Amazing media audience defines itself and its role

(one in a series of Strictly Opinion posts)

In June of 2006 Jay Rosen (journalism professor at NYU) punched out a blog piece for The Huffington Post under the title “The People Formerly Known as the Audience”  originally aired on his own blog PressThink, which took  Dan Gillmor’s (Director, Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at ASU) “former audience” idea from the book We the Media and punctuated the point.

It includes clenched fist verbiage. Those in the forefront of a revolution often need to express a point with an exclamation point. Now that a lot of the dust has settled – and the point itself has been settled – there can be no real question in February of 2010 that media communication needs to be a two-way street, irrespective of who initiates that communication, it seems appropriate to invite consideration of the basis for relationship/interaction models for now and the future .

The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind  demonstrates that music is quite literally a universal form of communication. With this in mind, I want to give some examples from the world of music to make a point about media communication and “audience” participation.

I have a passion for music, in most all its myriad forms, from tabla (type of drums played in India, more about these later) to banjo, from classical harp to jazz flugelhorn. In my youth I was very immersed in the American folk music revival of the time. Later I was part of a singing group called “The Evening’s Entertainment”  with gigs ranging from charity events to nursing homes (not the big time to be sure but rewarding nonetheless). As a singer/songwriter I sent a demo tape into the great Nashville vortex never to be heard again.  I have been on  the stage and in the stands and it is from this perspective that I want to review the proceedings.

Speaking of folk music, when Pete Seeger, the folk music/activist icon “took” the stage, he never for a moment construed his goal as – be quiet and listen vis-a-vis those who sat or stood before him; his modus operandi has always been – get everybody singin’ – his intent is to ensure that everyone in the hall/on the shoreline, wherever, participates in the moment, creating a collective “experience” which by its very nature moves mind and emotion. This isn’t a just found “theory of practice”, it is an approach that comes naturally to a natural-born communicator who has been around the horn.  The idea of participation of this sort is nothing new.

Many “primitive” types of music involve “call and response” in which one participant initiates a musical statement and this is answered by other participants. This has evolved into very sophisticated forms – but it all relates back to this basic one. There is the traditional jazz ensemble in which each instrument takes a turn with a lead solo of specified length, improvising – everyone knows the “changes” (the chord progressions and structures for a particular piece) – and  “working around” the melody produces sometimes very innovative and novel results. In classical music, somewhat the same process is achieved through “variations on a theme”.

This musical interlude has been presented to show that, just as in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind  an optimal way to generate communication – given varying circumstances and the desired outcome -can be achieved when there is a sincere motivation and commitment to do so.

What is touted as new  is the application of these musically common approaches to another form of communication – but everybody is not in fact always equal in the endeavor. There are Andrea Bocelli moments in the world of journalism for instance, which warrant just “listening to”. To suggest we are all in this together is fine, but sometimes we – the people formerly known as the audience – can contribute most effectively by just clapping our hands in time to the music. The term “audience” is not yet ready to be relegated to the archaic. The audience defines itself and its role. An audience, as such, can be very much involved in any given instance. The performer  requires an audience as much as the other way around – if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This is a well-known philosophical inquiry and applies in this case. Speaking of philosophy,  there is another important concept that bears on the  nature of participants and communication, that springs from this discipline.  For Martin Buber the eminent philosopher, the idea of “dialogue” is an essential building block of community, and involves communication in which relationship and connection are achieved between the participants. It involves having regard for both self and the other. It is the difference between talking with someone and talking to someone.

Back to the tabla drums of India as mentioned earlier. The two tabla drums are played in combination to produce very complex rhythmic and melodic patterns which are steeped in long-standing tradition, and passed on from tabla master to disciple. (tabla example). Each of the two drums produces its own unique set of sounds and played together the blending of these sounds is equally unique. The tabla drums are a metaphor for any form of what might be termed interconnected communication, including media communication as it is evolving. This concept of interconnected communication stems from collaborative method theory which provides, along with the concepts of music and dialogue referred to here , an excellent basis for considering what is possible with media. In the end, the goal is that each “actor” brings their own value to the final result produced by the interconnection. Bravo!

 

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Is handwriting doomed?

To borrow from and revise Shakespeare (quite audacious of me ), I come not to bury handwriting nor to praise it.  Much has already been written – or should I say put in print – by technocrats signaling the assumed demise of handwriting, particularly cursive writing, and with no regrets mentioned. Just another pre-computer age relic, so be it. But before we bid adieu to the power of the pen, axiomatically being replaced by the power of the keyboard, let’s reflect on writing by hand.

At the conclusion of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 the anti-intellectual hedonistic society that bans and burns books has all but collapsed and it is given to the “book-keepers” to start anew; in cases like this, those who possess fundamental skills are called upon;  survivors who are aware of how to apply rudimentary means to solve essential needs.

I remember an experience with a long-ago acquaintance who had a passion for sailing. He built a beautiful sailboat by himself and after it had proven seaworthy, he invited me to go sailing with him. One of the many fascinating features on the boat was that he had opted for a tiller rather than a steering wheel. When I questioned him as to why he had chosen to use the more labor intensive older means of maneuvering the vessel, he was quite clear: for him, the tiller was more responsive, more reliable, and simpler and therefore less prone to mechanical trouble. In fact much later I learned that emergency tillers are quite often used at least as a backup in case the steering wheel on a vessel fails to operate.

There is a story, a folktale of sorts.  It tells of a particular community that had invoked an involved ritual since time immemorial to protect its village. The knowledge of this was taught from generation to generation and thereby kept intact. But little by little as time went by, succeeding generations were less and less rigorous about learning the intricacies of the ritual, and subsequently forgot and left out steps one by one until all they could remember was the very basic incantation they had been taught, but  when this  itself was uttered,  amazingly it brought about the desired result.

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I reference these anecdotes here as they relate to handwriting. It may very well be a fundamental skill,  and a survival skill. It may also be a mind enhancing skill. Vanderbilt University education professor Steve Graham maintains that handwriting is a necessary building block: a number of studies show that quality of handwriting can affect everything from students’ grades to the complexity of expressed thought.

Keeping things in perspective, communication technology has certainly evolved; from Oral Culture, to Manuscript Culture, to Print Culture, to the present Electronic/Digital Culture. There are some who project a future, enabled by technology, in which a neo-oral culture will emerge. I have mentioned this in a previous post. As each successive innovation arrives it tends to impact but not necessarily displace previous means – back in 1955 a Saturday Evening Post article bemoaned the sure to come end of handwriting due to: “an increasing reliance on telephone, typewriter, dictating machines and electronic brains”.

To be sure handwriting was not always egalitarian. In ancient cultures scribes, persons educated in the art of writing, were an elite group. During medieval times, this exclusive competency became much the province of cloistered monks, whose painstaking copying of manuscripts is typically regarded as saving, along with the work of less heralded Jewish and Islamic scholars of the period,  a legacy of knowledge through the dark ages. In colonial times in America, there was a clear distinction between acquisition of skill in reading versus writing; the former, fairly universal, while writing on the other hand was generally reserved for males in the professions and the merchant class. By the eighteenth century, writing had become a usual skill of the well-bred, both men and women. Eventually, teaching penmanship passed from writing masters to public schools. The Spencerian method, first introduced in the 1840’s, and later superseded by the simpler, less elegant Palmer method in the early 1900’s became de rigueur as a part of everyone’s elementary education. Everyone developed a distinct if not perfect handwriting in the process.

Indeed, handwriting is very personal. This is something to recommend it. Historians can pour over a rough draft of a handwritten document, replete with strikeouts and word revisions, and garner much of value through such analysis. The personal touch of a handwritten note has a value as well, to the recipient.

When all is said and done, any advance assumes a cumulative aspect, not a zero sum approach. In origin, the word advance in fact comes from the idea of being in front (of ); implying something is backing up whatever is in front – in the case of tools of communication, handwriting is the ultimate backup.

Two good books on the subject of handwriting are Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by Professor Tamara Plakins Thornton and the recent Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey.

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https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/10/30/is-handwriting-doomed/

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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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In case of emergency, who controls the Internet?

S. 773, The Cybersecurity Act of 2009, presently being redacted by the Senate Commerce Committee, is a piece of pending legislation that bears watching. On April 1, 2009, Senators John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced legislation designed to promote cybersecurity, a reasonable cause per se. 

President Obama, in a public statement delivered from the East Room of the White House on May 29, 2009 emphasized the need for “securing our nation’s cyber infrastructure”. While considering this essential, he emphasized his commitment to an open Internet:

Let me also be clear about what we will not do. Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not — I repeat, will not include — monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic. We will preserve and protect the personal privacy and civil liberties that we cherish as Americans. Indeed, I remain firmly committed to net neutrality so we can keep the Internet as it should be open and free.

Now those in the know, including The Center for Democracy and Technology,  have expressed concerns about components of the proposed legislation. CDT, defines itself as “a non-profit public interest organization working to keep the Internet open, innovative, and free.” Its mission is to build “consensus among all parties interested in the future of the Internet and other new communications media.”

Now those who claim to be in the know,  in a variety of recent articles over the past several days,  in the blogosphere and elsewhere,  have made statements about this issue which are more prone to incite than inform. Some of the rhetoric being used is akin to that being employed in the health care debate. Both issues are too important to be reduced to epithets.

On August 20, Commerce Committee staff circulated for comment a draft Committee Amendment to S. 773.

In an effort to render a reasoned interpretation of where this proposed legislation now stands, C&C contacted Greg Nojeim, Senior Counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Director of its Project on Freedom, Security & Technology. He provided  the following statement:

“The draft Committee Amendment to the Cybersecurity Act marks a substantial improvement over the original version, but ambiguous language in the draft Committee Amendment also raises new concerns and questions about its scope.”

Previously this blog referenced the attempt by the government of Iran to impose an information blackout during the  protest by its citizens of a suspect election. “Internet access has been successfully curtailed to strangle the flow of information in and out of the country.” (http://bit.ly/2N4UUg). Of course the citizenry turned to their cellphones and through tweets on Twitter and video on YouTube circumvented the Internet shut down. 

Throughout history, to the present day, totalitarian regimes  use access to information to subjugate. In this country, civil liberties are protected. The balancing of  these rights with legitimate national security concerns in an Internet driven world is what is at stake in this case.

While there are a number of elements in S. 733 in need of scrutiny,  the section which deals with Presidential  authority to address a cybersecurity emergency is certainly and rightly a “hot button” issue, no pun intended (“kill switch” was a term previously employed in connection with this provision).

Beyond the Commerce Committee, there are other proposed pieces of related legislation circulating. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is supposed to issue its own bill sometime this fall.

 It is expected that The Center for Democracy & Technology, in consort with other responsible organizations, will continue to voice concerns and work with Commerce Committee staff regarding this bill. In the meantime, stay calm and vigilant.

To read the full text of President Obama’s statement on securing our cyber infrastructure go to: http://bit.ly/f8hI8

To learn more about The Center for Democracy & Technology and its work go to: http://www.cdt.org/

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/31/in-case-of-emergency-who-controls-the-internet/

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Dominick Dunne leaves his mark

Vanity Fair, the publication with which he had a 25 year association beginning in  1984 until his death on Wednesday, referred to Dominick Dunne in memorializing him as “our dearly departed diarist”.  Noted communicators contribute in many  genres and Dunne was the past master at his, chronicling the rich and infamous.  In Letter from Los Angeles, L.A. in the Age of O.J.  published in Vanity Fair in February 1995 as Dunne covered the O.J. Simpson Trial he wrote: “The Simpson case is like a great trash novel come to life, a mammoth fireworks display of interracial marriage, love, lust, lies, hate, fame, wealth, beauty, obsession, spousal abuse, stalking, brokenhearted children, the bloodiest of bloody knife-slashing homicides, and all the justice that money can buy.” Dunne’s reportage was like a story that invariably was irresistible, not surprising for a writer who had five bestselling novels.

He started his career in New York City as stage  manager for The Howdy Doody Show and in 1957 moved to Hollywood where he produced both television and feature films, all experiences which one senses played a part in developing his approach to writing. When life in the fast lane (in the form of substance abuse) caught up with him he took himself in hand and into seclusion in Oregon and at the age of 50 began to reinvent himself as a writer.

His profiles of the likes of Imelda Marcos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Elizabeth Taylor, Adnan Khashoggi, and others are works of art in their own right.

To read some of Dunne’s best go to Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne Archive http://bit.ly/yMwu2

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/27/dominick-dunne-leaves-his-mark/

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