First, we have a Canadian take on the MEA convention. Phillip Marchand, who writes and reviews books for the Toronto Star was one of the participants this year, and also received the MEA's first James W. Carey Award for Outstanding Journalism. I should add that Phil also wrote the first major biography of Neil Postman, in addition to about a dozen other books. And while he was hanging out with us south of the border (or in the case of Canadians like him, south of south of the border), he also covered the convention, or at least got an article out of it, which was published last week. And it really is not only newsworthy, but answering to a higher power (namely me), blogworthy. The title, by the way, is
What do I think of all this, you may ask? Well, you didn't, but I'll tell you anyway that I'm not so optimistic. I think the habit of reading the daily newspaper has been lost to a great extent among the younger generation, and will never be recovered. And I think that it will happen gradually, but more and more we'll be turning to some new kind of smart paper, an electronic medium (and that's not print, no matter what you call it), and that print as we knew it will all but disappear. After all, when was the last time you used, or even saw a typewriter (and who mourns for Smith-Corona?)? How often is parchment used in everyday life, outside of ceremonial occasions? Is your college diploma really sheepskin? And where can you find a roll of papyrus these days, outside of some novelty shop with kitschy Egyptian fake/folk art painted on it? And how about good old photographs taken with actual film and developed via chemicals? Hard to go back to that, once you've started using a digital camera.Why print is still king, amid the multimedia din TheStar.com - News - Why print is still king, amid the multimedia dinAn issue with electronic data viewed on screens is that humans instinctively see it as unstable, `nervous' – because it is, says U.S. media guru
July 22, 2007Philip Marchand
MEXICO CITY – It's a media zoo these days, especially the section where newspapers live and breed. Printed newspapers have been mating with computers and producing websites for some time. It's a survival strategy in a zoo heavily shaped by electronic media. But will the offspring end up devouring the parent?
Such questions were in the air at a recent convention of the Media Ecology Association (MEA) held in Mexico City. The MEA is an association of academics specializing in communications and media studies. The word "ecology" in its title is a metaphor, based on what the Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines as "the branch of biology dealing with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings."
In the Media Ecology Association's case, the organisms are human inventions, but with a life of their own.
"The crossings or hybridizations of the media release great new force and energy as by fission or fusion," writes Marshall McLuhan, our own late great Canadian media ecologist, in his 1964 book, Understanding Media.
Following his lead, one of the participants of the Mexico City convention, Katherine Hayles, writes in her 2002 book, Writing Machines, "the relationships between different media are as diverse and complex as those between different organisms coexisting within the same (territory), including mimicry, deception, cooperation, competition, parasitism, hyperparasitism."
Professor Hayles of UCLA – like McLuhan an English professor with a strong interest in technology – was unknown to me before I attended the convention. In Writing Machines, Hayles, who teaches at UCLA, elaborates on McLuhan's principle that the medium is the message. The book, she writes, is an artifact whose physical properties structure the way we read. The fact that the paper used in printing the book is opaque, for example, is very important. It's "a physical property that defines the page as having two sides whose relationship is linear and sequential rather than interpenetrating and simultaneous." We're so used to the book, however, we don't even think of its physical properties. We just turn the pages and read on. Print literature, she points out, has long been "regarded as not having a body, only a speaking mind."
Newspapers are slightly different. As McLuhan pointed out, the traditional front page, with its mix of often unrelated items, has the resonance of a Cubist painting. By and large, however, the newspaper is also widely regarded as "not having a body, only a speaking mind."
No longer. The Toronto Star, for one, is already enriching its website with more video and audio clips. Users of the website will be face to face with certain, unmistakeable physical properties – and these properties will change users. They will provide them with experiences much different from ordinary reading. For one thing, the reader will become not a reader but an "interactor."
What is it like to be an "interactor"? Ask your children. Pressing keys and pushing a mouse to get information has become second nature to them. Others often find the process, say, of navigating an interactive website as irritating as filling out a form. In a recent online essay, Hayles takes note of this irritation – and also the experience, not unknown to website users, of being "apt suddenly to lose a screen of text in the middle of reading and be unable to recover it without extensive backtracking and exploration." Such experiences, Hayles writes, "teach the interactor, on a level below consciousness, that the text is very unstable, or to put it metaphorically, highly `nervous.' "
Irritation increases when the website user finds the website has suddenly been up-dated. What's going on here? Why this deliberate textual instability? Who or what is getting nervous around here?
Hayles in conversation, it turns out, is relatively optimistic about the development of newspaper websites. "Without a doubt, the process of moving from print to multi-modal information is going to change both newspaper staff and newspaper readers," she comments. "For readers, this changes the sensory input and thus a whole interrelated set of perceptual and cognitive issues."
This business of "sensory input" is another old McLuhan theme. He once predicted that the advent of colour television would lead to an increased appetite for spicy foods. Call him a nutcase, but we got our colour television and then suddenly we were all eating Szechuan. Who knows what will happen once the fission and fusion settles down and we're used to this new hybrid medium of the newspaper website? Who knows what unexpected cultural side effects will hit us when we're finally used to navigating them and dealing with nervous information on the computer screen?
For reporters and editors – the "content providers" of the website – Hayles has practical advice, especially regarding the serious issue of navigation. She urges "serious discussions between Web designers, marketers, and content providers, who should make sure that the Web design furthers their intellectual goals for the site. It is essential that the content providers are comfortable with the final design and agree that it furthers their goals of providing in-depth analysis and first rate reporting. I recommend that writers and editors all have a try at designing practice sites to gain a hands-on perspective of the issues involved . . . The trick, I think, is to embrace the new without abandoning our commitment to what print has historically bestowed on our culture."
This from an English professor who assures us in Writing Machines that "Books are not going the way of the dinosaur but the way of the human, changing as we change, mutating and evolving in ways that will continue, as a book lover said long ago, to teach and delight." In similar fashion, printed newspapers may behave the same way. Hayles, in our conversation in Mexico City, thought so. The physical property of paper, for one thing, is too good to lose.
"This material has archival qualities that will never be duplicated by electronic media," she says. "It's a huge problem to preserve electronic data even from 15 years ago." People, she points out, are now talking about a new information Dark Age, in which vast amounts of cultural material, once stored in print form, now stored in electronic form, will be lost.
That is one advantage of printed newspapers. There are others. "It's a mistake to think that paper media of all kinds, including newspapers, are going to disappear," she says. "They have a simplicity and robustness that digital media cannot hope to equal. There's a reason that print has reigned supreme for 500 years."
One of these reasons has to do with ease of visualization. She does not edit her students' essays on-line, for example, because it is more difficult than dealing with printed copies. "You get a total picture of an article or essay if you see it spatially," she comments. "On screen, you only see a little bit of the article at a time, and it's very hard to get a sense of argument, or how section A progresses to section B, if you don't have that spatial dimension to work with. Paper has got this spatial dimension."
In an ideal world, newspaper Web sites and printed newspapers will complement each other. One won't kill the other off via hyperparasitism, or even ordinary parasitism. Cooperation, not mimicry, deception, or competition, will be the order of the day.
Some of us hope so, anyway. After all, professor McLuhan, himself a print lover, urged us to have a balanced media diet – and you can't have a balanced media diet without big helpings of print.
And speaking of digital snapshots, here are a few more taken at the pyramids of Teotihuacán. First, a couple with Phil Marchand wearing special headgear, talking to Ed Tywoniak at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun:
And let's not forget about me. After all, this blog is MY exercise in narcissism. Here I am at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun (Robert Francos behind me to the left, also in special headgear):
And one more, it couldn't hurt:
And now two more shots of me, this time with two of my MA students, both of whom presented their first papers at the MEA convention, Marian Kozhan on the left, and Laura Rojas on the right.
And just to show that I go both ways when it comes to photographs, here's one back down at the base of the pyramid with Thom Gencarelli on the left, and Fernando Gutiérrez on the right:
And finally, a couple of pictures of the stairs going up to one of the higher levels of the pyramid. Thom, Ed, and Robert are all visible in this first one, resting up for the rest of the climb:
And here's a little better view:
Teotihuacán: Two Poems
And this reminds me that I had posted some poetry inspired by our visit, which I posted on my other blog, and this is only FYI, click on the link at your own risk, and only if you care to read some amateur poetry (and if you do, know that the layout on the first one didn't go quite as planned on the way down, due to glitches over there, but I think it works fine and makes for an interesting unintended effect anyway):
Well, now, it's nafta--I mean, naptime! See ya in the funny papers!