Sunday, April 29, 2007
We can't seem to focus on the key issues. We are easily distracted by propagandistic techniques. We have trouble distinguishing manufactured fantasies from reality. We have lost our ablity to think logically about solving our problems, preferring image over substance. We fiddle while Rome burns. In other words, contemporary society manifests the very characteristics of cultural disfunction brought about by technology and media that Media Ecologists have predicted for the past 35+ years.
What better time could there be to be a Media Ecologist?
Thursday, April 26, 2007
If you didn't catch Bill Moyers' remarkable documentary last night, you can view it here.
Starting with the devastation of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Moyers documents how the main stream media, especially those within the Washington DC "beltway bubble" completely capitulated to the Bush Administration's drumbeats to war. Much of the material covered is now well known. However, there were a few tidbits that are remarkable and disturbing.
Moyers interviewed Knight Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel about their early debunking of claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Their well researched exposes flew under the radar, both of the Bush Administration and the national media.
BILL MOYERS: Strobel learned that within two weeks after 9/11, senior intelligence officers were growing concerned that the bush administration was stretching 'little its and pieces of information….' to Connect Saddam Hussein to Al qaeda — with no hard evidence.The Administration's co-opting of journalist and media outlets was both systematic and not so subtle.
WARREN STROBEL: There was a lot of skepticism among our editors because what we were writing was so at odds with what most of the rest of the Washington press corps was reporting and some of our papers frankly, just didn't run the stories. They had access to the NEW YORK TIMES wire and the WASHINGTON POST wire and they chose those stories instead.
Media watchdogs, such as Media Matters, have long noted the conservative bias in guest choice of the Sunday morning talk shows. Here is direct evidence that this bias wasn't accidental or reflexive.
PHIL DONOHUE: You could have the supporters of the President alone. And they
would say why this war is important. You couldn't have a dissenter alone. Our producers were instructed to feature two conservatives for every liberal.
BILL MOYERS: You're kidding.
PHIL DONOHUE: No this is absolutely true-
BILL MOYERS: Instructed from above?
PHIL DONOHUE: Yes. I was counted as two liberals. And so-
BILL MOYERS: They're under selling you.
PHIL DONOHUE: --I had to-- I had to have two-- there's just a terrible fear. And I
think that's the right word.
What's worse, the standards for what constitutes good journalism have been seriously eroded. There was an especially telling moment when Moyers interviewed Washington Bureau Chief and Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, who had the practice of automatically placing “off the record” any phone conversations with his sources.
TIM RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that.
TIM RUSSERT: What my concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.
BILL MOYERS: Bob Simon (reporter for CBS's 60 Minutes) didn't wait for the phone to ring. [emphasis added]
The bottom line is that while a renegade administration lied us into a war, and then used that war to justify the erosion of our constitutional liberties, our mainstream media journalists were not doing their job. What's worse, the major media outlets, owned by major conglomerates all, were directly complicit with the Bush Administration in promoting conservative views and repressing any alternatives.
Monday, April 23, 2007
The first reason might be called spiritual laryngitis. Like Melville’s Billy Budd, my first reaction to any severe emotional shock is loss of voice. I mean this quite literally. It is not only that I am not sure what to say, but also that I am quite unable to say anything at all. I sweat and strain, but my larynx remains frozen. As the parent of college-age children, my identification with those left to mourn is strong. I truly identify with them and the senseless loss they are experiencing. So the primary cause of my inability to speak is grief.
Second is the foreboding sense that this has happened before, and, quite likely, it will happen again. Our country has neither the political will to control gun availability, nor the compassion towards the mentally ill to fully support appropriate treatment. My paralyzed reaction to this disaster, my shock in the face of the incomprehensible, is also due to latent, inexpressible anger.
In terms of typing a post to this blog, this paralysis extends to that part of my brain that allows me to compose my thoughts for writing and enter them into my computer. What is the appropriate thing to say in the face of disaster? How do you express sorrow in a mass medium?
The bios I have read and seen of the killer describe him as a silent, withdrawn individual, one who appeared have something in common with another Melville character, Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby brooded in silence and chose, in his despair, to end his own life. The Virginia Tech killer’s self-immolation required, for reasons we may never fathom, the inclusion of 32 innocent lives and the wounding of any equal number of others.
One way you don’t express your sorrow was illustrated by NBC this past week. NBC’s decision to air the VT killer’s video was not due to a lack of other ways to deliver the newsworthy content of the recordings. There has been quite a bit of controversy over the appropriateness and/or newsworthiness of airing the killer’s self-aggrandizing video. It was not speechlessness that required the airing of the tape. It was competitive, commercial considerations which trumped a sense of decency, an acknowledgement of the damage such a viewing might cause, both to the families of the victims, and to the country at large.
In reacting to this tragedy we tap more deeply the sense of astonishment and outrage we experienced during the Don Imus imbroglio. Imus, who certainly has not ever experienced speechlessness, turned his mock but racist ire toward non-public, innocent Rutgers students. Accomplished young women all, they didn’t deserve such treatment for the sake of Imus’s ego or his radio ratings.
Here, I think, lies the key to the impact this event has had on many of us who have no direct connection with the Virginia Tech population. They were innocent. They were not the cause of the killer’s grievance and should not have been part of his ghastly personal catharsis. That we could react as a nation in horror of these events shows that we can still distinguish between fiction and reality, even if both are delivered to us in a mediated form.
It was also an instance of one of the major gatekeepers of television succumbing to the biases of the medium itself. Neil Postman noted that:
“What is not televisable doesn't exist on TV... What gets on the news are those things for which you have film footage.”(1)
While the medium of television may have a bias toward the visual, the human gatekeepers of the medium could choose not to succumb to it. One of Postman’s gift to his students of Media Ecology is the mandate that we must adopt a moral stance to the impact of media and technology on our society and we must speak out.
Thus in the space of one week I experienced outrage to the killings at Virginia Tech, which left me speechless, and outrage to NBC’s decision to engage in exploitation journalism, which gave me back my voice.
(1) Postman, N. "TV Has Culture by the Throat: A Conversation With Neil Postman." U.S. News and World Report, December 23, 1985. p. 58.
Monday, April 16, 2007
I have no doubt that, over time, the new digital media (NDM) will change our minds—both their contents and their manner of processing information. But the most profound media effects occur slowly. Plato was afraid that writing would change thinking and memory, and he was right about that—but it took decades, perhaps centuries, for the ways that we write to alter the way that we speak, categorize, remember, or distort. So, too, the changes that were wrought by the printing press, the telegraph, and the broadcast media were substantial, but not immediately manifest or understood.
Though he is much criticized nowadays, Marshall McLuhan had genuine insights here. McLuhan argued that new media invariably begin by presenting the contents of the old media: radio and movies first presented the theatrical stage, television initially was visually-presented radio, and so on. This characterization is even true of the NDM, whose initial games, webcasts, search engines, and social networks draw heavily on prototypes developed in a predigital age. It takes time to arrive at the forms of presentation that take advantage of the distinctive features of each new medium.
On the other hand, another of McLuhan’s aphorisms may prove timebound. McLuhan famously contended “The medium is the message.” The classic example here is the 1960 television debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Those who heard the debates on radio thought that the authoritative-sounding Vice President had won on points; those who watched the debates on television felt more in synch with the young Senator from Massachusetts. But increasingly, the print, broadcast, and other communication media are merging; in the future, users may pay no attention to the source of, or the means employed by, converging media.
I think Dr. Gardner spot on with regard to the biases of current media and the impact they are having on our society. In our analysis of culture, we Media Ecologists consider the biases regarding time and space of a medium and what attitudes, beliefs and institutions those biases encourage. Harold Innis would have noted whether a medium has permanence and therefore enables communication over time, or is portable and therefore encourages communication over space. This frame of reference has been amended by Walter J. Ong who noted that the salient feature of any human culture is whether it is completely or primarily oral and shapes it cultural institutions around the oral/aural transmission of information or is literate, possessing a means of writing down and transmitting information through sight.
Marshall McLuhan would have added that any technology can be investigated in a four-fold manner. What does it enhance? What does it obsolesce? What does it retrieve that had been lost? What does it reverse into when pushed to an extreme?
The older media have a spatial bias. They can influence mass audiences over great distances, but until recently, were ephemeral. Access to recordings of old programming or even films was not universally available. In primary orality, human memory and speech were the means by which information was stored and transmitted. In the manuscript and print era, writing allowed a disconnect between the source of the message and the recipient. Until recently, any film, TV or radio program was here today and gone tomorrow, thereby mimicking the operation of primary orality cultures. Our transmission of the content of those media remained largely oral, with some commentary in writing.
With regard to the Internet and the accompanying digital media (cell phones, cheap digital recorders and editors, etc.) it seems to me that the medium of the Internet encourages and augments the transition begun with film, radio and television to a culture of secondary orality. The new digital media remove the spatial bias of the older media by allowing the recording and replay of anything anywhere. The Internet allows for the immediate retrieval and replay of almost everything and adds external memory to our secondary orality media. This is the true transformation of our culture that we are witnessing. For example, before YouTube, the recent Imus imbroglio would have been inconceivable. His comments would have faded away immediately after they were delivered. The new media preserves moments like these (Imus’ racial slur, George Allen’s “macaca” remark, etc.) for continuous review.
Friday, April 13, 2007
One of the problems faced by anyone working within a rich media environment is that many traditional academic outlets are still largely print oriented. Anyone who has had to convert audiovisual material to print will attest to the fact that something gets lost in the translation. As we move deeper into Walter J. Ong's era of secondary orality, this problem will only get worse.
I always felt the textual descriptions I created of the television ads I used in my study didn't do justice to the originals. In order to better capture my original intention I needed a venue where I could accompany my discussion with the actual recorded examples. After a thirty year delay, the rich media environment of the blogosphere (with some assistance from YouTube) has made this a reality.
Monday, April 9, 2007
"The Cylons are Battlestar Galactica's very own Spartoi, they are the new beings sown from the dragon's teeth, they have a Phoenician/Semitic link”
“Human beings are symbols that stand for God. And the Cylons, being monotheists, want to wipe out humanity so that they can take our place as the primary symbolsI think that Lance’s insight that the Cylons are a modern correlative of Cadmus’s dragon's teeth is fantastic!
Before I comment further on Lance’s insights, let me make a few meta-communication comments about these series of posts. I call these Blechman’s Communication Appendices, as in vestigial remnants whose true function no one can figure out, but that can cause a real pain.
Appendix #1: Every cultural artifact has pedagogic content. Lance and I have been having a theological discussion based on a pop-culture artifact, a Sci-Fi program on cable TV that is based on a cheesy Star Wars wannabe from the 1970’s. Just as contemporary Homeric scholars recognize that the Iliad and the Odyssey were cultural encyclopedias for Classical Greeks. (See Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato, Joseph Campbell’s Mask of God series, and, of course, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques.), the products of our culture are also encyclopedias, providing instruction on both the content and the medium itself. Every story, art work or musical composition, we read, view or hear contains a lesson in the ways and mores of our culture.
For example, each song we listen to contains instruction in musicology, as defined by our culture. Even the simplest bubble-gum rock song instructs it listeners in our culture’s rules of rhyme, meter, musical notation and storytelling. Some of us learn the lesson better than others, which explains the difference between a Mozart on one end of the spectrum and, say, me on the other. Some lessons can be taught formally and some can be absorbed by osmosis.
Contrary to Jacques Derrida, as I understand him, there is a meaning in the content of a cultural artifact. It doesn’t reside entirely in the reader. For a society to exist, there must be an agreement of basic premises, a basic understanding of the structure of reality and the meanings of signs within that reality. Symbols have meanings which are defined, but even there, a consensus must be agreed upon for the symbols to have any practical use. I don’t mean that you and I can read the same book or view the same movie and not get different meanings out of the experience. However, there must be a fundamental basis that we agree on without interpretation. Just as we must agree upon the Laws of Gravity, even if we don’t approve of them, there are givens without which no culture could function. Pre-literate, technologically less advanced cultures show these “gravity agreements” in their body of myths which, as Lévi-Strauss pointed out, exist to shore up the consensus of reality by denying contradictions or explaining them away.
Appendix #2: Although there are some restrictions, members of a given culture will decide on the use of a particular medium, based on their existing media and cultural biases. As Lance (quoting Lynn White, Jr.)points out: “an innovation opens a door, it does not command.” Still, different media have different biases and encourage certain beliefs and behaviors. Maybe the phonetic alphabet doesn’t force monotheism, but it lays the foundation for its acceptance. I find it inconsistent that, given the diversity of the twelve planets of the Battlestar Galactica universe and the seeming universality of a phonetic alphabet, no one has thought of monotheism before the coming of the Cylons. Maybe they experienced a more rapid transition from a literate to a secondary orality culture, but that still doesn’t explain the Cylon’s acceptance of one God.
Appendix #3: Vestigial elements of past cultures persist within our own. This appendix is the basis of my soon-to-be 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 no longer think of the heart as the seat of memory and consciousness, 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 can be found in most synagogues on any given Saturday. Within the Jewish Shabbat Service are examples and remnants of multiple media environments. In my congregation, the Rabbi leads the service, but most of the heavy carrying is performed (literally) by the Cantor. The Cantor himself is a bard, a remnant of the oral culture of our ancestors. His chants involve mnemonic devices and multiple repetitions to enhance comprehension and memorization. He chants the manuscript of the Torah from a scroll to a group who, while they aren’t making copies as monastic scribes would have, are responding as members of an oral culture would. At the same time, with all these pre-literate vestiges evident throughout the ceremony, Jews are characterized as the “People of the Book.”
Back to Battlestar Galactica
Lance Strate writes:
As manufactured copies of twelve prototypes, Cylons are a modern sci-fi analogue to the dragon’s teeth. Created by humans to serve humans, Cylons represent the unintended consequences of human hubris. “Hubris” from the Greek, meaning “exaggerated self pride or self-confidence (overbearing pride), often resulting in fatal retribution [italics added].” (from Wikipedia.)
Which brings me to a point of great significance for our discussion, the myth of the origin of the Greek alphabet, which McLuhan discusses in both The Gutenberg
Galaxy (and see my previous post on Gutenberg!) and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. According to Greek myth, the alphabet was introduced by Cadmus, who was a Phoenecian, in fact the son of the king of Phoenecia. This acknowledges the Semitic origin of the alphabet, and it follows that the Semites of Phoenecia, traders who sailed all around the Mediterranean, would be the source of the alphabet's dissemination to Greece. The Greeks called it the Phoenecian alphabet, from which is derived the term phonetic. Cadmus was told by the oracle at Delphi to found a town, which became the city of Thebes. Before doing so, however, he was forced to slay a dragon, and then, following Athena's instructions, sowed the dragon's teeth, from which sprung up a race of men called Spartes (Greek for sown"). All of them were armed for battle and savage, and Cadmus tricked them into fighting among themselves until only five were left, the ancestors of the five noble families of Thebes, who took Cadmus as their king.
McLuhan felt there was an important insight in this myth, relating to the association between the alphabet and the military. The significance of the teeth is that they occur naturally in a line, looking relatively identical, and therefore are the body's analogues to the letters of the alphabet (alphabet as extension of the teeth); teeth also have much to do with the consonants of the alphabet, as the action of tongue in relation to teeth results in different sounds (e.g., "s" and "t"). Of course, teeth are
sharp, they are natural weapons, and again they resemble an army of men, at least an orderly one of the sort made possible by the alphabet.
So, do you see where I'm going with this? The Cylons are Battlestar Galactica's very own Spartoi, they are the new beings sown from the dragon's teeth, they have a Phoenician/Semitic link It's not a question of whether the Cylons have the alphabet, or alphabetic literacy. The Cylons are the alphabet sprung to life, they are what you reap when you sow the dragon's teeth. They are the alphabet as it evolves into the printing press, and mechanization takes command, giving rise to mass production, the multiple, identical copies that, ultimately, are written in the letters D-N-A, so send in the clones. As letters on a page, the Cylons naturally worship a divine Author-ity. Looking at it from this angle, Battlestar Galactica is very media ecological.
Lance’s connection of Cylon’s with Cadmus’s dragons teeth illustrates the operation of these Appendices. The notion of infinitely repeatable robot copies is something we take for granted. The Greek myth of the dragons teeth, while not perceived on the conscious level, may help us to understand why the Cylons are adversaries and how the best intentions of their human creators can have unintended consequences.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
"The opening sequence of episodes in the Fall were among the best of anything I've ever seen on television. Picking up perfectly from the stunning events at the end of the second season, the first shows this past Fall put BSG easily in the company of the best of Star Trek.And in his blog Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing Lance notes that:
The last few minutes of the season finale on Sunday were similarly superb. We'll be talking all summer about how those four people - four! - on Galactica could really be Cylons, and who the fifth still unidentified Cylon really is.”
“A wonderful touch is that the Cylons are religious--they talk about God, truly believe in God, and their aggressive and violent actions are rooted in their religious convictions.”I concur that Battlestar Galactica is wonderful, both as Sci-Fi and as television drama of any kind. However, I find the Cyclon's religious affectations confusing and troubling within the total context of the show.
BG humans are portrayed as generally secular and polytheistic. Neither Greek nor Hebrew, but rather both and more, the human characters sport names or appellations like "Adama," "Apollo," "D'Anna" and for the coffee worshippers amongst us "Starbuck." Their twelve colonial worlds correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac. They say things like "Thank the Gods" and "Gods help us."
The robotic Cylons are monotheistic, fanatical and proselytizing. Despite their claim that their one god is “love,” or perhaps because of it, they bring about the destruction of the twelve human colonies, killing billions of people and then zealously pursue the few survivors. There is one chilling scene from the first season where the Cylon attack is imminent and Number 6 bends over a carriage to kill an infant. It is unclear whether this is an act of mercy or a preemptive strike.
The odd thing is that the Cylons, being robots, have already achieved eternal life. They literally cannot be killed. Or rather, we see them continually dying and then being reborn. Their reincarnation factory vessels are even called “resurrection ships.” A reborn Cylon is not a type or a clone. It is a recreation of the dead individual Cylon, downloaded from the original with memories and emotions intact. In other words, one of the core motivators of many of Earth’s religions is already an integral part of Cylon existence. The only exception to the rule is if a Cylon dies out of range of a resurrection complex. Then they truly die.
If, in spite of being created in the image of their creators, Cylons reject polytheism, how did they stumble across monotheism?
In a 1977 Issue of ETC: The Journal of General Semantics, in an article titled "Alphabet, Mother of Invention," Marshall McLuhan and Robert K. Logan speculate on the possible origin of monotheism:
"Western thought patterns are highly abstract, compared with Eastern. There developed in the West, and only in the West, a group of innovations that constitute the basis of Western thought. These include (in addition to the alphabet) codified law, monotheism, abstract science, formal logic, and individualism. All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C. We do not consider this to be an accident. While not suggesting a direct causal connection between the alphabet and the other innovations, we would claim, however, that the phonetic alphabet played a particularly dynamic role within this constellation of events and provided the ground or framework for the mutual development of these innovations."Perhaps Cylons, while surely literate, as robots are not subject to McLuhan's and Logan's media assertions. One could argue that Battlestar Galactica is not media ecological at all, and therefore need not adhere to the tenants of ME. The humans of BG can develop an advanced civilization without the benefit of alphabetic literacy, or, if their alphabet is phonetic, they can retain their polytheism in spite of it.
Religious robots, while intriging, remain a problem, especially self-ordained monotheistic robots. I believe that the depiction of Cylons as monotheistic in the absence of human mortality or alphabetic literacy can only be seen as a true leap of faith on the part of Battlestar Galactica's creators.
Monday, April 2, 2007
Car radios, or should I say car stereo systems, are often high fidelity. As we drive we listen to music and talk radio, but we are not expected to participate. The content of car radios often functions as "background noise."
That cell phones can cause "tunnel vision" has been reported in the science press since 2002. This article from ScienceDaily notes that:
URI industrial engineering Professor Manbir Sodhi and psychology Professor Jerry Cohen used a head-mounted, eye-tracking device on volunteer drivers and concluded that the alertness of the drivers decreased considerably when they were conducting cognitive tasks, such as remembering a list of items, calculating in one's head, or using a cell phone.
Their research also found that the tunnel vision caused by cell phone use continues well after the conversation ends, perhaps because drivers are still thinking about the
"The debate surrounding cell phone use in cars has been directed toward concerns over holding the phone," said Sodhi. "Holding the phone isn't the main issue. Thinking is."
Links to scientific data can be found here. Cell phones are low fidelity and, in most cases, we are expected to carry on part of the conversation. Cell phones require more cerebral involvement, both because the poor audio quality forces us to mentally fill in the gaps and because the need to respond means that we need pay attention to the words being transmitted.
In these particular examples, I would designate car stereos as "hot" and cell phones used while driving as "cool." The emphasis here is on how the media are used, how much they require user involvement, both socially and cerebrally. I find McLuhan's "hot and cool" works better in specific human contexts rather than in attempts to categorize a medium in isolation.
And perhaps this leads us to a connection between McLuhan and French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss's structural methodology relies on the analysis of an aspect of a culture by choosing terms in opposition and constructing a table of all the possible permutations of that opposition. Most famously opposing nature and culture, Lévi-Strauss was able to demonstrate a logical coherence within a body of seemingly disparate myths.
When used as structural opposites, McLuhan's notion of "hot" and "cool" may be more readily understandable.