Friday, December 30, 2011


As the year-long celebration of the centenary of Marshall McLuhan's birth comes to a close, I thought I'd share with you a poem a wrote on the occasion, and particularly in relation to the publication earlier this year of Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan (conveniently purchasable via the widget on the right).


Give me that old time commercial Macguffin
I need direction, Spitchcock
Eels wail that, and swell
I am ready for my clothes up
Mr. DeMille shall mug loon
Ear ache, air wreck, ere reckoned
And drew a pondering eye
Extending formal innovation to the causeway
Win again's fake
More shell mock glue-on
Count her blasts, wearing us thin
I'm glistening, come and put me on
Permeating, permit me, per my diem
Martial/artful mech/getta clue on
Mock grew on, menippulating messy jests
The pattern that directs
When the time is ripe
The apple will go to seed
The music will play of its own accordion
Play the record backwards, and it all makes sense
Paul was dead, and now he's better
Metaphysician, obscure thyself!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lecturing in Grand Rapids On the Binding Biases of Time

So, Grand Rapids has come up quite a bit here on Blog Time Passing over the past few months, and this time around I have some video to share, although it is admittedly not as entertaining as the Grand Rapids Lip Sync video I featured in my post last month, American Pied Piper.

But if you recall my previous posts such as Good Things From the Valley, Down in the Valley, At the Podium, and Grand Valley Grandeur, you'll remember that I gave a public lecture at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, back on September 21, 2011, based on my book published earlier this year (displayed over on the right), entitled (you guessed it!) On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology (actually, this lecture, originally a keynote address delivered at the New York State Communication Association's annual meeting a few years ago, was the basis for the expanded version that appears in the book).

The lecture was videotaped, and recently uploaded to YouTube by Aaron Bannasch of GVSU.  I added the videos to my channel as well, and proceeded to provide them to you, dear Blog Time Passing enthusiast, as just one more service of our full service operation here.  Unfortunately, the lecture is broken up into three separate parts, or actually, two, as the third part features a rather interesting question and answer session. Just a caveat that the last lines of the lecture have a glitch, kind of like a record skipping, but I guess a bit of a time warp is fitting, after all. It's a little loss of poetry, but does not detract at all from the content of the address.

So, anyway, here goes:


And there you go.  It's a lot of talk, I know, but hey, things are pretty quiet this time of year, so I hope you don't mind, and if you don't have the time to listen to it, well, that's kind of the point, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Year in Review

Everyone's doing it this time of year!
But I think I got them all beat
in being comprehensive 
and complete!
So without further ado,
here now is my Year in Review:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Review to Remember

All this time spent online, you get used to immediate feedback on what you do, even if it's only someone pushing the Like button on Facebook, or giving it the old Google +1 (sounds more like bringing a date than giving a thumbs up, doesn't it?).  And as well all know, there's no Don't Like button, let alone one that says Hate, and Google doesn't venture into the red with a -1, either.

And that's all well and fine for most of us, I believe, and for most of the time.  We're not really looking for critical evaluation when we venture into the social media environment, especially not when we do a status update on what we had for lunch.  And perhaps we're not really looking for it at all, ever, in a culture where all the children are above average, to borrow Garrison Keillor's quip, where self-esteem is emphasized above all else, we have become increasingly more risk-aversive, and narcissism is rampant on an individual and collective scale, as Christopher Lasch noted decades ago.

The problem, though, is that all these Likes and +1s and Kudos (to include the old MySpace feature) come much too easily, and become increasingly more ritualized and pro forma.  And while the ability to leave comments allows for more specific responses, and the possibility of critical engagement, it's not at all clear that anyone is looking for that sort of thing, and most respondents are reluctant to offer that kind of feedback back under the circumstances, so the norm once again becomes a stream of positive comments whose meaning and value become devalued. 

And given the immediacy of the response, if you posted something longer than a tweet or status update, it is not even clear that the person leaving a comment actually read what you posted very closely at all, and certainly it is not difficult to leave a bit of praise without having done so.

So, you might say that we get immediate gratification, but no genuine satisfaction from this set-up.  Or maybe some folks are satisfied, maybe the same folks who view greeting card poems seriously, or maybe most of us do most of the time, in the way that we get satisfaction from the phatic communication of saying hello, how are, fine thank you, how are you, and otherwise making small talk.  Or maybe we just give in to the illusion that it all really means something, given our tendencies towards narcissism and general delusion.

Anyway, what prompted me to think about such things is the contrast you get from the older medium of print publication, where you write something, there's a long process of editing and preparation for publishing, it finally appears in print, and there's little or no immediate feedback, and then dribs and drabs coming in here and there, if you're lucky.  Oh, you may get your congratulations on getting something published, of course, and if you post a status update on it, you'll get your Likes and +1s, but after all the effort that went into writing something, e.g., an article or a book, you'll be looking for something more, something substantive, something that really means something.

So, all this is leading up to the fact that the book I published earlier this year, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology, was recently reviewed in Communication Research Trends (Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 38-40, which is published by the Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture, a service of the Society for Jesus, aka, the Jesuits, originally set up in the UK back in the 70s, and now published in California, mainly through Santa Clara University, one of Fordham's sister schools, as the saying goes.  The review was written by Heather Crandall of Gonzaga University, another Jesuit institution (and if you think this all makes it an insider deal, you don't know the Jesuits and their high standards and emphasis on excellence).

In case you somehow missed it, here's a link for the blog post from earlier this year announcing the publication of my book:  On the Binding Biases of Time. And here are the links for ordering it from Amazon:

So, anyway, I'm sure that if you haven't bought a copy of the book by now, you were just waiting to see a review, to see if the book's any good, right?  Well, this one can be found online as well as in the print journal:  Strate, Lance. On The Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.  But I'm sure no one will mind if I also include it here in Blog Time Passing.

So, here's how it begins:

Remember your favorite professor? The one whose class you set your schedule around? The one who spoke provocatively about ways of thinking about the nature of what it means to be communicative beings in a social world? Whose demeanor, humble and gracious, stirred your imagination to new intellectual connections, but not without some humor? Reading Lance Strate's new book, On The Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology takes you back to that class, to that engaging conversation.

Okay, so this has got to be one of the all time best beginnings to a book review, ever.  It certainly made my day, month, year.  Really, I can't tell you how happy this makes me, I couldn't ask for higher praise. Okay, I'm starting to blush and feel embarrassed, so let me just move on to the rest of the review.

The book's name draws on the concept of time-binding from general semantics and on the concept of time bias from media ecology. In Strate's words, "this is not a book about time, or the study of time"; rather it is about time binding, or our uniquely human ability to build knowledge over time. From media ecology, time is conceptualized as our invisible environment. Time does not dominate the conversation, however. It is but a sliver of what occurs in Strate's 14 essays. In his words, these "fugitive essays" make up a "network or matrix of ideas" that are general semantics, media ecology, and systems theory. They necessarily cross and circle each other because the aim is to trace "one-dimensional pathways in an effort to map a two-dimensional terrain" (p. 3). Those familiar with Korzybski and general semantics will recognize how appropriate these geographical metaphors are given Korzybski's famous saying, "the map is not the territory"--used to help others comprehend the difficulty of using our symbol system of language to represent and communicate meaning and experience. Broadly, On The Binding Biases of Time is an enjoyable foray into ecological thinking. "Formal systems of ecological thought, such as media ecology and general semantics, are a relatively recent phenomenon, but ecological thinking has been with us throughout history" (p. 41). It is an intellectual tradition about the relationship between humans, their symbols, and the reality that these symbols supposedly represent (p. 41). The rest of this review provides a glimpse into Strate's essays, some ways the book could be useful to both teachers and scholars, and ends with a note about the revival in general semantics.
Strate's essays begin with Korzybski the person, Korzybski's influences, contemporaries, major works, followers, and of course, accessible explanations of Korzybski's general semantics. General semantics is explained in contrast to Aristotelean thought because Korzybski saw Aristotelean thinking as a perceptual trap that removes people from "any connection with reality, and therefore sanity" (p. 29). For example, Aristotle's laws of logic, according to Strate's essay, include the Law of Identity, the Law of Non-Contradiction, and the Law of the Excluded Middle Together. General semantics are "Non-Aristotelean Principles of Thought." They are the Principle of Non-Identity, the Principle of Non-Allness, and the Principle of Self-Reflexiveness (pp. 23-24). In the end, Strate connects Korzybski's general semantics with the field of media ecology through Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan, and finally, Neil Postman. In Strate's words what each shares, "is that the structure of our mode of communication has much to do with our thought and behavior, individually and collectively, and this is the basis of the field that has come to be known as media ecology" (p. 36).
The essay titled, "Quandaries, Quarrels, Quagmires, and Questions," problematizes (or clarifies) ecological thinking vis-a-vis scientific method. Strate uses Wendell Johnson's 1946 work, People in Quandaries, here. In Johnson's observation, "the method of science has to do with the way that language is used. From which he concludes that, 'the language of science is the better part of the method of science'" (p. 50, cited by Strate, p. 42). Language, then, conceptualized as a medium allows for a consideration of the environment created by that medium, in Johnson's (1946) term, a semantic environment. Language as a medium gives rise to statements of identity or relationship, and through the bias of the medium, we can use language "as a kind of informal science, a way of knowing the world, a form of theory-building" (p. 44). The story of the Trojan Horse is used to illustrate these ideas.
The third essay, about the relationship of systems theory to media ecology and general semantics is a brief synopsis of systems theory, and a taxonomy of scholars who have dwelled on these connections including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, and Joshua Meyrowitz. The fourth essay is squarely about Korzybski's theory of time binding and the binding biases of time. The way we use language and think about time matters to our experience of time (past, present, future) and how this differs from how we experienced time once upon a time. It is here that Harold Innis' ideas about time and James Carey's ideas about culture are discussed. Also, interestingly, Strate takes issue with Carey's work in a manner both nice and sharp. It feels like grace and truth, in the Biblical sense.

Okay, again, these kind words bring a broad smile to my face, but it's best that you can't see that, as I probably look pretty goofy.  So let's just return to the review:

The essay, "The Future of Consciousness," is compelling. In it, Strate reviews the past, present, and processes of consciousness, recognizing the strangeness of the topic. Sometimes funny as in, "it is in the nature of consciousness to wander," (p. 242) and, "if you do not like what I have to say, it is my sincere hope that you hold Allen Flagg personally responsible for whatever defects you happen to identify" (p. 227). The discussion ends seriously with some real possibilities, from a media ecology perspective, about what a new electronic consciousness might be, what the future of human consciousness might be, and what could become of collective consciousness.
The other essays continue to be that engaging conversation where you see application of the ideas. This is especially true of "The Ten Commandments and the Semantic Environment" and "Tolkiens of My Affection." Read in one sitting, you get a sense of Strate the person, his religious practices, his family, his own mentors, his revered friends. This is especially true of "Post(Modern) Man," "Paradox Lost," and "Healthy Media Choices." The essay on renaming Canada's Beaver Magazine is a tad weak to my way of thinking. I suspect it is the word play with the word beaver and its many meanings.

Okay, so I'm not batting 1.000 here, but that bit of criticism helps to establish that the genuine quality of this evaluation.  And I would certainly concede the point that that piece, while relevant to the collection, is not one of the stronger selections.  So, back to the review now:

Those excited by the scholarship in media ecology and general semantics will find some guiding questions: 

Questions about how symbols represent reality,
   how words stand for and point to things in reality,
   how maps depict territories, and how media
   extend us outward into our environments.... And
   questions about the nature of symbols themselves,
   about what a word is and is not, about
   how maps are made, about the meaning of meaning
   and the biases of technologies, about how the
   medium is the message, and how media, by separating
   us from our environment, become our
   new environment. (p. 50)

Due to being a collection of essays, On The Binding Biases of Time read cover to cover contains some redundancy. As immersion into the systems of thought that underlie media ecology and general semantics, the few redundancies are useful. If using the essays individually, the redundancies are, of course, absent.

Again, a valid bit of criticism.  When you have essays on related topics, it is hard to avoid a bit of redundancy.

As to the individual essays, you could easily use them in different courses as supplementary readings or central reading. The essay titled, "Quandaries, Quarrels, Quagmires, and Questions," would be useful in an upper division undergraduate methods course or any graduate level theory, methods, or interpersonal course. It would also be useful in a media studies course as the essay covers the dawn of writing from the written word, "whose first awkward appearance was only about five thousand years ago" (p. 45) through the Industrial Revolution and its forms of mass communication. The third essay would be useful in a course on small group communication, organizational communication, or media and society in either undergraduate or graduate level courses. And both the fourth and 14th chapter could supplement a human communication and technology course. One of Strate's goals for the book is to be readable. Therefore the chapters are useful at both graduate and undergraduate levels. At the graduate level, the first four essays and the final essay could be used individually to introduce theoretical and philosophical strands of thought, or as an entire book to show how one body of work was built and can then interrelate with another to build knowledges.
The Media Ecology Association is a curious group. I peruse their Listserv, and visit their panels at the annual National Communication Association convention as I move from mass communication, to visual communication, to rhetoric panels. I suspect, and having read On Being and Time, I now know that the media ecology people understand something of critical importance to human communication, something they hold steadfast to in disciplinary territory. In Strate's own words,
General semantics has much to offer, in a practical
   way for individuals and institutions, and theoretically
   and philosophically for the advancement
   of knowledge. Indeed, it is truly unfortunate
   that this field is so often overlooked these
   days, in the academy, and outside of it. I hope
   that my meager efforts have contributed in some
   small way to the Korzybski Revival now underway,
   to a renewal of interest in his non-Aristotelean
   system, and to its continued
   progress and evolution. (p. 10)

And there you have it!  It is certainly great to see that shout-out to the Media Ecology Association, and the inclusion of that final point, that media ecology and general semantics are fields and disciplines that should not be overlooked, and that are eminently worthy of further study.  After all, that's the whole point of my book.

So, I am deeply grateful to Professor Crandall for this fine review, for all of her positive evaluation to be sure, and for her careful attention to and sympathetic reading of the work.  And I am still just glowing about that first paragraph.  I really should have it blown up in size, and framed!  Really!


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Questioning Direct Democracy

Discussion on the MEA listserv turned to the topic of direct democracy recently, with suggestions that the Occupy Wall Street movement is a reflection of the desire for direct democracy, borne out of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs within our system of representative democracy.  I responded by acknowledging that direct democracy sounds like a positive development--it might even be deemed utopian--but that the idea also raises some questions for me, and I thought I would share with you here as well. 

1.  Direct democracy is a more concrete form of democracy than representative democracy.  Direct democracy is literally government by the people (or at least those considered citizens).  Representative democracy is democracy once removed, democracy higher up in levels of abstraction, as we abstract out from each locality a single representative to stand for (in a sense, symbolize and communicate for) the entire group.  It is arguable whether the ancient Greeks who invented democracy would recognize our system of elected representatives as democracy at all.  And it is certainly more difficult for individuals with a relatively concrete mindset (which Walter Ong associates with oral culture) to understand our system as democratic, as compared to individuals with a relatively abstract mindset (which Ong associates with literate culture).  So, does the desire to shift from representative democracy to direct democracy have anything to do with a resistance to abstract thinking, a return to more of a concrete mindset, which has been associated with the triumph of the image over the word (as discussed in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and Jacques Ellul's Humiliation of the Word)?  In the long run, can a postliterate culture support and sustain a system of representative democracy, or is its erosion and dissolution all but inevitable?

2.  The concept of democracy is closely associated with the concept (or ideology) of individualism.  While we take it for granted that people ought to be regarded as unique and autonomous individuals, and that individuals ought to be valued more highly than any group that they are a part of, this view is a relatively recent historical development, mostly emerging out of the literate culture of the Renaissance and the print culture of early modern Europe, but first appearing in the literate cultures of the ancient world, in Israel, Greece, and Rome.  Individualism replaced the group-centered, tribal mentality associated with oral culture, a view that comes naturally to human beings, whereas individualism is an artificial invention, and therefore hard to implement and hard to maintain, as natural as it may seem to us.  Individualism supports democracy because, as individuals, we are expected to behave rationally within the free marketplace of ideas, make up our own minds, and vote accordingly.  If the same electronic media that make direct democracy possible are also undermining the individualism associated with literate culture (and I believe they are), can democracy still work in the absence of individualism, with a mentality characterized by post-individualism, neotribalism, etc.?

3.  The concept of democracy is associated with literacy also because literacy provides access to information, and participation in government requires an informed citizenry.  This is perhaps less of an issue for the local scale of ancient Athenian democracy, but on the scale of the modern nation (or kingdom), some means of widespread dissemination of information is required, and it is the printing press that answers that need.  As print media have expanded, and new forms, notably the newspaper, were introduced, access to political information increased, the capacity for self-governance expanded, and the desire for democracy spread.  Now, in our contemporary environment, that the electronic media provide more access to information than ever before is clear, but in doing so, do they provide so much access as to bring on information overload, and thereby short circuit the deliberations by which information is evaluated, plans of action are formulated, and decisions are made?  Gatekeeping is a two-way function, opening the gates enough to keep citizens informed, but not so much as to make them overwhelmed.  In the absence of gatekeeping, does access become excess, and information become noise?

4.  Perhaps most importantly of all, democracy, in being based on access to information, is based on the assumption that access to information is sufficient to make our human environment comprehensible, so that with sufficient understanding of our world we can make informed decisions.  But is that really possible given the vast scale of the world that we deal with, global affairs most certainly, and large nations like the United States as well (maybe in a place like Finland they can get a better handle on their society)?  And it's not just population, of course, but the complexity of our way of life, the complexity of our technological environment.  Is it possible that access to information coupled with extreme complexity is what leads to information overload, the search for simplistic ways of understanding the world, and irrational behavior?  Is Ellul right that, given the complexity of technological societies, the only alternative is to cede control to technical experts, including those expert in manipulating public opinion to support the decisions of the technical experts, and thereby provide the illusion of democracy?

5.  I wonder if the advocates of direct democracy somehow assume that the citizens who would participate in that new order are the citizens who were shaped by print culture, rather than the "digital natives" who will exhibit markedly different orientations towards politics?  And I wonder if the only way that democracy can truly exist is on a small scale and local level?  Wasn't that what Marx was really on about, the withering away of the state and the return to the commune, or if you prefer, the tribe or the village?  

These are just a few questions, but of course, as any good media ecologist can tell you, the questions we ask are more important than the answers we get, and have much to do with the kinds of answers that they result in.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


So, my Fordham University Introduction to New Media student Stephanie Diller shared this video with our class via our email discussion list.  It's called Zeitgeist 2011: Year In Review, posted by Google (who owns YouTube), and it's a fascinating look at this year's events, not an unusual sort of thing to see in the mainstream media at the end of the year, but it also incorporates a healthy amount of Google self-promotion.  Here, take a look at it:

The only explanation provided by the write-up on YouTube is the following:

See how the World Searched with Google's 2011 Zeitgeist:

And if you head on over to Google Zeitgeist 2011,  you'll find the following headline:  Zeitgeist 2011: How the World Searched.  So, the idea is that the most popular terms that were put into the Google search engine over the past year are a reflection of our collective state of mind, our mutual concerns, interests, obsessions. That we are what we search for, our quests and questions constituting the spirit of our time (zeit is German for time and tide, geist for spirit and ghost).

It's Google as popular culture, the folklore of postindustrial society.  And following the headline, Google tells us:

What mattered in 2011? Zeitgeist sorted billions of Google searches to capture the year's 10 fastest-rising global queries and the rest of the spirit of 2011.

So what are the top 10 search items that mattered?  Well, here they are:

  1. Rebecca Black
  2. Google Plus
  3. Ryan Dunn
  4. Casey Anthony
  5. Battlefield 3
  6. iPhone 5
  7. Adele
  8. TEPCO
  9. Steve Jobs
  10. iPad 2 

So, let's go over this, shall we? First of all, I have to admit that I'm behind the times and not in keeping with the spirit, especially of the teen variety, because I had no idea who in the hell Rebecca Black is.   But I've been informed that she is a 13-year-old girl who likes to sing, and whose YouTube music video went viral earlier this year, albeit not in a good way because it was held up to ridicule.  Going back to the 1980s, I've argued that every new medium creates a new kind of hero, and the celebrity is a new kind of hero created by the electronic media, but this takes the phenomenon one step beyond.

I also must confess that I didn't recognize the name, Ryan Dunn, but I learned that he was one of the loonies associated with the Jackass movies, and he died in a drunk driving accident earlier this year.  Casey Anthony is a name I recognize, as belonging to the mother of the murdered child, Caylee Anthony, and whom many believe to be responsible for the death of her child, although she was tried and acquitted in court this year.  Adele is a British singing sensation, but I didn't know that either, I must admit.  And of course I know who Steve Jobs is, and wrote several posts about him here on Blog Time Passing after he passed away (Steve Jobs, Media Ecologist, Jobs, Disney, and the Future of Apple, Steve Jobs Was One of Us, and A Ram's-Eye View on Steve Jobs)

As for the non-human search items, well, Google Plus I know, hey, I'm on Google Plus--check me out if you care to.  Battlefield 3 I heard about, it's a videogame.  When I was in Toronto for the big McLuhan fest last month, several of us were walking back from dinner one night and saw a large crowd of people waiting in line outside of a store, many dressed in costumes, especially strange military garb, some of it futuristic.  We thought maybe it was some Occupy Wall Street-like phenomenon, but no, they were waiting in line for the midnight release of Battlefield 3.

Two of the top ten items are Apple products, one the iPhone, although as it turns out, the new release was not the iPhone5, but rather the iPhone4S, but everyone thought it was going to be the iPhone5, and speculation about it was massive.  And then there's the iPad 2.  The other item on the list, TEPCO, is not one that I would recognize under that name, or the way it's also listed by Google, as 東京 電力, but of course I am familiar with the topic of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which was damaged by the earthquake.

So, what are we to make of all this? That we are a celebrity-obsessed culture? Sure, nothing new there. That we, through the use of electronic media, are trivializing serious matters and amusing ourselves to death? Again, yes indeed, but nothing startling there.

What is important to keep in mind here is that this is a very skewed view of the American and global psyche.  After all, we don't search for things we already know about, and the things that we already know a lot about are probably the things that are most important to us.  So sure, people are going to go to Google when some unknown name is suddenly coming up all over the place in social media posts.  And they'll use Google to find a video folks are talking about online if they don't have the link handy.  That's why Rebecca Black, Ryan Dunn, and Adele drew more queries than Steve Jobs.  After all, we already know a great deal about Jobs, not to mention the fact that his passing was covered by the news media to a great extent.

And folks who are online tend to be tech-oriented, so they'll search for information about new media products that have not yet been released.  It's all rumor and speculation, hence the iPhone5 that existed only in people's imaginations.  And for that matter, the same would be true in regard to the Fukushima nuclear reactors, as there was a distinct dearth of information on how serious the breach was and how much radiation was released.  This point about how rumor rises up to fill the void was made back in 1966 in a classic study on the subject by Tamotsu Shibutani, entitled Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor, which harkens back to the experience of the Japanese internment camps of World War Two.  It's a great study on the social construction of reality, that highlights how the presence and absence of facts makes a difference in the degree to which reality may be a complete fabrication.

And this brings me to the conclusion I draw from all this.  Google's lists of top search terms are not so much a reflection of the zeitgeist as they are a mirror of our collective curiosity, a product of the ambiguity that exists in our mediascape, and a measure of our ignorance.  Google is our gaze into the void, making manifest the ominous comment from the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:  When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you.

Google is the abyss staring back at you.  Try not to blink.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Arendt Come Due

So, you no doubt recall that I recently posted a series of discussions based on Hannah Arendt's philosophy concerning violence and power, specifically Violence and Technology, Violence and Power, Violence and Identity, and Violence and Unity.

So, as I was in the midst of these posts, I was contacted by representatives from the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College (where Arendt taught for many years, and where she left her papers), asking if my posts could be edited together, and included on the Center's own blog.  And so this is how I came to be a

for the Hannah Arendt Center, which was indeed an honor.  I made some modest revisions to the text, including editing out redundancies as I put the four posts together, and the post appeared on their blog last week under the title of Violence, Power, Technology, and Identity.  So go take a look if you care to, and maybe leave a comment if you like.

Oh, and there are some cool images included, which I'll let you check out for yourself.  Many thanks to Bridget Hollenback, Director of Outreach and Social Media for the Hannah Arendt Center, for her work on the blog, and to Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, and Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights at Bard College, for the invitation.

In discussing Arendt, I placed her ideas in the context of media ecology scholarship, and especially Marshall McLuhan's thought, and as a consequence, an excerpt from my HAC blog post appears on the McLuhan Galaxy blog maintained by Alex Kuskis, under the heading of Hannah Arendt & Marshall McLuhan: Violence, Power, Technology & Identity.  And I was also pleased to hear from Peter Montgomery, one of Marshall McLuhan's former students, in regard to Wilfred Watson, a Canadian professor of literature, poet, and dramatist, who was the co-author with McLuhan of From Cliché to Archetype, and his wife Sheila, who was also a professor of literature, novelist, and critic, both at the University of Alberta (site of last June's annual meeting of the Media Ecology Association), that

Arendt was perhaps THE favourite reference of both Watsons. Its importance couldn't be stressed enough.  She was one of the platforms on which their work and teaching and to some degree McLuhan's also, was built.

And to this I can only respond, Holy Hannah!  And just leave it at that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Artforum Informs that Media and Formal Cause is 1 of the 10 Best of 2011

The December issue of Artforum magazine includes a feature on the 10 best books of 2011, and one of the 10 picks is Media and Formal Cause by Marshall and Eric McLuhan (with a little foreword by yours truly), published by NeoPoiesis Press.  In a post I put up back in February, Media and Formal Cause in Effect!, I went into more detail about the book, so please feel free to return there to refresh your memory, if you feel the need.

In case you're not already famiar with it, Artforum is, not surprisingly, a very attractive periodical, gorgeous in its images and design, thick (approximately 300 pages) and oversized, and the issue costs ten bucks.  Each of the listings for the ten best books is accompanied by a book review, and for Media and Formal Cause the review is by Graham Harman, Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research Administration at the American University in Cairo.

The beginning of The Best Books of 2011 feature can be found online (hence the link), but unfortunately it only includes the first 3 books reviewed as a teaser, ending by saying that if you want to see the rest of the reviews, you gotta buy the issue.  And hey, for any McLuhan collector, I'd say that it's well worth the ten dollars.  But just to give you an idea of what that page looks like, here's an image taken from a scan of the page the page was too big to fit entirely in the scanner, so headers and footers are missing)

I would particularly note that Harmon writes, in regard to the tetrad or laws of media developed by McLuhan towards the end of his career, that Media and Formal Cause "gives us the crucial prehistory of this tetrad while linking it ever more closely with Aristotle's doctrine of 'formal cause', which the authors try to rejuvenate."  And then, later he states that "the formal cause of a thing is not what is most visible to us, but what hides in the background while we are distracted by the content it generates: 'The medium is the message.'"  Also quite significantly, Harmon notes that, "in the present book we learn that every medium has effects heralding its own downfall."  And he concludes with reference to the discussion in this book of the need for anti-environments to provide us with critical distance from the invisible environment of media, technology, and symbol systems that we are immersed in, and the essential role that artists play in constructing such anti-environments.

So now, if you don't have a copy yet, don't you think you oughta get one?  Here, let me help you out with that:

And do keep in mind that this makes the perfect stocking stuffer, secret Santa present, or Chanukkah gift.

So, thank you Artforum, on behalf of everyone involved, including NeoPoiesis Press, for this wonderful bit of holiday cheer!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

People Planet Me!

So, back in the summer time, I was contacted by a journalist, Lynn Ginsburg, about doing an interview about Marshall McLuhan, which I agreed to (a fact that probably would not surprise you, unless you are new to Blog Time Passing).

So, it turns out that Lynn was launching a new, online magazine called, which is also a URL, (and yeah, you can click on it and go take a look, and if you're that impatient, you can do it now, or wait until I'm done, I won't be too long).  This is one of the first examples I've come across of someone using the ".me" domain name, which is relatively new.  Over on they write

why .me?

Because it is useful, meaningful and memorable, but most importantly .Me represents untapped resource of branding power and you want your online presence personalized ASAP

But I digress.  We were talking about magazine, and here's a sneak preview of what it looks like (assuming you haven't already clicked on the link and gone to see for yourself):

And here's something of how they describe themselves from their About page: is a magazine devoted to exploring the next Wave of the Web: P2P and Social Networking. PeoplePlanet’s aim is to entertain, discover and inform how the technology and applications of social networking and P2P are rapidly and radically changing global society in the 21stcentury. While most magazines that cover these topics are dedicated to the technology behind it, or news about specific file sharing or social media sites, we’re fascinated with something entirely different: examining the impact the new medium is having on our identities, and our day to day lives. Our audience is both P2P and social networking devotees, as well as anyone intrigued with where this next iteration of the Web is taking us. We intend to explore the organic changes springing from the technology of P2P and social networking that are already shaping our lives, such as:

How is it affecting social interactions, both on and offline? How is it affecting globalization, in terms of cultures, friendships, economies, governments, etc.? Can P2P and social networking serve as a catalyst to successfully provoke political change in oppressive governments? How do P2P economies work, and how do they mesh with real world economies? Is P2P actually good for those who depend on copyright law, and is it superior for the content providers than old media models? Does social networking create new global affiliations and loyalties that transcend borders? How will nation states react when those borders in some sense become irrelevant in a virtual environment?

Sounds pretty promising, don't you think?

And here's the opening of the Welcome page for the first issue, as written by Lynn Ginsburg, who by the way is listed as the Editor-In-Chief of magazine:

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Magazine. We’ll be bringing you entertainment features, thought pieces, and news and views with each issue that covers how the relatively new technologies of P2P and Social Networking are changing our planet.

In this first issue, perhaps one of the keys to understanding how this new technology will have a profound impact on our day to day lives is in our article on Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was a visionary who not only predicted the creation of the world wide web, but also future iterations of it, including technologies such as P2P and social networking. His predictions continue to unfold as to what exactly that will mean to each of us as individuals. 

From here, she goes on to talk about the other articles included in this issue, and of course you can read all about it over there. But of course, the McLuhan article is of particular interest here at Blog Time Passing, as you no doubt have already surmised...

So, let's just scroll down and look at the beginning of the article, shall we?   It's by Lynn Ginsburg again, and it starts out like this:

Marshall McLuhan had both the fortune and misfortune of being born 40 years too early—he never got to surf the Web he predicted 30 years before its creation. McLuhan was once a controversial figure for his writings and predictions about the future of communications. But he is now fairly widely acknowledged as a prescient genius, who among other things accurately predicted the rise of what would become the Internet, and the effect that media would have on globalization.

And most importantly, he predicted that the effect of the technology itself—not the content the medium carried—would have the greater impact on worldwide society. His most famous saying was “The Medium is the Message,” which to many of his contemporaries sounded like a catchy meaningless jingle. Whereas to anyone living in the modern world, and familiar with the rise of the Internet and its constantly evolving iterations, it sounds like a prophecy continuing to unfold before us.

 Now, you may be saying, that's very nice, but I heard it all before, to which I would respond with, but wait, there's more!

McLuhan’s many “prophecies” of this sort were always difficult to unravel–even among his contemporary peers–more like Zen koans than a widely accessible theory. So for insight into McLuhan’s almost eerie prediction of the future—today, and yet to come–we spoke with one of the foremost experts on McLuhan and his works, Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and author of several books on McLuhan’s theories,as well as co-editor of several anthologies, including The Legacy of McLuhan and Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment.

So, now you know what the point off all this has been (after all, this blog is all about .me).  And I'll just leave off with that introduction.  I know you're used to me pasting in the entire article here so you don't have to read it over there, but don't you think maybe you're getting a little spoiled, hmmm?  And in any event, this time I'd like you to go on over to and read it there, if you wouldn't mind.  Here, here's the link:  It's the Medium Stupid!  And maybe you could leave a comment, there already are a few, but the more the merrier! 

Will become the next big online periodical, along the lines of Salon, or Slate, or Wired, or CNET?  It's hard to say, but if they do, you can say you were there when it all began!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hey! Hey! Baba!

I can't really explain it, it's just that the word "baba" was an inside joke among my group of friends when I was a teenager and young adult, one of those things where you just had to be there, and be a part of it.  It was used as a form of address, e.g., "and how are you, baba?" or more directly, as in "Yo, baba!" And also used as an exclamation, as in just simply, "baba!"  

As I said, I can't really explain it, except to say that within my peer group there was a great deal of linguistic playfulness present, which of course is great preparation for being a media ecologist.

So, okay, having said that, on another, unrelated topic, the music from Disney's The Lion King holds a special place in my heart, as we used to listen to it all the time, when my son Benjamin was still a baby and I'd be feeding him the highchair, and when he was older as we watched the movie on video many times, saw it in Imax, and went to the Broadway show, not to mention seeing the Lion King attractions and parade elements at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

So, I was quite tickled to have stumbled upon a YouTube video where the still frame displayed the words "Hey! Hey Baba!" and the images were from The Lion King film.  The name of the video says it all:  Soramimi (misheard foreign lyrics)-Lion King, Circle of Life.  So, here now--should I say hear now?--is the video and misinterpreted lyrics:

I was further delighted to see in the very brief write-up of the video the following statement:  "Project for The Cultural Nature of Language with Professor Bambi Schieffelin."  And no, it's not what you think, not because the name Bambi suggests another Disney connection (or sounds a little like baba).  It's just that I had met Professor Schieffelin, who teaches anthropology at New York University,  a couple of years ago when we were on a panel discussion together on the subject of literacy at the now defunct Philoctetes Center in Manhattan.  I wrote about the panel in two posts here on Blog Time Passing:  Literacy and Imagination and More on Literacy and Imagination (admittedly, not very imaginative titles for the posts).  

You might also contrast this English misinterpretation of lyrics in a foreign language with an example from another previous post of mine, Phony English, where there is a meaningless play with lyrics meant to sound like the English language.

And when you come down to it, after all that, is there anything left to say, except for...

Hey Hey Baba! 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

From New York to Nepal

No, I haven't made a trip to that Asian nation, not that I'd mind going to Kathmandu (hey, that would make for a great subject for a song, don't you think?), but that's not it.  But a couple of days ago I received an email message from Dharma Adhikari, who is the Secretary General of the Media Foundation in Nepal.

Dharma has been a member of the MEA listserv, and he reminded me that we had been in touch a few years ago about his research on McLuhan.  So anyway, he informed me that he had organized a McLuhan Centenary to be held on December 8 (that's yesterday), apologized for the short notice, and said

I was thinking if you could send us a brief message to this gathering with your thoughts on Marshall and his global relevance today, especially to journalism and media practices. We are inviting a guests from the cross section of Nepali society. This event is being organized by Media Foundation Nepal, in collaboration with Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research- IACER, and Creative Press.

 So, I thought that my message sent from New York to Nepal would make for a worthwhile addition to Blog Time Passing, and something that you might like me to share with you (and if not, then, oh well...).  Not that there's anything especially new and noteworthy about the content of the message, but still and all, there is something to be gained from variations on a theme.  So, here it is:

Dear Dharma,

Thank you for your note concerning the Marshall McLuhan Centenary event that you have organized in Nepal.  Yours may be the distinction of being the last Centenary event of the year, but as we say, it would not be the least.  It is indeed encouraging to know that over this past year, the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan's birth has been celebrated in every corner of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica.  It is indeed fitting that this McLuhan Centenary extend now to the "roof of the world" as it ought to mark McLuhan's permanent ascension into the intellectual canon worldwide.

Marshall McLuhan's approach to understanding media was so far ahead of its time when he introduced it back in the mid-20th century that many people, including a number of otherwise bright and well-educated scholars, were not able to appreciate it.  It was not until the popularization of the internet and digital media in the 90s that a McLuhan revival began, and it is that wave that we are riding today.  When McLuhan argued that an era dominated by print media and mechanical technologies had given way to a new era shaped by the characteristics of electronic technologies and telecommunications, many were dumbfounded and in denial.  Today, we are witness to the disappearance of newspapers, the marginalization of the printed book, the decline of letter writing and downgrading of postal services, and the longstanding shift away from industrialism.  When McLuhan suggested that literacy had altered the functioning of our nervous systems, and that electronics were doing so again, many, even among those sympathetic to his views, considered his intuitions to be nothing more than wild and unfounded speculation.  But in recent years, research on brain functioning has shown that he was right, that learning to read and write actually rewires the brain, and that watching television and playing videogames alter brain functioning as well.  When McLuhan connected the adoption of television to the social and political disruptions of the 1960s, many were skeptical.  Today, there is no denying that movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are made possible by various new media such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the use of mobile devices.

That we live today in interesting times, as your neighbors to the north have been known to say, there is no doubt.  That we desperately need to understand our times, and understand the environment that gives rise to the events we are witnessing, there is no doubt.  And that we need, therefore, to study McLuhan there ought to be no doubt.  Through McLuhan, and through broadening that study to include the field of media ecology and the scholars that influenced and were influenced by McLuhan, we can understand that we occupy media environments, environments of our collective creation that in turn create us and recreate us in their own image, individually and collectively.  Through McLuhan and other media ecology scholars, we can understand that human life and human culture in its most basic form is born out of a media environment of speech, of the spoken word, an acoustic space, powered by symbols, by language.  And we can understand that the shift from tribal societies to what was traditionally called civilization, large-scale settlements, cities, with codified law, government, concepts of property, specialized occupations, education, etc., goes hand in hand with the development of systems of writing, the single most important invention in human history.  And it was the invention of the alphabet by the Semitic peoples, and its further modification by the ancient Greeks, that gave the west its distinctive characteristics, as well as forming the basis of later Arabic and Hindu cultures.  And when the printing press with moveable type, based on alphabetic writing, was introduced in 15th century Europe, it ushered in what we refer to as the modern world, and the ascendency of the west for the centuries that followed.  And today, we find ourselves in a new electronic environment, one that we are still trying to understand, one that promises some form of what McLuhan called the "global village" accompanied by various forms of neo-tribalism that McLuhan also spoke of.  And we can either try to understand what is happening, and through understanding try to influence the course of events, or we can stick our heads in the sand and let our technologies take control.

McLuhan said, "the medium is the message," and this goes to the heart of his media ecology, which is the study of media as environments.  It is a wake-up call, first and foremost, a call to become aware, to observe what is going on all around us.  Environments tend to be invisible because they become routine.  We ignore them, they fade into the background, and we find ourselves, for all intents and purposes, blind to them.  McLuhan asks us to open our eyes, to pay attention, and to contemplate what is going on all around us.  He characterized his ideas as probes, tentative explorations, not dogma, because he wants us, all of us, to use our senses and open our minds, to look and to think for ourselves.  It's not about theorizing.  It is about making connections, seeing the whole world as interconnected, an ecology, and studying the relationships, the networks, that exist among the various phenomena that we typically regard only in isolation from one another.  And to begin by considering the means, the methods, the modes by which we relate to and act upon our world, and our fellow human beings, by considering our technologies, our languages, our codes and symbols and tools and containers and our art forms, by considering our media.

On behalf of McLuhan scholars all around the world, and on behalf of the Media Ecology Association, which is dedicated to spreading and advancing McLuhan's approach, I extend greetings from my home town of New York City, and the fact that I can do so in this way is just one more indication of McLuhan's supreme relevance to us today.  I applaud the organizers and sponsors of this Centenary celebration, Media Foundation Nepal, the Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research IACER, and Creative Press for their hard work.  And I wish you all the best of luck in your proceedings, and know that I wish I could be with you in person right now, as, in the end, there is nothing quite like the medium of human presence.   I am certain your discussions will be stimulating and inspiring, and it is my sincere hope that when it is all over and done, you will all do the following:  Be the medium, and spread the message.


Lance Strate
Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University

Dharma has since emailed me to let me know my message was read out lout at the conference (I imagine that it was not the only one), and that the event went very well.

And here is a photograph of Dharma Adhikari holding forth on the subject of the media guru.  Congratulations to Dharma and his colleagues on putting on and pulling off another successful centenary event!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Penny for Your Thoughts?

I have to admit that I'm one of those sentimental types who have a lot of trouble letting go, who have a nostalgic attachment to old media that have become obsolescent and outlived their utility.  

I still have my old vinyl record collection all boxed up.  It took me many years and a good amount of money to collect several hundred albums, and it may well be that you'll have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.  The same goes for my first computer, my Atari 800, which came with 16K RAM that I upped to the maximum of 48K.  And there's still an old typewriter stored down in the basement.  After all, you never know, do you?

So, the thought of eliminating the penny did not sit well with me, however unnecessary and wasteful the one cent coin may be.  I don't often use them anymore, but if I happen to have one or more in my pocket from some recent transaction, and have a chance to give exact change down to the cent in my next transaction, then I'll do it.  But for the most part, whatever change I may have collected during the day winds up in a container along with nickels and dimes, and to some extent quarters (the only coin that has some real utility).  And sooner or later, the coins in that container are turned over to one of those infernal Coinstar machine, which charges me for the privilege of converting my coins into a more usable form of cash or credit.

So, the point I'm leading up to is that, despite my sentimentality, I am ready to concede defeat on the subject, and this video by C.G.P. Grey, Death to Pennies, has me convinced that it's time to say goodnight moon to pennies, and also nickels and dimes.  Here, take a look:

Now, I do want to note that my attachment to the penny has been fading gradually over the years, and I think that this is due, in large part, to the fact that I have been using cash, and especially coins, less and less.  More and more, I find my transactions are electronic, just slide the old debit or credit card through the machine (or let the cashier do it for you), and no filthy lucre need exchange hands.  

For this reason, and again, despite my penchant for nostalgic attachments, I can see giving up on the dollar bill as well.  Dollar coins make a great deal more sense, and again, with our increasing reliance on electronic transactions, I just don't think that these changes will be all that traumatic for us, and neither will resistance to change be all that adamant.

Still, and all, I don't understand why we can't just make all of our currency, well more current, by increasing their value ten fold all at once.  Just moving everything over one decimal point, so pennies will be worth ten cents, dimes will be the equivalent of a dollar, and a dollar will get you ten dollars worth.  What's the problem with that?  It's all symbolic, after all, map as opposed to territory, all based on social conventions, consensus, generally agreed upon exchange value, money being a medium of exchange and what McLuhan humorously called, the poor man's credit card.

Dare I end this post by saying, a penny for your thoughts? No, no, I think it's best if I refrain...