Saturday, February 28, 2009

Know Your Medium--Know Yourself

So, this was just a little tidbit that came to me while I was twittering away recently, so let me reiterate:

Know Your Medium

Know Yourself

or maybe I should use archaic language to make it sound better?

Know Thy Medium

Know Thyself

Take your pick, either one works for me. And I suppose I could leave it at that, keep it all oracular and aphoristic and, well, mcluhanesque, but then again maybe it's worth saying a little bit more about what this means.

Let's start with the second part. The admonition to know yourself was said to have been written outside of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, back in ancient Greece. No one's quite sure who first said, perhaps old Socrates himself, or one of the pre-Socratic philosophers and Ionian physicists such as Thales or Heraclitus, or maybe it was that old mathematician Pythagoras. Although the Oracle at Delphi is mentioned in Homer's epic poetry, and no doubt originates in the oral culture of ancient Greece, the addition of these words, and perhaps the Temple itself, is a product of a literate mindset. Indeed, it is not possible to know oneself without a mirror of some sorts. A mirror image allows us to reflect upon and become self-consicous of our looks. A mirror image of one's mind allows the same to happen regarding our thoughts, and this is exactly what writing provides. The written word lets us spill our thoughts out on a physical writing surface, freeze them to view and review, and it is only in this way that you can begin to know your own mind. Without writing, there is little capacity for introspection.

Writing then gives rise to the notion that we might have an individual self, a self that is distinct and separate from any other, not bound up inextricably in one's family and tribe, but a single self like a single cell. You might say that writing gives us a self to know, but having done so, we do not automatically set about knowing that self. To do so requires extra effort, additional consciousness raising.

Most media work in this way, extending and externalizing part of ourselves, as McLuhan makes clear in Understanding Media. Each medium, then, lets us learn a little bit more about ourselves, lets us see a different angle of ourselves. But even more basically, each medium lets us create a different self altogether, and every new medium leads to the creation of a new kind of self.

At this point I should probably invoke the perspective known as symbolic interaction, pioneered by George Herbert Mead, popularized by Erving Goffman. From this point of view, we do not have one true self, but rather many different selves, each one true in its own way. You are a different self, in large part because you play a different role, in different situations, for example, when interacting with parents, or when interacting with friends, or when interacting with lovers, or when interacting with coworkers, or when interacting with teachers, or when interacting with children, etc.

Each and every role we play is a self we create for ourselves, and we are the sum of the roles we play, the sum of the selves we construct. As H. D. Duncan has put it, we have a parliament of selves.

Each situation also involves a different relationship, and to bring in now the relational theory of Paul Watzlawick, our selves are defined in our relationships. They never exist in isolation. I can only play the role of teacher if there are students who will accept me in that role, and play their complementary parts in the relationship. They play an integral part in defining me as my teacher-self.

So, now, each medium is also a situation, as Josh Meyrowitz has argued in No Sense of Place, and each medium is also a relationship, as Kenneth Gergen shows in The Saturated Self. So, for each medium that you interact through, you construct a different and new role and self (albeit one that may be similar to others in your repetoire). When you are working with social media, this is very obvious at the moment you create a profile for yourself, but the process doesn't end after the profile is finished. In fact, it has only just begun. You create your self though your subsequent communication behaviors, as your relate to and interact with others. This connects, then, to my previously posted point that You Are What You Tweet.

So, in order to know which self you are at any given time, you have to know which medium or media you are communicating within. And to fully know that self, you have to know that medium well, to understand its nature, its biases, its impact and its effects--its media ecology, so to speak.

So, if you know your medium, you can also know yourself, or at least know one part of yourself, and that may be more than many people know... and if nothing else, certainly, it's a start!

Friday, February 27, 2009

An Interview About Blog Time Passing

Well, I was recommended, by my friend Paul Levinson I suspect, for an interview on So I went over to their website, filled out the online interview, and voila, I've been approved and my interview, complete with link to this website, is listed over there. The URL is in case you were wondering (you were wondering, weren't you?)

So you can click on that hot and hyperlinked URL above, or on this pretty picture below, which they also provide. And like a great many things online, they play the rankings game, so you can actually vote for, or against my blog if you go over there. I know I don't have to tell you what the right thing to do is, of course.

I'll think I'll also add this to a side panel of my blog, why not? I have no illusions about making it to the top, but it'll make for a cute addition...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Information Theory and Communication

So, one of my old Fordham students, John Farrelly, recently sent me an e-mail alerting me to a video online on vimeo (similar to youtube), which turned out to be an educational film from 1953 about communication from a distinctly information theory-based perspective. It's by Ray and Charles Eames, entitled A Communication Primer. The subjects covered in the film are topics I always used to cover in my introductory classes (I haven't taught one in a number of years, though).

Communication as a discipline, and Communication Departments as a feature of institutions of higher education are for the most part a product of the postwar era, post-World War II that is, so we're talking late 1940s and beyond--for example, Fordham's communication department was created in 1946, combining radio, journalism, and theater. And information theory and cybernetics, two related concepts coming out of MIT and forming a theoretical framework based on science, mathematics, and engineering, were embraced early on as the basis of a legitimate science of communication. Not quite a paradigm, by the sixties more psychological perspectives were taking hold, especially those rooted in Rogerian/cliented-centered/humanistic therapies.

But information theory and cybernetics remained part of the basic curriculum in communication back when I was an undergraduate major in the 1970s, and for some time after that. However, it seems that their presence was on the decline, and the textbooks that I used did not give them adequate coverage, not at all. Of course, I was able to make up for that in lectures and class discussion, but I have to wonder how much of this tradition has been lost over the years?

I say lost, and it truly is a loss, because this theory group has something important to contribute to our understanding of communication, and to our understanding in general. This material was also part of the basic curriculum for the old media ecology program, even though it was not directly connected to the work of Mumford, Innis, McLuhan, Havelock, Langer, Ong, Ellul, or any of the others--one notable exception being James Beniger's brilliant work, The Control Revolution; also worth mentioning is Jeremy Campbell's Grammatical Man.

Additionally, these ideas informed the work of folks like Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick, Erving Goffman, Edward T. Hall, Ray Birdwhistell, whose work cut across anthropology and psychology--there were collectively known as the Palo Alto group long before Palo Alto became known as Silicon Valley. Relatedly, information theory and cybernetics provides a foundation for systems theory, and the more recent concepts of chaos, complexity, and autopoiesis. Order and chaos are mediated by information. This all goes back to Claude Shannon's information theory, popularized by Warren Weaver, and to Norbert Wiener's cybernetics.

And of course, back when Shannon, Weaver, and Wiener were all coming up with this stuff, there was no such thing as computers. At least, not as we know it. The word computer referred to a person who performs calculations. The first calculating machines were just being developed at the end of the Second World War, and telephone systems were the height of complexity, and had much to do with the origins of information theory. And yet, this was the beginning of digital technology, binary code, and the like. This clearly can be seen in this film.

So, while there is entertainment value in the 1950s era documentary style, really, it's okay to laugh if you feel the urge, there is also something important to be learned about the new media, the digital media, yes, the participatory media, from this film. So, take a look:

I should add that between the time that John brought this video to my attention, and the time I got around to writing this entry, the video was removed from vimeo. Disappointing, to be sure, but I was not prepared to abandon the effort, so I did a google search for "Eames' A Communications Primer" and found it still available on (and there seems to be an option to download the film on a menu on the lefthand side). Hopefully, this video will still be there by the time you're reading this. If not, well, that's life on the electronic frontier.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Name of the Medium or Getting on Track with the New

I've been meaning to do a post about this for a while now, so here goes. My department at Fordham University, the Department of Communication and Media Studies, has been doing a bit of a review of our curriculum, and I volunteered to work on our undergraduate New Media track, along with my colleague Ed Wachtel. I should add here that I've known Ed for almost 30 years now, having met him when I was an MA student at Queens College of the City University of New York; Ed was the assistant director of the multimedia lab at Queens College when I started there, and then became director during my second year there, all while completing his doctorate at New York University with Neil Postman in the good old media ecology program (Joshua Meyrowitz was the head of the lab during my first year, before he completed his PhD in media ecology and headed off to New Hampshire, and both Ed and Josh convinced me to apply for admission to the media ecology doctoral program, which I did; Ed went on to Temple University in Philly for a couple of years before getting a position at Fordham, where I eventually followed him).

So, the Multimedia Lab at Queens College featured multi-image lecture support, giant lecture rooms equipped with multiple slide projectors coordinated by computer console, programable with music on a reel-to-reel tape player, all rear projection, and film projection was also available. This was the big, hot thing back in the late 70s, back before PowerPoint presentations and IMAX theaters. And back in the mid 90s, Ed had set up the Edward A. Walsh Media Lab at Fordham for our department, which was equipped with Macintosh computers, and then launched a new curriculum concentration to go with it. His emphasis was on media production, including digital video, which then was a new alternative to traditional analog video. I remember well the department meeting where we discussed the new track, which Ed had wanted to name Digital Media. There were some objections to this designation, and the concentration ended up with the name New Media instead.

Perhaps this was fortuitous, as nowadays almost all media are digital media in some sense. But at a department meeting last year there were some remarks about how the new media are no longer all that new, and some suggestions along the lines of combining the New Media track with the Radio/Television track as Electronic Media. As a media ecologist, I wouldn't mind having an Electronic Media track alongside one devoted to Writing and Print, and one concentrating on Oral Communication, but that would not be the case here. Rather, we have tracks in Journalism, and in Film, and also one that's analytical and critical in orientation, called Media, Culture and Society. And I do believe that there is a very significant distinction to be maintained between electronic media that more or less follow in the tradition of broadcasting, and the new media that we've been talking about since the early 90s, or 80s even, that are associated with computing technology.

So, then, the problem we were faced with is, what should be the name of the New Media track? Some of the possibilities that immediately come to mind are somewhat dated, like Cyberspace (one of my old favorites) or Cybermedia, Virtual Reality, Hypermedia, and the like. Interactive Media was an early favorite, but aside from being somewhat dated too, doesn't cover something like digital video, or even necessarily applies to websites. Internet Studies and Online Media do not cover alternatives like a DVD-ROM or much of video and computer gaming, and neither does Social Media, as much as I like that term. Computer-mediated communication is associated with interpersonal communication in particular. And I could go on and on, but the point is that there doesn't seem to be one good term that covers everything.

So what else to do but enlist the new media in this effort, which I did by posting the following message on Twitter;

Meeting with my colleague Ed Wachtel to revise our new media curriculum. Not even sure what to call it--new media? Interactive? Digital?

I then got a response from New Media maven Howard Rheingold, who wrote (and I relate his tweets with his permission):

I know it's a long word, but "Participative" or "Participatory" media goes to the essence of what is important about "new" media

This suggestion was a new one for me, and I rather liked it. Ed wasn't quite so thrilled with it, so I responded

great idea, thanks! I love "Participatory Media" but my colleague says it doesn't cover his area, digital video production

Howard then answered back with two more tweets:

Does that mean that your colleague means digital video is strictly a broadcast medium, confined to a guild of professionals?

i.e., isn't YouTube participatory?I'm sure you know @mwesch video an anthroplogical introductionto youtube

In that last post, he makes a reference to media ecologist and anthropologist Mike Wesch, and a link to a major address Mike gave, which is well worth tuning into. Here, let me go get it for you, so you can check it out at your leisure:

But not to get sidetracked, I responded with a series of messages about Ed:

He doesn't see digital video as strictly broadcast, but as more than social media like YouTube

He sees production as distinct from interaction and participation, a solitary, sequestered affair, even if collaborative

I did remind him of the portapak revolution of the late 60s/early 70s, which he was a part of, which democratized video

The portapak revolution is a reference to the introduction of portable video cameras and recorders. Here's the wikipedia write-up on portapak. So, Howard responds with

The Martian Report was done on a Portapak in 1977

Well, Rheingold's old portapak video is kinda neat, so let me embed it here

So, I responded with

The Martian Report holds up well, LOL! The portapak pioneers were big on McLuhan, and took the term "media ecology" from Postman

I think it worth noting that a magazine put out by those portapak people, Radical Software, has been made available online (just click on the title). The first issue has an early reference to media ecology, albeit out of context, and includes contributions from media ecology-minded folks such as Paul Ryan (Marshall McLuhan's assistant when he was at Fordham), Frank Gillette, multimedia maven Gene Youngblood, and even Buckminster Fuller. The third issue contains a short piece entitled "Media Ecology" by Raymond Arlo, who was studying with Neil Postman in the media ecology program (but made no mention of the fact, or of Neil, in his article). Anyway, Howard went on to remark

I can't help thinking that concentrating solely on the means of production misses a large part of the point of new media

To which I responded

the problem isn't concentrating solely on means of production, it's making it clear that production is part of the track

And Howard answered

I agree that digital production tools and techniques are important, but you have to make trade-offs for short labels

And I came back with two more messages

If it were up to me, I'd call it Participatory Media, I think that's an excellent way to map the territory.

It's the problem of semantic reactions, and departmental politics.

The term semantic reactions comes from general semantics, in case you were wondering, and refers to the way we make meaning out of stimuli, including the problem of responding to symbols as if they were things. At this point, the conversation had shifted to a meta-level, and Howard remarked in two messages

@stevenbjohnson 's latest book, The Invention of Air, gets into the idea that disciplinary specialization is recent

and of course I understand that departmental politics aren't going to go away, and that names matter there

And that's what this is about, the realpolitik of academia. Which brought to mind an old quip, that I related:

yes indeed! McLuhan and Postman both used to joke that universities suffer from the hardening of the categories!

Now, another friend and fellow media ecologist, Matt Thomas, who had been following this exchange on Twitter, chimed in with

Thanks for including me in the conversation! Why do we feel the need to append new/social/digital/ to media at all?

And Howard answered with

Thanks. What to call "new media" is a puzzle. "Social media" seems to be emerging among early adopters, but could be more active
And later

Because we are in the midst of a sea change from broadcast media to many to many media, which is branching into many forms

And I went on to summarize in a couple of messages:

The problem with "social media" is they're not all social. The problem with "new media" is they're not that new now

The problem with digital media is that everything is digital now, including broadcasting and film. It's a conundrum!

Then a bit later on, I responded to Matt more specifically:

It's an issue for curriculum. We have separate tracks for journalism, broadcasting, film, and more recently new media

Some in the dept. think new media and broadcasting should be combined as electronic media. I think they should be distinct.

So, anyway, I thought we were just going to stick with New Media, but several days later I was able to send Howard the following tweet:

So my colleague came around, and we're proposing to change the track to New Media/Participatory Media, a compromise position

Ed had thought it over, and decided that Participatory Media was a good idea after all, but we also agreed to retain New Media for the sake of clarity. So the next step was for me to prepare a report, on behalf of the New Media Task Force, aka me and Ed, to the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee. Which I did. And I thought I'd share with you the first item first of all, where I presented the proposal for changing the name of the track, and explained it:

1. Name Change: New Media/Participatory Media. We retain the term "new media" for the sake of continuity, and because the term itself remains current. Although the new media are no long brand new, they still are significantly newer than traditional mass media such as television, radio, cinema, and newspapers; moreover, the new media continue to evolve, most recently through the appearance of Web 2.0 and social networking (e.g., blogs, podcasts, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Second Life, etc.).

Because "new media" alone does not adequately identify what is distinctive about this area of study, especially in light of the trend towards media convergence, we have added the term "participatory media" to the name of the track. New media invite and often require participation in two ways. One, they emphasize the active creation of media content, a do-it-yourself approach, media production that is often personal and individual. Two, they emphasize interactivity with the user, as is the case with computer programming, gaming, and the web, and/or facilitate interaction among users, be it mediated interpersonal communication or group discussion, or social media. The term "participatory media" captures all of these varieties of participation under one heading, and also suggests the democratizing potential of the new media. (As a side note of interest, we came by this term appropriately enough through the use of the new media. I sent a message on Twitter that we were considering renaming the track and asked for suggestions, and new media maven Howard Rheingold responded by suggesting "participatory or participative media.")

New Media/Participatory Media stands in contrast to the traditional media of mass communication associated with journalism, cinema, and broadcasting. While all of our tracks overlap with each other to some degree, the other tracks focus on media that tend to be associated with large, complex organizations and relatively established media industries, involving highly professional communicators generally working in competitive, commercial environments (or heavily goal-oriented for the non-profit sector).

The report goes on to detail classes to be deleted from the curriculum, changes, etc. I'll leave out all the administrative material and just include the list of classes that would make up the revised track. This is not an entirely new curriculum, not created from scratch according to my own vision. No, this is a revision of the curriculum that already exists. I therefore make no claims for this as a model curriculum, just an example of one that works.

First, every track in our major has its own introductory course:

A comprehensive overview of the history and forms of the new media and the possibilities they offer for participation and interaction. Explorations of the cognitive and cultural implications and issues surrounding computers and computer-mediated communication, digital technologies, gaming, the internet, the web, social media, and online communication.

This next course is also listed as a Media, Culture and Society (analytical/critical) course (Media, Culture, and Society is another track, but all majors have to take at least two of these courses):

Explores theoretical and critical perspectives on technology, with special emphasis on the impact of technology on communication, culture and consciousness; the symbolic component of technology; the ecology of media; the process of technological innovation and the diffusion of innovations; the role of media and culture in the creation of a technical society.

And now this:

CM*U 2303- DIGITAL AUDIO DESIGN (4.00 credits)
A comprehensive introduction to the principles and techniques of audio production. Instruction in the use of portable audio equipment as well as in production and post-production skills. A hands-on approach augmented with readings and listening to audio material.

Analysis and practice of visual design as applied to new, interactive media such as the World Wide Web, multimedia and hypertext, and as applied to traditional media - print, television and film - in an age of digital production. Classes are structured around readings, viewings and production assignments.

Here's another Media, Culture, and Society course:

A study of the technological, social and cultural events that created digital media and its emerging cyberculture. An exploration of digital media environments and digital research techniques.

And now some more of this:

CM*U 2527-WRITING FOR ONLINE MEDIA (4.00 credits)
An exploration of the theory and practice of electronic writing, writing for websites and blogs, nonlinear and multidimensional computer-based documents, and the linking and networking of text and other media.

CM*U 3222-PROJECTS IN DIGITAL VIDEO (4.00 credits)
Students explore the processes of video making, from concept to screen. They write treatments, develop scripts and storyboards, and plan and execute all phases of digital video production and post-production. Prerequisite(s): CM 2222 or permission of instructor

CM*U 3307-SOCIAL MEDIA (4.00 credits)
An exploration of computer-mediated communication, electronic networking, online Internet communication and emerging interactive social contexts.

CM*U 3978-Online Journalism_CM*V
Description needed.

This next course satisfies the requirement that majors take one course on Ethics, Law, and Policy, and also the College's core curriculum requirement for a Senior Values course:

(4.00 credits)
An examination of the choices and responsibilities which shape personal identity and common humanity for those who regularly employ the tools of digital media and computer technology. Regular use of digital media enables individuals to separate from their physical selves and from the community spaces in which they have traditionally lived. This course focuses on the resulting ethical tensions.

And I also threw in two courses that ought to be added:

CM*V xxxx – GAMING
(4.00 credits)
History and analysis of gaming, including videogames, computer gaming, and online gaming. Examination of issues and controversies, research and criticism on effects, industry, technology, and aesthetics involved.

(4.00 credits)
A study of cell phone and other mobile communications devices.

And that's about all there is to that. Of course, all this is just the result of a task force, aka me and Ed, making a report to a committee. The chair of the committee immediately expressed doubts about the new name for the track, and I'm sure others will have the same reaction. And anyway this would have to be discussed and approved by the committee, and then by the department, so this is far from a done deal. In fact, all this work may have been a complete waste of time. It wouldn't be the first time that this kind of work amounted to nothing more than the spinning of wheels.

Well, it would be a complete waste of time if nothing more came of the proposal, except that it made for an interesting discussion on Twitter, of course, and on this blog. The new media are participatory media, so work that might otherwise never see the light of day becomes a post that might be useful to someone, somewhere, sometime, and of passing interest to others. Not too shabby, not too shabby at all!

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Visual Display of the Credit Crisis

I make no secret of the fact that I'm no wizard when it comes to financial matters, just an absent-minded professor, good with words, not so much with numbers. So when several folks I follow on Twitter all tweeted about this video visualization of the credit crisis, my first reaction was, meh! But I do have an interest in the general topic of the visual display of information, and how form influences meaning--see, for example, my previous post about power point: PowerPoint, What's the Point?

So, I'm going to present you with this video created by Jonathan Jarvis, which is an example of a thoughtful and relatively effective use of dynamic iconic visuals to explain a complex topic. Of course, it is also good to get a better handle on the financial crisis itself, and I can tell you that this video has helped me to understand what happened better. Of course, ignorance is bliss, so you might not want to watch this after all. The text under the video below comes courtesy of Jarvis, I should add.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

The Short and Simple Story of the Credit Crisis.

The goal of giving form to a complex situation like the credit crisis is to quickly supply the essence of the situation to those unfamiliar and uninitiated. This project was completed as part of my thesis work in the Media Design Program, a graduate studio at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

For more on my broader thesis work exploring the use of new media to make sense of a increasingly complex world, visit

A last word from our sponsor, Blog Time Passing, that is, from me. Neil Postman often argued against using visual aids, because he considered words a superior intellectual medium in comparison to images. But he also was critical of the use of numbers and statistics as a rhetorical device, of the tendency to automatically confer authority upon them in an uncritical manner. In this instance, I think we have an appropriate use of visuals to explain a complex situation involving quantitative factors, and I think that Neil would agree that this video neither amuses nor informs us to death.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Valentine's Seizure

So, my daughter has another seizure last night. She's been seizure free since the two she had during the summer of 2007. I posted several times about what occurred back then:

Autism and Seizures
Seizure Synchronicity
An Uncertain Independence Day
Second Seizure
Another Uncertain Homecoming

This time around, she didn't go to the hospital, and she didn't injure herself like she did the first time. In all probability, she needs an increased dose of her anti-seizure medication, having grown quite a bit over the last couple of years. And since she turned 13 a little over a month ago, and seizure activity in autistic children is often connected to puberty (and about 30% of individuals with autism also get seizures), well, it's quite likely that that will be a factor as well.

She recovered relatively quickly last night, and has been fine all day today, so we're hoping for the best. Some Valentine's Day, huh? Not quite what I imagined when I was cutting out little hearts and valentine cards to give out back when I was in elementary school. Just file this one under the heading, Autism Sucks.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Louis CK "Everything's amazing, nobody's happy"

So, Shelley Postman sent me an email forwarding the link to this video, which she had received from her son Andrew (and hey Andy, why wasn't I included on your distribution list, huh, huh?). I myself am not familiar with this comedian, Louis CK, but I will most definitely be checking him out after seeing this clip. It's about 4 minutes, taken from an appearance on Conan O'Brien, and the sentiment is perfectly in tune with Neil Postman and media ecology in general. And to be honest, I have had thoughts along these lines, especially concerning the improbability of being in a big heavy metal object way up in the sky, on numerous occasions. So, here's the link to the site it appears on, it isn't youtube you see, but heck, I'll give you the video itself, why, because I like you, and want you to enjoy it here and now, without undue delay, in fact why are you still reading this when you could be watching, huh, huh, huh???

Louis CK "Everything's amazing, nobody's happy"

Still laughing? I know I am.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Afro-Semitic Experience

So, I just returned from a delightful Friday night service at Congregation Adas Emuno, a very special (as they say on TV) service. Adas Emuno is a Reform synagogue, which means that there's a great deal of room for experimentation and innovation in our approach to religious ritual. And our spiritual leader, Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, is a Cantor, which means that we're very much musically oriented. And this week we had a musical service featuring a band called The Afro-Semitic Experience. The music was fabulous, and the place was packed, standing room only, something that we only see on the High Holy Days (that's Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashonah in case you don't know).

One reason for the big turnout was that one of our Trustees, Virginia Gitter, was able to get the Bergen Record, aka the North Jeresey Record (one of the biggest papers in the country actually, although not as well known as the ones across the Hudson) to run an article about it yesterday (Thursday, February 5, 2009). If you want to go over to their site to read the article click here. Otherwise, stick around, I'll walk you through it. The article is written by John Chadwick, a Record staff writer, and it's entitled, "Multiracial ensemble meshes rich tradition." So, let's get started:

When a Jewish bass player and an African-American pianist decided to perform sacred songs, they didn't know how their respective musical and spiritual traditions would mesh.

Their first gig, in the late 1990s, was at a Connecticut synagogue's Martin Luther King tribute service.

"I had never even been to a synagogue before," said Warren Byrd, the pianist. "This was something totally brand new for me."

Yet minutes into the gig, which included a slow, meditative version of the Jewish liturgical standard "Shalom Aleichem," Byrd knew that he and bassist David Chevan were on to something.

"We were truly coming together in a way that people hadn't chosen to come together before," Byrd said. "Grandiosity was present to some degree."

That was the beginning of the Afro-Semitic Experience, a multi-racial ensemble that has set out to preserve, interpret and fuse Jewish and African-American musical traditions.

David was pretty much the spokesman for the group tonight, and he talked a little about how he and Warren go back a long way. Anyway, at this point, the article gets to our congregation:

On Friday, the group, now a six-piece band, will bring its complex, jazzy music and its message of spiritual brotherhood to a Shabbat service at Congregation Adas Emuno, a Reform synagogue in Leonia. They will perform during the service and accompany the congregation's spiritual leader, Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro.

Spencer-Shapiro said she saw the Afro-Semitic Experience during her student days in New York City and was impressed.

"I kind of put it away in a mental file because I knew wherever I ended up, one day I would want them to perform," Spencer-Shapiro said. "What they do is so special."

She said the band is a good fit for Adas Emuno, which practices "big tent Judaism." The synagogue of 120 families has some interfaith couples and some interracial families.

"It is a very liberal, open congregation," Spencer-Shapiro said. "Our doors are open and everyone is welcome."

Good job, Cantor! And now, let's learn more about the band:

The Afro-Semitic Experience draws from a range of influences — Duke Ellington, Hebrew cantorial music, black spirituals. In concert, the group can move from a danceable groove to a haunting Sephardic melody to a spacey, free jazz accompaniment of the 23rd Psalm.

"It's really a non-dogmatic approach," said Chevan, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in Amherst, Mass. "We are not looking at the things that are specific to one religion or another, but the things that we have in common, like community, coming together, healing the sick and taking care of the poor."

Chevan was playing in a jazz band with Byrd in the late 1990s when one night he heard Byrd playing the gospel song "Soon and Very Soon," by Andrae Crouch. The two ended up talking about the relationship between religion and jazz and began showing each other songs.

"I was showing him some synagogue things, some Passover melodies, and he was showing me some African-American church things, such as "Precious Lord Take my Hand," said Chevan, a music professor at Southern Connecticut State University.

That exchange led to the duo's first gig at Chevan's synagogue. Pleased at the response, they recruited more musicians and began attracting a following through word of mouth. They currently play 35 to 40 shows a year at houses of worship and multicultural centers, balancing the gigs with their own musical careers.

The current lineup of three whites and three blacks isn't strictly divided between Christians and Jews. One member is a Lebanese Christian. Another follows an African folk religion.

Chevan attends a liberal Reform synagogue, but draws from many Jewish influences, both traditional and postmodern.

Byrd grew up in urban Hartford, steeped in gospel music, and became an accomplished jazz musician who has toured internationally and played with artists such as Archie Shepp.

He describes the Afro-Semitic Experience as "spiritual jazz."

Spiritual jazz, yes, that's the phrase I was looking for, because the music really defies easy categorization. Oh, and Warren has just a little more to say:

"Our intent is to help people move beyond themselves and see things in broader terms and see we are all connected," he said. "And to then become peaceful in that realization and move forward in life as we face the struggles of simply being alive."

"That is as deeply spiritual as you can be."

Actually, if you go to their website, THE AFRO-SEMITIC EXPERIENCE, it says,

Imagine a band that understands and can present interpretations of music from traditions as rich as Gospel, Klezmer, Nigunim, Spirituals, and Swing and you have the Afro-Semitic Experience. This is a group that is as comfortable playing a freylakh as they are swinging a blues, that knows how to playing either a bulgar or some funk. Multi-cultural soul.

Anyway, they have CDs for sale (I'm getting them myself), and they play at religious services, clubs, concerts, and still do wedding and Bar Mitzvahs! And you can listen to three of their songs on their website too, just click here to go to that page. They played the first song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," as the first part of their music sermon, and it was just wonderful. Give it a listen, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

So, what's the occasion, you might ask? Go ahead, ask... Ok, since you ask, the Sabbath this particular week is called Shabbat Shira, because the Torah portion for this week comes from the Book of Exodus, including chapter 15, which contains the oldest recorded lyrics to a song, the song the Israelites sing after Moses parts the Red Sea, leads them safely across, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit until they are drowned by God. The Torah scroll was later held up, and we could see that this portion had an unusual layout that indicated that it was a poetry or lyrics--most of the Torah has a very basic layout to it, as this was not a consideration in the ancient world, not much of a consideration until Gutenberg invented his printing press, really. Anyway, here's a translation that loses the beautiful poetry of the Hebrew, but gets across an idea of what the lyrics are about:

1. Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea. 2. The Eternal's strength and His vengeance were my salvation; this is my God, and I will make Him a habitation, the God of my father, and I will ascribe to Him exaltation. 3. The Lord is a Master of war; the Lord is His Name. 4. Pharaoh's chariots and his army He cast into the sea, and the elite of his officers sank in the Red Sea. 5. The depths covered them; they descended into the depths like a stone. 6. Your right hand, O Lord, is most powerful; Your right hand, O Lord, crushes the foe. 7. And with Your great pride You tear down those who rise up against You; You send forth Your burning wrath; it devours them like straw. 8. And with the breath of Your nostrils the waters were heaped up; the running water stood erect like a wall; the depths congealed in the heart of the sea. 9. [Because] the enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will share the booty; my desire will be filled from them; I will draw my sword, my hand will impoverish them. 10. You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the powerful waters. 11. Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord? Who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders! 12. You inclined Your right hand; the earth swallowed them up. 13. With Your loving kindness You led the people You redeemed; You led [them] with Your might to Your holy abode. 14. People heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia. 15. Then the chieftains of Edom were startled; [as for] the powerful men of Moab, trembling seized them; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted. 16. May dread and fright fall upon them; with the arm of Your greatness may they become as still as a stone, until Your people cross over, O Lord, until this nation that You have acquired crosses over. 17. You shall bring them and plant them on the mount of Your heritage, directed toward Your habitation, which You made, O Lord; the sanctuary, O Lord, [which] Your hands founded. 18. The Lord will reign to all eternity 19. When Pharaoh's horses came with his chariots and his horsemen into the sea, and the Lord brought the waters of the sea back upon them, and the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea, 20. Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. 21. And Miriam called out to them, Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.

The portion was sung by our Cantor in an especially melodic and beautiful manner. And then David Chevan spoke to the congregation and explained that this Torah portion is especially meaninful to all of them, and to all of us, because it is about the exact moment of transition from slavery to freedom. We were slaves, we, all of us, were slaves on one side of the Red Sea, we were escaped slaves, with the mightiest army on earth rushing down upon us, and crossing the Red Sea was the crossing over from slavery to freedom. We were slaves, and now we are free.

Amen to that!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Strate Talk on Twitter

So, in my previous blog post, You Are What You Tweet, I wrote about a less-than-pleasant incident that I experienced on Twitter and used it as an occasion to apply communication theory to social media. The overarching point is that the messages we send online become statements about who we are, in effect creating a self or persona and entering into a relationship with others. We are the sum of our communication behaviors, at least insofar as others are concerned. This is something that we talk about in the field of media ecology, along with the fact that our identities, relationships, and selves change in response to changes to the media environment.

So I was very pleased indeed to receive a message from one of my twitterkin, as some refer to folks they follow and are followed by on Twitter. In this case the individual could be taken for actual kin, since she shares the same last name as me. In truth, we are not related, I'm not related to anyone named Strate (outside of my immediate family), it was a name change as a result of my parents' immigration to the United States and naturalization as citizens. But I can't help but feel a sense of kinship with Ms. Strate nonetheless, as she did when she first contacted me. I think human beings are naturally hardwired that way, we gravitate towards human connection--we're social animals, after all, meaning that we are nature's own social media.

When I first started on Twitter about a year ago, my friend, the public relations professional and social media specialist Paull Young (see my previous posts All A Twitter and Social Media on Social Media) gave me a shout out, and I wound up connected to a bunch of PR professionals, students, and faculty, which turned out to be an unexpected treat. And Katherine Strate is a PR student at the University of Georgia, and a rather bright one at that. Naturally. Her Twitter name is @katlady, and here's her profile picture:

I was going to say something about good looks running in the family, but, well, again, we're not really related so never mind about that. All right, you may think this post is going nowhere fast, and maybe it is. But as I was saying, Katherine sent out a tweet saying that she liked my post and had written about it, sending me a URL for her post on the Public Relations Student Society of America at the University of Georgia website/blog. Her item is entitled From a Strate: You Are What You Tweet, and I want you to go read it now, or as soon as you're done reading this post. Just click on the title and go on over there.

Interestingly enough, Katherine's post also appeared on a site called tweetmoney, it's the same post but if you want to see this other site as well, just click on that name and show me the tweetmoney. This site has a subtitle of Using Twitter To Make Money Or To Start A Business @ TweetMoney. No comment.

So, that's pretty much it. Go check out Katherine Strate's post, From a Strate: You Are What You Tweet, maybe even leave her a comment, and tell her, um, well, tell her Strate sent you.

Monday, February 2, 2009

You Are What You Tweet

So, a couple of weeks ago I got into a bit of an unpleasant exchange with someone on Twitter (my profile page is, in case you're interested). This involved someone who I actually first met offline and several years ago, long before Twitter was even a Twinkle in anyone's eye. Of course it was over politics. What else is new?

Anyway, this person started posting news items about a political controversy via Twitter, and all of the items had a very strong slant, or shall we say bias, one that went counter to my own leanings. Now, I am all for people being free to express their opinions. And of course, that includes having the right to respond to people expressing their opinions with your own opinions and counterarguments. So I started to respond to this person's tweets. (You can send a reply that is still public--Twitter also allows for private direct messages, but that's not what this is about--but coded as a specific reply by beginning the message with the person's Twitter name, which is their profile name preceded by the @ sign. So a specific reply to me would begin with @LanceStrate.)

So I sent a few specific replies offering a bit of a rebuttal--not much in depth political discourse is possible when Twitter only allows posts, aka tweets, of no more that 140 characters--that's why it's called microblogging. And I followed the specific replies by also posting a few items, videos actually, that presented the alternate point of view. This is uncharacteristic of me, to be sure, but I found it upsetting to see someone I know posting items that I considered biased, prejudiced propaganda. This individual did respond to me indicating that he was posting this material because American media is one-sided, and he wanted to see what the other side had to say. This sounded strange to me, since there's a difference between looking at items and posting the links on Twitter. Just to reinforce that point, here are some of the specific replies I sent as this exchange continued. While I'm only giving you my side of the story, my intent is not to win an argument, just to make a point about the medium:

if you're posting one side of a controversy, you're doing more than peeking at the other side, you are advocating for them

Now, you may disagree with me, but the point is that whatever you post can come across as a personal statement. You are implicitly saying, I am ----- and I approved this message, unless you make it clear you haven't. In response to this, I was sent what seemed to be an angry message that, in entering into a dialogue and expressing a different opinion, I was "policing" this person's messages. Given that he considered what he was doing to be his own personal communication, it must have seemed like an invasion, even though to me it came across as interpersonal messages on a public forum. So my response was the following series of tweets:

Policing? Nonsense! Your tweets are public messages, not private thoughts. They're sent to me, so I responded.

Tweeting links that reflect a position on a controversy over and over is advocacy, not "thoughts"

And again, I'm not asking that you agree with me, I just think it's important to understand that one source of friction here is that there are different metaphors in play for what Twitter is, as a medium, for what it's all about. To this other person, it's a blog, it seems, a place to post items of interest to him, almost like a bookmarking function, a form of intrapersonal communication that is left open for others to view. To me, Twitter is an interactive medium through which people send messages to each other in a public forum.

In part, this also depends upon the actual technologies you use in conjunction with Twitter. If it's just something you go to on the web, it remains somewhat distanced, a list of posts. If you receive updates from the people you are following on Twitter as text messages on your mobile phone, as I do, Twitter takes on a more intimate character, and posts that you may not pay attention to as part of a long list on a web page can become offensive when one comes in as a single update on the phone.

Having said that, I do think that this all relates to the seminal work of Paul Watzlawick, as presented in the book he co-authored with Janet Beavin Bavelas and Donald D. Jackson, entitled The Pragmatics of Communication. This was one of the key works for the discipline of communication back when I was a student, and was also required reading in Neil Postman's old media ecology program at New York University. That's where Watzlawick and his colleagues presented their first axiom of communication, One cannot not communicate. The point of that is simply that everything you say or do, or don't say or do, has message value, says something one way or another, especially about yourself and your feelings. They also note that communication always functions on two different levels, one being the content level we are always aware of. The other is the relationship level, where we communicate about how to relate to one another and how to interpret the content we are sending--in fact, it is difficult to know what to make of the content unless we first have established a relationship. The relationship level is always present, but we may not be aware of it most of the time. But it is much more powerful than the content level--relationship overwhelms content, as Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom used to say in our seminar. Bring Erving Goffman into the mix, based on his well known book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and it also follows that along with establishing and maintaining relationships, we are projecting our own definitions of the situation to others, and hoping that they accept those definitions. And we are putting on a performance, playing a role, and in doing so, creating a persona or sense of self.

So, with that in mind, here are some tweets that I sent as I pondered this interaction:

When you tweet, you are not just transmitting information, you are establishing an identity, constructing a persona or self

When you tweet, you are projecting a definition of who you are, and your relationship to your "followers" and readers

Your followers and readers in turn take part in defining who you are, based on what you tweet

In other words, you are what you tweet!

This is the bottom line, because in this medium there is nothing else apart from what you put out there. There is your profile, and there's whatever URL you include, and there's your little icon. Apart from those items, you yourself are constituted, in this medium, by and through the messages you send--they create your persona, your self. In face-to-face interaction, nonverbal cues are very powerful and meaningful, and I can remain silent and communicate a great deal, especially on the relationship level. On Twitter, there is almost no nonverbal communication, it's all in what you say, if you never tweet you don't exist for all intents and purposes (silence then is truly death), so that the messages you send become you, comprise you.

Or, once again, when you are on Twitter,


Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Presidencies Past

So, on Friday January 31st, I stepped down from a position I held for over a decade, president of the Media Ecology Association. This makes for an occasion for reflection, and I thought I would take the occasion to reflect upon the idea of presidency, as a symbol and office.

I'm not going to get all political on you, don't worry about that, I'll just state the obvious point that American culture makes something of a fetish of the idea of being president, as a consequence of it being the highest office in our government, and the most powerful political position in the land (and when the U.S. became the most powerful nation in the world, that made the President the most powerful person of all, it seems). Moreover, it's a commonplace that the balance between the branches of the government has shifted since the founding of our republic, with the executive gaining increasingly more power, leading to a kind of regal presidency.

But of course, as general semantics makes clear, the map is not the territory, and the meaning people ascribe to the word President may not match up with the reality of the situation. In one sense, a president is one who presides, and in countries with parliamentary governments, the president is a ceremonial office, while the real power lies with the Prime Minister (this system does not have the same separation of legislative and executive branches that we do). Prime Minister sounds somewhat weaker than president to me, perhaps because historically the prime and less than prime ministers were the king's ministers, meaning they ministered to the king. And there's a bureaucratic quality to it, as in ad-minister, as distinguished from authority. But the synonym for Prime Minister, Premier, which I assume comes from the French, sounds much stronger to me. In fact, it comes across as ominous, since that was what the leader of the old Soviet Union was called. As such, Premier strikes me as akin to führer, which was what they used to refer to Hitler, enough said about that. But old Adolf's title was Chancellor, which has a more mixed resonance, being at times another alternative to Prime Minister or Premier, at other times something more like President. Of course, dictator is a time-honored term, going back to ancient Rome, and in one sense what's so terrible about dictating or taking dictation? Ah, the power of the word, spoken and written.

Of course, I'm not covering all the terms, especially not those undemocratic ones like king, emporer, baron, duke, etc. Yes, dictator, führer, and the like are democratic in that the presuppose that the people have consented to authoritarian rule. Fascism, communism, socialism, national socialism aka nazism, all are movements of the people, all derive legitimacy from the reality or illusion of popular support.

Also, I remember learning about the United Nations as a child in elementary school, we even took a class trip there (I was especially impressed with the Chagall window, which I wrote about in a blog post entitled Art and Memory), and I can recall how odd it seemed when I learned that the head of the UN was called the Secretary General--wasn't secretary a girl's position?, I wondered at that time, as it typically was the office that was held by a girl, as opposed to Vice-President, Treasurer, or President, in clubs and such). Girls took dictation, they didn't dictate. Hey, I'm just reporting, not condoning.

We do learn about politics in grade school by electing class and or school officers, who in the lower grades don't do very much, but it does teach a lesson about democracy, and the basic offices that we all know, President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer. But even with this experience, there still is a child-like fascination with the symbolic value of president. Several years ago, the fact that I was president of the MEA came up in conversation with my son, and he responded, You're the President??? The expression of surprise, astonishment, and incredulity, was matched by the sense that he was impressed if not awestruck by this fact.

By the same token, it's been argued that television presents a skewed, and childlike view of our federal government, by reporting mostly about the President's activities, as opposed to the Cabinet or Congress. Simply put, images of a single individual or two individuals work best on TV, larger groups simply don't play well. So television feeds the trend in politics and popular culture of an imperial presidency in the US.

I should add that I did try to tell my son that it was no big deal to be president of an organization, it's pretty commonplace, after all. In the business world, in the age of massive multinational conglomerates, being president of a company is no great shakes, doesn't mean you're the boss, which is why for years now all the talk is about CEOs, the acronym for Chief Executive Officers, who in effect are the president of all of the presidents of all the companies that the corporation owns. And in most organizations, we typically use president as an office and not a title. I would be referred to as president of MEA, but never as President Lance Strate. For the most part, it is only heads of state, notably the President of the United States, who are referred to by the title President, as in President Obama, or Mr. President. Otherwise, the only other example I am aware of would be the presidents of colleges and universities, so that the head of Fordham University is President Joseph M. McShane, SJ (SJ indicates that he is a Jesuit). So, President McShane, yes, President Strate, no. And while serving as president, I consciously tried to avoid putting on airs, so to speak, often not capitalizing president, for example, and referring to the talk I would give at our annual convention as the President's Address, rather that the Presidential Address, which sounds too hoity-toity to my ears.

One of the techniques that general semantics suggests to improve critical thinking and consciousness of abstracting is to turn singular terms into plural ones, and therefore, to understand that there is no one thing called president, but many different kinds of presidents and presidencies. As noted above, president in our political system is quite different from president in a parliamentary system.

With this in mind, I actually served as three different kinds of presidents of the MEA. When we founded the organization on September 4, 1998, there were only five of us present, and we decided that four of us would be provisional officers. So I was actually a provisional president at first. Then, at our inaugural convention in June of the year 2000, the members present approved our first constitution, and based on it, I was directly elected to a three-year term. But that fall we held a meeting to discuss and consider the was our organization was organized. We had input from Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, Paul Levinson, Joshua Meyrowitz, Susan Drucker, Gary Gumpert, and especially James W. Carey, and decided on a new structure, in which the membership would elect members of a Board of Directors, twelve in all, with staggered three-year terms, so four seats would be decided upon in a general election each year. And the board would meet every January and at that meeting elect the officers, starting with President. So we drew up the necessary changes to the constitution, they were passed at our 2001 convention, the elections were held that fall, and the first board meeting occurred in January of 2002. I was then elected by the board to a one-year term as President, and re-elected every subsequent year through 2008, the year I told the board would be my last. So that was 7 one-year terms where I was the MEA Board of Directors' president.

So, this was not my first presidency. I have also served as president of the New York State Communication Association. This started with me being elected Vice-President Elect in 1996. That was the only election I took part in, the rest was a matter of automatic succession. At the annual meeting in 1997, I became Vice-President which, under this kind of set-up, is the most important and labor intensive, as you are in charge of running the annual conference. And that's exactly what I did in 1998, and at that point I became President. Being president amounted to little more than running executive council meetings, nothing very strenuous, and quite the opposite from my MEA presidency where I was involved in just about everything we were doing. NYSCA also considered Immediate Past President, the year after serving as president, as an official office. And there used to be a extra year in there, starting with Vice-President Elect Elect, which some organizations still have. This is a system that is marked by lots of turnover, which if fine for labor intensive work like running a conference, but not always the best thing for running the organization itself. It's a system that's necessary when it's hard to find leadership, when people are reluctant to serve, when there isn't a whole lot of enthusiasm and commitment. It works fine for large, national or regional organizations, especially when they can employ an Executive Director to insure stability and continuity. For small organizations like NYSCA, it can be a prescription for disaster, as a string of bad leadership can ruin the organization, and I've seen it come close to that twice. That was our concern when we opted for a more conservative model for MEA.

So, this was not my first presidency. My first presidency was when I was in college, at Fordham University. I was a member of the Cornell Drinking Club. It's official name was Majura Nolanda Bethel Lamed or something like that, we were never quite sure, it was supposed to mean something like Nothing but the finest in the house of learning. The club was euphemistically known as a social activity honorary. But it was best known by its nickname, The Mummies. We met every Wednesday evening at a bar called The Chapter House, where we had our own private keg, and had members only meetings in a special room downstairs. The agenda consisted mostly of chugging contests, which was also the main initiation ceremony. I admit to not being great at chugging, but I was good enough to get in. And being elected president of the Mummies was not a matter of being the best drinker--it was an administrative position. My main duty was to drop the keys that signaled the start of the chugging contests.

So, three presidencies, each one different and distinct. Will there be a fourth? I wouldn't rule it out, but not just yet...