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Telvision Is Not The Message

Originally posted a little while ago, but I am not totally sure when.

“To be on TV is to become very quickly a cool kid. Friends call to say they’ve seen you. People recognize you in stores.”

“a roomful of journalists covering a New Hampshire primary debate between [Gore] and Bill Bradley on closed-circuit TV booed and hissed the vice president ‘like a gang of fifteen-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd.’”

“the mass-media cult of celebrity has unmistakeably pagan and Dionysian aspects that make it more volatile and unpredictable than political raisonneurs can easily imagine. It elevates its temporary wise men and warrior kings alike for the sheer cthonic joy of tearing them down.”

From “The Media Is The Message,” Harper’s, 10/03

“McLuhan’s unique contribution was the argument that in each of these communications epochs, different media act as extensions of the human senses with consequences for both cognition and social organization. For example, “oral societies” live primarily in an “ear culture,” while writing, and to a greater extent print, makes the sense of sight dominant. Following McLuhan’s sensory classification, the electronic revolution returns us to the world of primitive orality, to village-like encounters, but now on a global scale: hence, “the global village.”"  From Parchment, Printing, Hypermedia, by Deibert (reference is to Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village (New York: Bantam Books, 1968))

I met Mack Elder because he was the only kid at the Young Writers’ Workshop who recognized an allusion I made to the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” animation that circled the Web in 2001. I was trying to find kids to help me build the workshop’s website. I wanted to appeal to the kids who were well hooked-in to the web, almost as much out of my sense of subcultural tribalism as a need for technical skills. When I made the reference, I knew that kids fitting my own obscure personal definition of cool would respond. I hadn’t figured on there being only one kid at the workshop who’d get it.

Those of us who spend a lot of time on the web forget, I think, how non-universal our pop cultural references are. One of the more vertiginous experiences for me this past year was to have Mack suddenly firing quotes at me from my own website in the midst of his usual stream of references to the Simpsons, Monty Python, Star Wars, Star Trek, Red Dwarf, Iron Chef, They Might Be Giants, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Talking Heads, Wesley Willis, Cowboy Bebop, Bloom County, Army of Darkness, Blade Runner, Homestar Runner, Penny Arcade, Diesel Sweeties, Megatokyo, Oolong the Rabbit, the Kikkoman fansite flash anime, Yatta! and any number of “classic” movies and shows which I have failed to assimilate, as a refugee from mainstream media. The kid was giving quotes from my Quote Wall the same weight as he would the line “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” The Quote Wall consists of inside jokes made by my friends, which aren’t necessarily even presented in context, so what meaning he can have given them escapes me. When he whines “Miss Hoover? I glued my head to my shoulder,” his meaning is a bit more clear.

(Mack, I know you’re reading this, and I hope you won’t think I’m mad or offended. Just please, honey sweetie tootsie sugar lumpkin, don’t do that anymore. I love you, but I’m just another kid posting her journal online, not a cultural touchstone.)

I think for the moment Mack and I and others of our generation can be forgiven. Most of us were born at a time when there were only three major television networks, with Neilsen ratings that probably hovered over 25% apiece on a given night. For the moment we can be excused for reflexively presuming that the people around us are at least aware of the media we consume, if they didn’t actually watch Cheers themselves last night. We forward articles and share links, also, so even as references begin to fragment, we are fostering communities of shared references.

But postmodern theory says we are destined to lose our shared reference points, if I understand it correctly. And so (painful segue) I’m waiting for media criticism to catch up. The three Harper’s quotes are from an article which decries political journalists for being caught up in the cult of celebrity. The middle one I chose mostly because I thought it was cool that John Hughes’s Heathers warranted a reference without explanation, and because I love seeing important people as the insecure teenagers that they are.

The other two gave me pause. Of course I agree with the author — and the various writers, such as James Fallows, who have said this before, and whom he cites — that it’s ruinous to have the press, the “Fourth Estate” on which citizens ostensibly rely to make informed decisions about governing themselves, subsumed by entertainment outlets and universally aligned with the upper class.

But the author’s assertions rest on a model of celebrity which could well be eroding. Sure, media monopoly is making it unlikely that mass media will completely disappear. But the Internet is creating its own mini-cults of celebrity, as among the bloggers (Kottke, Megnut, Zeldman, et al) and various artists (the creators of Homestar Runner, Diesel Sweeties, etc). These celebrities could be geographically known as widely as J-Lo, unlike, for example, garage bands pre-internet, which might have had large followings but would likely have found them constrained to a small region.

(This is where I think Mack went wrong. I have no such delusions about my celebrity. I don’t think anyone much is reading the DSWJ aside from my mom, a few high school friends, and a loving and devoted audience of once and future boyfriends. *throws them roses* I luvva juus boyce!)

The Net is also amplifiying stars from other media ignored by the American media juggernaut; would anyone deny that Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar for Spirited Away depended on the propagation of anime by Net-crawling geeks? And it’s fostering networks of mutual respect and linkage among pundits of various stripes (check to see who Tom Tomorrow has linked to in the past week for an example), who, along with Matt Drudge types, may well undermine the top-heavy star journalist system the author of the Harper’s article describes as people seek relevant news and fail to find it in their well-manicured hands.

I find myself wondering daily how things will change when kids who have had access to the Internet from a very early age grow up. Will they turn off the TV entirely, finding it not interactive enough? Will there be so many entertainment options available that their senses of what is attractive, who is famous, what is important, will balkanize to the point where they are no longer monolithic enough to have any sway? And what will happen to political opinion then?

(no, I’m not hopeful, either. but the world needs its science fiction writers, right? just call me mr. bradbury.)

The media critique I’ve been raised on — the one that finds the objectification of women in beer ads, early addiction of kids to advertising through Sesame Street — is a mass media critique. I’m only now thinking about the ways in which it’s an inadequate rubric for interpreting what is going to happen to us in this next generation.

I may be too early on in my studies to judge, but I’m getting a sense that the older generation isn’t distinguishing between the TV/radio era and the age of the Net. Deibert (in Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia) lumps all three of them together under “hypermedia,” which focuses on the commonality of their ability to bridge time and space but doesn’t address their differences in directionality (one-to-many versus many-to-many AND one-to-many AND one-to-one).

(I have some quotes from the book Data Smog to back this observation up, too; I’ve been having a hard time organizing my online time with my home connection still down, but I will try to work those in too. Of course, Data Smog is kind of hysterical and more general than academic, but it’s worth mentioning.)

His citation of McLuhan above further demonstrates this generalization. TV and radio are a return to a primitive orality, sure, but it is worth noting how the Internet has revitalized print. Teenagers who would otherwise be using the telephone talk to their friends via IM, and they make up a huge segment of the blogging community. Primitive, yes — OMG, u bett %-P — but orality, no. It remains to be seen whether video web content will eventually start to edge out print, and I think it is worth investigating whether some people only make use of websites with no print, but the Net belongs to those who can read and write.

Maybe I need to pay more attention to what my former Indymedia peers are writing; maybe they already know this failing in the older critique of media and are filling in the blanks with new lessons learned on the Net. But then, I think I left Indymedia because they aren’t breaking free of the old critique in a number of ways. They are (as I understood it) trying to provide a forum for everyone to develop their own news speaking truth to power, in response to the dictatorial nature of mass media.

But the Net and the availability of consumer video and audio production tools are already doing that. (Well, ok; the Net has only really overtaken Indymedia in the publishing capacities it offers in Indymedia’s lifetime, seeing as blogging software wasn’t widely available when it began.)

IMCers are pooling resources to do grassroots political media, which is something that a lot of small production companies, local radio stations, and nonprofits were already doing; they’re now more or less competitors for a dwindling pool of resources. (I mean in the States. I can’t really comment on what goes on internationally, because I never saw it firsthand.) And I was never impressed with their ability to put social structures in place which might have compensated for the fact that technology on its own doesn’t create change. As I’ve said before, it was a lot of overwork, a lot of voluntocracy, and a lot of crypto-trustafarianism.

Realizing this gap between reality and the old media critique has implications for what I think I want to study. I’ve been sort of insistent on learning how to use mass media against itself. I like Michael Moore and Adbusters. I don’t even own up to all the evil things I really want to do, for fear my lefty friends will never speak to me again: until recently I wanted to use the kind of research on cognition and psychology that make Sesame Street and advertising successful to… what, pass along critical thinking skills and a willingness to question the authoritativeness of mass media? Now I’m not totally sure those will be useful things to do anymore, in part because I’m unsure about the future of mass media, and of course because it’s shady — and probably ineffective — to force people to theoretically unquestioningly accept a dictate that they should question things.

I don’t think the shift in media has any effect on my desire to work on media literacy, though, aside from expanding its meaning to perhaps thinking critically about government propaganda, social subjectivism, capitalism, institutions, etc.

Anyway. I hope this semester will demonstrate to me ways in which the old media critique holds, but not ignore the ways in which it doesn’t suffice.

* * *

My History of Communication class is the first one I’ve ever been in which genuinely makes use of online tools. We have threaded discussions, readings online, and small cookie-cutter personal profile pages. The professor, who I greatly admire, actually reads what we post and uses our responses as cues for discussion in class. Looking back it strikes me as a little weird that this is my first class like this; I mean, the Web isn’t exactly an innovation at this point. But I guess I did start college in 1995, so it’s not altogether surprising. Hand-coding HTML was still considered a challenging technical skill by many at that point.

Anyway, I’m uncomfortable with it. I mean, I like the discussions, I like being able to share links with classmates online; I find I am more comfortable reading book-length material on screen than I once was. But this particular professor is basically asking us to do response papers each week online. This poses some problems I would not have forseen:

  • Students mostly don’t respond to each other, and so the unidirectionality of the classical teacher-student paradigm is maintained. (Oh yes. I have been doing my reading about how technology can just as easily reinforce traditional pedagogy as it can foster constructivism.)
  • Hey, speaking of which, he’s the one asking the questions we’re supposed to respond to, so I guess it’s not really a constructivist model anyway.
  • Because these are response papers, I often end up feeling like someone has beaten me to the punch, saying what I wanted to say. If I was handing mine in and not seeing someone else’s, I would never even know I wasn’t being original. Of course, this problem might be alleviated if we were replying to each other rather than writing in parallel.
  • Thus I end up feeling really competitive. There’s an air of dick-measuring that’s been absent from my life since I got accepted into college. (OK, maybe it’s just my paranoia…) It’s a shock to feel this way about ideas I’m posting on the Web after having a blog — well, after Hampshire, of course — but after the blog, where I feel like I’m just in my corner singing my little song, and periodically people come up to me and tell me how wonderful they think my song is and stroke my shivering little ego. I mean, I’m no Tom Tomorrow, but I know that, and anyway I’m exempt from competition because we have different editorial visions.
  • All this comparison to these very serious people who sound like they are trying to impress the teacher by writing a pitch-perfect paper, plus stuffing my head full of dry literature reviews, is making my writing unbearably stodgy. I apologize.

* * *

Wow. This is all coming together now that I’m writing for myself rather than for an assignment. There’s constructivism at work, for you. I’m just not synthesizing much at all when all I’m doing is responding to other people’s ideas of what I ought to be learning, and stuffing things into my head wholesale. I think it’s a damn good thing I wrote myself up a mission statement before starting school, or I’d likely be lost in someone else’s view of the world by now.

one last thing: it is soooooo nice to have a moment where I am not keeping one eye on the clock and the other on the page number, and trying to make the former slow down and the other move faster.

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