Friday, June 13, 2008

The Creative Power of Media Ecology

It's been a busy time, preparing for the Ninth Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, which will be held next week (June 19-22) at Santa Clara University in California. The program is posted on the MEA website.

And we have been fortunate to have received some advanced publicity from an Los Angeles area periodical called Wide-Eyed. My friend, colleague, and co-conspirator in the MEA, Corey Anton of Grand Valley State University, is a regular contributor, the editor being one of his former students, and the current issue, which can be viewed or downloaded from their website, includes a couple of pieces by him, an interview with MEA Board member Doug Rushkoff, and a piece that they asked me to write. So, you can go take a look, even download the PDF, but for everyone's convenience and my own archiving purposes, I'm going to paste the short essay in below.

Power of
Media Ecology
Chances are, you’re reading this alone.
Even if there are other people nearby, I
doubt they are reading this along with you.
Even if they happen to be looking over your
shoulder, they aren’t reading the same
words at the exact same time as you are.
Reading is an alienating experience, turning
us into individuals.
Speaking, on the other hand, brings us
together in the simultaneity of sound, and
physical presence. Speech immediately
places us in a relationship, makes us kin,
forges tribal bonds. The reader is an
isolated individual, the audience a
collective, a group united by the experience
of listening.
In speech, we are joined in the moment,
which is fleeting. As Walter Ong said,
“sound only exists as it is going out of
existence.” Writing fixes words in a
permanent form, material and visual, so
that I can communicate to you from a
distance, and a time now past.
And as for me, I am little more than a
figment of your imagination. I am not
present for you, nor can you see or hear
me. In reading this, you are essentially
bypassing the physical, and reading my
mind, thinking my thoughts, or rather,
thinking thoughts that I once had, and set
down in writing.
Of course, to me, you are even less real, a
barely imagined fantasy, a glimmer of a
possibility, an abstract and generalized
other. I jot these words down on a pad,
addressed to no one in particular. By the
time you read this, these words will have
been typed into my computer, revised, sent
on to the editor, edited and copy-edited,
put into page layout, proofed, reproduced,
and distributed.
By the time you read these words, the me
that wrote them will be gone, replaced by a
slightly older version of myself, and I
myself will read them as if they were
written by a stranger—as Eric Havelock
put it, “writing separates the knower from
the known.” By the time you read these
words, I may not even be alive. But through
these words, a trace of me can live on.
The written word, independent of the
specific content or uses it is put to, is
fundamentally different from speech. And
a handwritten document is fundamentally
different from the impersonal technology
of print. And the printed page is fundamentally
different from text appearing on
your computer screen.
A picture is not worth a thousand words,
contrary to popular wisdom, as Susanne K.
Langer has shown us. Pictures may serve
as evidence, but they cannot present
arguments. They do not make statements,
unless we add a caption or interpretation.
They can be faked, but they are neither true
nor false, they just are. As Neil Postman
argued, the reason why the Second
Commandment forbids the use of all
imagery is that it represents an attempt to
change the way people think and view the
world, from one rooted in imagery and the
concrete, to a more abstract and literate
approach that open the door to monotheism
and ethics.
Every medium has its own bias, influencing
how and what we communicate. Artists
know that the same subject will yield
different results if they use oil paint or
watercolors, or if they sketch with charcoal,
or pastels, or if they were to form a
sculpture by chiseling stone, or carving
wood, or molding clay. Musicians can tell
you that the same melody creates a
different effect if played on violin, or
trumpet, or kazoo. This simple rule applies
to all of our media, and every one of our
technologies. And so we arrive at McLuhan’s
famous aphorism, “the medium is the
message,” by which he also meant that our
technologies and our symbol systems
influence the way that we think, feel, and
perceive, as well as our culture and
social organization. The key to understanding
media is to understand media
as environments, to understand that we
live within our words and our images,
our pages and screens, and of course
within our buildings and cars and cities.
Media ecology, the study of media as
environments, is the key to the most
creative mode of thinking imaginable. And,
it is the key to our future.

Graduate Director of Communication
and Media Studies at Fordham University
President of The Media Ecology Association

And there you have it, minus the cool and groovy layout and graphic design. Many thanks to Wide-Eyed editor Benjamin Hunter for getting the word out about the MEA over on the west coast.