Monday, June 25, 2007

Light Blogging This Week

Update below

This week I am attending "Slice of Life," a medical educators' conference in Salt Lake City and at the same time working on a piece about the movie "1408" where I wonder what it would have been like if Stephen King had written Metamorphosis:

"I was warned not to go into this evil motel room. Now I can't check out. If only I had listened."

Anyway, if there is anything of import to Media Ecology at the conference, you'll read it here first.

Well, my trip to the conference was done in by Wednesday night's thunder storm. After sitting six hours on the JFK runway, the flight was cancelled. Meanwhile, my luggage managed to make it to Salt Lake City the following day. Something is not right when your BVDs have been to Salt Lake City and you haven't.

However, I was able to watch the morning's proceedings, which were webcast. The keynote speaker, Geoff Norman of McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, discussed a topic of interest to Media Ecologists: Which type of illustration is more conducive to a medical learning environment, a still image or an animated one? Dr. Norman's research suggests that in most cases an animated image is distracting; medical students who study a static image of human anatomy perform better on tests. Via email I posed the following question:
In evaluating your test results, how do you allow for the fact that students who do better on static vs. animated views do so because our education system has better equipped them to interpret static views? Future generations, the so-called "digital generation" may test differently.

Dr. Norman's response is that we seem to be hard wired that way and we shouldn't blame our educational system.

I have my own preconceptions about how we are hardwired. It is possible that Dr. Norman's test subjects favored still images because their education provided them with more experience interpreting them than animated images. As schools adopt more interactive media, the balance may shift.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Time Flies Like a Socratic Dialogue: On Paul Levinson’s The Plot to Save Socrates

The literary convention of time travel has changed over time.

Paul Levinson’s The Plot to Save Socrates has been out in a paperback trade edition for a while and so it is an appropriate time to consider how the metaphor of time travel has been expressed in literature and the media. The Plot to Save Socrates offers a new way of telling time travel stories, one that is very much bound in the current communication environment of the Internet and encompasses role-playing games, multitasking and hypertext. In order to appreciate this change we must first put aside the language we use to describe time change narratives.

Just as our continuing use of the word “station” to signify radio and television frequencies betrays the original conception of “communication” as physically moving from one train station to another, the use of the term “time travel” suggests that we move through time the way we travel through space. It uses a linear metaphor to describe movement through the fourth dimension. Since you can go forward and backward in space, why not the same in time?

For want of a better term, let’s replace “time travel” with “time shift.” We then can see how portrayals of time shifting in our literature and mass media have been bound by this linear, spatial metaphor.

Time shifting has been accomplished by self hypnosis, pimped-up horseless carriages, rays of light, phone booths, portals of various types, FTL space ships and getting hit on the head. The usual technique is to employ some device to move physically from Time A to Time X. A protagonist travels to the past or future the way he would travel to Bejing or Poughkeepsie. He stays a while, either can or cannot change the future or betray the past, and then he returns to his point of origin to survey the results. Sometimes he becomes his own grandfather. Sometimes he falls in love with a contemporary resident, but then looks at a penny and returns involuntarily to his own era. Sometimes he steps on a butterfly.

The metaphor of time shifting employed by a given author has been largely determined by the dominant medium of communication of his era. In the industrial age, when print was the dominant medium of communication, time shifting was obtained by jumping in a vehicle and driving to the past or future. Time was a highway and we could ride it all night long. In the early electronic age, when television dominated, you could travel through time by passing through a portal (screen) or being converted into a beam of light. In our current computer era, at least according to Levinson, you shift through time in hops, skips and jumps and you do it while sitting in a chair. In other words, you “hypertext” your way through time.

The Plot to Save Socrates defies the “A to X back to A” structure of most time shifting tales. Instead of being a good traveler and spending a decent interval in Time X, the story moves continuously back and forth and up and down through time. Levinson’s characters don’t pay a proper visit to a different time, they jump all over history. They assume the identities of real historical characters and they gladly risk changing history at will.

Levinson uses the old medium of print to suggest how the new media can change our assumptions about time and space. Thus The Plot to Save Socrates offers, albeit covertly, a new metaphor for the literary tradition of time travel. Time is not a highway, it is a web. You don’t travel linearly, you click and jump.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

8th Annual Media Ecology Convention, June 6 Proceedings

Here is the recording of June 6 proceedings. Most of this is in Spanish, but it does include a clip of Neil Postman, of Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and of Thomas F. Gencarelli's presentation.

MEA 8th Convention June 6 #1 from Robert K. Blechman on Vimeo

Monday, June 18, 2007

8th Annual Media Ecology Convention, Friday Night Proceedings

Although I wasn't able to attend this year's Media Ecology Convention in Mexico City, I did watch and record whatever I could. Here is the recording of Friday nights proceedings, including Eric McLuhan's presentation (sorry that I missed the beginning), the Awards Ceremony, and Lance Strate's speech.

I have recordings of some of the other general sessions which I will post shortly.

MEA 8th Convention Friday Night from Robert K. Blechman on Vimeo

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Rise and Fall of a Constitutional Democracy: The United States

The United States can't be conquered by military invasion or technological devastation. It can be conquered by an idea.

While it may be true that the United States can never be defeated by an external foe, the neo-con Republicans have demonstrated how it can be conquered internally. These Republicans are truly radicals, not conservatives, who favor a unitary executive over checks and balances. The current administration's neo-cons seem to have failed in their attempts to subvert the United States Constitution and institute a 1000 year reign. Next time they may succeed.

How to overthrow the Republic

Neo-cons have demonstrated the several areas that must be controlled in order to take over our Constitutional government. Among these are:

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.

Our contemporary neo-cons have succeeded in introducing the idea that the our Constitutional form of government can be subverted from within. When future historians attempt to pinpoint exactly when the United States ceased being a constitutional democracy, they could do no better than to choose 2007. This is when the seeds were planted that led to the end of the American Republic and the beginning of the American empire.

You heard it here first.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Rock, Paper, Video:
Ray Bradbury Interprets Fahrenheit 451

An author is not always the best interpreter of his own work.

In a recent interview in the LA Weekly News speculative fiction master Ray Bradbury claimed that most people have misinterpreted his seminal classic Fahrenheit 451. According to Bradbury, F451 was not about censorship and the threat of a tyrannous government. It was about the way television will make us into a nation of non-readers, which means being non-reflective, hedonistic and conformist.

Bradbury now asserts that Montag and other readers in his future dystopia were pursued because they refused to conform to the television-induced stupor of the general population, not because they subverted book burning. Books were burned, not as an act of suppression, but because they were irrelevant.

As books are burned and reading becomes a crime, what do the literate rebels in Fahrenheit 451 do? They each memorize a book, and on their deathbeds they pass that work on orally to a descendent. Bradbury rightly intuited that as electronic media superseded print, the values and concerns of our culture would change. But, being literate himself, Bradbury couldn’t imagine that a society without literature could be anything but childish and shallow.

Borrowing from Northrop Frye, I would like to suggest that often the author of a work doesn’t always fully comprehend its significance, but I would like to go one step further. Sometimes, authors are more intuitive than they themselves realize. Fahrenheit 451 may or may not be a book about government censorship, but the more important idea that Bradbury offered way back in 1953 was that electronic media would return us to an oral culture, or as Walter J.Ong later termed it, a condition of secondary orality.

Media Ecologists identify three major eras in the development of human cultures: orality, literacy and secondary orality. Their basic premise is that the dominant medium of an era creates a communication environment that determines the nature of the culture. Pure oral cultures existed before writing was invented and had to devise various tricks and mnemonic devices to pass hard-won knowledge from generation to generation. Rhymes, rhythms, parables and puns helped preserve oral culture. Personal skills that were valued included memory, voice and the ability to weave an encyclopedian epic from standard poetic pieces. "Rhapsodist" was Classical Greek for "weaver."

When writing was invented, information could be preserved outside of human memory, and essential cultural activities of orality like story telling and singing became pastimes. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic became the tools to educate our children. It then became of concern which medium was used to preserve the writing. Durable media like stone were long lasting, but hard to carry around. Portable media like papyrus and later, paper were easy to transport, but didn’t last nearly as long. Writing not only allowed the preservation of culture, but also the distribution of that information far beyond its source of origination.

In secondary orality, the major institutions and beliefs of a culture are once again driven by modes of thought and practices based on oral communication, not literacy. Linear thinking gives way to gestalt thinking, logic is replace by intuition, and we begin to think with our “guts” rather than our heads. Computer hardware takes the place of human brain cells for information storage, but oral activities like singing return to center stage. The tools of cultural transmission may be the same as those of primary orality, but the arts are informed by a legacy of writing.

So, is Ray Bradbury an early Media Ecologist? One could say that all writers of speculative fiction are practicing speculative Media Ecology. In Bradbury’s case, he could predict that a new social environment would be created by the adoption of a new medium of communication without fully grasping the influence of electronic media. He certainly got it right in his later work, The Martian Chronicles, where the Martian environment completely transforms human settlers into new Martians. It is significant that by the end of Fahrenheit 451, the TV-addicted culture has destroyed itself in war and the secondary orality rebels move to rebuild society. Their ultimate supremacy signifies the ascendancy of secondary orality, not its defeat.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

8th Annual Media Ecology Association Conference Starts Today

Best wishes to all presenting, attending and especially those organizing the 8th Annual Media Ecology Association Conference that begins today in Mexico City.

Normally, I would be there, but my dog ate my airline tickets. Um..I left my airline tickets on the bus. Um...Here's the thing: My organization doesn't provide any stipends for me to attend the MEA Conference. Add that to the fact that my oldest daughter will be attending college starting in August, and I just couldn't do it. My daughter put it this way, "Dad, you have two choices, conference,, conference." I had a Seinfeld moment. "Do I know you?" In the end, funding her college won out.

So enjoy, those of you attending! I'll be watching via the live video feeds as much as I can. Anyone else sending someone to college can join me in viewing at

Friday, June 1, 2007

On Jay Rosen's "A Blog is a Little First Amendment Machine"

Main stream media journalists are about to be blogged to death.

I would like to call attention to a piece written by New York University professor Jay Rosen in today's Huffington Post, "A Blog is a Little First Amendment Machine," where he discusses the impact that journalistic blogging has had on the main stream media, and the potential it has to set a new agenda for newsgathering in the future. Rosen writes:
The most famous words ever written about freedom of the press are in the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law..." But the second most famous words come from the critic A.J. Liebling: "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one." Well, freedom of the press still belongs to those who own one, and blogging means practically anyone can own one. That is the Number One reason why blogs--and this discussion--matter.

With blogging, an awkward term, we designate a fairly beautiful thing: the extension to many more people of a free press franchise, the right to publish your thoughts to the world. Wherever blogging spreads the dramas of free expression follow. A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine.

Rosen notes that the blog "Firedoglake" showed up the MSM at the Scooter Libbey trial, and showed everyone else how real journalism is done:
Firedoglake got handed a golden opportunity by the reluctance of big news organizations to spend money on the information commons. At the Libby trial, there was no broadcast, no taping allowed. No posted transcript for anyone to consult. Thus the most basic kind of news there is--what was said in court today--was missing.

Converging on Washington, the team from Firedoglake felt they represented people back home who wanted to know everything. And so they decided to live blog the trial. Typing at fast as they could, they produced the only blow-by-blow account of the trial available to the public. They also provided expert interpretation because they knew more about the case than most of those being paid to cover it. In fact journalists covering the trial began to rely on Firedoglake's accounts because it had the most complete coverage.

Although I have used the blog format to publish rich media-based papers (See "The Savage Mind on Madison Avenue" and "The Heart of the Matter" through the links above), blogging, so far, is largely an analog for text-based print media. Many bloggists, like Joshua Micah Marshall over at Talking Points Memo, have experimented with reporting via video inserts in their blogs. While interesting in its attempt to incorporate rich media, the blog remains largely print-oriented. I can imagine a new type of blog coming along at some point in the near future that combines the best parts of traditional blogging with YouTube and Facebook.

A number of years ago Apple Computer produced a think piece about what the computing experience of the future might be like. A man enters an office that contains a leather-bound book on a desk. There are no wires, no keyboard or monitor. The man opens the book to reveal a fully interactive touch screen. A small "personal assistant" (I think he was called an “avatar”) appears on the screen to inform him that he has messages and to assist with whatever tasks he needs to perform. Though obviously animated, the avatar represents a realistic CGI depiction of a small human being. All interaction initially is through speech, although the man is able to call up a chart and change its contents, both by spoken words and by touching the screen. The personal assistant could also call any real person the man wanted to talk to, and he or she would appear, in video, on his book-screen. I don't know if this short film has found its way to YouTube. If anyone has seen it, please let me know.

I think the future of blogging lies along a similar path. Most blogs are conveyed by writing now, but blogging will be delivered by speech and pictures in the future. The cost barriers to producing video continue to fall, and the capability to produce professional quality work is being honed on YouTube as we speak.

If my vision of the blogging future is correct, it suggests certain dangers. As Neil Postman noted, it is the nature of television (that is, image and sound communication as opposed to print communication) to degrade news reporting and political discourse to the point that we are "amusing ourselves to death." For example, it is the height of irony that critics of Al Gore’s Assault on Reason still focus on his manner and appearance rather than his argument. If increased bandwidth and transmission speeds allow bloggists to emulate the output of the broadcast media, what will prevent them from following the same path?

Rosen notes that in blogging there is strength in numbers:

On March 20th of this year, the Justice Department released 3,000 pages of documents to the House Judiciary Committee, which was investigating why a group of seven federal prosecutors were fired last year, a scandal that continues to make headlines today. Over at TPM, a investigative site started by the political blogger Josh Marshall, the guys who work for Marshall were wondering how they were going to sort through those 3,000 pages to see if any clues turned up. And then they realized: "We don't have to. Our readers can help."

The Judiciary Committee had put the document dump online in the form of PDF files. And so Marshall's guys asked readers to pick a PDF and read through the documents. "If you find something interesting (or damning), then tell us about it in the comment thread below," they wrote. Readers finished in a day or two and made some intriguing finds. The significance is obvious: potentially hundreds or thousands of hands available to work on a single story.

This is the “open source” approach to journalism research. Blogging reverses the media flow from "one to many" into "many to one." Blogging in the future may also incorporate aspects of video conferencing, with real time content delivery and response. This ability will allow the blogging information commons to emulate the give-and-take environment that Postman lauds in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Conversations won’t be limited to 30 or 60 minute timeslots, and all participants will have the ability to post questions and get responses. Instant recall of any video or audio piece from the internet "memory well" will hold speakers accountable for what they say and do and what they have said and have done.

As a bloggist myself, I heartily agree with Rosen's assessment. The main stream media doesn't know what's hitting them and when their reading and viewing public disappears almost entirely, they will still be scratching their heads in consternation and wonder.