Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where We Live?

Where do we live? Well not in Connecticut, or at least I don't, maybe you do, but that's besides the point, as I recently made an appearance on Connecticut Public Radio. Well, appearance isn't the right word, after all, radio being an acoustic medium, so I guess you could say that I recently sounded off on Connecticut Public Radio, which describes itself as follows:

WNPR - Connecticut Public Radio

Hartford/New Haven: 90.5 FM
Norwich/New London: 89.1 FM
Stamford/Greenwich: 88.5 FM
Southampton, NY: 91.3 FM
Storrs: 99.5 FM (translator)

WNPR offers news, information and entertainment programming that is available to listeners both on the radio and online. The award-winning WNPR news department originates in-depth news reports on issues and events of importance to Connecticut – such as politics, technology, business, the environment and the arts – that frequently are selected for national broadcast on NPR.

The name of the program I was invited to participate in--it was originally framed as an interview, but it was a bit more like a discussion, is Where We Live, hence the title of this post, and the host is John Dankowsky, and here's what he looks like:

Not that you need to know what he looks like, since this is radio after all, but that's what the web does to radio, for good and mostly ill I would say. Not that there's anything wrong with the way this fellow looks, mind you, just that it ruins the whole mystique of radio, with its disembodied voices from the ether... but what can you do, that's the way the media environment crumbles, so they say, and ether way you look at things, there's nothing much to be done about it. So, for good measure, here's another picture for ya:

So, anyway, I do want to say that I very much liked this guy, John Dankowsky, I thought he was a bright and articulate host, and needless to say, I was very pleased to discover that he has an interest in media ecology. Very cool. So anyway, John's program, Where We Live, is described as follows:

This WNPR-produced, interactive program explores important issues and ideas that affect where, how and even why people live in Connecticut – and how Connecticut fits into a global society. Using the award-winning producers of WNPR News, Where We Live expands in-depth, original reporting, creating conversations that will draw in newsmakers, opinion leaders and engaged citizens.
Not too shabby, eh? And you can get this and more on the Where We Live website, which I've linked to here, so if you had just clicked on Where We Live you'd be home by now. But you might miss the rest of this blog post. And there really isn't that much more to it, so stick around just a little bit more, whydon'tya?

So, the program I participated in aired on Wednesday, August 13, 2008, and if you're reading this blog post soon after its posting, there will still be a link right on the
Where We Live page, under the heading of Episodes, the episode bearing the title Media Ecology: Is Technology Helping? If not, you may have to go back through the archives from that page. Or... just click here to go the episode's very own page.

The episode begins with the author, Dick Meyer, talking about his recently published book,
Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millenium. Dick is the editorial director of digital media at NPR, and was a longtime columnist and reporter for CBS News. His book is very much in line with other cultural critiques familiar to media ecologists, such as Daniel Boorstin's The Image, Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, and more recently Tom de Zengotita's Mediated. The critique is about the decline of civility and community, and the tendency to be divisive and argumentative, in contemporary American culture. It's basically a rant, with some sense that media play a role in what's happened--after all, he's a journalist/columnist, not a scholar's in-depth study. Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death is listed in the bibliography, but not discussed in the book itself, missing out on Neil's cogent explanation for the decline of discourse. McLuhan is mentioned, misquoted actually, but does not appear in the bibliography. Overall, Meyer provides a good overview of the symptoms, which can be useful to someone employing a media ecological framework to provide an explanation for why things have changed.

As you can tell, I actually went out and bought the book prior to the show, and read it. But as it turns out, the part of the show I was involved with, while continuing the discussion on whether technology is good or bad (a good question for generating a lot of heat, but not much light), did not directly address Dick Meyer's Why We Hate Us. Oh well, reading it certainly did no harm!

So, Meyer was on for about 15-20 minutes, and then he was gone and they turned to me, and to Alex Halavais, a professor at Quinnipiac University, who I know through communication, and media ecology circles, and they also had folks calling in. I had the pleasure of sitting in one of WFUV's studios at Fordham University--WFUV is our own outstanding public radio station. The discussion itself was quite good, I thought, given the limited time that even a public radio program affords.

On an interesting side note, I mentioned that I was getting tweets on Twitter during the program, although unfortunately no one tweeted anything worth mentioning, and not long after the program aired, several new people started following me on Twitter.

So, on the Media Ecology: Is Technology Helping? page you can listen to or download the entire program, there's an area to leave comments, they have a link for the Media Ecology Association, and a link to a page they set up for me! Check it out by clicking here! I am very pleased to be included on their website as well as their program, so I'll stop yakking here so that you can go listen to me yakking there. And why not leave a comment on their Media Ecology: Is Technology Helping? page, if you feel like it? I'm sure they'd appreciate you utilizing the technology to its fullest.


Mike Plugh said...

One of the things that struck me about the show was the focus on technology and information. There was a lot of talk about bubbles, and the self-selecting of information, and the disappearance of community. The idea, I suppose, was that we turn inward and seek out information that affirms our perspectives and so on.

I follow that reasoning, but I think the overall focus missed the wireless evolution that has turned Twitter and the like into an extension of our communities. There was some dancing around it, but I think it's important.

People wringing their hands over this phenomenon are missing the other end of the Faustian bargain, the positive, community-enhancing part of the bargain. I'll illustrate it this way:

When the huge blackout hit the East Coast a few years back, I lived in Riverdale and worked on 33rd and Broadway. I had to walk from 33rd to 168th to catch a local bus to Riverdale and passed through all manner of neighborhoods on the way, as you might imagine. People stood around cars to get news on the radio. Many of them were strangers. I had a $20 portable radio with me (I always carry it after 9/11) and I could walk and get updates on the way.

I was a citizen-cyborg thanks to my radio extension, getting and relaying info to people I had never met and probably would never meet again. My ties to the larger community were growing as a result of this simple technology, if only for a moment.

Now, we have all manner of more advanced technology, in addition to the radio, which allow multi-directional conversation and information sharing. I suppose I would have been able to potentially get info about the 168th Street bus stop in advance of my arrival if someone had been Twittering, for example. A citizen-based collaboration might have created order out of chaos via the elimination of time and space.

The portable radio hasn't gone away, and I still have mine. The penetration of the technologies that were discussed in the show and the exclusion of people from the information sharing in question are a simple matter of technology/culture lag. Just like my portable radio, outdated in some way, the Twitter/Mobile information exchange will eventually become a $20 solution to a communicative channel. Something new will appear on the scene, and the dance will continue.

It's almost as though the elitism of the telegraph has evolved into the populism of the mobile era. There are pluses and minuses, but the hand wringing and praise seem to exaggerate them to the point of missing the point.

Glad to hear you interjecting some much needed perspective. It strikes me that in my own traditional classroom bubble, I've spent the better part of the last year talking Media Ecology with media ecologists, media students, and others interested in the ideas that belong to the field. Hearing you talk about ME with "outsiders" who lack the depth of knowledge about McLuhan, Postman, Innis, Mumford and so on it struck me that we own a particular intellectual corner that remains fairly exclusive.

Bubbles that burst with the exposure we give them, in your case via radio, Twitter, and your blog. Ironic, no?

Lance Strate said...

Thanks, Mike. Yes media ecology has historically represented an exclusive club, not because any of us have tried to shut others out or limit access, but just because so many people seem to react to the ideas with something like, "I just don't get it."

Just to give the other point of view, Postman would say that the word community has had a relatively clear and distinct meaning for centuries, and when we turn around and apply it to online interaction, we are using it to describe a distinctly different set of phenomena, diluting its original meaning, and thereby engaging in "the demeaning of meaning."

I do agree that bubble is not the best metaphor, but it does fit in with what Faith Popcorn identified as a trend back in the 80s, cocooning. And there are increasingly more ways in which we become distracted from our immediate environment. But you're also right that it's not an either/or situation, the virtual feeds back into the material environment, the two interact in a multitude of ways, some of them quite surprising.

Matt Thomas said...

Finally had a chance to listen to this. Loved the point you made about how back in the day no one cared if kids copied information out of the encyclopedia but today there's a lot of anxiety about kids copying and pasting from Wikipedia. You go to make a point about what might be termed "remix culture," but it's your initial observation that has stayed with me. I remember being in grade school and copying entries word for word out of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I remember, in fact, teachers more or less encouraging me to do this. And guess what? I turned out OK.

Are some types of borrowing OK in some periods but not OK in others? Probably. Is copying and pasting information from Wikipedia frowned upon because it's so easily obtained? Perhaps. Might we actually be doing kids today a disservice by not letting them copy things? Maybe. After all, don't children learn through imitation?

Lance Strate said...

Thanks, Matt. I do think there was some benefit to copying out by hand from the encyclopedia, that copying at least forced you to read in a focused way, reinforcing what you read, and that you'd retain some of what you copied. We can't assume the same sort of educational value is there when someone copies and pastes text.

Matt Thomas said...

I agree with your distinction, Lance, between copying text out by hand and cutting and pasting text on a computer. I remember Camille Paglia once saying something about how when she was younger she used to copy passages and quotes she liked from books out by hand, and that there was something about the sheer physical act of doing this that fixed certain language patterns in her brain.