Thursday, June 14, 2007

Oh, Mexico

Oh, Mexico
It sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low
Moon's so bright like to light up the night
Make everything all right
--James Taylor

So, it's back to bloginess, and first thing on the agenda is the Eighth Annual Media Ecology Association which was hosted by Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México, at the edge of Mexico City. And to tell the truth, I really don't know how to convey the enormity of it all. Here's the brief message I wrote on the MEA listserv:

I am still recovering from an amazing and magnificent convention. With
over 700 attendees, it was by far our biggest. With the Governor of the
State of Mexico and the owner/CEO of one of Mexico's leading national
newspapers, El Universal, among the attendees, welcoming the MEA to Mexico,
it was by far our most prestigious. And given that it was bilingual and
incorporated a tour of several city sites and a trip to the pyramids, it
was by far our most elaborate.

Many, many thanks--gracias, gracias, gracias--to Fernando Gutiérrez and his
colleagues at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México, for their
enthusiasm, hard work, tremendous hospitality, and extraordinary

This was a truly historic event!

Several people at the convention asked me how it all came to be, so let me begin before the beginning, with the fact that down Mexico-way there were a couple of media ecologists, the older one being Octavio Islas who is particularly interested in Marshall McLuhan, and is the kind of guy who knows everyone and is always busy trying to do a million and one things, a very McLuhanesque kind of guy. The younger media ecologist is Fernando Gutiérrez, who is especially fond of Neil Postman, and is a calm, organized type who is good at getting things done.

So, back in the spring of 2003, Fernando went to New York City for a vacation, and went to see and talk to Neil at New York University. Fernando has a picture of himself with Neil displayed in his home from that time. So, Neil told him that if he wanted to learn more about media ecology, he should go to the Media Ecology Association convention, which was being held at Hofstra University on Long Island, Fernando went, and at the end of the event he came over to me, introduced himself, and said that they were very interested in media ecology at his school. I was very pleased myself, not the least because I had been to Mexico City when I was an undergraduate in the seventies (I used to have relatives there), and I wound up going down there several times, the first time to give a public lecture and a small seminar on media ecology at Tech, the second to teach an interdisciplinary faculty seminar on the subject for the entire Tech system (32 campuses in Mexico, plus about a dozen others elsewhere in Latin America), the third time as one of the keynote speakers (there were about ten) at the Fifth Bienal Iberoamericana de la Communicación, which Tech hosted. I should add that it wasn't a problem for them that I only speak English (it is a problem for me, I must say), as they all study it in school, and there was translation services at the Bienal.

So, they were very willing to host an MEA convention, and I was eager to make this happen, especially after Fernando became department chair. The MEA Board of Directors had mixed opinions on the subject, as after all this would be a big step for us, and a big leap of faith, but they eventually gave Mexico their blessings. And last year I went back down there with Thom Gencarelli, who agreed to be the co-coordinator of the convention with Fernando, and Janet Sternberg, for a planning meeting (Thom was then Treasurer, now Vice-President of the MEA, Janet has been Executive Secretary, and I'm El Presidente), after which Thom and Janet were also convinced that the event would be a smashing success.

And so, Thom, Janet, and I flew down to Mexico the day before the convention was scheduled to begin, Tuesday, June 5, and after checking in to the official convention hotel, the Holiday Inn Tlalnepantla, we were able to visit Tech and see numerous workers setting up the elaborate stage for the plenary sessions. And there were enormous posters and banners all over the place with the beautiful design representing the convention--here's one example from the convention website:
This doesn't really do it justice, but it give you an idea of the artwork involved. Also, because our host is a tech school founded by entrepreneurs, they have very good relationships with the business world, and were able to get sponsorship from a variety of sources, and on some of the signs, programs, tags, etc., the logos you see above were accompanied by a bunch of others for Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Adobe, Coca-Cola (!), and several other companies--it was quite a trip to see the MEA logo placed side by side with these major corporate logos that probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each to develop.

So, on the morning of Wednesday, June 6, the blue bus picked us up at the hotel at 8 (don't ask me why it was blue, it just was, and I couldn't help but think about the lines from "The End" by The Doors:

The blue bus is calling us
The blue bus is calling us
Driver, where are you taking us?
And when we got there, there was an amazing crowd already present, and people pouring in from all over. Overall, there was something on the order of 700-800 people in attendance over the course of the convention, and the vast majority were there right at the beginning for the Welcoming Remarks, because in addition to the Rector (in charge of three Tech campuses), there was the Mayor of the town Tech is technically situated in, Atizapán (within the Mexico City metropolitan area, but a suburb), the President of one of their leading newspapers (equivalent to our NY Times and Washington Post) whose news corporation and his personal foundation both gave major support to the event, and most impressive of all, the Governor of the State of Mexico (one of 32 states that make us the nation, and the most important of them), who was described to me as the second most powerful man in Mexico, and a leading contender to be the next President.

Neil Postman had been quite used to meeting with dignitaries both foreign and domestic, but of course this was a new one on me. The governor arrived late, was accompanied by a number of Mexican secret service types, and surround by a multitude of photographers. Most of the interaction was between the president of the newspaper, El Universal, and the governor, who appeared to know each other quite well. In contrast, the mayor and the governor kept their distance, since they were from opposing political parties. Before the governor came, I had a brief talk with the president of El Universal, me thanking him for his support and the honor of his presence, he thanking me and the MEA for coming to Mexico. Fortunately, I had brought and was wearing the El Universal logo tie I had received as a present at the Bienal, which he commented on and was pleased to see. After the governor arrived, I was eventually called upon to greet him, saying what a pleasure and honor it was to have him there, and him saying the same to me.

There was a formal quality to all this that was unlike anything I had previously encountered with the MEA, and while I think all of us media ecologists were anxious to get going and get into the intellectual exchange that the MEA is really about, I believe everyone understood the importance of respecting the situation and the cultural differences. So, there was about ten of us who made a grand entrance into the hall, and took our seats up on the stage. This included the Rector (in charge of three campuses), the General Manager of our Tech campus, the head of the newspaper owner's foundation, a representative from Microsoft, and Fernando and Thom.

Most of the greetings were made in Spanish, and since every seat in the audience had headphones to receive simultaneous translation, everyone knew what they were saying, except for me and Thom up on the stage. All I knew was every so often they mentioned my name, and the MEA, and I smiled and nodded. I was told that for the most part, what each person said was "thank you" to every other person up on the stage, so that much of the greetings involved each person listing everyone else's names, over and over again.

For my part, I had a short welcoming speech that I had written, and modified as I was told to thank the governor, mayor, president of El Universal, etc. I used less humor than I otherwise would have, and more formal speech than I have in the past. Anyway, seems like this is a good opportunity for me to enter my welcome into the record, or else what's a blogger for? So, here goes:

MEA 2007 Welcome

I am pleased to be able to welcome you to the Eighth Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association. And I want to begin by by acknowledging that with this convention, the MEA has taken a great leap forward. After all, we have never held a meeting outside of New York State or Massachusetts before. And we have never traveled as far south as New Jersey. And now, here we are in Mexico. This is a momentous occasion for the MEA, and I just want to savor it for a moment. [At this point, I paused for a few seconds.]

From the very beginning, we envisioned ourselves to be an international organization, a global network of media ecologists, and this year's convention is the first step towards the full realization of that vision. We formed the MEA at a meeting held at Fordham University on September 4, 1998, and there were five of us there that day, Susan Barnes, Thom Gencarelli, Paul Levinson, Casey Man Kong Lum, and me. And all of us were, at that time, residents of the New York Metropolitan Area. Ever since then, I have repeatedly joked that the MEA is an international organization with most of its membership in New York. But it is becoming harder and harder to make that joke, and I look forward to the time when it will no longer be possible. I look forward to the time when our only meaningful geography is the global village.

At the same time, I should note that the late James W. Carey associated the field of media ecology with what he referred to as American cultural studies, and that Camille Paglia has situated us within what she terms the North American intellectual tradition. And it is true that North America has been the place where most media ecological activity has been occurring. This is not to say that we have a monopoly on media ecology, as we can certainly recognize the contributions of Walter Benjamin, Sigfried Giedion, Jacques Ellul, and Jean Baudrillard, to name a few. But North America has been central for media ecology because it has been a locus for technological innovation, for the development of the media of mass communication, and for interpersonal media as well, and also for the study of communication.

When we speak of American cultural studies and the North American intellectual tradition, the tendency has been to focus on scholarship originating from the United States and Canada, but it is time for Mexico to take its rightful place at this table. And so I want to welcome you to NAFTA, media ecology style.

From now on, when we speak of the geography of media ecology today, we should speak of three great cities: Toronto, where the influence of Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis is felt most keenly; New York, where Neil Postman's impact is the greatest; and Mexico City, where Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México is introducing media ecology to all of the Spanish speaking world, due to the intellectual leadership of Octavio Islas and Fernando Gutierrez. And it is truly a privilege for the Media Ecology Association to meet here at this exciting point in the history of our field.

Monterrey Tech is known around the world as a prestigious university, and as one of the great centers of the field of media ecology, and as a truly hospitable, convivial, and delightful host. We are grateful to you for your support of the Media Ecology Association and its mission. And there are so many people here that have earned our appreciation, I know I cannot name you all, but let me name a few.

And let me begin by thanking the Governor of the State of Mexico, Gobernador del Estado de México, Enrique Peña Nieto, for joining us today for the opening of our convention. Gobernador, you do us a great honor by your presence.

We are also honored by the presence of the Mayor of Atizapán, Mayor Gonzalo Alarcón—thank you for joining us here today.

Next, I would like to acknowledge the man in charge of this campus, and more, Rector de la Zona Centro, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Roberto Rueda. Roberto, you too honor us by taking part in there ceremonies, and we are grateful for your generous support. I also want to express our gratitude to Pedro Grasa, the General Manager of Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México.

We are grateful for the contributions and support of our patron, Juan Francisco Ealy, President of El Universal. And I also want to acknowledge Enrique Bustamante, Chair
 of the Fundación Ealy Ortiz.

And I must certainly mention my good friend and colleague, a brilliant scholar, and the Academic Coordinator for this event, Octavio Islas, thank you so much Octavio, for everything. I also want to express our appreciation to the Protocol Coordinator, Amaia Arribas, thank you Amaia. And thank you as well to Verónica Rueda who has been handling In Campus Logistics. And speaking for all of us who frequently received e-mail messages from Arturo Caro, who is the Logistics and Invitees Coordinator—we appreciate all your hard work, Arturo.

Now, let me see, did I miss anyone? [Pausing again.] Oh yes, how could I forget the Director of the Departmento de Comunicación and the Convention Co-Coordinator, and my very good friend, Fernando Gutiérrez? Fernando has been indispensable, not only in bringing this convention to Mexico, but in bringing media ecology here as well. Fernando is a great leader, for Monterrey Tech, for Mexico, and for the MEA. And for this reason, I want to tell you now that it is my intention to nominate Fernando for a seat on the MEA's Board of Directors at our General Business Meeting on Sunday morning. As you may know, the twelve directors that make up our board are elected by the members in good standing of the Media Ecology Association, four directors every year, in an election conducted by mail following our annual convention. That will take place after the convention, but for the time being, we have a little something to tide you over.

[At this point, I called upon Thom Gencarelli to present Fernando with a plaque thanking him for his service in coordinating the convention. Only, Thom had forgotten to bring it up with him when he went on the stage. So, he leaped off of the stage, ran back to his seat to get the box with the gift, then ran back up onto the stage to make the presentation to Fernando. After Fernando said a word of thanks, I resumed my welcoming remarks.]

And I will just have to say, thank you Fernando, thank you my friend, thank you.

And to all of you here at Monterrey Tech who have contributed your time, labor, mental energy, and support to our annual meeting, muchas gracias.

Let me also take a moment out to acknowledge and thank the hard work of our other convention co-coordinator, Thom Gencarelli. And thank you to Janet Sternberg, the MEA's executive secretary.

And so, we have arrived at our Convention Number Eight. And eight is a number that symbolizes completion. In music, there are eight notes in an octave. In time-keeping, eight days moves us ahead one week. In computing, eight bits of information make up one byte.
In currency, eight reales became the basic denomination in the New World, the ocho reales coin, later known as the peso. And the ocho reales served as the world's monetary standard until the twentieth century. The ocho reales was the basis of the American dollar, which means that it is also the basis of the Canadian dollar.

The pirates of the Caribbean, among others, spoke of pieces of eight because it was common to make change by cutting the silver coin into eight slices. That is why we refer to a quarter as two bits, and why eight bits give us a complete dollar as well as a complete byte.

Of course, eight is also the root meaning of the name Octavio, so this is truly the Octavio MEA convention.

But I think it is also significant to note that when you turn the numeral eight on its side, you get the symbol for infinity. And this, I think is a very good sign for the future of the Media Ecology Association.

So, let me welcome you all to the future of the Media Ecology Association. Welcome to those of you returning from last year, and to those of you rejoining us from years gone by. Welcome to all of you media ecologists who have come to your first MEA convention, I promise you, you won't be disappointed. To all of you who are media ecologists, welcome to Mexico, but most of all, welcome home.

And welcome to all of you who are new to our field and our tradition, to the novices, novitiates, and newbies. Please, make yourself at home, and let us begin a conversation that will continue for years to come. Welcome to our friends and colleagues from our fellow associations and societies, thank you for joining us here today. Welcome to the faculty and students, media professionals and government officials from Monterrey Tech, from Mexico City, from the state of Mexico, and from the United States of Mexico, from Latin America, from the Caribbean and Canada, from the USA, and from overseas: Welcome to the MEA.

There is something magical about our annual conventions, something unique to media ecology that you just don't find anywhere else, a sense of spirit and synergy, and maybe even a bit of the brujo and bruja, a magic ecology. And I invite you all to take full part in it.

And now, it is my pleasure and my privilege, in my capacity as President of the Media Ecology Association, to declare that this meeting of the MEA is in session, our Eighth Annual Convention is convened, our proceedings may now proceed, we are open for business, the ball is rolling, it has begun.


So, that was my contribution to the opening ceremonies. Afterwards, we plunged into the intellectual exchange, beginning with a featured presentation by Alejandro Piscitelli from Argentina, a true media ecologist although he didn't realize it until he came to the MEA convention. Alejandro spoke about the internet, his approach reminding me of Doug Rushkoff when he talks about the liberating potential of new media.

That afternoon, I chaired a session on religion, media and culture, with really stimulating papers including a critique of the American Bible Society's efforts at translating the Bible into audiovisual media by Joe Kim, who's working on his doctorate at the Dallas Theological Seminary, a paper on Unitarian Universalist videoblogs by Pete Moberg, and a talk on the subject of cultural religion (e.g., Elvis, Trekkies, Deadheads, sports fans, etc.) by Dan Stout of UNLV, editor of the Media and Religion journal.

That evening we were treated to a delightful reception that included some excellent Mexican food. Then, the blue bus took us back to the hotel, where some of us had a drink (or two, or three) at the hotel bar. All in all, it was a fabulous first day.

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