Forgetting McLuhan

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It happens today that when one is writing about media use and the vanishing of perspective in our culture, Marshall McLuhan is inevitably invited to play the role of discussant. McLuhan famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” And, in many essays on media effects, this line is about all that he is credited with.Yet, he is infamous, not merely for coining such perfectly relevant phrases, one other being that media are the “extensions of man,” but with positing ideas that range far deeper and far wider than any of these phrases could fully capture.

And thus we are left with a generation of writers and critics today who have heard of McLuhan and his phrases, but fail to fully understand them in theory or practice. His words are diminished to support notions of technological determinism because it makes sense to us and because talking about technological determinism is a convenient way to talk about our own normative beliefs, or how we think culture has gone wrong. With technological determinism, technology are the inanimate actors, and we are the passive recipients of their actions.

McLuhan, on the other hand, was profoundly human-centric. I don’t believe he would have written the way he did had he not thought this way. Technology is, by the way, the “extension of man.” Not the soul of man. Not the purpose of man. Therefore, one could argue against the very existence of technological determinism on the grounds that it really isn’t technology that determines anything in the first place. We thought of the technology and we built it. We just didn’t think about the effects that technology would have on us. As if you could blame the spoiled meat for making you sick when, in all reality, you had no idea meat could spoil in the first place. Perhaps you grew up in an environment where this was not talked about or your parents made certain either to eat everything before it went rancid or to toss out the spoiled food before you knew it had spoiled.

It isn’t the food’s fault. It isn’t the fault of the technology that helped us create new preservation methods. It’s simply the way things are.

While McLuhan is famous for his phrases, his definitions of those phrases seldom attract attention. In Understanding Media, McLuhan says this of the medium-message relationship: “For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” As he says, by inventing the railroad, man did not invent or reinvent transportation, but rather shifted the scale on which transportation operated. He made it bigger and faster. But, we like to argue that transportation caused globalization. Transportation takes us away from our families and encourages encounters with individuals who are dissimilar to us. Transportation subverts traditional normative assumptions about the way life is supposed to be.

None of this is true in practice, though most things are true in hindsight. To live as though our lives have been predetermined because of the speed of technological advancement is a fallacy that certainly will result in a life not fully lived. Messages have unintended consequences. This is true. Yet this fact does not immediately indicate that determinism is the way of life for all mankind. It ought to, on the other hand, challenge us to craft a greater wisdom about what it means to make decisions in our culture – one where we realize the possible unintended consequences of our actions for those existing in our global environment.

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Depending on, um, something? I think.

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It’s become extremely difficult to walk on campus without either (1) laughing at the flat-bill-cap-and-neon-sunglasses-wearing sophomore trying to squeeze his lifted Ford in that tiny parking spot between the Corvette and the Hummer or (2) fearing you’ll get hit by the sorority sister who just plowed her Suburban through the congested four-way stop because, my goodness, I can’t wait any longer to, like, answer that text … sooo ….

This is why I’m comforted by discussions like this week’s “Have College Freshmen Changed?” over at The New York Times blog Room for Debate. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who thinks those younger than me have changed.

However, what’s most strange about how adolescents are changing today (if you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say change, I suggest you read the Times debate referenced above) is that the change isn’t necessarily confined to adolescents. It’s moving across generations, seeming to make everyone, including me, just a little bit dumber.

Many of the writers for the Times blog site the adolescent inability to let go of the dependency they have on their parents as a primary cause behind the shift we’re seeing in young people. If you don’t let go, how are you supposed to grow up? Learn things for yourself? Fail? Get yourself back up?

And maybe this critique is harsh. Surely no one works her tail off hoping that, in the end, she just fails. What makes failure so unsightly is the fact that, at some point or another post-failure, you’ve got to get your act together, learn from your mistakes, and work to repair any damage you may have caused. But, all of that is just extra work.

So we don’t do it. We don’t have to do it anymore because personal technology allows us to enter a fantasy world where everyone else screws up worse and more often than we do. You don’t have to watch The Situation for more than a few seconds to figure out he needs, “Don’t try this at home,” needled across his bare chest. Well, except for the fact that he is not, nor is he under the supervision of, a trained professional.

Or, if everyone else has a glamorous life, then that’s exactly what we’re going to have. Now.

Lest we quickly reject the notion that personal technology is quickly creating fantasy worlds that are more popular than reality, have a look at the recent poll about who people would most enjoy having as a boss. Now, is it really people’s answers that are surprising, or is it the fact that someone had to ask the question in the first place? What percentage of your life would you say revolves around some aspect of entertainment, media use, or general banter that in no way impacts your long-term course of action?

Our days are full of hypothetical “what ifs.” But, with personal media always available to satiate our dependency on such fantasies, the existence of the hypothetical gives way to the unique new form of reality where nothing is impossible to actualize.

So, that truck you spend $400 a month filling up or that biker you almost wrecked? Those portions of reality are forgotten in favor of what is ultimately important: the end.

The only problem with whatever “end” each of us individually has in sight is that, even in our own minds, it isn’t concrete. There’s simply this ethereal place, we’re, as individuals, headed. It really doesn’t matter how or when we get there. The fact that it exists in our own minds is all that matters. Things, places, and relationships are all significantly less tangible then maybe they were even five years ago. But it isn’t about tangibility anymore, is it?

Bauerlein’s nightmare: iPad

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Maybe you understand this: when you only have a semester to write a research paper, you’re pretty much guaranteed to skip over some of the quality research in your field – there’s just not enough time. I just finished presenting a literature review on the potential effects of iPad. Of course, because effects research is so broad, and iPad is so new, I had to pick one perspective and run with it.

I chose multitasking and flow research to direct the discussion. One of the sources I used briefly was Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation. However, I missed a pretty key passage, central to his argument about declining literacy now that the “screen” has become the favored medium for the younger generations. Here’s what I missed:

The screen doesn’t involve learning per se, but, as Sweeny says, a particular “learning style,” not literacy in general, but “viewer literacy” (Bomer’s term). It promotes multitasking and discourages single-tasking, hampering the deliberate focus on a single text, a discrete problem. … The model is information retrieval, not knowledge formation, and the material passes from Web to homework paper without lodging in the minds of the students (p. 94).

One of the pieces of research I did cite in full was that conducted by Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009) at Stanford. This is an abbreviated version of their work.

When media companies successfully integrate all forms of media into one screen, how will we differentiate between video games and books or television and Web surfing? Will YouTube become as important as a 200-page book or even a 30-page research report?

If you believe that information in books is far too dense to capture in a video, how come kids are saying, “We don’t read anymore”?  If people truly aren’t reading, or are reading short passages with little or no context in addition to the videos they watch, then it stands that the multitasking behavior inherent in the multimedia systems we’ve created for ease of use are changing how we learn.

When I read social critics who advocate for the importance of the book and the learning style it encourages, it seems that few are willing to discuss the possible implications for the future of our country.

What happens when the younger generation, who learn without fully digesting the material they learn, become the country’s leaders?

They won’t have the same knowledge of history or civics or foreign cultures that the current leaders do. Some will say that the ability to find information today is vastly superior to what it was even 10 years ago. I agree. But, is there any research to prove that the Internet is being used in this way? Or, are the social critics right, and is the Internet just a place to scan until we get bored, log off, and commence the race car game we started earlier?

Apple’s losing it, literally

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New iPhone

Courtsey of GIZMODO.com

At first, I couldn’t believe it. An Apple employee mistakenly left his iPhone prototype at the pub. It’s hilarious.

And after a little while of trying to figure out if it was legitimately from Apple and not some imitation, the Web site that has been reporting the entire saga was asked to give back the prototype device in a kindly written letter from a senior vice president at the company.

This all comes just weeks after Apple released the iPad to the general public, and only a few months after it debuted to the media.  In the days leading up to its original debut, media prophets were consulting their crystal balls in hopes that their greatest fantasies would finally come true in this new invention. Unfortunately, many critics were disappointed that the iPad didn’t support Flash technology and that you couldn’t make phone calls or multitask.

I’m just sad that they called it the iPad instead of the iSlate.

Regardless, the release of the iPad said something about Apple’s serious commitment to securing its creative property under lock, key, and electronic password until the exact point in time it should be made public.

This little incident, on the other hand, says something entirely different about media companies and their all-too-serious outlook on the future of technology. I hope that the corporate executives of the large media companies understand this, but the future is going to come – there is nothing you can do to stop it. One day, your product will be released, people will purchase it, and you will release a subsequent product with minor adjustments that even more people will purchase.

This is why the leak of the new iPhone prototype is so comical to me. It’s not that new of a piece of technology. It’s an improvement upon something they’ve already created. If you had given iPhone users the chance to come together and brainstorm what the next generation of iPhone would look like, they probably would have come up with something remarkably similar to what was leaked (according to the social construction of technology theory).

Then again, this could all be an elaborate media stunt created by Apple to distract us from the real future iPhone.

In conclusion, my undergraduate advanced writing class taught me a few things, but one of the important things it taught me was not to take myself (or sports writing) so seriously. Technology is technology is technology. It’s going to come out, and it’s going to be replaced. We live in an extremely disposable world, and we are becoming more disposable by the day. The quicker technology inventors understand this, the more productive I think we’ll be as a society in the future.

Life in the fast lane: Immediate gratification

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Take a look at this quote from Discoblog’s RSS feed:

new research suggests that ‘we are how we eat’ and that the mere thought of fast food can result in general impatience. Researchers from the University of Toronto conducted a series of experiments in which they showed volunteers logos from several fast-food chains or asked them to recall the last time they’d visited, writes Scientific American. And they found that folks who had thought about fast food would then read faster, even though no one told them to hurry.

There were also a number of other findings present in this study linked with the need for convenience and speed. I wonder, though, what the findings of a similar study might be if researchers substituted fast food with Internet technology and the personal devices capable of utilizing high-speed Wi-Fi. Maybe a study already exists, but what if researchers compared groups of individuals who had access to iPhones, for example, and those who did not and then asked them to access a specific bit of information without the aid of an iPhone.

I have a feeling that iPhone users might get stressed out quicker. But, until the study comes out, I’ll continue to assume that the constant need for ease-of-access in our country is turning us into stressed-out work-aholics who value technology over, well, everything.

The ugly side of sport

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When we hear about football celebrities doing stupid things, my roommates and I make the same joke: “You know what? I bet Jerry Jones would hire him.”

Lately, Jones has sort of become known for picking up renegade stars, such as Terrell Owens, for reasons only he can understand. Most of us believe Jones just wants as much media attention for his beloved football franchise as possible. While this view might be cynical, I’m not so certain it’s that far from the truth.

Michael Rosenberg recently posted an article on SI.com about sports celebrities and the media’s coverage of their “ugly sides.” Nothing in history can compare to the media time spent covering Tiger Woods’ multiple affairs, but Rosenberg asks a few extremely simple, yet relevant questions:

How much of this did we need to know? And if you’re going to be a sports fan in any conventional sense — because you want the escape and enjoy the games — does it help, in any way, to check the Internet for the latest embarrassing cell phone camera shots of a famous athlete?

Or would you rather just watch the games?

Why is that national news outlets, such as CNN, NPR, and others that traditionally only give the most major sports limited coverage at best feel, the need to report on the moral scandals within sports? And, more importantly, why do these outlets feel it’s necessary to report on something like the arrest of one of Woods’ mistresses?

I’m asked all the time about whether I think “news” is changing with the advent of new technologies. Although I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the views held by people who actually care about newsworthiness, I’m obligated to think that what was once considered “news” a few years ago is now resigned to the boring/negative category in the minds of most media users.

People don’t have to get their information from traditional news outlets anymore. I’m tempted to think that news about foreign affairs and other “important” (an extremely relative term) topics isn’t even considered news by a number of people in our world. If you don’t believe me, please explain why Adam Lambert is featured on CNN’s homepage talking about politics and why what he thinks matters.

Journalism in freefall? Maybe not

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An April 13 article in The Atlantic’s business section online (Do Journalists ‘Grieve’ the Decline of Journalism?) recently put a few things in perspective for me.

Most of us like to talk about things, and the things we talk about are, most likely, considered news by the parties talking about them. For those of us who actually pay attention to nation- and world-wide current events, we like to say we keep up with the news and enjoy staying informed. However, when news is removed from its context, which is what happens when it’s reported (according to Neil Postman), it sometimes takes on new meaning.

Take the decline of journalism for example. Everyone likes to talk about how journalism is beginning to fail, and that technology will eventually render the profession obsolete. People can get/make their own news through Twitter and Facebook, and the need for traditional reporters and news gatherers is no longer a societal priority. The problem with this rumor, however, is that the people perpetuating it aren’t the people who care about journalism in the first place.

For those of us who actually value the kind of news we receive about overseas conflicts, the goings-on in Congress, and the state of our nation’s educational systems, the fate of journalism couldn’t be more clear – it’s not destined for a fatal doom, at least not any time soon. Have a look at this quote from The Atlantic article:

It’s not just the new media gurus who think there is value in simple aggregation, or complex interactive graphs, or blogging public policy twenty times a day (Harold Pollack called the health care reform story “the best-covered news story, ever.”) There are Web sites that exist primarily to chronicle and lead the transformation because they find it interesting and important. Executives at newspaper and magazines companies consistently hail the challenges of new media as unprecedented opportunities to provide richer stories to the widest audience in history (the ones not named Rupert Murdoch, anyway).

It seems strange that we would say new media threaten journalism while aiding the rest of society (which seems to be the popular buzz). But, why can’t new media help journalism? Is there some reason we perpetuate stories because they’re conflict-laden? I venture to believe that the people predicting journalism’s failure don’t  want to live in a world where journalism doesn’t exist.