Curry Chandler

Curry Chandler is a writer, researcher, and independent scholar working in the field of communication and media studies. His writing on media theory and policy has been published in the popular press as well as academic journals. Curry approaches the study of communication from a distinctly critical perspective, and with a commitment to addressing inequality in power relations. The scope of his research activity includes media ecology, political economy, and the critique of ideology.

Curry is a graduate student in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh, having previously earned degrees from Pepperdine University and the University of Central Florida.

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Defining Media Ecology

This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: "Define Media Ecology."

Introduction

            The meaning of the phrase “media ecology” will likely depend on the context in which it is used. When the phrase appears in popular discourse, it is often used in a journalistic or editorial context to refer broadly to the array of extant media forms in a sense that could also be captured by similar expressions such as “media environment” or “media landscape”. President Barack Obama used the phrase in this sense in an interview published in the November 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. While his discussing his success in reaching demographically diverse audiences, and particularly younger Americans, Obama referred to “this whole other media ecology of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy.” Obama characterized his decisions to appear on late night talk shows and the online comedy series “Between Two Ferns” as strategic adaptations to a changing media landscape, one in which young Americans are receiving news and information through social media sites rather than through traditional media channels and news sources. In order to reach a demographic that is largely not tuning in to TV and other traditional media outlets, Obama appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to discuss the Affordable Care Act in a comedy video that went viral online, and ultimately reached more members of a younger age bracket than he might have through a standard speech or news sound bite.

            This essay offers a different definition of media ecology, although one that is not entirely dissimilar to the popular usage of the term. Within the fields of media and communication studies “media ecology” denotes a distinct line of inquiry shaped by certain questions and assumptions. Even in this specialized use of the phrase, media ecology can be understood in many different ways. Media ecology is a perspective on media effects. Media ecology is a tradition of scholarly inquiry characterized by common concerns and related areas of inquiry. Media ecology can also be understood as a body of literature in media and communication studies. The writing and research that make up this body of literature, however, demonstrate many of the concerns about media that are indicated by deployment of the phrase in popular discourse. For example, many media ecologists have focused their studies on the changing nature of public discourse in the context of a rapidly changing media landscape, as well as questions of media usage and relevancy across different demographics of media users and audiences.

            In order to develop a general definition of the media ecology perspective this essay will consider three of the major conceptualizations of the term throughout the literature, as offered and exemplified by three scholars most closely affiliated with the tradition. The first of these figures is Marshall McLuhan, a central thinker in the media ecology literature and perhaps the most influential theorist in the field. McLuhan is a significant figure in the development of media studies, and several of his insights and aphorisms about media effects serve as foundational elements of the media ecology perspective. The key aspect of McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of media as extensions of human faculties. The second figure is Neil Postman, an intellectual, educator, and founder of the program in Media Ecology at New York University. Postman trained and inspired a generation of card-carrying and certified “media ecologists.” Postman’s use of the ecological metaphor is tied to his idea of media as environments. Lastly, Lance Strate is a graduate of the NYU media ecology program and a founding member of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA is a scholarly and professional association that works to continue, refine, and expand the media ecology tradition. Strate’s understanding of the ecological metaphor is defined by his approach to media as media.

            Media ecology is an intellectual perspective concerned with the impact of communication technology on human culture and behavior, particularly in relation to environmental and ideological effects attributable to the inherent characteristics of technological forms. Across the theories surveyed here (as well as many others not mentioned in this essay) these various perspectives that comprise media ecology share these features in common.

McLuhan and the Toronto School: Media as Extensions

            Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a graduate student he studied at Cambridge and was particularly interested in the trivium, the part of the liberal arts comprised by logic, grammar, and rhetoric. McLuhan wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, a somewhat obscure figure who was a prodigious pamphleteer. McLuhan held several academic posts before settling at the University of Toronto. His interest in classical literature and print culture, as well as education and pedagogy, lead him to an interest in how emerging electronic modes of communication would impact traditional literacy and learning. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, looked at the role of the mass communication media in producing popular culture, with a particular focus on advertising. McLuhan wrote in the book that for the first time in human history thousands of the best-educated minds were actively engaged in the business of influencing the “collective mind”. McLuhan used Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Descent in the Maelstrom as a recurring literary reference but also significant analogy for his purpose in writing the book. In Poe’s story, a mariner is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool. The mariner studies the effects of the whirlpool on other objects (barrels, ropes, and other detritus from the sunken ship); by observing the maelstrom’s effects on each of these objects, the mariner is able to comport himself in such a way that he manages to swim away, rather than be carried under and drown. McLuhan makes an analogy between the situation of the mariner and the threatened by a whirlpool of pop culture and mass media messages. His second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, posited an array of sweeping societal effects ushered in by the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan argues that the introduction of movable type printing had major ramifications for European consciousness and culture. Specifically McLuhan highlights the uniformity and repeatability of the texts produced by the printing press, connecting this uniform and repeatable character to the rise of nationalism, new specializations and regimentation in society, and associated feelings of alienation. It was in this book that McLuhan first used the phrase “the global village” to refer to the linking and homogenizing effects of the mass media.

            McLuhan’s breakout book and most lasting contribution to media studies came in 1964 with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This book also presented McLuhan’s ideas about media as extensions, a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of the media ecology perspective. Central to McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of sense-ratios, and the idea that the characteristics of each communication media altered the relation of the five senses to each other. Key to this concept is the dichotomy between aural space and visual space. Before the invention of written language humanity lived in acoustic space, defined by the primacy of spoken communication. Acoustic space, McLuhan says, engages all of the senses at once (besides hearing the spoken communication you also visually register the source of the sound, and the sonorous even has an embodied/tactile element, etc.). By contrast, the printed word of typographic space engages primarily with the visual sense. In McLuhan’s terminology, acoustic space is characterized by an “all-at-once-ness,” a simultaneity of sensory engagement. An additional component of this aspect of acoustic space is that spoken language is not recorded or “frozen in time” as written language is, further contributing to this temporal notion of “all-at-once-ness.” Typographic space is characterized by a linear, segmented, “one-at-a-time-ness.” Just like reading the printed word, typographic space (or typographic consciousness) comprehends discrete elements in a linear fashion. McLuhan believed that the advent of electronic media signaled a return to acoustic space. The flow of images and disjointed nature of channel surfing introduced by television disrupted the linear character of typographic culture. Television enables a stream of images and information from different times, places, and sources, thereby retrieving the “all-at-once-ness” of acoustic space and inaugurating the electronic global village.

Understanding Media also included McLuhan’s first use of the expression “the medium is the message.” Through this phrase McLuhan sought to convey the idea that the lasting significance of any communication technology is not the specific content it transmits, but rather the change of pace and scale introduced into human affairs by virtue of the technology’s inherent characteristics. This articulation represents a further development of the ideas first put forth in Gutenberg Galaxy. The electric lightbulb is an archetypal example for McLuhan, as it has no specific “content” per se, but its introduction into society lead to significant changes as artificial light made possible a range of activities to be done indoors and times of the day that would not have been practical previously. As evident by the book’s subtitle, McLuhan saw all media and technology as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. The wheel is an extension of the foot, as it “extends” the capacity for human travel by enabling the covering of distances beyond what is capable by mere human locomotion. Clothing and housing are extensions of the skin and body, increasing capabilities for shelter and protection. The technology of written language is understood as an extension of the eye, as it enables a “seeing” of things not actually present but represented in the language. Every extension, however, is accompanied by an amputation. McLuhan says that in response to the shock and disorientation of these extensions changing the sense-ratios, the central nervous responds by “numbing” other areas in order to cope. Radio may extend our aural senses, but there are associated deficiencies in other senses, such as the visual. These extensions and amputations have psychic and physiological effects. This represents a key use of ecological metaphors in McLuhan’s media theories, one based on the self-regulating perspective on ecological systems, where a change in one part of the system results in changes in other areas in order to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis.

            There is an additional component of McLuhan’s use of ecological metaphors. He argued that not only did media alter the relationships of the five senses to each other, they also altered the relationships between different media. Thus the introduction of popular radio broadcasts impacted how news was reported, and also affected the use of sound in motion pictures. When media combine, McLuhan said, the form and use of each are altered. Furthermore, the pace, scale, and intensity of human affairs are affected, as are the sense-ratios of the users. McLuhan used the ecological metaphor again in reference to a holistic implementation of various media technologies so as to compensate for ways in which they might “cancel each other out.” Specifically in relation to using media to facilitate classroom learning, McLuhan suggested using different media for different purposes in such a way that the media complement each other and provide the fullest sensory engagement. McLuhan’s writings on the societal impacts introduced by communication media proved very influential. Walter Ong, whose MA thesis was supervised by McLuhan, went on to write Orality and Literacy, a book comparing differences between oral cultures and literate cultures through a broad historical survey. Orality and literacy studies remains an important aspect of media ecology-related communication studies. Elizabeth Eisenstein cited McLuhan in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her work investigates social and cultural changes in literate western European society following the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press, and has been credited with bringing needed clarity and scholarly rigor to McLuhan’s notions of oral and literate cultures. McLuhan came to be retroactively associated with a group of other scholars who had been working at the University of Toronto around the same time, although all members of this loose affiliation had worked separately from one another. This group became known as the Toronto School of Communication Studies. The influence of these scholars would eventually lead to another school arising from similarly minded thinkers in the United States, which would become known as the New York School.

Postman and the New York School: Media as Environments

            Neil Postman was born in 1931 in New York City. He earned a PhD in education and wrote prolifically about learning and pedagogical practice. In 1969 he co-authored Teaching as a Subversive Activity with Charles Weingartner. In the book, Postman and Weingartner posited an inquiry-based method of pedagogy. They outlined a set of ideals and practices that should guide teachers, as well as specifying techniques that should be avoided, with the goal of inculcating characteristics of “good learning” among students. In 1971 while at NYU’s Steinhardt School of education, Postman founded the graduate program in Media Ecology. Postman thus coined the phrase, although the exact origins of the term are somewhat disputed. Postman seems to have believe at times that McLuhan used the phrase “media ecology” in Understanding Media, though in fact that term does not appear in the book although the ecological metaphor of media effects and relationships is clearly present. Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric has suggested that he and his father came up with the phrase during the year McLuhan was teaching at Fordham University in 1967; Eric has said that McLuhan then mentioned the term to Postman, and Postman “ran with it.” Graduates of the Media Ecology program have mentioned to me anecdotally that Neil Postman used the phrase precisely because of its nebulous nature. “People will ask you, ‘What’s media ecology?,’” he told students, adding, “Then you get to define it!” In 1982 Postman authored The Disappearance of Childhood. In this book Postman argued that the notion of childhood was a relatively recent social phenomenon. Historically “child” had merely designated that someone was a “daughter of” or “son of,” but it had since come to refer to a stage of development before adulthood. Postman pointed to the role of the printing press in this change, arguing the introduction of literacy created a “world of adult secrets” that was only accessible to literate adults. This also led to changes in learning, as literacy now became a necessary part of education. As his argument here indicates, Postman was primarily interested in the social effects of communication technology, rather than the sense-ratio effects that McLuhan emphasized.

            In 1985 Postman’s best-known book was published, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman begins the book by comparing the dystopic visions of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian government controls an austere state, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populace self-medicates themselves into a blissful narcotic state. Part of Postman’s argument is that Huxley’s vision is much closer to contemporary society than Orwell’s, and he compares the soma drug of Brave New World with the effects of television consumption on the populace. Following McLuhan’s maxim that “the media is the message,” the first chapter of Postman’s book is titled “the medium is the metaphor.” Postman states “form excludes the content” in arguing that each medium of communication can only sustain a certain level of ideas or discourse. When literate culture (and oratory based on written language) predominated, public discourse consisted of statements and propositions that an audience would evaluate as true or false. This sort of exchange contributed to public communication based on rational discourse. Postman highlights the introduction of the telegraph as a turning point in the nature of public discourse. The telegraph made possible communication and information exchange virtually unbounded by geographic distance. The near-instantaneous transmission of information was revolutionary. This brought about several significant changes to the character of discourse. For one thing, Postman states, just because Maine could now talk to Texas doesn’t mean that they had anything worthwhile to say to one another. In other words, the mere possibility of persistent communication came to be seen as a necessity for persistent communication, in a manner that devalued and degraded the quality of the discourse. Part of the reason for this degradation lies in the inherent characteristics of the telegraph to transmit certain quality and quantity of information. Another significant aspect of this development is the great increase in information that the telegraph contributed to. Postman points to the persistent communication of the telegraph (along with the mass reproduction of images around the same period of time) as resulting in a deluge of information. In response, there was a shift from audiences discerning the context of information and evaluating it, to instead collecting information (often irrelevant information) largely independent of any context. Television represents a further change in the nature of public discourse. Postman states that he is not against television as a means of entertainment, but rather his concern is that the very nature of television reduces all serious discussion to the level of entertainment. All television content is packaged and presented as a commodity, leading to a leveling of all televised content in a way that further contributes to the lack of rational debate in public discourse. Postman references politics as a key arena where these changes play out, as election campaigns become “battles of advertisements,” where candidates are turned into images and brands that then craft sound bites to sell a generalized notion of what they think the country lacks, just as advertising functions.

            Postman may have been the first person to offer a definition of media ecology, stating: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” He said that media ecology is concerned with how media affect thoughts, feelings, and values. He also said that the role of media technology in influencing human affairs is directly implicated with the species’ prospects for survival. In 1973 Christine Nystrom became the first graduate of the Media Ecology program, writing a dissertation titled “Toward a Science of Media Ecology.” Nystrom characterized the sweeping social changes indicated by McLuhan and Postman as a transition from a compartmentalized Newtonian world to a more holistic world defined by interrelatedness and interdisiciplinarity. Other graduates of the Media Ecology program would continue the process of defining media ecology, and further contribute to the field’s interdisciplinarity.

Strate and the Media Ecology Association: Media as Media

            Lance Strate graduated from the Media Ecology program in the 1990s. While at NYU he had worked with Neil Postman on several published studies, and Christine Nystrom had served as his dissertation advisor. In 1998 he was a founding member of the Media Ecology Association, inaugurated at Fordham University, and served as the association’s first president. The association holds an annual conference, and mains a strong presence at related scholarly events. They also publish a journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, named for the “Explorations” publication that McLuhan was involved in at the University of Toronto, and where many of the key concerns of media ecology were first articulated.

            Strate has contributed not only to the institutionalization of the media ecology perspective, but also its ongoing definition. Strate writes: “Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media philosophy, and medium theory, and mediology.” This part of Strate’s definition refers to the Toronto school associated with McLuhan, and the New York School associated with Postman. In referring to technological determinism, it also references one of the most persistent criticisms of the media ecology perspective, that the theory is inherently deterministic (see Curry Chandler’s “Marshall Arts: An Inventory of Common Criticisms of McLuhan’s Media Studies,” in Explorations in Media Ecology). By doing so, Strate seeks to acknowledge determinism as part of the media ecology legacy, and one that is commensurate with the theory rather than an internal contradiction that undermines it. Strate also references other strands of media theory that can be traced to media ecological roots, including “medium theory” which was coined by Postman and Nystrom’s student Joshua Meyrowtiz in his book No Sense of Place. His definition also includes other strands of scholarship that are typically included in or conflated with the media ecology perspective: McLuhan studies, orality-literacy studies, and media philosophy and history.

            In a 2008 article, “Studying Media AS Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Perspective” Strate builds a definition of media ecology around McLuhan’s maxim “the media is the message.” The medium is the message, Strate says, because the medium precedes the message; communication cannot exist without a channel, information cannot exist in a vacuum. As these variables change, so too does the message being communicated. Furthermore, Strate states that the nature of structure of technology is ultimately more significant than our intentions in using it. The materials we use, and the methods with which we use them, will ultimately determine our outcomes. The symbolic form of our communication is the lasting significance of that communication, rather than the specific and individual messages that are conveyed. In all of these ways, Strate argues that “the medium is the message,” and therefore that the media ecology perspective entails studying media as media. It is in this sense that Strate meaningfully distinguishes media ecology from other perspectives in communication and media research, which also acknowledging and affirming the various intersections and related fields. Strate suggests that the differences in definition surrounding media ecology are an inherent strength of the perspective, rather than a weakness.

Video: Marshall Arts - McLuhan and media scholars

The Institute of General Semantics has recently posted videos of presentations given at the 2011 General Semantics Symposium. Included is my presentation: "Marshall Arts: Retrieving McLuhan for Communication Scholars". This was my first conference presentation, and the paper eventually became my first academic publication. The focus of my work has shifted considerably in the time since, but this was a personal milestone and I enjoyed being able to revisit it four years on. You can watch the talk, along with others from the symposium, through the official IGS Youtube channel, and via the embed below:

McLuhan and Mad Men

  • The final episode of acclaimed TV series Mad Men aired this week. I've not seen any of the show (though now that the series is complete it is ripe for binge-watching), but I did appreciate this piece from Stephen Marche at Esquire, analyzing Mad Men through Marshall McLuhan's media theory (spoilers if, like me, you're not caught up with the show):

I sometimes wonder when I'm watching Mad Men, if and when the various characters read the passage above, from Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, which came out in 1964. Of all the great sixties cultural icons that are missing from Mad Men—and some of the absences can be glaring—I've always found the lack of any mention of media writer and thinker McLuhan the most inexplicable. Maybe he was just too close to the bone.

McLuhan is the perfect guide to Mad Men for one obvious reason: He loved advertising. He was among the first to celebrate unreservedly what he called "the Madison Avenue frog-men-of-the-mind." The business of trying to sell people more stuff neither frightened nor appalled him. He didn't look down on it, as so many of his contemporaries did.

Resistance is Feudal: A descent into McLuhan’s media maelstrom

McLuhan’s approach to media studies is almost always characterized as deterministic. The entry for McLuhan in the Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory states in part: “McLuhan’s version of technological determinism is extreme […] the most striking feature of his studies of the media is their total failure to discuss the ownership and control of means of communication.” McLuhan addresses the issue of determinism early on in The Gutenberg Galaxy, writing: “Far from being deterministic, however, the present study will, it is hoped, elucidate a principal factor in social change which may lead to a genuine increase of human autonomy.” Rather than tackle the issue of whether McLuhan “really was” a technological determinist, I will take McLuhan at his word regarding the stated goal of his media studies: “Study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.” So if McLuhan’s goal in The Gutenberg Galaxy is to increase human autonomy in the electronic age, what does that look like in practice and how would it be accomplished?

As noted in one of the introductions to The Gutenberg Galaxy, literature is major touchstone for McLuhan’s work. His frequent use of literary allusions and the stylistic decisions employed in his works have caused some critics to consider his books more literary exercises than scholarship or theory. One such literary reference in Gutenberg Galaxy is the short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s story, three brothers on a fishing trip are drawn into a whirlpool. As their ship is pulled into the vortex, two of the brothers drown. The fate of the third brother is described in this excerpt from the Wikipedia summary of the story: “At first [he] only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelstrom is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were pulled into it, he deduced that "the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent" and that spherical-shaped objects were pulled in the fastest. Unlike his brother, he abandoned ship and held on to a cylindrical barrel until he was saved several hours later.”

McLuhan alludes to the vortex in Poe’s story to describe the plight of individuals making sense of a world caught between literary culture and post-literate technology. He writes: “May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of other cultures?” (p. 88). Extending this metaphor, McLuhan is ostensibly equating his approach to media studies with the sailor’s study of the actions of the objects in the vortex. This suggests that by understanding the effects brought on by the interaction of various media in the electronic era we can consciously act and thereby not be drawn under the water, as the sailor in the story survived by acting deliberately and not succumbing to panic and terror as his brothers did.

The notion of conscious acts seems key to McLuhan’s project of increasing human autonomy in the face of wide-sweeping technological determinism. The Gutenberg Galaxy is peppered with references to Finnegan’s Wake, often accompanied by allusions to waking up and regaining consciousness. McLuhan writes about “hypnotic” and “entrancing” effects of media, of the “involuntary and subliminal character” of perspective engendered by print. He says that “the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life” (p. 280). This returns us to McLuhan’s stated goal in his media studies, of unearthing subliminal assumptions for scrutiny and the basis of conscious decision-making. In essence, the aim of McLuhan’s probes, puns, and provocations could be summed up in a single sentiment: “Wake up!” Returning now to my initial question: how does McLuhan propose that we “wake up” and become more conscious of media effects? The Gutenberg Galaxy ends on a cliffhanger, and with a promise that McLuhan will return in the sequel, but the concluding chapter makes the case that it is the function of art to rouse the sleeping to consciousness, and draw attention from a focus on content to an awareness of form.

Graeber on labor and leisure; the perils of hipster economics; and the educational value of MOOCs

Right after my original bullshit jobs piece came out, I used to think that if I wanted, I could start a whole career in job counseling – because so many people were writing to me saying “I realize my job is pointless, but how can I support a family doing something that’s actually worthwhile?” A lot of people who worked the information desk at Zuccotti Park, and other occupations, told me the same thing: young Wall Street types would come up to them and say “I mean, I know you’re right, we’re not doing the world any good doing what we’re doing. But I don’t know how to live on less than a six figure income. I’d have to learn everything over. Could you teach me?”

But I don’t think we can solve the problem by mass individual defection. Or some kind of spiritual awakening. That’s what a lot of people tried in the ‘60s and the result was a savage counter-offensive which made the situation even worse. I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people’s lives worse and punish those who make them better. I’m thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we’ve already seen. A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it "cleaned up the neighbourhood". This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood - poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services - did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout - and accompanying racial privilege - to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is "cleaned up" through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in "urban life" - the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit - while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

In the pedagogic trenches, MOOCs are considered a symptom of wider economic patterns which effectively vacuum resources up into the financial stratosphere, leaving those doing the actual work with many more responsibilities, and far less compensation. Basic questions about the sustainability of this model remain unanswered, but it is clear that there is little room for enfranchised, full-time, fully-compensated faculty. Instead, we find an army of adjuncts servicing thousands of students; a situation which brings to mind scenes from Metropolis rather than Dead Poets Society.

[...]

For companies pushing MOOCs, education is no different from entertainment: it is simply a question of delivering ‘content.’ But learning to think exclusively via modem is like learning to dance by watching YouTube videos. You may get a sense of it, but no-one is there to point out mistakes, deepen your understanding, contextualise the gestures, shake up your default perspective, and facilitate the process. The role of the professor or instructor is not simply the shepherd for the transmission of information from point A to point B, but the co-forging of new types of knowledge, and critically testing these for various versions of soundness and feasibility. Wisdom may be eternal, but knowledge – both practical and theoretical – evolves over time, and especially exponentially in the last century, with all its accelerated technologies. Knowledge is always mediated, so we must consciously take the tools of mediation into account. Hence the need for a sensitive and responsive guide: someone students can bounce new notions off, rather than simply absorb information from. Without this element, distance learning all too often becomes distanced learning. Just as a class taken remotely usually leads to a sea of remote students.

[...]

Marshall McLuhan was half-right when he insisted that the electronic age is ushering in a post-literate society. But no matter how we like to talk of new audio-visual forms of literacy, there is still the ‘typographic man’ pulling the strings, encouraging us to express ourselves alphabetically. Indeed, the electronic and the literate are not mutually exclusive, much as people like to pit them against each other.

  • Pettman also quotes Ian Bogost's comments on distance learning:

The more we buy into the efficiency argument, the more we cede ground to the technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills. But then again, I think that's what the proponents of MOOCs want anyway. The issue isn't online education per se, it's the logics and rationales that come along with certain implementations of it.

Manifesto for a Ludic Century, ludonarrative dissonance in GTA, games and mindf*cks, and more

Systems, play, design: these are not just aspects of the Ludic Century, they are also elements of gaming literacy. Literacy is about creating and understanding meaning, which allows people to write (create) and read (understand).

New literacies, such as visual and technological literacy, have also been identified in recent decades. However, to be truly literate in the Ludic Century also requires gaming literacy. The rise of games in our culture is both cause and effect of gaming literacy in the Ludic Century.

So, perhaps there is one fundamental challenge for the Manifesto for a Ludic Century: would a truly ludic century be a century of manifestos? Of declaring simple principles rather than embracing systems? Or, is the Ludic Manifesto meant to be the last manifesto, the manifesto to end manifestos, replacing simple answers with the complexity of "information at play?"

Might we conclude: videogames are the first creative medium to fully emerge after Marshall McLuhan. By the time they became popular, media ecology as a method was well-known. McLuhan was a popular icon. By the time the first generation of videogame players was becoming adults, McLuhan had become a trope. When the then-new publication Wired Magazine named him their "patron saint" in 1993, the editors didn't even bother to explain what that meant. They didn't need to.

By the time videogame studies became a going concern, McLuhan was gospel. So much so that we don't even talk about him. To use McLuhan's own language of the tetrad, game studies have enhanced or accelerated media ecology itself, to the point that the idea of studying the medium itself over its content has become a natural order.

Generally speaking, educators have warmed to the idea of the flipped classroom far more than that of the MOOC. That move might be injudicious, as the two are intimately connected. It's no accident that private, for-profit MOOC startups like Coursera have advocated for flipped classrooms, since those organizations have much to gain from their endorsement by universities. MOOCs rely on the short, video lecture as the backbone of a new educational beast, after all. Whether in the context of an all-online or a "hybrid" course, a flipped classroom takes the video lecture as a new standard for knowledge delivery and transfers that experience from the lecture hall to the laptop.

  • Also, with increased awareness of Animal Crossing following from the latest game's release for the Nintendo 3DS, Bogost recently posted an excerpt from his 2007 book Persuasive Games discussing consumption and naturalism in Animal Crossing:

Animal Crossing deploys a procedural rhetoric about the repetition of mundane work as a consequence of contemporary material property ideals. When my (then) five-year-old began playing the game seriously, he quickly recognized the dilemma he faced. On the one hand, he wanted to spend the money he had earned from collecting fruit and bugs on new furniture, carpets, and shirts. On the other hand, he wanted to pay off his house so he could get a bigger one like mine.

Ludonarrative dissonance is when the story the game is telling you and your gameplay experience somehow don’t match up. As an example, this was a particular issue in Rockstar’s most recent game, Max Payne 3. Max constantly makes remarks about how terrible he is at his job, even though he does more than is humanly possible to try to protect his employers – including making perfect one-handed head shots in mid-air while drunk and high on painkillers. The disparity and the dissonance between the narrative of the story and the gameplay leave things feeling off kilter and poorly inter-connnected. It doesn’t make sense or fit with your experience so it feels wrong and damages the cohesiveness of the game world and story. It’s like when you go on a old-lady only murdering spree as Niko, who is supposed to be a reluctant killer with a traumatic past, not a gerontophobic misogynist.

What I find strange, in light of our supposed anti-irony cultural moment, is a kind of old-fashioned ironic conceit behind a number of recent critical darlings in the commercial videogame space. 2007's Bioshock and this year’s Bioshock: Infinite are both about the irony of expecting ‘meaningful choice’ to live in an artificial dome of technological and commercial constraints. Last year’s Spec Ops: The Line offers a grim alchemy of self-deprecation and preemptive disdain for its audience. The Grand Theft Auto series has always maintained a cool, dismissive cynicism beneath its gleefully absurd mayhem. These games frame choice as illusory and experience as artificial. They are expensive, explosive parodies of free will.

To cut straight to the heart of it, Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story. By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all. The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest (which I almost did) or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.

The post itself makes a very important point: games, for the most part, can’t pull the Mindfuck like movies can because of the nature of the kind of storytelling to which most games are confined, which is predicated on a particular kind of interaction. Watching a movie may not be an entirely passive experience, but it’s clearly more passive than a game. You may identify with the characters on the screen, but you’re not meant to implicitly think of yourself as them. You’re not engaging in the kind of subtle roleplaying that most (mainstream) games encourage. You are not adopting an avatar. In a game, you are your profile, you are the character you create, and you are also to a certain degree the character that the game sets in front of you. I may be watching everything Lara Croft does from behind her, but I also control her; to the extent that she has choices, I make them. I get her from point A to B, and if she fails it’s my fault. When I talk about something that happened in the game, I don’t say that Lara did it. I say that I did.

Anachrony is a common storytelling technique in which events are narrated out of chronological order. A familiar example is a flashback, where story time jumps to the past for a bit, before returning to the present. The term "nonlinear narrative" is also sometimes used for this kind of out-of-order storytelling (somewhat less precisely).

While it's a common technique in literature and film, anachrony is widely seen as more problematic to use in games, perhaps even to the point of being unusable. If the player's actions during a flashback scene imply a future that differs considerably from the one already presented in a present-day scene (say, the player kills someone who they had been talking to in a present-day scene, or commits suicide in a flashback), this produces an inconsistent narrative. The root of the problem is that players generally have degree of freedom of action, so flashbacks are less like the case in literature and film—where already decided events are simply narrated out of order—and more like time travel, where the player travels back in time and can mess up the timeline.

The first of the books are set to be published in early 2014. Some of the writers that will be published by Press Select in its first round have written for publications like Edge magazine, Kotaku, Kill Screen and personal blogs, including writers like Chris Dahlen, Michael Abbott, Jenn Frank, Jason Killingsworth, Maddy Myers, Tim Rogers, Patricia Hernandez and Robert Yang.

Videodrome turns 30

Videodrome’s depiction of techno-body synthesis is, to be sure, intense; Cronenberg has the unusual talent of making violent, disgusting, and erotic things seem even more so. The technology is veiny and lubed. It breaths and moans; after watching the film, I want to cut my phone open just to see if it will bleed. Fittingly, the film was originally titled “Network of Blood,” which is precisely how we should understand social media, as a technology not just of wires and circuits, but of bodies and politics. There’s nothing anti-human about technology: the smartphone that you rub and take to bed is a technology of flesh. Information penetrates the body in increasingly more intimate ways.

  • I also came across this short piece by Joseph Matheny at Alterati on Videodrome and YouTube:

Videodrome is even more relevant now that YouTube is delivering what cable television promised to in the 80s: a world where everyone has their own television station. Although digital video tools began to democratize video creation, it’s taken the further proliferation of broadband Internet and the emergence of convenient platforms like YouTube and Google Video to democratize video distribution.

  • There's also my Videodrome-centric post from a couple of years ago. Coincidentally, I watched eXistenZ for the first time last week. I didn't know much about the film going in, and initially I was enthusiastic that it seemed to be a spiritual successor to Videodrome, updating the media metaphor for the New Flesh from television to video games. I remained engaged throughout the movie (although about two thirds into the film I turned to my fiancee and asked "Do you have any idea what's going on?"), and there were elements that I enjoyed but ultimately I was disappointed. I had a similar reaction at the ending of Cronenberg's Spider, thinking "What was the point of all that?" when the closing credits started to roll, though it was much easier to stay awake during eXistenZ.

Rushkoff on Manning verdict, Chomsky/Žižek on NSA leaks, looking for McLuhan in Afghanistan

We are just beginning to learn what makes a free people secure in a digital age. It really is different. The Cold War was an era of paper records, locked vaults and state secrets, for which a cloak-and-dagger mindset may have been appropriate. In a digital environment, our security comes not from our ability to keep our secrets but rather our ability to live our truth.

In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Chomsky and Žižek offer us very different approaches, both of which are helpful for leftist critique. For Chomsky, the path ahead is clear. Faced with new revelations about the surveillance state, Chomsky might engage in data mining, juxtaposing our politicians' lofty statements about freedom against their secretive actions, thereby revealing their utter hypocrisy. Indeed, Chomsky is a master at this form of argumentation, and he does it beautifully in Hegemony or Survival when he contrasts the democratic statements of Bush regime officials against their anti-democratic actions. He might also demonstrate how NSA surveillance is not a strange historical aberration but a continuation of past policies, including, most infamously, the FBI's counter intelligence programme in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s.

Žižek, on the other hand, might proceed in a number of ways. He might look at the ideology of cynicism, as he did so famously in the opening chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in order to demonstrate how expressions of outrage regarding NSA surveillance practices can actually serve as a form of inaction, as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. We know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it; we know very well that our government is spying on us, but still we continue to support it (through voting, etc). Žižek might also look at how surveillance practices ultimately fail as a method of subjectivisation, how the very existence of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and the others who are sure to follow in their footsteps demonstrates that technologies of surveillance and their accompanying ideologies of security can never guarantee the full participation of the people they are meant to control. As Žižek emphasises again and again, subjectivisation fails.

In early 2011, award-winning photographer Rita Leistner was embedded with a U.S. marine battalion deployed to Helmand province as a member of Project Basetrack, an experiment in using new technologies in social media to extend traditional war reporting. This new LRC series draws on Leistner’s remarkable iPhone photos and her writings from her time in Afghanistan to use the ideas of Marshall McLuhan to make sense of what she saw there – “to examine the face of war through the extensions of man.”

Next gen gaming on Oculus Rift, McLuhan on surveillance state, Rushkoff on viral media

The spy is the ideal tourist because he represents an inner self perfectly contained within an outer self that is adapted to any possible location or circumstance. Travel can broaden him by the width of a new sexual conquest, but for the most part, he's seen everything already. Going to the Louvre won't make him vulnerable, and he won't stammer when he buys his ticket. The pathos of the whole Bourne series lies in the way it gives us a character who's been left with the spy's invulnerable outer shell but lost the inner self it was originally meant to protect.

Newman: It has become a frightening world. We seem to be constantly under surveillance. How can we deal with this menace?

McLuhan: The new human occupation of the electronic age has become surveillance. CIA-style espionage is now the total human activity. Whether you call it audience rating, consumer surveys and so on—all men are now engaged as hunters of espionage. So women are completely free to take over the dominant role in our society. Women’s liberation represents demands for absolute mobility, not just physical and political freedom to change roles, jobs and attitudes—but total mobility.

Today, our social media amplify and accelerate word of mouth to a new level. These aren’t hushed water-cooler conversation about whatever salacious gossip we’ve seen on the news; they are publicly broadcasted pronouncements about who is a hero, who is a traitor, who is a liar, or who is a fraud. In a media culture that values retweets and “likes” even more than money, stories spread and replicate less because they titillate than because they are suitable subjects for loud, definitive, 140-character declarations.

 

Kubrick's rooms, Tumblr teens, Understanding Media reading group

  • Douglas Rushkoff's latest column for CNN ('Yahoo wants Tumblr's teens') addresses Yahoo's billion dollar purchase of Tumblr. Rushkoff writes that "Yahoo isn't buying a technology company so much as the community that uses it."
For its part, Tumblr is working hard to prove it still has indie cool street cred. In his blog post responding to the angst around his "selling out," Tumblr founder David Karp sounded like a young Steve Jobs by insisting "how awesome this is." Then, as if to prove Tumblr is still cool enough to do naughty things even though it's now owned by a zillion-dollar corporate conglomerate, he signed his post, "F*** yeah."
Maybe that'll work, but it looks to me like Tumblr has gone from being cool to trying to sound cool. And we all know where that leads.

  • The new documentary Room 237 features several elaborate interpretations of Kubrick's The Shining. Although the documentary has its flaws, it's slickly-produced and very enjoyable. It made me want to see something similar done for 2001. Joe Pack reviewed the doc for The Epoch Times:
Fans of Kubrick’s 1980 film show how they have, like Kubrick himself, blurred the lines of artistic ownership of material by adding new meaning to a widely beloved, yet controversial film.
[...]
As it is stated by one person in the film, the act of “Shining” is like watching a movie. It is a dream-like liminal space in which the viewer decodes daily experiences and attaches meaning through narrative and action. Danny is able to successfully navigate the pitfalls of the hotel because he is tuned in to the situation, able to understand the past and the dangers of repeating history. 

Watching (and reading) the Society of the Spectacle

  • Youtuber Azorek79 has a video in 2 parts based on The Society of the Spectacle, narrated with excerpts from Debord's book as well as selections from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage and John Berger's Ways of Seeing.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsHtSPub3w8&w=420&h=315]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iN26E410Euk&w=420&h=315]

  • Also, I just stumbled across a subreddit organized for a book-club-style reading of Society of the Spectacle. They began reading on Dec. 19 and are just over halfway done (they are ending by reading Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life). Check it out here.

End of 2012 mega blow-out post

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sMo4cTZTgQ&w=560&h=315]

"Those levels of interactivity, for me, recapitulated the levels of participation that we as a society have had since the invention of media," Rushkoff said, referring to similar shifts that occurred when humans first transitioned from written language to the age of movable type.

Our conversation started with Rushkoff’s concept of “present-shock” and moved into a larger discussion of the relationship between market thinking, quantification, and what is ultimately measurable and knowable.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AXIAM7dTTg&w=560&h=315]

  • "Drop the mic": an article about how the microphone changed Catholic mass.

In 1974, Marshall McLuhan argued that the microphone was the proximate cause both of the elimination of Latin from the Mass and of the turning around of the priest to face the congregation. Before microphones, a priest quietly said Mass in Latin, with his back to the congregation. From any distance, his voice was indistinct, although an instructed Catholic could follow what he was saying from a missal containing the Latin text of the Mass or a translation of it.

  • "The humanism of Media Ecology": this address was delivered by Neil Postman at the 2000 MEA convention, but I just came across it and wanted to share it here.

I think there is considerable merit in McLuhan’s point of view about avoiding questions of good and bad when thinking about media. But that view has never been mine. To be quite honest about it, I don’t see any point in studying media unless one does so within a moral or ethical context. I am not alone in believing this. Some of the most important media scholars—Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, for example—could scarcely write a word about technology without conveying a sense of either its humanistic or anti-humanistic consequences.

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