Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eight Bits About Digital Communication, Media, and Culture

So, let's take a break from Alfred Korzbyski and general semantics, and take a look at some YouTubers I uploaded a couple of weeks ago.

Back in 2005, I was one of several keynote speakers at the
V Bienal Iberoamericana de la Communicación, a Latin American conference held every two years, on the subject of communication technologies and new media. Hosting this event were my friends at Technológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México, which is in the metropolitan area of Mexico City. The conference took place on Sept. 20-22, 2005, and my talk was on the last day, along with Eric McLuhan, my friend Paul Lippert, and Liss Jeffrey from Toronto.

As you can see from the video, they put a lot of time, money, and effort into the set up, there were about a thousand folks in the audience, and they had great production values for the videotaping. And this event set the stage for the Media Ecology Association convention they hosted in 2007, about which I posted numerous times--remember the ME(A)xico!

Anyway, the title of the address is "Eight Bits About Digital Communication," there's a Spanish language introduction, but my talk is in English. It's long, I have to warn you, but then again YouTube requirements forced me to break it up into segments of ten minutes or less, so there are eight for you to view at your leisure (or not at all, of course).

So, enough explication, let's go to the videotape:

And that pretty much says it all. Time for some pizza, I'd say--go on, have a bite!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

From Rushkoff to San Diego with General Semantics and Media Ecology

So, I've been in San Diego for a few days now, for the National Communication Association's annual meeting. We had a pre-conference on media ecology on Thursday, that took the form of a lively all-day seminar discussion, and there have been a number of sessions here co-sponsored by the Media Ecology Association, one of which I chaired.

One big disappointment is that I applied for the National Communication Association to grant affiliate status to the Institute of General Semantics, a status that the Media Ecology Association gained some years ago, and the executive committee decided to table the application and put a moratorium on affiliations, and review the whole process. A number of NCA bigwigs expressed their disappointment with that outcome to me. At least we were approved for affiliation by the International Communication Association, and I have an application in to become an affiliate of the Eastern Communication Association.

We did set up tables at the Exhibition Hall, which my graduate student Pamela Miller ran for most of the time, and did so with great dilligence and efficiency. I took over for most of today, and in fact I'm writing this post while sitting at our exhibit. The response has been good, we've sold some books, generated some interest, gotten a lot of very affectionate reactions and strolls down memory lane, and most importantly, reminded folks in the field of communication about the IGS, and generated awareness overall.

I was also delighted to have a chance to meet for the first time Tom Bruneau, after some e-mail correspondence. It turns out that Tom was a student of Frank Dance, the speech, language and human communication maven and former president of the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association--Frank is also a Fordham University alum, and a long time member, friend, and supporter of the Media Ecology Association.

So, it's not surprising that Tom and I would be on the same wavelength intellectually. Tom, who is retired now, is a leading expert on chronemics, the human use of time, a subject I find fascinating. Tom's major influence is Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist who is an often unsung pioneer of media ecology, an important influence on McLuhan, and also a pioneer in the study of both intercultural communication and nonverbal communication. His first book, The Silent Language, is a foundational work for media ecology, and his second, The Hidden Dimension, established the importance of proxemics, the human use of space, as an area of study. And conceptions of space are very important for media ecology scholarship, as are conceptions of time, which Hall deals with in The Dance of Life. I also recommend his book on intercultural communication, Beyond Culture. So, anyway, Tom and I never got around to talking very much about Hall, but did talk a bit about general semantics, about time, and about intercultural communication.

Which brings me back to Rushkoff, who put up a post about his Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies website on November 19th. Rushkoff's post, entitled Don’t Change Your “Self” - Change the World, can be gotten to by clicking here, but of course I am happy to go over there myself and bring it on back for you here--it's all part of this full service operation.

I'll even bring over the picture of Doug that's on the post:

There it is again, his shayna punim! Now, let's see what he has to say:

Doug Rushkoff: Here’s a podcast of the talk I did for the Institute of General Semantics last Friday night. The talk was about the biggest honor I’ve had as a public speaker: The 56th Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture at the Princeton Club in NYC. The event was just written up by Brian Heater for the NYPress.

This put me at the end of a long line of thinkers I’ve long admired: Buckminster Fuller, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Gregory Bateson, Robert Anton Wilson, Abraham Maslow, Ellen Langer, Albert Ellis…you get the idea. It’s hard to accept the fact that I’ve grown up, and that most of the generation of thinkers before me have already moved on. But someone has to carry the torch, and that may as well be all of us.

The lecture has a lot to do with the subject of my upcoming book, Life Incorporated: How a business plan took over the world and how to take it back, which I just finished rewriting last night to include the current financial crisis. It’s the same book, except instead of warning that our corporatist behaviors will soon lead us into a financial crisis, I get to show how it all happened and how to get out. It makes the job of explaining the book or convincing people to read it a lot easier. I’m much less a Cassandra, now, warning of imminent meltdown - and I don’t have to spend as much time doing what might appear to some as naysaying or scolding. We’re all aware that we’re in a fine mess, now, and already interested in understanding what happened and how to fix it.

I tried to make this lecture provocative to the General Semantics people, in particular. General Semantics has over the years limited itself, I argue, to self-help technologies from NLP and psychotherapy to EST and self-hypnosis. All this focus on the self really started back during the renaissance, and coincided with some really dark presuppositions about human nature such as self-interest. And - as I show in the book - these are really just artifacts of corporatism.

The object of the game, I think, is not to change the self (which doesn’t even really exist) but to change the world.

In all fairness, general semantics should not be grouped together with these psychotherapies, although it is true that there have been many general semanticists interested in the therapeutic uses of the discipline over the years, and many therapeutic offshoots of general semantics such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming and dianetics. But Alfred Korzybski himself was very much interested in changing the world, and in social, political, and economic applications of general semantics. He and his followers were profoundly interested in propaganda, in equipping people to resist it, and stereotyping and scapegoating. General semanticist Anatol Rapoport was a major figure in peace and justice studies. And Neil Postman, who introduced media ecology as "general semantics writ large," was also looking at much more than the individual self.

Doug loves to be provocative, and I certainly agree that we need to change the world. General semantics has always been about that, and so has media ecology. And from a general semantics point of view, you'd have to ask, why is it either-or? Why not both-and? Let's change ourselves and change the world. The two are inseparable. It is, after all, an ecology.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rushkoff-ing to Post the Korzybski Lecture

I'm not sure if anyone was uploading directly to YouTube while Doug Rushkoff was delivering his Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture a few days ago, but there were people recording it in audio and visual formats. Fordham students Jimmy Page, Doug Petrullo, and Gabriella Loutfi videotaped the lecture and symposium, and we'll have an edited version available at some point in the future.

But for those who can't wait, the New York Press has a post up about the lecture, and a link to download an MP3 recording of Doug's talk. I'll relay all the info for ya, got the 411 right here, but first let's get a picture of Doug out there:

There, that's the one they used in the article. He was dressed nicer for us, though. Anyway, here's what the posted article, written by Brian Heater, said:


Generational Semantics: Writer Douglas Rushkoff at the Institute of General Semantics Dinner

The writer and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff would, of course, have been remiss had he not addressed the polarized nature of his audience right off the bat. The front half of the room was monopolized by circular tables covered in white tablecloths, surrounded be gray-haired diners who had arrived at the Princeton Club at 6 p.m. to participate in the $90-a-plate meal. They made up a large portion of The New York Society for General Semantics, a 62-year-old offshoot of the Institute of General Semantics, which boasts the hopeful mission statement of, "improv[ing] one's ability to evaluate the world and one's place in it."

Let me interrupt by noting that while there were many senior citizens present at the tables, there were also a bunch of us middle-aged types, and also a few of the younger set. And while the New York Society for General Semantics was well represented, this was an Institute of General Semantics event, all of the NYSGSers were also members of the IGS, and there were many others from out of town who are only affiliated with the IGS (not to mention a number of us who are also members of the Media Ecology Association, but that's another matter). But this sort of mix-up is commonplace with reporters, so let's go back to what Brian was saying:

The list of previous speakers at the event included such diverse luminaries as Buckminster Fuller, Steve Allen, Robert Anton Wilson—a list on which, the club's acting president noted thoughtfully, Rushkoff's name surely didn't seem out of place.

Okay, um, sorry to interrupt again, but that was me, I said it, and I'm not the acting president, Marty Levinson is the IGS President and he ain't acting, I'm the acting executive director. Of the Institute, it's not a club, it's an institute. Yeah, I know, details, details. Ok, let's not put so much heat on Heater and listen to what he has to say:

Toward the back of the room were rows of chairs set up for the 8 o'clockers, those who poured into the room two hours later, forgoing that $90 meal, eager to watch the Ecstasy Club author in action. A motley assortment that were at least half the median age as those seated up in front.

"This is a really interesting mix," Rushkoff smiled, at the top of his speech. "The half over here came because you're members of the Institute of General Semantics and pay dues and get newsletters, and the other half of these people probably got a Facebook message…There's two very different paths. Of course they wouldn't have been able to come, were it not for the generosity of the [front] group. You guys, by paying your dues, made this possible. Instead of seeing your contribution as the privilege to get this thing, you decided that your contribution was about the privilege to share this thing."

It was a perfect entry point into a talk that would have no doubt immediately been written off as socialist rhetoric by "Joe the Plumber" and his ilk. Over the next two hours, Rushkoff traced the present-day economic collapse all the way back to the Renaissance and the birth of the self, largely succeeding in bringing the room's binary attendance together, save for the occasionally alienating video game metaphor—which, while effective in illustrating his points using references to programming language and mods, was no doubt a touch baffling to those finishing up their meals, scratching heads at references to virtual worlds. Still, in all it was a rather compelling talk by one of our most prominent counter-cultural media theorists, particularly when he referred to president-elect Obama (of whom Rushkoff admitted he was certainly a fan) as, "playing president." Whether or not you agreed with such sentiments, there was likely nary a person in the room not drawn in by Rushkoff's assertions.

Well, this guy likes Rushkoff, that's pretty clear, but then again everyone I spoke to about the lecture said that they thought Rushkoff was great, even if many also said that they didn't agree with everything he had to say. So anyway, if you want to see the post for yourself, click here. From there, you'll find a link to download the MP3 of his talk, or you can go directly to the page where you can download the file by clicking here, and you can hear for yourself and decide if he did a good job, and if you do or don't agree with what he has to say. It's not the same thing as being there, for one you've missed out on a very tasty dinner, but on the other hand it's great to have this available, especially so soon after the lecture itself. Sharing, like Doug said, that's what it's all about, and Korzybski was saying the same thing over 75 years ago!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cool to the Korzybski

So, this past weekend's 56th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and Creating the Future Symposium was quite a success, with over 200 individuals present for all or part of the proceedings, and lots and lots of happy, intellectually stimulated folks. And it was marvelous to see so many old friends, especially the alumni of the dearly departed media ecology program at New York University. This was a great occasion to see the old tribe, especially those who aren't active in the Media Ecology Association, and who have a strong connection to general semantics.

While we're on the subject, I want to mention my friend Robert Francos, who has been MEA's photographer extraordinaire for the past ten years, and was taking pictures all weekend long. Rob has a blog that's mostly about rock, having been a music critic back in the days of CBGSs, the blogs name is FFanzeen: Rock 'n' Roll With Integrity. And he just put up a post inspired by this past weekend, Remembering Neil Postman, and I want you to go read it. Go now, I'll wait here, and we can pick up where we left off when you're done.

Back now? Worth the read, right? Very good, now on with the blog, this is it:

It no doubt was flattering that the Institute of General Semantics website was hacked on Saturday, as it shows that people are actually paying attention to us; this was the second time that the site was hacked, the first being after the AKML speaker Douglas Rushkoff made a big deal about us on his blog. He hangs out with a tough crowd, virtually speaking, but that's cool. It's nice that people care enough to hack the site, but of course there is too much of a good thing, so we've had our fill now, thank you very much.

I'm still exhausted and in the process of processing all that went on, so I'll no doubt have more to say about the weekend in later posts. And anyway, we'll be publishing some of the talks in the General Semantics Bulletin, which you'll get if you're a member, and also making video of the talks available on DVD.

But for now, I want to mention that I had a lot of nice compliments on the events, and on how I was doing as Executive Director of the IGS, and one unexpected compliment that I received was that I was likened to President-Elect Barrack Obama in exhibiting a kind of calm serenity while making sure that everything was running smoothly.

Now, I have to say that the outer calm does not necessarily reflect the inner nervousness, and sometimes outright panic, that I might be feeling. But that's besides the point, which is that we have a new point of comparison in Obama, and of course it is very flattering indeed to have been the subject of such a simile.

And this brings me back to a post I put up last week, Triumph of the Cool, where I wrote about the contest for the coolest televisual image between Obama and McCain, which Obama won. Being compared to Obama means that folks think that I'm cool. And being a baby-boomer, a late baby-boomer in fact, being cool has been a lifelong goal for me, in some ways an obsession.

In a comment on Triumph of the Cool, my friend Bob Blechman, who participated at the Symposium, and has a very cool blog of his own, A Model Media Ecologist, said that he didn't think that McCain ever had a chance. I thought I'd take this opportunity to correct my good friend, and note that right before the economic meltdown, McCain was leading in the polls. Of course, we don't know what would have happened if the economy had not faltered, and we'll never know.

But I think the closest analogy to what happened to McCain can be found in Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign. When Carter defeated the appointed incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in 1976, he was hailed as a master of the cool, of media, television, and symbolism. He wore a sweater, for God's sake, and before you knew it Dan Rather followed suit on the CBS Evening News. But as the economy got worse, Carter became increasingly more strident, turning hotter and hotter. And the meltdown came in the form of the Iranian hostage crisis, which continued into the election campaign in 1980. In response, Carter suspended his campaigning and remained at the White House, the Rose Garden strategy it was called. And some say that if our forces had not wilted in Iran's dessert heat, if not for the helicopter crash, or if we had had one more helicopter to spare, the hostages would have been rescued, allowing Carter to cool down and win the election. After all, Reagan was seen as a right-wing kook before his election, and a perennial loser. I kid you not, kids.

It's truly amazing how fortunes can rise and fall in politics.

But getting back to Obama's coolness, being cool means that you are providing an incomplete image, a less that hi-fidelity soundtrack, that there are gaps and intervals, there's missing information, and that invites the audience to participate by filling in what's missing. That Obama is a bit of a cipher is part of being cool, just as Joe Cool wearing shades is inscrutable, keeps his thoughts to himself, his feelings under wraps, and plays his cards close to the vest. Marshall McLuhan said that charisma is looking like a lot of other people, as opposed to looking like an individual, and this sort of cool charisma fosters identification (which Kenneth Burke said was the key to success in rhetoric and persuasion), as we project ourselves into the other person to complete the image (this idea is also presented in Scott McCloud's wonderful work, Understanding Comics).

So, this point about Obama was interestingly reinforced in an article in Sunday's Week in Review Section of the New York Times (November 16, 2008), entitled, Whose President Is He Anyway? written by Peter Baker. The article begins by making the point about Obama's ability to foster identification:

It did not go unnoticed among the paisans that Barack Obama loves a four-star Italian restaurant on the Magnificent Mile near the lakefront. Not some pizza joint, but “the Ferrari of Italian cooking,” as Spiaggia’s chef and co-owner, Tony Mantuano, puts it. Appreciation for fine Italian culture, he said, has earned Mr. Obama a strong following in the community. “He’s the pride of the Italians,” Mr. Mantuano said.

And why not? Practically everyone wants to claim Mr. Obama these days. African-Americans, obviously, but also Hispanic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans and even white Americans purging feelings of racial guilt. The youth, the netroots, the bipartisan consensus builders, the East Coast elites, the Hollywood crowd. Liberals, centrists and even some conservatives who see Reaganesque qualities. The British, the Germans and other foreigners disaffected with Bush’s America.

“I am like a Rorschach test,” Mr. Obama noted at one point during the campaign. “Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.”

A Rorschach test is about as cool as a cool medium can get. Of course, if that's the case, there's nowhere to go from there but to get hotter as your image becomes clearer and more distinct:

The Rorschach part may fade with the end of the campaign but the test part is here. Reconciling all those different impressions of who Mr. Obama is and what he stands for may prove as defining a challenge as fixing the economy.

Whose president is he? The standard line from his advisers would naturally be that he’s the president of all Americans. But it rarely works out that simply. Ultimately, the gauzy picture of the campaign trail sharpens in the act of governing. Ultimately, choices are made and illusions shattered. And so many of Mr. Obama’s supporters invested so much passion in him that the potential for let-down seems considerable.

The president-elect’s first few actions and statements since the election have provided some initial clues that are already being scrutinized for larger meaning. His first appointment, for instance, was to make his friend Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois his White House chief of staff.

Some critics saw that as a betrayal of Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge to foster a “new politics” reaching across the aisle in Washington since Mr. Emanuel is such a skilled specialist in the razor-edged old politics of slicing up the opposition. But others saw ideological significance in the fact that Mr. Emanuel has been an advocate for more centrist policies when it comes to issues like trade, crime and welfare.

The selection of Mr. Emanuel and other veterans of President Bill Clinton’s administration to run the transition stood in contrast to Mr. Obama’s message about finally moving beyond the Clinton era. All the more striking was his decision last week to sound out Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton herself as a possible secretary of state. The Clinton faction is pleased, but those who saw Mr. Obama as a clean break may wonder what it means.
Now, the matter of Joe Lieberman comes up next in the article, a case that has got some Democrats really heated up. In my opinion, Lieberman was badly betrayed by the left wing of the Democratic party, and abandoned by his friends, as he lost the primary campaign when he was running for reelection to his Senate seat, and having won election as an Independent anyway, came to his party's aid when they needed him to form a majority in the Senate. He has every right to take a stand as a centrist Democrat, and even to support the opposition's candidate for President. And Obama is right to take the cool stand and not look for revenge, and perhaps should put a leash on some of the hotheads in his party. As the article goes on to say:

Similarly, many inside the Beltway sat up and paid attention when Mr. Obama, through a spokeswoman, said he did not hold any grudges against Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls himself an independent Democrat but barnstormed for Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee. Mr. Obama said he would not get involved in deciding whether Mr. Lieberman should keep his committee chairmanship and would welcome his staying in the Democratic caucus.

Republicans and some Democrats were relieved at what they viewed as an act of statesmanship, but some liberals intent on punishing Mr. Lieberman for his heresy were disappointed. Yet interestingly, even among critics of Mr. Lieberman, the statement was interpreted differently.

Greg Sargent, writing on TPM Election Central, argued that the statement “risks giving cover to senators who want to do nothing about Lieberman.” Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, writing on the Daily Kos Web site, said, “Greg Sargent seems to take this as pro-Lieberman. I see it exactly the opposite,” because Mr. Obama did not take a position on the committee chairmanship, which Mr. Moulitsas considers the issue. Even now, Mr. Obama remains what he is in the eye of the beholder.

Cool, cool, cool. No wonder there are constant comparisons to John F. Kennedy, the first president who was cool enough for TV:

“He reminds me of John Kennedy in this respect,” said Peter H. Wehner, a former Bush White House official now at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “If you read the books on Kennedy, intellectuals who spoke to Kennedy felt like he was an intellectual; politicians who spoke with him felt like he was a politician. He had the ability to make people think he was what they wanted and what they were looking for. I get the sense that Obama is a little like that and everyone is going to lay claim to him.”

Mr. Obama has an advantage that some other presidents did not, in that he has been a singular political phenomenon who probably does not owe his election primarily to any particular group. If Ronald Reagan leaned heavily on the support of the religious conservatives and Mr. Clinton tried to move his party to the center in search of independents, Mr. Obama did not define himself in strongly ideological terms, even if his record and program are largely left of center.

But it was Mr. Obama who set the expectations so high among so many different constituency groups. His advertising during the primaries urged Democrats to vote for him because he would do nothing less than “save the planet,” which as campaign promises go certainly beats a chicken in every pot.

“There’s going to be enormous pressure on him to produce, to meet these expectations,” said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine who is now national director of the activist group Win Without War.

And among those exerting that pressure will be Mr. Andrews’s fellow opponents of the Iraq war. An early test will be whom Mr. Obama picks for secretary of defense. Advisers have said he is thinking about asking the current Pentagon chief, Robert M. Gates, to stay on, at least for a while, in a show of bipartisanship. But Mr. Andrews said that would undermine the founding ideal of Mr. Obama’s campaign to end the war.

“Clearly when you compare Gates and Rumsfeld it’s night and day; everybody recognizes that,” Mr. Andrews said, referring to Mr. Gates’s predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. “But still, we need to turn the page and have a new direction and deliver clear and strong messages including who is going to be our secretary of defense. The strongest message would be to put in a new team with a new vision.”

Possibly in no area will this tension be more fraught than in race relations. As the first African-American president in a nation long divided over race, Mr. Obama will face crosscurrents that none of his predecessors ever did, embodying as he does the hopes of a long-disenfranchised segment of the population yet determined not to be locked into old paradigms. Many of his actions will be viewed through the lens of race, from the composition of his cabinet to the priority he places on issues historically important to black Americans.

Mr. Obama managed to balance those pressures through nearly two years of campaigning and now will have to do it again. “He’ll still have to be a master manipulator, in a sense, and know how to navigate all those different forces,” said Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. “He has shown himself to be a very cool-under-fire kind of guy.”

Very cool under fire, eh? Sorry, the words just jumped out at me. Let's get back to the article:

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, said Mr. Obama would show that he can be bold without being radical and that most black supporters would recognize the limits the economy has placed on what he can do.

“He knows he has to be careful not to make any lurches left or right,” Mr. Clyburn said. “He plays the game inside the hash marks. Anything too far left or too far right would make it a very rocky presidency for him. Most people understand that. Not all people, and I’ve heard from people when I say that, but most people.”

Perhaps, but African-Americans are not the only ones to see in him a unique champion, and the demands for action could be considerable. Two out every three Hispanic voters supported Mr. Obama, an increase of 13 percentage points from four years ago, according to exit polls, and turnout in that demographic shot up by more than 30 percent. Hispanic leaders said they provided the margin of victory in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

“We feel like we had a big stake in the election and that’s what prompted this historic turnout,” said Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza. The advocacy group did wait long to begin publicly pushing the new president-elect to recognize this support with key White House and Cabinet positions.

“At some point in the first term we would definitely expect to see an effort to move responsible immigration reform,” Ms. Murguía said. “It would be a big mistake not to act on this important priority.”

Or all of the other important priorities that the president-elect’s believers assume he will tackle. After all, he’s got a planet to save.

We can only wish him the best of luck in saving the planet--godspeed Mr. President-Elect! In the meantime, I'll be tackling the more modest job of saving the Institute of General Semantics, and nurturing its growth for the 21st century. That's a pretty big responsibility in and of itself, and the first step is readily apparent--be cool, man, be cool!

PS, that also means have a sense of humor, as can be seen in this video in which the newly elected Senator Obama takes part in a roast of Representative Rahm Emanuel, his pick for White House Chief of Staff:

So, as we used to say when we were kids, maintain your coolness! Maintain!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

General Semantics On the Air

So, in my previous post, Programming the Korzybski Lecture and Symposium, I went over the events coming up this weekend which include Douglas Rushkoff presenting the 56th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture on the evening of Friday November 14, and a two-day Creating the Future Symposium. And this past summer, I posted a report on my appearance on the Connecticut Public Radio program, Where We Live, hosted by John Dankowsky: Where We Live?

So, put the two together and we get one hell of a broadcast. At least, that's how it seems to me, after taking part in it, and then listening to it over the internet. They gave this episode the title of Language, Symbols and Words... Oh My and you can just click on the title to go to the page, and from there you can listen to the program or download it as an MP3 and listen to it on your computer or iPod. And there's a great picture of Bill Petkanas there. Bill is the new editor of the quarterly journal of the Institute of General Semantics, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, in addition to being a Professor of Communication and department chair at Western Connecticut State University--I know Bill from New York University, where we both studied with Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, and Terry Moran (who is one of the participants in the symposium) in the good old media ecology program (sadly now defunct). Here's the picture they have of him:

Bill, being nearby, was lucky enough to be able to do the show at their studio, and meet John Dankowsky (I did the show from a studio at WFUV at Fordham University), and also meet the producer of the show, Catie Talarski. I want to say a special word of thanks to Catie for making this all possible. Catie posted an entry on the blog set up for Where We Live on their website (called Where We Blog), under the heading of Generally Confused about Semantics... Click on that link and go check it out.

You see, the marvelous thing about all this, in addition to all the other marvelous things, is that Catie and John weren't exactly sure what the hell we all were going to talk about, or what the episode was going to be like or how it would go. And it turned out to be a really fun and engaging show, with some interesting call-ins, including a few folks who were quite familiar with general semantics. Personally, I found the experience exciting and exhilarating, the more so because I too was not exactly sure how it all would turn out.

But that's just how it seems to me. General semantics suggests that it would be best if you check it out and evaluate it for yourself. Listen, and if you can, come see Doug give the Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture on Friday, and come see the stimulating symposium we have planned for Saturday and Sunday.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Programming the Korzybski Lecture and Symposium

So, I've been working on this event for the Institute of General Semantics, and we're less than a week away, so I wanted to share the program with you. It can also be downloaded as a PDF from here: (and there's still room if you want to register for the dinner before the Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture), just go to the bottom of the page where it says:

Schedule of Events

For the schedule of events for the weekend, click here. (or you can just click there for that matter).

I am very pleased, I should add, with the design and layout of the program, which was done by Fordham graduate student Pamela Miller, who is helping me out with various IGS matters. Thanks, Pam!

I should add that the events have several co-sponsors, including the Media Ecology Association, and Fordham University, not to mention the New York Society for General Semantics.

And so, without further ado about nothing in particular, here it is, take a look, I think it looks pretty good, the program and the event itself. You can click on each page to get a larger view, and you can download the PDF of course, and if you actually come to the event, you can get a nice print version of the program, to keep!!!

And so we end with the man himself, old Alfred the K., (null)A-K-(null)A Count Korzybski, the Father of General Semantics (I know that calling a founder "the father" is not politically correct anymore, but it seems to fit with the whole aristocratic image).

I do think (and certainly hope) that if he could look down and see what's going on with the Institute of General Semantics these days, he'd be pleased with what we're doing with the place.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Triumph of the Cool

So, it's Obama by a landslide, at least in our anachronistic electoral college system, the popular vote always being relatively close even in the most lopsided of presidential elections. So, how did this come to pass? What lessons can be learned from the 2008 campaign for the presidency?

Well, for me, it always goes back to McLuhan's point about television, which remains our dominant medium, favoring the cool image over the hot one, and electronic media in general tending to be pretty darn cool. This time around, both candidates were fairly cool to begin with, both of them visually, having rounded, relatively indistinct features, and aurally, both of them having calm, relatively soft voices. Yes, both candidates had the potential to move towards the hotter end of the spectrum. McCain had a terrrible tendency to get heated up when losing his temper. Obama had a tendency to use a hotter oratorical or lawyerly speaking style rather than maintaining a cooler conversational tone. So, it was looking to be a battle of who would be best able to maintain his coolness. And Obama won.

Where did McCain go wrong? Well, first he thought it was a good idea to pick a hot chick for a running mate (not to imply that the relationship was anything but platonic). Maybe he got that idea from the Fox News cable channel, where they seem to have a policy that they should always have a hot Republican chick, usually a highly conservative young, attractive blonde with great legs, as part of every news program. This seems to work just fine insofar as Fox gets the best ratings of all the cable news channels. Heating up the cool medium of television gets you viewers, there's no question about it. Not surprisingly, the Vice-Presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden attracted a larger audience than any VP debate ever before. And hey, it's not like there had never been a woman VP candidate before. I well remember when Geraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, and debated George H. W. Bush on television. The debate itself was unexciting and inconclusive, but elder Bush got into a little trouble afterwards when he bragged that he had "kicked a little tail" in the debate! But for McCain, Palin brought too much heat to his campaign, while Biden was largely able to maintain his cool in his role as Obama's Number One.

Then came the stock market meltdown. And I can't help but remember Bill Clinton's 1992 mantra that he repeated all the way to the White House, defeating a seated president in Bush the Elder: IT'S THE ECONOMY STUPID! It certainly was this time around, and I do think that the election would have been extremely close, and in my opinion would have gone to McCain, had it not been for the crash. It certainly took foreign policy and the military entirely off of the agenda, eliminating McCain's strongest areas as a candidate. I can't think of when an issue so central during the primaries and conventions so completely and utterly vanished during a general election. So, no doubt it hurt McCain significantly when the crash came. No doubt McCain has reason to be steamed, even boiling mad at the younger Bush for having screwed him up a second time, after taking the nomination from him in 2000 by playing dirty with rumors and accusations. But McCain's response to the meltdown was at first to play it cool to teh point of rigor mortis (as McLuhan might have remarked) by denying that there was a problem, and then by doing an about face and appearing to get overheated, saying he was suspending his campaign, running around to Washington, trying to solder together a quick agreement. From this point on, he was never able to regain his cool, and Obama slid into home with an historic victory.

So it's the triumph of the cool, stupid. Interestingly, Obama did it without recourse to the heavily cool cultural style of African Americans who are descended from slaves. Bill Clinton's style comes closer to that brand of cool than Obama's. And we should also realize that not all that long ago for most white Americans, and today still for a significant number of that demographic, Obama is not cool visually, that the color of skin comes across as sharp and hot, different and distinct. That so many of us could look at him and see him as cool enough to identify with (that is the source of charisma according to McLuhan), and not something entirely Other to us (as so many felt about John Kerry, for example), is a sign of great progress, progress that has been made over a relatively short period of time, certainly well within my lifetime.

For now, the rest of the world seems to think we're pretty cool again. No doubt, we'll spend so much time congratulating ourselves about how great we are that we elected an African American president, that the rest of the world will get irritated with us once more pretty soon. But hey, they would no matter what. It's the price you pay for being Joe Cool to the world.

Of course, there is another very important lesson to be learned here, about the amazingly potent combination of social networking media, the power of online communications, particularly when it's used to help organize people to take action in the real world on a local, grassroots level. Hey, that's nothing new about that, this is what people have been saying about these new media, digital media, cybermedia, interactive media, or whatever else you want to call them, for a long long time. This just drives the point home. And that's pretty cool, too!

So now what? Well, we did not elect a messiah or a miracle worker, no more than we elected a demon or radical. We elected a politician, and we need to be mindful of that. But maybe we can start to get things back to where they were when Clinton was president. You know, those were pretty good years for all concerned.

And somehow, the song U.S. Blues by the Grateful Dead comes to mind, with its wonderful lyrics by Robert Hunter, one of the great contemporary American poets in my humble opinion. They go like this:

Red and white, blue suede shoes, I'm Uncle Sam, how do you do?
Gimme five, I'm still alive, ain't no luck, I learned to duck.
Check my pulse, it don't change. Stay seventy-two come shine or rain.
Wave the flag, pop the bag, rock the boat, skin the goat.
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

I'm Uncle Sam, that's who I am; Been hidin' out in a rock and roll band.
Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan.
Shine your shoes, light your fuse. Can you use them ol' U.S. Blues?
I'll drink your health, share your wealth, run your life, steal your wife.
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

Back to back chicken shack. Son of a gun, better change your act.
We're all confused, what's to lose?
You can call this song, the United States Blues.
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

And for your listening pleasure, here's a version of the song off of YouTube. It only features a static image, but it has very good sound quality, and that's what counts, man, that's what makes it cooool!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Debate Never Ends

So, this is less timely than it could have been, although it has only been a few weeks, but that's an eon for fruit flies and the news media, but anyway the thing is this only came to my attention a couple of days ago. And since the election is still a few days away, it's not too late to post another campaign-related blog post, even though we're all pretty sick of this stuff, and have been for a long time, haven't we. Well, the frenzy continues until Tuesday, when everything changes... or not.

In the meantime, here is a news item dated October 7th, published in the Newark Star-Ledger, written by Elizabeth Birge, entitled Debates: Online, anytime for all time. If you click on that link and start reading the story, and then continue on to the second page of the story, and continue to read to the very end, you'll get to my quote. Oh, I should have said spoiler alert there. Oh well. Getting the last word in is often thought to be a good thing, but not so much in newspaper stories. But better a final quote than none at all, eh?

So, you know the drill by now, I will paste in the story for your convenience, because you are my reader and I care about you! So, here goes:

Debates: Online, anytime for all time

Websites offer every minute of the good, the bad and the goofy
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff

A record 73 million people watched Sarah Palin and Joe Biden debate last week -- just a few million shy of the number who saw the final episode of "Seinfeld" in 1998.

The debate shares something else in common with the TV comedy: It too can be seen in reruns.

So can all the other debates held since the campaign began almost a year ago, preserved in video clips on the internet -- and tonight's second debate between John McCain and Barack Obama will soon join them.

Of course that means every awkward or painful moment -- Obama referring to the (nonexistent) Canadian president, Palin getting the name of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan wrong -- can be found and watched again and again on the web.

Okay now, we've gotten past the Elizabeth's introductory remarks, let's bring in the experts. This first fellow is someone I don't know, but let's hear what he has to say anyway:

There is so much to worry about that the candidates can end up coming off stiff and overly cautious, said Allan Louden, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University.

"They have to be so cautious, they almost have to choke the entire spontaneity out of the spot until they don't become real," Louden said.

I think I said the same thing to her when she interviewed me, but in all fairness, I recall seeing a clip of McLuhan saying the same thing about the 1976 Presidential debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Okay, so back to the article, and the novel point about the internet:

Snippets of the two national debates held in the past two weeks abound on the internet. And they're not all slip-ups: There's the moment when Biden choked up talking about what it was like to be a single parent after his first wife and daughter were killed and his two sons injured in a car accident. There's McCain telling the story of being given the ID bracelet of a soldier killed outside Baghdad -- and Obama responding: "I've got a bracelet, too."

The same technology that archives the bloopers and the emotional moments has also protected insightful discussion on foreign and domestic policy, preventing it from ending up like road kill on the information highway. For as much as people complain about the internet, this year it has freed Americans from the grip of the presidential sound bite.

Voters who miss the debates no longer have to rely on snippets of answers published in newspapers or aired on the nightly news. Instead they can view the event -- in whole or in part -- on any number of political websites, or, a new site sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates and

On viewers can take a quiz and identify the most important issues to them in the presidential election. The site will then archive video segments of the candidates speaking to those specific issues during the debate.

Now, time for the second expert, my friend Bruce Gronbeck, a senior scholar in the field of communication and a fine media ecologist in his own right:

"By going to, you can pick your issue and see segments of the debates on streaming video. That will be a new feature, part of the whole movement toward Politics 2.0," said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of communication studies and director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.

"With the internet you're going to magnify the audience for the debate by presumably millions," said Gronbeck.

Good job, Bruce! Your points are right on target. Of course, there's still the question of how many people are actually going to view the debates in their entirety on the internet, as opposed to it simply or at least also magnifying the soundbites? But magnification is in and of itself an important effect of the technology. Anyway, back to the article:

In addition, the internet will allow people to do something they haven't in the past: watch the debates later, without first fighting with a VCR or DVR. Which means TV ratings alone don't measure the reach of a debate.

"How many people are going to be at a high school football game, but they're still going to see them," said Louden.

Others think these innovations won't change much about the debates, if anything.

"In this case, technology is all hat and no cowboy," said Matthew Hale, an assistant professor at the Center for Public Service at Seton Hall University. "Regular TV spends most of its time on gaffs and zingers anyway. And what is the difference between an e-mailed audience question and one from an audience member, except that the host gets to look cool for reading e-mail?"

During the second presidential debate tonight, moderator Tom Brokaw will call on audience members to ask questions and draw questions from internet viewers.

"We could have some really interesting and exciting debates using technology by, for example, allowing people online to ask follow-up questions. Or having instant online voting about candidate responses and then asking the candidates to respond to either positive or negative feedback," Hale said.

"However, what we are likely to get" Hale said, "is the debate host saying, 'Let's check in now with our online correspondent' -- some young snarky cool kid -- 'to see what our online viewers have to say.' The young snarky cool kid will have a young snarky cool e-mailed question that makes the audience chuckle and the candidates will respond with exactly the same message they use to answer regular questions."

I don't know Hale, but he does make some good points, doesn't he? Well, okay, it's time to reach the climax of the piece, the moment we've all been waiting for. Here we go again:

The basic format of the debates may remain the same, but the stakes are actually higher because any mistake will be amplified in the Internet Age. This alone places enormous pressure on the candidates.

"TV punishes people for being human," said Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. "People don't realize being on camera magnifies every gesture, even a quick look to the side -- a normal action in daily life -- becomes magnified (on TV) and looks shifty-eyed and untrusting and gets blown all out of proportion."

And that's my contribution to the discourse and the debate about the debates. Thank you, thank you. The campaigns may come to a close, the election may finally be over on Tuesday and a winner declared (or on Wednesday, or a month or two later), but the debates, and the debates about debates, they shall live on!