks, but rather personal expression. We think we are communicating with other people, but we are really carrying on an elaborate conversation with ourselves.

Which brings us back to Sakai and the open source conference. There is some heresy spreading at the conference that the goal of Sakai, that is, to emulate the functionality of existing CMS's, is "rear view mirror" thinking. Many university faculty are moving beyond the limitations of course management software in the design and conduct of their courses, taking advantage of the vast array of social networking tools available on the internet. Many require their students to start a blog about the class. Some actively incorporate use of Facebook or MySpace into their syllabi. Some predict that to survive and compete against commercial competitors Sakai's course management software must evolve to take advantage of the capabilities of Web 2.0, the fully realized internet.

Sakai open source software development and MySpace-type social networking. Neither could exist without the internet. Both take advantage of the self-reflexive, self correcting characteristics of "many to many" communications. Both represent a new metaphor of social interaction that is still in its infancy.

We may yet witness the formation of elaborate kinship systems, based not on tribal relations but network connections. We may participate in the creation of a new mythologic system, one whose narrative explains the social networks that have come into being and hides whatever internal contradictions arise. And we may or may not become aware of a new set of taboos that appear as if by magic to help us maintain our new categories.

In short, we see the beginnings of what Marshall McLuhan called the elaborate social infrastructure brought about and sustained by any new medium of communication, in this case, the internet.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My Blogging Milestone (Part 5): What Dick Cheney and I have in Common

Updated below

In conjunction of the Associated Press’s report that Dick Cheney has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, here is my slightly updated May 27 post concerning my own AF:

If your heart is pounding, it may not necessarily be love. Or in the case of Dick Cheney, oil.

I was at dinner with my family in 2001 when my heart started beating rapidly. No, it wasn't because we were having meat loaf for dinner. It turned out that I was experiencing an episode of atrial fibrillation, which is defined by the American Heart Association as follows:

Atrial fibrillation is a disorder found in about 2.2 million Americans. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two small upper chambers (the atria) quiver instead of beating effectively. Blood isn't pumped completely out of them, so it may pool and clot. If a piece of a blood clot in the atria leaves the heart and becomes lodged in an artery in the brain, a stroke results. About 15 percent of strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation."
Atrial fibrillation, or "afib", is more likely to occur in the elderly, or in patients whose heart has been compromised by illness or surgery. I don't fit any of the regular profiles, and as my cardiologist said, other than the afib, I have the heart of an eighteen-year-old (the bad news is he wants it back!) Since that initial episode, I have taken a variety of medications in an attempt to control my afib episodes and I have undergone two cardiac ablations:

Radiofrequency ablation may be effective in some patients when medications don't work. In this procedure, thin and flexible tubes are introduced through a blood vessel and directed to the heart muscle. Then a burst of radiofrequency energy is delivered to destroy tissue that triggers abnormal electrical signals or to block abnormal electrical pathways.
After my second ablation failed to completely curtail my heart's fibrillation, my perplexed cardiologist suggested that I have a "mutant" heart. I'm still waiting for the super powers. As these two "non-invasive" procedures have only been partly successful, I remain on beta blockers and blood thinners to control the worst of the symptoms.

I relate this information, not to solicit sympathy (although I am accepting any and all donations), but rather as an introduction to a piece I wrote concerning the heart as a metaphor that I presented at the 2005 Media Ecology Association Convention, and a version of which I have posted at The Heart of the Matter.

As I was lying on my back after my first ablation (you must remain still for eight hours after the procedure), I began to think about the heart, an organ which most of us take for granted. That didn't help me get to sleep, so I began to think about the heart as a metaphor. It occurred to me that the heart, as related in popular culture, performs functions other than the pumping of blood.

The metaphor of the heart is not about the circulation of blood or the regulation of physical health. As portrayed in popular culture, the heart is the site of emotions, of certain deep thoughts that correspond to the true beliefs of an individual. The heart is also portrayed as a source of wisdom that can be tapped if we pay attention to it.

This did succeed in making me drowsy, but I was able to begin a line of thought about the reason why conceptual metaphors, like that of the heart, persist in our culture, despite changes in dominant media forms, social structures and languages.

Heart Songs: When Janis Joplin (1999) sang “take another little piece of my heart” , she wasn’t discussing cardiac ablation. The references to the metaphoric heart are the rule rather than the exception in most music, popular, classical or traditional. Singers admonish us not to “break my heart,” or to have pity on an “achy, breaky heart.” Even Bob Dylan, who generally avoided the romantic traditionalism of music lyrics in his use of metaphor could tell us “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.” (1967)

The Poetry of the Heart: Nor was Emily Dickenson concerned with anatomy when she wrote:

The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering.

Imagine if we substituted the word “brain” for the “heart” in Dickenson’s poem. How would we react to the poem if we change that one word?

Heart Literature: To the protagonist of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s classic, The Little Prince, the heart was a perceiving organ, not a biological pump:

"One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes."
How would we react if the quote was: “One sees clearly only with the brain. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” This one change makes the quotation seem ridiculous. Clearly the metaphoric associations for the brain differ from those of the heart.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin’s Elizabeth Bennet rejects a marriage proposal with a heartfelt reply:

"Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart."
Elizabeth also uses her heart as an input device:

"(she) found the interest of the subject increase, and listened with all her heart; but the delicacy of it prevented further inquiry."
References to the heart as a metaphor can be found almost everywhere you look in literature, regardless of the period, the language or the genre surveyed.

Heart Movies: A brief scene from the highly successful Lord of the Rings illuminates the portrayal of the metaphor of the heart in many films and on television:

Aragorn: No news of Frodo
Gandalf: No word. Nothing.
Aragorn: We have time. Every day Frodo moves closer to Mordor.
Gandalf: Do we know that?
Aragorn: What does your heart tell you?
Gandalf: (meaningful pause) That Frodo’s alive. Yes. Yes, he’s alive.
(The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2004)

What if Aragorn had asked Gandalf: “What does your brain tell you?” It just doesn’t sound right.

In each of these examples, the metaphoric heart stands in for aspects of cognition that we resist assigning to the head. One would expect that in our computer saturated era, the heart would lose traction as a site of cognition.

For any non-metaphoric heart that is in AF for more than 48 hours, an electrical shock will often bring back a regular beat. If not, there are a variety of drugs (none of which worked for me). Another option is a cardiac ablation which involves snaking a thin wire from a vein in the groin up to the heart and applying a cauterizing jolt of electricity to the offending nerve.

With his history of heart ailments, it is not surprising that Cheney would develop atrial fibrillation. While not life-threatening itself, the irregular heartbeat can be unpleasant, and as the AP reports:

...if the irregular heartbeat continues, it eventually can cause a life-threatening complication -- the formation of blood clots that can shoot to the brain and cause a stroke.
What's unusual about Dick Cheney's AF is that I thought he was already on a defibrillator, which usually would control any AF symptoms. It will be interesting to see, as the story develops, if the White House doctors explain how Cheney's defibbed heart can go into afib.

UPDATE: It has also been noted that this irregular heartbeat is not the only type of a fib that Cheney has been involved in.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Blogging Milesone (Part 4): The End of the American Republic

The recent Pakistani constitutional crises provides me with an opportunity to reiterate some political observations concerning our own democracy.

Those of us who were required to take civics classes in high school learned that our constitution provides sufficient checks and balances to fend of the aspirations of a would-be king or a monolithic political party. The salient point of my June 14th article was this: the enduring legacy of this radical neocon Republican era may be the formulation and proof of the idea that our constitutional form of government can be overthrown from within.

Republicans in the Nixon and Reagan eras nipped away at Constitutional safeguards; the present Bush/Cheney administration neocons have swallowed them whole. While we may have weathered the current crisis, the anti-democratic institutions are still in place to try it again some time in the near future.

So here once again is my recipe for overthrowing the American Republic:
  1. Subvert the news media: It is clear that the major media outlets, and their journalists and editors, have been compromised in various ways. Not only have they become self-editing, but also the administration is adept at playing the news cycles. News organizations focused on the bottom line have closed overseas bureaus, cut experienced staff, depleted research resources and pandered to the gossip mongers. Without a truly adversarial Fourth Estate, this administration has led us into war, politicized public agencies, committed any number of felonies and thumbed their noses at the other branches of government.

  2. Stack the courts with anti-Constitutional judges: This is not an issue of left or right or conservative or progressive. This is an issue of upholding and defending the Constitution, as it was intended by the Founding Fathers. Republican appointees who put party above the Constitution allow the Republic to fail.

  3. Distract the public: This may be contingent on #1. The main stream media fill their airwaves and pages with non-news trivia. These modern bread and circus pageants distract the population from understanding and pursuing the own best interests.

  4. Cripple the military: The Iraq adventure has accomplished two key things. It has severely stretched our professional military and it has depleted our national guard resources, both in manpower and material. It has also allowed the creation of a large private army that is loyal to their corporations ahead of their country. The Romans had their Praetorian Guards. We have Blackwater.

    Another unintended consequence of the occupation in Iraq is the filtering of any senior military opposition to the administration's agenda. Military yes-men have risen to the top, the naysayers have taken early retirement.

  5. Weaken the middle class: With more of us scrambling to meet our financial obligations, fewer of us have sufficient time to devote to investigating political wrongdoing and participating in its correction.

  6. Game the political process: Republicans have been adept at filling local election positions with those key players who can help stack the deck in their favor. Control of local election oversight positions has been used to influence election rules, purge voter lists and swing close contests to their party. Districts have been gerrymandered to ensure reelection of the incumbent.

The current takeover attempt has failed due to corruption and incompetence spread throughout all three branches of our government. It isn't too hard to imagine a future in which a more competent, less corrupt cabal of political radicals succeeds where their predecessors failed. The blueprint for a future successful takeover of the United States has already been created for them.

What would a Media Ecology patriot do?

Clearly the field of Media Ecology has a lot to offer in the analysis of what is happening in our society, if not a solution to the problem. Championed by Terry Moran as a part of the NYU program in Media Ecology, the impact of propaganda on our public discourse has always been a key aspect of Media Ecological analysis. Neil Postman's Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk and Amusing Ourselves to Death, provide us with cogent arguments concerning the degradation of public discourse brought on by the sloppy use of language and unthinking acceptance of broadcast media-based news programming.

Other key Media Ecological figures like Lance Strate and Paul Levinson have provided a solid foundation in the Media Ecology tradition concerning the various attacks on our Constitutional rights and the impact of media biases. A hint: Media Ecologists are pro civil rights and anti media biases.

So what should an ME patriot do? Clearly analysis must be balanced by action, and I'm happy to say that among the honors granted annually by the Media Ecology Association is an award for the best example of Media Ecology praxis. Following the lead of Strate and Levinson, Media Ecologists should make greater efforts to publish in the various popular print media and make their presence known in broadcast and new media. Now more than ever, Media Ecologists should participate in the election cycle, lending their expertise to any candidate who champions the Constitution over party politics. This would include fact checking, media production skills, technology assessments and yes, practical approaches to counteracting propaganda and political dirty tricks.

To repeat: Our contemporary neo-cons have succeeded in introducing the idea that the our Constitutional form of government can be subverted from within. The immediate threat may be abating, but the danger remains.

When future historians attempt to pinpoint exactly when the United States ceased being a constitutional democracy, they could do no better than to choose the years between 2000 and 2008, in other words, the second Bush administration. This may prove to be the era when the seeds were planted that led to the end of the American Republic and the beginning of the American empire.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

My 1000th Visitor

If you look to the left you'll notice that my sitemeter has just registered my 1000th visitor. Whoever you are, if you contact me offline, I will congratulate you personally.

And to mark my 1000th visitor, what could be more fitting than to continue my revue of my past posts to this blog. So, here is My Blogging Milesone (Part 3)

A recurring theme of this blog is the impact of media and technology in our everyday lives. While we are aware of new technologies like cell phones and iPods, we tend to take for granted established technologies like the phonetic alphabet, the printed word and much of broadcast media.

One thing I've always wondered about (and this builds on Paul Levinson's anthropotropic theory) is why editing in cinema works. Anyone who has recorded their child's birthday party and then tried to watch it from start to finish appreciates how film editing techniques compress time while delivering the essence of the experience.

I can see how the transition from silent films to sound, from black and white to color and possibly from two dimensions to three reflect the evolution of the film medium towards the normal human way of experiencing reality. How does the montage, the various types of edits, the use of close-ups, long shots, etc reflect our natural way of experiencing reality?

There is obviously an influence of literary narrative in film editing. We don't experience reality as it is portrayed in books either. However, except when we sleep, or are under the influence of any of a number of chemical stimulants or depressants, we mostly experience reality continuously. No cuts, no edits, no montages.

Maybe film editing represents not how we experience reality, but how we remember that experience. The technique of film editing is so much a part of our experience that we often are not aware of how conventional it is. But is it a language we've learned in the same way we learned our mother tongue, or a second language? Is "language" the proper metaphor for the experience? Do we say "the language of radio" or "the language of literature" in discussing the nature of these media? Obviously both have their particular ways of portraying reality, sometimes superceding reality and common sense, as Orson Well's "War of the Worlds" and almost any book by a neocon pundit demonstrate. But is describing film as a "language" a helpful or harmful metaphor?

Another recurring theme is the transition from a print culture to one of secondary orality. An interesting article in the Spring 2003 Hudson Review, "Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture" by Dana Gioia treats rap as the beginning of oral poetry of our culture:

"The most significant fact about the new popular poetry is that it is predominantly oral. The poet and audience usually communicate without the mediation of a text. Rap is performed aloud to an elaborate, sampled rhythm track. Cowboy poetry is traditionally recited from memory. Poetry slams consist of live performance—sometimes from a text, more often from memory. To literary people whose notion of poetry has been shaped by print culture, this oral mode of transmission probably seems both strikingly primitive and alarmingly contemporary. It hearkens back to poetry’s origins as an oral art form in preliterate cultures, and it suggests how television, telephones, recordings, and radio have brought most Americans—consciously or unconsciously—into a new form of oral culture."


"As readers turn into viewers and listeners, they naturally approach the new poetry in ways conditioned by television and radio. This epistemological change, to quote Neil Postman again, affects the “meaning, texture, and values” of literary discourse. Not least important, it transforms the identity of the author from writer to entertainer, from an invisible creator of typographic language to a physical presence performing aloud. Performance poetry and the poetry slam, for instance, owe at least as much to the tradition of stand-up comedy and improvisatory theater as they do to literary poetry. Roland Barthes, a creature of print culture, saw the world as a text and announced “the death of the author.” Anyone attentive to the new popular poetry sees the antithesis—the death of the text. American culture conditioned by electronic media and a celebrity culture based on personalities has given birth to a new kind of author, the amplified bard."
Our literate assumptions about what poetry is blinds us to the importance of rap and other oral forms as the new way to "make" poetry and the fact that these new forms have more in common with the original sources of poetry than with the traditional literary poetry. Imagine Homer rapping the Iliad or the Odyssey!

A third recurring theme is an explanation of the field of Media Ecology. Among some of the propositions I have considered in explaining my view of Media Ecology are the following:

  • Media Ecology is a meta discipline.
  • Media Ecology is itself a medium which contains all other disciplines as its content.
  • The purpose of Media Ecology is to make manifest the unconscious assumptions of a culture, assumptions which may have largely been determined by the tools the culture uses to express itself.
  • The goal of Media Ecology is to free humans from that unconscious bondage and allow them to make choices concerning their tools, to use their tools rather than letting their tools use them.
  • As such, Media Ecology would appear to contain a literate bias in that it seeks, through a logical analysis, to bring to the foreground what was hidden in the background.
  • Media Ecology seeks to replace ritual with logic and impulse with discernment.

Neil Postman would have freely admitted this, have promoted the practice of Media Ecology as a methodology, in our electronic age, to return to the literate values of the Enlightenment. However, as Marshall McLuhan demonstrated, the path to Media Ecological enlightenment can be pursued through the use of probes and aphorisms as readily as through logical discourse. In fact, McLuhan's methods may illustrate ways to find shortcuts to the true impact of technology on our culture.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Bionic Woman Meets James Joyce

I'm taking a brief respite (or am I giving my readers a brief respite?) from my reviews of past postings to ask an important mass cultural question. In considering this question, I don't mean to give the impression that I watch this particular television program, or any television other than public broadcasting for that matter.

On this week's Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers attended "Stanwich College" in order to track down a dealer in "neuro control" chips. Jaime pretended to be a neuroscience major, because, after all, anyone can fake expertise in a complex field like neuroscience if they just read a book or two. But that’s not really what bothered me, after all, even Jaime pointed out the impossibility of this.

Jaime’s dorm roommate, a "science expert," is having a problem writing a paper about James Joyce's short story "The Dead." "Oh, that's easy," Jaime says. Then, explaining what's going on in the story, Jaime continues, "Joyce was saying that the dead are all around us and we can't escape them. Almost exactly the opposite of his book, Ulysses, which is all about life and sex and humor." Say what?

The girls agreed to swap homework assignments to play to their strengths. This is okay because Jaime works for a top secret government agency that has her do things a lot worse than cheat on college work. What I want to know though is if anyone besides me disturbed by the fact that the bionic woman wants to be a Joyce scholar? (Disclaimer: I majored in English Literature in college with a concentration in Herman Melville and a minor in Joyce. My senior paper, "Melville's Quarrel With God," still has them rolling in the aisles back at my alma mater.)

You don't have to channel surf very far to find dubious mass media takes on political science, physics, and biology on the one hand, and time travel, paranormal, and extraterrestrials on the other. It's not bad enough that television shows have co-opted all the real and imaginary sciences, now they have to assimilate English literature as well?

Let’s not have television characters portray scholarly aspirations unless they are hunting vampires, navigating through star gates, or enabling Lex Luther to kill Superboy. Let’s keep our clear demarcation between high and low cultures and between super heroics and scholars in residence.

By the way, Jaime Sommers got an "A" on her Joyce paper. James Joyce, who will always be with us, has decided to take a long sea voyage with Herman Melville.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My Bad: My Other Blogging Milestone (Part 2)

(Updated below)

Well, according to my blog host's count, I haven't posted 68 entries to this blog, I've posted 89 (including the last post celebrating my 68th posting milestone.) This is an opportunity I've let slip by. Not having properly celebrated my 68th post, I am now at a loss about how best to celebrate this, my 90th entry.

I had some thoughts about the new Beatles homage movie "Across the Universe" and how the incorporation of song lyrics into our stories and our lives is symptomatic of a culture entering secondary orality, but that's a topic for another day.

I was going to comment on the how the recent excesses of the Republican noise machine regarding a 12-year-old beneficiary of SCHIP coverage illustrates McLuhan's tetrad. In other words, what has been a highly effective propaganda machine has been pushed past its limits until it has reversed into its opposite, that is, anti-propaganda. That also doesn't seem appropriate.

I know. I'll continue my rerun summary of previous posts!

Some of my posts have constituted blatant efforts to circulate new thought memes into the blogosphere in the hopes of coining the next cultural catch phrase and thereby achieve my 15 minutes of fame.

Thus, in my December 13, 2006 post I celebrated the inclusion of a comment I phoned into Air America Radio:

Announcer: The following is an actual call to Air America Radio.

I think we liberals tend to celebrate and then say "OK. We're done. Let's go back to our own private lives." I think we need to be wary of conservatives, or radical conservatives, or fascists. The structures are still there for them to come back. And next time they come back they'll be smarter and they'll have taken into account the mistakes they made this time.

I didn't receive any callbacks after those commercials ran their course, nor did I receive any residuals.

On January 4, 2007 I reissued my 25-year-old claim that the content of television broadcasts conform to a classic structural dichotomy of culture vs. nature (or social vs. anti-social), and having settled that, implied that we move beyond content analysis and criticism to examine the medium itself:

Within this schema, news broadcasts fall somewhere in between shows and ads in terms of entertainment value vs. propaganda, while shows and ads may have little or nothing to do with the objective world, dividing their productions in terms of their intention to entertain or propagandize. (This is not to say that no show ever has propagandistic intentions, or that no advertising executive ever wishes to entertain. But in general, each is more concerned with the demands of his own domain. Program producers must attract an audience, and advertisers must sell their products.)

It could be stated that if the hidden structure of advertising has to do with an opposition between culture and nature on a personal level, then within the other legs of the triad there are other hidden structures that determine how the particular material is developed and conveyed. I would tentatively suggest that television programming is concerned chiefly with "social versus antisocial behavior on an interpersonal level," while the news deals with this same general opposition at the "public" level. Within this perspective, the various legs of the triad always favor the status quo, since the definition of what constitutes antisocial behavior depends on who is defining social or acceptable behavior.

Part of the reason Fox News is so disturbing is that they continually violate the supposed boundaries between news, entertainment and advertising propaganda.This is why the current concentration of media ownership is so pernicious. As part of a major media conglomerate, Fox News can frame their news reports according to their own views of social vs. antisocial public behavior and so they slip down the television triangle both toward propaganda and toward entertainment. Just as foods which are fit for consumption even though "rotten" (alcoholic beverages for example) constitute a special exception to general culinary rules, news which has become propagandized, or created largely to entertain, constitutes a violation of the traditional definition of news and requires adjustments in how we consume reality.

Whoops. There's that Republican noise machine again. For the complete discussion of this, see my paper, "The Savage Mind on Madision Avenue," posted here.

Finally, at least for Part 2 of this series of reruns, there is my attempt to interpret blogging itself in terms of McLuhan's Laws of the Media:

Blogging enhances “many to many” communication. As a medium, blogging allows me to get my message out to many without the need of access to television, radio, print or film production facilities. Blogging also allows me to receive messages from many sources.

Blogging obsolesces one to one or many to one communications. Telephone chats and television binges are replaced by blogging connections.

Blogging retrieves the habits of 18th letter correspondents or diarists. Though this varies widely, at the minimum blogging requires that we capture and express our thoughts via the keyboard. Some bloggers go much further than that.

When pushed to an extreme, blogging reverses into total narcissism. I write only to myself, for myself. I put myself into the blogosphere, and seeing my own image, become entranced.
I think this blogging tetrad holds up pretty well, especially the part about total narcissism.

Well, on to Part 3!

UPDATE: My Bad Again!

One of these days I'll figure this blogging stuff out. It seems that I have only published 68 (now 69) blogs, with 22 other drafts in the works. Many of these drafts may never seen the light of day. So in the immortal words of Emily Latella, "Never Mind!"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Blogging Milestone (Part 1)

Well, according to the archive list below and to the left of this post, I've penned 68 entries to this blog since I started it in December, 2006, and so it is fitting to step back and review some of the topics I've covered. (For those of you who may object to this rerun of previous posts, I must remind you that this is a blog about the communications media and therefore is entitled to adopt some of their time-honored practices.)

In my first post, on Tuesday, December 12, 2006 I discussed Claude Lévi-Strauss's Contribution to Media Ecology , noting that Lévi-Strauss's methodology is completely compatible with McLuhan's Laws of the Media. This is one recurring theme of my blog, and is based, in part, on McLuhan's own admission. McLuhan acknowledged is debt to structural anthropology in a letter to the editor of The Journal of Technology and Culture, reprinted here, where he noted:

How did I arrive at these "Laws of the Media"? By a structural approach. The structuralists, beginning with Ferdinand de Saussure and now Lévi-Strauss, divide the approaches to the problem of form into two categories: diachrony and synchrony. Diachrony is simply the developmental, chronological study of any cultural matter; but synchrony works on the assumption that all aspects of any form are simultaneously present in any part of it. Although I have used the simultaneous approach in arriving at these Laws of the Media, any one of them is susceptible to the diachronic approach for filling in the historical background and details.
My second post concerned my creation in 1977 of the now famous theme song, "A Model Media Ecologist." I have since posted the original video on YouTube. The lyrics to this tome, which earned me the unofficial title of Media Ecology Poet Laureate were included in Casey Man Kong Lum's masterful survey of the origins of Media Ecology, Perspectives on Culture, Technology And Communication: The Media Ecology. I recommend purchasing several copies of this groundbreaking work.

In a Sunday, December 31, 2006 post, An Unspoken Assumption in Media Ecology, I discuss a hidden assumption of Media Ecology studies: Commentary on the differences in sensory balances, which may be determined by the particular technologies or media of communication available, imply that there are no differences in the basic structure and capacity of the human mind, regardless of culture, time or locality. McLuhan's survey of communication history, and his Laws of the Media only makes sense if people are the same everywhere and through all human history.

On January 20, 2007 I challenged my reader (hi Mom!) to come up with the best McLuhan joke ever, and I offered the following:

Several students of Media Ecology consult a famous psychic in order to contact Marshall McLuhan and finally get a clear explanation of his writings. The seer goes into a trance, but says nothing for several minutes.

Losing patience, one of the students cries out, "Dr. McLuhan, are you there? Why won't you speak to us?"

A deep voice replies, "The Medium is the Message!"

So far there have been no other entries, and so I am keeping the prize for myself.

A further review of my past postings will appear in Part 2.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dan Rather: The Six Million Dollar Newsman

A few thoughts about Dan Rather's heroic (Quixotic?) assault on CBS.

The recent $70M lawsuit brought by Dan Rather against CBS is being billed as a violation of contractual obligations, but it actually stems from a change in broadcast journalism standards that moves the audience's focus from the news story to the news reporter.

I worked at CBS News in the early 1980s when it was tolerated as a cost center but was still the jewel in the corporation’s crown. More specifically, I worked indirectly for Dan Rather as a budget analyst for CBS Reports before it was axed as a non-revenue producing program by new CBS owner Lawrence Tisch. Prior to 1982, the reportage of CBS News was based on a print model where certain standards of journalism were acknowledged, if not always adhered to. Tisch believed the new information environment of broadcast journalism required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalism practices. This is to say that CBS News, under William Paley, aspired to the print model of journalism, while CBS since Lawrence Tisch has adopted broadcast standards that have more to do with ratings than with writings. Along with Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls, Tisch decided to exploit the gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know.

My son, a graduate of the New York University Film School (formally known as the Tisch School of the Arts - no kidding), recently pointed out to me the differences in the narrative biases of print vs. broadcast media. Print allows the author to create a scene, to develop a narrative based on complex situations and subtle character interactions. Film and broadcast narratives don’t have time for this. Instead, they focus on creating a hero.

Dan Rather, who once was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as CBS News' "Six-Million-Dollar Man," ascended to the CBS anchor chair during this "print to broadcast" transition period. While he almost always tried to stay true to print journalism standards, the pull of broadcast narrative biases was strong. His early work on CBS Reports adhered to the earlier standards of print journalism. His stint as a highly paid anchorman often descended into personal heroics.

Rather once walked off the news set when his time was pre-empted to carry the end of a sporting event. He thought he was making a stand for journalistic standards, but it was generally interpreted as a celebrity hissy-fit. The stress of working under new broadcast assumptions led Rather to end his nightly broadcasts with the admonition "Courage." Compare that with Edward R. Murrow's "Good night and good luck" or Walter Cronkite's "And that's the way it is."

It is ironic, though not unexpected that, in being pilloried by the CBS brass, Rather has followed the path of the hero (see Joseph Campbell) and now returns to tilt at the corporate windmill.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Humpty-Dumpty at the New York Times

As the New York Times attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the internet, they risk "swimming with the fishes."

Today the New York Times abandoned its efforts to create a two-tier access system for its website. The article announcing this capitulation can be found here.

Vivian L. Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of the site, NYTimes.com, noted that they didn't anticipate the amount of traffic to their site that would be generated by Google, Yahoo and the like. Many would-be subscribers were getting around the firewall by using these search engines. Projections for revenue growth favored advertising over pay-per-view.

Had the New York Times consulted any Media Ecologist at the start, they would have been told that attempting to control access to some of their content by charging a monthly fee ignores the nature of the internet as a communication environment. In reality, the Times is not competing for subscriber dollars, they are competing for subscriber eyeballs. With many other free information sources, it didn't make sense to pay a fee to the New York Times. In addition, the Internet environment has changed the relationship of publishers and readers. As Marshall McLuhan noted, in the age of print newspapers people didn't read their newspaper, they submerged themselves in it as in a warm bath. The difference with the internet is that the reader wants to respond, to publish, to interact and to critique the press. Rather than entering a warm bath, the internet reader dives headfirst into the news pool and swims with the correspondents school.

In discussing the nature of an existing media environment when threatened by a new configuration, McLuhan wrote:

“The structural features of environment and anti-environment appear in the age-old clash between professionalism and amateurism, whether in sports or in studies. Professional sport is environmental and amateur sport is anti-environmental. Professional sports foster the merging of the individual in the mass and in the patterns of the total environment. Amateur sport seeks rather the development of critical awareness of the individual and most of all, critical awareness of the ground rules of the society as such. The same contrast exists for studies. The professional tends to specialize and to merge his being uncritically in the mass. The ground rules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is uncritical and unaware.”[1]
Substitute “journalism" for “sports” or “studies” and we can begin to understand the new information environment fostered by the internet. It is interesting that most major media outlets are dismissive of web-based journalists as biased and amateurish at the same time that they have abandoned many of the most fundamental journalistic practices. Mainstream media journalists are not generally self-critical, nor do they adequately fulfill their responsibility as a fourth estate, holding politicians accountable. As agenda-setters, news and broadcast editors substitute sensationalism for substance. When bloggers and other “amateurs” rightly question the professionalism of the mainstream media, they are subject to ad hominem ridicule rather than confronted on the merits of their criticisms.

The mainstream media are broken. The New York Times, trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again, has tried to recreate the old media environment, but has only succeeded in making it the content of the new. Citing Humpty-Dumpty, McLuhan noted:

“The impact that resulted in his fall brought into play a massive response from the social bureaucracy. But all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. They could not recreate the old environment, they could only create a new one. Our typical response to a disrupting new technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities of the new environment. [2]

For example, I worked as a financial analyst at CBS News in the early 1980’s when it was a cost center, but still the jewel in the corporation’s crown. I participated in cost-cutting moves intended to make CBS News generate a profit, just like other CBS divisions. Prior to this, CBS News was based on a print model where certain standards of journalism were acknowledged, if not always adhered to. The new information environment of broadcasting required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalistic practices and created a gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know. This gap, being environmental, was largely invisible until the advent of the internet. The “amateurs” of this new media environment have brought this gap to the foreground, focusing our attention on unquestioned compromises of mainstream media news that have little to do with real journalism.

Established blogs such as Daily Kos, Eschaton, and yes, the Drudge Report have demonstrated how hanging onto a story neglected by the mainstream media can bring it to the foreground. Glenn Greenwald has shown how a little fact and precedence checking using Lexi-Nexus can go a long way. The live bloggers at Firedoglake.com set new standards for real time reporting.

As the New York Times attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the internet, they risk ending up "swimming with the fishes." They would profit by embracing the critiques of the digital natives already working there, rather than rejecting them.

[1] McLuhan, M. “The relation of environment to anti-environment” in Marshall McLuhan – Unbound (04), W. Terrance Gordon, ed. (Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2005), p. 8-9

[2] Ibid, p. 9-10

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Parable For Our Times: Goldi-Dinosaur and The Three Bears

Once upon a time there were three Bears who lived in a beautiful little house on the edge of the wood. They were the Papa Bear, the Mama Bear and the Baby Bear.

One morning Mama Bear made hot cereal for breakfast. As the cereal was too hot to eat right away, the Bear family decided to take a walk in the woods until it cooled down.

No sooner had the Bears disappeared into the woods than Goldi-Dinosaur appeared on the lane. She had had also gone out for a walk that morning before breakfast, and the smell of hot cereal suddenly made her very hungry.

She meant to just take a small taste from one of the bowls, but she misjudged the size of the kitchen window. Smashing a huge hole in the wall, she swallowed all three bowls of hot cereal in one gulp, as well as the kitchen table and all the chairs.

Her hunger now satisfied, Goldi-Dinosaur blundered through the wall into the living room where a few ill-placed steps soon reduced the furniture to splinters.

Goldi-dinosaur felt sleepy and, spying the three Bears’ bedroom, she made her way carefully through the living room wall, and lay down across all three beds, bringing them crashing to the floor. There she fell asleep.

At this moment, the three Bears returned from their walk in the woods. Papa Bear regarded the large new opening leading into the kitchen and said, “Somebody’s been eating my cereal.”

Mama Bear looked at the empty space where the table and chairs had been and said, “Somebody’s been eating my cereal.”

Baby Bear looked at his mother and father and said, “What are you talking about? Can’t you see that somebody has knocked a huge hole in our house and made off with our kitchen table and chairs?”

The Bears passed through the hole in the kitchen wall to the living room where they surveyed the damage there.

“Somebody’s been sitting in my chair,” said Papa Bear.

The Mama Bear picked up a fragment of her favorite rocker. “Somebody’s been sitting in my chair.” She said.

“What is wrong with you?” said Baby Bear. “Can’t you see that all our furniture has been smashed to smithereens?”

Then the three Bears climbed through the new entrance to their bedroom.

“Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed.” Said the Papa Bear.

“Somebody’s been sleeping in my bed.” Said the Mama Bear.

“I don’t believe it!” shouted Baby Bear. “Can’t you see that there’s a huge dinosaur asleep in our bedroom!”

At this Goldi-Dinosaur woke up, and was so frightened that she crashed through the wall on the opposite side of the bedroom, ran down the lane and was never seen again.

As for the three Bears, they finally realized that it was time to cut their losses. They put what was left of their house up for sale and moved to a condo in San Diego.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Your Gut Feeling

The ancient notion of internal organs as cognitive resources has resurfaced in Claudia Dreyfus’s New York Times article, “Through Analysis, Gut Reaction Gains Credibility” (New York Times, August 28, 2007). Dreyfus interviews social psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, an expert on intuitive thinking, who claims that
"My research indicates that gut feelings are based on simple rules of thumb, what we psychologists term “heuristics.” These take advantage of certain capacities of the brain that have come down to us through time, experience and evolution. Gut instincts often rely on simple cues in the environment. In most situations, when people use their instincts, they are heeding these cues and ignoring other unnecessary information."
As I detail in my paper "The Heart of the Matter: An Exploration of the Persistence of Core Beliefs," (also available here with illustrations) ancient peoples in general believed that thought and consciousness presided in the gut, not in the head. Greeks of the Classic period believed that consciousness resided in the lungs, with the heart contributing emotional content. Lacking our modern knowledge of the circulatory system, Classic Greeks believed that aspects of human consciousness didn’t reside just in the lungs, but were distributed throughout the chest, with different organs contributing different attributes. Expressions like “venting our spleen” when angered represent the residue of these kinds of beliefs. During the process of mummification, ancient Egyptians discarded brain tissue as unnecessary for existence in the afterlife, but preserved the intestines, liver and other organs in special canopic jars for the journey. The heart, thought to be central to the individual’s “self” or consciousness, was left in place.

What appeared to classical societies as a characteristic of human anatomy has slowly, over the ages, become a metaphor. No one today believes that the seat of consciousness can be found in the heart or lungs, and yet the references persist. We refer to the act of memorization as "learning by heart." An example from popular culture illustrates this head/gut opposition:

Aragorn: No news of Frodo
Gandalf: No word. Nothing.
Aragorn: We have time. Every day Frodo moves closer to Mordor.
Gandalf: Do we know that?
Aragorn: What does your heart tell you?
Gandalf: (meaningful pause) That Frodo’s alive. Yes. Yes, he’s alive.
(The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2004)

In conditions of primary orality people assigned different aspects of cognition to different organs. We are content in most cases to let the heart represent all feeling or emotion and assign to the “gut” an ability to intuitive grasp the proper solution to a problem. When placed in opposition to the head or intellect, the gut prevails in modern cultural references as the deeper source of wisdom and the more reliable arbiter of reality.

Here is the problem. If there is a deeper seat of wisdom that we all possess, why should anyone listen to academic specialists or experts of any type? Much of our current public debate between a faith-based vs. reality based orientation may be a manifestation of this head/gut split. If the United States can be governed “from the gut”, what need is there for subject matter experts on foreign policy, economics or political agendas?

By providing intellectual credibility (from the head or the gut?) to this reification of archaic beliefs, Dr. Gigerenzer does a disservice to himself and to subject matter experts in general.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

iPhone Unbound!

Recent iPhone/AT&T news suggests additional ways to liberate old technology.

In his New York Times article published this week, Brad Stone describes how a clever 17-year-old with a soldering iron, a few software tools and entirely too much free time has found a way to release the iPhone from the AT&T lock, opening it up to connection to T-Mobile. (“With Software and Soldering, a Non-AT&T iPhone.” New York Times. August 25, 2007.)

This instance of technological liberation is a good introduction to a new service I am offering. Just as clever technologists are finding ways around iPhone/AT&T bondage, I have found ways to liberate other technology for the benefit of all:

  • With a simple device, whose details I will post on the internet later today, you can convert any appliance from AC to DC, thereby releasing your household from Con Edison dependency. I think it was Abbey Hoffman who said "Appliances want to be free!" Or maybe he said "Steal this toaster!" I forget.
  • An amazingly simple set of instructions will allow even a child to change from one channel on any TV set to another. This opens the device up to literally dozens of channels you may not have been aware of. Similarly, those of you who still listen to the radio may be amazed to discover that there are ways to change reception to differing types of music and even talk.
  • A cheap, easy to apply software patch will allow your computer printer to print in almost any conceivable language. Simple plastic appliqués convert your current keyboard to the alphabet of your choice.
  • Those of you who use your microwave only to boil water may be amazed to learn that the device can be modified to heat or cook many different types of food. As a first lesson, I will supply a package of specially developed popping corn with a simple set of instructions on how to pop in a microwave. In some cases, this may be as simple as pushing a button.

Future technology enhancement services:

  1. Discover additional capabilities of your ten-speed bicycle
  2. Scissors, left or right-handed?
  3. Your stove can bake and broil too.
  4. Shifting car gears.
  5. Handy refills let you re-use that old stapler.
  6. New bulbs for old: light up your life!
  7. Left and right eyes provide binocular vision.
  8. Tips for re-oxygenating your own blood without technology. Breathe in, breathe out!
Anyone wishing to contract for these or other valuable technology enhancement services, please send me a note via the US postal service. My iPhone is not currently working.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Synagogue as a Multi-Media Environment

Vestigial elements of past cultures persist within our own and affect our public discourse and our artistic creations. This notion is the basis of my recently published paper The Heart of the Matter (Proceedings, 2005 Media Ecology Association Convention) where I trace the concept of the heart as the seat of consciousness through various times and different media. Though we know today that the heart is not the organ of thought and memory, our casual expressions reveal the hidden vestige of past beliefs. We speak of memorizing “by heart.” Our song lyrics remind us that our heart is an open book, or a window into our true feelings and emotions.

Another good example of this principle of persistence can be found in most synagogues. Visit any Saturday morning Torah service at any synagogue and you will witness a multi-media environment that manifests traces of all the pre-modern media eras of mankind.

In my congregation, the Rabbi leads the service, but most of the heavy liturgical carrying is performed (literally) by the Cantor. The Cantor himself is a bard, a remnant of the oral culture of our ancestors. His chants employ mnemonic devices and multiple repetitions to enhance comprehension and memorization. He recites the Torah from a manuscript scroll to an audience who, while they aren’t busy making copies as would have monastic scribes in the Middle Ages, respond orally just like members of any pre-literate culture. At the same time, with all these pre-literate vestiges evident throughout the ceremony, Jews are characterized as the “People of the Book.”

While several media are represented in the Jewish service, they are all word based. Images are proscribed by the Second Commandment, and so pictures, paintings and sculptures are not allowed. No illuminated texts. And of course, no film, no video, no Powerpoints. So it could be argued that Judaism acts as a counterpoint to our modern mass media-saturated culture.

Neil Postman argued in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century that our schools should operate as conserving opponents to the continuous non-discursive bombardment of electronic media in order to preserve and perpetuate the beliefs and values of the Enlightenment. These values include such things as individual liberty, rational discourse and democratic decision making. Along with the Sabbath and Holiday liturgy, other aspects of Judaism demonstrate a conserving characteristic very much in sync with Postman's suggestions. The Jewish holidays reflect remnants of the rituals and living conditions of earlier societies. Harvest festivals, year-end story-telling cycle celebrations, days of atonement and renewal, commemorations of significant historic events may not signify in modern cultures what they did to early farmer/shepards, but they act as reminders of other times and other places. Jewish males are circumcised, passing through a ritual of physical mutilation or transformation that corresponds to those of pre-literate societies all over the world. Jewish dietary restrictions also reflect those of pre-literate cultures, which, according to Claude Levi-Strauss, have less to do with what is good to eat, than what is good to think with.

Whether we will ever see a K-12 curriculum founded on Postman's suggestions is debatable. However, it is clear that the liturgies and rituals of Judaism perform this very function. By excluding non-discursive media, by copying and disseminating the manuscript form, and by actively promoting the practices of pre-literate chanting and poesy, Judaism confronts modern media-generated attitudes and beliefs and offers alternatives based on tried and true social and cultural practices.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Father/Son IM on Healthcare

Instant messages are too new to be considered an art form, but the time is near when we should begin to see additions to our culture using IMs as a model. In the interest of being first to contribute to this new art form, I present the following:

Father [1:48 P.M.]: Hi
Son [1:48 P.M.]: Hello
Son [1:55 P.M.]: Oh, the hospital sent another paper. Apparently they didn't get my last one and are threatening to send collection agencies and such.
Father [1:56 P.M.]: ??
Son [1:57 P.M.]: Remember the hospital I went to sent a bill for the ambulance?
Son [1:57 P.M.]: And I sent back the insurance info?
Son [1:57 P.M.]: I doesn't seem as if they got it.
Son [1:57 P.M.]: Or if they did that they registered it.
Father [1:57 P.M.]: The insurance info is your Insurance ID number?
Son [1:57 P.M.]: Yeah
Father [1:58 P.M.]: You should call them up about it and get them to straighten it out before the collection agency sends someone over to break both your thumbs.
Son [2:04 P.M.]: I can't really call them up. I tried earlier and get an automated message system with no way of reaching a human.
Son [2:05 P.M.]: I'm thinking maybe I could change my name, and then they'd never find me.
Son [2:05 P.M.]: It seems easier than dealing with the bureaucracy.
Son [2:05 P.M.]: How about this "Johannasburg Smith"
Father [2:06 P.M.]: How about Jimmy Hoffa?
Son [2:06 P.M.]: They're actually still using my college address from last year.
Father [2:06 P.M.]: The bill is from the hospital?
Son [2:06 P.M.]: Yep.
Son [2:06 P.M.]: $623 just for the ambulance ride.
Son [2:07 P.M.]: The ride was actually less than a mile.
Son [2:07 P.M.]: Which they charged $16 for.
Son [2:07 P.M.]: Just the mileage was $16.
Son [2:07 P.M.]: Then the rest was $623
Father [2:08 P.M.]: I would suggest not using them the next time.
Son [2:09 P.M.]: Is that what hospitals normally charge?
Father [2:09 P.M.]: Hospitals are very expensive places to go
Son [2:09 P.M.]: I suggest not giving our home address or number
Son [2:09 P.M.]: Or they might send collection agencies there.
Father [2:10 P.M.]: No. I'll give your address and phone number.
Son [2:10 P.M.]: Um, please don't give my cell number.
Son [2:10 P.M.]: And quite honestly I don't mind them having my address from last year.
Father [2:10 P.M.]: If you get sick again do you know how to contact the University Health Center?
Son [2:10 P.M.]: Yes.
Son [2:10 P.M.]: I think I'd rather perform surgery on myself than go back to that hospital.
Father [2:10 P.M.]: That's free for you.
Father [2:11 P.M.]: The Health Center I mean.
Son [2:11 P.M.]: But really, $600+ dollars for a ride that's about 8 blocks?
Father [2:11 P.M.]: I'll give them a call and see what I can come up with.
Son [2:11 P.M.]: Do you think there's a case with the Better Business Bureau on this one?
Son [2:11 P.M.]: Because $600 seems more than excessive.
Father [2:11 P.M.]: Did they have the sirens going?
Son [2:11 P.M.]: No.
Father [2:12 P.M.]: Then I agree with you. If they had the sirens, well then...
Son [2:12 P.M.]: Well, then it would have been an ambulance. Without sirens its just an SUV.
Father [2:12 P.M.]: Yeah, but with bright flashy lights on the top.
Son [2:13 P.M.]: Which weren't going on.
Father [2:13 P.M.]: Did they hook you up to an IV in the ambulance?
Son [2:13 P.M.]: No.
Father [2:13 P.M.]: Did they do anything at all?
Son [2:14 P.M.]: No.
Son [2:14 P.M.]: I didn't even lie down.
Son [2:14 P.M.]: I just sat in the ambulance.
Son [2:14 P.M.]: And it drove for 2 minutes.
Son [2:14 P.M.]: It took me about 8 minutes to walk back to the dorm from the hospital when they were done.
Father [2:14 P.M.]: Next time you do that insist on the IV, the flashy lights and the siren. And tell them to take the route via the GW Bridge. At least then you'll get something for your money.
Son [2:15 P.M.]: Yeah. I wouldn't have taken it either except the paramedics wouldn't tell me I didn't need an ambulance.
Son [2:15 P.M.]: I said to them "I still don't feel very well. Do you think I should go?"
Son [2:15 P.M.]: "I can't tell you"
Father [2:15 P.M.]: Have you gotten the bill yet from the paramedics?
Son [2:15 P.M.]: I assume this is it.
Son [2:15 P.M.]: This is separate from the hospital bill itself, which was already paid.
Son [2:16 P.M.]: And I think was cheaper.
Father [2:16 P.M.]: Was it a hospital's ambulance or private?
Son [2:17 P.M.]: The bill says Hosp EMS
Son [2:18 P.M.]: So it must be theirs.
Father [2:18 P.M.]: OK. I'll give them a call and get tough. Believe me, it won't be pretty.
Son [2:18 P.M.]: Which means between a $600 ambulance ride and a $400 medical checkup they're charging $1000 for stopping in a hospital.
Son [2:18 P.M.]: I can tell you what they did in the hospital too.
Son [2:19 P.M.]: I got an EKG, which had the little sticky thingies. That I could understand being a few good hundred considering there were little sticky pads and they connected wires to them.
Son [2:19 P.M.]: Heck, they didn't even take off the sticky pads. I got to keep them, and I'm sure each little piece of glue with a bit of metal in it was worth around fifty bucks.
Father [2:20 P.M.]: That's only in ambulance money.
Son [2:20 P.M.]: So I'm not complaining about that.
Son [2:20 P.M.]: And then I got a throat culture.
Son [2:20 P.M.]: So that's $400 bucks there.
Father [2:21 P.M.]: Sounds good. Did you stay overnight?
Son [2:21 P.M.]: No.
Son [2:21 P.M.]: I got a brief check-up and EKG which took about ten minutes, then I sat in a chair in the hallway next to a sick ten-year old for about 4 hours.
Son [2:22 P.M.]: Then they told me I could go.
Father [2:22 P.M.]: Did you eat anything?
Son [2:22 P.M.]: No.
Father [2:22 P.M.]: Did they give you any medication?
Son [2:22 P.M.]: No, but the doctor told me I had strep throat and gave me a prescription.
Father [2:27 P.M.]: I got a much better deal when I had my procedure for my atrial fibrillation. During the course of an overnight stay which began with an 8AM check-in I received a catheter, an 8 hour "non-invasive" surgical procedure which included full anesthesia, a bed in intensive care and three full meals. When I experienced post-surgical discomfort they provided me with Percoset. I had a wireless heart monitor and an IV drip. The total amount not covered by insurance came to $50. Of course, I didn't have an ambulance ride.
Son [2:27 P.M.]: I'm sure an ambulance ride that actually goes from one borough to the next would be exponentially expensive.
Son [2:27 P.M.]: You'd have to put the bill before Congress and they'd divert money from NASA.
Father [2:28 P.M.]: OK. Let me go. I'll give them a call.
Son [2:31 P.M.]: ok, talk to you later
Son is away at 2:31 P.M.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

When News Becomes Infotainment

I have my own spin on the transition of the television news from "hard news" to "infotainment." What we call “news,” which originated in the print era, is converted to something different by the electronic media. As I noted in my paper, "The Savage Mind on Madison Avenue", it is necessary to consider the structure of all television content in order to understand what print news becomes on TV.

Using Claude Levi-Strauss's structural anthropology triad as a framework for understanding the structure of all television content, I wrote:

"...news broadcasts fall somewhere in between shows and ads in terms of entertainment value vs. propaganda, while shows and ads may have little or nothing to do with the objective world, dividing their productions in terms of their intention to entertain or propagandize. (This is not to say that no show ever has propagandistic intentions, or that no advertising executive ever wishes to entertain. But in general, each is more concerned with the demands of his own domain. Program producers must attract an audience, and advertisers must sell their products.) It could be stated that if the hidden structure of advertising has to do with an opposition between culture and nature, then within the other legs of the triad there are other hidden structures that determine how the particular material is developed and conveyed. If it could be stated that advertisements, by opposing culture against nature, deal with social versus antisocial behavior on a personal level, then I would tentatively suggest that the shows on television are chiefly concerned with social versus antisocial behavior on an interpersonal level, while the news deals with this same general opposition at the public level. Further research is necessary in order to determine the exact parameters of these oppositions."
When I wrote this paper in 1980 it was clear that there was an accepted distinction between the appropriate "realms" of television: fiction, news and advertising. What we have witnessed over the last 25 years is a blurring of boundaries. Fictional programming is now "based on true events"; news content is now presented using the tools and conceits of storytelling; and advertising has now morphed into product placement within a television entertainment show. Regarding product placement, products currently are placed only in fictional settings. How long before advertisers realize that placement in entertainment programming may not have the immediacy of placement within a news broadcast?

Neil Postman might have suggested that this blurring of boundaries, which was appropriated from the print media, was inevitable given the non-discursive biases of electronic media. The boundaries between shows, ads and news, which we are accustomed to take for granted, are shown to be arbitrary and merely differing iterations of the overall structural themes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Underlying Assumptions of Educational Technology Implementation

Educators rush to adopt new technologies into their curricula. Shouldn't we ask what unintended consequences accompany new ways of communicating?

I am currently attending the 2007 Campus Technology Conference in Washington, DC. Discussions of the use of educational technology have circled around faculty resistence to change, objectives in employing technology in the classroom, and effective deployment of new technologies within classical teaching environments. The emphasis of the conference is on understanding the goals of using of technology in education, the metrics that can be used to assess those goals, and the methodology for achieving those goals. The repeated theme is "It's the pedagogy, stupid!"

There are multiple sessions exploring the latest technologies and their potential use in the classroom setting. Key areas of concern include managing change, developing an achievable technology vision and ensuring reliability of the technology infrastructure. An underlying narrative of so-called "digital literacy" runs throughout all conference presentations.

As I sit and listen to various panels concerning the adoption and impact of technology in an academic setting, it occurs to me how much this conference could benefit from a Media Ecology perspective. So far, there has been no discussion of how the introduction of any significant technology may create a paradigmatic shift that may ultimately affect the very definition of what teaching (and learning) is. We would benefit from a discussion of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. How to deal with the winners and losers of the new technology environment has not been addressed. Several of Neil Postman's works, like Technopoly and Teaching As A Conserving Activity would be of use. The relative biases of the new technologies have not been examined. A session on Harold Innis's The Bias of Communication and Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage might shed some light. There are a number of narratives being promulgated that attempt to define the course of technological innovation in an educational setting. So I would also add an exploration of Claude Levi-Strauss's notion that the structure of the stories we tell each other is of greater importance than the actual content. Add a copy of The Savage Mind to the list.

What I am suggesting is that a technology conference that isn't grounded in the fundamentals of Media Ecology is not dealing with root cause issues of technology change, but only the symptoms. In other words, as campus technology professionals and educators rush into the adoption of such things as Blogs, Wikis, IM, e-mail, Google, Yahoo, MySpace, Facebook as part of their curriculum, shouldn't we first ask the question of what unintended consequences might accompany each of these new ways of communicating?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Comments Re: The Problem of Myths

Some reactions to my recent post concerning the similarities between myth and advertising, with my response below:

Duane writes:

I was with you until you got to the part about advertising. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with the basic facts you present, just the sweeping conclusions. You seem to be elevating modern advertising to a level rivaling the oral storytelling culture of the past. I am much too cynical to buy that.

Advertisers are tasked with tapping the human subconscious at the lowest level. They do not provide us with heroic icons or examples of what is truly "good." They often attempt to exploit various emotional insecurities to make a buck. It is a deliberate attempt on their part to create a sense that we are, in one way or another, deficient, and that by shelling out our pay, our perceived deficiencies can be eliminated, or at least covered over.

Successful advertising appeals either to our vanity or to our proclivity for materialism. Images of happy, successful people are presented, which do indeed constitue a trivial form of mythology -- slim waistlines, wrinkle-free foreheads, sleek autos, perfectly functioning nuclear families, full heads of hair, six-pack abs, and so on. These ads speak to us at the most superficial level. By creating a myth of what is "good," we are left feeling inadequate, and break out the checkbook as a means to procure a fix to our insufficent lives. Cynical? Sure. So, while I might accept your central premise that modern advertising creates and conveys modern myths, it tends to direct itself primarily to the weaker aspects of human nature, unlike the ancient myths, which attempted to cover the entire spectrum of human psychology and behavior.

and Ashtoreth writes:

This was an interesting article - and an interesting comment following. I do not agree either that modern advertising constitutes myth, nor that the ancients were simple, nor that structure is more important than content.

Your assertion that advertising, this pseudo myth you name with no sustenance, enables us to live in 'culture not nature' makes me think of the folly of Aristotle and other philosophers who strove to separate man from nature and thus further from the philosophies that grounded truth in nature arguing that we are an intrinsic part and its cycles and mysteries.

Culture is relative and transparent. It can and is transformed, absorbed and washed away. Archetype is not. Myth helps us to deal with the chthonic, when we are dragged into the underworld. An awareness of myth gives us a guideline through the darkness, to embrace it and honor it as a rite of transformation.

It rather sickens me that you could imagine let alone postulate that advertising even touches that. When I faced brain surgery several years ago, I steadied and prepared myself by meditating on the myth of the Babylonian goddess Inanna descending into the underworld to gain the knowledge of life and death; her descent and her return. Do you think advertising had any part in this?

To even suggest this is to trivialize life and human existence. It is to suggest a wasteland, an existential nightmare which would be truly meaningless if it were true, but it is not.

Since the dawn of commerce, people have hawked their wares. That does not make it myth.

Advertising has more in common with brain washing than myth. And with the advent of viral marketing and fake advertising, it becomes even more insideous, deceitful and corrupt in its attempts to override our minds and control our impulses in the direction they want. That is like comparing poison with milk.

When I saw the picture of the first person to purchase an I-phone on the Internet, I knew it was a creation for viral transmission and reaction. The image played on the heroic, but was devoid of it. It hinted at achievement, but had nothing to do with it. It suggested reaching for the extraordinary and for a moment possessing it, but instead described the utmost banality.

The lad was set up to look like he was an Olympic runner clearing the finish line at a race, or perhaps the one carrying the torch representing a sacred flame. If it were not so perverse, it would have been funny. Instead, it represented a fellow making a mockery of all this to purchase an over-priced piece of consumer electronics he did not need that is already yesterday's news.

Perhaps people like yourself would seek to use the elements of myth and archetype to trigger reactions in people to make them hunger to spend money they do not have, digging themselves into servitude to billion dollar corporations who then turn around and tell them to dream smaller, want less, and go carbon-free while they fill up their private jets.

Myth opens the door to connection to that which makes us whole, to what is true and sacred, and which allows us to experience the mysteries of life, death and renewal with dignity and inner power.

Advertising does not do this. Advertising is not myth.

Thank you Duana and Ashtoreth for your comments. You both raise valid objections to my assertions and you point out a key problem with the type of analysis I am attempting.

I must admit that I am torn regarding the place of advertising in our culture. On one hand, I do believe that, with all the focus groups, psychological analyses and cultural “thefts” advertisers coopt to use as regular tools of their craft, they are armed with unique tools to penetrate human consciousness and to master the psychic processes that classical mythology has represented.

On the other hand, my personal reaction mirrors yours, Ashtoreth, in abhorrence of the apparent ends of advertising: to make us more pliant; to make us more materialistic; to render us more self-conscious, not about our moral strengths or shortcomings, but about body odor, physical conformity and social acceptance. This is one reason why, when I earned by MBA I chose not to use it to go into advertising.

However, I think you both may be missing a key point that I’m trying to make. Advertising as technique is separate from advertising as content. Classical myths don’t always teach us how to strive for our higher selves. One could imagine a militaristic, totalitarian society where the mythology promotes violence and genocide. Classical mythology can support the egocentric notion that elevates one society above all others and justifies all kinds of atrocities. Read The Iliad carefully and you will see both men and Gods behave in ways antithetical to our modern sensibilities.

My purpose in discussing advertising is not to critique its apparent ends, but to reveal the nature of its scope and power. I am an optimist, and I believe that while advertising on one level is despicable, on another level, in spite of themselves, advertisers are performing a necessary function in our culture. Beyond notions of physical afflictions, social inequities and personal conformity, advertising provides hope. Hope that there are solutions to our problems, hope that there is an underlying logic to the buzzing, blooming chaos of our mass culture, hope that human beings can prevail against inimical forces of nature. That these hopes are expressed in the form of deodorants, household cleansers and body paints is lamentable. That the purpose of advertisers in their own minds is to make us pliable, insecure and acquisitive is repulsive. But advertising wouldn’t be effective at all, wouldn’t sometimes be powerful and moving, wouldn’t strike so often a “responsive chord,” if it didn’t provide a necessary structure and narrative for our culture.

I have also used Joseph Campbell’s notion of the heroic cyclic to understand incidents in my life and put into context my own personal narrative. I am not disputing the brilliance of his analysis, or its usefulness in comprehending the stories we tell ourselves. I think that there is a deeper level to mythology, that for mythic tales to survive at all over time they must correlate to fundamental intellectual processes.

We can debate whether advertising is benign or malignant. What I am calling attention to is its deeper structure and offering a possible analysis for why it persists in our culture at all.