Open vs. closed text

Goodlge-Page-Journalism

Steven Johnson does a good job of simplifying complex theory. Here he makes a nice connection between biological and text ecosystems:

stevenberlinjohnson.com: The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book:

“Ecologists talk about the ‘productivity’ of an ecosystem, which is a measure of how effectively the ecosystem converts the energy and nutrients coming into the system into biological growth. A productive ecosystem, like a rainforest, sustains more life per unit of energy than an unproductive ecosystem, like a desert. We need a comparable yardstick for information systems, a measure of a system’s ability to extract value from a given unit of information. Call it, in this example: textual productivity. By creating fluid networks of words, by creating those digital-age commonplaces, we increase the textual productivity of the system…. The overall increase in textual productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years.”

He then goes onto demonstrate how on the iPad you cannot copy or paste text, even from texts that are in the public domain!

“… we have two potential futures ahead of us, where digital text is concerned, or that the future is going to involve a battle between two contradictory impulses. We can try to put a protective layer of glass [over] the words, or we can embrace the idea that we are all better off when words are allowed to network with each other. What’s the point of going to all this trouble to build machines capable of displaying digital text if we can’t exploit the basic interactivity of that text? People don’t want to read on a screen just for the thrill of it; even with the iPad’s beautiful display, reading on paper is still a higher-resolution experience, and much easier on the eyes. Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but that’s not the only promise of the technology. The promise also lies in doing things with the words, forging new links of association, remixing them. We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson. And yet we are, deliberately, trying to crawl back into the glass box.”

He concludes by stating that, “The reason the web works as wonderfully as it does is because the medium leads us, sometimes against our will, into common places, not glass boxes. It’s our job—as journalists, as educators, as publishers, as software developers, and maybe most importantly, as readers—to keep those connections alive.”

If you enjoyed reading about Johnson’s argument here, then you are seeing his point in action. In a closed system, it would be far more difficult to share his words, and we would be worse for it.

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Media ghosts

Holy ghosts and talk show hosts

Are planted in the sand

To beautify the foothills

And shake the many hands

Plateau” by Meat Puppets

One of the earliest 19th Century anxieties about media had to do with their seemingly strange spiritual properties. Electricity was thought to enable us to communicate with spirits, cameras could capture ghosts, and we could now record people’s voices that would let them live well beyond their graves. Such is the strange, eerie quality of this new One Laptop Per Child commercial featuring the voice of John Lennon. It is the first commercial approved by Yoko Ono to allow the use of his apparition in an ad.

This is an unusual example of media being a kind of “hell” realm the Tibetan Buddhists speak of. In the Buddhist version, it’s occupied by hungary ghosts– entities with small throats and big bellies who can never eat enough and are perpetually starved. Now, I don’t mean to disparage Lennon in any way. He is most definitely one my greatest heros (despite the fact that this is a very un-punk thing to say). Nonetheless, there remains something oddly creepy about the electronic realm in which each and every one of us is entering into as avatars and extensions of our mental selves. The fact is that this world of “imagination” remains one within the capitalist enclosure, and is still disembedded from ecology.

What remains to be seen is if we can transform media hell into a kind of heaven, albeit I don’t like the utopian tone of the term nor the fact that advertising already purports to represent a kind of consumer paradise. I suppose my dream– If I were to imagine what this world of crackling electrons will become– is to turn it into a kind of sustainable permaculture garden full of biodiversity and ideas, buzzing with insects and sweet smells of earthen humus and rain dew. The alternative is to become that alternate version of our future selves that already occasionally manifests in the hell media realm: ashen aliens in search of our life-giving properties.

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The “stupid” argument, again

Is Google Making Us Stupid?:

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Such is the lament of the bookish mind as it faces annihilation from the Internet.

Restating my mantra, media constantly go to war with other. They constantly compete for the center of attention by moving in and out of the periphery to the center and back again as new technology changes how we consume and share information. Often the winner incorporates/repurposes/remediates elements of the old into the new (the Internet, for example, uses text, and newspapers use more images, color and article summaries for Web influenced info snackers).

So as the Internet is pushing books to the edge of the mediacological ecosystem, book people are fighting back. The most prominent pugilist recently entering the fray is The Atlantic’s Nicholas Carr, whose article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, revises the persistent argument that new digital media are dumbing us down. The thing I don’t like about this argument is that it assumes there are good kinds of aptitude and bad kinds, the classic-book-deep-thinking being a good kind of intelligence, and the being-in-the-moment of net surfing is bad. We need both.

Carr’s article is actually quite good and outlines how knowledge work is an extensions of Taylorism and the systematizing of work and thinking. Where I fault the piece is how it focuses too much on loss, and not enough on gain. Some of the major benefits of the information economy, which MIT new media guru Henry Jenkins refers to as Convergence Culture, are described by the following characteristics (BTW, I go into this in more detail in my book, Mediacology, ch. 8, “Media Lit’s Mediacological Niche”):

  • collective intelligence,
  • affective economics,
  • transmedia storytelling, and
  • participatory culture.

Consequently, Jenkins believes that in order to be fully engaged participants of convergence culture, students (and teachers) need to develop skills that allow for

the ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise (as in Survivor spoiling), the ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas (as occurs in the gossip surrounding reality television), the ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information (as occurs when we consume The Matrix, 1999, or Pokemon, 1998), the ability to express your interpretations and feelings toward popular fictions through your own folk culture (as occurs in Star Wars fan cinema), and the ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so that it can be shared with others (again as in fan cinema) (p. 176).

There is nothing stupid about these kinds of skills. Thus, I think the argument that the Internet makes one more shallow often ignores the other aspects of emerging cultural practices that are greatly needed and are deep in their own way. In particular, I find these latter skills necessary to develop strategies for sustainability, just as much as those cultivated by the isolated mind of the solitary book reader.

Still, I have to admit. I was depressed after reading the article because I felt that there really is too much to do, read, search, and write. The Internet compounds that. Upon reflection I thought some meditation would do the trick, because what I really needed was to clear my mind of books and the Internet. As Skype tells us, just breath.

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Aliens in the home world

Lost-Tribe

© Gleison Miranda/FUNAI

As a cultural meme, photos of the so-called “lost” tribe of the Amazon circulated more rapidly in the mediasphere than electrons buzzing through duel processors. But now that the images have been revealed to be a “hoax,” we should kick back in our collective armchairs and probe what happened. To be clear, the pictures weren’t a hoax per say, because the people depicted in them are real and do live off our grid, but the implication that they were unkown or off civilization’s radar was false. Survival International, one of the organizations who published the photos, said:

This is a classic example of journalists getting the wrong end of the stick. The only people who ever claimed that the Indians photographed were ‘lost’ or ‘undiscovered’ were…. the press, despite the fact that Survival has been campaigning for the protection of the many isolated Indian tribes on the Peru-Brazil border for more than twenty years…. Indeed, you might have thought that the fact that the Indians are living in a government reserve set aside for isolated Indian groups would tend to indicate that they weren’t exactly ‘unknown’.

I found the images intriguing as a media phenomena. With our point of view coming from the surveilling eye of extraterrestrial flight, I can’t help but feel like these are stills from a Star Trek scouting mission in which we– the humanoid aliens– are observing a distant world uncontaminated by our civilization. For many viewers, I’m guessing the reverse reaction was true: that the indigenous people covered in body paint and pointing bow and arrow at our high tech aircraft are the strange, exotic creatures of a “lost” world. But as a reflection of our own zeitgeist, the intrigue of a potentially “lost” tribe says a lot more about “us” (the scientifically “advanced” world) than “them” (the forgotten, primitive ur-past of yore). In our effort to name and identify the event at a distance– i.e. to “other” the Others– the media buzz surrounding these photos is yet another indication that we have become aliens in our home world.

The images struck a chord because of the nature of media (interesting pun), which survives by cannibalizing novelty. Any photo that presents “newness” metabolizes into information and will froth to the head of the noosphere only to be gobbled and digested rapidly like a yeasty beer. In particular, what drives media’s center of gravity is the striving for authenticity in order to fertilize its newness reproduction cycle. This is not without some irony. Upon looking up “authentic” in Merriam-Webster, I found several curious and contradictory definitions. One is “made or done the same way as an original,” and the other is “not false or imitation.” A photo can embody both senses of the word, because on the one hand it is an imitation of something– reality–, and the other hand, it is a reality unto itself. The tricky thing about photos is that we assume that they are facts, yet what we do with them, how we choose what we see and the impact of the photo is far from the reality it purports to represent. Add to that digital manipulation, context and framing– i.e. the “naming” of the image–, and you have one big fat dose of truthiness.

This is the subtext of the image controversy, because there is an underlying distrust of media and civilization itself as ultimately inauthentic. Most of us feel like the characters in The Matrix. The only way that machines can keep us interested is to offer us scraps of reality through these kinds of controversial images so that we can verify the existence of truth and the so-called real. Nonetheless, I happen to not believe in the simulacra argument, because most of our lives are actually not electronically mediated, though we assume that they are. The distrust of simulation is older than modern technology and particular to the European mindset, going back to Plato. He was the one who said the bed was a mere imitation of a more perfect bed made by God. His is not a bed made by machines, but by human hands with tools. The interesting thing is that human language actually evolved from our hands and the use of tools, not the other way around: technology is human communication.

Plato’s fear and distrust of appearances has repeated itself incessantly as a tulpa trapped inside a hall of mirrors that is now modern media. Advertising simultaneously assures us of the world’s stability while the news makes us fearful of its structural integrity. Despite this tension, the capitalist system of commodities and consumption has become nature, our habitat. It is so normal that anything that can differentiate itself from the ambient background of consumerism and the techno-fetishistic mind will become novel.

Nonetheless, in this semiotic war for attention, capitalism still struggles mightily to be relevant and real. The underlying argument of typical advertising pitches is that their product is “the real thing” (to paraphrase one of the more memorable slogans of the century). Marketers use every magician’s trick to offer us some kind of allusion to authenticity, be it the bodily sensations of fear, hunger, humor and sexuality, or to wink at us by acknowledging that we all know this is a con game. It’s a treadmill that marketers fear to jump off of.

Which brings us back to the photos. Like passengers in a spaceship Hummer driven by the corporate dream world, many of us have become accustomed to feeling like aliens on our own planet. I consider this kind of “alienation” the true source of our pill-popping, “social anxiety disorder” ways. I quibble with some postmodernists who contend we are too alienated to be alienated, arguing that alienation requires a sense of self, believing that when we are decentered simulations of our own beings, there is nothing to bounce off of. I disagree. I believe we yearn for nature and connection because they are tangible and exist no matter how minute the splinter in our minds and souls. Without this longing, advertising could never proceed because it traffics in the language of loss.

These images demonstrate, however, that the prevailing “lost” trope in the media zeitgeist is reversing: in our grasping for the real, more than ever we feel the urge to really be “lost”: off the radar, away from the cell phone, pager and Internet like Into the Wild‘s Chris McCandless or the actor reciting Jack Kerouac in a recent BMW ad. In our post-National Geographic world where all has been disovered, cataloged, photographed and integrated into the electronic sphere of our realm, there is little left for us to remember or know about how we used to be. But like the X File’s Agent Mulder, we feel the truth is out there, hovering outside us like pixel dust blowing in the cosmic winds.

Contact with “authentic” humans in the natural world gives us hope and wonder, yet the very act of taking the photos violates that innocence. Some even argue that trolling the forests for “authentically lost” humans violates their right to be uncontacted. Consider Star Trek’s Prime Directive:

“No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.” (Quoted from Wikipedia)

Because these photos indeed touched upon the “lost” meme, they also drew awareness to Survival International and to the plight of indigenous people in the Amazonian preserve (an interesting word in itself) and elsewhere. The fact that ultimately we are talking about the fate of real people with integrity and just as much of a right to exist on their own terms as we do, makes the this whole discussion more urgent. The civilization end game is upon us, and our budget of cultural diversity is dwindling rapidly, suffering the same fate as the biological diversity that supports us.

So, while acknowledging that organizations like Survival International do necessary and important work, they also depend on the media to educated the public about their mission and projects. Like many NGOs, Survival International’s site has plenty of sensationalistic images and videos, which begs the question of whether or not other people’s suffering can be contained and communicated effectively through images. Is this unethical? Not necessarily, as long as we are clear about the game we are playing and the nature of how it works. But it certainly remains ironic that it’s through media that we have to communicate civilization’s inauthenticity via the language of propaganda and exploitation.

Bonus footage: the following is a short documentary produced by Survival International,”Uncontacted Tribes.”

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Embrace your hypertext

I thoughtful and interesting treatise on how we read online (and tips for (not) blogging too!).

How we read online. – By Michael Agger – Slate Magazine:

You’re probably going to read this.

It’s a short paragraph at the top of the page. It’s surrounded by white space. It’s in small type.

To really get your attention, I should write like this:

* Bulleted list

* Occasional use of bold to prevent skimming

* Short sentence fragments

* Explanatory subheads

* No puns

* Did I mention lists?

What Is This Article About?

For the past month, I’ve been away from the computer screen. Now I’m back reading on it many hours a day. Which got me thinking: How do we read online?

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McLuhan 2.0

Mcluhan-Mac

Dig the graphic!

Eric McLuhan, son of the late great Marshall, updates the master.

NowPublic @ Vidfest 2008: Dr. Eric McLuhan, Interviewed by Michael Tippett | The News is NowPublic.com:

11:40am – Tippett: It would be helpful for you to explain the concept of the “Global Village”?

McLuhan: It’s an uncomfortable place; everyone knows everything about you. You’re always in close contact and proximity to other people. The term was coined to describe the effects of radio. But we’re living in a new one, or a new part of the village. When you put people in contact virtually, electronically, you create the conditions of a village. The bodies being dissociated is almost irrelevant.

Television and satellite have turned the world into a global stage. Now everyone is looking not for jobs, but for roles to play. This brings in the idea of constructing an identity in relationship to an audience. This means the idea of private identity is no longer useful.

***

11:35am – Tippett: Attention is an important issue in contemporary media. My question to you is, as the holders of attention, are we the last great resource holders to be harvested?

McLuhan: News-savvy people are paying attention to harvesting inattention. There are massive amounts of inattention. Advertisers no longer compete for your attention, they compete for your subconscious — a place where you have no defenses. It is by definition an area of vulnerability.

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Bread and circuits

Bread-And-Circus
Image source

It’s what we in the education biz call a teachable moment: an explosive artifact of the media world whacks the piñata of media fears and phobia. Enter the $100 million Grand Theft Auto IV.

A recent discussion at BoingBoing about the new Grand Theft Auto reminds us the obvious but often forgotten axiom that communications are messy (just ask your husband/wife/lover/friends/mother/father/daughter/etc.). Scale doesn’t matter. Not surprisingly the thread is an eclectic treatise on how hipster netizens view media ethics. The most interesting tension is between those making a feminist critique of the game’s misogynistic tendencies and those calling the game social satire. I think the truth lies somewhere between, but the discussion does demonstrate that in an age of postirony (irony with a faux critical pose lacking real substance), it’s hard to be critical without coming across as anti-fun. People are ridiculed if they use big words and theoretical tools to back up their ideas (some commentators derided the use of “patriarchy,” but hey, did the problem of patriarchy somehow magically disappear?), which begs the question, when did being educated become so uncool? Granted, academese can be a kind of inarticulation that obscures a lack of creative thinking or good ideas (and frankly quite boring), but we should be able to say things like patriarchy and militarism without seeming stuck-up.

GTA maneuvers social norms because postirony allows us take pleasure in the politically incorrect, permitting us to dismiss without consequences our own moral standards as frivolous relics of the ’60s. I’m for engaging fantasy, but mindfully, so perhaps we’re in need of a kind of post-postirony, which in the laws of logic, makes a kind of double negative, and hence we return full circle to irony as a rhetoric of social critique (i.e. Dada, Situationism, punk). In the mediated realm irony and humor are often the only way corporate media take on serious issues while maintaining some emotional distance. Recall how the court jester is the one person who can criticize the king without getting his or her head chopped off. Now think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, both cultural phenoms on a network owned by one of the world’s biggest media companies, Viacom, and realize that their silly/serious media deconstructions have a bigger educational impact than Fox News (as a PEW study showed).

Navigating media requires traversing a realm of double binds such as real news being fake, and fake news being real. You can add to the list just about every advertising message which has as its subtext the belief that commodities have utopian properties that will transform our mundane lives into magical realms of possibility. To stay sane we require cognitive dissonance, which means holding contradictory beliefs as true (like buying new designer jeans that look old or freedom equals militarism). Mental tools like “truthiness” help us seek moral clarity in a world that has little, yet we sill suffer greatly when we see acts of cruelty played out in the media, video games being an easy target because we associate them with children. But beware of talk about media victimizing children, because kids often become ciphers for adult anxieties of being hijacked by technology. Most adult media critics claiming to represent children are probably masking their own fear of change.

Is it possible to accept the existence of video games as a kind of phenomena on their own terms? Unlike traditional media video games contain problem solving tools that often require people to work together. Moreover, video games have depth and challenges that encourage transgression. In one anecdote from a friend who teaches digital media, he found a clever kid using his taxi in GTA to run over and kill as many people as possible. His rationale? He was testing the stupidity of the game’s AI.

Can video games be used as tools to discover something important about how our minds operate, and where in the spectrum of moral critique our values come from? I don’t suggest making them into Roarshack tests, although that is what GTA has become for many. Nor I’m I calling for solipsism, because we do need a moral compass and social norms that respect people’s rights and integrity. I do feel in many respects that we are as much defined by community as we are by our own internal thought process. We need to go from the Western idea, “I think, therefore I am,” to a more indigenous concept like, “It all thinks, therefore I am.” As such, there should be a space for us to consider the intelligent aspects of video gaming, albeit with an eye towards critical engagement, and explore the potential holographic concepts contained within them.

(A recent book, Gamer Theory, takes a slightly different POV to argue that life in capitalist reality is in itself a gamespace, and that gaming reflects the ideological structure of our world.)

At one point media effects research changed the question from, What do media do to children?, to, What do children do with media? The latter question assumes a lot more agency on the user’s behalf. Media are not just ideological magic bullets that control our thoughts, but can also be a source of gratification. That in itself is not evil, despite what the religious fanatics want us to believe. Still, the rule of the playground stands: it’s always fun until someone gets hurt. But so far I can only vouch for tennis elbow.

I don’t think games like GTA pose a threat to society, but do enrich the complex and entangled debate concerning media effects. Yes, some people are prone to violence and can be pushed over the edge by certain heightened states of nerve stimulation, but I believe most people have a check against that. Still, we should also be able to criticize the game without being attacked as neo-Vicotrians. Play and fantasy should not be considered a threat to the social structure.

When I go to teach my mass media class at the university, my bus passes the Roman Colosseum, built by Emperor Vespasian in his “bread and circuses” campaign to entertain and feed the masses in order to stave off social unrest. It’s a reminder that in ancient times real people were killed for sport, and that was perfectly normal. Now virtual people are killed for entertainment (admittedly our method of aerial bombardment is a kind of “virtual” killing that is very real for its victims), but wouldn’t you agree that in the Old World when there was no mass media people actually killed more often for stupid reasons like honor and the sex lives of rich land owners? (“All wars are sex wars” — The Invisibles) This is a tough argument to make, because immediately WWI and WWII and Nagasaki come to mind, so in certain respects, war deaths have not decreased, they have just been industrialized. Still, again reflecting on the Colosseum, I have the strange, if not naive sensation, that in general the world is a more moral place to live (albeit less than perfect and full of blood thirsty lunatics supported by institutionalized violent pathology), and that it is in direct relationship to ideas about human rights disseminated and normalized by global media.

Truth is, after reading the Buddha’s sutas from over 2500 hundred years ago, I find that people have not changed much. Back then the mind was just as susceptible to greed, ignorance, delusion and confusion as it is today. The difference now is that the feedback system is far greater and involves more people. Frankly, it’s harder to get way with shit. In terms of cosmic cycles, you could say that we’re in a global phase of high metabolism. We amplify and burn more quickly. Trick is, at what point does the organism/system stabilize? Clearly a society that produces GTA for entertainment is in a highly volatile state. However, there are signs from the great GTA Debate that we are edging towards homeostasis. The fact that we have this instantaneous and massive societal debate is certainly an important indication that rather than being brainwashed, many of us still care deeply about the world… and we use the media to voice our opinions.

After Orson Well’s broadcast of War of the Worlds inadvertently produced a panic (recall that HG Well’s classic was recast as a news report), social scientists went back and surveyed listeners to find out what happened. What emerged from their media effects study is that educated people were the least susceptible to believing the broadcast was of a real invasion. Those with strong religious convictions were the most vulnerable. That caveat should remind us that more often than not it’s not the media itself but our own beliefs and education that produce the outcome, media being an element of a far more complex mental ecology than we would admit. If there is one sure thing to be gleaned from this whole exercise, it’s going to be a lot of free marketing for Rockstar, whose $100 million investment is sure to pale in relation to its profits.

PS Check Buzzfeed for the latest in the blogosphere.

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