Thursday, February 23, 2017

La Comprensión de los Medios en la Era Digital

So, what's up with the Spanish title for this post, you may be asking? Or maybe you're just saying, ¿Qué pasa?

Well here's the story. A while back, my friends and colleagues from Mexico, Fernando Gutiérrez and Octavio Islas, asked me if I would co-edit an anthology with them on the theme of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. That book was published back in 1964, and our volume came out last year, just a couple of years past the anniversary.

Now, let me make it clear that I do not speak Spanish, so my role as editor was somewhat different from what it would normally be. Aside from contributing my own chapter, I solicited 7 English language contributions, which I was responsible for editing, prior to their translation. In case you were curious, those chapter authors are Corey Anton, Paul Levinson, Paul Lippert, Robert K. Logan, Eric McLuhan, James Morrison, and Michael Plugh.

I also solicited one other contribution that was written in Portuguese, written by Brazilian scholars Adriana Braga and Adriano Rodrigues, which I didn't edit, seeing as I don't speak Portuguese either. The rest of the contributors were Carlos Fernández Collado, Jesús Galindo, Jorge Hidalgo, and Claudia Benassini, along with Fernando and Octavio.

So anyway, the book was published by a Mexico City based publisher, Alfaomega, and here's the cover:






And you can read all about the book on the publisher's website, if you can read Spanish, that is. And here is the Table of Contents:

Presentació

Prefacio James Morrison

Capítulo 1 Eric McLuhan
50 años después...Retrospección y perspectiva de la obra de Marshall McLuhan

Capítulo 2 Fernando Gutiérrez
La contribución de Marshall McLuhan para la comprensión de los ambientes mediáticos en la nueva era digital

Capítulo 3 Octavio Islas
Apuntes esenciales para una mejor lectura de La Comprensión de los medios como las extensiones del hombre

Capítulo 4 Lance Strate
El mensaje en La comprensión de los medios

Capítulo 5 Carlos Fernández Collado
Topoguía descriptiva para La comprensión de los medios

Capítulo 6 Jesús Galindo
La ingeniería en comunicación social y el pensamiento de Marshall McLuhan. Diálogo sobre constructivismo tecnológico de lo social

Capítulo 7 Corey Anton
Cinco formas para entender... Los Medios como las Extensiones del Hombre

Capítulo 8 Paul Lippert
McLuhan como una forma de arte

Capítulo 9 Robert K. Logan
McLuhan y su comprensión de los medios

Capítulo 10 Adriana Braga y Adriano Rodrigues
El pensamiento sistémico y el sujeto en la obra de McLuhan

Capítulo 11 Michael Plugh
Un mundo inteligente: La extensión del proyecto de automatización de McLuhan

Capítulo 12 Jorge Hidalgo
La comprensión del hombre como una extensión de los medios

Capítulo 13 Paul Levinson
McLuhan en la era de los medios sociales

Capítulo 14 Claudia Benassini
La nueva aldea global: el caso Facebook

And in case you want to order a copy, here's the Amazon link (and ordering through this portal does help support these here blogging efforts):




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And I do want to add, given the current political climate, that I am especially proud to have a longstanding connection to my colleagues in Mexico, and that I have great respect and affection for them, and for their nation. 

I should mention that Octavio Islas is now on the faculty of the Universidad de los Hemisferios (University of the Hemispheres), in Quito, Ecuador. So this anthology is truly a pan-American product!

And, I guess that all that's left to say is, adios, until next time.



Monday, February 13, 2017

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

So, I've shared in some previous posts the programs that I've run as president of the New York Society for General Semantics, and hey, just click on the old link to check out the website I set up for the NYSGS, and while you're there, you can subscribe for updates (you don't have to be local to do so), and avail yourself of some of the resources I made available.

And over here on Blog Time Passing, I also shared Political Talk & Political Drama Part 1: Election 2016 and Political Talk & Political Drama Part 2, and My Language Poetry. Well, it's time for the next installment.

On November 30, we held a panel discussion and debate on the topic of Bob Dylan being awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. The idea for the panel came from my friend and colleague, Thom Gencarelli. You see, back during some down time at the 2016 New York State Communication Association conference (Thom and I both being past presidents of that organization), we got into a discussion and a bit of an argument (which is to say a difference of opinion, nothing at all heated) about whether Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize or not. My view was, shall we say skeptical, his view was much more positive. And I went so far as to say that, from a literary standpoint, I believe that a century from now, Leonard Cohen will be better remembered than Dylan.

I hasten to add that I would certainly cede the high ground to Thom when it comes to music, as he's a gifted singer, songwriter, guitar player, and band leader, the name of his band being Blue Race, check them out on iHeartRadio, SoundCloud, and wherever music is sold online, I highly recommend them.



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Anyway, I wouldn't question Dylan's significance for popular music and popular culture, but this is the Nobel Prize for literature that we're talking about, and that's a horse of another color. So, our discussion and disagreement became the basis of the last NYSGS program for 2016, and here is the write up for it:

Music-Lyrics-Poetry-Language:

A Conversation about Bob Dylan

and his 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

On Thursday, October 13, 2016, the Swedish Academy announced that it had awarded Bob Dylan its Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While Dylan’s lack of acknowledgment and acceptance of the award until two weeks later raised controversy, this paled in comparison to the controversy raised right away as pundits in the professional media and across social media weighed in: He deserves it. He doesn’t deserve it. Popular songs aren’t literature. Lyrics aren’t poetry. If the Academy’s prize for literature is expanded to include popular song, is Dylan the only deserving songwriter? Is he the most deserving? Et cetera.

This roundtable discussion seeks to address, make sense of, and try to come to some conclusions with respect to all of this ruckus. The participants will consider questions including: What is the relationship of lyrics to poetry? What is the symbiotic relationship between lyrics and music in popular song? Is poetry literature? Are popular songs literature? What is the meaning and significance of the Nobel Prize, or any award for that matter? What is the significance of Bob Dylan? What is the literary value of his lyrics? What is so new and distinctive about his “poetic expressions” and use of language? And is everything important about Dylan and his contribution simply a matter of language?

Finally… does he deserve it?

Panel participants:

Thom Gencarelli, Professor of Communication, Manhattan College
Callie Gallo, English Department Teaching Fellow, Fordham University
Sal Fallica, Professor of Media Ecology, New York University
Lance Strate, NYSGS President & Professor of Communication & Media Studies, Fordham University

Thom served as moderator as well as panelist for the session, which featured a wide-ranging discussion that included multiple intersections with the discipline of general semantics. Thom is also the co-editor, with Brian Cogan, of an anthology entitled Baby Boomers and Popular Culture, and interestingly enough, Sal Fallica wrote one of the chapters, focusing on Dylan and awards ceremonies! (I also have a chapter in the volume, mine is on science fiction film and TV).


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Callie Gallo, who is working on her doctorate in English literature at Fordham University, and has an interest in media ecology, helped to provide a fresh perspective to the program. And she wrote a very nice guest blog post on her experience for Hook & Eye, subtitled Fast Feminism, Slow Academe, which in the About the Blog blurb says the following:

Hook & Eye is an intervention and an invitation: we write about the realities of being women working in the Canadian university system. We muse about everything from gender inequities and how tenure works, to finding unfrumpy winter boots, decent childcare, and managing life’s minutiae. Ambitious? Obviously. We’re women in the academy.

Anyway, Callie's post is entitled, The Perks of Saying Yes in Grad School, and it's worth a read, so why don't you click on the old link, open up a new window, and check it out. It's okay, I'll wait until you're done, and you can meet me back here.

You made it back! Well done! So now, let me just note that our program was written up in an NYSGS blog post, and is also available on an NYSGS resource page, but of course, it's all right here as well, including the video recording which was uploaded to YouTube under the title of Music Lyrics Poetry Language: A Conversation About Bob Dylan & His Nobel Prize. And you know, you can watch it on YouTube, via the NYSGS channel, but yes yes yes, you can also watch it right here.

I should add that, unfortunately, I didn't have a volunteer to hold the iPad this was recorded on, to keep faces in the frame. And it wasn't too much of a problem as long as we were seated, as we were for most of the session. But it does begin with my introduction, followed by Thom's, both delivered while we were standing, so the first few minutes of the video is not the most flattering, let alone not being at all professional. But the sound quality is good, and once we were done with the intros and sat down, everything looked fine, aside from the fact that a little bit of the shelf the iPad was sitting on is visible on the bottom left part of the frame. But anyway, for better or worse, here it is:





So, what do you think? Click here for a list of all of the Nobel Prizes in Literature awarded since 1901. Does Bob Dylan belong on this list? Or is this, in its own way, a weird example of celebrity logic that parallels having a reality television star as president?






Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Look Back

So, as you may recall, I spent the Fall 2015 semester at Villanova University, with a visiting appointment as their Margaret E. and Paul F. Harron Endowed Chair in Communication, aka the Harron Family Chair. You can check out some of the blog posts I wrote at that time, My Villanova Adventure, Fatal Amusements Talk, Villanova Grad School Interview, VCAN Connected, and Fatal Amusements. And,  as I was looking at some blog posts that remain incomplete and unpublished here on Blog Time Passing (saved as drafts), I noticed one leftover from that time, that just had a single photograph that had been taken for publicity purposes. Here it is:




This was in my Villanova office, and since I happen to have some photographs I took on my iPhone, I can round out this post with some of those. First, a closer look at the shelves behind me:











I have a couple more books to add now, but I'll save that for later posts. 




Instead, let me provide a view from the outside of the office:























And another one below with the door closed:





























And I also wanted to add a few shots of the wall opposite my office. The images stretched too far for me to capture in one snapshot, but here are a few pieces of the mosaic:



The lack of color and contrast made it challenging to get a good photo of the quotes, but here you can see one by McLuhan that made me feel right at home. 


Another quote from Walter Ong, how can you go wrong with that?


Not as well known as the others, but Lee Thayer certainly qualifies as a media ecologist, or at the very least a fellow traveler.


And good old John Dewey, that's pretty cool!



I'd also categorize Barnett Pearce as a fellow traveler. Some great choices all the way around.

Now, if you're looking for something a little more exotic than the Philadelphia suburbs, I'll be sharing pictures from my more recent visit to Henan University in Kaifeng, China, in upcoming blog posts. Hope you like them!




Thursday, February 9, 2017

How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers

So, back on January 12th, I was quoted in The New York Times, which does not publish, as some would have it, all the fake news that's fit to print. The article first appeared online the day before, written by Farhad Manjoo, the title being How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers. And yeah, that's a link to the item over on their website, in case you want to read it in its original and unadulterated state.

As for the original print version, when I got my copy of the paper, I figured it wouldn't be in the first section, which is devoted to hard news and the op-ed pages. So I  looked for it in the third section, Arts, and it wasn't there. Then I looked in the fourth section, Thursday Styles, and it wasn't there either. That left the second section:





That's right, the article made the front page of the Business Day section. Interesting image they got to go with it, don't you think? And maybe it's kind of ironic, in a media ecological sense, that the image takes up more space than the text, as if the paper is somehow trying to compete with television on television's own terms, rather than emphasizing what newspapers do best.

Be that as it may, the bulk of the article was continued on page five:







And of course, it's a bit hard to read off of the images, which are in fact images after all, included via Blogger's insert image function, courtesy of my iPhone's camera. So, not to worry, here's the text in easy to read form:


When “One Day at a Time” started its run on CBS in December 1975, it became an instant hit and remained so for almost a decade.

In its first year, “One Day at a Time,” a sitcom about working-class families produced by the TV impresario Norman Lear, regularly attracted 17 million viewers every week, according to Nielsen. Mr. Lear’s other comedies were even bigger hits: One out of every three households with a television watched “All in the Family,” for instance.

Last week, a new version of “One Day at a Time” started on Netflix. Critics praised the remake for its explorations of single parenthood and class struggle, a theme that has faded from TV since Mr. Lear’s heyday.
So, a seemingly innocuous topic, at least to begin with, another of a seemingly endless run of remakes appearing on film and video, this time via Netflix. And this was the topic that Mr. Manjoo wanted to discuss when he contacted me. I should add that I have previously been interviewed regarding other Norman Lear TV programs, notably All in the Family and Barney Miller, as I related in my previous posts here on Blog Time Passing, All in for All in the Family and A Sitcom to Remember (not to mention my WNYC interview on the similarities between Archie Bunker and Donald Trump, discussed in last year's post, From Bunker to Trump (via Reagan), as you no doubt recall).

Anyway, let's get back to the article, and the difference that four decades can make:


Yet, well intentioned and charming as the new streaming version may be, there’s a crucial aspect of the old “One Day at a Time” that it will almost certainly fail to replicate: broad cultural reach.

The two versions of “One Day at a Time” are noteworthy bookends in the history of television, and, by extension, the history of mass culture in America. The shows are separated by 40 years of technological advances—a progression from the over-the-air broadcast era in which Mr. Lear made it big, to the cable age of MTV and CNN and HBO, to, finally, the modern era of streaming services like Netflix. Each new technology allowed a leap forward in choice, flexibility and quality; the “Golden Age of TV” offers so much choice that some critics wonder if it’s become overwhelming.

It’s not just TV, either. Across the entertainment business, from music to movies to video games, technology has flooded us with a profusion of cultural choice.

This is all well and fine in regard to the changing dynamics of the media industries and entertainment providers, but Manjoo has a deeper concern, one shared by many cultural commentators, and certainly amenable to media ecological analysis:


More good stuff to watch and listen to isn’t bad. But the new “One Day at a Time” offers a chance to reflect on what we have lost in embracing tech-abetted abundance. Last year’s presidential election and its aftermath were dominated by discussions of echo chambers and polarization; as I’ve argued before, we’re all splitting into our own self-constructed bubbles of reality.

What’s less discussed is the polarization of culture, and the new echo chambers within which we hear about and experience today’s cultural hits. There will never again be a show like “One Day at a Time” or “All in the Family”—shows that derived their power not solely from their content, which might not hold up to today’s more high-minded affairs, but also from their ubiquity. There’s just about nothing as popular today as old sitcoms were; the only bits of shared culture that come close are periodic sporting events, viral videos, memes and occasional paroxysms of political outrage (see Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech and the aftermath).

Instead, we’re returning to the cultural era that predated radio and TV, an era in which entertainment was fragmented and bespoke, and satisfying a niche was a greater economic imperative than entertaining the mainstream.
So, now, how about some historical context? That's where I come in, at least as far as this article is concerned:


“We’re back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn’t much of a shared culture,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “For most of the history of civilization, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.”

That’s not to romanticize the TV era. At its peak, broadcast TV was derided for its shallowness, for its crass commercialism, for the way it celebrated conformity and rejected heterodoxy, and mostly for often not being very creative or entertaining. Neil Postman wrote that we were using TV to “amuse ourselves to death,” and Newton N. Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy, famously called it a “vast wasteland.”
As you may have guessed, I did mention Postman and Amusing Ourselves to Death in our conversation, and my point here is not to contradict the argument he made. After all, I did bring that very same analysis into the 21st century with my own book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. And the argument still stands that on the whole, television has done more harm than good, but the fact remains that the medium did offer many benefits as well, which is what I emphasized in this context:



Yet for a brief while, from the 1950s to the late 1980s, broadcast television served cultural, social and political roles far greater than the banality of its content would suggest. Because it featured little choice, TV offered something else: the raw material for a shared culture. Television was the thing just about everyone else was watching at the same time as you. In its enforced similitude, it became a kind of social glue, stitching together a new national identity across a vast, growing and otherwise diverse nation.

“What we gained was a shared identity and shared experience,” Mr. Strate said. “The famous example was Kennedy’s funeral, where the nation mourned together in a way that had never happened before. But it was also our experience watching ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘All in the Family’ that created a shared set of references that everyone knew.”

As the broadcast era changed into one of cable and then streaming, TV was transformed from a wasteland into a bubbling sea of creativity. But it has become a sea in which everyone swims in smaller schools.

Only around 12 percent of television households, or about 14 million to 15 million people, regularly tuned into “NCIS” and “The Big Bang Theory,” the two most popular network shows of the 2015-16 season, according to Nielsen. Before 2000, those ratings would not even have qualified them as Top 10 shows. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is the biggest prestige drama on cable, but its record-breaking finale drew only around nine million viewers.

Clearly, we inhabit a different media environment in 2017 from the one that existed during the second half of the 20th century. And that is just in reference to broadcast and cable programming. What about steaming services such as Netflix?


Netflix does not release viewership numbers, but a few independent measurement companies have come up with ways to estimate them. One such company, Symphony Advanced Media, said Netflix’s biggest original drama last year, “Stranger Things,” was seen by about 14 million adults in the month after it first aired. “Fuller House,” Netflix’s reboot of the broadcast sitcom “Full House,” attracted an audience of nearly 16 million. On Wednesday, Symphony said that about 300,000 viewers watched the new “One Day at a Time” in its first three days on Netflix. (These numbers are for the entire season, not for single episodes.)

For perspective, during much of the 1980s, a broadcast show that attracted 14 million to 16 million viewers would have been in danger of cancellation.

That was a point that I made in our conversation. The criteria for a television show being unpopular during that time was nothing short of extraordinary, numbers that would have been considered wildly successful for any other medium. It really gave new meaning to the very concept of popularity. Which again points to the fact that we are now getting back to a more normal situation, when you look at the big picture historically. Although even the estimations about Netflix viewing, programming viewed by millions, are still pretty impressive. Anyway, let's get back to Manjoo's article:


We are not yet at the nadir of the broadcast era; cord-cutting is accelerating but has still not become a mainstream practice, and streaming services only just surpassed majority penetration. So these trends have a ways more to go. As people pull back from broadcast and cable TV and jump deeper into streaming, we’re bound to see more shows with smaller audiences.

“This is just generally true with how blockbusters across the media are going,” said James G. Webster, a professor of the School of Communication at Northwestern. “Some big ones could get bigger than ever, but generally the audience for everything else is just peanuts.”

A spokesman for Netflix pointed out that even if audiences were smaller than in the past, its shows still had impact. “Making a Murderer” set off a re-examination of a widely criticized murder trial, for instance, while “Orange Is the New Black” was one of the first shows to feature a transgender actor, Laverne Cox.

But let's return to that underlying point about audiences and a shared culture:


I buy this argument; obviously, powerful cultural products can produce an impact even if they’re not seen by everyone.

But I suspect the impacts, like the viewership, tend to be restricted along the same social and cultural echo chambers into which we’ve split ourselves in the first place. Those effects do not approach the vast ways that TV once remade the culture: how everyone of a certain age knows the idioms of “Seinfeld” (“It shrinks?”), or followed the “Cheers” romance of Diane and Sam, or how a show like “All in the Family” inspired a national conversation about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

It’s possible we’re not at the end of the story. Some youngsters might argue that the internet has produced its own kind of culture, one that will become a fount of shared references for years to come. What if “Chewbacca Mom” and the blue and black/white and gold dress that broke the internet one day become part of our library of globally recognized references, like the corniest catchphrases of television’s past, whether from “Seinfeld” or “Diff’rent Strokes”?

That could happen. At the risk of alienating the youngsters, though, I’ll offer this rejoinder: “What you talkin’ about, Willis?”

Maybe so, but Chewbacca Mom is a Facebook video featuring a woman putting on a mask and laughing hysterically about it, while the blue and black/white and gold dress is just an image, albeit one that is a fascinating illustration of how perception differs among different individuals (I used it in my About page for the new New York Society for General Semantics website, and between you and me, I don't care what anyone says, it's white and gold). Compared to the combination of comedy and social commentary contained in 209 episodes of One Day at a Time that aired between 1975 and 1984, these examples certainly seem like a degraded form of discourse. 

And yet, One Day at a Time was hardly the most sophisticated form of television programming, in contrast to All in the Family, M*A*S*H, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and even then, these shows were only oases when placed in contrast to the rest of the vast television wasteland. They hardly compare to the shared culture created by print media, notably the role of the periodical press as the basis of open political discourse of the sort lamented by Postman, and longed for by Jürgen Habermas, as well as the role of literature in creating a unified national culture.

What television in its heyday was able to do, however, was capture the lowest common denominator in a way that no other mass medium had hitherto been able to, and that no other medium has been able to since the expansion of electronic communications via cable, satellite, and the internet. This created a shared culture that was, in many respects, a very low form of culture, but then again, one that unified our population in ways that may never again be possible.

One final note on the interview: we had a very stimulating conversation that lasted about 45 minutes, which was much more wide-ranging than the couple of quotes that appear in the article can possibly reflect. But that's par for the course. I think it is a little interesting that I was able to do the interview for The New York Times via Skype while I was in China (more on that in another blog post), while Farhad Manjoo was in California. This too is a function of our new media environment, as is the fact that I can share all this in this very blog post that I am writing right now (and that you are reading some time afterwards).