Thursday, October 18, 2007

Information Cultures

I've previously posted about anthropologist Mike Wesch and his award-winning YouTube video (see In the Footsteps of Ted Carpenter), and it seems that he's been at it again. What I like about this new video, Information R/evolution, is that it provides a contrast between the older information technologies of print and file cabinets, and the new information environment that we now find ourselves in. So, here, take a look:

Okay, now, to be fair, I should balance out my praise for this well-produced and thought-provoking example of applied media ecology, with a bit of criticism. So, here goes. What's missing from this quick take, and as Neil Postman would point out, the very format works against more complex discussion of ideas, is the fact that the previous technologies, beginning with the use of the printing press to mass produce "blank" forms (I put blank in parentheses because of course they are not blank pieces of paper, but printed text with standardized blank areas where individual information is to be filled out) was revolutionary, a technology of information processing and control. They made possible the emergence of bureaucracies (the very word bureaucracy refers to bureau, the ancestor of the filing cabinet) and complex horizontal organizational structures, as well as filing and in general the ability to collect and process hitherto unimaginable quantities of data about all aspects of a society. This led to the rationalization of society, accelerated its differentiation into increasingly more discrete subsystems (and subsubsystems, etc.), and laid the groundwork for modernization and mass society.

Now, I'm not saying that Mike should have included all that in his short video, which is after all about how things have been changing recently, but I am saying that this is the part of the story that has been left out. In fact, if you follow Marshall McLuhan's arguments, then the revolution, or evolution, that Mike is portraying in fact represents a kind of rewinding backwards, from the modernized, bureaucratic, differentiated society, to something more akin to tribal or village life where there are few boundaries between what we would call sectors of society, everybody knows each others' business, and there is a relatively low degree of specialization among the members of society and their activities.

Anyway, McLuhan would describe Mike's videos as probes, whose purpose is to test, explore, and open up thought and discussion, and I think I just demonstrated how effective they are at that sort of thing. Anyway, Mike also recently uploaded another video that provides a very revealing sense of what students today are like:

The format appears to be taken from recent advertising and public service spots, and is certainly more than a little sobering for those of us in higher education. But this also complements the other video, as it shows, at least among this one population, the effects of the information r/evolution that we are experiencing. Well, so much for western civilization, eh? So it goes.


Unknown said...

McLuhan wrote that print is "arrested speech" and it is interesting that Dr. Wesch's videos rely heavily on the display of text to call attention to his messages. Since he incorporates background music into all his work, I assume that he isn't doing this because he thinks his viewers lack audio, but because of the arresting nature of print.

If print still has this power, then what is the true impact of digital media? Or does this characteristic of print gain its potency because we are transitioning away from a print-based culture?

Martin Lessard said...

Robert Blechman got a really good point. Print still has a power. But it shouldn't be put against digital media. The power of digital media is connecting people (and media content) not destroying traditional way of communication.

Mike use Audio-Visual content 'cause it relay a lot of emotion charge that can't be transmitted from print.

This AV r/evolution isn't a digital novelty. Digital media, as the meme goes, is disconnecting support and content to reach efficiently the right target.

Virtual support for content (bits, screen, and pipe) should have an effect on how we access, transmit and structure our knowledge. This should transit us away from traditional learning culture.

This is a fascinating subject!

Mike Wesch said...

Great comment about the power of blank forms, Lance. In my dissertation I wrote a little bit about how such blank forms (patrol reports, census books, etc.) have been a significant part of some recent cultural transformations in rural Papua New Guinea.

BTW, the second video was inspired by Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity, especially the opening scene which briefly analyzes the "medium" of teaching (the classroom).