William Safire moves on to another plane

I would hope Mr. Safire, who passed away Sunday at age 79, might appreciate the title of this piece I write in his memory (The New York Times for whom he wrote an op-ed column for 32 years preferred the word “article” for his columns, but he used the word “piece” at times himself), as he was a master punster – as well as a profound alliterator, just to name two of his laudable attributes.

As with other noted communicators, how he used language was of importance in its own right separate and apart from his subject matter, and it is how he used language, and how he attempted to advance the use of language that I praise irrespective of the topics he chose.

Language is a building material for communication, and William Safire must be considered an architect extraordinaire of and for language.

While the accomplishments of his career are certainly impressive in themselves – from the “kitchen debate” he has been associated with orchestrating between Nixon and Khrushchev in 1959 to the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1978 to the Presidential Medal for Freedom in 2006, with over 25 books including 4 novels, and as he calculated it some 6 million words to his credit, it is the New York Times Magazine column “On Language” , which must be considered synonymous with his name.

Safire suggests (apocryphally or not) that “On Language” got its start in 1979 because the Times executive editor,  A. M. Rosenthal, needed a topical column that would work in the Times Magazine which had back then a 10 day publishing lag. To borrow from the idiom, The press grinds slow but exceedingly fine. From that pragmatic beginning until his last “On Language” column just earlier this month, with several compendiums along the way, William Safire pointed out how language is used and should be used. He has enlightened and enlivened the debate. Some say he was “old school”, yet one of his most strongly held views was regarding the importance of openness to change, to new beginnings – “Never Retire” he urged in one of the last of his op-ed columns. In fact, his body of work will continue to be employed in the interest of language, and that’s as it should be, afterall, he was the self-described language maven – noun: an expert or connoisseur of language.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/28/william-safire-moves-on-to-another-plane/

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Don’t waste our icons

This is the year of the 70th anniversary of one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, the Hollywood premiere of which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on August 15, 1939, four years before I was born. I saw the film for the first time when I was around eight or nine I believe. It also happens that my wife and I were married on August 15, 1965. Not to be sexist, but the male gender is not known for recollection of such important occasions,  so each year the movie’s anniversary coincides, which gives me a great mnemonic device to ensure I observe my own anniversary event properly.

401px-Wizard_of_oz_movie_posterSpeaking of observing an event properly, Warner Bros. Entertainment has had a Wizard of Oz Hot Air Balloon  and Ruby Slipper Collection traveling around the country, and on September 29 will release a 70th anniversary high definition edition of the movie. The press releases issued in conjunction with the anniversary celebration state that: “Over the last seven decades, the film has indelibly woven itself into America’s cultural consciousness”, and “The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved and iconic motion pictures of all time filled with timeless sentiments and values cherished by multiple generations…more than one billion consumers have experienced the classic story of Dorothy and friends in the Land of Oz.”

This got me thinking about icons. It started with the Greeks. What else is new? The Greek word eikōn, εἰκών  from another Greek word meaning “to resemble” simply meant “likeness”. The etymology proceeded from the Greek to the Latin “icon”, a word then applied to depictions of major religious figures. These “icons” were venerated, a touchy point as far back as the 8th century.  St. Basil the Great (329-379) – yes, there are icons of him –  tried to explain the distinction: “If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you ‘Who is that?’, your answer would properly be, ‘It is Caesar.’ When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honor you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself.”  In the 16th century the word came into English usage in the sense of simile, likeness, image.  This is also the meaning that came to associate itself with “computer icons” and the like. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is just since the mid 20th century that persons and things looked up to by many and “venerated” in a non-religious way started to be referred to as  “icons”.

One source finds some 18,000 “iconic” references in news stories, and another 30,000 for “icon”.  Suzy Freeman-Greene, in her article of September 15 in the online version of the Australian newspaper The Age refers to “iconomania”, in a time when the word is being applied to just about anything and anyone to the point that its meaningfulness is at issue. And retaining the value of its meaning is an issue. The importance of icons is that complex concepts can be conveyed and achetypes defined through them.  As such icons serve an important communications function.

When we speak of journalistic integrity we can invoke Walter Cronkite as an  icon. Mahatma Gandhi can be pointed to as an icon for non-violent resistance. Thomas Edison, an icon of invention and innovation. He was also called “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, which leads us back to The Wizard of Oz.

In the prologue to his new book Finding Oz author Evan I. Schwartz refers to L. Frank Baum’s classic in terms of it being a great American myth. In its feature about Baum and The Wizard of Oz the Smithsonian Institution online magazine states: “Today, images and phrases from The Wizard of Oz are so pervasive, so unparalleled in their ability to trigger personal memories and musings, that it’s hard to conceive of The Wizard of Oz as the product of one man’s imagination.” The Library of Congress names The Wizard of Oz as the most-watched film in history.

There are a number of words and phrases that have entered into the vernacular resulting from the cultural impact of The Wizard of Oz, for example: Yellow Brick Road. noun. 1. (figuratively or humorously) A proverbial path to a promised land of one’s hopes and dreams.  This example about sums up what an icon is all about, i.e., conveniently summing up something  not reasonably expressed otherwise, like a mnemonic. It would be a shame to waste them.

(A note about copyright. C&C is assiduous with respect to not using copyrighted materials without appropriate permissions. The Wizard of Oz Movie Poster reproduced here is in the public domain by virtue of its publication between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice.)

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/20/dont-waste-our-icons/

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Beyond books and e-readers

I am an “early adopter” of the Amazon Kindle reading device. I love it. I am also a bibliophile. My personal collection includes among other volumes a 1764 copy of Hume’s Essays as well as an edition of Epictetus, His Morals, published in 1694. To me, beyond the value of their  content, these and  numerous others I have are treasures  – in a way, these books represent possessing the past, and handling them, carefully turning their aged pages, and reading from them gives me a sense of the time when they first appeared.

Stephen King, the well known horror and science fiction author, wrote an  article for Entertainment Weekly about his first experience reading with the Kindle in which he declared essentially that the Kindle will not supplant the book for the reason that books house the thoughts expressed in them in such a way that they give a permanency and stability to their works. Anyone who has watched a toddler walking about clutching his or her favorite storybook understands the significance of this attribute of books.

But while books may continue to co-exist with new technologies for the transmission of ideas, their raison d’etre may well change.

Eli M. Noam is Professor of Economics and Finance at Columbia University and Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI). The university-based research center focuses on strategy, management, and policy issues in telecommunications, computing, and electronic mass media. Professor Noam has devoted considerable attention to media, and books are by definition media, the means of communication.

In his article “Will Books Become the Dumb Medium?” published in 1998 in the Educom Review, Professor Noam prognosticates that books per se will ultimately have a secondary position to other information sources particularly, and will be used as an entertainment means primarily. While focusing on academia, his statements apply generally without doubt. Originally presented as the keynote address to the Annual Convention of Educom in 1997 (Educom, now Educause, is a noted non-profit organization dedicated to advancing higher education through information technology), it should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of books.

Advancing the transmission of thought and information through technological innovation is a constant human striving:  from cave paintings and oral lore to the invention of writing and alphabets, from stone tablets to papyrus and paper, from scribes to printing presses, from quill pens to typewriters, telegraph, telephones, televisions, computers, laptops, iPhones and Kindles and who knows what next?

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) I think would venture to speculate on this very question if he were alive today. Fortunately for posterity, his vision of the future is enunciated in the article “As We May Think” published in The Atlantic Monthly (now called simply The Atlantic) in 1945  and comes strikingly close to a 2009 reality.

Dr. Bush was a pioneering American engineer who had a hand in advancing the coming computer age, the atomic age, and was nominal first presidential science adviser. His idea of what he called the “memex” as described in “As We May Think” reads much like a description of how a 5th or 6th generation Kindle might function.

What is particularly fascinating, amidst all the fascinating prescience of Bush, is the incorporation of voice recognition and speech synthesis functionality for the “memex”. Why so?

Enter Dr. William Crossman, Founder and Director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures who predicts that “talking computers, VIVOs, will make text/written language obsolete, replace all writing and reading with speech and graphics, democratize information flow worldwide, and recreate an oral culture in the electronically-developed countries by 2050.” (from the online synopsis to the book, VIVO, Voice-In/Voice-Out, The Coming Age of Talking Computers).

Amazing supposition? Perhaps not so much. After thousands of years of technological progression a new oral culture is able to emerge. It may just turn out that what makes oral culture seemingly less advantageous to “literate” societies is not inherent  but rather relates more to the available means by which it is sustained. Move over books and e-readers, here come the VIVOs!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/09/07/beyond-books-and-e-readers/

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