Media Literacy: Curing the Common Code

“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.

So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.

Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.

We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.

References:

Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.

Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.

Interfaces of the Word

Designer James Macanufo once said that if paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Paper, inscribed with writing and then with printing, enabled recorded history (Ong, 1977). Media theorist Friedrich Kittler (1990) wrote that print held a “monopoly on the storage of serial data” (p.245). Even as writing represents a locking down of knowledge, one of “sequestration, interposition, diaeresis or division, alienation, and closed fields or systems” (Ong, 1977, p. 305), Walter Ong points out that it also represents liberation, a system of access where none existed before. After all, we only write things down in order to enable the possibility of referring to them later.

@mathpunk People would make fun of you if you were working on software for communicating with the dead even though that’s half the purpose of writing. [Tweeted, November 1, 2014]

Paper Knowledge“Written genres,” Lisa Gitelman writes in her latest book, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press, 2014), “depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for. To wit, documents are for knowing-showing” (p. 2). This “knowing-showing” is the liberation aspect of writing and printing, the enabling of access. She continues, “[J]ob printers facilitate or ensure the pure exchange function. That is, they ensure value that exists in and only because of exchange, exchangeability, and circulation” (p. 48).

“Digital documents… have no edges” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17). A “document” in digital space is only metaphorically so. Every form of media is the same at the digital level. Just as genres of writing emerge from discursive fields according to the shared knowledge of readers, “the ways they have been internalized by members of a shared culture” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17), digital documents are arranged in recognizable forms on the screen. The underlying mechanisms doing the arranging remain largely hidden from us as users, what Alex Galloway (2013) calls “the interface effect” (passim). It’s kind of like using genre as a way to parse massive amounts of text, as a different way to organize and understand writing.

Comparative Textual MediaGitelman also rightfully makes an appearance in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, further arguing the importance of job printing and helping define and redefine the fraught term “print culture.” Other pieces include ones by Matthew Kirschenbaum, Johanna Drucker, Jessica Brantley, and an excellent, contextualizing introduction by the editors. In her chapter, Rita Raley outlines what she calls “TXTual Practice,” describing screen-based, “born-digital” works as unstable, “not texts but text effects” (p. 20). Her essay moves away from viewing the digital document and other such contrivances as metaphors and toward employing Galloway’s interface effect. Galloway’s view casts the old argument of interfaces becoming transparent and “getting out of the way” in a bright and harsh new light, writing that their “operability engenders inoperability” (p. 25).

Reading Writing InterfacesLori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) takes on the “invisible, imperceptible, inoperable” interface, starting with ubiquitous computing. Once our devices obsolesce into general use, “those transparent devices that achieve more the less they do” (Galloway, 2013, p. 25), they escape everyday criticism. The interface stuff hides in those edges that aren’t really there. The words I write now float and flicker on a screen in a conceptual space I barely understand. Emerson cites the mass seduction of the Macintosh computer interface and the activist digital media poetics that critique that seduction. Her media archeological approach unearths the hidden mechanisms of reading and writing and the ways we negotiate screen- and print-based texts. It’s no surprise that Reading Writing Interfaces is one of the better recent books on these issues.

Type on ScreenLike Judith Donath’s The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), edited by Ellen Lupton, takes a designer’s tack on these issues. Though it’s a guide rather than a scholarly study, the book covers contrivances and conventions like type sizes, fonts, grids, scrolls, spines, wireframes, wayfinding, laundry lines, and designing the written word for different screens, as well as case studies of each. It’s an excellent way to frame one’s thinking on all of the above for critique or the classroom. Or both.

If paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Would anyone say the same for the screen?

References:

Emerson, Lori. (2014). Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, Alexander R. (2013). The Interface Effect. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Raley, Rita. (2013). TXTual Practice. In, N. Katerine Hayles & Jessica Pressman (Eds.), Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (pp. 183-197). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (1990). Discourse Networks: 1800/1900. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lupton, Ellen (Ed.) (2014). Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Contested Boundaries and Saturated Selves

In her book The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Judith Donath outlines designs for living online. Echoing George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), she writes, “We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience” (p. 9). One needn’t look any further that a computer’s desktop to see this in action. “Immersion” was once a strong notion in computer-mediated communication studies, online communities, and virtual reality. Now we are not so much immersed in media as we are saturated by it.

The Social MachineDonath points out that these are boundary issues. Walls, fences, locked doors, online moderators—“the doormen of discussions” (p. 159), spam filters, and other gate-keeping contrivances protect the private from the public and vice versa. Even with such boundaries in place, our embodiedness is still at risk. We are as sieves, filtering news from noise, or as sponges, soaking up information and influence of all kinds. The latter evokes Psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s “saturated self”:

Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become a part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self (1991, p. 6).

Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) pontificated on the fading boundaries of the “post-information age,” writing,

In the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in specific place at specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an “address” now takes on new meaning (p. 163).

The history of the internet is largely a story of broken-down boundaries (see Grodin & Lindolof, 1996; Jenkins, 2006; van Dijck, 2013). Its architecture “rests upon principles of convergence, which enable multiple and overlapping connections between varieties of distinct social spheres” (Papacharissi, 2011, p. 305). The inherent irony of Negroponte’s observation is that since physical location no longer matters in the digital, post-geographic workday, it makes it matter even more. If you can work from anywhere, where you live means more than ever. You can live wherever you want regardless of where your work is. The old boundaries are gone.

The End of AbsenceThe overwhelming irony now is that where we are matters less than the digital wares with which we saturate our selves. On the commute, at school, at work, at home, on a trip, visiting friends—the smartphone usurps all of these with a persistent and precise hold on our attention. In William Gibson‘s term, the online world has “everted” itself into physical space. The fact that it is now inescapable is what writer Michael Harris calls “the end of absence.” His is an example of what I have called the Advent Horizon. We feel a sense of loss when we cross one of these lines. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable—differently on an individual and collective level—in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. It takes 30 years for a full, generational change and with that a full shift in advent horizons. Harris notes, “If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After” (p. 15).

Reaching across one of these divides, Thomas de Zengotita (2005) writes of digitally zombified youth,

… It was if they were somnambulating, hypnotized, into some newborn zone of being where hallowed custom and bizarre context were so surreally fused that the whole tableau seemed poised to shimmer off into the ether at any moment (p. 155).

Ours is a chronic presence in a chronic present. Donath (2014), writes of our online personal presences, “The stranger, as we think of him now, may cease to exist” (p. 336). But Harris (2014) adds, “Before all memory of those absences is shuttered, though, there is this brief time when we might record what came before. We might do something with those small, barely noticeable instances when we’re reminded of our love for absence. They flash at us amid the rush of our experience and seem to signal: Wait, wasn’t there something…?” (p. 8).

Well, was there?

References:

de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Donath, Judith. (2014). The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gergen, Kenneth. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. New York: Basic Books.

Grodin, Debra & Lindlof, Thomas R. (1996). Constructing the Self in a Mediated World. Thosand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Harros, Michael. (2014). The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. New York: Current.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lakoff, George, & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas. (1995). Being Digital.  New York: Knopf.

Papacharissi, Zizi. (2011). A Networked Self. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 304-317). New York: Routledge.

van Dijck, José. (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ambient Networks: You Are Here

“How did you get here?” asks Peter Morville (p. xi) on the first page of his book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005). It’s not a metaphysical question, but a practical and direct one. Ambience indirectly calls attention to the here we’re in. It is all around us at all times. In Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), he explains it this way:

Take the music of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Early postmodern theory likes to think of them as nihilists or relativists, bricoleurs in the bush of ghosts. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” features a repeated sample of her voice and a sinister series of recorded messages. This voice typifies postmodern art materials: forms of incomprehensible, unspeakable existence. Some might call it inert, sheer existence–art as ooze. It’s a medium in which meaning and unmeaning coexist. This oozy medium has something physical about it, which I call ambience (p. 103).

City Wall, Helsinki, 2007
“City Wall,” Helsinki Institute for Information Tenchnology, 2007.

Ambient Commons

“Ambient” is a loaded, little word at best. You wouldn’t be alone if the first thing that comes to mind upon reading the word is a thoughtful soundscape by Brian Eno. In Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), Malcolm McCullough reclaims the word for our hypermediated surroundings. Claiming that we’ve mediated aspects of our world so well that we’ve obscured parts of the world itself. Looking through the ambient invites us to think about our environment–built, mediated, situated, or otherwise–in a new way. McCullough asks, “Do increasingly situated information technologies illuminate the world, or do they just eclipse it (figure 1.3 below)?” (p. 20). He adds on the book’s website, “Good interaction design reduces the ‘cognitive load’ of artifacts. It also recognizes how activities make use of context, periphery, and background. But now as ever more of the human perceptual field has been engineered for cognition, is there a danger of losing awareness of how environment also informs?” How much can we augment before we begin to obscure?

Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3
Ambient Commons: Fig. 1.3

McCullough’s background as a design practitioner grounds his inquiry in the cognition of the user (He is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan). That alone sets Ambient Commons apart from most other books in the field. It’s not against technology, and it’s not cheering it on. It’s a call to more mindful use.

An Aesthesia of NetworksFraming some of the same concerns within the wiry window of networks, Anna Munster’s An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (MIT Press, 2013) is also a call for more mindful consideration. “Aesthesia” reinstates experience in and of the network, which is possibly the most pervasive of all our mediating technologies. Using William James’ radical empiricism, viral media, video art, Deleuze and Guattari, and Google Earth, Munster’s approach pushes us past the day-to-day relations of data to the underlying assemblage of networks. Like Peter Krapp’s Noise Channels (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), An Aesthesia… pulls the background to the fore; it makes the ambient evident.

“Ambience points to the here and now,” Morton (2010) continues, “in a compelling way that goes beyond explicit content… ambience opens up our ideas of space and place into radical questioning” (p. 104). Just as poetry calls attention to language, ambience calls attention to place. You are here.

References:

Krapp, Peter. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McCullough, Malcolm. (2013). Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Morton, Timothy. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morville, Peter. (2005). Ambient Findability (Preface: You Are Here!). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Munster, Anna. (2013). An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ill Communication: Gary Genosko on Models

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” playwright George Bernard Shaw once quipped (quoted in Caroselli, 2000, p. 71). Whether Shaw was being silly or snarky, the impossible exchange of meaning and messages is troublesome for communicators and communication scholars alike. Critiquing the standard Shannon and Weaver model of communication, Jean Baudrillard (1981) wrote, “We must understand communication as something other than the simple transmission-reception of a message, whether or not the latter is considered reversible through feedback” (p. 169). The model was originally published by Shannon in 1948 in the July and October issues of the Bell System Technical Journal (and the next year in his book with Weaver), yet it still lingers in communication studies theories, textbooks, and other models.

Remodelling CommunicationIn Remodelling Communication: From WWII to the WWW (University of Toronto Press, 2012), Gary Genosko tackles the Shannon and Weaver model as well as just about every other widely accepted model of communication. Stuart Hall, Roman Jakobson, and Umberto Eco undergo the pressure of scrutiny as well. Genosko also uses Baudrillard to critique other communication theory, from McLuhan and Marx to Deleuze and Guattari. “For Baudrillard,” he writes, “technology’s role is to ‘operationalize’ everything, including philosophical concepts, so that ‘nothing ever really takes place, since everything is already calculated, audited, and realized in advance'” (p. 82). Like the promise of so-called “big data” turned against us, we just become fields in a spreadsheet, bits in a box. Dominic Pettman (2013) terms it a “claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world” (p. 63), from which he suggests using a rabbit totem to escape. These collected concerns – of technology obscuring even the possibility of communication – illustrate just how outmoded the models we’ve been using have become.

With my own remodeling aspirations close at hand, I read this book with intense interest. Having read two of Genosko’s previous books, Undisciplined Theory (Sage, 1998) and McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion (Routledge, 1999), I knew this would be a wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful text. I often find the indecipherable academese of Genosko’s forebears (e.g., Félix Guattari has been the topic of several of Genosko’s books in the meantime) needlessly complex and often downright annoying. Even Baudrillard, whom I rather enjoy, frequently fails at being anything close to clear. Genosko avoids that here for the most part, but, for instance, he writes in his concluding chapter,

The historico-technological arc from WWII to the WWW sketched the transit into a post-representational configuration of communication in a controlled encounter with what might seem to be chaotically de-territorializing, but that ensured no easy recourse to the metaphysical certainties of existing communication models (p. 131).

I realize that sentence is taken out of context, but I can’t help but think there’s a simpler way to articulate those same ideas. This is a book about communication. As lively and interesting as it is, the book falls short of remodeling much of anything. It does, however, provide an excellent survey and critique of existing communication models and a mostly clear parsing of some rather dense communication theory. Genosko is not for the faint of mind, but Remodelling Communication is a perfect introduction to his substantial and growing body of work.

References:

Baudrillard, Jean. (1981). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis, MO: Telos Press.

Caroselli, Marlene. (2000). Leadership Skills for Managers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Genosko, Gary. (2012). Remodelling Communication: From WWII to the WWW. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

Shannon, Claude E. & Weaver, Warren. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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Is the double-L in “remodelling” here the Canadian spelling?

How Soon is Now? The Perpetual Present

When I was growing up, the year 2000 was the temporal touchstone everyone used to mark the advances of modern life. Oh, by then we’d be doing so many technologically enabled things: Cars would fly and run on garbage, computers would run everything, school wouldn’t exist. We were all looking forward, and Y2K gave us a point on the horizon to measure it all by. When it came and went without incident, we were left with what we had in the present. In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current, 2013), Douglas Rushkoff argues that the flipping of the calendar to the new millennium turned our focus from the future to the never-ending now. “We spent the latter part of the 20th Century leaning towards the year 2000, almost obsessed with the future, the dot-com boom, the long boom, and all that,” he tells David Pescovitz, “It was a century of movements with grand goals, wars to end wars, and relentless expansionism. Then we arrived at the 21st, and it was as if we had arrived.”

“We spent centuries thinking of hours and seconds as portions of the day,” he continues, “But a digital second is less a part of greater minute, and more an absolute duration, hanging there like the number flap on an old digital clock.” A digital clock is good at accurately displaying the time right now, but an analog clock is better at showing you how long it’s been since you last looked. Needing, wanting, or having only the former is what present shock is all about. It’s what Ruskoff calls elsewhere “a diminishment of everything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” As the song goes, when you say it’s gonna happen “now,” well, when exactly do you mean?

Michael Leyton (1992) calls us all “prisoners of the present” ( p. 1), like runners on a temporal treadmill. He argues that “all cognitive activity proceeds via the recovery of the past through objects in the present” (p. 2), and those objects often linger longer than they once did thanks to recording technologies. In 1986 Iain Chambers described the persistence of the present through such media, writing,

With electronic reproduction offering the spectacle of gestures, images, styles, and cultures in a perpetual collage of disintegration and reintegration, the ‘new’ disappears into a permanent present. And with the end of the ‘new’ – a concept connected to linearity, to the serial prospects of ‘progress’, to ‘modernism’ – we move into a perpetual recycling of quotations, styles, and fashions: an uninterrupted montage of the ‘now’ (p. 190).

Present ShockNeedless to say that the situation has only been exacerbated by the onset of the digital. In one form or another, Rushkoff has been working on Present Shock his whole career. In it he continues the critical approach he’s sharpened over his last several books. Where Life, Inc. (Random House, 2009) tackled the corporate takeover of culture and Program or Be Programmed (OR Books, 2010) took on technology head-on, Present Shock deals with the digital demands of the now. A lot of the dilemma is due to the update culture of social media. No one reads two-week old Tweets or month-old blog posts. If it wasn’t posted today, in the last few hours, it disappears into irrelevance. And if it’s too long, it doesn’t get read at all. These are not rivers or streams, they’re puddles. All comments, references, and messages, and no story. The personal narrative is lost. It’s the age of “tl; dr.” The 24-hour news, a present made up of the past, and advertising interrupting everything are also all about right now, but our senses of self maybe the biggest victims.

“Even though we may be able to be in only one place at a time,” Rushkoff writes, “our digital selves are distributed across every device, platform, and network onto which we have cloned our virtual identities” (p. 72). Our online profiles give us an atemporal agency whereon we are there but not actually present. On the other side, our technologies mediate our identities by anticipating or projecting a user. As Brian Rotman (2008) writes, “This projected virtual user is a ghost effect: and abstract agency distinct from any particular embodied user, a variable capable of accommodating any particular user within the medium” (p. xiii). Truncated and clipped, we shrink to fit the roles the media allow.

Mindfulness is an important idea cum buzzword in the midst of all this digital doom. Distraction may be just attention to something else, but what if we’re stuck in permanently distracted present with no sense of the past and no time for the future? If you’ve ever known anyone who truly lives in the moment, nothing matters except that moment. It’s the opposite of The Long Now, what Rushkoff calls the “Short Forever.” Things only have value over time. Citing the time binding of Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, Rushkoff illustrates how we bind the histories of past generations into words and symbols. The beauty is that we can leverage the knowledge of that history without going through it again. The problem is that without a clear picture of the labor involved, we risk mistaking the map for the territory.

James Gleick summed it up nicely when he told me in 1999,”We know we’re surrounding ourselves with time-saving technologies and strategies, and we don’t quite understand how it is that we feel so rushed. We worry that we gain speed and sacrifice depth and quality. We worry that our time horizons are foreshortened — our sense of the past, our sense of the future, our ability to plan, our ability to remember.” Well, here we are. What now?

The existence of this book proves we can still choose. In the last chapter of Present Shock, Rushkoff writes,

…taking the time to write or read a whole book on the phenomenon does draw a line in the sand. It means we can stop the onslaught of demands on our attention; we can create a safe space for uninterrupted contemplation; we can give each moment the value it deserves and no more; we can tolerate uncertainty and resist the temptation to draw connections and conclusions before we are ready; and we can slow or even ignore the seemingly inexorable pull from the strange attractor at the end of human history (p. 265-266).

We don’t have to stop or run, we can pause and slow down. Instant access to every little thing doesn’t mean we have to forsake attended access to a few big things. Take some time, read this book.

References:

Chambers, Iain. (1986). Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience. New York: Routledge.

Leyton, Michael. (1992). Symmetry, Causality, Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Morrissey, Steven & Marr, Johnny (1984). How Soon is Now? [Recorded by The Smiths]. On Hatful of Hollow [LP]. London: Rough Trade.

Rotman, Brian. (2008). Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rushkoff, Douglas. (2013). Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Current.

Mindfulness and the Medium

Over forty years ago, media philosopher Walter Ong wrote that the “advent of newer media alters the meaning and relevance of the older. Media overlap, or, as Marshall McLuhan has put it, move through one another as do galaxies of stars, each maintaining its own basic integrity but also bearing the marks of the encounter ever after” (1971, p. 25). That is, a new technology rarely supplants its forebears outright but instead changes the relationships between existing technologies. During a visit to Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Demo Day, Professor Janet Murray told me that there are two schools of thought about the onset of digital media. One is that the computer is an entirely new medium that changes everything; the other is that it is a medium that remediates all previous media. It’s difficult to resist the knee-jerk theory that it is both an entirely new medium and remediates all previous media thereby changing everything, but none of it is quite that simple. As Ted Nelson would say, “everything is deeply intertwingled” (1987, passim).

Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2012), Murray’s first book since 1997’s essential Hamlet on the Holodeck (MIT Press), is a wellspring of knowledge for designers and practitioners alike. Unifying digital media under a topology of “representational affordances” (i.e., computational procedures, user participation, navigable space, and encyclopedic capacity), Murray provides applicable principles for digital design of all kinds — from databases (encyclopedic capacity) to games (the other three) and all points in between. There’s also an extensive glossary of terms in the back (a nice bonus). Drawing on the lineage of Vennevar Bush, Joseph Weizenbaum, Ted Nelson, Seymour Papert, and Donald Norman, as well as Murray’s own decades of teaching, research, and design, Inventing the Medium is as comprehensive a book as one is likely to find on digital design and use. I know I’ll be referring to it for years to come.

“Mindfulness” illustration by Anthony Weeks.

Designers can’t go far without grappling with the way a new medium not only changes but also reinforces our uses and understandings of the current ones. For example, the onset of digital media extended the reach of literacy by reinforcing the use of writing and print media. No one medium or technology stands alone. They must be considered in concert. Moreover, to be literate in the all-at-once world of digital media is to understand its systemic nature, the inherent interrelationship and interconnectedness of all technology and media. As Ong put it, “Today, it appears, we live in a culture or in cultures very much drawn to openness and in particular to open-system models for conceptual representations. This openness can be connected with our new kind of orality, the secondary orality of our electronic age…” (1977, p. 305). “Secondary orality” reminds one of the original names of certain technologies (e.g., “horseless carriage,” “cordless phone,” “wireless” technology, etc.), as if the real name for the thing is yet to come along.

These changes deserve an updated and much more nuanced consideration given how far they’ve proliferated since Ong’s time. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012) collects Howard Rheingold‘s thoughts about using, learning, and teaching via networks from the decades since Ong and McLuhan theorized technology’s epochal shift. Rheingold’s account is as personal as it is pragmatic. He was at Xerox PARC when Bob Taylor, Douglas Englebart, and Alan Kay were inventing the medium (see his 1985 book, Tools for Thought), and he was an integral part of the community of visionaries who helped create the networked world in which we live (he coined the term “virtual community” in 1987). In Net Smart, his decades of firsthand experience are distilled into five, easy-to-grasp literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection (critical consumption), and network smarts — all playfully illustrated by Anthony Weeks (see above). Since 1985, Rheingold has been calling our networked, digital technologies “mind amplifiers,” and it is through that lens that he shows us how to learn, live, and thrive together.

These two books are not only thoughtful, they are mindful. The deep passion of the authors for their subjects is evident in the words on every page. A bit ahead of their time, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan gave us a vocabulary to talk about our new media. With these two books, Janet Murray and Howard Rheingold have given us more than words: They’ve given us useful practices.

References:

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Murray, Janet. (2012). Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nelson, Ted. (1987). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Redmond, WA: Tempus Books.

Ong, Walter J. (1971). Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.

Rheingold, Howard. (1985). Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rheingold, Howard. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bring the Noise: Systems, Sound, and Silence

In our most tranquil dreams, “peace” is almost always accompanied by “quiet.” Noise annoys. From the slightest rattle or infinitesimal buzz to window-wracking roars and earth-shaking rumbles, we block it, muffle it, or drown it out whenever possible. It is ubiquitous. Try as we might, cacophony is everywhere, and we’re the cause in most cases. Keizer (2010) points out that, besides sleeping (for some of us), reading is ironically the quietest thing we do. “Written words were meant to evoke heard speech,” he writes, “and were considered inadequate until they did so, like tea leaves before the addition of hot water” (p. 21). Reading silently was subversive.

We often speak of noise referring to the opposite of information. In the canonical model of communication conceived in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which I’ve been trying to break away from, noise is anything in the system that disrupts the signal or the message being sent.

If you’ve ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a parking garage, find a non-country station on the radio in a fly-over state, or follow up on a trending topic on Twitter, then you know what this kind of noise looks like. Thanks to Shannon and Weaver (and their followers; e.g., Freidrich Kittler, among many others), it’s remained a mainstay of communication theory since, privileging machines over humans (see Parikka, 2011). Well before it was a theoretical metonymy, noise was characterized as “destruction, distortion, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali, 1985, p. 27). More literally, Attali conceives noise as pain, power, error, murder, trauma, and youth (among other things) untempered by language. Noise is wild beyond words.

The two definitions of noise discussed above — one referring to unwanted sounds and the other to the opposite of information — are mixed and mangled in Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), a book that rebelliously claims to have been written to be read aloud. Yet, he writes, “No mere artefacts of an outmoded oral culture, such oratorical, jurisprudence, pedagogical, managerial, and liturgical acts reflect how people live today, at heart, environed by talk shows, books on tape, televised preaching, cell phones, public address systems, elevator music, and traveling albums on CD, MP3, and iPod” (p. 43). We live not immersed in noise, but saturated by it. As Aden Evens put it, “To hear is to hear difference,” and noise is indecipherable sameness. But, one person’s music is another’s noise — and vice versa (Voegelin, 2010), and age and nostalgia can eventually turn one into the other. In spite of its considerable heft (over 900 pages), Making Noise does not see noise as music’s opposite, nor does it set out for a history of sound, stating that “‘unwanted sound’ resonates across fields. subject everywhere and everywhen to debate, contest, reversal, repetition: to history” (p. 23).

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
John Cage

The digital file might be infinitely repeatable, but that doesn’t make it infinite. Chirps in the channel, the remainders of incomplete communiqué surround our signals like so much decimal dust, data exhaust. In Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture (University of Minnesota, 2011), Peter Krapp finds these anomalies the sites of inspiration and innovation. My friend Dave Allen is fond of saying, “There’s nothing new in digital.” To that end, Krapp traces the etymology of the error in machine languages from analog anomalies in general, and the extremes of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) and Brian Eno‘s Discreet Music (EG, 1975) in particular, up through our current binary blips and bleeps, clicks and clacks — including Christian Marclay‘s multiple artistic forays and Cory Arcangel’s digital synesthesia. This book is about both forms of noise as well, paying due attention to the distortion of digital communication.

There is a place between voice and presence where information flows. — Rumi

Another one of my all-time favorite books on sound is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 2001). In his latest, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum Books, 2010), he reinstates the human as an inhabitant on the planet of sound. He does this by analyzing the act of listening more than studying sound itself. His history of listening is largely comprised of fictional accounts, of myths and make-believe. Sound is a spectre. Our hearing is a haunting. From sounds of nature to psyops (though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is “torture-lite” in any context), the medium is the mortal. File Sinister Resonance next to Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House, 2010) and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2010).

And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? — Refused, “New Noise”

Life is loud, death is silent. Raise hell to heaven. Make a joyous noise unto all of the above.

———-

My thinking on this topic has greatly benefited from discussions with, and lectures and writings by my friend and colleague Josh Gunn.

References and Further Resonance:

Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Keizer, G. (2010). The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance. In E. Huhtamo & J. Parikka (Eds.), Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Refused. (1998). “New Noise” [performed by Refused]. On The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts (Sound recording). Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

Schwartz, H. (2011). Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.

Shannon, C.E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tompkins, D. (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Toop, D. (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum Books.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum Books.

McLuhan the Younger: Two New Books

There have been plenty of people touted to carry the mantle left behind by Marshall McLuhan — Neil Postman, Douglas Rushkoff, Paul Levinson, even Jean Baudrillard, but no one has been working more behind the scenes and under the radar to keep his legacy alive than his own son and sometimes co-author Eric McLuhan.

Eric McLuhan has amassed a significant body of work in his own right, including Electric Language (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake (University of Toronto Press, 1997), the forthcoming Theories of Communication (with Marshall), and The Human Equation (BPS Books, 2011; discussed below), among many others.

One of Marshall’s most important and most overlooked works was co-authored by Eric. The posthumously published Laws of Media (University of Toronto Press, 1988). In this book, they tackle the Shannon-Weaver model of communication as needlessly linear (a task I’ve attempted myself), writing, “The Shannon-Weaver model and its derivatives follow the linear pattern of efficient cause — the only sequential form of causality” (p. 87). Formal cause was a lesser known but chronic concern for McLuhan.

[T]he formal causes inherent in… media operate on the matter of our senses. The effect of media, like their ‘message’ is really on their form and not in their content (Marshall Mcluhan in Gordon, W. T., 2005, p. 10).

In Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan (NeoPoiesis Press, 2011), Eric brings together three pieces by Marshall and an extended essay of his own (“On Formal Cause”) that references them, as well as historical context provided by his new introduction and a Foreword by the inimitable Lance Strate.

Aristotle’s definition of formal cause — one of four causes he defined, and the one that contains the other three — reads the “essense, idea, or quality of the thing concerned” (Bunge, iii; what Heidegger would call “the thing thinging”). McLuhan saw Aristotle’s oral orientation conflating formal and final cause. This view and the Shannon-Weaver model are the results of left-brain thinking, and we need a right-brain perspective if we are to cope with the new electronic age. “Communication theory necessarily concerns the study of the public and not of the program,” McLuhan wrote in an unpublished letter to Archie Malloch. “The ‘content’ of any performance is the efficient cause which includes the user or the cognitive agent who is, and becomes, the thing known, in Aristotle’s phrase” (p. 10). He goes on to cite his mentor Harold Innis as the first to show that the alphabet is what split Greek thought between “thinking” and “being” (p. 30). “Literacy become synonymous with Western civilization that divorced ‘subject’ from ‘object’ and thought from feeling, just as the dominant metaphors of mechanism widened the separation of  ’cause’ and ‘effect'” (p. 31). Knowledge of the alphabet distances us from knowledge of formal cause.

And understanding formal cause is tantamount to understanding our new media ecology. It was at the center of McLuhan’s work. Eric writes, “Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious: The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time” (p. 87). McLuhan wrote, “effects precede causes” (p. 43). The bright light of the future casts shadows on the present from forthcoming events — that’s formal cause.

[Media] Ecology does not seek connections, but patterns. It does not seek quantities, but satisfactions and understanding (p. 8).

Mass media in all their forms are necessarily environmental and therefore have the character of formal causality (McLuhan to Ruth Nanda Ashen, NAC, 1975).

McLuhan mentioned predicting the present in his work several times, and an observance of “daily miracles” like his oft-studied subject Chesterton. He also approached all of this mass-media mess from what amounts to a systems point of view: figures, grounds, environments, anti-environments, sense ratios. He was trying to get outside of it all to see what it was doing from the highest possible vantage point.

So this is all about perspective. And McLuhan pointed out that perspective is a mode of perception that involves a single point of view — or fragmentation, in space and time, in painting and in poetry (Gordon, Hamaji, & Albert, 2007, p. 139).

The perspective is part of what makes The Human Equation by Wayne Constantineau and Eric McLuhan (BPS Books, 2010) so effective: the vantage point, the human as central concern, the human as center of the universe. This is “Book 1: The Human Equation Toolkit,” and the toolkit consists of numerous sets of four related concepts, tetrads, not unlike the ones in Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers’ The Global Village (Oxford University Press, 1992), and those included in the aforementioned Laws of Media. The Human Equation starts with four embodied positions — standing, lying down, sitting, and kneeling — as the basis of all extensions thereof (i.e., media, technology, etc.). Co-authored by the late mime Constantineau, that the book’s foundation is comprised of body positions should come as no surprise.

This short book is rife with odd new perspectives on our media, culture, our place in the universe, and indeed our bodies themselves — much like so many of Marshall McLuhan’s own odd shorter works.

This year marks the centennial of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, and his work is as relevant now as it ever was. Here’s to everyone who’s keeping his legacy alive, especially his son Eric McLuhan.

References:

Bunge, M. Causality: The Place of the Causal Principle in Modern Science. Metaphysics, 32, Bk. 1, ch, iii.

Gordon, W. T. (2010). McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum Books.

Gordon, W. T. (2005). McLuhan Unbound, #14. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

Gordon, W. T., Hamaji, E, & Albert, J. (2007). Everyman’s McLuhan. New York: Mark Batty Publisher.

Heidegger, M. (1971) Poetry, Language Thought. New York: Harper & Row.

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. & Powers, B. R. (1992). The Global Village. Oxford University Press.

National Archives of Canada. (1975, July 2). Marshall McLuhan to Ruth Nanda Ashen.

Distant Early Warning: Coupland on McLuhan

If I had to pick a patron saint, a hero, or a single intellectual influence for my adult self, it would undoubtedly be Marshall McLuhan. If you’ve spent any time at all reading my work, you’ve seen his name and his ideas. Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (Atlas & Co., 2010) is the latest biography of the man and differs from previous versions in many ways, not the least of which is the author. Having struggled through several of Douglas Coupland’s novels, I had my reservations about his writing this book. I am glad to say he eloquently quelled most of my concerns.

The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

There are several things that people often overlook or misunderstand about McLuhan that Coupland nailed in this book. One was his devout Catholic faith, which rooted his thinking in many ways once he found it, and another was his deep disdain of the media and its attendant technology. In spite of his insight, foresight, and prescience, he hated this stuff. Coupland points out many times that McLuhan wouldn’t have liked our current reliance on technology and connectivity one bit, but he would’ve found it interesting. Another of Coupland’s key insights is that, above all else, McLuhan was an artist, “one who happened to use ideas and words as others might use paint” (p. 16). Seen in this way, a lot of his work might make a hell of a lot more sense to newbies, critics, and haters alike. Like the best artists, he was a pattern perceiver of the highest order.

There’s really no considering this book, its author, or its subject without considering Canada. Yes, Canada, The Great White Wasteland that brought us Rush, hockey, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Justin Bieber, Coupland and McLuhan, as well as the latter’s most obvious forebear, Harold Innis. It’s cold up there, folks — cold and spread out. It makes one appreciate the human element.

“Call it religion or call it optimism,” Coupland writes, “but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent social needs as individuals” (p. 165). Or, as McLuhan himself put it, “The user is the content” (Take that, so-called “social media experts”). McLuhan’s consistent focus on the individual is what has kept his ideas fresh in the face of new contrivances.

I know it makes no difference
To what you’re going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

My problem with Coupland’s past work has had less to do with his writing ability (he’s an excellent writer) and more to do with his appropriation of Salingerisms, and not even a biography could escape. Coupland alludes to Catcher in the Rye by comparing McLuhan to Holden Caulfield on page 111. It’s an apt comparison, and it characterizes The Mechanical Bride-era McLuhan accurately, but I have to admit being irked at the reference.

With all of that said, You Know Nothing of My Work made me proud (I fancy myself something of a McLuhan scholar, so this is meant as a heartfelt compliment), and it made me cry (Though I already knew the story of McLuhan’s last days, a word-man unable to use words is still one of the saddest things I can imagine). I’d like to think Marshall McLuhan would’ve liked this book. It’s treats him with respect, humility, and humor, and I think it “gets” him. What else could he want from a biography?

————

Here is a scene that illustrates the heights of McLuhan’s fame, what Coupland calls “every geek’s dream,” and this book’s namesake: Marshall Mcluhan in Woddy Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) [runtime: 2:43]:

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