Monday, August 29, 2011

Life in Glass Houses

In my last post, Ad-ding Interactivity, I touched on ubiquitous computing and mobile devices, and here I'd like to add a little bit more, via this video released by Corning Glass earlier this year.  Here, we see a mix of older notions of ubiquitous computing, with computer technology embedded into the environment, in walls, mirrors, tables, desks, refrigerators, cars, etc., along with the more recent addition of portable computer gadgets (e.g., cell phones).

Here's what Corning had to say about it:

Watch "A Day Made of Glass" and take a look at Corning's vision for the future with specialty glass at the heart of it.

Learn more about Corning at Search for career opportunities at

Of course, Corning would place the emphasis on glass, a substance that is quite ubiquitous in and of itself, so much so that it becomes quite, well, transparent.  In a fashion that McLuhan would certainly approve of, Corning wants to make the invisible environment visible, reverse figure and ground, and make us aware of how much we live in glass houses, and how much more so we may in the future.

Looking into the future, this emphasis on glass brings to mind a few other visions of the future.  One is computer scientist David Gelernter's book Mirror Worlds, which imagines a future when software allows us to create electronic maps that effectively cover almost all of the territory (and yes, Korzybski would still remind us that they can never actually be the territory).  Gelernter ignored the political implications of such innovations--all's well that end's orwell?  That does not justify the fact that he was a victim of the unabomber,  I hasten to add.

On the other hand, science fiction writer David Brin gives us a vision of technology in the service of democracy in his nonfiction book, The Transparent Society. Admittedly idealistic, possibly impractical, I am certain McLuhan would agree that the bias of the electronic media is towards no barriers to communication, no secrets, free flows of information, and letting it all hang out, as we used to say in the sixties.  

The end of privacy is not necessarily a good thing, it has its advantages and disadvantages, but Brin's view is that this is the direction we are heading into, so rather than fight it, let's direct it to serve the people, rather than merely observe us.  Let's have the surveillance of all by all, including and especially the surveillance of the rich and powerful by the rest of us.  No doubt,  wikileaks comes to mind, but for a moderate approach, I'd recommend the Sunlight Foundation.  And please note that the idea is not a complete abolition of all privacy, no cameras in bathrooms and bedrooms required!

There is something to say about living in glass houses, it does drastically cut down on stone throwing, much more so than self-evaluation of sin.  On the other hand, glass gives us reflective surfaces as well as transparent ones, a point emphasized in regard to interface design in Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala's book, Windows and Mirrors.  And this brings to mind an old Yiddish parable--interestingly, I found one nice version of it on a site devoted to Primitive Christianity, and I'm sure they won't mind me sharing it here as well:

A very rich young man went to see a rabbi in order to ask his advice about what he should do with his life. The rabbi led him over to the window and asked him:
“What can you see through the glass?"
“I can see men coming and going and a blind man begging for alms in the street.”
Then the Rabbi showed him a large mirror and said to him:
“Look in this mirror and tell me what you see.”
“I can see myself.”
“And you can’t see the others. Notice that the window and the mirror are both made of the same basic material, glass; but in the mirror, because the glass is coated with a fine layer of silver, all you can see is yourself. You should compare yourself to these two kinds of glass. Poor, you saw other people and felt compassion for them. Rich—covered in silver—you see yourself. You will only be worth anything when you have the courage to tear away the coating of silver covering your eyes in order to be able to see again and love your fellow man.”

It is worth pondering whether our future days made of glass, if Corning's vision does come to pass, leave us in a state similar to Narcissus, entranced by our reflections, or whether they will provide us with clear vision, not only of the ways things are, but the way things could be, and ought to be.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ad-ding Interactivity

In a previous post, Everywhere a Sign, I mentioned how, as literates, we wrote over our environment with signs, and otherwise remade our world in the image of the written and printed word, and how we are doing the same sort of thing now, coating and revising our environment via the electronic media.

In a sense, we already accomplished this early in the 20th century, as our environment is permeated by radio waves, so that almost anywhere we go, we can pick up a broadcast signal.  Mobile telephony adds an interactive dimension to the ether, making it possible not only to have two-way communications (which was always an option, after all, through amateur radio, Ham, CB, walkie-talkies, etc.), but interactive data transmission.

So, through mobile devices, we turn a non-electronic environment into an electronic one (and again, this began with the transistor radio, but becomes fully realized with the cell phone).  This realizes the goal of ubiquitous computing, not by embedding computer technology into the environment as was previously imagined, but by the combination of an environment permeated by the software of wireless signals rather than the hardware of gadgets, and by embedding computer technology in us, ourselves.  After all, we are our environment, in the sense that all we know of our environment is the internal map that we construct, not what's actually out there.  That was Korzybski's main argument, after all.

Perception is a response to a stimulus that we mistake for the stimulus itself.

But, back to the main point.  We may not have our personal technologies literally embedded and merged into our bodies in the manner of science fiction cyborgs, not quite, and not yet, but many of us keep our devices with us at all times, walking around with blue tooth devices on our ears, essentially treating them as appendages to our body.  Of course this brings to mind McLuhan's emphasis on media as extensions of the body.  It's just a matter of how we frame things to refer as to whether we refer to media as extensions or environments.  As I like to point out, whatever extends our bodies comes between our bodies and our environment, and whatever comes between our bodies and our environment becomes our new environment.

So, the point is that mobile devices are transforming our environment.  This is happening, in part, through augmented reality programs and technologies, but here I just want to point out how mobile devices allow us to add an electronic overlay to print media.  

QR codes constitute a simple example of this.  In one sense, they are a new kind of bar code, one that's more robust--we've all encountered bar codes that are a little worn and won't scan, QR codes don't degrade so easily.  But mobile devices can read QR codes via their cameras--remember when adding cameras to cell phones seemed like an unnecessary extravagance?--the QR code can represent a URL, and mobile devices use their browsers to go to that web page.  This is old news to many, I know, and I apologize if this seems obvious, but I know it isn't to some folks reading this blog.  Anyway, here's a QR code for Blog Time Passing:

If you click on it, it'll just take you to a page with the same QR code, but if you scan it with a mobile device it'll bring you back to this blog.

But I want to point to a couple of sophisticated and creative examples of how mobile devices can turn print media into interactive media.  First here's one that has great relevance, given the current victory of the rebellion in Libya:

This ad taken out by Reporters Without Borders, really more of a public interest message about freedom of the press than a commercial advertisement, is quite creative, entertaining, and dramatic in making its point.  It uses a QR code to get to the video mouth, which is placed over the mouth of the dictator in the print image, to add animation and give voice to the journalists whose voices were otherwise stilled by the leaders of repressive regimes.

And now for something much less serious, indeed, a bit of childlike play:

This Norwegian ad is certainly an app-ed expression of the potential merging of print and electronics.  While the idea of an electronics-based form of smart paper is still in the works, and may one day supersede print, this demonstrates how mobile devices can make any dumb, old print medium into a smart one.  Shades of the Scarecrow in the Wizard of the Oz!

Well, if all this seems too much like the weird virtual world of the Disney film Tron, just keep in mind that no matter how hi-tech we get, we'll always need duct tape!

quack quack!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Rueful Reuben

Shelley Postman shared this video with me a while ago, and I've been meaning to post it here on Blog Time Passing.  It's a marvelous bit of fun, one that speaks to some issues that exist within the Jewish community, and that can be generalized to other groups as well.  In one sense, it serves as a parable of the conflict between orthodox and reform, literal, and liberal, fundamentalist and metaphorical approaches to a sacred text or canon or tradition.  In another sense, it reflects the conflict between east and west coasts, specifically between New York as an old world, elitist center, and Los Angeles as the new world where people feel free to recreate their identities.  But go ahead, take a look, it's worth your while:

Over on YouTube, the write-up for A Reuben By Any Other Name is as follows:

Noble Savage Productions and Sonny Boy Studios are thrilled to announce that we have completed our short comedy "A Reuben By Any Other Name." The film takes a humorous look at the differences between Orthodox and Reform Judaism played out in terms of the differences between the New York and Los Angeles versions of the Reuben sandwich. Brilliant performances are provided by an ensemble cast of familiar faces from film and television - Jasmine Anthony (Stephen King's 1408, Commander in Chief), Anita Barone (The War at Home, Daddio), Paul Ben-Victor (In Plain Sight, Entourage), Larry Cedar (The Crazies, Deadwood), Pamela Cedar, Alanna Ubach (Hung, Legally Blonde), and Matt Winston (John from Cincinnati, Little Miss Sunshine). Are you an Orthodox or Reform Reubenite? Watch the film and find out!

And so, you might be wondering which category do I fall into?  Well, I don't keep kosher, although I do have some preferences that are rooted in the kosher laws, and I avoid some foods for the same reason.  It's aesthetic, and cultural, for me, rather than religious.  But in this, I'm pretty much with the little girl.   The delis I remember from when I was growing up, including the Pastrami King in Kew Gardens, Queens, which was often referred to in the columns of famous New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, were kosher, and something like the Reuben sandwich was never on the menu.  My first encounter with it was in Greek diners in New York City, although I later saw that some Manhattan delis served it as well.  But I really don't see how the Reuben could be a Jewish sandwich, no more than the Philly cheesesteak, or your basic, run-of-the-mill cheeseburger.  It's just not kosher!

If you have a similar encounter with the Reuben, or a different one, well, feel free to share in the comment section, I'd be interested to hear about it! 
And so, the lesson is, both sides are right, both sides are wrong, and no one knows where the truth lies, so why don't we all just get along?  And have a good laugh at ourselves in the process?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Van Gogh's Bats

So, back in the long, long ago of 2007, the early days of Blog Time Passing, I put up a post that featured the visual mash-up between Van Gogh's Starry, Starry Night and the typical Weather Channel weather map, created by my colleague and friend, Ed Wachtel.  You can check out that ancient post here:  Wachtel's Van Gogh Weather Map.

So, I was quite tickled to come across this image on Scott Beale's blog over on Laughing Squid:

The Dark Starry Knight, A Batman Themed Tribute to Vincent van Gogh

The image was created by James Hance, and is available for sale as a poster, along with many others, including a number of rather charming and creative Muppet-themed mash-ups.   Check them out on his website by clicking here, and scroll down to find this particular poster. 

And hey, while I'm at it. let me end this post on a good note:

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Orality of Morality

So, I didn't really plan to keep going on the topic of morality, it just came up in online discussion, first about McLuhan and Morality, and then on The Medium of Morality, where I wrote about morality viewed as a medium.  And based on a comment on that post left by Mike Plugh, I figured just a bit more elaboration would be worthwhile here, so here's just one more post on the subject.

While considering morality as a medium in and of itself, we can also talk about morality as it relates to the medium of writing, and the medium of speech.  Language, which exists primarily as speech, is the basis of morality as a medium (just as it's the basis of writing, printing, radio, etc.), and for the vast majority of human history, language exists only in spoken form, which is why I have give this post the title of The Orality of Morality.  

In oral cultures, morality does not exist in the form of written rules, it is not codified in that sort of permanent form, nor is it expressed in abstract formulations such as laws.  Rather, morality is established informally, by norms that are unspoken but known, understood, and for the most part accepted within the culture (where the population is small and pressure to conform is high).  When morality is expressed, it is expressed in the form of narrative, as myths and parables, which are recited and performed as ritual drama.  Because there is no fixed text, variation and multiformity is the rule, so that flexibility and change comes easily.  This means that a culture's morality can easily adapt to changing circumstances.

When writing is introduced into a culture, and eventually there's a written document that serves as the basis of morality, the flexibility of oral tradition is lost, and ideas take hold along the lines of literal interpretation, letter of the law, original intent, orthodoxy, fundamentalism, and an either/or approach that introduces the possibility of heresy, not to mention conversion, in regard to religious morality. 

An emphasis on interpretation of texts, which is always required but not always highlighted, allows for a retrieval of some aspects of orality, the restoration of dialogue and flexibility.  This introduces a new problem, however, as time passes and the text becomes less and less relevant to the contemporary situation, requiring greater and greater interpretative leaps, both to understand the meaning of the text, and to make it relevant.  A further problem is introduced as the interpretations are turned into fixed texts themselves, and therefore replace flexibility with new rigidities.

At a certain point, the distance between a long tradition of interpretation and the original text prompt some adherents to call for a return to the original text.  But a return to the original text can only result in new interpretations.  This has the effect of wiping away interpretations that no longer seem relevant, allowing for new interpretations not limited by earlier ones and therefore better able to speak to the present day, simplifying a system that may seem to have grown overly complex, and restoring some bit of flexibility to the system.

And then the cycle begins anew.  As literates, we are able to articulate, analyze, and think abstractly about morality, and this has truly led to evolution and progress in respect to morality, but not without cost.  The price we pay is that loss of flexibility, of concrete grounding, of the dialogic quality of response, which Martin Buber noted is the basis of responsibility.  The loss is so very deep and significant that we keep trying to restore it, or compensate for it, trying to find a way back to the orality of morality.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Medium of Morality

So, some follow-up on my last post on McLuhan and Morality, a question was raised about whether we can consider morality to be a medium.  If you know me at all, you'd know that my answer to that question is yes.  From my point of view, the concept of medium is a general one, much like the concept of system.  You might say that the medium is the system, in the sense that the terms really refer to the same underlying phenomena, and just provide slightly different perspectives and points of emphasis.  But this is getting very abstract, I know.

So, yes, morality is a medium.  And that being the case, what then is the message of the medium of morality?  That is, what is the message of morality as a medium?  Or, what is the message of the morality-medium?

It's not the content, which would be specific moral and ethical systems embraced and employed by various groups of people. Any system is going to be subject to human fallibility.  

Given the near infinite specific possibilities that might exist in reality, a system of morality has to be the product of abstracting from those infinite possibilities, to put it in Korzybski's terms.  A system of morality has to involve generalizing across specifics, and in doing so, invariably simplifying the situation.  Because of the non-identity between moral principle and actual event, some form of interpretation and evaluation must be made, some form of judgment.  And since that interpretation, evaluation, judgment comes from human beings, mistakes will be made, fallibility will be a factor.  

Even if the moral system is the product of divine will, once it is transferred to human hands, error comes into play. And even if there is a divine judge involved, human beings are not privy to whatever evaluations might be made from on high.

So, a particular moral system would involve messages on the content level, whereas the medium is the metamessage, that is, the medium involves messages on the level of relationships.  On that meta level, we can consider the message of morality in general, across various specific systems, and beyond their specifics.  

So what is the metamessage of morality?  It's that there ought to be limits on human behavior, that there are actions that we ought not to take, that we should not give in to every impulse and drive, but take control of our own behavior.  In this sense, morality is about consciousness-raising, about being aware of how we act, about self-control and self-mastery.  From certain points of view, it's about actualizing our potential to be truly human.  And in terms of relationship, that involves entering into what Martin Buber called I-You relationships.

The metamessage of morality is also about rules, it's a rules-governed approach to human behavior.  You might say it's about supplying a structure for deliberate action, a grammar for human life.  It makes sense that human beings, having a relatively unique capacity for symbolic communication and language, and therefore for grammar, also have morality where other forms of life are amoral.  And I think Freud would come into play here as well, with something about civilization and its dis-contents, which suggests that morality, rather than being only content, is in fact the medium of civilization.  (This also shows that Freud was a media ecologist, after all.)

Some years ago this all occurred to me in a more specific context.  It was during a Sabbath service at Congregation Adas Emuno, where the Torah reading had to do with the Kosher laws, and there was a discussion of what the kosher laws mean to us as Reform Jews living in the modern world.  Most of us don't adhere to them, seeing them as having made sense in the past for reasons of health and sanitation, but no longer necessary, although we may still have a sense of them as a cultural or aesthetic preference (for example, I have no problem eating a cheeseburger, but the thought of doing so with a glass of milk I find gross, and I have no problem with bacon, but tend not to order ham or pork, or shellfish, and we never eat that stuff at home).  Some Reform Jews reinterpret the Kosher laws in a contemporary way to justify or encourage a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

But all of that is on the content level, and what occurred to me at the time was that the metamessage of the kosher laws is to be mindful of what you eat, think about what you're putting into your body, that you can't just eat anything you desire or anything that's available.  Again, it's the idea of limits, that you can't just do whatever you want.  And it's the idea of rules, of a grammar that gives meaning to the things in our world, the events that occur, and the actions that we take.  And it's certainly about the idea of clean vs. unclean, order vs. chaos, and given these binary oppositions, Bob Blechman would certainly want me to mention Claude Lévi-Strauss who, as a media ecologist, wrote about the underlying structure and grammar of cultural expression, morality being, in some sense, one type of cultural expression.

Understanding morality as a medium suggests, to me, that there is some aspect of morality that can be considered universal, in some sense.  By universal, I don't mean absolute, because anything pushed to its extreme reverses into its opposite, too much love is suffocating or oppressive, too much life can be torture (an idea explored in the new "Miracle Day" Torchwood series on Starz). Morality is relative, but relativity is not itself relative, something that many non-scientists misunderstand about Einstein's theories.  Relationship is the key to universal morality.

Universal doesn't mean universally accepted either, or else there'd be no need to ever talk about morality.  I think we can say that some actions are immoral, and that some persons, by reason of their actions, are themselves immoral.  And some cultures, some societies, are as well, such as Nazi Germany, and the Aztecs with their widespread practice of human sacrifice.  You might say I'm being romantic or naive, but I think something like the ethical principle from medicine, primum non nocere, first, do no harm, is universal, albeit in relative terms.

My personal bias is with the Pirkei Avot, but I would offer the following from my own tradition:

Micah:  "He has told you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?  Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

Hillel:  "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

These statements originate from a specific culture and belief-system, with reference to monotheism and the Torah as a divine covenant between God and the Jewish people, but they speak to some universal moral principles, justice, mercy, humility, and do no harm.  And learning!

I do think that in understanding morality as a medium, the medium of morality helps us to understand the morality of morality.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

McLuhan and Morality

In a discussion on the ethics and morality of new media, the subject of McLuhan's well known opposition to making moral judgments came up, and I thought I'd adapt my comments for a blog post.  I think this is one of McLuhan's ideas that needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and more importantly needs to be contextualized, rather than made into an extreme of eschewing all judgment.

On a superficial level, McLuhan's stance against moral judgment appears to be in opposition to other media ecologists, notably Neil Postman, certainly Jacques Ellul, also Lewis Mumford, and even Harold Innis.  But I think that McLuhan was not ruling out the possibility of evaluating media and technology, and indeed saw such evaluation as something that was sorely needed, that we have to learn how to contemplate the consequences of our innovations in order to take control back from our technologies, or else what could this quote of his mean?: "there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening" (from The Medium is the Massage, 1967, p. 25).  

What McLuhan was protesting against was the uncritical rejection and condemnation of media and technology, and the corresponding uncritical acceptance and celebration of media and technology, both the moral indignation of the technological idiot and the narcissus narcosis of the gadget lover, to use McLuhan's words.  His point, I believe, was that we need to withhold judgment until we have made an adequate assessment of the effects of innovations, otherwise our prejudgment would influence, bias, and cloud that assessment.  

And it may be that McLuhan didn't feel that media ecology had progressed far enough back in 60s and 70s to provide a good enough understanding to draw any conclusions, but it certainly has come a long way since then.  I think Postman, Ellul, Mumford, and Innis would all agree that understanding must precede evaluation, even if they felt that they had achieved sufficient understanding to come to certain conclusions.

I also think that McLuhan was looking for scientific validation, even while resisting having his work judged by scientific criteria (for example by objecting to being called a theorist).  Science was the main source of intellectual legitimacy in his day, I believe that McLuhan, Ong, and Postman all had a healthy respect for scientific fact while distancing themselves from scientistic language and perspectives, and McLuhan was claiming a bit of that legitimacy in maintaining his objectivity in regard to the phenomena he was studying (scientists don't make moral judgments about subatomic particles or chemical formulas or biological functions, although scientists do have ethical standards and values concerning knowledge, truthfulness, etc.). 

A further function of McLuhan's position is that it created ambiguity, something he would appreciate as a literary scholar.  It made him a cool medium, and let others fill in the gaps.  By not taking a stand, it became possible for both critics and boosters of media and technology to claim him as their own.

In an essay I wrote for an upcoming issue of Educational Technology magazine on the neutrality of technology (my position being that technology is not and cannot be neutral), I explained that while the question of whether a given technology is good or bad may be problematic, it can be reframed as, can a technology be evaluated within and according to the criteria of a given moral or ethical system?, and the answer to that question is, of course it can!  Within some ethical systems, all violence is bad, so weapons can be evaluated as bad, for example, swords and spears are bad, plowshares and pruning hooks good.  Firearms can be evaluated as bad, and as for nuclear weapons?  Fuhgeddaboudit!  

And apart from morality and ethics, we can also engage in more utilitarian forms of evaluation, and assess whether a technology is functional or dysfunctional for individuals, a given society, humanity, or the biosphere and planet.

To arrive at such conclusions, we do have to weigh the services and disservices, to use McLuhan's terms, that is, the costs and benefits, the positive and the negative consequences.  And that may be a difficult task.  It may be impossible to do so definitively, because there will always be unintended consequences that are also unanticipated, and there are indirect effects, which lead to other indirect effects, which lead to others, etc. But even if we cannot be entirely certain of the outcome of introducing an innovation, we still can retain human agency and exercise judgment, and decide whether we ought or ought not to use the new medium or technology. (That is if we hold aside Ellul's arguments about the technological society.)

On the specific question of teaching about morality and media, I think introducing a course in ethics of new media is commendable, and some consideration of the ethical dimensions of any field or subject ought to be a curricular requirement.  That is, if our educational objectives still have some room left for the goal of producing responsible citizens and well-rounded human persons.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Murdoch on the Orient Express

So, how many of you are filled with glee over Rupert Murdoch's recent troubles?  The Australian-born American citizen--Citizen Murdoch?--is still a mighty media mogul, but he certainly has been taken down a few pegs this year, and his troubles may only be beginning.  

Of course, as a billionaire, he's not likely to experience much in the way of personal suffering, or discomfort.  And as an octogenarian, his days as one of the most powerful individuals in the world, and specifically as the Chairman and CEO of News Corporation, second only to Disney as the world's largest media conglomerate, were numbered anyway.

If you haven't been following the story, Wikipedia can help you out with a general entry on the News Corporation scandal, and a specific one on the News International phone hacking scandal.  I also recommend my friend Marvin Kitman's columns on the Investor Uprising website, five so far on the scandals and Murdoch's questionable entry into the American media landscape.

And the way I see it is, this is a story that broadcast journalists, with the exception of those owned by News Corporation, will not let go, or go easy on.  Simply put, I think most broadcast journalists see Murdoch as single-handedly responsible for lowering the level of discourse on television news, of ruining the ideal of objectivity in reporting, through the "fair and balanced" programming of Fox News.  I can only imagine the anger and resentment that exists in the industry towards the man and the company that so degraded the institution of journalism.

And let's be clear about it, the claim to maintaining objectivity in news has long been subject to criticism as, at best, an impossible ideal, at worst a smokescreen that mystifies the ideologies embedded in the news.  But Murdoch has demonstrated, to the critics, that there is a big difference between well-intentioned, honorable, professional attempts to withhold personal opinions and remain impartial, and deliberate attempts to set the agenda and manipulate public opinion.  

If news always was a form of propaganda in some ways (following Jacques Ellul--see my previous post, Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, and the Technological Society), we can certainly say that some forms are better than others (even Ellul would allow that there is a great deal of difference between western technological societies based on liberal democracy, and those associated with totalitarian governments), and the News Corporation has made broadcast journalism seem more propagandistic than ever before.

The natural response to such a development on the part of the audience is a cynical one.  So, once upon a time Walter Cronkite was the most trusted person in America, a television news anchor who was the epitome of journalistic professionalism.  Now, we put our trust in comedians such as Jon Stewart, and Stewart has quite properly expressed his qualms about that state of affairs.  It is the inevitable result of what Neil Postman pointed to in Amusing Ourselves to Death (as noted in my previous post, Aliteracy Anxiety).  When news becomes a joke, comedians become our most respected journalists.

So, no, I don't think the broadcasters working in the news divisions of CBS, NBC, and ABC, and the cable news professionals at  CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and the rest, are going to want to let this one alone.  At least not as long as their professional ethics suggest that there is something to report on.  No, they're going to want to milk this one for all that it's worth.

As for the title of this blog post, well, just in case you don't get the pun I'm alluding to, here you go:

Murder on the Orient Express really is an excellent Hollywood motion picture, I recommend it if you haven't seen it, and I won't give away the ending, but the story is based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the murder in question is the murder of a murderer.  So now, perhaps, we may witness the media's Murdoching of Murdoch, but there is no mystery involved, only the desire to run the man out of town, and back east, on a (rant and a) rail.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Aliteracy Anxiety

So first of all kudos to my friend and former graduate student Mike Plugh for retrieving and uploading a 15 minute segment from the PBS program Currents featuring an interview with Neil Postman, on the topic of Literacy Lost.  The program begins with a reference to the concept of aliteracy, a term that I believe was coined by the former Librarian of Congress and media ecologist, Daniel J. Boorstin, in a 1984 US Government Report entitled Books in Our Future (which I first learned about from Postman).  The concern, as Boorstin presented it, was not so much that people are unable to read, but that people were choosing not read, and especially not to read books.  That's the difference between illiteracy and aliteracy.  Aliterates know how to read, but just don't.

Part of the problem is that there are two many alternatives.  When I was growing up, reading wasn't only a way to learn, and not just a way to amuse ourselves--it was a way to create some personal space, shut out our parents and anyone else we didn't want to pay attention to, and enter into our own private world of imagination and fantasy.  A book gave us a space of our own.  Now, though, kids can get the same effect from TVs that offer round the clock entertainment geared toward them, and from videogame systems, iPods and many other portable devices, etc.  So, why read a book?

Aliteracy may be the trend of the future.  Reading limited to short bursts.  Street signs.  Restaurant menus.  Headlines.  Status updates and tweets.  Short paragraphs online.  And reading that is limited to the functional, reading for directions, for instructions, for getting tasks done.  As opposed to reading for pleasure.  And as opposed to reading as a cultural activity.

Or maybe aliteracy is the intermediate stage between our former situation of near universal literacy, and our eventual ending as a largely illiterate society?

Well, take a look at the video, and think about whether things have gotten better since the 80s, with the introduction of many forms of electronic text, or whether that was just a temporary countercurrent, whether we are still slouching into an aliterate, and possibly illiterate future.

You might want to take a look at Mike Plugh's discussion of the video over on his blog, in the post entitled, Neil Postman – ‘The TV Guy’. Let me give you a little taste of what he has to say right here, taking a quote on the topic of Sesame Street.

I grew up on Sesame Street (Elmo was my high school graduation speaker in 1989 via Kevin Clash) and remember many of the language lessons and phonics very fondly. I suppose I remember them for the same reason that Jocko Henderson’s students remember his phonics rap and Joan Ganz Cooney’s niece was singing advertising jingles. They’re short, musical, and entertaining. It’s not about learning. It’s about the way we learn, the quality of the learning process, and our relationship to information, so while I enjoyed Sesame Street growing up and get a little twinge when someone criticizes it, that doesn’t make the critique any less valid.

Interestingly, for most of the last decade, Sesame Street has been using a different format, one much less television-oriented, one intended to be similar in structure to the schedules used at day care centers, with which so many children are familiar these days, at least according to my friend Rosemarie Truglio, Vice President of Education and Research for Sesame Workshop.  (On a side note, Rosemarie earned her doctorate through the same program and under the same mentor as Postman, at Teachers College of Columbia University,  with Louis Forsdale, one of Marshall McLuhan's earliest and most influential supporters in the academic world.  Of course, Rosemarie's position on Sesame Street diverges significantly from Postman's.)

And it was about a decade and a half ago, maybe longer, that I was teaching a graduate class at Fordham University, and Amusing Ourselves to Death was one of the books that we read (I do ask my students to read entire books), and I had Postman talk to the class and answer their questions (Neil was always very generous with his time, I should add).  My son was a preschooler then, so I played devil's advocate and mentioned how he was watching Sesame Street and that it was helping him to learn the alphabet, and wasn't that a good thing?  Postman's response was, Well, Lance, you know, the alphabet only has 26 letters, and children were able to memorize them fairly easily for many years before television arrived on the scene...  

And I forget the rest, but with that short remark he cut through all of the hype and exaggerated claims relating to the educational value of such programming.  And he did it with a wit and a charm that brings a smile to my face to this day.  It was quite memorable, and speaking of memorable, I would not discount the mnemonic value of the rap format, that's a technique that goes back to antiquity, and prehistory.  Even when it comes to literacy, we start by memorizing the alphabet song, relying on rhythm, melody, and rhyme.

Of course, memory works best in face-to-face situations.  That's where a book like Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy comes in, as Mike Plugh notes.  It reminds us of the foundation of all of our media environments.  And sure, there are a few jingles and such that get stuck in our memories after we hear them hundreds of times on TV.  But how many popular songs and the like do we think we know, and then when it comes down to it, we really only know some of the lyrics, and then it's all da da da dum da da dum dum...?  Postman was quite right in arguing in Amusing Ourselves to Death that television makes us feel like we know things, or think we know things, but then are unable to summon up anything specific, hence the saying, I know of it.  Ong says, "you know what you can recall," and truer words have never been spoken (students only realize this at exam time, though).  If you can't summon it up from memory, then in what sense to you know it?

What is knowledge, anyway?  Maybe you don't need books to have knowledge, preserve knowledge, transmit knowledge.  Maybe.  But without them, you don't have much of what could be called knowledge in the first place.  And if you have the books, but no one reads them, then you have knowledge without knowers, and that's hardly different from not having the knowledge in the first place, or having it and having lost or forgotten it.  That's good enough reason for all of that anxiety over aliteracy, after all.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, and the Technological Society

Here's a bit more fall-out from the discussion that went on over the Media Ecology Association listserv.  I've extracted my comments from the various exchanges that went on, and let them stand alone here.

It began with a discussion of Jacques Ellul.  I made the point that, as a Protestant theologian, Ellul was not opposed to literacy or print media.  He saw scripture as liberating, but also noted that literacy was an important part of 20th century modernization campaigns, and was needed in order to be able to deliver propaganda to the masses.  As a good media ecologist, he was able to see the benefits as well as the costs of print technology.

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) was no fool!

Ellul argued that literacy and education make an individual vulnerable to propaganda, but that doesn't amount to a criticism of print as a medium, or of literacy.  He stresses this point because literate, well-educated people tend to think they're immune to propaganda, that it only affects the "ignorant" masses, and he wants us literate elites to know that the reverse is true.  Ellul argues that for propaganda to work, the messages have to reach their target, and in the modern world that largely requires literacy.  If you add Ong into the mix, then it follows that the fact that literacy fosters more abstract modes of thought than orality makes literates much more easily propagandized than nonliterates, and no doubt this is what McLuhan had in mind when he talked about literate vulnerability to propaganda (and this doesn't take into account rhetoric as an interface by which literates influence nonliterates, and the amplified possibilities that broadcasting present). 

But Ellul doesn't get into any of that.  For Ellul, it's all about "la technique", the supremacy of efficiency at the heart of the technological society, and how every institution is a part of it, how education and the arts function as sociological propaganda, and how the "current affairs man," the supposedly well-informed news junkie is the most propagandized individual of all.  For Ellul, it's modern communication and information technologies that are the key to propaganda, and as the digerati have succeeded the literati, it's the folks who are online all the time, keeping up with blogs and tweets and the like, who are the most open to propaganda.

Ellul argues that propaganda in a technological society uses all of the means of communication available in a totalizing and concerted fashion.  The only way to avoid being exposed to propaganda is to cut yourself off from the outside world.  Otherwise, access to information is openness to propaganda.  

Literacy and print may be necessary prerequisites for modern propaganda, but as Neil Postman points out in Technopoly, it's industrialism and Taylorism that are directly linked to the technological society.  Unlike Mumford, Ellul was not writing about the history of technology, he was critiquing contemporary society, and his focus was not on specific technologies, but on "la technique," the technological imperative, which is about efficiency over all else.  He identified this as a contemporary phenomenon.   

Again, Postman brought it down in levels of abstraction by referring to it as technopoly, the point at which we have surrendered culture entirely to technopoly.  This was preceded by a period of relative balance between technology and other cultural institutions, a period that Neil identified by the term technocracy.  And that period coincides with the age of typography.  To the extent that Ellul also made reference to historical change, he pointed to an earlier era in which religion held sway, and that of course was made possible by literacy.

Postman, in Technopoly, was presenting an Ellulian perspective.  But Mumford himself became more Ellulian in his postwar writings, especially in The Myth of the Machine.   I believe they all recognized that literacy and typography are necessary prerequisites for modern propaganda.  But necessary prerequisites are not the same as inherent characteristics.  Literacy and print are necessary prerequisites for modern science.  It doesn't follow that they are inherently scientific.  And since modern science is based on honest and open communication and publication, this would lead us into contradiction if these were inherent characteristics and propaganda's manipulative qualities were also inherent characteristics of print media.  But there is no contradiction when you understand that they make both deceptive propaganda and honest and open scientific exchange possible.

And again, in regard to religion, Ellul said that religious institutions in a technological society are turned into vehicles for propaganda, along with all other cultural institutions.  It's the equivalent to Gramsci's hegemony, except that there is no ideology involved, no class stratification or power differential, just the technical imperative given free reign.  And this is in contrast to an earlier era when all cultural institutions were subordinate to religion.  And as a theologian, Ellul also saw contemporary religious institutions, in the form of local congregations, as the main site of resistance to "la technique".  As a counterenvironment where we might try to find a way to hold on to or reclaim our humanity in a technological age.

At this point, I wrapped up my end of the argument, and concluded with the following observation:

In an article I wrote some time ago entitled "Post(modern)man" which is included in my recent book, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology, I discussed the fact that in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote about how the image culture associated with television has supplanted the language-centered culture of the typographic era, how Postman was not so much concerned with the dichotomy between orality and literacy than he was with how the image was upsetting the balance between the two that had been achieved in the print era, leading to what Ellul referred to as the humiliation of the word.  

In a somewhat different vein, however, in Technopoly, Postman wrote about how technology had taken over the entirety of culture as we moved from technocracy to technopoly. And in "Post(modern)man" I tried to reconcile the two critiques by noting that the technological imperative, based on efficiency and manifesting in 19th century Taylorism, amounted to a triumph of quantitative analysis, a victory of numbers. What this means is that the postmodern condition is one in which the word, in both its oral and literate forms, is under assault from two different directions, two extremes, the hyperreality of the image, and the hyperrationalism of the number. And I characterized Postman as a defender of the word (which became the title of the essay I wrote shortly after Neil passed away, which is also included in On the Binding Biases of Time). 

Neil Postman (1931-2003) was the most, man!

Understanding Postman in this way also helps us to reconcile Ellul's argument in books such as The Technological Society, Propaganda, and The Humiliation of the Word.

Postman's defense of the word led him to recommend that we build a bridge to the 18th century, that is, to the Enlightenment. And what's significant about the Enlightenment is not only that it represent the full flowering of typographic culture, but also that it does not represent the descent into the inhumanity of industrialism. The Enlightenment precedes the Industrial Revolution, gives rise to it yes, you might say it's a necessary prerequisite, but this amounts to the kind of reversal or flip that McLuhan pointed to in his laws of media, the light of learning blotted out by the dark haze coming out of smokestacks, the cry for liberty drowned out by the noise of machines in factories, and the word obscured by figures in all their varieties. 

Neil Postman wasn't saying we should return to the 18th century, but that we should look back to it as the most recent time in our history when our media environment wasn't so terribly out of balance. and maybe this is also important as we consider the possibility that our new media might restore a measure of balance to our culture.