Thursday, January 31, 2008
From a Media Ecology perspective, it is possible to examine television content as a function of the television medium itself. As a "one to many" medium, American television acts to dictate and reinforce acceptable social norms and behavior. The content of television seems to have fallen by accident into three distinct categories : entertainment, news and advertising. In fact, these broad categories of programming each stake out a different level of social behavior to manage and control.
Advertising: TV ads deal with social versus antisocial behavior on a personal level. Television advertisements are full endorsements of performance enhancing drugs, from Pepto Bismol to Claritin to Viagra. Participation in social events and personal relationships is made possible for the individual by the use of the proper product. Sometimes the performance enhancing claim is subtle, as in ads for "smart" cereals, cold medications or vitamin supplements. Sometimes it is overt, as in ads for male and female fragrances, erectile dysfunction medications or body building shampoos.
Entertainment: Television entertainment shows are chiefly concerned with social versus anti-social behavior on an interpersonal level. The archetypal television program sets up one or more characters who exist at the borderline of social acceptance, whether they are juveniles learning the ropes, clown characters who are unaware or otherwise ignore social norms, or villains who attempt to subvert the existing social equilibrium and replace it with one of their own.
In all instances the depiction of rule breaking and resolution acts to reinforce those rules. In terms of drug usage as a breaking of social rules, Showtime's Weeds stands out in particular, though it tends to deal with the supposed social dynamics of the drug trade rather than the psychodynamics of the drug itself. Otherwise, most TV entertainment discussions of drug use and its consequences are relegated to occasional afternoon specials and to all episodes of House.
News: Television infotainment shows (otherwise known as "News Broadcasts") address this social/anti-social opposition at the public level. Public order is disturbed by rogue political activists, events of nature or common criminals. Though the particular infraction may not have been resolved by the time of the newscast, the very act of reporting frames the event in terms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In each case there are implicit or explicit rules which have been broken and then are reaffirmed. These programs are also full of reports about the drug or alcohol induced exploits of our celebrities, individuals whose very notariety hinges on reporting of their latest binges.
Sports: Where do sports broadcasts fit into to the structure of television content? Sports, as the WWF demonstrates each week, are mainly entertainment broadcasts. Sports participants are tightly bound by the rules of the particular sport. While any given standard entertainment program is about the breaking of rules, sports events are about abiding by rules. Each sport has a cadre of referees, line judges or umpires whose sole purpose is to make sure that the rules of the game are strictly adhered to.
In that sense, all sports are totally "made up." That is, the parties involved, no matter how adversarial they may seem, all agree to the set of rules of play. Rules determine what is allowed and what isn't, and ultimately who wins and who loses. What is acceptable or unacceptable behavior varies from sport to sport, but some set of rules always applies. At the same time, the outcome of the sporting event is not determined. The playing of a sport may be entertainment, but the result of that play is news.
This is the problem with sports programming. It is both news and entertainment. It crosses established boundaries of television content. It is a "made up" activity, but not in the same way that a comedy or drama is "made up."
So we have a basic opposition within the content structure presented by American television. On the one hand we have advertisements, where the performance enhancing drugs or products must be used, and on the opposite end we have sports where the performance enhancing drug must not be used. In between we have differing interations of this primary opposition, with entertainment and news content reflecting multiple variations of this use/don't use opposition.
The point is that we aren't concerned with the effect of drug use, or the unfair advantages performance enhancing drugs might give to advertising, entertainment or news personalities. We are concerned with the advantages performance enhancing drugs might give to professional atheletes. In their case, the use of any drug is itself a violation of the rules which state that, though any given athelete might already represent an outlier of norms concerning physical strength and ability, they shouldn't do anything "artificial" to enhance their already considerable talents.
It is not an accident that the way television content is differentiated conforms to Levi-Strauss's Canonical Formula regarding mythology:
In this case, the ultimate transformation promoted by corporate television (use our advertisers' products) begins with sports fx(a), the function of which is to avoid performance enhancing drugs, ie, to remain in a "natural" state. Proceeding through analogous functional areas where drug use is largely ignored fy(b) (entertainment) or is a tolerated aberration fx(b)(News), we arrive at the final iteration where the desired state is acceptance of performance enhancing drugs or products as the necessary state of being f(a-1)(x) (advertising).
The uproar created by sport-related drug use is a function of the relative position of sports in the structure of television programming, not the drug use itself.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
In the recent TV resurrection of the Terminator trilogy, The Sara Connors Chronicles, we are presented with a new type of Terminator. In the movies we've seen Terminators take the form of muscle-bound body builders, slippery liquid-metal meanies and Fergalicious babes. In the Chronicles the newest terminator comes in the form of a teenage high school waif complete with hall pass. Played by Summer Glau, this pubescent Terminator can kick ass with the best of them, but so far has largely refrained from committing mass slaughter, preferring to slink around the Connors house in the buff (perhaps producing a different kind of mayhem.)
This is the true revelation of this latest attempt to cash in on the Terminator franchise: Terminators can come in any shape or size. In fact, if Chronicles does well in the ratings, we can expect to see the following Terminator spinoffs:
Look Who's Terminating
An infant Terminator appears and no one realizes he's a stone cold killer.
Welcome Back, Terminator
A high school teacher seems too good to be true, and in fact, he is. Gives "Sweat Hogs" a new meaning.
Leave It To Bereaver
Pre-teen high jinx as middle America is infiltrated by a juvenile Terminator. Something really new for Ward and June to worry about each week.
The Beverly Terminators
A group of clueless Terminators moves into a California mansion. First episode: They meet the Governator.
I Love Lucite
Terminators can be solid or liquid, why not plastic? A sort of "I Married a Terminator," as a zany female Terminator performs hilarious slapstick executions with near perfect comedic timing and then has some 'splaining to do.
Of course, none of these scripted shows can begin until the writers strike is settled. In the meantime reality-based Terminator shows will have to fill the gap. Old formats take on new relevance when killer robot-based:
Whose End of the Line Is It Anyway?
Who Wants to be Terminated?
Skynet's Next Top Model
And of course,
You get the idea.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
A recent issue of the Washington Post (available here) contains an article about missing White House email backup tapes under the headline “White House Study Found 473 Days of E-Mail Gone.” The article cites White House chief information officer Theresa Payton who stated that “e-mail backup tapes were routinely "recycled" during the first three years of the Bush administration.”
Current discussions in the press about the missing White House email backup tapes operate under the mistaken assumption that enterprise data backup strategies are like home video taping. The White House claims that the backup tapes of emails were inadvertently reused, the way someone at home may inadvertently use a wedding tape to record the Super Bowl. That’s not the way it works.
I have worked in some capacity in information technology for the last 30 years. From the perspective of generally accepted IT practices, Payton’s explanation about the absence of backups for key time periods and especially for a large block of time from between 2003 and 2005 makes no sense at all.
Any professional information technology operation will follow a backup scheme that is some variation of the following:
• You backup your email servers every day, using different tapes for each day. Some organizations back up more than once a day if the volume is large enough or the material important enough.
• At the end of the week you take a master backup of everything and send it off site for permanent storage
• At that point you begin reusing your backup tapes for the new week.
Sometimes weekly backups are kept onsite with monthly backups sent to permanent storage. While it may be possible under these types of schemes to lose some data (though highly unlikely) it is almost impossible to lose a whole year’s worth of data unless the backup procedure has been compromised, or specific orders are given to delete certain information
Furthermore, no IT technician or manager would take it upon themselves to change backup procedures without explicit orders from their superiors. Someone gave the orders to change backup strategy or to destroy specific tapes. The documentation of those orders may be gone, but the people remain.
The White House’s current denial that any backups are missing can be easily verified by a standard technology audit. If I were House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, I would obtain a list of all present and former White House data center technicians, and one-by-one, under oath, I would ask them who gave the order to change backup procedures, or the order to delete certain tapes. I would follow the IT chain of command as far as it goes.
Deletion of data, including presidential e-mails, is a form of industrial espionage. If the White House can’t prevent this sort of terrorism within their own staff, how can they protect us from foreign terrorists?
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Step 1: De-objectify the Correlative
One of McLuhan’s assumptions is that there must be human agency in the adoption of any new technology. McLuhan often stated that understanding the biases of technology would enable us to control that impact, to act as stewards of culture change. McLuhan believed that the ivory tower would become the control tower for understanding and controlling the impact of a technology. This often is misinterpreted by critics who describe his work as “technological determinism.” Technology doesn't "act," people do. Oral narratives, and now electronic ones rely on a hero, or concrete human agent to carry forward the narrative. Instead of the concrete actor of a mythic tale, McLuhan gives us an abstract "actor" assumed by the adoption of a particular technology. But, excluding artificial intelligence, only humans can be actors.
Hidden within the Tetrad’s four part exposition, “enhance, obsolesce, retrieve and reverse,” is the assumption that someone enhances, someone obsolesces, someone retrieves and someone reverses. That someone can be an individual, an oligopolic group or a large-scale organization. It is the unthinking adoption of a technology which is of concern, not necessarily the technology itself. The problem is that in analyzing a technology, we focus on the concrete object of the technology, rather that the metaphor it represents. To modify T.S. Eliot, in order to understand the underlying metaphor of human agency that any technology represents, we need to “de-objectify the correlative.” Once we focus on the technology metaphor, rather than the technology itself, we are in a position to predict how that technology will influence human agency.
This may explain our fascination with robots in our science fiction tales and the “undead” in our gothic tales. These stories reveal our thoughts about what happens when human agency is eclipsed. This is true whether the narrative focuses on the cultural/technological (Terminator, Matrix) or the natural/supernatural (vampires, zombies.) Like the mediating figures of mythic tales that can function across boundaries, robots represent the literal embodiment of human agency in the form of artificial intelligence. As such, they have the potential to extend human potential as well as the capability to eclipse it. When the supremacy of human agency is threatened, the story always takes place in a dystopia.
Step 2: Defy Logic
According to Lévi-Strauss the purpose of mythology is always to reconcile the inevitable inconsistencies of a culture’s body of beliefs. His Canonical Formula is a tool to explain the way mythology works. Such an analysis is necessary because the reasoning taking place within a myth defies what we understand as logic. It is not linear thinking, but rather a metaphoric leap of faith that finds connections where there aren’t any and achieves the reconciliation of the irreconcilable. As Eric Csapo puts it,
“The solution is never logical, strictly speaking, but it imitates logic. If the problem were capable of a purely logical solution, there would be no need to have recourse to myth. But myth can do what logic cannot, and so it serves as a kind of cultural trouble-shooter. Rather than thinking of it as a kind of placebo which creates the mere impression of solution to a problem, it may be regarded as a mechanism for relieving anxiety.” (Csapo, 2005, p.226)
McLuhan also stated that his Tetrad was not a logical technique:
“The whole point about my tetrads is that they are analogical. That is there are no connections between any of them, but there are dynamic ratios.”
So, to continue the comparison, if the purpose of myth is to reconcile incompatibilities in or inconsistencies a culture, perhaps it could be said that the purpose of a tetrad is to reconcile technological incompatibilities, that is, to reconcile incompatible human activities under the influence of technology.
Next post: Breaking down the formula
Csapo, E. 2005. Theories of Mythology. p.226 (Blackwell Publishing)
McLuhan, M. Letter to the Editor in Technology and Culture, Vol. 17, No.2, p.263
Monday, January 7, 2008
McLuhan, via his Laws of the Media, asks us to consider what a technology or medium of communication enhances, what it obsolesces, what it retrieves and what it reverses into if pushed to an extreme. McLuhan claimed that exploring an innovation in this fourfold way is the best methodology for describing its impact on a culture. In his discussion of the Tetrad McLuhan wrote:
“A four-part analogy is a figure-ground structure. (In a metaphor there are two figures and two grounds in ratio to one another.) Apropos the four-part structure which relates to all human artifacts (verbal and non-verbal), their existence is certainly not deliberate or intentional. Rather, they are a testimony to the fact that the mind of man is structurally inherent in all human artifacts and hypotheses whatever.” (The Laws of the Media, p. 120)McLuhan noted that all technologies, as extensions of human capabilities, are essentially metaphoric in structure. He suggested that the nature of these metaphors can be revealed by answering the four questions codified in his Laws of the Media Tetrad. “From a structural ‘point of view’ a metaphor has four terms which are discontinuous, yet in ratio to one another.” (Ibid)
One problem I have had with McLuhan's Tetrad is that the value of the analysis arrived at seems to depend on the creativity of the analyst, rather than the technique itself. Perhaps Claude Lévi-Strauss's approach can be used as a tool to "level the playing field" and make Tetradic analyses available to everyone.
In his studies of kinship systems, totemism and mythology, Lévi-Strauss has demonstrated that there existed a complexity of thought and a subtlety of mind in so-called “primitive” societies that is equal to our own. Levi-Strauss proposed that the structures underlying cultural institutions can be codified as a series of ratios. While presented as a logical formula rather than a series of questions, his Canonical Formula, fx(a) : fy(b) :: fx(b) : f(a-1)(x), also represents a four-fold approach to analyzing cultural artifacts. Just as the enhancing impact of a new technology in McLuhan’s Tetrad flips into its opposite when pushed to the extreme, Levi-Strauss asserts that within the structure of a myth, an initial condition fx(a) is pushed to its opposite, or “transforms” into f(a-1)(x).
In the course of his analysis of the myths of the Tupi Indians, Lévi-Strauss moves spiral-like through multiple mythic variations and multiple opposing pairs and by proceeding A to B and B to C, etc., demonstrates internal consistencies within the mythic system that aren't immediately apparent to an outside observer. In other words, Lévi-Strauss provides a useful tool for analysis regardless of whether you wish to extrapolate the function of the method to the deeper structures of the human mind or not.
I find Lévi-Strauss's methodology completely compatible with McLuhan's Laws of the Media. Where McLuhan asks us to consider what a technology or medium enhances, obsolesces, retrieves and reverses into, Lévi-Strauss will start with a pair of opposites "A" and "B", but in the course of his analysis will present examples of what he calls " A' " (A prime) and " B' " (B prime) as recursive iterations of the original pair.
So, if fx(a) translates generally as "the enhancing function (x) of a technology on (a)," and fy(b) is "the obsolescing function (y) of a technology on (b)," and fx(b) is "the retrieving function (x) of a technology on (b'), the f(a-1)(x) is the reversal of (a) into (a-1) or (a') in terms of its effect on the previous enhancement (x).
McLuhan's Tetrad attempts to discern the structural metaphor of the enhancements of human capabilities and can itself be viewed itself as a type of mythic narrative. Interpreting the Tetrad's terms, enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal, as ratios within Lévi-Strauss's Canonical Formula may provide a systematic way to analyze technological change.