Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Walter Ong Award

As I mentioned in my previous post, At MEA 2013, I received the Media Ecology Association's 2013 Walter J. Ong Award for Career Achievement in Scholarship at this year's MEA convention hosted by Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids, Michigan last month.  And in case you were curious, and you probably weren't, but just in case you were curious as to what it looks like, I decided to have it scanned, so I could share it here on Blog Time Passing with my vast readership:

And indeed, I am very grateful for the honor, and more importantly the friendship of my fellow media ecologists! 

By the way, if you want to see another cool award I received once upon a time, circa 2002, take a look at his post from 2007: My Day!

Monday, July 22, 2013

My MEA Keynote (If Not A Then E)

So, as I mentioned in my previous post, At MEA 2013, I gave a keynote address at the 14th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, hosted by Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 20-23, 2013. My talk was on Thursday evening, June 20, and as it turns out, my friends at Grand Valley, the MEA convention coordinators Corey Anton and Valerie Peterson, had all of the featured presentations videotaped, so I was able to upload a copy to my YouTube channel (all of them can also be found on the MEA's channel).

My talk begins with some extended opening remarks, including my dedication of the address to my old undergraduate professor, Jack Barwind, who passed away just recently. Jack introduced me to much of what I later came to know under the heading of media ecology, including general semantics and systems theory.

Once I get into the address itself, the focus shifts to the PowerPoint presentation, thankfully I would think, because how long can you just look at my talking head?  But once it's over, it's back to me for the Q&A.

Anyway, this is a live presentation, complete with interruption from a Skype alert from Valerie Peterson's mom, as I was using her computer for the presentation.  So it's a bit on the rough side. 

At some point in the not too distant future, and hopefully with a little help from my friends, I would like to create a polished, direct to video version of "If Not A Then E" to put out there. But for now, I suppose that this will do.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

At MEA 2013

This year's annual meeting of the Media Ecology Association was held at Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 20-23, 2013, hosted and coordinated by my good friends Corey Anton and Valerie Peterson.  Here they are welcoming us:


And Blog Time Passing being my official blog of record, I thought I'd share a few photos of my activities there, taken by Robert Francos.

First and foremost was my Keynote Address delivered on Thursday evening, June 20th.  Here's current MEA president Thom Gencarelli introducing me:

And a couple of shots of me providing some opening remarks before the lights turned down for my PowerPoint presentation (more on this in another post):

And now into the presention:

And just after the conclusion:

I rather like that one, don't you? 

 And here's a shot of the audience during the question and answer session that followed the address:

Anyway, this was the year for PowerPoint, at least as far as I was concerned, as here I am at a breakout session on Sat. June 22nd, doing the Pecha Kucha.

 You may recall that I have previously prepared two presentations, originally presented at the New York State Communication Association's annual conferences for the last two years, and that I later recorded them as YouTube videos, and posted about them here under the titles of The Word (A Pecha Kucha on the Walter Ong Centenary) and The Medium Is....  I repeated both of them at our session.

Finally, this was the first year that I was not the coordinator of the MEA's awards, and the sneaks went behind my back and presented me with the Walter Ong Award for Career Achievement in Scholarship.  Here I am accepting the award from Brian Cogan, who took over as coordinator this year:

And then saying some thanks yous:

And that about sums up what was another outstanding event, and certainly an especially memorable one for me!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

S'more Reading Listed

So, last year Roy Christopher invited me to be one of several scholars and intellectuals to provide him with a Summer Reading List for his website, which I did, and subsequently reposted here under the heading of Some More Reading List. He asked again this year, and my new list was posted on his site last month. 

You can go take a look over there, particularly if you want to see what other respondents, such as Janet Murray, danah boyd, Rick Moody, Steve Jones,  Benjamin Bratton, Howard Rheingold, Mark Amerika, and Peter Lunenfeld have to say.  Here's the link: Summer Reading List 2013.

But as for my own list, you can stay right here, because here it is:
It’s summertime, and the readin’ comes easy, and time itself is a topic of great interest for me. I was thrilled to learn of the recent publication of Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by physicist Lee Smolin, where he argues for a position I’ve long held to be true, that time is more fundamental than space. On a similar theme, but coming from a very different angle, I also plan to read Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (ACLS Humanities) by our greatest living world historian, William McNeil.

On the subject of media and culture, I have lined up Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind (University of Illinois Press) by the late John Miles Foley; I saw him give a talk on this topic a few years ago at an annual meeting of the Media Ecology Association, and know that he makes an important contribution to our understanding of media environments. I am very interested in how the electronic media undermine print-based concepts of identity, which is why The Digital Evolution of an American Identity by C. Waite (Routledge) is a must read as far as I’m concerned. Returning to the theme of time, Douglas Rushkoff‘s latest, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current) is high up on my list of priorities. And looking back to an earlier time, the origin of monotheism, related as it is to the introduction of the Semitic alphabet, is another subject of significance for me, which is why my list includes From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends (Jewish Publication Society) by Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch.

Having been absolutely blown away by the new Hannah Arendt film by Margarethe von Trotta, which I highly recommend as an excellent audiovisual supplement to any summer reading list, I want to return to her final work, The Life of the Mind (Mariner Books), which was edited by her best friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (who plays a significant role in the film). I’m also planning on digging into The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound by Roberto Mangabeira Unger (Harvard University Press).

Last year, at the Players Club in New York, I heard the late M. Z. Ribalow do a reading from his outstanding novel, Redheaded Blues (NeoPoiesis Press), and I have been looking forward to sitting down with the book for a long time now. Back on the subject of time, I know I’ll be enjoying Paul Levinson’s latest time travel novel, Unburning Alexandria, (JoSara MeDia). And when it comes to graphic novels, there is no question that I am going to devour Vol. 18 of The Walking Dead (Image Comics). I have grown increasingly more fascinated at the way the plot of the television series diverges from the story told in the comics.

One of the great summertime pleasures is picking up a book of good poetry, and This Poem by Adeena Karasick (Talonbooks) promises to be a literary, aesthetic, and intellectual delight, judging by all of the rave reviews that it’s received. And finally, I’m not making any promises, but I have this copy of John Milton’s The Complete English Poems (Knopf) waiting to be read…

Monday, July 8, 2013

Cable vs. Internet

It's no secret that the introduction of a new medium can be threatening to those whose interests are tied to an older medium. Harold Innis explained that groups that control in some way access to a medium or its content can gain a monopoly of knowledge, and that monopoly may only be broken when other, marginalized groups develop or adopt an alternate form of communication.  The well known example is how that the printing press, in making texts and information more widely available to individuals, broke the monopoly of knowledge of the Church of Rome, leading to the Protestant Reformation, and the monopoly of knowledge of monarchies, leading to democratic revolutions.

So, as more and more people are getting their video entertainment from the internet, older media such as cable television are threatened, and look for ways to respond. This came up in a news item last month that appeared in the E-Commerce Times, in an article entitled Time Warner May Erect a Walled Content Garden by Erikia Brophy. The article appeared on June 13 and, yeah, you guessed it, I've got a quoted in it.

It begins with the following blurb:

There may be insurmountable challenges to the idea of keeping certain entertainment content off the Internet permanently, but that's apparently how Time Warner intends to fight cord-cutting, which has become a growing scourge for the pay-TV industry. For one thing, "television programming is simply not valuable enough to restrict it to a single screen," said journalism prof Rich Hanley.

Brophy then goes on to provide the basic background information:

Time Warner Cable appears to have come up with a strategy to help stem the flow of cord-cutters -- that is, people abandoning pay-TV for the free or lower-price content available on the Internet. The company is offering incentives to content providers to withhold certain properties from online entertainment platforms, according to a Bloomberg report citing unnamed sources.

Other pay-TV operators are offering similar incentives, according to the report.

Time Warner Cable reportedly has since acknowledged the incentives, noting that exclusivity is a regular practice in the entertainment industry.

Limited distribution is clearly an entrenched practice in the entertainment industry, but TWC appears to be trying to keep some content off the Internet permanently.

This is followed by a section entitled Delaying the Inevitable

TWC's tactic may succeed in delaying the inevitable -- at best.

This initiative is reminiscent of Kodak's attempts to stave off the digitization of photography, said Paul Schneider, chairman of the Boston University Department of Film and Television.

TWC "needs to find the best business model possible that accepts the fact that most, if not all, content will eventually end up on the Internet," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"Time Warner is swimming against the tide of television history and demographics with this move to wall off content from Internet distribution," said Rich Hanley, associate professor and director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University.

"Television programming is simply not valuable enough to restrict it to a single screen that limits viewership," he told the E-Commerce Times.

The rumored TNW plan doesn't appear to be a winning idea from a practical perspective, either.

The incentives Time Warner provides would have to be greater than what the content producer could get on its own through broad, free distribution via YouTube, iTunes and Amazon, noted Brad Morehead, CEO of LiveWatch.

"Distribution alone from Time Warner isn't enough anymore to entice a content provider into a deal," he told the E-Commerce Times. "Even with Time Warner's distribution as the second largest cable provider in the country, you are still only accessing a small portion of the market."

Content providers face a serious disadvantage when considering an exclusive deal with a cable company, continued Morehead. The content provider will get access to fewer eyeballs and may even anger potential audiences. Also, there are some areas where Time Warner just isn't available.

"That makes it challenging to develop a passionate national audience and the viral, word-of-mouth buzz that content producers want," he pointed out. "The only options then for people out of the Time Warner market are to either illegally pirate the content online or find something else to consume."

And at last we come to my little bit, in a new section entitled A Dying Model:

TWC may have bigger concerns than media providers reluctant to grab its incentives.

The pay-TV business model in general is in trouble -- and not just because of content on the Internet, observed Lance Strate professor of communication and media studies at Fordham.

"Packaging a variety of unrelated programs together on one channel has been a matter of convenience for broadcast television, and packaging a variety of unrelated channels together has also been a matter of convenience for cable companies," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"Now that alternatives exist in the form of a la carte services and on-demand programming, it is only a matter of time before a big shakeup occurs in the cable industry," predicted Strate.

That's not to say it's the end of days for the industry or TWC. There is content that people will still pay cable providers for -- starting with sports.

"Live sporting events have always been a key driver for the adoption and retention of programming services," said Chet Fenster, managing partner at MEC Entertainment.

"Sunday Ticket on DirecTV was a huge differentiator when it came into the market," he told the E-Commerce Times. "Original comedies and dramas have been important for HBO and Showtime in driving loyalty, but it's nothing compared to sports."

Time Warner Cable did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

And now, here's the entirety of the comments I provided on this topic, so you can see what was excerpted as a quote, and so that they won't entirely go to waste:

Packaging a variety of unrelated programs together on one channel has been a matter of convenience for broadcast television, and packaging a variety of unrelated channels together has also been a matter of convenience for cable companies. Now that alternatives exist in the form of a la carte services and on demand programming, especially via the internet, it is only a matter of time before a big shake-up occurs in the cable industry. TimeWarner Cable knows that the days are numbered for the subscription-based model that it has been operating on, and is seeking to delay the inevitable. Providing exclusive content is a time-honored strategy, movie theaters still use it via delayed video releases, for example. The kinds of programming that will help to retain subscribers will include live events, especially sports, and the kinds of quality television series that HBO and Showtime have become known for.

Making original cable series available on the internet, for example through Netflix and Hulu, did provide a temporary boost to cable viewership, as individuals who missed earlier episodes or seasons could get caught up and then watch the newest season on cable. But ultimately, the practice proved harmful, in that many found it a more satisfying experience to watch an entire season or series in a concentrated manner, over a shorter period of time, not losing the continuity of episodes as they are spread out over a longer period of time. TimeWarner can provide its customers the best of both worlds if they can get an exclusive deal, and grant their customers exclusive access to the programming online as well as through their cable system. Content producers may be willing to go along with this for the time being, in the interest of short term profits, but in the end I believe there will be too much to be gained from making their content available to larger audiences, and eventually we may all be watching programming through Amazon and iTunes, rather than TimeWarner and Comcast.

One thing is for certain, and that's that our media environment continues to change and evolve, and the full potential of the electronic media remains to be realized.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Death and the Public Realm

It's Hannah Arendt time again here on Blog Time Passing, as I repost a Quote of the Week entry that was previously posted on May 13th over on the Hannah Arendt Center's blog. My previous contributions, in reverse chronological order, are Secondhand Gun Smoke, The Deprivations of Privacy, History and Freedom, We Create the Conditions that Condition Us, Charlie Chaplin and Hannah Arendt, and see also an earlier post entitled  Arendt Come Due.  And thanks again to Bridget Hollenback for providing the illustrations.

"There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity."
-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition

Hannah Arendt was one of the first to remark upon the loss of the public realm, or what Jürgen Habermas called the public sphere.  As indicated by the terms realm and sphere, along with related phrases such as public space and public sector, we are referring here to a kind of environment, or as Arendt puts it, "the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it" (p. 52). The private realm, the subject of a previous post of mine (The Deprivations of Privacy) is defined in relation (and opposition) to the public, but both are differentiated from the natural environment according to Arendt.  Both are human artifacts, human inventions:

To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it: the world like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. (p. 52)

The table is an apt metaphor, as it has the connotation of civilized discourse, and a willingness to sit down for peaceful negotiation. Indeed, it is much more than a metaphor, as the table does create a shared space for individuals, a medium, if you will, around which they can communicate. But the table also keeps individuals separate from one another, establishing a buffer zone that allows for a sense of safety in the company of individuals who might otherwise be threatening.  Sitting at a table restricts the possibilities of sudden movement, providing some assurance that the person seated across from you will not suddenly spring at you with sword or knife in hand, especially if both parties keep their hands visible on the table top. No wonder, then, that as the practice of sitting around a table for a meal emerges in the Middle Ages, it becomes the focal point for what Norbert Elias refers to as the civilizing process.


The table is a medium, an in-between, as Arendt puts it, and each medium in its own way serves as a means by which individuals connect and relate to one another, and also are separated and kept apart from one another.  In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan expressed the same idea in saying that all media, meaning all technologies and human innovations, are extensions of some aspect of individuals, but at the same time are amputations.  As I have explained elsewhere, the medium that extends us into the world comes between us and the world, and in doing so becomes our world. Or as I like to put it, with apologies to McLuhan, the medium is the membrane.

The public realm then is a shared human environment, a media environment. As Arendt explains,

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. (p. 50)

Paul Watzlawick has argued that our reality is constructed through our communication, rather than mere reflected or represented by our messages. And this means that our reality is shaped by our means of communication, our media.  It is through publicity that we create the public realm.  And for the public realm to exist, there must also be the possibility for some communication to take place privately, in a context where it cannot be seen and heard by everybody, where there are barriers to people's perception and their access to information, what Erving Goffman referred to as the back region.

The public realm is not a media environment we typically associate with tribal societies, where the distinction between public and private is, for the most part, non-existent.  Rather, it is strongly tied to the city as a human environment (and a medium of communication in its own right).  Lewis Mumford insightfully observed that cities are a type of container technology, indeed the container of containers, and what they contain includes great concentrations of population.  As settlements evolved into the first urban centers in the ancient world, they gave rise to the first true crowds and mobs, and also to audiences made up of people who do not necessarily know one another, or have strong social ties to each other.

These new kinds of audiences required a new form of communication:  public address.  They required new kinds of physical environments:  the agora, the forum, the marketplace.  And they required new forms of education:  the art of rhetoric.

The invention of writing is intimately bound up in all of these developments.  Without reasonably well-developed systems of notation, human populations were not able to handle the complexity of large populations. In tribal societies, as population increases, groups split up in order to keep their affairs manageable.  Writing, as a container for language, whose primary form is the spoken word, develops side by side with the city as container, and allows for the control and coordination of large populations and diverse activities.  And writing, in allowing language to be viewed and reviewed, made it possible to refine the art of public address, to study rhetoric and instruct others in the techniques of oratory, as did the Sophists in ancient Greece.  It is no accident that the introduction of the Greek alphabet was followed by the first forms of study, including rhetoric and grammar, and by the first forms of democracy.

Writing also has the peculiar effect of introducing the idea of the individual, of breaking people apart from their tribal, group identity. The ability to take one's thoughts, write them down, and observe them from the outside, made it possible to separate the knower from the known, as Eric Havelock put it, which also separated individuals from their traditions.


Written law, beginning with Hammurabi and Moses, took judicial matters out of the concrete realm of proverbs and parables, and reasoning by analogy, opened the door to the view that everyone is equal, as an individual, before the law.  The fact that literacy also facilitated increasingly more abstract modes of thought also was of great importance, but the simple act of reading and writing alone, in isolation, had much to do with the genesis of individualism.

The origin of the public realm is closely tied to the medium of the written word, in highly significant but limited ways. Script gave us the civic public, rooted in rhetoric, but it was the printing revolution in early modern Europe that made the public intro a national, mass phenomenon. As McLuhan noted in his preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy,

Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment—it created the PUBLIC.  Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale.  What we have called "nations" in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people. (p. ii)

A reading public is quite different from a listening public, as readers are separated in time and space from one another, and this form of mediation also had the effect of making individualism a ruling ideology.  And yes, Habermas did place a great deal of emphasis on people gathering in public places like coffee shops to discuss and debate the issues of the day, but they did so based on what they read in print media such as newspapers, pamphlets, and the like. Moreover, historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explained in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, the printers' shops were the first places that people gathered for such intellectual exchanges, long before they gravitated to the coffee shops and taverns.  The point is that the content of these discussions were based on typographic media, the mindset of the discussants was shaped by print literacy, and both were situated within the print media environment.  Within such an environment, a population of individuals could gain common access to ideas and opinions through print media, which in turn could provide the basis for political action; in this way publics came into being.

Publics were formed by publicity, and publicity was achieved through publication.  As much as books, pamphlets, catalogs, calendars, periodicals, and all manner of ephemera were the products of the printing press, so too, as McLuhan observed, was the reading public.  Print technology gave us our first form of mass communication, characterized by wide and relatively rapid dissemination of multiple, identical copies of the same text, a democratizing process, as Walter Benjamin observed.

But printing also created a new sense of immortality, of the author's words living on through the ages, and of posterity as the ultimate judge.  Elizabeth Eisenstein explains that the very multiplication of texts, however perishable any single copy might be, established what she referred to as the preservative powers of print far beyond anything previously known.  This idea of immortality goes hand in hand with the rise of a new kind of historical consciousness, which also emerged out of print culture.

Eternity, by way of contrast, is situated outside of historical time, within what Mircea Eliade calls sacred time. It is a time that looks back towards the moment of creation or a golden age. Through ritual, we can step out of the profane time of everyday life, and in enacting the myth of eternal return enter the sacred time that intersects with all of history—in this sense always a part of it and yet at the same time apart from it.

Traditional cultures look backward to creation or the golden age as a time superior to the present, a time they strive to reclaim.  Oral cultures are particularly associated with a cyclical understanding of time.  The invention of writing makes possible first chronology, then historical narrative, and this opens the door to the idea of progress. The shift begins with the biblical narrative in ancient Israel, and the secular history writing of ancient Greece and Rome.  But a complete reversal in orientation from looking to the past as the ideal towards anticipating the future as a continual process of getting better, perhaps culminating in utopia, is closely associated with the printing revolution and the modern world it gave rise to.  This is, in turn, superseded by a present-centered orientation brought on by the electronic media, as I have discussed in On the Binding Biases of Time.  The instantaneity and immediacy of electronic communication not only moves our focus from history and futurity to the present moment, but it translates the remembered past and the anticipated future into the present tense, the now of the computer program and digital simulation.

Arendt's insight that the loss of a concern with immortality is intimately bound up with the loss of the public realm implies a common denominator, specifically the electronic media environment that has superseded the typographic media environment. If literacy and print go hand in hand with citizenship, civics, and the public realm, what happens when these media are overshadowed by electronic technologies, from the telegraph and wireless to radio and television now to the internet and mobile technology?


We still use the word public of course, but we have seen a great blurring of the boundaries between public and private, the continuing erosion of privacy but also a loss of the expectation that dress, behavior, and communication ought to be different when we are in a public place, and that there are rules and obligations that go along with being a part of a public.  And we have experienced a loss of our longstanding sense of individualism, replaced by an emphasis on personalization; a loss of citizenship based on equality, replaced by group identity based on grievance and all manner of neo-tribalism; a loss of traditional notions of character and personal integrity, replaced by various forms of identity construction via online profiles, avatars, and the like; the loss of separate public and private selves, replaced by affiliations with different lifestyles and media preferences.

As consumers, members of audiences, and participants in the online world, we live for the moment, and we do so with disastrous results, economically, ethically, and ecologically.  Arendt suggests that, "under modern conditions, it is indeed so unlikely that anybody should earnestly aspire to an earthly immortality that we probably are justified in thinking it is nothing but vanity" (p. 56).  Along the same lines, Daniel Boorstin in The Image argued that the hero, characterized by greatness, has been replaced by the celebrity, characterized by publicity, famous for appearing on the media rather than for any accomplishments of historical significance.  Heroes were immortal. Celebrities become famous seemingly overnight, and then just as quickly fade from collective consciousness. Heroes, as Boorstin describes them, were known through print media; celebrities make up the content of our audiovisual and electronic media.  These are the role models that people pattern their lives after.

Arendt explains that a public realm " cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life span of mortal men" (p. 55). And she goes on to explain,

It is the publicity of the public realm which can absorb and make shine through the centuries whatever men may want to save from the natural ruin of time. Through many ages before us—but now not any more—men entered the public realm because they wanted something of their own or something they had in common with others to be more permanent than their earthly lives. (p. 55)

Without this concern with a public realm that extends across history from the past into the future, what becomes of political action based on the common good, rather than private interests?

With the loss of any concern with immortality, have we witnessed not merely the erosion, but the irrevocable death of the public realm?

And perhaps most importantly of all, without the existence of a public, can there still exist, in something more than name only, a republic?