Saturday, March 31, 2007

Medieval Helpdesk

Adding another video to my blog's collection, this comedy sketch is identified as originating "from a show called Øystein & Meg (Øystein & I) produced by the Norwegian Broadcasting television channel (NRK) in 2001. The spoken language is Norwegian. It's written by Knut Nærum and performed by Øystein Bache and Rune Gokstad." (Note: This has been posted on YouTube several times in somewhat different versions. I've chosen this version because it seems to have the best quality and the most legible English subtitles.) While ostensibly taking a techie point of view and making fun of how clueless naive computer users can be, media ecologists understand that there was, in fact, a time when books were an innovation (going back to the parchment codex), and things we take for granted about them appeared to be new and strange, and mysterious. And there's no better combination than a thought-provoking piece that also is genuinely funny.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Rome If You Want To, Rome Around the World

The season, and I believe series finale of HBO's Rome last Sunday marks the end of another high-quality TV series, but in this instance one that ultimately proved to be disappointing. In this second season, the series seemed to lose its focus, and the final victory of Octavian, following the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, struck me as pointless. Certainly, there was more to work with in the first season with the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the parallel rise and fall of the fictional character of Vorenus, but part of the problem is that Rome shied away from the classic treatment of Antony and Cleopatra as a story of doomed love, opting instead for a largely unsympathetic portrayal of a drug-addled Antony and a manipulative and deceitful Queen of the Nile. Octavian in the first season stood out as a boy who was smarter than most of the adults surrounding him, and this portrayal continued into the beginning of the second season--for example, the conflict between the clever youth and the brutish Antony, not to mention between the boy and his mother who sided with her lover Antony, was very effective. But early in the second season Rome gave us an abrupt transition from Octavian the boy into Octavian a young adult, played by a different actor in a very cold, lifeless way, and the character lost all of his charm. But the main problem is that, at the end of it all, I for one am left with a sense of the senselessness of it all. What's the point? Octavian does not seem to lust for power, but he acts as if he does. What is his motivation? The portrayal of Roman society seems, to me, to emphasize its distance from our own, rather than its points of intersection--no doubt this is why the second Star Wars trilogy, which is based, in part, on the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire--but also on the similar transition from Wiemar Republic to Nazi Germany--has left fans cold in contrast to the very American theme of rebels vs. the evil empire in the first series--ever notice how most of the bad guys have British accents?). There is none of the traditional classicist's sensibility that the human condition remains largely unchanged over the millennia, and therefore that there is much that we can learn from ancient Greece and Rome. Instead, we find a brutish, violent, perverse, and all but lawless society, not at all conducive to sympathy, let alone empathy. Thank God they're gone!

There was an intriguing subplot involving Jewish characters in Rome, assimilation vs. the reclamation of heritage and rebellion against Rome, a missed opportunity to assassinate Herod, and conflict among brothers as a kind of Cain and Abel parable, but it never went anywhere.

Much was made of the women of Rome, who were indeed highlighted in the series. But again, to what end? What was the message? Seems to me, basically, that the women had the power to really mess things up for the men, and basically ruin their lives. Remove the women from the storyline, and all conflicts would have been resolved fairly easily. I'm not saying this is reality, mind you, just the impression that I believe the program is giving off.

Apart from the women, history seems to turn on minor points, passing personality conflicts, and chance of the moment accident in the series. And of course that is one way to view history, but then, what's the point of the narrative? It would have to be merely to show us compelling characters, a People-like orientation (Suetonius rather than Plutarch), which Rome is only partially successful at doing.

I read that the creators of Rome hoped to have a third season to tell their story, and when that was not approved they felt obliged to compress events. Clearly that's part of the problem, as the second season seems hurried, plot lines are left hanging or resolved too suddenly, and all focus is lost in the rush to get us to the end point of Octavian's triumph.

The opening credits show us walls covered with graffiti, and in one behind the scenes mini-documentary, the creators emphasize that graffiti was a major communication medium in ancient Rome, and that they covered the walls with it in the outdoor scenes in the series. And graffiti plays a role at the beginning of the first season, where images of Julius Caesar committing adultery with Servilia force Caesar to break off their affair. Unfortunately, graffiti fades into the background after this, and never plays much of a role again. This is really too bad, because I think you could say that graffiti served as the blogs of ancient Rome. Yes, there was the recurring image of the news reader, announcing the official news of the rulers of Rome, and yes, it was a magnificent bit to include (I would love to see someone string together all of the news reader scenes from the two episodes so that they stand on their own). But that was to contemporary journalism as graffiti on the walls was to our blogosphere (note the use of the graffiti term of "tag" for labels or categories of uploads on other services such as YouTube and Flickr).

Rome could have been a prequel to The Sopranos (the subject of one of my first posts), maybe they thought it was too obvious, but it would have given the creators a great deal to work with (in one of the first episodes of The Sopranos, a Hasidic Jew who also was on the shady side is being beat up by Tony Soprano and his henchmen, and defies them, saying that the Jews have survived everything over the centuries, look at the Romans, where are they now? And Tony tells him that they, meaning his mafia, are the Romans).

In any event, let's hope that Rome doesn't signal the decline and fall of the HBO empire.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Battlestar Galactica Redux

The season finale of Battlestar Galactica this past Sunday was without a doubt a blogworthy event. Despite ratings that have been below expectations, this series which is up there with The Sopranos (subject of one of my first posts) and 24 (subject of a recent post) has been renewed for another season. Thank you, SciFi Channel!!!

I watched the original series back in 1978 and like most viewers, I recognized the program as a knock-off of Star Wars, obviously imitative and, aside from having pretty good special effects, especially for TV, an otherwise mediocre program in regard to plot lines and characters--no Star Trek, that's for sure. Star Trek gave us an image of a future that seemed attainable, a matter of making progress over a couple of centuries (not that there wouldn't be hitches, like the Eugenics Wars, along the way). Star Wars gave us a futuristic scenario set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," a fairytale in science fiction clothing. Battlestar Galactica split the difference, in a way, as it was set far, far away, but on a trek bringing the characters closer and closer to us, and it was set in the present, presumably, or the very near future. Battlestar picked up on the spiritual elements of Star Wars and gave us a biblical kind of narrative with an exodus, a wandering of the desert of outer space in search of the promised land of Earth, and a Moses-like leader in Commander Adama, played by the fatherly Lorne Greene (hence, the series was sometime called Bonanza in space). There even were angels appearing towards the end of the series. Not all references were Judeo-Christian, however, as the 12 colonies that were destroyed were each named for the 12 signs of the zodiac, and there were references to the Greek gods as well. In the original scenario, the robotic race known as Cylons attacked and destroyed the 12 colonies, and the survivors populating a rag-tag fleet led by the last Battlestar (space version of a battleship, much like the ones operated by the evil Empire in Star Wars) set out in search of the 13th colony, known as Earth, chased by the Cylons led by the human traitor Baltar. The original series petered out over the course of one season or so, and they never really had a full encounter with Earth. Aside from the hardcore fans, most people didn't really care very much, although it would have been nice to wrap the story up.

So, when my friend Ray Cannella, who works for SciFi Channel (and is my "brother" in that he also is the father of an autistic daughter--in fact, our daughters were classmates some years ago), told me that there was going to be a remake of Galactica, I didn't find the news particularly exciting. But the miniseries was impressive, and when the first season began, the very first episode, "33," just blew me away--I consider it one of the best single episodes of a TV series ever produced. This is another example of what I consider a basic rule of thumb, that remakes and adaptations of weak programs, films, and books generally exceed expectations and are quite good, and along the same lines, remakes and adaptations of strong programs, films, books, etc., tend to disappoint and are just not very good in their own right. In this instance, the original series provided raw material of limited quality that has been shaped into entirely new and highly creative ways.

For one, there's the look of the series. The original was a Star Wars knock off, whereas this new series is influenced heavily by Blade Runner, with a dark, film noir look, retro style (explained as they have to resort to pre-networked computer technology otherwise the Cylons take control of the tech), not to mention the inclusion of Edward James Olmos; there also is a Matrix influence in the use of different color filters for scenes on board Galactica and on the surface of planets. The clothing styles are relatively contemporary, however, with military uniforms and even suits and ties being worn--no explanation for the coincidence, it's just a conceit that drives home the point that these are human beings very much like ourselves, a familiar element in an otherwise alien setting--in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction FilmVivian Sobchack argues that the opposition between the alien and the familiar is the defining element of the science fiction genre. There's also a vaguely-middle eastern sounding theme music that's very interesting, given the religious overtones of the program, but fits the somber scenario of the series.

In the original series, the Cylons seemed to have no relation to the humans, apart from their desire to destroy them; their acceptance of Baltar as their leader, even temporarily, defied all logic. In the new series, the Cylons were created by the humans to serve them, and then rebelled, providing a rationale for the conflict. And again taking a page from Blade Runner, the newest version of the Cylons are all but indistinguishable from humans, rather than metallic robots, a major difference being that there are only 12 of them, corresponding to the 12 human colonies (although up until this season finale, 5 of the 12 were unknown, even for the most part to the other 7); there are only 12 models, but there are many copies of the same model, and each individual can download his or her consciousness into another copy, provided one is in relatively close proximity (in outer space terms, which means that there must be a resurrection ship in the sector). These Cylons are all but immortal, in contrast to the problematic mortality and "accelerated decrepitude" of Blade Runner's replicants.

Battlestar Galactica is a true post 9/11 program, unlike, say, 24 and Enterprise. 24 was well positioned, as a show about fighting terrorism, for post 9/11 culture, but its initial plot line with a Serbian villain and rather modest goals (revenge on presidential candidate David Palmer and counter-terrorism agent Jack) had to be ratcheted up in the following seasons. Enterprise's optimistic outlook was a breath of fresh air after the depressing events of 9/11 and its aftermath, but its image of a restrained and peaceful humanity driven by curiosity and the desire for exploration did not fit the times, and a few seasons into the series a 9/11 type event was introduced, launching the starship on a more than season-long mission to save the earth (and this still was not enough to stave off premature cancellation). When Battlestar Galactica premiered, it was impossible to ignore the difference between the failing Star Trek franchise (both in the Enterprise series and the last couple of feature films) and the exciting new SciFi Channel series.

As a post 9/11 program, Battlestar begins with an apocalyptic event: the destruction of the 12 colonies by a Cylon sneak attack after a century of peace. And while this follows the same basic plot as the original series, the first time round the destruction did not seem all that bad, there was no sense of how many humans had died and how few were left, and the survivors seemed plucky and optimistic. But this time, we see nuclear devastation on a truly massive scale, drawing on all those nuclear war films such asFail Safe (a movie that, when I saw it on TV as a kid, gave me nuclear nightmares for years afterwards) and the TV miniseries The Day After. The scale of destruction really hits home as we find out that there are only some 40,000 human beings left alive in a handful of ships, so that we are teetering on the brink of complete annihilation. And that first episode, "33," shows the crew of Battlestar Galactica utterly exhausted as they are subject to attach every 33 minutes like clockwork. And there is no let up, no normality restored, humanity remains on the brink throughout the series. The brief respite at the end of the last season, when a planet that is minimally acceptable is found and most of the population settles there, comes to a decisive end when the Cylons find them and impose authoritarian rule, until Battlestar Galactica is able to mount a rescue operation at the start of this season.

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. This of course reflects the fact that we were attacked by Islamic extremists, and the fact that the Cylons were capable of passing as human (until the 7 models were eventually identified) reflects the fact that the terrorists were able to move about within the United States essentially unrecognized, blending in. That they truly are resurrected reflects the terrorists' belief among in an afterlife where their martyrdom will be rewarded. The Cylons are disgusted by the false beliefs of the humans, who worship the Greek gods, but mostly appear to be irreligious. This of course reflects the secular humanism that dominates contemporary western culture, with its roots in Greco-Roman culture. There are religious elements (albeit pagan, which brings to mind Camille Paglia's discussion of the survival of pagan residual culture in the west in her magnum opus, Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson ) among the humans, but scepticism seems to dominate, especially among the Capricans who represent the elite of the colonies (but note that the sign of Capricorn is privileged as the sign under which Christianity's savior, Jesus Christ, is supposed to be born). The series left it open and ambiguous as to whether the assorted religious beliefs of Cylons and colonists were accurate or delusional, although of late the program seems to be giving the beliefs more and more legitimacy. As noted above, the original series had a significant religious theme, so it's not surprising to see it present here, and treated seriously. The art is in maintaining the ambiguity and resisting the urge to confirm the reality of the religious dimension in the series for as long as possible. Along the same lines, there is clear evidence for some form of psychic phenomenon, and this was very much in evidence in the season finale, but for a very long time it was unclear as to whether such phenomena were real or hallucinatory. Some of the funniest scenes occurred when the traitor Baltar would be interacting with the Cylon character Six (aka Caprica), but he was the only one who could see, hear, or touch her, and it was impossible to determine whether she was a figment of his imagination, or some sort of psychic friend.

The character of Baltar, played by James Callis, is absolutely brilliant in both writing and performance. Whereas the original was an evil dictator type, the new Baltar is a famous scientist who is vain, selfish, timid, lustful, egotistical, and utterly weak and devoid of character--very much a reflection and critique of our celebrity culture. He becomes vice-president, then president, makes the horribly wrong decision to settle on New Caprica, and becomes the Vichy-like figurehead forced to cooperate with the Cylon occupiers to save his own skin, signing execution orders at his masters' behest. Left behind in the rescue, he is not accepted by the Cylons, eventually returns to Battlestar Galactica, is arrested and placed on trial for treason, a trial that is decided in the season finale. In an unexpected turn of events, Baltar is acquit ed after Lee Adama (aka Apollo) argues that Baltar was not truly evil, just weak, selfish, flawed, and prone to mistakes in judgment, while pointing to all that mistakes and bad decisions that he and others had made since the destruction of the 12 colonies. And it is true, one of the fascinating facets of the series is the fact that all of the characters are highly flawed and many are in some ways unpleasant, all of them act selfishly at one point or another, and put aside fair play in the interests of expediency, or otherwise make bad decisions (they are heroes despite their flaws, or just on balance a bit more good that evil). While there can never be that much depth of characterization in a series such as this one which is driven by its setting and plot, on Battlestar Galactica the characters are much less flat, much rounder and more complex than just about any you might find in a science fiction film or series. And Callis's Baltar is one of the great characters of all time, in any genre.

This is not meant to be a complete summary or discussion of the series and all of the characters involved. There is so much more to be said. But it was the season finale that I wanted to comment on. And most of it is devoted to the denouement of Baltar's trial, which was very good, and over about 45-50 minutes into the one hour episode. But those events were eclipsed by the last ten minutes or so, as four characters on Galactica who had been hearing music that no one else could hear all came together in the same room, and came to the conclusion that they were Cylons, but that their loyalties remained with humanity (it was established early in the first season that Cylons do not necessarily realize they are Cylons, allowing them to integrate successfully into human society until some signal or program triggers them to do something against their will, and that even when they do know who they are, they still can side with the humans against their own kind). The four characters were all significant but not major characters. What really stood out is that the music they were hearing was Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," a new version that matched the musical style of the program to be sure, but I've never heard a version of that song I didn't like, whether it's Dylan, Hendrix, the Dead, or whatever (of course, I never heard William Shatner sing it). Yes, it got a little hokey when they cut from one character to another as each one uttered one of four lines from the song: "There must be some way out of here/Said the joker to the priest/There's too much confusion/I can't get no relief." But what comes through is the song's apocalyptic quality, born out of the social revolutions and political conflicts of the sixties. And, of course, the song is the first overt connection to planet earth, to us, in a series set in a galaxy far far away. And as the Cylons launch a major attack, and Lee Adama flies his fighter-plane-like Viper into battle, he sees another Viper with Starbuck in it. In the original series, Starbuck was Adama/Apollo's best friend, a rogue-hero counterpart to the clean cut son of the Captain/Admiral. In the new series, Starbuck is an attractive woman who can hold her own as one of the boys, the object of some sexual tension and romantic feelings rather than friendship, who died a couple of episodes ago. Her return indicates that she is the 5th previously unknown Cylon, and she tells Lee that she's been to Earth and can take them all there. That's when the episode and the season ends, with planet Earth hanging in the balance and the story unresolved until January 2008!

But the series is in fact renewed for another season, and finally, finally we are going to earth. It is the coming collision between the now well established science fiction milieu of Battlestar Galactica and our own familiar world that will have Battlestar Galactica go where no Battlestar Galactica series has gone before. And it may be that they will be unable to maintain the extraordinary quality of the series, and that this will prove to be a mistake as great as any committed by Baltar. But given what they have accomplished so far with the series, I suspect that the best is yet to come.

Media Ecology Mexico

Time for another video. This one is titled "8th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association" and was put together by our colleagues at Monterrey Tech in Mexico City, to promote the upcoming event that they are hosting.

Most of the video, however, is taken from another event that was held there in September of 2005. Aside from using the previous event to give folks a sense of what the upcoming event will look like (and it really looks great, don't you think?), common to both are some of the featured speakers, including Eric McLuhan (who will be our keynote speaker in June).

Another common element is me. I was one of the featured speakers in 2005, so you can see me on this video (not one of my better shots, I'm afraid) and I'll be there in June, giving the President's Address.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

24's Autism

In the most recent episode of Fox Network's hit show 24, which is up there with The Sopranos (the subject of an earlier post) as one of the best series to ever appear on television, we are introduced to a character named Brady who is apparently autistic, although he is never overtly referred to as such within the episode. Not that it was necessary, but I have confirmed this diagnosis by taking a look at the episode guide (the episode in question is from Season 6, identified as "8:00-9:00 PM" which is the manner in which all of 24's episodes are titled) , which includes the following:

8:04 P.M. Gredenko calls a man named Mark Hauser and demands more of the
access he paid for. Hauser will have to download new security protocol to get to
CTU. Hauser asks his autistic brother Brady for help retrieving files. Brady
happily agrees and gets to work on a laptop.

Then, a bit later:

8:21 P.M. Jack arrives at the Hauser home with his TAC team. They quickly
raid the house and shoot at Hauser, who pulls out his shotgun. Brady whimpers as
his brother is apprehended. As the agents try to stabilize Hauser’s wounds, Jack
talks to Brady. Hauser had Brady get through a firewall to set up a proxy server

8:22 P.M. Jack tells Hauser that Brady will be prosecuted for helping
him get information to Gredenko. Jack will keep Brady out of trouble if Hauser
gives up Gredenko. Hauser admits that he was getting security specifications for
the Edgemont Nuclear Power Plant.

8:23 P.M. Doyle returns to CTU and inquires after Nadia, who is being
transferred to a holding facility. Jack tells Buchanan that he wants to use
Brady because Gredenko is coming to see Hauser.
8:28 P.M.Hauser instructs
Brady to listen to Jack.

8:31 P.M. Hauser calls Gredenko and lies about having to go into work.
Hauser says he will leave the protocols with his brother, who will wait for
Gredenko at a parking lot across the street. Hauser is taken away in an

and then, a bit further into the show:

8:44 P.M. Jack is unsure whether Brady will be able to make the plan work,
but he has no other option. He puts an earwig in Brady’s ear so that they can
hear each other and carefully instructs him on what to say to

8:45 P.M. Brady is placed in position at the lot as the teams set

8:46 P.M. Gredenko’s car pulls up to the lot and he gets out. Unfortunately,
the snipers don’t have a clear shot of him. Speaking Russian, Gredenko orders
his men to shoot Brady. Jack translates this. He then tells Brady to get down on
the ground, and the sniper pegs Gredenko in the neck with a tranquilizer dart. A
firefight ensues with the henchmen and the agents take them all out.

8:48 P.M. Jack sprints to the car to retrieve the frightened Brady. The
agents carry Gredenko into the house. No bombs are in his car.

8:53 P.M. Jack puts Brady into a car and thanks him for his help. Brady is
sent to the hospital to be with his brother.

What the episode guide doesn't say is that the performance of the actor playing Brady is directly derivative of Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the autistic Raymond in the motion picture Rain Man, the first major representation of autism in the mass media. Now, the late Bernard Rimland was a consultant on the film (for those who don't know who he was, aside from being a father of an autistic son, Dr. Rimland was the medical researcher who established that autism is a biological, neurological condition, not a psychological condition as psychoanalysts, notably the great fraud Bruno Bettelheim, had insisted), and with Rimland's help, Hoffman was able to provide a reasonably accurate portrayal of an autistic adult, especially one who had grown up before the introduction of the Lovaas method of Applied Behavioral Analysis and discrete trials (which has proven to be effective, especially through intervention in early childhood, in modifying and mitigating some of the negative aspects of autism).

But autism is often referred to as a syndrome and a spectrum disorder, and this is because the characteristics of autism vary significantly from one individual to another. In other words, it is not the case that all people with autism, or autistics as the high-functioning prefer to call themselves, sound just like Hoffman in Rain Man. So why does 24 have Brady sound like Hoffman, why make that particular creative decision? One reason may be that the actor had less time to prepare for the role. After all, Brady was a very minor character, not the central character of Raymond, so there was much less reason to put in the effort. Also, there are major time pressures in producing a TV series, so over the course of 24 episodes of 24, there isn't going to be as much preparation going into a single episode as there is into a major motion picture.

But another reason also comes to mind (in addition to rather than instead of the others). By invoking the familiar portrayal of Hoffman in Rain Main, 24 was able to get across the idea that this character is autistic without actually having to say it, let alone get into complicated explanations of the condition. The fact that the autistic character is presented in relation to his brother also draws on the familiar plot of Rain Man. This is why stereotypes are so important for popular culture/mass media, as they were in oral cultures: they provide ready-made, easily recognizable characters, saving the storytellers a great deal of work in explaining who the characters are, allowing them to simply stitch together formulaic characters along with formulaic plots, and on a smaller scale, formulaic expressions. By the same token (pun intended), audiences are spared the effort of figuring out a unique personality. As autism has become epidemic, there will be increasingly more frequent use of fictional characters who are autistic, and while literature may give us something a little better, as was the case for Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which is a marvelous novel about a young man with autism, I think we can expect to see more frequent use of the Rain Man stereotype in the mass media and popular culture.

I should add that Brady also invoked the savant stereotype, as he apparently was a gifted computer hacker. In reality, as I understand it, only a minority of autistics exhibit savant characteristics, and those who do often are very low functioning outside of their "isolated island of ability" (unlike Brady). On the other hand, many high functioning autistics and people with Asperger's Syndrome are drawn to computing (but, without being as low functioning and dependent as Brady apparently is). The actor playing Brady did get the rocking and similar movements down fairly well, but there were a number of times when Jack (the hero of 24) was touching Brady, which in my opinion would set many autistic individuals off, and in any event I just don't see a stranger, even one who identifies himself as a police officer as Jack did, gaining the trust and cooperation of someone like Brady, especially after breaking into the home of Brady and his brother, and after one of Jack's colleagues shot his brother.

But, after all, 24 moves forward at a breakneck pace and there is no time to worry about every little detail. It is, of course, a program about time, about time passing, time elapsing, time flying, about the clock ticking away, the countdown, the deadline, time running out. It represents the worst aspects of the modern experience of time, the metaphor of time is money, a precious commodity that is always in scarce supply (see Lakoff and Johnson's classic study, Metaphors We Live By). But what is bad for us psychologically makes for gripping storytelling, and moving forward in real time and dealing with simultaneity over space makes 24 a truly innovative program, the first program to truly take place in timespace. In all its clock-watching glory, 24 is a program that is strangely and wonderfully autistic in its own right.

Following Orderlies

So, my mother had been hospitalized at the Hackensack University Medical Center after hip replacement surgery late Thursday night, and on Sunday some orderly she doesn't even recognize comes in to tell this 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, "We have orders to move you to another facility in half an hour"! Naturally, she freaked.

In all fairness, there was some discussion on Friday of her moving to Liberty Rehabilitation at the Meadowlands Hospital, on her doctors recommendation, and I had said that would be all right, but you would think that there would be some advance notice on the part of the hospital, and some explanation from one of those physician types.

So they didn't move her on Sunday, pulled the same surprise the next morning, which also elicited a negative response, but less extreme, and I got one of the surgeons to talk to her on the telephone at least, and she made the transfer yesterday afternoon and is comfortably settled in.

What hospitals and the Nazis have in common is bureaucracy, which is one of those invisible technologies that is in many ways a precursor to computer programming--it's the programming of human automatons to behave according to scripted procedures. Bureaucracy is a technology of control, a point driven home in James R. Beniger's outstanding scholarly study The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (a book we discussed in my graduate class last week). Beniger's argument is that techniques such as bureaucracy and hard technologies such as the telegraph appeared just as industrial societies were becoming so complex that they were in desperate need of some form of control. Thus, the "control revolution" begins in the 19th century, and lays the foundation for the so-called "information society" by the time of the Great Depression. In Beniger's view, control technologies appear just in time to maintain social stability, and even though the control technologies themselves may introduce new forms of destabilization, still more control technologies emerge to control the controllers. This represents a more positive spin than can be found in Jacque Ellul's almost dystopic masterpiece The Technological Society (in which technologies in solving problems create new problems which require new technologies so that technology spawns more technology in geometric progression, we are trapped within the technological society and there appears to be little hope for human freedom). Both Beniger and Ellul provide the basis for Neil Postman's great book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (which we discussed in my graduate class last night); Postman's point is that we have ceded control to technology and technique, and he argues that new technologies, while providing some relief as Beniger suggests, are ultimately destabilizing. We are unable to foresee all of the consequences of innovations, because the changes they bring about are ecological (change one element of an interdependent system and this may change another, and then another, in a kind of butterfly effect), but we can count on the fact that there always will be negative, undesirable effects accompanying whatever we think we're getting.

Like the hospital bureacucracy, our technologies and our technological system needs to be mediated by a human, humane, reflective person, an I-Thou to stand between us and the overpowering force of the I-It.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Modeling Media Ecology (updated)

In a previous post, I mentioned Robert K. Blechman, who writes a blog called A Model Media Ecologist. Like myself, Bob is a graduate of the Media Ecology Doctoral Program at New York University, founded by Neil Postman (sadly, both Neil and the program are no longer with us). By the time I began the program in 1980, Bob was already legendary. Back in the 1970s, the program had a very experimental and exploratory character, and producing a media project was one of the requirements. For most of that decade, Postman was associated with the educational reform movement that began in the 60s, with its arguments for change and increased relevance (in media ecology terms this meant transforming curriculum and pedagogy to better reflect the new media environment), and he was associated with the counterculture and known for being co-author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity (with Charlie Weingartner). By the time I got to NYU, Postman had shifted his position to one much more critical of media and technology, and had abandoned the media project requirement. While I don't feel as if I missed out on anything, it truly would have been a shame if he had changed the curriculum earlier, and Bob Blechman had not produced the brilliant music video (from a time before there were such things as music videos) entitled, A Model Media Ecologist (naturally), which reflects the media ecology curriculum of that time. I believe it was recorded on 3/4 inch Sony U-matic, and once every decade or so it would be played at one of Neil's in-house media ecology conferences that he organized as retreats for his graduate students. It was only a few years ago that Bob got it transferred to digital video, and a few of us have had the good fortune to have copies. But now Bob has uploaded it to YouTube so that all can enjoy it. While there has been some degradation of video quality over the years, and yes it's in living black and white which many of the young folk just find difficult to deal with perceptually, but the sheer exuberance and brilliance more than makes up for any technical problems.

Update: After posting on the MEA listserv that Bob's video was available on YouTube, his response included the following, which serves as an emendation to what I wrote above:

Under the tutelage of professors Neil Postman, Terry Moran and Christine Nystrom, it was the practice in the 1970's at New York University's Program in Media Ecology Conferences for each doctoral class to pick one member to deliver a "State of the Class" address. (Archivists alert! I still have some of the original material from these conferences as well as materials handed out in class by Postman, Moran, Nystrom and others.) At the fall 1976 conference my "Class of 1977" decided to do something different. I had access to a Sony Betamax 1/2-inch, reel to reel, black and white recorder and a camera, and so instead of one class member giving a 30 minute address, each of us in the Class of '77 prepared up to five minutes on video tape of our own personal metaphor for "What is Media Ecology?" "A Model Media Ecologist" was my contribution. (I have the complete video of the Class of '77 if anyone is interested.) I sang it to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's "A Modern Major General." You'll notice there is no mention of personal computers (the Macintosh was just a gleam in Steve Job's eye), nor CD's, DVD's, nor even video discs. That's an IBM Selectric in front of me. On the shelves behind me is the complete LP collection of NYU's Loeb Student Center. (Younger list members can query older ones for a description of what an LP was.) These were primitive times and we were all pioneers!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eye Blog!

Military Personae

In a March 24, 2007 article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Camille Paglia, who I very much admire, wrote about women seeking political power in the United States, and the great need for women to incorporate a military persona. Making reference to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, she argues:

This profound play, which sympathizes with the fabled lovers even while it
condemns them for their lack of realism, convinced me of the necessity for
politically ambitious women to study military history and strategy. I argued
this position, with little effect, from the early 1990s on, when feminists, in
my view, were too consumed with domestic social welfare issues and with women's
studies courses that preached male-bashing and female victimhood.

The U.S. president is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Hence
the first woman president, especially after 9/11, must have military expertise.
After she was improbably elected a senator for the first time seven years ago,
Hillary Clinton shrewdly got herself appointed to the Armed Services Committee.
This is the new feminism. The path to power for women lies through male

If we think in biological and evolutionary terms, what is the function of the male, beyond supplying his DNA to the female in order to insure continual variation in the characteristics of offspring, and thereby enhance the survival of the species? Apart from our role in fertilization, our function is to stand between the female and her young on the one hand, and the dangers of the outside world on the other. This is the basic military function, defense, maintenance of boundaries (as I have said on previous occasions, the medium is the membrane). The bottom line is that we sacrifice ourselves in order to buy time, and space, for the young to find safety. We are there to take the first hit, stop the bullet, face the predator, serve as a shield. Hector of Troy is the archetype, not Achilles running amok. The military is, or ought to be, about facing death, rather than dealing death.

Can women play the same role? Of course. In fact, if men are the first line of defense, women traditionally served as the second, putting themselves in harm's way to protect the children who represent the future of the race. But this is not to say that women would approach the role in the same way as men. Perhaps one difference can be found in the famous remark Golda Meir, who led the State of Israel in war, made to Anwar Saddat just before the peace talks began: "We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Death Becomes Her

The news that John Edwards, contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, would continue his campaign despite the fact that his wife, Elizabeth, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, is certainly significant. While the pundits may debate whether Elizabeth, and John, are admirably courageous or merely consumed by ambition, we naturally frame the question as, what behavior is appropriate when you are dying from cancer? But the better question to ask is, what behavior is appropriate when you are living with cancer (however short the time you have left to live)? (Here, I want to acknowledge once more the usefulness of Mara Adelman and Larry Frey's book The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids in thinking about such issues, as I discussed in a previous post). What could be more exciting, fulfilling, more full of life than the decision by Elizabeth Edwards to carry on with the campaign?

With the ascendancy of typographic literacy and the specialist mentality of mechanical/industrial culture, dying became a private affair, one that was sequestered from polite society--the final act was to occur offstage. Aldous Huxley captured it perfectly in Brave New World where dying was supposed to take place in hospitals as a sanitized (and soma-ized) stress-free event.

But communication technologies beginning with photography and the motion picture, and progressing to television and the internet, have brought the private act of dying more and more into the public arena. McLuhan, among many others, argued that television was instrumental in turning the American public against the Vietnam War because it gave us unprecedented access to images of death. We have witnessed, as a mass audience, the deaths of the Challenger astronauts, and the end of thousands of lives as the Twin Towers collapsed. And video of terrorist acts such as beheadings and suicide bombings can be found in all their grisly detail on the internet. This shift is also reflected in programs such as HBO's Six Feet Under, which looks death straight in the face as a family funeral home becomes the environment for a family drama.

We are experiencing a major change in the way that we deal with death, with both positive and negative ramifications. In his brilliant book The Denial of Death Ernest Becker argued that we humans are alone in our self-conscious awareness of our own mortality, and that this poses an incredible blow to our self-esteem. Our solution is to live our lives as heroes, following the examples of the great heroes of the past, and it is the function of culture to serve as a hero-system, enabling us to construct our heroic selves, and thereby shore up our self-esteem. I would think that the narcissistic personality lives in complete denial of death, and that this may well characterize many suicide bombers, who are encouraged to see themselves as great heroes, and reassured by promises of an afterlife of pleasure and sexual fulfillment (sex itself being an affirmation of life). And, it appears that Harry Houdini was poisoned in retaliation for his efforts to debunk spiritualist mediums, with their claims to speak with the dead, thereby establishing the reality of a life after death.

The written word is a denial of death, as it lends a kind of permanency if not immortality to our words, and the selves we construct through our words. Other recording media, the photograph, the sound recording, the moving image, etc., also serve to deny death. We are inexorably moving to a situation where we will feel that the unrecorded life is not worth living--an excellent expression of this can be seen in the SF film The Final Cut starring Robin Williams. No doubt, there will also be methods of preserving thought patterns and a sense of consciousness and personality via computer coding. But in the end, there is no getting around the end.

Forced to confront death through the electronic media , we may be able to spend a little less time denying death, and a little more time embracing life.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lost Legs

My mother, who just turned 88, started to experience severe pain in one of her legs yesterday, and was unable to walk, so we took an ambulance to the Hackensack Medical Center Emergency Room (actually I drove on my own), where she eventually found out she had broke her hip, had surgery this evening, and is now in recovery. She went through some major physical problems two years ago, but was back on the road to (partial) recovery over the past year. And now it's once more unto the breach. It's become something of a cliche that my generation has found itself stuck between a rock of responsibility for our children and a hard place of having to take care of our aging parents. And we're stuck paying the bills for 3 generations, or not paying them as the case may be. HELLLLPPP!!!!!!

So, I started to write this post on my Palm Pilot at the hospital, but have discovered that it doesn't work all that well with blogger. That sucks!

It is something of a coincidence that this past Wednesday's episode of Lost featured the character of John Locke, and revealed how he had lost the use of his legs. Seems the guy was something of a sucker, having been abandoned by his no-good father, then much later in life being tricked into giving his father one of his kidneys, and finally in the course of discovering that his father was trying to con a rich widow into marrying him and trying to prevent that from happening, his father pushed him out of a 6th story window. Miraculously, he survived, but was confined to a wheelchair until the crash landing on the mysterious and miraculous island, at which point his legs began to function once more, miraculously.

Problematic relationships between fathers and sons is a theme that runs throughout Lost's many plots and subplots. So, we've got something of an Oedipal complex going on, but no obvious mother to fight over. Unless we look at the island itself as maternal, the survivors reborn as they emerged out of the ocean, from surf to shore. And if they are the collective "son" of the island, the Others are the collective father figure, a dark father (the meaning behind the Germanic designation Darth Vader) to be sure.

How will it all end? Will the threat of castration or violence force the survivors to give up on the goal of mastering the island? Seems unlikely. Will the survivors kill the fatherly Others and take over as husband to the maternal island? A distinct possibility, at least for some of them like John Locke. The island is a nurturing womb for him, a place to be cured and restored. But is this primal scene really all that healthy?

The problem that the Lost Boys are faced with is the need to grow up. It reflects a problem we are faced with in contemporary society: the disappearance of childhood also means the disappearance of adulthood (see Neil Postman's Disappearance of Childhood and Joshua Meyrowitz's No Sense of Place). We no longer have clear models of coherent mature selves, we no longer know how to conduct ourselves, and therefore construct ourselves as adults. And this means that we, collectively, are left without a leg to stand on.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Fraternal Community

In a previous post on 3/18/07 I mentioned The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids by Mara Adelman and Lawrence R. Frey, a book about community formation under the direst of circumstances. This post is about a very different kind of community.

A series of coincidences that occurred during my visit to Colorado make me think back to my undergraduate days at Cornell University, when I joined a fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. To begin with, as I was driven from the Colorado Springs Bed and Breakfast where I was staying to the nearby campus of Colorado College, I noticed a sign above a storefront that said, "Wooglin's Deli"! I remarked that Wooglin was a name associated with my college fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. My host, Lian Sifuentes, told me that she had actually planned for us to have lunch there, and that the Deli was started by some of the brothers after the Colorado College chapter of Beta Theta Pi was thrown off campus. Talk about the persistence and adaptability of culture, or in this case, subculture.

Later, when we went to Wooglin's Deli for lunch, it was clear that they had incorporated Beta symbolism into the décor, notably in the form of Beta dragon art that served as decoration. My understanding is that people mistakenly think that the Wooglin is the dragon, rather than the trickster figure I learned about while studying Beta lore as a pledge (I wonder if the character of Woogie from the movie There's Something About Mary has any connection to Beta, maybe through one of the screenwriters?). The people working there were not Betas, obviously, and I was not able to find out whether the place was still owned by Betas. But the Beta presence survives.

Then, that evening I gave a public lecture at Colorado College, "Eight Bits About Digital Culture," and after it was over, various members of the audience came over to speak to me individually. One fellow who looked vaguely familiar asked if I remember him, but I couldn't place the face (I'm not all that good with faces and names). "It's Jordan," he said, but I was still not making the connection. Then he said, "from Beta Theta Pi," and the light went off. Jordan Strub had joined during my senior year, and in fact had been my "little brother," that is, I was the one directly responsible for his transition from fraternity pledge to full membership as a brother. I hadn't seen him in almost 30 years.

In my lecture, I had briefly mentioned the fact that some high functioning autistics argue that being autistic is not a disease to be cured, or a disability to be overcome, but rather a different mode of consciousness. I mention this in the context of arguing that our current digital age requires and in certain ways causes changes in our form of consciousness. So, of all things, Jordan tells me that he has discovered that he has Asperger's Syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning autism; not surprisingly, he was enrolled in the Engineering School at Cornell, and has pursued a career in computer programming. I explained that I have a daughter who has been diagnosed with moderate autism, and that I consider myself to be on the spectrum myself, although I have not seen the need to obtain a formal diagnosis.

It must be more than coincidence that I wound up being his big brother at Beta, but who knew back then about such things?

I had not yet turned 17 when I came to Cornell as a freshman in the fall of 1974. I expected there to be hippies, and was disappointed to find out that there were none, and that most of the other guys in my dorm were rushing fraternities. I knew nothing from fraternities myself, certainly never thought that I would join one, but I received many invitations to attend rush dinners and parties, and figured, what the hell. The fraternity system was just getting back on its feet after almost going under at the end of the 1960s and early 70s, and I wound up pledging Beta Theta Pi, which at that time was a very laid back fraternity, more individualistic, less about conformity and peer pressure than the others. It was kind of like the movie National Lampoon's Animal House, which came out the year I graduated, and which I adored, the difference being that the movie was set over two decades earlier, and was exaggerated of course. Actually, in National Lampoon's Animal House, the "bad" frat, the one that is elitist and conforming, was based on the Dartmouth chapter of Beta, which just goes to show that the character of a chapter differs from place to place, and over different time periods. Anyway, the year I joined, we pledges experienced very little hazing. Interestingly enough, a number of my fellows felt that this was a problem, that it made it seem like membership in the fraternity was of little value, and reinstated hazing the next year; I should add that psychological research does support their argument. But bringing hazing back did not change the fact that our chapter of Beta was far from recovered, and in fact was danger of going under. There were about 10 of us in my rush class, which was one of the best years they had had in a long time, but the next two years we only took in 3-4 new members. So by the time we reached senior year, the future of the fraternity was pretty much on the line. I held the office of Social Chairman, the main responsibility being organizing parties, and fraternity parties were one of the most important criteria freshmen used in making their decision to join. And I take pride in the fact that I was able to analyze what made parties successful, and threw one of the best open parties of the season by signing the most popular band at that time (their name was Zoltan, and they played a lot of progressive rock, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, and the like). It didn't hurt that I made sure that the beer was plentiful (drinking age was 18 then, so no carding and free beer was the rule), and that I had drawn on a Visual Communication class that I was taking to design really eye-catching posters. And I also saw an unexpected opportunity when visiting my friend Marty Friedman at SUNY Cortland, and organized an extra private party that we had not planned on holding by hiring a new (and phenomenal) band that a friend of Marty's, Frank Agnello, who is now a member of the highly successful Beatles tribute band, The Fab Faux, had started up, and got a sorority from Cortland to charter a bus and come on over (in part motivated by the fact that the band from their school would be playing). These two events, along with throwing a good homecoming party (a formal affair), made us seem as if we were not a fraternity on the edge, or a bunch of misfits, but rather a really happening bunch, and we wound up pledging another big class (in the teens, if I remember correctly), and in the years that followed, the fraternity more than doubled in size and became, for a time, one of the more successful ones on campus.

Looking back on it all, I think what I found most appealing about fraternity life was the sense of community that was fostered. The creation of maintenance of community is one of the main functions of community, and the study of communication and community goes to the heart of the scholarship of the late media ecologist, James W. Carey, who I very much admire, not to mention my friend Larry Frey. And it is definitely true that the experience I gained with Beta Theta Pi came in handy when the time came to start up the Media Ecology Association, otherwise known as Mu Epsilon Alpha. May the spirit of Wooglin watch over media ecologists everywhere. And to all of you Betas out there, "Oh, you and I can ne'er grow old while this fair cup is nigh, Here's life and strength, here's health and wealth, Here's all in phi kai phi."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I Blog!

As a postscript to the Why Blog? post, my blog is a new self of mine that I have created. It is a mask I wear. I put my blog on, I play at being me on my blog, I am not myself but I play myself on my blog. It is a new identity that I am forging, one that permanently alters my old identity. We shape our blogs, and they in turn shape us.

My blog is a persona, and persona means mask, but mask in the ancient sense of something that sounds goes through, per-sona, per-sonics. My blog is my voice. I am blogger, hear me roar.

Let's Go Mets!

At the NY Mets game with my son, this past September (box seats were a birthday present for both of us). We're looking forward to the new season, and (hopefully) a World Series victory this fall.

Why Blog?

Peter Montgomery, one of Marshall McLuhan's old students and an English professor up in Canada, runs a MCLUHAN listserv that I belong to, and recently raised some questions about blogs. I've taken some time to compose a response, and have decided to post it here as well as on the listserv, as I think what I've written is blog-worthy. In fact, I'm going to post it here first, which makes my posting it on the listserv something of a pseudo-event (see Daniel Boorstin's The Image). But, I figured that some list members may possibly decide to take a look at my blog after reading my post on the listserv, so I wanted this entry to be there to greet them (not that I'm expecting any readers, but just in case).

So, on the MCLUHAN listserv Peter Montgomery wrote: >I'm curious about blogs.< (My response follows, with Peter's original questions and comments bracketed by "greater than" (>) and "lesser than" (<) signs. I know this should be obvious to just about anyone reading this, but since this is my blog rather than a listserv, I do want to be absolutely clear when I'm quoting someone else. And being, I believe, a bit on the Autism spectrum myself, belaboring details comes naturally to me ;-)

Dear Curious, ;-)

You raise many good questions, I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but here are some answers that I've come up with:

>1. Why have they become such a prevalent factor in web communication?<

Three reasons. The first is that they represent an easy way to set up a website. Blogs aren't the only easy way to do it, but the point is that you don't need to know HTML, XML, or any kind of code. Second, and I'm not exactly sure why this is the case, but while it is not all that easy to find a free web hosting service, there are several hosts like Blogger that allow you to set up your own blog for free (thank Google!). And the third reason, and perhaps the most important, is that blogs solve one of the big problems with websites, the fact that they tend to be relatively static. Once you've explored a website, there are few compelling reasons to return to it, because the content generally does not change all that often; from the point of view of the creator, changing content requires a certain degree of effort because of the coding. Blogs, on the other hand, are designed not as static repositories, but as weB-LOGs whose content is dated, and updated, frequency depending only on the bloggers. btw, the new phenomenon of RSS feeds is a response to the dynamic, changing content that blogs have generated, creating the online equivalent of a subscription.

>2. Do some people spend their whole lives reading and writing blogs?<

Unless their lives have been very, very short, I don't know of any people who spend their whole lives with this activity. But then again, we could ask "Do some people spend their whole lives reading and writing?" Also, we can distinguish between reading blogs and writing them, and assume that there may be more readers than writers online as there are with print media. Readers may be seeking an alternative to the mass media, and mass communication includes the printing of even a limited run of books. I imagine there is also more of a sense of relationship with the writer as a human being than would be possible for most forms of print, which is after all more of a delayed and distancing medium. Blogs have the potential to present to the reader a real sense of "this is my life and welcome to it" on the part of the writer; in a way, blogs break down the barriers set up by print media without abandoning the form of print. Writers certainly may receive the gratification of instant publication, no editorial interference, and no rejection, albeit in a trade-off with the potential for no audience. Like all online activity, there is an implosive quality where we get sucked in and oblivious to the passage of time. Also, it may be that the current blogging is another manifestation of hybrid energy (to use McLuhan's term from Understanding Media), a creative burst coming out of the transition from print literacy to electronic/digital culture, following on the heels of hypertext. And there certainly seems to be a blurring of boundaries between reader and writer, as bloggers quote and link to other bloggers and posts, not to mention other forms of interactivity such as leaving comments. And there also is a very clear blurring of the boundary between public and private that was established via print culture, so that the writer is still engaged in the private exploration of the inner landscape, but in a much more public situation that the printed book, and there is more collaboration possible. In many ways blogging represents another return to the scribal condition of communal authorship and semi-individualism.

>3. Why haven't we discussed blogs here?<

I'm tempted to respond with, "because no one has brought them up before," but I do think that the bias of blogs in some ways run counter to the bias of listservs, or at the very least blogs compete with listservs for attention and energy (to a degree, as I have seen some people post their listserv comments to their blogs, and will do so myself for the first time with this post). Listservs such as this one and the MEA listserv, while using print as its code or content, have many qualities in common with orality, and in particular with a relatively structured discussion group. Listservs tend to be about a community in some sense, even if it is a very loosely knit one, while blogs tend to be about individuals, even when they are produced by more than one person. While people often seem to be talking at one another on listservs, and listening more to themselves than to others, they are still engaged in a form of dialogue. Blogs, on the other hand, follow the pattern of publishing, people write what they want without particular regard for the presence of a group of fellow participants (although there may be some sense of an audience or readership). Even when they are interactive, blogs are more like a republic of letters, people publishing responses, counterarguments, and even notes expressing gratitude and appreciation. And like oral communication, listserv messages tend to be here and gone. Even when they are archived, they are harder to retrieve than blog posts, blogs providing more of a sense of a record, with contents that can be retrieved by scrolling down, going to older pages, or clicking on headings or tags; moreover, search engines can come up with blog content, but not necessarily listserv archives, depending on how they are set up. I know that some of the younger scholars on the MEA listserv have long been saying that we should have a blog, and one reason, I believe, is so all those clever comments and insights posted could be made generally available to people not on the listserv.

>4. Do we have any bloggers in our midst?<

Guilty as charged (maybe it's paranoia or narcissism, Peter, but I somehow suspect that you already knew this). I just started a week and a half ago. Paul Levinson, who writes several blogs, and produces several podcasts, has been encouraging me to start doing this stuff for some time now, and my response was always, yeah, I know, I should do this, but who has the time. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he said that he wanted to link to something I had written about The Sopranos, and that I could put a copy of it online very easily if I would just start a blog, and he caught me in just the right frame of mind, so I took the plunge.

>5. Why do I find myself singularly unmotivated to pursue or peruse them?<

Now, I'm tempted to respond with, "that's between you and your shrink," but you might not be able to tell that I'm only joking in this medium ;-). But I felt exactly the same as you up until recently. I have been advising an MA student who is doing her thesis on what she refers to as "courtesan blogs," that is, blogs produced by high class call girls, which she finds enthralling reading, a window into a world very different from the one most of us inhabit. But it still didn't move me to read or write blogs, just to wish I had the time to do so. But having set one up, I have found it liberating, just writing whatever I want; it's not that I'm writing blogs instead of writing articles, it's that I'm writing more, and more freely, instead of writing less, and more carefully. I know that Neil Postman would tell me that this is not necessarily a good thing, but I find it easier to write for the blog than to just write for myself on the one hand, and certainly easier than writing for more formal publication on the other. And as is the case with many activities, once you do take the plunge and get involved, you also become interested in what other people are doing and how they are doing it; if you learn to play golf, you then may become interested in watching others golf on TV, and if you start writing blogs, you become more interested in seeing what others are writing in their blogs.

>6. Am I alone in this lack of motivation?<

Of course not. But you have created websites and run listservs, and a great many people have lacked the motivation to do that sort of thing. You are very invested in the older online technologies, and therefore reluctant to adopt this newer one. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I had no motivation to start a blog until that one moment, but having done so, the presence of the blog itself motivates my continued blogging.

>7. Are there any McLuhan blogs worth pursuing or perusing?<

Neil Postman's answer would be no. You are much better off reading Understanding Media, even if it's for the hundredth time. Or The Gutenberg Galaxy, or Laws of Media, or anything else he wrote. Or books about him, like Legacy of McLuhan, Digital McLuhan, and the like. And Neil would say that your time would be spent much more profitably engaged in conversation and dialogue with colleagues, students, friends, and family. But I think he would concede that reading blogs is a bit better that watching television. I suspect that McLuhan's answer would be pretty much the same. I would not encourage it.

Having said that, if you must look, you can find my blog at:

and I have a list of links there that include some other media ecological blogs as well.

>I once, not so long ago, attended a presentation by Derrick de Kerckhove in which he seemed to think blogs were the flagship of future web communication. Personally I find them, even when interesting (such as a Merton site I recently visited, and even contributed to), more like a retrieval of the newspaper editorial, than the hatching of a whole new egg.<

There is a definite relationship between journalism and blogging, or what I have dubbed blogism. But blogs are more like the keeping of a personal journal, diary, record, or yes log. And like other kinds of websites, blogs can remediate all other forms of media, images, audio, video, etc. (see Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin's excellent book, Remediation: Understanding New Media). What they represent, in my opinion, is a step on the way to the total recording and archiving of all aspects of our lives, both outer world of action and event, and inner world of thought, feeling, and perception. Hang onto your hats, because the changehas only just begun.

Mind Meld

I've cooled down (via Photoshop) the same image I posted on 3/9/07. Following McLuhan's notion of hot and cool media, this ought to foster your participation and involvement with me, or rather, with my image. It also seems to convey a sense of my psychic powers, don't you think? Are you ready to mind meld? Isn't mind meld what we do when we're reading someone else's writings?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Fragile Community

I won't go into the trouble I had getting home due to the major snowstorm on the east coast on Friday. But the unanticipated delays gave me time to do some reading, and Larry Frey, who had been a generous and congenial host to me for the last few days in Boulder, had given me a copy of a book he co-authored. And I had the time to read it cover-to-cover.

The book is The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids by Mara Adelman and Lawrence R. Frey (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997), an award-winning volume in the Everyday Communication: Case Studies in Behavior in Context book series supervised by Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz and Stuart J. Sigman (the latter now Academic Vice-President at Naropa University, for whom I did a lecture on Thurs., and who took Larry and me out to dinner Thursday evening to the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, a fabulous Tajikistani restaurant offering global cuisine; the restaurant itself was built in Tajikistan and reassembled in Boulder, piece by piece, and is absolutely gorgeous); this is the same series in which Casey Man Kong Lum's media ecological book, In Search of A Voice: Karaoke and the Construction of Identity in Chinese America was published.

The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids is based on ethnographic research on Bonaventure House, which had been converted into a residential community for people with AIDS in response to the epidemic. Adelman and Frey's emphasis is on how a sense of community is formed even under such adverse circumstances, and in the brief period of time that the residents have left. The research itself is obviously of great value, but the theoretical frame is also quite significant. I wish I had read this book years ago, but it no less relevant today than a decade ago.

I find their emphasis on community consistent in many ways with that of James W. Carey's work. One quote that I particularly liked was, "Communication is thus the essential, defining feature--the medium--of community" (p. 5). Their approach to community is a dialectical one: "everyone who joins a group wishes to be both a part of the group and apart from it" (p. 18). I was also interested in some of the discussion of metaphors. For example, they point out two different metaphors that residents used to deal with relationships with others who are very sick or dying, mirrors (a metaphor of identification), and walls (a metaphor of distance)--this makes for an interesting counterpart to the metaphors of mirrors and windows that Jay Bolter uses. There are also two metaphors used in response to the illness, a military metaphor (fighting the sickness) and that of a journey (understanding the disease), and the journey metaphor is also related to the euphemistic metaphor of passing (e.g., passing away, passing on).

Finally, I was very moved by the description of the balloon ceremony, an alternative funeral ritual involving the release of a multitude of colorful balloons into the air, which reverses many of the elements of traditional Judeo-Christian funeral rites.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Only Thing to Blog is Blogging Itself

Robert K. Blechman is one of the brightest, and wittiest media ecologists I know (and media ecologists tend to be the brightest, and wittiest people I know). Bob's blog (say that 10x fast) is called A Model Media Ecologist and is well worth checking out. In a recent (3/10/07) post, he wrote:

I've added two prominent Media Ecologists to my list of "other blog sites." Both Paul Levinson and Lance Strate are among the original founders of the Media Ecology Association and many-times published authors. Both are public intellectuals who champion the Media Ecological approach to media analysis and social commentary.

I will skip over Bob's comments about Paul Levinson, both out of fear of being accused of copyright infringement by going beyond fair use, and also with the intent of composing a post about Paul later on. But I do want to paste in Bob's comments about me, in part because this blog, being an exercise in narcissism, is all about me, me, me, and also, just to say how very flattered I am by what he has to say (and how much I appreciate his good words):

Lance Strate is new to blogging, and states in Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing that "The Unexamined Blog is Not Worth Blogging." Well, maybe. Lance comments that blogging may be the highest form of narcissism, and while I tend to agree, I wish I had said it first on my blog. Anyone who has read my blog regularly (Hi Mom!), knows already that I take my narcissism very seriously.

Lance's most recent writing (outside of blogging) is
Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology As a Field of Inquiry. Using the echo as a metaphor for all media, but also as a window into the thought processes involved in autism, Lance lays deep foundations for the study of Media Ecology, and any regular readers of this site (Hi Mom!) would profit by a reading. If you don't have the time to read it at the moment, I recommend buying it anyway.

There you have it folks, a most excellent testimonial by the Model Media Ecologist himself! And Bob has added the following update:

Update: By posting these comments I in no way oblige Paul or Lance to cross-link to this blog. No, not at all. Really.

Thanks, Bob. I had a good laugh over that. There's probably no way to convince you now (classic double bind strategy you've employed), but I had intended to do so anyway. I haven't added the links on the side yet, but I will do that too in the near future.

Now here's the thing. Having quoted Bob in this blog entry, will Bob now quote this blog entry in a new post on his blog? And if he does, and I respond in kind, and so on, when will it all end? The only thing to fear is the blogging of blogging itself.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


So, this is my last dispatch from the foot of the Rocky Mountains. I am sitting in the office of Stuart Sigman, Academic Vice-President of Naropa University in Boulder. Stuart and I go way back as colleagues in the field of communication, and this morning he had me give a talk to a group of his faculty and students on Marshall McLuhan and media ecology, which went very well thank you. Naropa itself is quite interesting, in that it was originally a Buddhist college, and retains much of that orientation. In fact, immediately before and after my lecture, everyone took a moment for silent contemplation/meditation, followed by a bow of the head--I was happy to join in with this, as it is a lovely custom, and one very much in keeping with media ecology's emphasis on stepping back and reflecting on situations. Naropa's mission is oriented towards bringing together the best of Eastern and Western philosophies, which is very much in line with McLuhan's observation back in the 60s about the East becoming Westernized while the West is "going oriental" (to use the non-PC language of his time)--Duke Ellington makes reference to McLuhan's east-meets-west concept in the introduction to his Afro-Eurasian Eclipse record album, which is easily available on CD:

Last year, we (about this time) premiered a new suite titled Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. And of course the title is inspired by a statement made by Mr. Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto. Mr. McLuhan says that the whole world is going oriental and that no one will be able to retain his or her identity, not even the "Orientals." And of course we travel around the world a lot, and in the last five to six years we too have noticed this thing to be true. So as a result we have done a sort of a thing, a parallel or something and we'd like to play a little piece of it for you. In this particular segment, ladies and gentlemen, we have adjusted our perspective with that of the kangaroo and the didgeridoo. This automatically throws us down under and/or outback. And from that point of view it is most improbable that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom..."

Stuart referred to himself as a JewBu, a term I had not heard before, but I just Googled it and there's over 10,000 entries. It's essentially a Buddhist of Jewish descent, but not so much a convert as someone looking for a new synthesis. Putting my media ecology hat on, I can't help but note how this reflects a departure from the either-or approach to religion associated with literacy and religions of the book, where there are clear boundaries drawn between insider and outsider, and either you are a member or not, and conversion requires the renouncing of previous affiliations. In the electronic era, what others call postmodern culture (but "postmodern" just means we're no longer modern but we don't know what we are, whereas "electronic" identifies our new cultural grounding), multiple, overlapping affiliations become possible, in religion, and in citizenship. Anyway, Stuart is off to meet with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who is the founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and who is associated with this "Jew in the Lotus" phenomenon. Checking
this out on the web,
I found this description:

Jewish Renewal is a worldwide, transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions.

Jewish Renewal carries forward Judaism’s perpetual process of renewal. Jewish Renewal seeks to bring creativity, relevance, joy, and an all embracing awareness to spiritual practice, as a path to healing our hearts and finding balance and wholeness—tikkun halev

Jewish Renewal acts to fully include all Jews and to respect all peoples.

Jewish renewal helps to heal the world by promoting justice, freedom, responsibility, caring for all life and the earth that sustains all life —tikkun olam

The Jewish Renewal Movement was founded by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, and is dedicated to making the presence of G-d real and relevant in the lives of contemporary Jewish families, individuals, partners and friends.

We draw from the wellsprings of ecumenism, egalitarianism, personal prayer, ecological awareness, and a sense of the fundamental place of Jewish mysticism in our faith.

I am very intrigued by this. There certainly is a need for new syntheses if Judaism is to survive--we need a Judaism for the electronic media environment, a digital Judaism. Of course, we have been able to adapt ourselves to changing media environments many times before, so while there are no guarantees, we have a pretty good track record in this department.

Anyway, this has been a great learning experience for me, in addition to an opportunity to spread the gospel of media ecology.