Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Remediation and the Rearview Mirror

Back in February, I shared several posts based on lecture notes from my Fordham University online course on Writing for Online Media:
  1. Orality and Online Writing 
  2. Reading, Writing, and Rearranging 
  3. Scribes and Scribbles
  4. From Print to Screen
  5. Electronic Writing and Digital Media  
So, later on in the semester, I prepared a couple more sets of remarks, and didn't get around to posting them until now, so no time like the present.  Again, let me note that these are basic lecture notes in written form for an online class, not original essays or anything like that, and they incorporate some material that have already been included in other posts on this blog.  So, here goes.

Remediation and the Rearview Mirror 

Marshall McLuhan famously used the metaphor of the rearview mirror to describe our inability to predict the future. We typically depict time in spatial terms, as a road that we travel along, moving into the future, but in reality we do not and cannot know what lies ahead of us, we can only see clearly where we already have been. So in effect we are walking backwards into the future. Having been called a prophet, McLuhan noted that a prophet is someone who can tell you what is going on right now, in the present, because everyone else is fixated on the past.

McLuhan also noted that many of our problems stem from trying to solve present-day problems with yesterday's solutions, or just trying to do today's job with yesterdays tools (or yesterday's job with today's tools).

 And he suggested that the content of a medium is always another medium. This is not to deny the fact that there is plain old content as well. But there is a sense in which the content of writing is speech, writing being a technology developed to record the spoken word. And the content of printing is the handwritten word, the manuscript. In fact, the first printed books, in the early years following Gutenberg's innovation, all were purposefully made to resemble the products of scribal copying. After all, that's all they knew. It took time to develop typefaces that took advantage of the unique capabilities of the printing press, typefaces that vastly improved the legibility of the text, allowing for faster reading speeds. Think of the differences between Gothic fonts, and the clear, clean look of the Roman fonts we commonly use as a default.

Along the same lines, the content of electronic writing is print. It may look like a printed page, but what you see on your screen is not inked marks on a paper surface, it's all a product of electrons and protons. 

Jay David Bolter, a noted media ecology scholar, uses the term remediation to refer to this process (see his Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print (second edition), highly recommended for this class; see also Remediation: Understanding New Media by Bolter and Richard Grusin; and Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency by Bolter and Diane Gromala). Using this terminology, writing remediates speech, printing remediates writing, and electronic text remediates print. 

McLuhan is often misquoted as saying that the content of a medium is an older medium, rather than an other medium, and it is true that the examples he uses are of older media becoming the content of newer ones. But Bolter notes that an older medium can remediate a newer one. For example, computer graphics and television images become the content of motion pictures, and screen shots from computers appear in newspapers, magazines, and books. 

The process of remediation need not be confined to one medium. When television was introduced, it was originally referred to as radio television, as radio with pictures, and it was certainly true that television remediated radio programming. But it soon included old motion pictures as its content as well. And television also remediates many types of live performance. 

The computer is a medium that remediates pretty much all other media. Today, we see the computer and computer networks (e.g., the internet) remediating speech, handwritten and hand drawn documents, printing, newspapers, magazines, books, photographs, motion pictures, audio recordings, telephone, radio, television, etc. For this reason, Alan Kay, one of the pioneers in the development of computing, including the graphical user interface or GUI (on which the Mac and Windows interface, and Web browsers are based), stated that the computer is a metamedium, a medium that incorporates all other media. 

Within the process of remediation, Bolter discusses two distinct approaches. One is called transparent immediacy, the approach associated with windows. We try to create an interface that is essentially invisible, giving us the impression of a direct connection with an unmediated reality, the impression we have when looking out of a window. When painting in perspective was introduced during the Renaissance, it was seen as a method for the direct reproduction of reality, creating an impression of transparent immediacy, direct viewing of the subject, letting viewers forget that they were looking at a painting. 

 Of course, photography accomplishes this even more effectively. But photography does not simply remediate reality, it remediates painting in perspective, and its specific formats, like the portrait and the landscape. This continues as photography is remediated by motion pictures, and transparent immediacy is the strategy of most mainstream movies, especially in the tradition of Hollywood realism. New media artist and theorist Lev Manovich (in The Language of New Media) argues that digital media remediate cinema more than any other medium, and this certainly is true of videogames, especially the recent generation of PlayStation, Xbox, Wii, etc., games, as well as various approaches to simulation and virtual reality. 

At first glance, writing may seem quite distant from a transparent window on the world, but if you think about it, it is quite easy to lose yourself when reading, and become absorbed in an alternate reality. Indeed, one of the traditional criteria for evaluating literary works is realism, the semblance and illusion of the real. This seems to be harder to achieve in most forms of online writing, which accounts to some extent for the differences in reading online, and the different requirements for writing online. Tablets like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad may do a better job of remediating the transparent quality of print media than desktop and laptop computers. 

The second approach to remediation is called hypermediacy, and is associated with mirrors. Hypermediacy breaks the illusion of transparency, and therefore involves a certain amount of self-reference, and self-reflexiveness. Whenever content makes reference to itself as content, and therefore to the process of its mediation, it breaks "the willing suspension of disbelief" of the audience, and makes them aware of the process of mediation. This can occur when a narrator makes reference to the process of telling the story, or writing the book, or when the actors in a play break the fourth wall and interact with the audience (e.g., Bertolt Brecht), or when there's a movie within a movie, etc. Hypermediacy also includes situations where the audience is aware of and uses controls (e.g., tutorials that show you how to play a game before the game actually begins, admonitions along the lines of "don't touch that dial," "don't change the channel," etc.). 

As the mirror approach makes us think about our process of reading or listening or viewing or operating a medium, it makes it possible for us to be more active in participating with the medium, to take more control of the medium, and of ourselves. And as a mirror, the hypermediated medium can perhaps show us something of ourselves, help us learn a little bit about ourselves; it may also have the effect of making us more self-conscious, but perhaps more critical and aware as well. 

Hypermediacy also can involve spatial juxtaposition of disparate elements, where the differences in style make us aware of the presence of styles, whereas uniformity of style allows the style fade into the background, to be experienced as normal and natural, and thereby become unnoticed, subliminal, essentially invisible to us as we no longer pay attention. The juxtaposition of different, distinct, often clashing styles is one of the characteristics associated with postmodernism, whereas uniformity of style is a feature of modernism, in art and architecture. 

The newspaper front page, dating back to the mid-19th century, is an example of this, with many different articles slapped together. McLuhan referred to this style as a mosaic, and it is associated with the introduction of electricity via the telegraph, the speeding up of news gathering forcing newspapers to adopt a more fragmented, nonlinear style than their predecessors. The mix of different typefaces and sizes adds to the hypermediacy, as does the addition of illustrations, first drawn by hand, and eventually photographs as well, providing a mixture of two very distinct types of media. The web page of contemporary online media is an excellent example of hypermediacy, as it may combine many different types of text, graphics that include illustrations and photographs, and audiovisual material. 

Manovich makes the point that spatial juxtaposition has replaced montage as a primary form for new media. Montage is the use of film editing, cutting from one shot to another, one scene to another, and making meaning though the sequential juxtapositions (the theory of montage was originated by the pioneering filmmaker and film theorist from the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein). Film does so using a single frame, whereas websites, even one devoted to the moving image like YouTube, makes meaning though the combination of different elements on the same page. 

Blogs are clearly hypermediate, and bloggers need to consider the best ways to take advantage of this kind of interface. What is the best way to position and juxtapose the different elements? What can be done to facilitate usability, allowing users to find what they're looking for, and navigate the site easily? How can we best utilize the new capabilities of the new medium, rather than just try to reproduce what was being done in older media? 

For those trying to translate or recreate older media experiences in the online environment, the problem is much more difficult. How much of the older medium should be remediated? How far do we want to go to remediate older media? Do we want to take the approach of the window, or the mirror? Or better yet, to what extent do we want to create an experience of transparent immediacy, and to what extent do we want to supply the audience with the options of hypermediacy? 


 For an example of an attempt to remediate print media faithfully, take a look at Is this an example of rearview mirror thinking? What is missing from the magazines, newspapers, catalogs, etc., made available on this website, that you would find on a more typical type of website or blog? Identifying what is missing helps us to understand what is distinctive about online media. What might be the motives for making online versions of print media as similar as possible as the actual print media? What needs does this serve? 

Camille Paglia's essay discusses her experience writing for, so take a look at that site. As an online magazine, in what ways does it resemble a print magazine? In what ways does it differ from a print magazine? What are the major differences, that really help us to understand what is distinctive about online media? 

Here is an attempt to start an online magazine called PeoplePlanet. There is just one issue so far, and the editor told me that she wants to use the format of separate issues, even though it is not necessary to do that with online media (as you can see from The piece on McLuhan is based on an interview with me. What is your assessment of this magazine? 

Take a look at the sites for some print newspapers and magazines that you are familiar with or know of, for example the New York Times, Washington Post, other daily papers, perhaps local papers as well, and Time magazine, Wired magazine, or whatever you care to. How well do they manage the transition to an online format? Do they make the mistake of trying to bring too much of the print format into the online context? 

For a lighthearted, but sobering and revealing bit of comparison, take a look at this Daily Show segment about the New York Times.

In 2004, a Flash movie entitled EPIC 2014 debuted on the web, and gained a great deal of attention. It was set in the future, in the format of a documentary for the fictional Museum of Media History, looking back on how the press and 20th century news organizations ceased to exist, pushed out by news aggregators, blogs, and social media. It begins with a factual account of new media developments from the introduction of Web forward, and fictional elements start to appear from 2004 on. It ends on a pessimistic note with the New York Times going offline. An updated version was released a year later as EPIC 2015, where the fictional elements start in 2005. Although the details are different, predictions like the Google Grid very much anticipate Google+. You can watch both versions, or just the updated one, via the website devoted to them

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Professional Studies in New Media

So, back in 2010 I agreed to develop a new program for Fordham University's newly renamed School of Professional and Continuing Studies.  The program is called Professional Studies in New Media, it draws on courses offered by our business school, as well the Department of Computer Science and Information Science, and my own Department of Communication and Media Studies.  

So I prepared the curriculum, which also incorporated some new courses with the PSNM designation, working with Dean Isabelle Frank, and getting feedback from other faculty, and it made it through the gauntlet of administrative hurdles, and received approval from New York State in the fall.  And I was appointed Director of the new program.

The program is being piloted at Fordham's Westchester campus—did you know Fordham has a Westchester campus?—which is near White Plains, in West Harrison, NY, at 400 Westchester Road. And while it was approved this year, the approval came too late to get the program really underway, so its official launch is 2012/2013 school year.  Being part of the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, it's an undergraduate degree for students who never got a BA or BS, or did some work towards the degree but never completed it.  

I think it's a great opportunity for individuals looking to get up to speed and get a background in an area where employments opportunities exist, and are on the rise.  I know there's also great interest in a certificate program, and that should be next on the agenda, but first we want to get this program on the way.  So, if you know of anyone who wants or needs a Bachelors, please let them know.

You can check out the program on the program page on Fordham's website.  Here's some of the write-up:

From surfing the web to social networking to smart phones, we live and work in a world shaped by online communications, electronic media, and digital devices. The media industries in this area are expanding rapidly, and every business and organization today needs individuals who understand the new media environment, and know how to keep up with emerging trends and innovations in this ever-evolving landscape.
The page has a Link to Curriculum that I developed.  I should add that the site itself needs some tweaking, but all of the essential information is up there.

And that includes out upcoming launch event, in celebration of this new program. It's coming up fast, this Thursday evening in fact, so please take note!

In case the information isn't clearly visible, you can access the flyer from the box on the lower right of the program page by clicking on it (it will be removed after the event of course).  But the basic information is:

  • The event is free and open to all
  • There will be refreshments served (that's a biggie, I know)
  • We'll have a panel discussion on Working With New Media
  • I'll be the moderator and the panelists will include
  • Constantin Basturea, Vice-President for Strategy at the social media agency Converseon
  • Robin Colner, President and Founder of the digital marketing firm, DigiStar Media
  • Chris S. Cornell, Social Media Director at the public relations firm, Thompson & Bender
  • Paull Young, Director of Digital Engagement at the nonprofit organization, charity: water
  • The event will run from 7:00 to 9:00 PM
  • And once again, it's Fordham University on 400 Westchester Avenue in West Harrison, NY

And there you have it, please help us spread the word about the program, and I hope to see you on Thursday evening!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hearing and Media

So, back in 2008, I was contacted by Kathi Mestayer about an article she was writing about hearing loss, as she had seen me quoted in the New York Times (see my post from back then, The Secondary Orality of Social Networking), and liked my comment about the primacy of orality and speech.  So I sent her an extended reply via email on the subject, which she thanked me for, and that was that.  At least until last November, when she contacted me again about an article she was writing for Hearing Health magazine.

As you may know, I have a certain interest in disabilities, albeit relating to autism.  As far as hearing is concerned, well, I did sacrifice quite a bit to rock and roll, but that's a story for another time.  But I do want to note that when I was a student, both graduate and undergraduate, it was still quite common for communication departments, many of which had a longstanding connection to the study of speech, to include faculty whose specialty had to do with speech impediments and hearing loss.  And while some real connections were made, for the most part the scholars had little or nothing to do with each other, and that kind of combination is rare nowadays in American universities.

So, anyway, we had a few telephone conversations and several email exchanges, and the article finally appeared in the Spring issue of the magazine. If you click on that link, you can see the magazine online at a rather interesting site called Issuu.  I find it a great example of Marshall McLuhan's observation that the content of a medium is another medium.  On this site, we see the attempt to faithfully reproduce paper media, magazines, newspapers, catalogs, calendars, brochures, even white papers, not only in the manner of the PDF document, but in simulating the three-dimensional look of documents, and the experience of turning pages.  

Arguably, this is an example of what McLuhan called rear view mirror thinking, trying to do yesterday's job with today's tools.  It does make sense, however, as a means of archiving and increasing the accessibility of documents whose primary form is print, and also as an alternative for print media that have decided to go digital because of the cost of production and distribution, but want to retain their traditional format.

Anyway, having mentioned McLuhan, it should come as no surprise that his name comes up in the piece, and Kathi went so far as to title her article, "The Medium is the Message," which takes on an entirely new slant in an article associated with hearing impairment and loss.

Because of the format used, I can't transfer the text of the piece onto this blog post in the form of block quotations, which would make for easy reading, but I can show you what the pages look like.  Here's the first page of the article:

A good opening, and clearly in line with media ecology thinking, as she quickly moves from the apparent similarities to the truly significant differences that make a difference, and McLuhan (and me), not to mention the Media Ecology Association:

Phatic communication is small talk, a form of ritual communication where the goal is not the transfer of information, or influence, but merely the creation and maintenance of relationships, social bonds.  In this sense, relational communication is in effect a medium, and from a media ecology perspective, it is in essence a medium.  Following Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues in The Pragmatics of Human Communication distinguish between the content and relationship level of communication, equivalent to the communication and metacommunication levels, and these correspond quite clearly to the distinction between content and medium that McLuhan makes.  Anyway, sorry to interrupt, carry on:

And there's that reference to the New York Times article that started it all.  And the quote from Helen Keller sums it all up perfectly (in my conversation with Kathi, I had mentioned that Hellen Keller, when asked if she would rather be blind or deaf, said that she would prefer to be blind, because people are kinder to the blind, whereas they tend to be annoyed with the deaf).  Vision objectifies, sound connects.  

Understanding the differences between the senses should also allow us to understand the differences between their corresponding impairments.  And that should allow us to better accommodate and aid individuals with disabilities, a truly worthwhile goal!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Assessing the Media

So, here's one more post related to my visit to Israel in March. You may recall that I did get a post up while I was in the holy land, Talking in Tel Aviv, which was about my presentations at the College of Management and Academic Studies in the nearby town of Rishon LeZion. And my last post, Pictures and Propaganda, was based on a radio interview I gave and that aired while I was there.

So, I was also interviewed by a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Israel's leading English language newspaper, for a feature that appeared in their Friday magazine (the equivalent of our Sunday papers' magazine sections).  The interview appeared the week after I was there, and I was fortunate enough to be sent copies of the Israeli version (where it appears on pp. 14-15), and the international edition (where it appears on pp. 10-11).  It's cover dated March 23, but you can also find it online where it's March 22, all under the title:  Assessing the Media.

The interviewer's name is Josh Hasten, and here's how he introduces me in the piece:

On a recent visit here, Dr. Lance Strate, discusses social media and how they help facilitate social change. Over the past century, for better or for worse, governments, social action groups, private individuals and others have used traditional forms of media to effect change. But with the emergence of the Internet and new-media outlets, a vast array of other electronic tools have become available. The last couple of years saw three major attempts at effecting change utilizing this new technology: the 2010-11 Arab Spring throughout the Middle East, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) and last summer’s local social justice tent protests.

Dr. Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies and the associate chair for graduate studies at New York’s Fordham University, was recently in Israel as a guest of the School of Media Studies at Rishon Lezion’s College of Management Academic Studies (COMAS). The communications expert – who did his doctorate under author, media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman at New York University – delivered a series of lectures to COMAS students and faculty on the impact of social media. One of the sessions was titled “Media, Protest, and Social Change,” and some of last summer’s tent protesters attended the lecture. The Jerusalem Post caught up with Strate following his talks.

Just a note, I'm no longer associate chair for graduate studies, that's outdated information.  I'll put up a post about my new project in the very near future.  Oh, and there's also a picture of me, taken by Idan Gross:

The picture was taken during my keynote address at the College of Management and Academic Studies, in case you were wondering.  Anyway, let's get to the preliminary questions:

What was the focus of your lectures here in Israel?

I gave three talks here. One was a talk on media ecology, another on new media, and the third was on media and their role in the recent protests [around the world].

Media ecology?

Media ecology is the study of forms of media as environments. So the idea is that media play a leading role in human affairs. The media shape the way we think, the way we feel, act, and how we perceive the world, and our culture and social organizations.
Actually, that last phrase should have been social organization, singular, meaning in general.  But no biggie.  Okay, now for the big question, and answer:

Can you discuss the role social media played in the Arab Spring?

Social media played a significant role in facilitating the protests and movements that collectively became known as the Arab Spring. The role of media [in any form] was not clearly recognized in previous decades, but now it has become much more apparent [especially social media]. It’s true that a mobile device can’t stop a bullet, but that’s not all there is to it. Part of the impact [of social media] is its ability to organize people, connect people and mobilize people toward a common cause. Also, now there is the idea that people can have a sense of involvement even at a distance. You no longer have a passive audience viewing images on television, but even something as simple as clicking “Like” on Facebook gives people a sense of involvement.

But in regard to social media and the Arab Spring, you have to be cautious. This is not necessarily a movement toward democratization. We associate democracy as an idea born out of print culture. And print culture and other institutions formed through print culture are in decline or are on the way out.

Many of the features of that print culture environment have been undermined and displaced by electronic media. Rational choices are based on access to information, but maybe if there is too much information there are not enough means to evaluate it [for accuracy]. But more importantly our integral character as private individuals no longer exists. We have moved into an era where people network themselves, assume multiple identities and affiliations, and whether that will lead toward democracy as we understand it remains to be seen....

Change doesn’t come easily, but it does come sooner or later. What we don’t know is what new forms of social organizations will appear. When radio was introduced, we were given the totalitarian movements of communism, fascism and Nazism. You could suddenly appeal to mass audiences and mobilize them or even cause mass panic. On the other hand, intimate connections were made between a personality speaking [on the radio, and the audience], thus creating a new cult of personality.

We should not assume that movements like the Arab Spring are going to result in the kind of democracies that have emerged in the West. In all likelihood they will not.

I find it interesting how the interview adds the clarifying phrases in brackets. I think that most American journalists would feel free to paraphrase and edit as they see fit, and not always with the best results. I have to say I respect what he does here, and it came out all right, so far.  So, let's continue, shall we?

So you are pessimistic?

It’s not a matter of being pessimistic I’m just realistically assessing the situation. We have a different media environment today than the environment which was associated with the Enlightenment that gave rise to nation states and democratic governments of the West. For that reason, we can’t assume we are going to see the same development. Electronic communication bypasses structures that were built around print culture. People used to have access to news in a digestible form through print media and could get together to discuss it locally, which created stability. But now we see a great deal of instability and complexity. People are connecting despite geographical differences. It used to be that a person’s loyalty was to his tribe or his nation, but now their loyalties are to different groups they are connected to, making it a much more complicated world we live in. This leads to separatism. You have a group that breaks apart, then another small group that wants to break out, and there is no end to it.

 Don't all pessimists say that they are really realists?  But I really don't know, how do you separate the good from the bad?  You have both to begin with, and you get both as things change.  But the change itself does not come without its own problems, and the fact that change leads to unpredictable results inevitably introduces an element of risk:

What are possible negative ramifications of that phenomenon?

It’s dangerous. We are not prepared for these developments and don’t know how to deal with them. When the United States went into Iraq, they asked themselves, “Should we allow the country to disintegrate into small homogeneous units, or preserve the nation as a whole?” And the US, being a nation state, took the position to try and preserve a nation state. On other side of the coin you have Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic and even Scotland, [which] now wants to leave the United Kingdom, so this is the direction that electronic media can lead us toward. In the end, we have to expect new structures to begin and to form in a way that does not fit into what we have previously seen, and can conflict with what’s existed before.
 So far, so good. Now, let's get down to the bottom line, the question that must be asked:

But before we had social media, we had the Holocaust. How much worse can it get than when social media didn’t exist?

Well, you have to realize that on the other side of the coin, something like the Holocaust could not be kept a secret today. One of the features of new media is the proliferation of images. And images evoke emotional responses. Something like this [the Holocaust] would be publicized and cause great outrage. We see [this outrage] over and over, with what’s going on in places like Syria and Iran. In all these places, it’s too easy to get information out for any kind of authority to control and operate in secrecy.

On the other hand, it opens a new door – for example, what we are seeing in Gaza. The images we see don’t promote rational thinking, they elicit emotional responses. Those images require framing, since we don’t know when and where images are really taken and there are ways people can be manipulative to fit their “image culture.” In that sense, social media are not positive – but still, it would be hard to pull off another Holocaust or another genocidal campaign without world awareness. You just can’t hide it.

 It got a bit garbled towards the end, but no doubt you can tell I was alluding to the images I discussed in my previous post, Pictures and Propaganda.  Anyway, now that we have dealt with the Holocaust, let's move on to contemporary events, and the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Changing topics, what were some of the tangible results of the OWS movement as a result of social media?

The strength of social media in this instance was to facilitate the organization of events and the mobilization of people. That was effective. There were also some quite wonderful things going on that involved people using social media, such as protest supporters ordering pizzas for the protesters online.

[That said,] I was a guest on a talk radio show and they had an OWS organizer call in, and she said she was disappointed that the [mainstream] news media didn’t cover the protests adequately. I tried to explain to her why they didn’t get the same coverage as the Tea Party movement did. The problem is... TV favors close-up cameras focusing on personalities, on faces. The Tea Party was personified by certain people, such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. They provided a face and a voice for the movement. And that’s what TV wants. In the United States, television stations can’t do a good job of covering Congress because what you see is a large group of people sitting around. That’s bad television. Instead you get an exaggerated view of the president because you can get nice closeups of him. This distorts the images of what government is and probably has to do with the dysfunctionality of Congress in recent years.

The OWS movement didn’t produce distinct personalities or spokespeople. So while there were visual images of tents in a public park, that only provided a backdrop for various news reporters to provide their own views and explanations. When I explained this to one of the OWS leaders, she said, “We don’t want to fall into the trap of left-wing individualism.” But TV is not about private individuals, it’s about audio and visual personalities, and that’s why the movement didn’t get the same coverage cache as the Tea Party.

But again, social media were effective in organizing people and the grassroots work on the ground. This is also how President [Barack] Obama was successful in using social media effectively on the campaign trail, not to persuade voters, but to organize campaign workers. The problem is trying to use social media to reach the mass media, and that’s not possible. The mass media and TV have a different bias, and that’s the point the OWS movement missed. Was the goal to use new media to target old media structures, including the government, or do you use new media to bypass old media? They were not clear as to their intentions; hence the movement was a failure – they didn’t get much of anything out if it except expressing a generalized sense of dissatisfaction. By contrast, look at the effective social movements of the 1960s. They had genuine personalities and musicians on board, which gave a face to the movement. [The point is,] if you want to deal with a certain medium, you have to deal with it on its own terms.

In that middle paragraph, the quote from the Occupy Wall Street leader was misinterpreted, so let me clarify that here.  She said that they didn't want to fall into the trap of individualism as an ideology, and in saying that, she was expressing a left-wing point of view, where individualism is associated with capitalism and the bourgeosie.  And it certainly is a valid critique, but it's the wrong one to be making.  Individualism was a product of print culture, and went hand-in-hand with privacy, and to a large extent anonymity.  Television does not favor ideologies at all, insofar as it is not a very good medium for transmitting ideas, and it does not uphold individuals, but rather personalities.  It's theater, it's about images and the performance of roles, and a kind of mythic presence.  

Okay, getting off of my soapbox now, and back to the interview:

How did the Israeli tent protesters demanding cost-of-living reform fare last summer utilizing social media?

[Unlike in the OWS movement,] some personalities did emerge, but again, the bottom line is that they were trying to use the new media to organize and also reach the old media structures, including the government and professional news media. In the long run, perhaps that might turn out to form the basis of a successful campaign, but the alternative is to use the new media to create new structures. It’s difficult but could be more effective to bypass [traditional] news media and communicate directly to the audience, while also bypassing the government and creating other forms of organization.

My point here, based on my limited understanding of the Israeli protest, is that they concentrated their efforts on getting the mass media's attention, rather than focusing on trying to by-pass the mainstream media altogether.  And that is the tricky problem that these movements face, as the two goals are associated with different media biases, and require different strategies.  Okay, so, now a bit more:

But were they not somewhat successful, since the government took notice and formed a committee to propose economic solutions?

The organizers didn’t feel like it was a success. While they did get some kind of response, I didn’t get the sense (from the organizers I spoke with who attended my lecture) that they were satisfied with the overall outcome – including dissatisfaction with news coverage and a dissatisfaction with the government response. The real problem with the movement, though, I feel, is that they never really articulated their goals.

And on to our final question:

Will we one day see the death of traditional media, specifically newspapers?

Right now newspapers are not entirely disappearing, but being turned into something less common. When we think of a newspaper, we think of wrapping fish in it, stacking newspapers and those stacks being thrown out. Newspapers are disposable, so it makes perfect sense for that disposability to be shifted to an entirely electronic form [one day]. Eventually newspapers and even their online versions cannot survive. If you want to check your horoscope, read a cartoon, get a financial report, why go to a newspaper or its website when you can go to a specialty site?

I do believe that a market for professional news-gathering will always remain; however, it will evolve into a form that’s fully given over to the online environment. But as I said, there will be too much competition from specialized sources to have newspapers online long term. [Still,] the tradition of professional newspaper-oriented journalism and journalists will remain a commodity.

I don't think he was all that happy with my answer.  Admittedly, it is pessimistic. But hey, it you don't like what I have to say, you can always protest...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pictures and Propaganda

I apologize for the disturbing nature of the image I've included below, I know it's not pleasant to look at, although heaven knows it's hardly the worst kind of thing that can turn up on the internet, or on the evening news even.

But perhaps you've seen it already, identified as the picture of a Palestinian girl wounded in an attack by the Israeli army or air force? Maybe just recently, or may in years past? If so, and if you've felt anger, or outrage, or shame regarding the Israeli military, you've been propagandized.

This is not to say that the Israeli Defense Forces are free from committing offenses, no military is without error or sin, after all.  But in this specific instance, the little girl was injured in an accident on a swing, and this picture has been used repeatedly, during different conflicts, spread in viral fashion via email, websites, Facebook, and Twitter, and picked up repeatedly by respectable news organizations that seem to be no longer capable of fact checking.

But the fault lies not so much with our newscaster stars, and supporting players, but with in the nature of images as a medium, a type of analogical communication, and a form of what Susanne Langer referred to as presentational symbolism.

Simply put, the image in and of itself, carries no set information about its date or place of origin, about the circumstances of the moment in time that it depicts.  No context.  Any statement that it makes must be made via words, which is why we look to captions in print media or online, and look at the title of paintings in museums.  Pictures are not worth a thousand words, nor are they worth a single word.  Pictures and words are apples and oranges. 

Verbal statements can be evaluated as true or false.  Pictures may be judged faked or genuine, but otherwise, they are what they are, entirely concrete, referring to nothing else but the surface impression that they capture.  In this sense, images are not facts that can be checked or evaluated (facts can be proven true or false, meaning that there is such a thing as a false fact).  Images can be used as evidence, but the claim that they are used to support must be made in words.

So, with that in mind, you can take a listen to a little interview I gave to Kol Israel English, which is Israeli radio, on March 14 of this year.  I was in Israel at the time, as a guest of the College of Management and Academic Studies, specifically their School of Media Studies, thanks to Dean Eva Berger.  Maybe you remember my previous post, Talking in Tel Aviv

 So, while I was there, southern Israel was getting the rocket attack treatment from Gaza.  Over in Tel Aviv, where I was staying, life was completely unaffected, but closer to Gaza, citizens were moved to air raid shelters over and over again.  And again, I don't want to get into the complex politics of the situation, suffice it to say that Israel was giving as well as getting, hence this image.

So anyway, I took the audio clip with my interview, broadcast on March 14, 2012, around 8:40 PM, and turned it into a video for YouTube, adding a scrolling transcript of my radio interview as the visual, although I was not able to sync it up exactly. You can see it on YouTube under the title of Pictures and Propaganda (Israeli Radio) or just watch it here:

And here's the transcript again, without the motion:

Newscaster: The Palestinians in Gaza have been gearing up their propaganda machine with a string of photos, showing the alleged violations of the Israeli army.

These photos are being released on Facebook, Twitter and to news agencies like Reuters, who, for example, released a picture of a bleeding girl, carried by her father. Later on they had to issue a correction, when they discovered the picture had already been released three times: in 2006, 2009 and now again. And the girl had a swinging accident, nothing to do with a crisis in Gaza.

Now, another picture is in circulation of what looks like the boot of an IDF soldier stamping a young Arab girl, who's lying on the ground. An officer from the special unit in the IDF spokesman's office, who looks at the provenience of these pictures, told Channel 2 TV News, the picture comes from Bahrain and has nothing to do with the Mid East crisis in this region.

Well, is this a known phenomenon?  That is the question we asked Lance Strate, Professor of Communication at Fordham University in the US, who is in Israel presently as a guest lecturer at the School of Media Studies, College of Management and Academic Studies in Rishon LeZion.

Lance Strate:  It comes down to the fact that pictures, first of all, have an enormous impact, well beyond words. Simply, words leave us distanced from the topic. And pictures speak to us in an immediate way, and in a powerful way. They elicit emotional responses, and particularly pictures of that sort elicit anger and moral outrage. So, they are a very powerful weapon to be wielding.

Reporter: Now, a respectable network, like Reuters, has used the same picture three times, in 2006, 2009 and now once again. A picture of a child with a bleeding face being carried by her father. And in the end they found out they have to issue an apology that this has nothing to do with war or fighting, she was actually hurt by a swing or something. Why can''t a respectable organization like Reuters, check their pictures.

Lance Strate:  It's a great question, and actually one problem would be just turn over of personnel.

But the bigger problem is that you simply cannot do a search on images the way you can for verbal statements. If you think about doing a Google search, for example, you can say, if you have a quote, let's do a Google search and you can find out where that quote comes from. But if you have an image in front of you, there's no way to plug it into Google and find that image on the Internet. And there's nothing in the image that helps you to identify where and when it was taken necessarily.

And I know, they're developing technology that is going to solve this problem or, at least, alleviate the problem, but we are not quite there yet.

Newscaster: Professor Lance Strate, a specialist in communication and media studies.

I should note that I posted a link to the archived radio segment soon after the broadcast, and I received a comment from Rinat Korbet, an Israeli information specialist at IVC Research Center, where she is a colleague of my friend from MySpace, the poet and writer Moses Roth.  Rinat, who has an MA in information science from Bar-Ilan University, and had some familiarity with media ecology, made the following point:

There are technologies/sites/applications that help identify the source of images by simply uploading them: (also on google) 
But: A. most people don't use them. 
B. It's hard to find the "zero patient" picture, or where it all began. 
Reprint and distribution of pictures spreads like an epidemic and a lot of sites/people don't bother to share the source they copied from. It's easier to understand in the case of texts...

And of course, the bottom line is that finding the images elsewhere on the web does not guarantee that you can identify the source, and may in fact reinforce the false attribution, one of the pitfalls of crowdsourcing.  And, of course, quotations can also be misidentified, as discussed in my Neil Postman post from last year, Children are the Living Messages We Send to a Time We Will Not See. But quotes are much easier to identify than images, that should be obvious, and their impact is not the same as the immediate and emotional effects of the visual image, a pointed that Neil Postman made most pointedly.

Anyway, I do think it was altogether appropriate that this subject was covered on radio, a medium that is entirely devoid of the visual image.  A sound decision, I'd say.  Do you see what I mean?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jeering at Comcast

So, I'm still playing catch-up, and it was all the way back in February that a reporter for the International Business Times, Oliver Tree, interviewed me about the Comcast cable network's decision not to carry Al Jazeera English, the Arab world's English language news network.  His article, with the provocative title of, Why Does America Hate Al Jazeera?, was published on February 23, but the controversy lives on.

So let's look in on how Oliver Tree introduces the subject:

Last year's Arab Spring uprisings enthralled viewers around the globe with their ferocity and pace. As regimes fell like ninepins, footage of people who had long been choked by the sclerotic hand of aging dictators was beamed around the world as they rose up and overthrew decades of repression in a matter of months.

But, were it not for the efforts of one particular news-gathering service, the Arab Spring might have passed many viewers by.

Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera, and its sister site Al Jazeera English, burst onto the scene with incisive and daring reports as first Tunisia, then Egypt and finally Libya succumbed to revolution and bloodshed. The coverage was so good that the channel even gained an endorsement from U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who, standing before a Senate Foreign Relations committee in May, said the network was "changing peoples' minds and attitudes... like it or hate it, it is really effective." 

 We certainly have heard a great deal about the role of new media and social media in the Arab Spring and similar protest movements, but television remains the most powerful medium of all in shaping public opinion, and the goal of much activity organized via social media is simply to use the new media to reach the old media, influence their agenda and attract their coverage.  Anyway, back to what Hilary was saying...

"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," she added.

"You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and arguments between talking heads."

A not-so-veiled reference to Fox News, I think it's safe to say, but of course MSNBC also fits the bill as Fox's opposite number, and CNN also favors the dramatic confrontation more and more in the material it uses as filler in between advertisements.  So, at this point, Oliver backs up Hilary's assessment with several factual statements:

The network has since gone on to win a clutch of awards.

On Thursday it was named as News Channel of the Year at the Royal Television Society Awards of Britain--the industry's Oscars--and has won numerous accolades for its coverage of the "forgotten" uprising in Bahrain, including a prestigious George Polk Award for the documentary "Shouting In The Dark".

The network's coverage from Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising was also widely lauded as the best by any network and they even scooped every global news service as the first to report the death of Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

 Of course, it only makes sense that an Arab news network would offer the most in-depth coverage of Arab affairs, especially one that is not beholden to any authoritarian regime.  So, anyway, it's time to get to the crux of the issue, wouldn't you say, Mr. Tree?

But despite all the awards and plaudits, the channel is practically nonexistent in the U.S.

Even though Al-Jazeera English has been broadcasting from downtown Washington, D.C., since 2006, it is only readily available in a handful of cities including Toledo, Ohio; Burlington Vt.; Bristol, R.I., Washington and New York - a glaring omission in a country that holds dear the right to choose.

 Interesting set of sites, don't you think?  DC makes perfect sense, of course, given their interest in foreign affairs, and New York is a global city, after all.  Vermont is pretty radical, sure, but Toledo?  Bristol, Rhode Island? Perhaps it has something to do with local demographics. In any event, here's where I come in:

"When you get conservative-oriented folks such as Comcast, and companies that have a Christian orientation, that combination leaves them uncomfortable with an Islamic-oriented network," said Lance Strate, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y.

"Generally the reason given is 9/11, which gives cable networks the perception that their customers would see the inclusion of an Arabic network as a bad thing. This coupled, with the support for Israel among many Christian groups, is a powerful combination." 

I think this is pretty obvious, after all. Liberals tend to favor giving broad interpretation to First Amendment freedoms, free expression of opinion, and pluralism in general. Social conservatives, and that includes the Christian right, have sought to impose restrictions on speech in a variety of ways. And I'm not saying they're entirely wrong about imposing limits, I agree that there should be some, but more often than not, my sympathies are with the left on these issues.

But the root of the problem is not so much in the conservative outlook as it is in the commercial imperative.  I have previously posted my criticisms of the ways in which cable companies exert close to monopoly control over television programming, in what they allow or don't allow, and in what channels they force us to take.  For example, see my previous posts, All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable Neutrality, Tell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!, Ordering TV À La Carte, ABC You Later, Cablevision!, and FCC It Now.  So here we go again:

According to Strate, cable companies also have an "arrogance" when it comes to deciding what to include in their packages and "are not even listening to their consumers on non-controversial issues, so when it comes to controversial issues they are certainly not obligated."

But the main point is that, in their drive for profits, cable companies don't want to risk losing profits by offending any part of their audience.  Edith Efron called television the "timid giant" back in the early 60s, and cable companies are not much different than their broadcasting cousins, certainly not in the courage department:

But more than that they are, in Strate's words, "timid giants."

"They are always afraid of offending someone," he added.

 But now, back to the political angle, and the conservative distaste for the network:

Of course, Al Jazeera has gained high-profile enemies in the U.S. as well. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously labeled the channel's coverage of civilian deaths during the Iraq war as, "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." In an interview with the channel last year, Rumsfeld famously descended into a shouting match with presenter Abderrahim Foukara, calling him "pejorative" and "disrespectful." 

In spite of the political obstacles, one of the founders of Rethink Press, Xi Wang, was confident the Comcast petition would have an impact.

"The most important part of our action is to provide access," she said.

"Influencing public opinion will evolve in an organic way. Once you start watching something, it is a lot easier to dispel any fears you may have."

"If it were to be shown, a lot of Americans might realize just how partial U.S. news networks are."

 But now, to draw the important distinction between making a channel available, and getting the audience to actually watch it.

The question remains, however, is mainstream America ready for the type of straight reporting Al Jazeera contains? If the networks caved in and channel went national, would it gather a wide enough audience to change news broadcasting in the U.S.?

 "I really doubt that it would have any impact at all," Strate mused.

"It would get a self-selected audience in much the same way conservatives watch Fox and liberals watch MSNBC. Which is really an argument for allowing it in a way, as it really wouldn't have that much of an impact."

 And you've got to know that this is true.  We get dozens of foreign stations on our cable system, and I doubt they get much of an audience at all, apart from foreign nationals and immigrants.  As I told Oliver Tree, who happens to be English, even the vaunted BBC America does not get much of the cable audience (except perhaps when Monty Python reruns are on, or Doctor Who).  Heck, even the audience for Fox News is relatively small.  Anyway, back to Oliver for an interesting note:

But according to Wang, Al Jazeera may have found a more surreptitious method of winning American hearts and minds.

"When we were handing in the petition at Comcast, I met American soldiers who were based in Iraq," she said.

"One of the soldiers said he didn't know what Al Jazeera was until he got there and that a lot of soldiers got their news from it. They found it amazing how different the news was presented there to how it is in the U.S."

This may be the case, but I have to wonder how much influence this has on the viewing audience at large, or even whether those soldiers would still be as interested in news about the Arab world after returning home from Iraq?  In any event, it still all comes down to the bottom line:

Ultimately, however, it may not even be a question of politics or numbers, but irrational fear.

"It is not the commercial aspect which is the problem, but a concern among the cable providers of how many customers they may lose by offering it," Strate concluded.

"You don't want to offend your audience, for fear of losing them." 

 And maybe the cable companies are underestimating their audiences. I can't say for sure, but I do believe they are overestimating the impact the addition of Al Jazeera would have on them, and overestimating the negative response they would get.

Ultimately, what we need is television that's more like the internet, where anyone can get access to anything they want to view, pay for what they get and only what they choose to get, and carriers are just that, not gatekeepers.  And you know, it's coming.  Sooner, or later, it's coming.