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?