Monday, January 28, 2013

Television and Sports

With the Superbowl coming up this Sunday, it seems like the perfect time to air, er, I mean share the more recent interview with me conducted by Palash R. Ghosh for the International Business Times, the previous pieces having been blogged about here on old Blog Time Passing under the headings of Signs of the NY Times, The DC-Hollywood Connection, Cable News Left and Right, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of TV News.

This latest round was published online on January 9th, with the title, US Sports And Television: A Marriage Made In Heaven And Hell, and you can click on the link and read it over there, or stick around and read it here:

The United States is a sports-mad country – professional and collegiate athletics generate billions of dollars annually, attracting tens of millions of devoted fans.

In a few weeks, the Super Bowl will be watched by more than 100 million people in the U.S. alone, while the NCAA "March Madness" tournament is almost as big an event.

Elite American athletes like Lebron James, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant are not only extravagantly compensated, but enjoy global acclaim and iconic status.

The extraordinary success and popularity of sports could not have reached such stratospheric levels without the support of television. Pro sports leagues sign billion-dollar contracts with the networks, guaranteeing huge windfalls for team owners, executives and, of course, the players themselves.

However, like other parts of mass media, sports broadcasting is facing some serious problems, including a fragmented market, the growing disillusion of fans tired of massive salaries paid to top stars and the rising threat posed by the Internet.

International Business Times spoke to a media expert to sort out the current state of sports broadcasting and journalism.

Dr. Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and director of the professional studies in new media program at Fordham University in New York City.

IB TIMES: U.S. pro and college sports are now a multibillion-dollar industry. Do pro clubs today generate the majority of their income from the TV money, rather than ticket sales and corporate sponsorships?

STRATE: Yes, broadcast and cable television revenues represent the main source of profit, supplemented by the licensing of merchandise. Actual attendance at the event has been of increasingly less importance to the business of professional sports over the past half century.

IB TIMES: ESPN emerged in the early 1980s, coincident with the appearance of cable news networks. How has ESPN changed the face and nature of American sports?

STRATE: ESPN has dramatically altered our relationship to sports in a number of ways. Sports broadcasting used to be limited to the time period surrounding the actual playing of a game, and to relatively brief reports on local news broadcasts.

ESPN gave us sports programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Increased quantity has intensified the interest in and the availability of sports, but also in some ways made athletics less special.

ESPN also represents a shift away from a local orientation to sports to a national, and sometimes international, perspective. Local broadcast stations would make deals with local teams, and thereby feature only the home team on a regular basis. Broadcast networks would present us with a revolving line-up for games of the week (and on special occasions like Thanksgiving), until shifting to whatever teams made it to the championship games in their respective sports.

Before television, there was a strong connection between teams and the communities that they were situated in. Broadcast television began to undermine that connection, and cable television in the form of ESPN has led to further deterioration of the local connection.

ESPN, as a network devoted to sports coverage, is able to offer much better quality television, a more professional and entertaining product, than the sports programming produced by local stations, so this reinforces the erosion of community in sports.

IB TIMES: Baseball was the most popular U.S. sport until the 1960s -- by the next decade NFL football rose to the No. 1 spot. Was this due primarily to televised NFL games?

STRATE: Absolutely. Baseball is a sport that translates poorly to television. If you try to show the entire field of play, you lose too much detail, and it's too hard to see what's going on. So instead, the tendency is to focus on a narrow part of the game, which is great if you know the game well, as you can see details about how pitchers and batters go about their business, but you lose the subtlety of fielders' movements behind the pitcher, base-runners taking leads, etc.

Baseball is a holistic game, and suffers when it is atomized in this way. Someone once commented that if you only watch baseball on TV, you'd think that the first baseman is always positioned on the first base bag, because they never show him fielding his position -- only when he's taking the throw to first, that's how misleading television coverage can be.

Of course, it's also a commonplace that television favors action, and baseball is too slow-moving for the TV audience. It's a game of strategy, a thinking game, which is why it worked so well before television became the dominant medium. It's a game that you can put into words, a literary game, and so not surprisingly baseball novels hold a significant place in American literature, and also was easy to capture in newspaper reports, and even in the verbal pictures painted by radio announcers.

Baseball is also a game of statistics, and in this respect as well newspapers played a significant role as a medium that printed batting averages, earned run averages, and the like, which readers could pore over at great length. Statistics do not, however, do well on the television screen. So, television undermined baseball's role in American culture, and replaced it with football, which was not all that popular a sport before the 1960s. But football could work well on television because the line of scrimmage requires only a narrow field of vision, one that the TV camera can easily capture, and once the ball is in motion, all that the camera needs to do is follow whoever is holding it, or wherever it's thrown, or kicked.

Even so, football did not become the national pastime until after the introduction of the videotape replay in the 1960s. As much as football is thought to be a game of action, the action tends to be relatively brief, with long periods of waiting in between. One study of an early Super Bowl game found that there was only about eight minutes in which the ball was actually in play. The instant replay allows the brief moments of action to be repeated several times, and from different angles, providing many times more action than is actually present during the game. Without it, football would not be that much more exciting than baseball.

IB TIMES: Television sports broadcasting did not really commence until 1950 or so, when millions of American households bought TV sets. In those days, was the revenue generated from TV negligible to the teams? What was the principal source of their income?

STRATE: At the start of the TV era, the main source of income for sports teams was generated at the stadium through ticket sales, supplemented by sales of food, merchandise, stadium advertising, etc. Without all of that television money, players' salaries were much lower, they lived in the community and were a part of the community, and owners themselves maintained a relationship with the community, they were beholden to the fans to a much greater extent than today.

IB TIMES: Has the TV sports market become saturated and cannibalized, given the plethora of stations, networks and games available? That is, are individual games losing their once-big audiences?

STRATE: All of the constant coverage certainly has diluted the value and significance of individual games. Fans themselves have become increasingly disillusioned with the games due to the enormous emphasis on profits, not to mention the many scandals, strikes, etc., that come up.

IB TIMES: Did regional sports networks, like YES in NY, NESN in Boston, and WGN in Chicago, arise because of this fractured market?

STRATE: As disillusioned as fans have become, there still is a local connection to sports teams, and cable provides the opening for increasingly more specialized programming, and channels. So if there are enough fans who would rather watch reruns of games played by their favorite teams from a few years or decades ago, rather than watching a live game played by teams they don't really care about, then a channel can be sustained that would cater to those fans.

This especially appeals to fans of a team that isn't doing well at present, but had winning seasons in the past. Nostalgia has always been a part of sports culture, and these channels are only beginning to exploit the possibilities of replaying past games from the archives.

IB TIMES: Are males between the ages of 18-49 still the target demography audience for sports programming? Or has that changed?

STRATE: The male demographic is still dominant in sports programming, but there is recognition of the increasing numbers of women in the audience. As is generally the case, there is a lag between demographic changes within the audience and adjustments in the programming to reflect those changes.

IB TIMES: Golf tournaments and tennis matches typically do not draw big ratings, but the top stars in these sports make huge money. Is this because they generally appeal to the affluent, thereby attracting blue-chip advertisers?

STRATE: It used to be said that the only reason golf tournaments were televised was because television executives play golf. That was before Tiger Woods, of course, but the fact remains that golf is not exactly the most attractive sport for television coverage. Tennis is more exciting to watch, and made a shift from elitist to popular mode several decades ago.

The advantage that both sports have is the emphasis on individual players, so that the most successful, and also the most attractive and distinctive individuals, can become celebrities, attract a great deal of attention, and this opens the door to advertising revenue, and not just for high-end products.

IB TIMES: Do the TV networks make a profit on sporting events in general? I recall the first year that the Fox television broadcast NFL football -- the network lost something like $350 million. How can they sustain losses like that?

STRATE: In general, yes, they make profits.

If networks could control the outcome of sporting events, they'd make sure that teams in major markets like New York City and Los Angeles always wound up in championship games, because viewership goes down when you have two teams from, say, Rust Belt cities.

When it comes to coverage of the Olympics, there's a need to determine what games to show on the network and what to relegate to cable channels, not to mention whether to show them live or taped if the games are held in another part of the world. But there is no question that in the long run having the broadcast rights is profitable, and helps the network in harder-to-quantify ways, for example, in promoting their television series during the Super Bowl and in simply providing the network with legitimacy, status, and prestige, as the NFL did for Fox.

IB TIMES: Has it come to a point where the TV networks influence how, when and where games are played? For example, forcing World Series games to be played on weeknights to maximize ratings, allowing for commercial breaks, expansion of playoffs so more games are played, etc.?

STRATE: That's been true for a while. As much as there has been criticism of the scheduling of games, weekday games are rare, and scheduling has shifted to accommodate national audiences, which moves the start time back on the East Coast.

And expanded leagues and the addition of playoffs also provide more television programming, and makes that programming more attractive to audiences.

IB TIMES: Boxing was a very big sport in the 1950s, but seems to have declined in popularity ever since. Nonetheless, top boxers receive huge money, although matches only appear on cable pay-per-view outlets. What generates such revenue?

STRATE: As special events, there is quite a bit of revenue generated by pay-per-view through a variety of outlets, and on an international scale through the rights to re-broadcast, made available through on-demand or download. Plus, there's money generated via advertising and promotion.

But it has been a long time since we've had the kind of superstar boxers that once dominated American sports like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. As the public has come to realize the consequences of traumatic brain injuries, both boxing and football have become less appealing.

IB TIMES: In the 1950s, didn’t baseball club owners fear that televised games would discourage people from coming out to the ballpark and thereby hurt attendance and revenues? Did this indeed happen? Or did they realize that TV gave them unprecedented exposure to the public?

STRATE: The main thing is that television revenue made attendance increasingly less significant to the owners. As I mentioned before, television does a poor job of providing a sense of all that's going on during a baseball game, so the direct effect on attendance was nothing like what the owners' feared.

However, in undermining baseball's attraction, and creating audiences who were increasingly more impatient with the slow pace of the game, television damaged baseball's value irreparably. In response, owners, have turned the stadium experience into a kind of media frenzy, with jumbo screens constantly displaying images of the players, close-ups of the game, advertisements, and a variety of clips all in the attempt to keep attendees from being bored.

Paradoxically, this further devalues the game itself, and destroys the mentality, and concentration, needed to appreciate it.

IB TIMES: In the 1940s and 1950s, most baseball and football play-by-play broadcasters were employed by their respective radio and TV stations. Now, it seems they all work for the teams they cover. Why did this happen?

STRATE: At first, the live sporting event was the main business of sports teams, and broadcasters covered that event, as they might cover other types of events in reporting the news. As television revenue became the main source of profits for the teams, they came to realize that they were no longer in the business of creating live events, but in the business of producing television programming, not unlike a studio that produces a TV series.

With that understanding came the desire, and the need, to maintain complete creative control. When the stations employed the broadcasters, they were able to say things that are critical of the team or the management, but now they are part of the promotion of the team-as-programming.

And more recently, this has extended to the creation of cable channels, like YES by the New York Yankees, and SNY by the New York Mets. This is a bit of a reversal, as there was a time when some sports franchises were owned by broadcasters; for example, CBS owned the Yankees for about a decade before selling the team to George Steinbrenner in 1973.

IB TIMES: Howard Cosell is probably the most famous and controversial U.S. sportscaster in history. What impact did he have on the profession? And could Cosell -- with his homely looks, nasal voice and obnoxious personality -- be hired by a TV network today?

STRATE: Cosell made the television sportscaster into a celebrity, rivaling and sometimes eclipsing the athletes themselves. While there is no single individual with quite the same visibility as he enjoyed, individuals such as John Madden (whose celebrity extends to football videogames), and Bob Costas, who recently made waves by courageously commenting on gun violence during a football game, are Cosell's heirs.

But with so much money at stake in sports programming today, I'd doubt anyone could be as critical as Cosell was willing to be and survive. As for his looks and voice, he did have the advantage of being a distinctive personality that could play well as a supporting character on television, but you are probably right that today the tendency would be to put attractive individuals on screen, and Cosell would probably not make the cut.

IB TIMES: In the late 1960s, a number of prominent black athletes, including Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), made provocative statements – through the media -- on politics, civil rights and the Vietnam War. Why have black athletes largely refrained from activism over the past 40 years? STRATE: American society went through major changes during the 1960s, and prominent individuals from all sectors of society, entertainers, the arts, intellectuals, etc., spoke out on the major issues of the day. Watergate, and Richard Nixon's resignation marked the end of that period, and since then the nation has not been as extremely divided politically, however much we may speak of ‘red states’ vs. ‘blue states,’ or as extremely divided along racial, gender, or generational lines.

Of course, those earlier generations of athletes had to fight for equality and respect, while their successors did not. And on a cynical note, with so much more money at stake, there is much more risk in being identified as a controversial figure, and losing out on advertising and merchandising revenues.

IB TIMES: When did “sports journalism” begin to be taken seriously? For example, the Wall Street Journal did not have a sports section for many years.

STRATE: There's a difference between sports journalism being taken seriously, and news about sports being taken seriously.

Baseball reporters were respected for their literary ability in the early 20th century -- Ring Lardner comes to mind, for example. As sports became fully entwined with the media entertainment industry, especially with the evolution and expansion of cable television during the 1990s, it became as worthy of business reporting as the activities of the film or popular music industries.

And that wraps up the interview. I suppose you can tell where my sympathies lie, with baseball, rather than football. I do find football exciting, admittedly, but it's in short bursts a handful of times during the game. And this year, between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, well, I don't really care who wins. But there's always the commercials...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Problem in the System

Some online interactions that I've had recently got me thinking about how the idea of a system can become problematic in certain ways.  

As Walter Ong has explained, the term system is a visual metaphor, with roots in astronomy, as in the solar system.

The image above is a diagram of the Copernican, heliocentric system, rendered by none other than Galileo Galilei. And the term system comes into popular use in the era of Copernicus and Galileo, that is, in the era of typography. As McLuhan has noted, the Gutenberg galaxy (by which he meant the typographic media environment and the print culture it gave rise to) heightened the importance of the visual sense, stressing its use in isolation from the other senses, an unnatural mode of perception, but one essential to the habit of reading.   

What is also unnatural is the way that the visual sense is used by literates, focusing on a fixed point of view at a fairly close distance. That's how we read, but most other uses of vision require us to use our eyes quite differently, whether we're scanning our environment for threats and opportunities, or attending to another person's facial expressions, gestures, and stance in interaction. Reading amounts to training our eyes to see in ways that run counter to our natural instincts and inclinations, and this in turn results in some rewiring of the brain's neural pathways.

As a consequence, print culture has been characterized by visualism, as the cultural trend is referred to, and this is quite different from the use of images and imagistic language in oral and preliterate cultures, and in cultures where literacy is limited.  It is also quite different from our own contemporary image culture, which is associated with audiovisual media.

Visualism is very much connected to the rise of modern science, which is based on the empirical method, which is to say that it is based on observation. In particular, it's based on the idea that we can be observers standing apart and outside of what we observe, as outsiders looking on, spectators, peeping toms, voyeurs, etc. In other words, visualism brings with it objectivism, the idea of objectivity, that you can observe phenomena in a detached, uninvolved manner, that the phenomena are unaffected by the act of observation, and that it is possible to separate ourselves from our subjectivity. 

To be objective is to treat the objects of our observation as objects, to engage in objectification. McLuhan notes that this has its roots in the ancient world, and from it comes the idea of nature as something separate and apart from human beings. In objectifying nature, we think of it as something that can be opposed, contained, controlled, defeated, possessed, and manipulated. Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae makes the great point that this a delusion, but a delusion that has resulted in most of the great works and progress that have been accomplished in science, technology, and art.

Literacy is also associated with linearity, and this goes back to the first writing system, cuneiform, developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia circa 3500BCE, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat has shown. Linear thinking is very much apparent in Aristotle's logic, which takes us step by step through a thinking process, and also evolved as a method for organizing the process of categorizing information (e.g., if an item is a member of a category, and that category is a member of a larger category, then that item is also a member of that larger category). And as Eric Havelock, along with Ong and McLuhan have shown, literacy leads to the use of more high-level abstractions, whereas the oral mindset favor more concrete verbal formulations. Again, logic and abstract thinking take us farther away from reality, but are also associated with progress in science and technology.

So, returning to the idea of system, it is very much a part of this historical development, and there is no question that visual charts, graphs, tables, and diagrams are enormously useful. So what's the problem with system then?

For Ong, it's a symptom of a larger shift that was centered in many ways in Ramism, an approach to education and knowledge introduced by Peter Ramus (1515-1572), made possible by the printing revolution, and indeed reflecting the biases of the typographic medium. Ramus shifted the emphasis in education away from dialogue, debate and disputation, the understanding that scholarship and knowledge is based on an ongoing conversation.

Instead, what Ramus emphasized is that
knowledge can be understood as a set of facts, organized logically and presented in visual form, as an outline or diagram or the like, and Ramist education was based on conveying knowledge in this manner.  

This may be a more efficient way to summarize, organize, and present knowledge, but the human element is abstracted out of it, and with its removal we also lose any sense of human subjectivity. Rather than primary sources read against one another, we get a textbook. Rather than learning about the method of knowledge acquisition, and especially its character as an ongoing, never ending activity, we are given the impression of a field or discipline as established, set, fixed, closed, and complete. A system.

Indeed, part of the problem is the idea of a system as having boundaries, as in the mathematical notion of a set.  Even if you take into account that sets can overlap, and/or be nested within one another, we still lose the idea of open-ended discourse, as opposed to a limited set of facts that can be listed, presented for visual display, complete and bounded.

The cell membrane is another basis for comparison with the idea of system. And while membranes are by their very nature permeable, they still must maintain a strict boundary between what is in the system and what is outside of the system, that is, what is the system's environment. This is an important idea, and I want to be clear that the idea itself is not the problem, but rather its overemphasis.

And then there is the well known diagram of the particles that make up an atom, which has for long been presented in a manner quite similar to that of the solar system. But of course we know that this is not at all an accurate representation for whatever is going on down at that level. Indeed, subatomic physics in certain respects defies visual representation.

Now, admittedly, I've been using examples related to the solar system, of systems with clear boundaries, and I should acknowledge that there are other kinds of systems. For example, the nervous system:


 And the subway system:

But while there is no membrane, per se, we still are presented with a sense of closure, the system as complete and contained within the diagram. And of course this also applies to the Ramist diagram shown above, which amounts to a kind of outline turned over on its side.

But there is more to the idea of system than just visualism. System also is associated with systematizing, that is, an attempt to reduce activity down to an established set of steps or procedures. We can recognize in this sense of system a scientific orientation and the full application of operationalism, that is, operational definitions
, so again it is quite useful.  But operationalism also gives rise to a mechanical and technical orientation, what Lewis Mumford considers machine ideology, and Jacques Ellul terms la technique. Again, there is the removal of the human element, as occurs when a handicraft is mechanized, and for this reason the emphasis on mechanization and technologization has been criticized by scholars such as McLuhan, Mumford,  Ellul, and Neil Postman.

 The assembly line, as depicted above, is a linear approach to systematization taken to an extreme.  And while the electric circuit counters the linearity of mechanization, the technological bias towards systematization is still present:

And of course, it is readily apparent in computer programming (Ramist diagrams are considered to be an ancestor of the computer program and flowchart):

 And here's one more example, just for good measure (and humor):

So, system reflects a technological mentality, reducing human activity to a standardized program, especially one that can be made into a visual model or chart. Again, we return to the principle of containment and control that is also associated with visualism. 

Now, the online interactions I mentioned at the beginning of this post had to do with general semantics, which Alfred Korzybski referred to as a non-Aristotelian system.  And he did not use the term system casually, he was very much interested in systematizing his insights into human thought and behavior, and developing general semantics as a "teachable system," to invoke a phrase he used in a letter he wrote to Robert Maynard Hutchins.  And by this he meant a simple, easy to learn, set of steps, specifically geared for common folk, as opposed to something that only academics and intellectuals could understand. His goal to improve the common person's ability to think clearly and evaluate reality was commendable, and general semantics itself represents an important contribution to human understanding.  

But the irony is that he failed to realize that the idea of a non-Aristotelian system is oxymoronic, in that the idea of a system in general, in being visual and logical, is itself an Aristotelian formation. Korzybski didn't realize that he was using an Aristotelian method to present a non-Aristotelian approach. Consider, for example, Korzybski's primary model, the structural differential:

The broken parabola at the top is meant to represent the fact that we can only experience part of reality. The parabola is broken to convey the sense of incompleteness of knowledge and experience, and yet the fact remains that the shape is complete, albeit irregular, rather than being infinite. The model itself represents human experience in a systematized fashion, a process of abstracting from direct perception to symbolic representation, from naming to labeling, from less to more general categories, etc. But human experience does not work along clearly delineated, orderly steps. Like reality itself, human experience is unbounded.

I want to make it clear that I am not trying to dismiss the value of general semantics or the importance of Korzybski. But we also have to understand that he was a product of his times, his major work on general semantics, Science and Sanity, was published in 1933, and he was also biased due to his training as engineer and the kind of faith in science that was common in the early 20th century, but since has been adjusted significantly. Korzybski very much privileged the visual sense, arguing that images are closer to the direct experience of reality than words, again reflecting how his thinking was colored by his background in science and engineering. Even his famous saying, the map is not the territory, reflects a visual bias.

So, Korzybski tried to create a containable method to represent an uncontainable reality, and this amounted to a contradiction and flaw in general semantics as a discipline and movement. He formulated general semantics as a response to the new way of understanding the universe introduced by Einstein's revolution in physics. But as McLuhan has discussed, this scientific revolution, paralleled by the revolution in art known as modernism, are related to the advent of electric technology and communications beginning in the 19th century, which results in a transition away from the typographic media environment, print culture, and visualism. Korzybski was marching into the future facing backwards, or looking through the rearview mirror as McLuhan liked to put it. But that should come as no surprise, as this is what we all do. Had he lived a little later, I believe he would have come to understand the limits of visualism, and the need to move beyond it.

General semantics was in part the basis for systems theory, or what Bertalanffy called general system theory, following Korzybski's example, and there the idea of system takes an interesting turn. The systems view is decidedly nonlinear, a sensibility that Korzybski's general semantics pioneered. And in its holistic approach, systems theory runs counter to the analytic mode that alphabetic literacy also is associated with, and Korzybski criticized as elementalism. The systems view therefore does not favor a step by step, systematic and systematizing approach to processes.  So it is, in may respects, a further evolution in the kind of thinking that general semantics emphasizes. But systems thinking does retain a visual element:

This very simple diagram brings us back to the idea of boundaries and membranes. And, to reiterate this important point, while there are very important insights gained from thinking in terms of boundaries, there can be problems as well in over-emphasizing the idea of boundaries and closure, even when closure is understood to be permeable, functioning as a filter. This is a problem in systems thinking that I've encountered, for example, in the work of Niklas Luhmann, work that I otherwise have great respect for.

Consider as an alternative to system the idea of network, especially in its decentralized form: 

Although still visual, we no longer have clear boundaries, especially when you consider that the outer nodes are connected to other nodes outside of the diagram. And as we start to get into more full scale representations of social networks, it is not just the outer connections that take us away from the idea of clear boundaries, but also the density of inner connectivity, which goes beyond our ability to fully grasp and contain:

 And network is of course what the internet, the network of networks, is all about:


The above image represents the entirety of internet interactivity, circa 2006. Rather than the simplicity of the solar system, we get something approaching the complexity of the universe itself.

I'm not saying the idea of network is the final answer to life, the universe, and everything, just that it provides a necessary corrective to the idea of system. We make connections upon connections upon connections, the complexity increases exponentially, and at some point it results in an effort to simplify and systematize, an effort that is in some ways necessary, but also potentially dangerous if taken too far, clung to too rigidly, or otherwise reified.  But that is an essential tension in thinking and scholarship, and the accumulation of knowledge and the growth in understanding.

The idea of network, while de-emphasizing the sense of boundaries and completeness, still does not free us from the visual, or even a sense of the fixed. Alternatives to system can be helpful here, in giving us other connotations such as interaction, and especially relationship. A relational view is very much at the heart of the systems approach of Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick, Korzybski emphasized relation, and for Einstein of course the concept of relativity was key. Ong described his approach as relational as well. Relational tends to be associated with a dyadic, dialectic approach, not that it has to be, but another term, one that conveys a greater sense of complexity, would be ecology.  This brings us to the ecological view that is synonymous with systems thinking, as  Fritjof Capra, and also Luhmann have indicated.

And that brings us to media ecology, a phrase and field formally introduced by Postman. Is media ecology free from the problem of being presented as a system? No it isn't. Christine Nystrom tried to systematize the field in her doctoral dissertation over forty years ago, and I myself have been working on various ways to summarize it, at least to provide an introduction to the field. McLuhan's laws of media are presented as a system that is whole and complete (as in, there are no other laws, the tetrad is a perfect set of ratios) In fact, the laws of media constitute basic principles about how a system functions when a change is introduced, but that's besides the point, which is that the tetrad constitutes, or at least is taken to be a system.

By taken to be, I mean that it is used as a system by others. This happens even to Ong, despite his own strong criticism of visualism and systemOrality and Literacy is his most popular work, and one of the main attractions is that it summarizes this area of study, presenting it in a relatively systematic form. The best known part of the book, the third chapter on orality and oral cultures, is not exactly Aristotelian in its logical organization. But Ong's list of some psychodynamics of orality (and I put the extra emphasis there to highlight the fact that he describes it in this highly qualified, incomplete manner) has been used by others in a systematic fashion. By this, I mean used as a kind of checklist, by which some modern form of secondary orality like rap music or online messaging can be analyzed based on the characteristics of primary orality listed by Ong, following his list step by step by step. I am certain Ong never intended for this to happen, but it happens nevertheless.

And let me be repeat that I too have worked on and continue to work on some forms of systemizing, although in my book Echoes and Reflections I try to present media ecology as a network of relations among different scholars, rather than a system with boundaries. But as I continue on with my work on media ecology as a field, I realize that I have to be very cognizant of the problem of the system, of presenting the field as a system (or worse, an ism), and of presenting it in such a way as it can be used as one by others. The problem may be unavoidable, but may be mitigated by being aware of that potential.

I find it useful to recall that Ong and McLuhan emphasized and favored an acoustic orientation that was distinct from visualism. An acoustic orientation tends to be open-ended and dialogue-oriented, and while sight tends to emphasize spatial dimensions, sound is a sense that is intimately associated with time. The acoustic orientation also places us firmly within the world, in a subjective position where the world is all around us, surrounding us, all sound being surround sound. We can never stand apart from nature in this way, and although the danger is in seeing yourself as the center of the universe, the benefit is that this is very much an ecological orientation, a view that favors living in harmony with the world, rather than being in conflict with nature as an other.

For McLuhan, an acoustic orientation is our natural mode of human existence, while visualism is a historical and cultural aberration that coincides with the rise and fall of the west. And in the new electronic era, we return to the auditory world of the tribe and village. But it is not a return back to a previous mode, but rather a turning of the wheel moving forward, as Ong indicates through his phrase secondary orality, which he explains is quite distinct from the primary orality that preceded literacy. Our electronically mediated acoustic orientation is something new and unprecedented, and as it is the result of working our way through and past our prior visualism, it retains some elements of it. 

And that is the best way to proceed, to incorporate the best features of different media environments, in search of a sustainable balance. In that pursuit, an ecological understanding, and an open, relational, dialogic approach, combining system, network, and an acoustic element such as resonance (a term favored by McLuhan's associate, Tony Schwartz), is what we need.