Friday, December 21, 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Going for Brokaw on Postman

So, back on December 1st, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Tom Brokaw, former anchor of the NBC network's Nightly News program, entitled "Books on Journalism" (p. W10) where he named the five books about journalism that he felt were most important. The article begins with the following introduction:

Veteran newsman Tom Brokaw says that these books, taken together, present a peerless portrait of journalism's high aims and low comedy.

And Brokaw himself begins by writing:

The five books I've chosen to write about reflect my own attitudes about the craft I've practiced for 45 years now. They're a mix of the triumphs of journalism, the absurdities, the vanities and the importance of a free press in any society.

The first four books he discusses are The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House, 1973), All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Simon & Schuster, 1974), Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (Little, Brown, 1938), and Murrow by A.M. Sperber (Freundlich, 1986). All well and good, but certainly not blogworthy, at least not in the blogistic judgment of this particular blogist, yours truly. So why are you bringing this up in the first place you might be asking at this point, especially if you have somehow managed to not pay attention to the title of this post. And aha!, there you have it, Brokaw's book number five, well, Tom, why don't you tell the people in your own words:

5. Amusing Ourselves to Death
By Neil Postman
Viking, 1985

Neil Postman's polemic is at once provocative, exaggerated, insightful, myopic and instructive. Instructive because Postman does raise appropriate warning flags about relying wholly on television as a medium for serious inquiry about ideas. Myopic because he fails to acknowledge television's role as a catalyst for learning. Favorable attention for a book on television spurs many more sales than a newspaper's positive review. He is right, however, when he observes that TV's entertainment values can smother rational discourse if the two are not kept in balance. As for his claim that the medium's "form excludes content," it is an exaggerated judgment. Take the subject of global climate change. Scientific arguments are of course essential to making the case, but it would be hard to deny how much the images of shrinking ice caps, rising sea levels and parched landscapes reinforce the arguments. Nonetheless, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," a cautionary tale, should be required reading for all broadcast journalists -- and perhaps for their viewers as well.

So, it's wonderful that the work of my mentor and one of the all-time great media ecologists was included in Brokaw's list. Without a doubt, it is a cause for celebration, and for praising Mr. Brokaw, who was in fact my favorite of the Three Tenors, Dan Rather seeming to have gone off the deep end at some point during the Reagan Era, and Peter Jennings being too biased against Israel, and just too damn Canadian (every time he said "aboot" it grated on my sensitive New Yawker ears). Okay, enough trash talk, and well, thank you Tom for exhibiting such good taste.

So, maybe it's just being defensive to want to argue a bit here, but I can't help but take issue with some of the things that Brokaw says about Neil's book, like exaggerated and myopic. Brokaw is himself being myopic when he talks about television being a catalyst for serious learning. Yes, it can happen, but there are always counter-currents in even the most swiftly flowing river. More often than not, after watching a report on a topic on television, the viewer has the illusion of being sufficiently informed, rather than being motivated to seek out more information.

As for promoting books, what a ridiculous point to make. Sure, favorable attention on television will generate more sales, but how often does a book get any attention at all??? And of the many, many books that are published, how many get the tiniest bit of attention on television??? So, all television does is intensify the star system for books that started in the early 20th century with bestseller listings and book-of-the-month clubs. It's great if you are one of Oprah's picks, sure, and not bad if you get a moment on the Daily Show, but promoting the sale of a few select titles is not the same as promoting book sales in general, quite the reverse, and promoting sales is not the same thing as promoting reading itself. Brokaw completely misses the point that time spent with the electronic media is time taken away from books, magazines and newspapers.

As for images reinforcing arguments, such as the images associated with global warming, there is no question that dramatic visuals capture attention and generate visceral, emotional responses on the part of the audience. Postman makes that point repeatedly in Amusing Ourselves to Death. You might further say that it was impossible to convince people about the problem of global warming earlier on, when all we had to go on was rational argument, statistics, and scientific reports. No good television there. But now that we have images of melting glaciers and massive chunks of ice breaking off, a consensus about global warming is suddenly forming among members of the general public. And it can be equally argued that those images offer no proof or argument for the validity of global warming, so to the extent that people are convinced by them they are exhibiting faulty judgment, being irrational, relying on images rather that logic. Whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are of the opinion that global warming is true or false, doesn't matter. Whether you believe people are coming to the right or the wrong conclusions, the point is that they are doing so for the wrong reasons, or rather for no reason at all.

Deep down, I think that broadcast journalists believe that Postman's analysis is right, but that television emphasizes entertainment not because of the technology, but because of the industry. If only they were free to follow the dictates of their profession, and not be hamstrung by commercial considerations, television would be able to present serious, in-depth reporting. Well, it's true that PBS does a bit better than the networks (who do better than local TV news programs), but not a whole lot is different from commercial newscasts. And 24-hour cable news channels certainly have not given us much more depth. It's not that it's impossible to do serious journalism on television, it's just that if anyone were to go so far against the bias of the medium, you'd get programming that no one would watch, and that would quickly go off the air.

Broadcast journalists are not that different from Marxist critics in this respect, except that the Marxists would see the journalists as part of the problem, not just their bosses, and would consider the professional practices of journalists and their notions of what news is and is not to be part of the hegemonic system. The problem is that in Communist nations television has also moved towards increasingly more entertaining programming over the decades. Once again, it's not the ideology, it's the technology stupid!

There is no escaping the fact that the medium is the message, and the message of television news is basically one of reassurance, all is well, no matter what the problems are out there, the newscasters still have the perfect hair, impeccable wardrobes, theme music, cools visuals, etc., and the anchors are still in charge, summoning and dismissing world leaders and other important individuals left and right. And the rule still is, if it bleeds it leads, go for the visuals, go for the gut. The newscast is still nothing more than a strip show, with the newscaster singing, let me entertain you! In Amusing Ourselves to Death, TV presents us with a world of the burlesque, and the grotesque.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mind and Consciousness Symposed

I've been meaning to add a post on the Mind and Consciousness Symposium held at Fordham University on October 27th, which I helped to organize. The symposium followed the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture held the previous evening, which was given by Leonard Shlain this year, sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics. The IGS also was the main sponsor of the symposium, along with several other cosponsors, including our Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham, and the Media Ecology Association.

Here's an image of the front and back covers of the program, which was designed by my friend and colleague Janet Sternberg. I think the picture she came up with for the cover is pretty nifty!

And here's an image of the program innards:

The high points of the event included Kathy Liepe-Levinson talking about the importance of narrative for human communication and time-binding--this was one of the most thoughtful presentations of the symposium, and Marty Levinson reading from his book, Practical Fairy Tales for Everyday Living. We also took the opportunity to present Marty with the Media Ecology Association's Susanne K. Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form for his previous book, Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times. The MEA's awards presentations are held at our annual convention, but since Marty couldn't make it to Mexico City, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the presentation. Here's a photo that his wife snapped of Marty accepting the award:

Another notable presentation was by a High School teacher from Maine, Gary Chapin, in that it was an analysis of high school education based in large part on Neil Postman's notions of the semantic environment. Also, Frank Scardilli of the U.S. Court of Appeals, a venerable general semantics expert, provided a detailed discussion of the semantic environment of the justice system. And I gave a talk about the Ten Commandments as an attempt to change and shape the media environment and semantic environment, drawing on ideas I've discussed previously in this blog and elsewhere.

But the absolute high point for me was the talk by Frank Dance, one of the all time greats in the field of communication, former president of the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association, retired from an endowed chair at the University of Denver, Fordham graduate (back in the fifties, as an English major), Mr. Orality as he is sometimes referred to, and all around terrific guy. Here's a picture of him giving his speech:

Frank gave us an overview of Pavlov's ideas about mind and consciousness, which was altogether fascinating since all we ever hear about old Ivan is the bit about the salivating dogs. And because his American successor in the behavioral school, B. F. Skinner, was so adamant about declaring the mind a black box and therefore off-limits, it was only natural to assume that his predecessor Pavlov saw things in the same light. But apparently that wasn't the case, and interestingly enough, neither was Pavlov terribly sympathetic to Communism, even though his work was held in high esteem in the Soviet Union because it made for a good fit with their ideology. Anyway, here is Frank Dance addressing the audience:

The one thing that stood out for me was when Frank explained that Pavlov defined the term symbol as a sign of a sign, a sign in the old nomenclature referring directly to what it represents, in a kind of causal relationship, and eliciting reflex reactions, whereas the symbol is arbitrary and conventional, with no necessary connection to what it represents, and making it possible to respond with delayed, reflective reactions. The idea that signs and symbols are not two distinct categories set side by side to one another, but rather that symbols are signs of signs, second order signs, or metasigns, just strikes me as incredibly elegant (and if this makes no sense to you because you're not familiar with the study of symbolic communication, then don't worry about it). Anyway, I can't believe I never heard that idea before (unless I did a long time ago and just forgot about it). So, here's me and Frank at our panel:

Also noteworthy was the final talk of the symposium by Milton Dawes, one of my favorite general semanticists, who talked about calculus as a metaphor for life, as lived in accord with general semantics. Additional photographs from the event can be found on the website of the New York Society for General Semantics (another cosponsor of the event), on their news page--as of this writing, it is still the most recent item.

One of the benefits of these events is the opportunity to get together with people who you might not otherwise see. I was particularly pleased that Shelley Postman (Neil's wife) came to the symposium--it's always wonderful to have her with us. What also made the event quite special came about because I had posted notice of the symposium on MySpace, and one of my MySpace friends, artist and writer Lana Deym Campbell, actually came down from Rhode Island and attended the entire event, so we met face-to-face for the first time. After the symposium was over, a few of us went out to eat, and what an interesting group it was, as it consisted of Lana, Shelley, Janet Sternberg, and one of our brightest undergraduates, Jonathan Hogan (and I add with pride that Jonathan recently completed his senior thesis under my direction, using a media ecological perspective to examine themes concerning technology in Iron Man comics!).

All in all, it was a day that expanded minds and raised consciousness, and lifted spirits as well.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Social Networking Flurries

So, there's been a flurry of activity since that social networking article came out in the New York Times (see my previous post), with the piece being picked up by a number of blogists. And it was reprinted on Tuesday, December 4th in the Toronto Globe and Mail (p. L-2), under the title "Logging the ancient history of Facebook"--my friend and fellow media ecologist from up north, Alex Kuskis, sent me an e-mail with a jpeg image of the page, so here it is for the record, albeit too small to really read:

No, it's not the article about the monkey, I know what you were thinking. It's on the right hand column.

Anyway, I really am not at liberty to report about all that's been going on, apart from giving you the basic weather report (see the Vincent Van Gogh Weather Map from the post before last), which is flurries, not a storm.

But on the topic of Web 2.0, a short piece in today's North Jersey Record stands out. This is a theme that came up repeatedly in media ecological discussions in relation to television, how being on camera, or just being covered changes people's behavior, not the least by making them more self-conscious. It was a major issue in Neil Postman's arguments against allowing cameras in the courtroom in New York State, and it comes up in the research that Paul Thaler undertook under Postman's guidance. Here now, it is applied to both the somewhat different phenomenon of being under surveillance, and also to being on YouTube:

Worker fights robber to 'look good' on YouTube
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ELMWOOD PARK – A Dunkin' Donuts employee who whacked a robber over the head with a tip cup Sunday night said only one thought was running through his mind – not looking like a wimp on YouTube.

Dustin Hoffmann, a borough musician who has worked at the coffee and doughnuts chain for 10 months, said he fought back because he wanted to "look good" if the surveillance tape turned up on the popular video-sharing Web site.

"What was going through my mind at that point was that the security tape is either going to show me run away and hide in the office or whack this guy in the head, so I just grabbed the cup and clocked that guy pretty hard," Hoffmann said Monday.

The robber walked into Dunkin' Donuts on westbound Route 46 shortly after 5:30 p.m., ordered a blueberry cake doughnut and handed Hoffmann a dollar bill, Police Chief Donald Ingrasselino said.

As Hoffmann opened the register, the bandit lunged at him behind the counter and started grabbing cash, Ingrasselino said.

But Hoffmann didn't give up the money easily, attempting to stop the robber by grabbing his wrists and hitting him over the head repeatedly with a metal cup used for holding tips, the chief said.

Police are attempting to download the surveillance video in a digital format, but Hoffmann said once it's available, he is putting it on YouTube himself.

"There are only a few videos like that on YouTube now, so mine's going to be the best," Hoffmann said. "That'll teach this guy."

The robber fled with $290 in cash, but not before losing his baseball cap in the scuffle, said Ingrasselino.

The robber, who police described as an unshaven, 5-foot-10 to 6-foot tall white man in his 30s, with a medium build, black hair and long sideburns, was wearing a black baseball cap, a blue sweatshirt, a white T-shirt, blue jeans and beige work boots.

Police believe he is the same man who robbed two Dunkin' Donuts in the past two weeks – one on Route 46 in Parsippany, in which he stole $1,500, and the other on Route 10 in East Hanover in late November.

In January, a Belleville man was charged in connection with a string of burglaries at Dunkin' Donuts shops in Paramus, Garfield, Rutherford and Lodi.

Anyone with information can call police at 201-796-0700.

This is from the Local section of the North Jersey Record, p. L-1 to L-2. The moral of the story is a point made by Henry Perkinson, that television, and by extension video surveillance and YouTube, makes us more moral, in a sense. At least, in this instance, the self-consciousness generated by the media environment makes us concerned about our image, how we appear to others, and therefore about whether our behavior lives up to our ideals. It also shifts the motivation from avoiding guilt, an inner dilemma, to avoiding shame, an outer-directed concern.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Secondary Orality of Social Networking

So, last week I was interviewed over the phone by Alex Wright, a New York Times reporter with a media ecological bent, whose work I've often admired. He was writing a piece on social networking, and looking to apply Walter Ong's concept of secondary orality. How many journalists would or could make that kind of connection?

So, anyway, we had a really great conversation on the subject, and he said he wasn't sure when the article would be published, which is par for the course with these things. And he said he'd let me know, which I've heard before, but journalists usually don't let you know, either because they don't know in advance, or because they're too busy and on to the next assignment. As a media scholar, I certainly understand, although it's inevitably been disappointing.

This time, though, Alex e-mailed me that the article would be appearing in tomorrow's (Sunday's) New York Times Week in Review section. Now, I know from experience that you can't get the Week in Review on the web the day before (you can get some of the other sections). And the thought crossed my mind to try to buy a copy of the Sunday Times tonight, but it's cold out, and the paper will be delivered tomorrow morning (actually, half of it comes today, but it's stuff like the magazine, book review, arts & leisure, etc.). So, I figured I'd wait and see.

So, irony of ironies, I get an e-mail this evening from an old MA student from Fordham University, Elizabeth Hatfield, who is now working on her doctorate at Texas A&M University. And get this, she writes: "I saw your quotes in the NY Times article on Facebook comparing it to tribal societies today and found it very interesting"!!!! So, social networking beats all, don't it now?

It took me a little effort to track down the article through Facebook, since I'm not that familiar with the site as I am with MySpace, but I managed to find the link, which actually does go to the New York Times website. And as for the link to the article, click here. But I'll also save you the trip:

Friending, Ancient or Otherwise

Published: December 2, 2007

THE growing popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Second Life has thrust many of us into a new world where we make “friends” with people we barely know, scrawl messages on each other’s walls and project our identities using totem-like visual symbols.
We’re making up the rules as we go. But is this world as new as it seems?
Academic researchers are starting to examine that question by taking an unusual tack: exploring the parallels between online social networks and tribal societies. In the collective patter of profile-surfing, messaging and “friending,” they see the resurgence of ancient patterns of oral communication.
“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”
The growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like “talking” than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that “literature is not remarks”).
“If you examine the Web through the lens of orality, you can’t help but see it everywhere,” says Irwin Chen, a design instructor at Parsons who is developing a new course to explore the emergence of oral culture online. “Orality is participatory, interactive, communal and focused on the present. The Web is all of these things.”
An early student of electronic orality was the Rev. Walter J. Ong, a professor at St. Louis University and student of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term “secondary orality” in 1982 to describe the tendency of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures. The work of Father Ong, who died in 2003, seems especially prescient in light of the social-networking phenomenon. “Oral communication,” as he put it, “unites people in groups.”
In other words, oral culture means more than just talking. There are subtler —and perhaps more important — social dynamics at work.
Michael Wesch, who teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, spent two years living with a tribe in Papua New Guinea, studying how people forge social relationships in a purely oral culture. Now he applies the same ethnographic research methods to the rites and rituals of Facebook users.
“In tribal cultures, your identity is completely wrapped up in the question of how people know you,” he says. “When you look at Facebook, you can see the same pattern at work: people projecting their identities by demonstrating their relationships to each other. You define yourself in terms of who your friends are.”
In tribal societies, people routinely give each other jewelry, weapons and ritual objects to cement their social ties. On Facebook, people accomplish the same thing by trading symbolic sock monkeys, disco balls and hula girls.
“It’s reminiscent of how people exchange gifts in tribal cultures,” says Dr. Strate, whose MySpace page lists his 1,335 “friends” along with his academic credentials and his predilection for “Battlestar Galactica.”
As intriguing as these parallels may be, they only stretch so far. There are big differences between real oral cultures and the virtual kind. In tribal societies, forging social bonds is a matter of survival; on the Internet, far less so. There is presumably no tribal antecedent for popular Facebook rituals like “poking,” virtual sheep-tossing or drunk-dialing your friends.
Then there’s the question of who really counts as a “friend.” In tribal societies, people develop bonds through direct, ongoing face-to-face contact. The Web eliminates that need for physical proximity, enabling people to declare friendships on the basis of otherwise flimsy connections.
“With social networks, there’s a fascination with intimacy because it simulates face-to-face communication,” Dr. Wesch says. “But there’s also this fundamental distance. That distance makes it safe for people to connect through weak ties where they can have the appearance of a connection because it’s safe.”
And while tribal cultures typically engage in highly formalized rituals, social networks seem to encourage a level of casualness and familiarity that would be unthinkable in traditional oral cultures. “Secondary orality has a leveling effect,” Dr. Strate says. “In a primary oral culture, you would probably refer to me as ‘Dr. Strate,’ but on MySpace, everyone calls me ‘Lance.’ ”
As more of us shepherd our social relationships online, will this leveling effect begin to shape the way we relate to each other in the offline world as well? Dr. Wesch, for one, says he worries that the rise of secondary orality may have a paradoxical consequence: “It may be gobbling up what’s left of our real oral culture.”
The more time we spend “talking” online, the less time we spend, well, talking. And as we stretch the definition of a friend to encompass people we may never actually meet, will the strength of our real-world friendships grow diluted as we immerse ourselves in a lattice of hyperlinked “friends”?
Still, the sheer popularity of social networking seems to suggest that for many, these environments strike a deep, perhaps even primal chord. “They fulfill our need to be recognized as human beings, and as members of a community,” Dr. Strate says. “We all want to be told: You exist.”

And there you have it. I'm looking forward to teaching a course on social networking for the first time next semester, and now I have a new reading to assign (insert smiley face here). And I think I should take Alex Wright to lunch, don't you? Anyway, I gotta go now. I figure I should also be posting this on my MySpace blog, so my 1,335 "friends" can all see it too.