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.

Filtering by Tag: mediatheory

An Urban Media History

A Media History of the City

            A media history of the city could take on any number of forms. The shape of this history would largely be determined by how we defined its key terms. How should “the city” be understood? Such a history could begin in ancient or pre-historical times, starting with the earliest human settlements and urban agglomerations. On the other hand, it would also be possible to select a single moment along this vast timeline and analyze this temporal snapshot to see how various media are intersecting with urban life. This history could even be a contemporary history of modern media practices and institutions and their role in the urban experience. The other key question is how “media” should be understood. What media should be included in our study? How inclusive or exclusive should our definition be? Depending on how expansive our definition is, our history could begin by looking at human settlements established in pre-literate societies where spoken language was the primary communication medium. Our history could also look at the development of alphabets, and the role of various writing media such as tablets, papyrus, and parchment in facilitating the construction and governance of cities. Our history could instead follow a traditional mass communication view of modern media. In contemporary New York City place names such as Radio City Music Hall and Times Square attest to the impact that media of mass communication has made in urban spaces.

In order to limit the scope of this essay, I will frame my response as a curriculum overview for an imagined undergraduate course on media and the city. Framing the response in this way provides a framework and rationale for defining the terms of our analysis and the range of history we can reasonably attempt. A typical U.S. undergraduate introductory course in media studies approaches its subject using the “big 5” traditional media: newspapers, magazines, film, radio, and TV. For the sake of this essay, and imagining a potential undergraduate course based on this subject, I will structure my response around these “big 5” traditional media. Also in following the structure of a typical undergraduate media course, the history I present will correspond to the history of mass communication in the United States. The history I offer here is mostly confined to the 20th century, and focuses on U.S. cities. As such, this imaginary course I am outlining could be called “History of U.S. media and urbanization.” In what follows, I offer five key moments in this “media history of the city,” with each moment corresponding to one of the big 5 traditional media. Each entry will offer some historical information on the development of that media form, and a case study that illustrates the intersection between media use and the life of city. Finally, I will offer a sixth moment and case study that accounts for more recent developments in digital media and technological convergence, as well as salient aspects of urban life in the 21st century metropolis.

Moment One: Penny Papers and Newsboys on Strike

Early colonial newspapers tended to be political in nature, what were called the “partisan press” as opposed to commercial papers. In the 1830s, technological developments associated with the industrial revolution allowed for new paper production practices. Expensive handmade paper could be replaced by cheaper mass produced paper. Before this change in production, newspapers cost about 5 cents to purchase, which was relatively expensive for the time. Therefore newspaper readers tended to be affluent. Using the less expensive production techniques, publishers could sell papers for as cheap as 1 cent. Thus the “penny press” or “penny papers” were born, and this is the moment when newspapers truly became a mass media. Newspaper publishers had long relied on subscription service for reliable purchases of their papers, but in the penny press era individual street sales became an important part of the business model as well. One of the major penny press papers was the New York Sun owned by Benjamin Day. Under Day’s stewardship, the Sun privileged accounts of the daily triumphs and travails of the human condition, what are now known as “human interest stories.”

The penny papers introduced many innovations that remain part of the newspaper industry today, including assigning “beat” reporters to cover special story topics such as crime, and shifting the economic basis for publishing from the support of political parties (as in the “partisan press” era) to the market. The penny press era gave rise to an increase in newspaper production with an emphasis on competitive, profitable papers. This economic environment set the stage for some of the most famous newspaper barons to enter the scene. For instance, Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst bought the New York Journal shortly thereafter. Pulitzer pushed for the use of maps and illustrations in his papers, so that immigrants who were not fluent in English could understand the stories. Both Pulitzer and Hearst used bold headlines and layouts to attract reader attention. These practices became emblematic of the yellow journalism period, a term that also connotes sensationalism and even unscrupulous journalistic standards. Pulitzer and Hearst papers did call for social reforms and drew attention to the poor living conditions of poor immigrants in the cities; however, the papers also embellished stories, fabricated interviews, and staged promotional stunts in order to increase reader interest and boost circulation. In 1895, a conflict began that would go on to boost both papers’ fortunes. The island of Cuba had been a colony of Spain since the arrival of Columbus, and in 1895 an insurrection began against Spanish rule that would become known as the Cuban War of Independence. At the time Hearst and Pulitzer were engaged in a war of their own: a circulation war. Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers used the conflict to sell papers and boost circulation, deriding Spain in headlines and calling for U.S. intervention. In 1898 the U.S. ship the Maine was sent to Cuba and exploded and sank in Havana harbor, with hundreds of sailors killed. The World and the Journal ran headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine,” and the Spanish-American War is still remembered as a prime example of propaganda in the U.S. media swaying public opinion in favor of war, even when facts were misrepresented or embellished.

Benjamin Day’s New York Sun did not offer a subscription service, and instead relied solely on individual street sales to make a profit. To better distribute his papers, Day placed a wanted ad seeking workers to sell the newspapers on the street. Day expected adult workers to respond to the ad, but he found instead that children inquired about the job instead. The first vendor he hired was 10 year old Irish immigrant who would take bundles of papers onto a street corner and shout out the most arresting headlines to get reader interest. Soon this became a new and pervasive method of selling newspapers on city streets. These newspaper vendors or “hawkers” were also called newsboys or paperboys, although girls were often found in their ranks as is evident in many of the photographs taken of children news vendors at the time. These children worked long hours, often through late nights and early mornings, and even sleeping on front stoops or in the street, something also attested to by photographs of the period. Vendors would buy bundles of newspapers from the publishers, and they were not refunded for unsold papers. In 1899, in the wake of the boost in circulation numbers precipitated by the Spanish-American War coverage, many publishers raised the price of newsboy bundles from 50 cents to 60 cents. In response, in July 1899, newsboys refused to sell Pulitzer and Hearst papers. Newsboys demonstrated in the thousands and broke up newspaper distribution in the streets. One gathering blocked off the Brooklyn Bridge, disrupting traffic across the East river as well as interrupting news circulation throughout the entire region. Pulitzer tried to hire adults to vend his newspapers but they were sympathetic to the newsboys’ plight and refused to defy the strike. He did hire men to break up newsboy demonstrations and to protect newspaper deliveries. The newsboys asked the public to not buy any newspapers until the cost of bundles was lowered and the strike was resolved. Eventually the publishers relented: although the cost of bundles was not decreased, the publishers agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsboys. The strike ended in August 1899, two weeks after it had started.

The 1899 Newsboy Strike is a significant moment in the history of U.S. media, U.S. urban life, and U.S. labor relations. New York City was built by a great deal of immigrant labor, and many of these laborers were children. It is important to remember and acknowledge this important part of U.S. urban history. The 1899 strike was credited for inspiring similar newsboy strikes in Butte, Montana and Louisville, Kentucky. It is an important story in the history of labor law reform in the U.S., even though it is not as well-remembered as landmark events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. While the newsboy strike did not lead to the sort of immediate reforms that the Shirtwaist factory disaster did, it did impact the implementation of child labor laws in the city over the following decades. Furthermore this case illustrates the practices of distribution and circulation that newspapers relied on, as well as the political economy of the media and its relationship to national and global politics.

Moment Two: Muckraking Magazines and the Shame of the Cities

            The modern magazine has decidedly “urban” roots. The word “magazine” originally referred to a storehouse for munitions. The first use of the term to refer to a publication was in 1731 by “The Gentleman’s Magazine” published in London. The publisher of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” used the pen name Sylvanus Urban, and this is what I meant when I said that magazines had “urban” roots. As with newspapers, developments of the industrial revolution such as conveyor systems and printing processes allowed for less expensive manufacturing practices, and therefore magazines could be sold cheaper and reach a wider audience. Another significant development was the Postal Act of 1879, which reduced the postal rates of magazines to the same price as newspapers, making the cost of a magazine subscription affordable for more Americans. Additionally, more and more jobs and people were moving from rural areas to cities. As increasing numbers of immigrants came together in urban cores, national magazines helped facilitate the formation of national identities as opposed to local or regional identity. Relatedly, the increase in the number of dime stores, drug stores, and department stores created new venues for consumer items, and magazines offered new venues for advertising these items. Ladies’ Home Journal was known for running the latest consumer advertisements, and became the first magazine to reach a subscription base of one million customers, reflecting the growth of the female consumer base.

In addition to sustaining and reflecting the growing consumer economy in the country, magazines also played an important role in social reform movements. Jane Addams reportedly first read about the settlement house movement from a magazine article (possibly from an article in Century magazine). With her interest piqued by the article, Addams and a friend soon travelled to London to visit the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall. The settlement house movement advocated the establishment of “settlement houses” in poor areas where middle class volunteers would come and live, with the goal of alleviating conditions of poverty and creating solidarity among the social classes. Two years after visiting Toynbee Hall Addams opened the first U.S. settlement house, Hull House in Chicago. Addams also wrote articles about the settlement house movement for magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McClure’s. Another important role of magazines in social reform movements was related to photojournalism. Magazines had the ability to reproduce high quality photographs, giving them a visual edge against other media of the day. In the late 1880s an emigrant to the U.S. named Jacob Riis became shocked at the living conditions in the New York City slums and purchased a detective camera to document life in these areas. Riis exhibited his photographs as part of a public lecture presentation called “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York.” The lectures became popular and Riis wrote an article based on his lectures for Scribner’s Magazine. His project was eventually published as a book.

The aforementioned McClure’s magazine was a hotbed of reform-minded journalism at the turn of the 20th century. At the end of the 1800s the magazine had published exposes on the working conditions of miners and corporate practices of the Standard Oil Company. In 1901 journalist Lincoln Steffens published the first article in a series on corruption in U.S. cities. Steffens first went to St. Louis and reported on the machinations of the local political machine. Next he went to Minneapolis, and found the mayor and police chief colluding to take bribes for local houses of prostitution. Then he went to Pittsburgh (Pittsburg at the time), writing that “if the environment of Pittsburg is hell with the lid off, the political scene in the city is hell with the lid on.” The final entries in the series were based on visits to Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. The series was eventually published in book form in 1904, titled The Shame of the Cities. The articles made Steffens a national celebrity and inspired a trend of similar expose articles in magazines, including Cosmopolitan’s “The Treason of the Senate”. Steffen’s magazine articles became icons of the muckraker movement, so called by president Roosevelt because they climbed through society’s much to cover the stories. The muckraking journalists are an important part of U.S. media history, and the social reform movements are an important part of U.S. urban history.

Moment Three: Movie Palaces and a Tale of One City

            As with newspapers and magazines, the development of motion pictures was closely tied to technological and social developments occurring as part of the industrial revolution. Developments in celluloid film, electric lighting, and the mechanical gears to turn film reels all contributed to technological underpinnings of film as a mass media. In France the Lumiere brothers invented one of the earliest film cameras, and the first film they shot was of workers leaving their family factory in Lyon. In the U.S., Thomas Edison developed the kinetograph, and shortly thereafter established an association of film and technology producers called the Trust. The Trust was a consortium of U.S. and French producers who agreed to pool film technology patents. Edison had also made an arrangement with George Eastman to make the Trust the exclusive recipient of Eastman’s motion picture film stock. To escape the control of the Trust, independent film producers left the traditional motion picture centers of New York and New Jersey. They went west, eventually settling in Southern California which offered cheap labor, ample space, and a mild climate that allowed for year-round location shooting. Southern California became the center of the U.S. film industry, and Hollywood became a toponym for the U.S. studio system (and remains metonymic of that industry today). The Hollywood studio system was built on vertical integration, which meant ownership of every means of the movie production process. This included production (everything involved in making a movie), distribution (getting movies to theaters), and exhibition (the process of screening the movies). Edison’s Trust tried to get the edge on exhibition by controlling the flow of films to theaters. The Hollywood studios instead decided to buy theaters themselves. The Edison Trust was eventually ended due to trade violations, and the Hollywood studios controlled every part of movie production and circulation. Paramount studios alone owned more than 300 theaters. During this period of film exhibition, movie studies built single-screen movie palaces, often ornate architectural achievements that offered a more hospitable viewing environment. Some of the most ornate and expansive movie palaces were built in Chicago. The architectural firm of Balaban and Kurtz designed many of the most famous, including the landmark Chicago Theatre (originally called the Balaban & Kurtz Chicago Theater). Other Chicago theaters built by the firm included the Oriental, the Riviera, and the Uptown theaters. The Uptown theater was the largest movie palace built in the United States.

In 1906 of a group of Chicago officials, designers, and business interests met to discuss the various problems facing the city. The Columbia Exposition a few years earlier had been received as a great success, but now problems of overcrowding, congestion, and the growth of manufacturing in the city were causing concern. This group of stakeholders met over a period of 30 months, and in 1909 they finalized their agreed-upon plan. The Chicago Plan proposed sweeping improvements to the city including rehabilitating the waterfront, redirecting railroad traffic in the city, and redesigning streets to permit better flow in and out of the business district. The mayor signed off on the proposal and then ordered a massive public relations campaign to promote the plan. Informative lectures explaining the plan were held throughout the city, articles and editorials were published in the newspapers, and the proposals were even summarized into a textbook that was taught in city schools, and a generation of Chicago school children grew up learning the values of the Chicago Plan. Also produced as part of this campaign was a two reel film titled A Tale of One City. This film was screened in city movie theaters continuously as part of the vigorous PR effort. Communication scholar James Hay has written about the role of the film in promoting the Chicago Plan as a significant moment in the history of urban renewal projects. The role of the film’s exhibition in the promotional campaign demonstrates the significance of the networks of film distribution and exhibition in reaching a mass audience, but also how the architectural design and location of downtown theaters in the city center made movie theaters important sites for engaging the public and shaping the vision of future urban development.

The Paramount decision of 1948 ended vertical integration and required studios to give up their theaters. This ended the era of studio control, but opened up new venues for film screening such as art houses that exhibited foreign films and documentaries, as well as hundreds of drive-in movie theaters for the millions of filmgoers who now had automobiles. As Americans moved to the suburbs, the movies did, too, building new forms of theaters in multiplexes and then megaplexes. While industry expressions such as “blockbuster” harken back to the role of downtown theaters in film exhibition (the term refers to patrons lined up “around the block” to get into a movie theater), most of the movie palaces have been repurposed, disused, or destroyed. Methods of film distribution and exhibition have significantly changed, and the downtown theaters and movie palaces have been largely replaced by suburban multiplexes. The example of A Tale of One City shows, however, that for a time downtown movie theaters played an integral part in the public life of the city.

Moment Four: Radio Remotes and Mediated Urban Nightlife

            The groundwork of popular broadcast radio was being established during the late 1800s. Developments in telegraphy and the theoretical proof of electromagnetic waves were among the chief developments in this early history of the medium. The rise of the new medium of the airwaves was soon reflected in the built form of the U.S. metropolis, which was also turning increasingly skyward. By the 1920s and 30s radio broadcasters were transmitting from the Metropolitan Life building in Manhattan, and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings were designed and built with spires to serve as antennas for broadcasting radio transmissions.

In 1923 a nightclub called the Cotton Club opened in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The Cotton Club was a whites-only establishment, even though the club featured many of the premiere African American performers of the time. In 1927 Duke Ellington and his band the Washingtonians opened at the Cotton Club. Not long after, a Manhattan-based radio station began broadcasting Ellington’s performances live from the Cotton Club. Scholar Tim Wall has written about the Ellington remotes (the radio industry term for these live, on-location broadcasts) as occurring during a moment of transition for both radio and jazz. The technological, organizational, and cultural futures for the new medium were still being explored and negotiation. The broadcasting of jazz music was significant during this period as well. In 1929, radio network WABC began broadcasting the Ellington performances. WABC broadcast nationally, so now Ellington was being transmitted coast-to-coast. As Wall argues, the national broadcasting of jazz music represented the intrusion of urban life and culture into the country. In 1930 another radio network picked up the Ellington broadcasts, and now the performances were heard on the flagship stations of NBC’s Red and Blue networks. These broadcasts grew Ellington’s fame, and he recorded more than a hundred compositions during this period. The Ellington broadcasts represent a significant moment in the regulatory history of radio, but also the attempts of the young medium to establish a cultural role for its programming. The case of the Ellington Cotton Club remotes also represents how urban culture and performance, and especially African American culture, was being mediated through the shifting systems of national radio networks.

Moment Five: Sitcom Suburbs and the Urban Crisis

            Television truly became a mass medium in the years following World War II. Housing subsidies and entrepreneurial real estate developments privileged private suburban construction. Many Americans left urban centers to move to the suburbs, which had a lower tax base. Home ownership doubled between 1945 and 1950. As Americans left cities, and therefore also left the downtown movie theaters, music halls, and other urban venues of recreation and entertainment, radio became a cheap alternative to the movies. The years 1948 and 1949 saw peak radio listenership. After that, television replaced radio as the dominant medium in the home.

In addition to the role of housing policies and subsidies in spurring suburban development, there were also many discriminatory housing policies designed to keep U.S. minorities from moving into suburban communities. This practice has been referred to as American apartheid, and is one of the driving factors of the “urban crisis” that developed in U.S. urban life and discourse during this period. The scholar Dolores Hayden has used the phrase “sitcom suburbs” to refer to the homogenous developments that were also depicted in many of the nationally popular sitcoms during this period. One early flare up of these tensions happened in the Los Angeles area. In 1965, California voters passed a proposition that effectively repealed a fair housing act designed to alleviate discriminatory policies that prevented black and Mexican Americans from buying and renting in certain areas. Shortly thereafter, riots began in the Watts district and lasted for 5 days. More riots occurred in U.S. cities in 1967, and again in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In each of these cases, the U.S. news media broadcast TV images that have become iconic of these riots and the overall “urban crisis” that came to dominate discourses on U.S. cities for decades.

Following the riots President Johnson appointed a special commission to investigate the causes of the unrest, and suggest how to prevent further unrest. The Kerner Commission detailed several factors that contributed to the urban riots, including explicit and implicit racism and housing discrimination. The commission also called attention to the news media for coverage that misrepresented facts of life in these cities and contributed to a deepening of divisions between white and black Americans. The Kerner Commission’s concerns were echoed by media theorist George Gerbner in his cultivation theory of television, which posits that increased exposure to violent TV programming cultivates a worldview in the viewer in which they perceive reality to be more dangerous than it really is. This period of urban fear and flight, the move to fortified homes and gated communities, has analogous developments in media coverage and development up to today.

Moment Six: Oppa Gangnam Style

            Our history so far has taken us from 1899 to 1968. In this last section, let us catch up on some of the developments that occurred in the last 60 years or so. Developments in microprocessor technology led to a computer revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, home computers became more popular and were predicted to revolutionize daily life. Developments in graphical user interfaces allowed everyday, non-technical users to approach computers. In the late 1960s the U.S. defense department began researching a redundant communication system that could remain intact following a nuclear attack. The project. ARPAnet, eventually developed into the Internet. Web browsers and HTML, such as Tim Berners-Lee’s “worldwideweb” launched in 1990, have enabled the Internet to become a mass medium. The computer revolution has also lead to unprecedented technological convergence. Computers connected to the internet have access to the full array of media content. Developments in smartphone technology have changed what was once merely a phone in a mobile device and site of media convergence, and increasingly the favorite device for media consumption and production.

On December 21, 2012, a milestone was reached. The music video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became the first video on YouTube to receive one billion views. The case of Gangnam Style can tell us a lot about the state of mass media industries, as well as the state of cities, in our present moment. Psy is a K-Pop musical act, which stands for “Korean Pop,” a genre originating in South Korea. His global popularity points to the importance of transnational media flows in the contemporary media environment. For instance, the increasing importance of the Chinese box office market for the Hollywood studio system. Also, the fact that his popularity spread globally via the Internet indicates the significance of media convergence, as well as how digital platforms for media circulation have upset the traditional forms of media dissemination, as well as changed our metrics for gauging media success (i.e. YouTube views versus box office, Nielsen ratings, or circulation numbers, etc.).

Gangnam Style also tells us a lot about cities in the early 21st century. The title of Psy’s song refers to the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea. The Gangnam district is known for its affluence, and is a hip and trendy neighborhood. This association, and the apparently mocking portrayal of lavish lifestyles in the music video, have led some commentators to interpret the song as a satirical and subversive critique of conspicuous consumption. It should be noted that Psy’s own comments about the meaning of the song do not support these interpretations. Regardless, the Gangnam Style example can help illustrate the valorization of cities that has been a trend of post-industrial economics and post-modern cultural practices. In the 1970s New York City went through a fiscal crisis. City services were sparse, the city government almost went broke, and crime and visible disorder in the city reached peak levels. As part of the city’s recovery and repositioning, the I <3 (love) NY branding campaign appeared. This campaign has remained hugely popular, and is representative of a postmodern consumption of the symbolic capital of cities. Another salient example would be the tote bags sold by American Apparel that just list names of global cities (Madrid, Tokyo, London, etc.). These cultural products, and the Gangnam Style song, are indicative of a revanchist return of capital to city centers. These examples, and indeed neighborhoods such as Seoul’s Gangnam, also point to the role of gentrification as a global urban strategy for development. In this way, Gangnam Style can serve as a vehicle for addressing some of the most pressing issues facing urban citizens today.

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:

Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Digital Rhetoric: Two views of Remediation

In Remediation: Understanding New Media (1999), Bolter and Grusin present a genealogy of media forms as it relates to current North American media phenomena built around three key terms: immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation. The authors use the term “remediation” to refer to “the representation of one medium in another” (p. 45). They are primarily interested in the representation of older media within digital media. Remediation, then, is the central concept, but the authors state that it “always operates under the current cultural assumptions about immediacy and hypermediacy.

            Bolter and Grusin conceptualize hypermediacy as a multiplication or intensification of mediation. The term itself may seem to represent the opposite of immediacy, and the authors make this connection clear: “At the end of the twentieth century we are in a position to understand hypermediacy as immediacy’s opposite number, an alter ego that has never been suppressed fully or for long periods of time” (p. 34). This binary or polar relationship between the two functions so that the absence of one is always implied in the presence of the opposite. “In every manifestation, hypermediacy makes us aware of the medium or media and (in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways) reminds us of our desire for immediacy” (p. 34).

            Immediacy, as the authors use the term, describes “a family of beliefs and practices,” and “the common feature of all these forms is the belief in some necessary contact point between the medium and what it represents” (p. 30). They refer to “the logic of transparent immediacy” to characterize how artists and designers have attempted to create immersive or immanent experiences that provide a sense of immediacy, or non-mediated experience. Computer interfaces become a key concept for the authors when considering immediacy in digital media. “What designers often say they want is an ‘interfaceless’ interface, in which there will be no recognizable electronic tools” (p. 23). This inclination toward invisible interfacing is associated with the essential logic of digital media. “The transparent interface is one more manifestation of the need to deny the mediated character of technology altogether. To believe that with digital technology we have passed beyond mediation is also to assert the uniqueness of our present technological moment” (p. 24).

            Ben McCorkle (Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse) refers not to computer graphics when addressing the transparent interface, but to printed books, writing of the “illusory interface of print as a transparent window into the mind of the author”(p. 149). McCorkle is concerned with communication media and technology as each relates to the practice of rhetoric, and especially the practice’s origins as spoken communication. The rhetorical canon of delivery is being redefined, McCorkle argues, and equated with a medium. McCorkle states that “redefining delivery works based on the logic of immediacy” (p. 153): “Delivery and medium become coequal terms not under the reign of print with its blank aesthetic but with the arrival of electronic and digital writing technologies that are perceived to be more flexible, alterable, and performative than print” (p. 154).

            McCorkle sees the historical transformations of rhetoric as contributing to the process of remediation. Changes in modes of communication brought about by new technological forms and paradigms result in associated changes in how rhetoric is conceptualized and practiced. Digital media, therefore, affect contemporary rhetorical practice. “In the era of digital writing, rhetoric has disembodied the canon of delivery, placing it atop nonverbal texts and, in effect, transforming those texts into surrogates of the performing body” (p. 160). As media forms and technology remediate spoken communication and rhetorical practice, rhetoric in turn remediates media forms and technology, recalling Bolter and Grusin’s seemingly tautological formulation of “remediation as the mediation of mediation” (p. 56).

Memes, Enthymemes, and the Reproduction of Ideology

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the word “meme” to refer to a hypothetical unit of cultural transmission. The discussion of the meme concept was contained in a single chapter of a book that was otherwise dedicated to genetic transmission, but the idea spread. Over decades, other authors further developed the meme concept, establishing “memetics” as a field of study. Today, the word “meme” has entered the popular lexicon, as well as popular culture, and is primarily associated with specific internet artifacts, or “viral” online content. Although this popular usage of the term is not always in keeping with Dawkins’ original conception, these examples from internet culture do illustrate some key features of how memes have been theorized.

This essay is principally concerned with two strands of memetic theory: the relation of memetic transmission to the reproduction of ideology; and the role of memes in rhetorical analysis, especially in relation to the enthymeme as persuasive appeal. Drawing on these theories, I will advance two related arguments: ideology as manifested in discursive acts can be considered to spread memetically; and ideology functions enthymemetically. Lastly, I will present a case study analysis to demonstrate how the use of methods and terminology from rhetorical criticism, discourse analysis, and media studies, can be employed to analyze artifacts based on these arguments.

Examples of memes presented by Dawkins include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches” (p.192). The name “meme” was chosen due to its similarity to the word “gene”, as well as its relation to the Greek root “mimeme” meaning “that which is imitated” (p.192). Imitation is key to Dawkins’ notion of the meme because imitation is the means by which memes propagate themselves amongst members of a culture. Dawkins identifies three qualities associated with high survival in memes: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity (p.194).

Distin (2005) further developed the meme hypothesis in The Selfish Meme. Furthering the gene/meme analogy, Distin defines memes as “units of cultural information” characterized by the representational content they carry (p.20), and the representational content is considered “the cultural equivalent of DNA” (p.37). This conceptualization of memes and their content forms the basis of Distin’s theory of cultural heredity. Distin then seeks to identify the representational system used by memes to carry their content (p.142). The first representational system considered is language, what Distin calls “the memes-as-words hypothesis” (p.145). Distin concludes that language itself is “too narrow to play the role of cultural DNA” (p.147).

Balkin (1998) took up the meme concept to develop a theory of ideology as “cultural software”. Balkin describes memes as “tools of understanding,” and states that there are “as many different kinds of memes as there are things that can be transmitted culturally” (p.48). Stating that the “standard view of memes as beliefs is remarkably similar to the standard view of ideology as a collection of beliefs” (p.49), Balkin links the theories of memetic transmission to theories of ideology. Employing metaphors of virility similar to how other authors have written of memes as “mind viruses,” Balkin considers memetic transmission as the spread of “ideological viruses” through social networks of communication, stating that “this model of ideological effects is the model of memetic evolution through cultural communication” (p.109). Balkin also presents a more favorable view of language as a vehicle for memes than Distin presented, writing: “Language is the most effective carrier of memes and is itself one of the most widespread forms of cultural software. Hence it is not surprising that many ideological mechanisms either have their source in features of language or are propagated through language” (p.175).

Balkin approaches the subject from a background in law, and although not a rhetorician and skeptical of the discursive turn in theories of ideology, Balkin does employ rhetorical concepts in discussing the influence of memes and ideology: “Rhetoric has power because understanding through rhetorical figures already forms part of our cultural software” (p.19). Balkin also cites Aristotle, remarking that “the successful rhetorician builds upon what the rhetorician and the audience have in common,” and “what the two have in common are shared cultural meanings and symbols” (p.209). In another passage, Balkin expresses a similar notion of the role of shared understanding in communication: “Much human communication requires the parties to infer and supplement what is being conveyed rather than simply uncoding it” (p.51).

Although Balkin never uses the term, these ideas are evocative of the rhetorical concept of the enthymeme. Aristotle himself discussed the enthymeme, though the concept was not elucidated with much specificity. Rhetorical scholars have since debated the nature of the enthymeme as employed in persuasion, and Bitzer (1959) surveyed various accounts to produce a more substantial definition. Bitzer’s analysis comes to focus on the enthymeme in relation to syllogisms, and the notion of the enthymeme as a syllogism with a missing (or unstated) proposition. Bitzer states: “To say that the enthymeme is an ‘incomplete syllogism’ – that is, a syllogism having one or more suppressed premises – means that the speaker does not lay down his premises but lets his audience supply them out of its stock of opinion and knowledge” (p.407).

Bitzer’s formulation of the enthymeme emphasizes that “enthymemes occur only when the speaker and audience jointly produce them” (p.408). That they are “jointly produced” is key to the role of the enthymeme is successful persuasive rhetoric: “Owing to the skill of the speaker, the audience itself helps construct the proofs by which it is persuaded” (p.408). That the enthymeme’s “premises are always drawn from the audience,” and the “successful construction is accomplished through the joint efforts of speaker and audience,” Bitzer defines as the “essential character” of the enthymeme. This joint construction, and supplying of the missing premise(s), resonates with Balkin’s view of the spread of cultural software, as well as various theories of subjects’ complicity in the functioning of ideology.

McGee (1980) supplied another link between rhetoric and ideology with the “ideograph”. McGee argued that “ideology is a political language composed of slogan-like terms signifying collective commitment” (p.15), and these terms he calls “ideographs”. Examples of ideographs, according to McGee, include “liberty,” “religion,” and “property” (p.16). Johnson (2007) applies the ideograph concept to memetics, to argue for the usefulness of the meme as a tool for materialist criticism. Johnson argues that although “the ideograph has been honed as a tool for political (“P”-politics) discourses, such as those that populate legislative arenas, the meme can better assess ‘superficial’ cultural discourses” (p.29). I also believe that the meme concept can be a productive tool for ideological critique. As an example, I will apply the concepts of ideology reproduction as memetic transmission, and ideological function as enthymematic, in an analysis of artifacts of online culture popularly referred to as “memes”.

As Internet culture evolved, users adapted and mutated the term “meme” to refer to specific online artifacts. Even though they may be considered a type of online artifact, Internet memes come in a variety of different forms. One of the oldest and most prominent series of image macro memes is the “LOLcats” series of memes. The template established by LOLcats of superimposing humorous text over static images became and remains the standard format for image macro memes. Two of the most prominent series of these types of memes are the “First World Problems” (FWP) and “Third World Success” image macros. Through analysis of these memes, it is possible to examine how the features of these artifacts and discursive practices demonstrate many of the traits of memes developed by theorists, and how theories of memetic ideological transmission and enthymematic ideological function can be applied to examine ideological characteristics of these artifacts.

 

References

Balkin, J.M. (1998). Cultural software: A theory of ideology. Dansbury, CT: Yale

University Press.

Bitzer, L. F. (1959). Aristotle’s enthymeme revisited. Quarterly Journal Of Speech,

45(4), 399-408.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (original

work published 1976)

Distin, K. (2005). The selfish meme: A critical reassessment. New York, NY: Cambridge

University Press.

McGee, M. C. (1980). The “ideograph”: A link between rhetoric and ideology. Quarterly

Journal Of Speech66(1), 1-16.

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.

Your brain on Kindle; 21st Century media literacy; how Disney shapes youth identity

Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards "non-linear" reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page.

Using the technology approach, the iPhone is the “school” and anyone who uses it adeptly is the master and anyone over 30 is, well, handicapped at best.   New technologies enable this approach because now, hardware and software are available and production has been democratized — everyone is a producer, a collaborator, a distributor and a participant.  While experiential and project-based learning is truly exciting and an important component of media literacy, it is not synonymous because the outcome of the technology approach is often limited to technical proficiency without critical autonomy. Whether using an iPad, a pencil or a videocam, pressing the right buttons is important but not enough!

The information, entertainment and cultural pedagogy disseminated by massive multimedia corporations have become central in shaping and influencing every waking moment of children's daily lives - all toward a lifetime of constant, unthinking consumption. Consumer culture in the United States and increasingly across the globe, does more than undermine the ideals of a secure and happy childhood: it exhibits the bad faith of a society in which, for children, "there can be only one kind of value, market value; one kind of success, profit; one kind of existence, commodities; and one kind of social relationship, markets."

TV still sucks, we should still complain about hipsters, your job shouldn't exist

None of this could be happening at a worse time. According to the latest S.O.S. from climate science, we have maybe 15 years to enact a radical civilizational shift before game over. This may be generous, it may be alarmist; no one knows. What is certain is that pulling off a civilizational Houdini trick will require not just switching energy tracks, but somehow confronting the “endless growth” paradigm of the Industrial Revolution that continues to be shared by everyone from Charles Koch to Paul Krugman. We face very long odds in just getting our heads fully around our situation, let alone organizing around it. But it will be impossible if we no longer even understand the dangers of chuckling along to Kia commercials while flipping between Maher, “Merlin” and “Girls.”

  • Zaitchik's article name checks pertinent critics and theorists including Adorno's "cultural industry," Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and even Jerry Mander's "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television." Where this article was discussed on sites like Reddit or Metafilter commenters seemed angry at Zaitchik, overly defensive as if they felt under attack for watching "Hannibal" and "Game of Thrones". I thoroughly enjoyed Zaitchik's piece, even if it doesn't present a fully developed argument, because the perspective he presents strongly resonates with many of the philosophical foundations that have shaped my own views on media, particularly the media ecology tradition. A large part of Zaitchik's argument is that even if television content is the highest quality it has ever been, the form of television and its effects are the same as ever:

Staring at images on a little screen — that are edited in ways that weaken the brain’s capacity for sustained and critical thought, that encourage passivity and continued viewing, that are controlled by a handful of publicly traded corporations, that have baked into them lots of extremely slick and manipulating advertising — is not the most productive or pleasurable way to spend your time, whether you’re interested in serious social change, or just want to have a calm, clear and rewarding relationship with the real world around you.

But wait, you say, you’re not just being a killjoy and a bore, you’re living in the past. Television in 2014 is not the same as television in 1984, or 1994. That’s true. Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” set out during cable’s late dawn in “Manufacturing Consent,” is due for an update. The rise of on-demand viewing and token progressive programming has complicated the picture. But only by a little. The old arguments were about structure, advertising, structure, ownership, and structure, more than they were about programming content, or what time of the day you watched it. Less has changed than remains the same. By all means, let’s revisit the old arguments. That is, if everyone isn’t busy binge-watching “House of Cards.”

It’s been something to watch, this televisionification of the left. Open a window on social media during prime time, and you’ll find young journalists talking about TV under Twitter avatars of themselves in MSNBC makeup. Fifteen years ago, these people might have attended media reform congresses discussing how corporate TV pacifies and controls people, and how those facts flow from the nature of the medium. Today, they’re more likely to status-update themselves on their favorite corporate cable channel, as if this were something to brag about.

The entertainment demands of the 21st Century seem (apparently) bottomless. We’ve outsourced much of our serotonin production to the corporations which control music, sports, television, games, movies, and books. And they’ve grown increasingly desperate to produce the most universally acceptable, exportable, franchisable, exciting, boring, money-making pablum possible. Of course that is not new either… yet it continues to worsen.

Various alternative cultures have been attempting to fight it for decades. The beats, hippies, punks, and grunge kids all tried… and eventually lost. But the hipsters have avoided it altogether by never producing anything of substance except a lifestyle based upon fetishizing obscurity and cultivating tasteful disdain. A noncommital and safe appreciation of ironic art and dead artists. No ideals, no demands, no struggle.

Rarely has the modern alternative to pop culture been so self-conscious and crippled. The mainstream has repeatedly beaten down and destroyed a half-century’s worth of attempts to keep art on a worthwhile and genuine path, but now it seems the final scion of those indie movements has adopted the: ‘if you can’t beat‘em, join‘em’ compromise of creative death.

  • In an interview for PBS, London School of Economics professor David Graeber poses the question: should your job exist?

How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist? But, of course, you’re not going to tell your boss that. So I thought, you know, there must be enormous moral and spiritual damage done to our society. And then I thought, well, maybe that explains some other things, like why is it there’s this deep, popular resentment against people who have real jobs? They can get people so angry at auto-workers, just because they make 30 bucks an hour, which is like nowhere near what corporate lawyers make, but nobody seems to resent them. They get angry at the auto-workers; they get angry at teachers. They don’t get angry at school administrators, who actually make more money. Most of the problems people blame on teachers, and I think on some level, that’s resentment: all these people with meaningless jobs are saying, but, you guys get to teach kids, you get to make cars; that’s real work. We don’t get to do real work; you want benefits, too? That’s not reasonable.

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

Ender's Game analyzed, the Stanley Parable explored, Political Economy of zombies, semiotics of Twitter, much more

It's been a long time since the last update (what happened to October?), so this post is extra long in an attempt to catch up.

In a world in which interplanetary conflicts play out on screens, the government needs commanders who will never shrug off their campaigns as merely “virtual.” These same commanders must feel the stakes of their simulated battles to be as high as actual warfare (because, of course, they are). Card’s book makes the nostalgic claim that children are useful because they are innocent. Hood’s movie leaves nostalgia by the roadside, making the more complex assertion that they are useful because of their unique socialization to be intimately involved with, rather than detached from, simulations.

  • In the ongoing discourse about games criticism and its relation to film reviews, Bob Chipman's latest Big Picture post uses his own review of the Ender's Game film as an entry point for a breathless treatise on criticism. The video presents a concise and nuanced overview of arts criticism, from the classical era through film reviews as consumer reports up to the very much in-flux conceptions of games criticism.  Personally I find this video sub-genre (where spoken content is crammed into a Tommy gun barrage of word bullets so that the narrator can convey a lot of information in a short running time) irritating and mostly worthless, since the verbal information is being presented faster than the listener can really process it. It reminds me of Film Crit Hulk, someone who writes excellent essays with obvious insight into filmmaking, but whose aesthetic choice (or "gimmick") to write in all caps is often a distraction from the content and a deterrent to readers. Film Crit Hulk has of course addressed this issue and explained the rationale for this choice, but considering that his more recent articles have dropped the third-person "Hulk speak"  writing style the all caps seems to be played out. Nevertheless, I'm sharing the video because Mr. Chipman makes a lot of interesting points, particularly regarding the cultural contexts for the various forms of criticism. Just remember to breathe deeply and monitor your heart rate while watching.

  • This video from Satchbag's Goods is ostensibly a review ofHotline Miami, but develops into a discussion of art movements and Kanye West:

  • This short interview with Slavoj Žižek in New York magazine continues a trend I've noticed since Pervert's Guide to Ideology has been releasing, wherein writers interviewing Žižek feel compelled to include themselves and their reactions to/interactions with Žižek into their article. Something about a Žižek encounter brings out the gonzo in journalists. The NY mag piece is also notable for this succinct positioning of Žižek's contribution to critical theory:

Žižek, after all, the ­Yugoslav-born, Ljubljana-based academic and Hegelian; mascot of the Occupy movement, critic of the Occupy movement; and former Slovenian presidential candidate, whose most infamous contribution to intellectual history remains his redefinition of ideology from a Marxist false consciousness to a Freudian-Lacanian projection of the unconscious. Translation: To Žižek, all politics—from communist to social-democratic—are formed not by deliberate principles of freedom, or equality, but by expressions of repressed desires—shame, guilt, sexual insecurity. We’re convinced we’re drawing conclusions from an interpretable world when we’re actually just suffering involuntary psychic fantasies.

Following the development of the environment on the team's blog you can see some of the gaps between what data was deemed noteworthy or worth recording in the seventeenth century and the level of detail we now expect in maps and other infographics. For example, the team struggled to pinpoint the exact location on Pudding Lane of the bakery where the Great Fire of London is thought to have originated and so just ended up placing it halfway along.

  • Stephen Totilo reviewed the new pirate-themed Assassin's Creed game for the New York Times. I haven't played the game, but I love that the sections of the game set in the present day have shifted from the standard global conspiracy tropes seen in the earlier installments to postmodern self-referential and meta-fictional framing:

Curiously, a new character is emerging in the series: Ubisoft itself, presented mostly in the form of self-parody in the guise of a fictional video game company, Abstergo Entertainment. We can play small sections as a developer in Abstergo’s Montreal headquarters. Our job is to help turn Kenway’s life — mined through DNA-sniffing gadgetry — into a mass-market video game adventure. We can also read management’s emails. The team debates whether games of this type could sell well if they focused more on peaceful, uplifting moments of humanity. Conflict is needed, someone argues. Violence sells.

It turns out that Abstergo is also a front for the villainous Templars, who search for history’s secrets when not creating entertainment to numb the population. In these sections, Ubisoft almost too cheekily aligns itself with the bad guys and justifies its inevitable 2015 Assassin’s Creed, set during yet another violent moment in world history.

  • Speaking of postmodern, self-referential, meta-fictional video games: The Stanley Parable was released late last month. There has already been a bevy of analysis written about the game, but I am waiting for the Mac release to play the game and doing my best to avoid spoilers in the meantime. Brenna Hillier's post at VG24/7 is spoiler free (assuming you are at least familiar with the games premise, or its original incarnation as a Half Life mod), and calls The Stanley parable "a reaction against, commentary upon, critique and celebration of narrative-driven game design":

The Stanley Parable wants you to think about it. The Stanley Parable, despite its very limited inputs (you can’t even jump, and very few objects are interactive) looks at those parts of first-person gaming that are least easy to design for – exploration and messing with the game’s engine – and foregrounds them. It takes the very limitations of traditional gaming narratives and uses them to ruthlessly expose their own flaws.

Roy’s research focus prior to founding Bluefin, and continued interest while running the company, has to do with how both artificial and human intelligences learn language. In studying this process, he determined that the most important factor in meaning making was the interaction between human beings: non one learns language in a vacuum, after all. That lesson helped inform his work at Twitter, which started with mapping the connection between social network activity and live broadcast television.

Aspiring to cinematic qualities is not bad in an of itself, nor do I mean to shame fellow game writers, but developers and their attendant press tend to be myopic in their point of view, both figuratively and literally. If we continually view videogames through a monocular lens, we miss much of their potential. And moreover, we begin to use ‘cinematic’ reflexively without taking the time to explain what the hell that word means.

Metaphor is a powerful tool. Thinking videogames through other media can reframe our expectations of what games can do, challenge our design habits, and reconfigure our critical vocabularies. To crib a quote from Andy Warhol, we get ‘a new idea, a new look, a new sex, a new pair of underwear.’ And as I hinted before, it turns out that fashion and videogames have some uncanny similarities.

Zombies started their life in the Hollywood of the 1930s and ‘40s as simplistic stand-ins for racist xenophobia. Post-millennial zombies have been hot-rodded by Danny Boyle and made into a subversive form of utopia. That grim utopianism was globalized by Max Brooks, and now Brad Pitt and his partners are working to transform it into a global franchise. But if zombies are to stay relevant, it will rely on the shambling monsters' ability to stay subversive – and real subversive shocks and terror are not dystopian. They are utopian.

Ironically, our bodies now must make physical contact with devices dictating access to the real; Apple’s Touch ID sensor can discern for the most part if we are actually alive. This way, we don’t end up trying to find our stolen fingers on the black market, or prevent others from 3D scanning them to gain access to our lives.

This is a monumental shift from when Apple released its first iPhone just six years ago. It’s a touchy subject: fingerprinting authentication means we confer our trust in an inanimate object to manage our animate selves - our biology is verified, digitised, encrypted, as they are handed over to our devices.

Can you really buy heroin on the Web as easily as you might purchase the latest best-seller from Amazon? Not exactly, but as the FBI explained in its complaint, it wasn't exactly rocket science, thanks to Tor and some bitcoins. Here's a rundown of how Silk Road worked before the feds swooped in.

  • Henry Jenkins posted the transcript of an interview with Mark J.P. Wolf. The theme of the discussion is "imaginary worlds," and they touch upon the narratology vs. ludology conflict in gaming:

The interactivity vs. storytelling debate is really a question of the author saying either “You choose” (interaction) or “I choose” (storytelling) regarding the events experienced; it can be all of one or all of the other, or some of each to varying degrees; and even when the author says “You choose”, you are still choosing from a set of options chosen by the author.  So it’s not just a question of how many choices you make, but how many options there are per choice.  Immersion, however, is a different issue, I think, which does not always rely on choice (such as immersive novels), unless you want to count “Continue reading” and “Stop reading” as two options you are constantly asked to choose between.

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.

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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