Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Violence and Power

So, in my previous post, Violence and Technology, I was getting into Hannah Arendt's 1969 essay, "Reflections on Violence", and the close relationship between technology and violence.  But, as I noted, her essay was primarily concerned with the differences between power and violence, which she argues amounts to an almost diametrical opposition.  Arendt notes that most scholars and intellectuals see violence as a manifestation of power, perhaps its ultimate manifestation.  But they're wrong.

Noting the connection between power and rule, Arendt makes a rather interesting aside about bureaucracy in discussing the traditional equation of power with violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man - of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Now, I'm not sure I would agree with her about bureaucracy being the most tyrannical of systems, but I would note that bureaucracy is what James Beniger referred to as an invisible technology, and what Lewis Mumford viewed as a type of machine, in some instances a megamachine.  Bureaucracy is a reflection of machine ideology, inhuman and inhumane, and inorganic as well.  So I think Mumford probably agreed with her point when he read the essay, as I assume he did, back in 1969.

Back to the point, Arendt argues that power is not simply about domination, that obedience and command go hand-in-hand, so that individuals who are willing to obey are also willing to give orders to others, and vice versa, and conversely individuals who resist obedience to authority also resist being placed in a position of authority over others.  

But more importantly, she stresses the role of consent of the ruled, or governed, the centrality of cooperation to the establishment of power.  This is consonant with Kenneth Burke's view that rhetoric is not about conflict, but rather about identification, about establishing, maintaining, and increasing common ground.  This also falls in line with Jacques Ellul's arguments about the role of propaganda in technological societies, especially integrative and sociological propaganda, where the main goal is to establish and reinforce the legitimacy of the society, and keep people from questioning or acting in ways that work against the effective functioning of the social machine.  

Some may also note the similarity of Michel Foucault's views on power, but then there's the question of whether he was aware of Arendt's work and just didn't acknowledge her influence (as he didn't acknowledge the influence of others, e.g., Erving Goffman).  But let's take Jean Baudrillard's advice, and "forget Foucault" before we get all foucaulded up, okay?

Anyway, all this is not to say that power minus violence is necessarily a good thing, as Arendt explains:
Indeed, it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a "consensus" that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same.
Consensus may be tacit, and can continue as long as the power structure is not challenged.  That is how a single master can control many slaves who out number him and could otherwise overpower him.  That's how political systems in decline can still cling to power, as long as no one internally, or externally, challenge their rule.  Now, let's hear some more of what Arendt has to say:
To switch for a moment to conceptual language: Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war is peace; but to the question, And what is the end of peace?, there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, "an end in itself." (This, of course, is not to deny that governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging -- to enable men to live together -- or dangerously Utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.

 Arendt does acknowledge that power needs legitimacy, which brings us back to consent, and which she differentiates from justification.  Is there a difference that makes a difference here?  Perhaps. Justification requires some sort of rationale, some logic, some explanation.  Legitimacy is merely a matter of agreement, of assent on the part of the group, or the majority.  In this sense, legitimacy works on the relationship level of communication, as a form of metacommunication, whereas justification works on the content level of communication, to use the terms developed by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues in Pragmatics of Human Communication, based on the systems view of Gregory Bateson.

Given that violence is different and distinct from power, Arendt notes that violence has the potential to disrupt and overcome power, and to do so quite easily: 
Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men's artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.
So, violence can destroy power, but it cannot create power.  When governments resort to violence, it is a reflection of their loss of power.  And the use of violence to maintain or gain power has unwanted, often unanticipated effects (typical of technology, after all), boomerang effects.  Arendt notes, "the much-feared boomerang effect of the 'government of subject races' (Lord Cromer) upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England, that the last 'subject race' would be the English themselves."  Or as Ted Carpenter (and Marshall McLuhan) put it, drawing on the Book of Psalms, they became what they beheld.

Arendt also differentiates between violence and terror:  "Terror is not the same as violence; it is rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control."  Of course, this concept of terror is an older understanding of state-produced terror, the reign of terror as it were.  But perhaps we can base a more contemporary understanding of terrorism based on this view, with the idea that terrorists seek to destroy power, and to exert a form of control without actually taking power.  This perhaps would be a way to distinguish between terrorists and genuine rebels and revolutionaries.

So, Arendt summarizes the distinction between power and violence in this way:
Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.
Arendt also discusses the role of rage as a cause of violence, and this leads her to consider "black rage" as it was known in the 60s, the anger expressed by African-Americans and the violent acts that stem from that anger, notably the riots that occurred in Harlem, Watts, Newark, and elsewhere.  This leads to an interesting comment on expressions of "white guilt" as a collective phenomenon:
Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.

A controversial comment, to be sure, but one that is quite thought-provoking.  And it is an altogether  basic point, coming from a Marxist perspective, that one way that those in power maintain power is via a strategy of divide and conquer, and nowhere has this been more apparent in US history than in the division between black and white in the lower classes (as well, between the German working class and German Jews that was encouraged and capitalized upon by the Nazis).  

Arendt also criticizes those scholars who argue for the inherent naturalness of violence as a biological imperative, and therefore its inherently irrationality.  Instead, she notes that "violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."  

I can't help but note the interesting result if we substitute technology for violence in this quote:  "technology being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, technology can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."

The danger of introducing violence bring us back to Arendt's implicit take on McLuhan's medium is the message, that the means are the message, which is to say that the means become the ends.
Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.
 Interestingly, Arendt suggests that "the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence."  This returns to the point of bureaucracy as technology, that it is impersonal and dehumanizing, that you cannot question it or argue with it.  Thinking about it, what Plato criticizes about writing in the Phaedrus applies to bureaucracy quite well, at least on those two points.  Otherwise, we could modify the original critique and note that bureaucracy gives the appearance of a knowledgeable and accountable government, but in fact represents the complete absence of those qualities.

In his lecture on Arendt at Fordham University (as noted in Violence and Technology), Richard Bernstein stated that what people want is the freedom to act, to participate.  That is what the exercise of power by bureaucracy, power without accountability, without responsibility (the key to responsibility being response as Martin Buber has insightfully stated), resists and essentially prevents.  

Power based on participation is the formula for a just and stable society.  Can technology, which is arguably inherently violent, actually increase genuine participation in the establishment of a legitimate order and power structure?  Proponents of new media, such as my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, believe the answer to be unequivocally yes.  There is no question that new media are undermining existing power structures all around the world, and here in the US.  But can they form the basis of a new political order?  Arendt's arguments cast some doubt on the possibility, and should give us pause, as we ought to recall the unpredictability of the ends, and the overwhelming "power" of the means.

I have a little more to say about violence, technology, power, and identity, but I think I'll save it for another post and end here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Violence and Technology

So, last week I attended a public lecture at Fordham University given by Richard Bernstein, a philosopher on the faculty of the New School, the subject of the lecture being "Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence" and the sponsor being Fordham's Philosophy Department.

The lecture began with some discussion of who Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was, e.g., German-Jewish intellectual, had an affair with Martin Heidegger when she was an 18-year-old student and he was a married professor in his 30s, wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine, escaped from Nazi Germany before things got really bad, met and became friends with Walter Benjamin in Paris, unlike Benjamin was able to escape to the United States, and famously wrote about totalitarianism, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann (architect of the Nazi concentration camps) and the banality of evil.  Of course, that's just a cursory summary of a rich and eventful life.

I joined a few of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at Fordham and met with Bernstein prior to the lecture for some discussion, and he mentioned that, although Arendt was not a practicing Jew, at the end she asked that someone say Kaddish for her at her funeral.  Admittedly, it's not all that unheard of for folks to suddenly get religion when the end is near (no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes), and for individuals who have been disconnected from their traditions to suddenly want to reconnect.  But what I found poignant about this request is that she asked for someone, rather than someone specific, which I take to be a sign of isolation in that typically it would be the immediate family who would say the prayer. And you might contrast this to the Roman Catholic phenomenon of making confession on your death bed, in the hopes of gaining absolution.  In Judaism, what might be considered the equivalent of absolution is a social rather than individualistic matter, it comes from having been a good enough person that others care enough about you to say Kaddish on your behalf.

No doubt, there were many who said Kaddish on her behalf, not the least on account of the significant work during and after World War II on behalf of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in general as a political philosopher with a strong sense of social justice.

And that brings me back to Bernstein's lecture, the main part of which was a summary of an influential essay that Arendt wrote for the New York Review of Books back in 1969, entitled, "Reflections on Violence" (which can be read online, hence the link).  The lecture also included Bernstein's commentary on the essay's shortcomings (e.g., her idea of violence is limited to political violence) and relevance, including how well it relates to contemporary events such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.  I myself read the essay prior to the lecture, having been sent the link by my philosophy colleagues.

And if you haven't read it already, I do recommend it.  It's clear that Arendt wrote the essay in response to the escalating violence occurring in the United States during the late 1960s, which included increasingly more violent antiwar demonstrations, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of militant movements especially within the African-American community, and rioting in inner city slums, which caused harm especially to African-American populations.  No doubt, the escalation of violence bore some similarity to the rise of Nazism in Germany, motivating this essay.

I won't reproduce this rather lengthy essay in its entirety here, but I do want to note some salient points.

To begin with, Arendt thinks it's important to distinguish between violence and power (as well as force and strength).  Violence, unlike power, is technological in nature--violence "always needs implements" so that

the revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.

Now that sounds awfully media ecological, doesn't it?  For all intents and purposes, she is saying that the means (aka medium) is the message!

Arendt goes on to note that traditionally, violence has been seen as an instrument of power, but that technological advances in warfare (she mentions the possibility of robot soldiers!), weapons of mass destruction (especially biological weapons that can be used by small groups rather than large states), and guerrilla warfare (and what we now call terrorism) have led to a reversal of that relationship.  In many ways, this is a very prescient observation:

What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country's strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.

Arendt also goes on to make a similar point about the use of violence for revolutionary aims.  Noting the leftist leanings of the baby boomer generation (e.g., the hippies), she points out that

this is the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb, and it inherited from the generation of its fathers the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics - they learned in high school and in college about concentration and extermination camps, about genocide and torture, about the wholesale slaughter of civilians in war, without which modern military operations are no longer possible even if they remain restricted to "conventional" weapons.

But noting the then recent shift to militancy within "the movement" (as it was known), she again invokes a key critique of the technological environment and its discontents:

Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological causes, some of which we shall have to discuss later. Still, it seems absurd, especially in view of the global character of the phenomenon, to ignore the most obvious and perhaps the most potent factor in this development, for which moreover no precedent and no analogy exist - the fact that, in general, technological progress seems in so many instances to lead straight to disaster, and, in particular, the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind. It is only natural that the new generation should live with greater awareness of the possibility of doomsday than those "over thirty," not because they are younger but because this was their first decisive experience in the world. If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: "How do you wish the world to be in fifty years?" and "What do you want your life to be like five years from now?" the answers are quite often preceded by a "Provided that there is still a world," and "Provided I am still alive."

That sense of pessimism became very much characteristic of the 1970s, and continued into the 1980s, eventually dispelled by Reagen's rhetoric of optimism, economic recovery, and the fall of the Soviet bloc, but also coincided with the revolution in personal computing that in turn led to the rise of the internet.  Has that sense of pessimism returned anew, in the post 9/11 decade where concern about terrorism, warfare, and the loss of liberty are still present, and especially in light of the financial disaster of 2008 that continues to affect the global economy?  Are movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street leading the way to increased freedom and justice both in the world?  Or are they a prelude to increased violence?

I think Hannah Arendt at least helps us to formulate some important questions, and reminds us that however unpredictable the ends may be, we would do well to pay close attention to the means being employed.

There is also some common ground between Arendt and Marshall McLuhan, a point first brought to my attention by my old classmate Paul Lippert, who was also in attendance at Bernstein's lecture.  For Arendt, violence requires technology.  For McLuhan, technology is a form of violence.  The relationship between the two is certainly worth considering, even in relation to the seemingly benign technologies we refer to as new media.  What is the violence that they do, to our political arrangements, our economic and financial arrangements, our social organization and way of life?

There is more to discuss about Arendt's essay and Bernstein's lecture, about the relationship between violence and power, but I'm going to save it for another post, and sign off here, for now.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The New Hyperreality

Back in the 80s, postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco introduced the term hyperreality to refer to our ability to create simulations that go beyond imitation to become more real than real, copies without originals to refer to (so that they are not actually copies of anything), maps that contain more than any territory (to touch upon the favorite metaphor of general semantics), artificial products of artifice that we then try to remake the real world in the image of (oh, that sounded a bit awkward, didn't it?).  The preeminent example was Disneyland, where Main Street USA constituted an archetype born out of a cliché, to use one of McLuhan's lesser known oppositions (i.e., From Cliché to Archetype).

To be frank, what the postmodernists meant by hyperreality had been earlier expressed with less hyperbole, and much more clarity, by Daniel Boorstin in his classic work, The Image, especially in regard to Boorstin's discussion of pseudo-events.  To some extent, the idea can be traced back even further to Walter Benjamin's classic essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (originally in German, reproduced in English translation in Illuminations, and more recently in a new translation in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media), which Boorstin draws upon in The Image

Postmodernist hyperreality was pure theory, a form of Continental cultural theory to be exact, but it had its parallels in computing as a form of simulation, for example in ideas about artificial intelligence.  In the 1982 film Blade Runner, the android replicants are described as more human than human, although in the movie they appear to be the product of biotechnology rather than silicon engineering.  But the notion of hyperreality also dovetailed nicely with the  the concept of virtual reality that became a popular obsession for a while back in the early 90s, and Baudrillard's famous work in this area, Simularcra and Simulation, inspired and actually appears as a book on Neo's shelf in the 1999 film, The Matrix (although Baudrillard felt the filmmakers did not understand what his work was really about).

Back in the real world, the fit with hyperreality was a bit awkward, because virtual reality was not more real than real, given the state of computer graphics back then.  And even now. On the other hand, the expanded concept of virtuality gets at the fact that the human imagination allows us to experience any simulation as virtually real, even one composed only of words.  What is a novel, after all, if not a simulation of reality?  What is fiction if not a simulation of real life?  What is a story, if not a simulation of a sequence of events?

But all this has to do with the old hyperreality.  So, what then is the new hyperreality, you might ask?  And I'm glad you did.  Rather than use hyper in the sense of more real than real, I want to suggest a new meaning of hyperreality as reality plus (to play off of the Google+ formation).  Like hypercube and hyperspace, I want to talk about reality with an added dimension.  And like hypertext, hypermedia, and especially hyperlinks, I want to refer to reality that is networked and connected, that has an overlay of data and interactivity.

But ok, I'm not talking about anything entirely new here. I'm just saying that the term hyperreality would be a useful one to use in reference, not to virtual reality, but to the more modest phenomenon of augmented reality.

Augmented reality is nothing new, if you've been into new media for a while now, and it's becoming increasingly more a part of our popular culture.  I mentioned it in a previous post Ad-ding Interactivity, and here's a news segment from New Zealand, circa 2007, on AR:

I find the augmented books a bit pointless, I mean, why do you need a book at all with this technology?  But here's a more practical use from 2009, involving a cellphone app called Layar:

As you can see, the cellphone here is not even very sophisticated, compared to our current batch of smartphones.  But it's very nice if you're looking for a new place to live, or in need of some other form of guidance as you move through a particular geographical location.  The key, obviously, is the combination of mobile devices and geolocation.  Anyway, now here is the new Layar video from earlier this year:

It certainly sounds very exciting, and I can only imagine that there will be a great need for media producers to provide content for this new medium.  

Now, it is not my intent here to ignore the criticism that folks dazzled by this new hyperreality may lose sight of our everyday, unaugmented reality.  The postmodernists who introduced hyperrealtiy in the old sense were not necessarily celebrating the phenomenon--mostly they were not.  And when it comes to new technologies and media such as AR, there will always be negative effects, drawback, side effects, blowback, no question about it.  It's a cause for concern, especially as we move away from mobile phones that have to be held up to our eyes, and replace them with glasses or goggles that we look through at all times--believe me, that's the obvious next step.  But my aim in this post is to understand the phenomenon of AR and the new hyperreality, and I will leave the critical evaluation for another time.

One use that the Layar folks mention is tourism, and here's a rather dramatic way in which reality and fiction, new media and old media, the scenic and cinematic can merge:

The Augmented Reality Cinema app looks to be very entertaining, and this facet of tourism, going to visit places you've already seen in the movies or TV, has been going on for decades now, with increasing interest.  But for a much more practical approach, here's a 2007 video from BMW utilizing those goggles I mentioned before:

Goggles are a feature of classic virtual reality technology, of course, but in VR the goggle obscure the outside world and only show you the simulation, whereas in AR the whole point is to let you see the world, and provide an overlay on top of it.  It's pretty much the equivalent of McLuhan's light on vs. light through distinction.

And how often have you struggled with a poorly written and poorly illustrated printed manual or set of instructions?  How often have you looked at a diagram showing how to put something together, and wondered which end of the rod they're referring to, or whether one part is supposed to go in front of or behind another?  This takes the longstanding practice of technical writing into a new realm of technical media, and provides us with a truly functional expert system, one that goes beyond knowledge to know-how, and how-to.  Definitely a plus, however you look at it.

So, the new hyperreality is certainly a way to get attention in the world of marketing and promotion.  My colleague, Ed Wachtel, recently brought to my attention this campaign from St. Petersburg/Clearwater.  Here's a video of it:

But you can check it out for yourself by going to their website (click there or here), and following the instructions to print out the Augmented Reality marker and then go to the page for the hyperreal tour.

Or you can just go to Starbucks, provided you download the appropriate mobile app--this was brought to my attention by Holly Lemanowicz, one of the students in my Introduction to New Media class at Fordham University:

Much more ambitious and stunning, albeit a tad sexist, is this use of AR in the promotion of Axe deodorant body spray, known as Lynx in Great Britain, and thanks to another of my students, Stephanie Diller, who actually experienced this AR when she was studying abroad in England this past spring semester.  The location is Victoria Station in London, and here it is not the small screen of the computer monitor, or the very small screen of the cellphone, but the jumbo display where the hyperreality is seen:

But when it comes to taking the new hyperreality to the next level, who better than the folks most often associated with hyperreality in the 80s, Disney!  It was another of my Intro to New Media students, Alyssa Marino, who brought this one up.  First, here's Disney's official, slick video on the ambitious AR event that occurred over the past few days over at nearby Time Square:

And another, more naturalistic short recording:

And one that's a bit longer, not as good a view, but providing a much better sense of how it all worked:

Disney went further than anyone in operationalizing the older virtual reality kind of simulations in their DisneyQuest Interactive Theme Park, so it's not surprising to see them surpassing everyone else in regard to augmented reality.  They truly are the masters of hyperreality, and every student of media should spend some time at WaltDisneyWorld in particular to truly understand the potential of the hyperreal, and media as environments.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Everywhere a Sign, we previously used the written word to create a kind of overlay on top of our environment, largely through the use of signage, and we are now in the process of creating an electronic overlay.  More than ever before, we are living in a media environment, and that's why, more than ever before, we need media ecology, the study of media environments, to make sense of it all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Lambda Pi Eta

Lambda Pi Eta is the honor society for communication majors, officially sanctioned by the National Communication Association, and back in the 90s I started up a chapter here at Fordham University, together with a colleague who has since moved on, Roger Musgrave.  So that's why I gave this post the title of my LPH (it's H not E because Eta is not Epsilon--the letter in the Greek alphabet for Eta looks like, and is the ancestor of our letter H in the Roman alphabet, oh, and please, no Greek jokes about Eta Bitta Pie or whatever, I was in a fraternity you know, Beta Theta Pi, so that's all old hat to me).

So, I was very pleased when a colleague who is very much present in the department, Margot Hardenbergh, revived our chapter this year after a long period of being dormant, on hiatus, offline, etc.  Way to go, Margot!  

And the first new induction ceremony was held last month.  We were very fortunate to be able to get the respected communication scholar Michael Schudson, presently teaching in Columbia University's Journalism School, to give a talk at the ceremony, which he did, and I was asked if I'd say a few words and also introduce Michael, which I did, and all that was topped off by some remarks by the Dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, Michael Latham.

But don't take my word for it, check out the write-up on our student newspaper's website, The Ram, under the title Lambda Pi Eta Inducts Students for the First Time in Decades.  The piece by Connor Ryan starts off as follows:

Lambda Pi Eta, the communication honor society on campus, lost its name and place of recognition after years of neglect and a history that has dumbfounded even the society's current presidents – that is, until Sara Kugel, last year's United Student Government president, and Dr. Margot Hardenbergh, undergraduate associate chair, inspired Katie Corrado, FCRH '12, and Alison Daly, FCRH '12, the society's co-presidents, to reignite the tradition.

"I volunteered to help start Lambda Pi Eta because I wanted to make a lasting impression on campus and give back to the department that has done so much for me," Daly wrote in an email.  "We want to recognize students of high academic standing for their hard work and dedication to the communication field."

 I'm quite pleased and proud to say that Daly and Corrado are both students of mine.  The article includes a picture of them, Alison on the left, Katie on the right:

So, anyway, back to the write-up:

  The society's first induction in years took place on Thursday, Oct. 27 in Tognino Hall of Duane Library and welcomed the current 37 students that make up this year's collection of the communication department's finest.  Dr. Michael Schudson of Columbia University, Dr. Michael Latham, Dean of Fordham College Rose Hill and Dr. Lance Strate, a professor in the department, offered words of wisdom and personal experience at the intimate ceremony, which was attended by prestigious members of the administration, as well as students and their families. 
"The comments by Dr. Lance Strate were an inspiration, and it was a great honor for Fordham to have a distinguished scholar like Columbia's Dr. Michael Schudson address the group," Latham wrote in an email regarding the ceremony's speakers.

Now, that was awfully nice of Dean Latham to say.  Of course, he missed my initial joke about how when we started the chapter in the 90s, I could make a joke about the name being Lambada Pi Eta, and people would know what I was talking about (remember "the forbidden dance"?).  But I did talk about how the three Greek letters stand for logos, pathos, and ethos, which Aristotle identifies as the three forms of proof or three types of appeals that can be made when addressing an audience.  Logos means word, and also logic, and refers to logical proof and the appeal to reason.  Pathos represents the emotions, and emotional appeals can indeed be powerful.  And ethos refers to what today we would call source credibility, how believable you are, which in part can be generated during the communication process, but in part has to do with the individual's prior reputation.  In a more traditional sense, ethos refers to the speaker's character, and the connection to ethics here is quite clear.

This all comes from the first major treatise on the subject of communication, Aristotle's Rhetoric, and I also explained that inherent in the three terms is a model of communication.  Ethos refers to the source of communication, the speaker in antiquity.  Logos refers to the message that the speaker puts together, the argument the speaker puts forth.  And pathos refers to the audience, and the ways in which the message is received, interpreted, and responded to.  All that's missing is the medium or channel, which Aristotle took for granted because in his time the only form of public communication was public speaking.

But I also suggested that we can consider ethos, pathos, and logos as a guide to life.  Logos, being about reason, is linked to intelligence and learning, and by virtue of being inducted into the honor society, the students had already demonstrated their strength in this area.  But while it is important to have a good head on your shoulders, that is not enough.  You also have to have a good heart. And that is what pathos represents.  Reason must be tempered and balanced by passion, to pursue those things you that are really important to you, that you really care about, and by compassion, as we like to say in Jesuit education, to become men and women for others.  And the balance is achieved with the aid of ethos, to be individuals of good character and ethical conduct, because then others will give you recognition and respect, will listen to what you have to say, and will consider your messages with care.  And even in the midst of the most hostile of crowds, with ethos on your side they will at least respect you for your position, and you may yet succeed in providing a little bit of opening to minds that are otherwise closed.

Well anyway, that's my spiel, or sermon, or whatever you want to call it. It's an approximation of what I said at the first couple of induction ceremonies back in the 90s, and what I said last month.  This is the first time I've written it down.   So, enough about me, back to the article, if you please:

Lambda Pi Eta stems from the National Communication Association, and Fordham represents one of more than 400 chapters spread across the country.  With the strength and popularity of the communication and media studies department on campus, students feel that an honor society dedicated to the major would thereby be popular – and with effort, successful.

"As a school with a very reputable communication department, it only seems right to have the presence of an equally reputable honor society on campus," Corrado said.  "Many of the students within the department have completed internships at some of the biggest media companies, have consistently done well in the classroom and are genuinely passionate about graduating from Fordham and making positive contributions to the media industry."

Yes, we are a very, very reputable communication department.  Are you listening,  Dean Latham?

While the society represents high academic achievement and perhaps a powerful networking tool down the road, Latham reminds that the society also provides an invaluable opportunity for students to create meaningful relationships with professors in the field.

"More broadly, they [honor societies] also help create a culture in which students and faculty can have valuable exchanges about personal goals, careers and values outside the classroom," Latham said.  "Honor societies like these give students an important goal to aspire to and set a standard for excellence."

Excellence indeed!  That is very much a part of Fordham's culture.  And as for what's next...

With the much-anticipated induction ceremony in the rearview, the society is looking to host more internal events dedicated to connecting Lambda Pi Eta to communication industries in New York.  For example, the society had a private meeting with "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek when he came to campus last month. 

"By the time [this article] gets published, we'll have held our first event with Jeffrey Salgo, longtime director of CBS," Corrado said. 

Besides the joy of being a part of the society, the private events and specialized attention are what draws most students to Lambda Pi Eta.

So, tell me, how do I join, you may well be asking yourself!  And who could blame you?

In order to gain admission into the society, students whose first major is communication and media studies must complete an application that is released in the spring and meet specific minimum cumulative and major GPA requirements.  Students who are admitted into the society are those who show dedication to the communication industry through course work and extracurricular activities.  Dr. Margot Hardenbergh is the honor society's faculty advisor.

"The biggest perk is knowing that you are among the elite of students within the communications field in this country," Corrado said.  "Academically, being in Lambda Pi Eta says a lot, and I think employers will recognize that when we graduate."

So, my hat's off to Margot Hardenbergh, and to Alison Daly and Katie Corrado, and all of our new LPH members.  Congratulations, we are very proud of you all!

Monday, November 14, 2011

It's in the Air

Beyond the cloud, beyond the smartphone and tablet, the future of computing is in the air. Not up in the air, but floating, right there in front of you, me, us.

For starters, here's a Ted Talk from 2009 dubbed SixthSense, featuring Pattie Maes of MIT demonstrating a wearable device that uses video projection, designed by Pranav Mistry:

Now, here, more recently, is OmniTouch, a similar type of device developed at Carnegie Mellon University, and funded by Microsoft:

The presentation is a bit dry, admittedly, but it does suggest the direction that we are moving in, whether it's OmniTouch, SixthSense, or something entirely different.  Oh, and here's a follow-up video, which is even more dry than the last one:

This also demonstrates that Microsoft, a company whose leadership position in the world of new media has been steadily eroding since the departure of Bill Gates from active stewardship, and the ascendancy of old rival Apple, is not to be counted out of the game just yet.  In fact, here's a recently released vision of the future, the future in particular of Microsoft Office:


The video, rather blandly named Productivity Future Vision (2011), includes some unspecified form of 3D or holographic technology, embedded in multiple screens, which as I've noted previously, indicates that the screen, as a singular framing device is obsolescent.  You might also compare this vision to that of Corning, the glass company, which I discussed in a post back in August:  Life in Glass Houses

McLuhan argued that both clothing and architecture are extensions of the skin, and with these videos we gain a vision of the future world of electric skin...

Electric skin?  Hey, wouldn't that be a great name for a band?  Anyone out there play bass? Or maybe air guitar?

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Medium Is...

So, several months ago, Mary Ann Allison, who was the Vice-President of the New York State Communication Association at the time (she's President now), and running this year's annual NYSCA conference, asked me if I would be willing to be part of a Pecha Kucha session there. 

What the hell is Pecha Kucha you might ask.  Or you might click on the link to find out, but basically it means doing a quick talk with a PowerPoint presentation consisting of 20 slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds.

As for how you pronounce it, it sounds something like P'chachka, but not exactly, and anyway I like to think of it as Pikachu-chu.
So, I said I would do it, not having any idea what I would do it on, but this year being the Marshall McLuhan centenary and all, I decided to create one based on his famous aphorism, the medium is the message. And I presented it first at the Media @ the Center Marshall McLuhan Symposium at Fordham University on September 17, that you've been hearing all about for the past couple of months on this blog.  And then I presented it a second time, as the last of 5 such presentations, at the NYSCA conference last month.

As I was working on this Pecha Kucha, I found that it was impossible to say all that I wanted to say in normal prose, and so I turned to a kind of didactic poetry for the format. I'm not saying it's good poetry, heck, I'm not sure if it's poetry at all, but neither is it exposition, and in writing it up, I used the format of poetry, so it is what it is, so to speak.

I also turned the PowerPoint into a video, and added the soundtrack, which is not exactly the same as the live Pecha Kucha performance, but provides some idea of what it was like. I've uploaded it on my YouTube channel, and you can go look at it over there, it also appears under the title of
The Medium Is... (A Pecha Kucha) , or just catch it down below.

And did I hear you say that you wanted to read the text too?  Well, okay, I can be accommodating, I'll add it in right here, for what it's worth.

The medium is…

The medium is the message
McLuhan's wake-up call
warning us to be aware
of the way that we get things done
because the way that we do things
determines what we end up doing
and the way that we do things
determines what we end up with
when we do the things that we do

The medium is the massage
McLuhan's pun and word play
our technologies work us over
manipulating our senses
remixing sensibilities
we shape our tools
and our tools shape us
individually and collectively

The massage splits into the mass age
from the Gutenberg galaxy
comes the age of the machine
the age of the masses and the massive
where the individual is an isolated
alienated atom
within the nuclear family
a corporate conformist
lost in the midst of a lonely crowd

And message divides into mess age
and we have made a massive mess of things
the global village a global garbage dump
McLuhan called it Planet Polluto
Except now
Pluto is no longer a planet
and soon enough
the same may be true of planet Earth

The maelstrom
McLuhan's metaphor
for our technological and cultural environment
a whirlpool of
and news
but there are patterns recognizable
within the dynamic mess
although immersed within the chaos
still we can find emerging order
provided we pay attention

Alfred Korzybski said
the map is not the territory
media are maps
they tell us about territories both real and imagined
different media map the world in different ways
each one shaping our view of the world differently
altering our sense of place
and space
and misdirecting

Neil Postman said
the medium is the metaphor
our metaphors create the content of our culture
and so
we come to see ourselves
our minds and our bodies
as writing tablets
or clockworks
or steam engines
or electric circuits
or as computers

Ashley Montagu said
in teaching
it is the method
and not the content that is the message
the drawing out
not the pumping in
he understood that the questions we ask
give us the answers that we get
or as the computer scientists say
garbage in, garbage out

new modes of communication
result in new forms of social mutation
writing erases the tribal world
inscribes us into civilized, city life
printing produces the modern world
nationalism and industrialism
and the electric circuit
binds us together as global villagers
and actors on a global stage

new media result in
an ongoing metamorphosis
Walter Ong says
human consciousness evolves
we are transformed
from tradition-directed orality
to inner-directed literacy
to the plugged in
people of the tube and the web

Show me the money and I'll show you the medium
the first coins followed the alphabet
paper money is a product of the printing press
and with computers and telecommunications
all that is solid
about cash and capital
melts into the air
and is gone.

One evening after a seminar with Neil Postman
I went out to a bar with my classmates
went to the Men's Room,
and saw graffiti on the wall that said:
pornography is technology's contribution to masturbation
and I said
the ghost of Marshall McLuhan was here!

Online and the on the air we go meatless
in person, our bodies are our media
as are our organs of perception
the ear thrusts us into the midst of things
at the center of action
surrounded by acoustic space
while the eye places us on the outside looking in
as spectators, voyeurs, and peeping Thomists

Media are tools for thought
every language contains its own unique worldview
written language brings linearity and abstract thinking
words, numbers, pictures, music
all encode the world in different ways
Isadora Duncan said
if I could tell you what it meant
there would be no point in dancing it

Oral cultures remember collectively
through songs and poetry
stories and sayings
the written record gives us
chronology and history
and now, memory is a database
randomly accessible
hyper and nonlinear
easily erased
and yet capable of recording
anything and everything
any of us say or do

Our media come from us
they are extensions of us
they are reflections of us
but we forget
we think our technologies are alien
apart from us
we fall in love with them
not knowing that we have fallen in love with
an image of ourselves
McLuhan called this
Narcissus narcosis

Through our media
we learn what the meaning of is is
formal cause greater than self
when every effect is special.
the calendar and the clock
the written word
the printed page
and the electromagnetic wave
all tell us
all about
space and time

Our media are extensions of ourselves
they come between ourselves and the world
they screen and filter the world
Max Frisch said
technology is the art
of never having to experience the world
but what comes between ourselves and our world
becomes our world
and so we become what we behold
because the medium is the membrane

The medium divides
the medium connects
the medium comes in between
in the gaps and the intervals
in the ground behind the figure
the medium surrounds and pervades
the medium is the environment
we enter into a conversation
we write in English or Spanish or French
we get into a book or movie
we go online
and we study media ecology

The medium is Marshall McLuhan
the medium is he
as the medium is you
as the medium is me
and the medium is all of us together.
so let's be the medium
and spread the message

And there you have it, hope you liked it, and in any event, it's one, two, three, p'cha-cha-cha!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

No Nook NIche?

So, here's another quote'o'mine making its way around the information infrastructure.  This time, it's on the Nook, the tablet sold by Barnes & Noble to compete with Amazon's Kindle.  It seems that Barnes & Noble is about to announce a new Nook, and there's all kinds of speculation on what features and price range it might represent.

So, Erika Morphy was working on the piece for the E-Commerce Times, an online publication, and it was published on November 1st under the title of, Can the Nook Color Find a Niche in the Tablet Market?  It was also published under the same title on TechNewsWorld, and a bunch of other places as well, strange how this all works, but that's besides the point.

So, anyway, under the headline is a little B&N graphic, to lend some graphic interest, so let's include that here as well:

There, that's better, right?  A little color, something easy on the eyes?   Anyway, after that there's a larger type, boldfaced, introductory teaser that goes like this:

Barnes & Noble wants to carve out a place for its Nook in the tablet competition, but it's not clear how the company is going to pull that off. "The Nook will prove to be an also-ran in both hardware and software, and unless Barnes & Noble has some miraculous breakthrough up their sleeves, say a virtual reality interface, they will not make much of a dent in the tablet market," predicted Lance Strate, a professor at Fordham.

Woohoo!  So, what's this all about, you might ask.  Well, we'll return to this quote a little later, but now the article starts in earnest, as Erika provides the context:

Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) has sent out invitations to a press conference this week in New York City. The specific topic of the event, set for Nov. 7, is unclear -- but it's almost certain the spotlight will be on its Nook.

It is widely expected that B&N will unveil its answer to Amazon's (Nasdaq: AMZN) Kindle Fire -- that is, a 7-inch Nook Color tablet designed to compete with the Fire in price and functionality.
B&N did not respond to the E-Commerce Times' request to comment for this story. 

Now, they may be trying to generate suspense, but usually when there's no comment at all, not even something like, I can't tell you anything, but watch out, this will knock your socks off, well, that's not a good sign.  Anyway, the article continues with a heading and a new section:

Hugging the Low End

It would be surprising if B&N didn't unveil a Nook tablet in view of the suddenly changed competitive landscape. The big question is how it will price the new device.

The Kindle Fire has effectively carved out a place for itself at the low end of the tablet market, with its US$199 price point. The Nook could be a contender in this arena -- but only if comes down from the current $249 retail price for its Nook Color e-reader. Even if it does, however, it still has a high hurdle to compete with Amazon's wealth of content.

"What Amazon has done is finally identify a price point that is palatable for the average -- as opposed to high-end -- tablet consumer," James Brehm, senior strategist and consultant with Compass Intelligence, told the E-Commerce Times.

It's doubtful that B&N can drop down to $199, however, in Brehm's view. Best analyst guestimates have placed the cost of producing the Kindle Fire somewhat higher than the $199 retail price Amazon is asking for it.

Amazon will be making this up in content sales, Brehm said -- which is not something B&N can count on as heavily as Amazon can. 

So, okay, it's doubtful that B&N can price their tablet any cheaper than the Kindle, and it may well be more expensive.  And they don't have the content to offer that Amazon does, especially all of the streaming media that Amazon makes available to its Prime customers.  After all, Barnes & Noble is a bookstore, or rather a bookstore chain, representing the old media of print and place, now struggling to compete with the entrepreneurial online and algorithmic savvy of  And as tempting as it is to lament this sad state of affairs, I can also recall how, not too long ago, Barnes & Noble superstores helped to drive the vast majority of local, independent booksellers out of business--so, turnabout, fair play, and all that.  Anyway, back to the article, and my turn at bat:

Content Wars? Not Hardly

It would appear that B↦N doesn't stand much of a chance in the tablet wars unless it can come up with an effective niche strategy.

"Barnes & Noble cannot compete with either Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) or Amazon, and are truly reduced to B-side/B-movie status," Lance Strate, professor of communications and media at Fordham University, told the E-Commerce Times.

Possibilities include providing more functionality in the device, or perhaps partnering with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) to tap into a more business-oriented market, Strate speculated.

"In the end, though, the Nook will prove to be an also-ran in both hardware and software, and unless Barnes & Noble has some miraculous breakthrough up their sleeves, say a virtual reality interface, they will not make much of a dent in the tablet market," Strate predicted.

One thing I didn't mention that might come up is that B&N may make the Nook a gaming device as well. But that does seem to be very much at odds with its primary role as an e-book, doesn't it?  Would it be anything less than a cheap sell out on B&N's part? 

The bottom line is, again, that Barnes & Noble is not a technology company, they don't have the resources to come up with the kinds of features that Amazon or Apple can, and their only hope is to partner with someone who does, and is not already tied up with the other tablet companies, like Microsoft, for example.  Otherwise, Apple has the high end of the tablet market, and Amazon the low end, and there's not much room for a third party that has neither the advantages of one nor the other.  Okay, let's get back to the article and the next section:

The Education Market

Another possible avenue for differentiation, Brehm suggested, is the education market.

"That has been a hot market for Apple but many school systems, including those in the state I am in -- Texas -- don't have the money for that kind of hardware," he said.

However, money could be had for a lower-cost tablet device, especially one that rolls out as part of a relationship with educational publishers and that is equipped with WiFi connectivity.

"Amazon has a bigger ecosystem for its content -- it is going to be hard for B&N to beat that even if it does manage to produce a $199 tablet," Brehm concluded. "It will need a specialized strategy."

That may be Barnes & Noble's last and best hope, education.  After all, there is a captive market for textbooks, it's the one thing you can always count on, and in fact I know of several academic publishers who have more or less stopped publishing regular books, and are limiting themselves to textbooks, and reference works (which have a built in market with libraries). 

Barnes & Noble does have an advantage with the textbook market, especially since a significant percentage of college bookstores in the US are run by B&N. And this alleviates the publishers' problem of used book sales cutting into their profits, while at the same time it can also can alleviate the overstuffed backpacks of school children and college students alike. 

After all, textbooks are not really loved, not known for their literary merit, plus going electronic allows for the texts to be automatically updated, not gratuitously updated simply to generate a new edition to cut into used book sales, but whenever needed, and only as needed (as opposed to just shuffling things around to make it different).  Yes indeed, textbooks, that's the ticket!  Now, on to the article's conclusion:

No Worries About Apple

One competitor B&N doesn't have to worry about is Apple. For all the hype over the $199 tablet, Brehm doesn't see Apple reaching to the lower end of the market to compete.

"Apple will always see itself as a premium product," he said, "and they will never come down in price to get a larger market share."

I find this a bit funny.  Wouldn't it make more sense to say that one competitor Apple doesn't have to worry about is B&N? 

Maybe what Barnes & Noble should do is get out of the hardware game, which they're not really suited for anyway, and partner with Apple to make the Nook a software feature on the iPad.  Both companies have a good relationship with schools and educators, it could be a match made in heaven!  And, if not a marriage, then maybe it would be an occasion for a little bit of Nookie?