Monday, December 30, 2013

Why Tweet?

So, several weeks ago I was interviewed by Tom Stoelker, who writes for Fordham University's newsletter, Inside Fordham.  He was doing a piece about Twitter, and wanted quotes from Fordham faculty who use that social network. 

So I spoke to him on the phone for a bit, and he pulled out some of my comments, wrote them up and included them in the article entitled, Six Faculty and Why They Tweet. Apart from myself, the six include my colleagues in the Department of Communication and Media Studies, Paul Levinson, Beth Knobel, Mike Plugh, and Bob Blechman, as well as a Theology professor, Christiana Peppard. And he introduced the article with the following:

From Russian politics, to basketball, to philosophy, to a murder mystery or two, a sampling of Fordham professors demonstrate that their Twitter approaches are as varied as their interests.

The University’s more active Twitter users spring from the communication and media studies department, though faculty in other disciplines are delving in as well. 
All regular faculty users interviewed have one thing in common: they warily tested the waters before finding their comfort zone. 
To a non-digital native, Twitter can seem like an unwieldy, hungry beast, or worse, a massive party where you can’t find your friends. Interviews with six professors demonstrate how they manage to both find friends and feed the beast.

And you can click on the link to read what the other five had to say, I'll just share my own remarks here on Blog Time Passing, but first, here's how Tom introduced me (my quote came after Paul's, who was introduced as "a direct disciple of the late media ecology theorist Neil Postman":

Strate got onto Twitter in the very early days. Another disciple of Postman, Strate’s Twitter circle includes scholars and practitioners of media ecology. Though he uses the medium proficiently for specific interests, he remains acutely aware of Twitter’s pitfalls.

Now then, here are the words attributed to me. I say attributed, because we had a long telephone conversation, I have no record of what I actually said, and this is what Tom selected out of a much larger volume of remarks, the text of which of course I had a chance to review and approve.

From a critical point of view, Twitter raises a lot of questions. What is the point of this medium? What is it doing? What is it undoing? I see it as abbreviated telegraphic discourse. Electronic media in general undermines the concept and practice of literacy as we’ve known it. It discourages engagement in long, measured discourse and deep reading, and it’s not about following a train of coherent thought. It often trivializes what you’re dealing with. And while it’s common to hear complaints about the ‘What-I-had-for-lunch’ tweets, more importantly, Twitter turns political discourse into slogans, quips, and sound bites. We lose the capacity for careful reasoning and clear thought. That naturally leads to more conflict-oriented communication. So, how do you evaluate that? We evaluate a tweet by how clever and economical it is, how many people it goes out to, and how often it gets re-tweeted. None of that speaks to how well it informs us, educates us, or uplifts us. You know something’s wrong when every television show has a ‘like us on Facebook’ and a ‘follow us on Twitter.’

Now, just to clarify, I did say quite a bit on the positive side about Twitter as well, but Tom said that I was the only one to have anything really critical to say about the medium, so he wanted to feature that part of my remarks.

And I'll add that part of my criticism that he left out was the typical it's not what it used to be kind of commentary. That is, Twitter was a lot more enjoyable when relatively few people were on it, and I was able to actively engage with a small group of folks who I followed and followed me back. It's lost much of its appeal for me as it's become more of a mass medium in many ways, dominated by celebrities, and folks trying to get noticed with all those hashtags and such, rather than just take part in a conversation with others.

The last sentence in my quote actually refers to that point, the perils of becoming so popular that Twitter accounts, along with Facebook pages, are promoted on just about every TV show.

And then there's the story of Justine Sacco's tweet heard 'round the world, how a PR professional made a dumb joke on an account with only 200 followers, which exploded into a firestorm of outrage that she was unable to deal with being offline on a long flight overseas, leading to an extraordinary degree of vituperation, and her losing her job even before she landed. If you don't know what I'm talking about, BuzzFeed provides a pretty good summary: This Is How A Woman’s Offensive Tweet Became The World’s Top Story; I found this piece by someone familiar wth Sacco particularly revealing: Acquaintance Reveals Justine Sacco's Fateful Ideas About Twitter; and you can just Google "Justine Sacco" to read a wide variety of opinion on what happened to her.

If nothing else, her story illustrates the potential danger of Twitter, and all social media. The lesson certainly is, think before you tweet. And the question it raises is why get involved in such activities in the first place. Twitter is pretty amazing after all, but to invoke the title of my forthcoming book, are we in danger of amazing ourselves to death? Why tweet?, indeed!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Deck Us All With Boston Charlie

So, whether you mark the occasion by going to a Midnight Mass, waiting for Santa Claus to come, exchanging gifts for one day of a dozen, or simply going out for Chinese food, the main holiday of the holiday season is almost over now. Of course, we still have the new year to celebrate next week, and the music of the season will continue to be played in stores and shopping malls for some time now, whether you like it or not.

But for me, "Deck the Halls" in particular makes me think of a newspaper comic strip I read as a kid, Walt Kelly's Pogo, which was known for its brilliant and incisive humor, satire, and cultural commentary. Probably the best known quote from Pogo is, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

But this time of year, I can't help but think of Kelly's awesome parody of the traditional carol, "Deck the Halls," which I first encountered on the comics page of the long defunct Long Island Press, the local newspaper for residents of Queens back in the day. I don't recall the exact context, but it might have been a strip like this one:

Or here's another from the Sunday funnies:

And there's more to the song than these few lines:

Here's what I believe is the complete version:

But carols are meant to be heard, not just seen, so here's one amateur rendering:

And here's a solo rendition:

And this is a very nice chorus, complete with visuals courtesy of Danny the miniature horse:

This one is less notable for the singing than for the backdrop featuring the comic strip at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Seattle:

Finally, there's a jazz version by Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross that starts with a formal choral rendition and goes off into some scat singing. Here's a video that couples the music with more of Walt Kelly's imagery:

So, there you have it:

Now that sure is some joyful noise, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Commercial View on Alien Invasion

So, today I got a notification that an article that includes a quote from me, Today’s Burning Question: Marketing Implications Of Google Glass, originally posted on Adotas on February 25th, made it into their top 20 articles of the year, coming in at number 17. As is the custom here on Blog Time Passing, that became the impetus for a post, this one entitled Google Glass iMenagerie, which was published here on April 12th.

So, while checking this out on Adotas, I noticed a post from December 20th entitled, 5 New Video Ads You Should Watch Right Now!, so I did. Watch them right now, that is. Or not right now, but right now back then, when I was watching them right now. Well, you know what I mean.

So yeah, they're all good, and illustrate the point made by McLuhan long ago, that advertising is an art form, and in the future when the commercial connections are long forgotten, they will be regarded as some of our period's finest creative efforts.

Anyway, of the five, two particularly caught my eye, being a science fiction buff, so I wanted to share them with you here. The first one is entitled, simply enough, Beans, and it is described over on YouTube as follows:

Written and directed by Animator Alvise Avati and produced by Animation Director Eamonn Butler. Beans, a short film with an unexpected ending, showcases Cinesite's creature animation skills.

And here it is:

And they also have this to say:

We hope you have fun watching and sharing it! Find out more on our website:

And the second commercial represents the start of a series promoting Samsung Mobile devices, entitled simply enough, #GALAXY11: The Beginning (Galaxy being the brand name of Samsung's cell phone, no relation to Gutenberg, although McLuhan did make a reference to a new Marconi Galaxy that would fit in quite well in this connection). Anyway, the write-up over on YouTube just states:

Our best, our bravest, our team. The world's greatest football players have joined together to fight for Earth.

So here it is, the first chapter of what promises to be an intriguing series:

Now, unless you're not from North America, you were probably surprised by the fact that by football, they meant soccer (can't these people get the names of the sports right?), but given the global theme, using the sport that most of the rest of the world obsesses over make sense, even though North American football is much more of a gladiatorial type contest. So this seems to be a novel turn on the classic science fiction film theme, one invoked more than once quite seriously by President Ronald Reagan, that the nations of the world would stop fighting with one another and unite if faced by a common threat of invasion by aliens from another planet. I should add that there is one other note regarding this ad over on YouTube:

Get the full story:

So, there's a little more of a back story over there, if you feel like you need one. Now, I admit to not being much of a sports fan, and to the extent that I follow sports, soccer falls into the category of almost entirely not at all. So, rather than comment on what is being presented here as a dream team, I'll quote from the write-up over on the Adotas pageL

A crack football squad had been assembled to fight our cause. Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo had been signed up. Phew!

OK, Iker Casillas in goal. Bit past his best, but still very capable. Mario Gotze, Radamel Falcao and Oscar - again, they would not be my first choices, but not bad.

Then I realise there are no defenders among the 11 players selected and I start to worry. Then the name Victor Moses is mentioned and my pulse starts to go into overdrive. Is the fate of Earth really going to be settled by a guy who can barely make the Liverpool team?

Who could let this happen? Who else is in this team? Lee Chun-Soo – the Bolton player? We’re doomed!

So, are we doomed? You tell me.

Now, before signing off, I can't help but note that what Sam seems to have sung here is a tune I've heard before, albeit the earlier version was a bit more looney:

So, I don't know if the Samsung aliens will look anything like Marvin the Martian or any of the Looney Tunes outer space invaders, but I suspect that the footballers are taking themselves a bit more seriously. And that they won't have anyone on their team at all like Lola Bunny. So maybe we are doomed...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Nonlinear TV

So, this seems to come up over and over, as we are in a period of transition in regard to our media environment, moving away from a broadcast model. You know, the term broadcast is an agricultural metaphor, a word originally referring to a method of planting seeds by casting them broadly. 

According to the Free Dictionary, this lesser known meaning is specifically defined as "to sow (seed) over a wide area, especially by hand," "the act of scattering seed," "scattered over a wide area," and "in a scattered manner."

In other words, the broadcast model, which has been used for the most part by cable and satellite services, is one that is basically scattershot, and in many ways scatterbrained. I've written about this in a number of previous posts (All Foxed Up, or Time(Warn'er) for Cable NeutralityTell Old Pharaoh to Let My Channels Go!Ordering TV À La CarteABC You Later, Cablevision!, FCC It Now, and more recently, Cable vs. Internet). 

So back in September, the subject reared its ugly head once more, and was discussed in an article in the E-Commerce Times by Erika Morphy, entitled Netflix Gives Itself a Personality Makeover. It was published on September 17th, which made it a bit of a birthday present for me. Anyway, the article begins with the following teaser:

In its newly updated "long-term view," Netflix made it clear that it has ambitious plans for the future. "It's throwing the gauntlet down," said Quinnipiac University professor David Cadden. "Netflix has proven to be a technologically innovative company. Essentially, it's informing HBO, Amazon and the major networks that it's moving into the field of content production."
The report then begins in earnest:

Netflix on Monday updated its "long-term view" of the industry to include a far wider range of competitive factors than it has ever had in the past. The company also adjusted its competitive focus accordingly, taking into account a number of players that it had previously ignored.

In a nutshell, the company said in its statement for investors, it expects that Internet TV will replace linear TV over the coming decades and around the world.

Also, it continued, "apps will replace channels, remote controls will disappear and screens will proliferate."

In this brave new world, of course, Netflix plans to be the leading provider.

 I agree with this assessment, of course. I think there will still be a place for broadcast, we will still want live reports for news and weather and sports, for example, and there can be live events and even premieres based on the desire to be the first to view the programming. But for the most part, on-demand services, subscriptions, and pay-per-view will be the future of audiovisual media.

Now, the article continues with a new section entitled, "HBO Leads the List":

Netflix got into a significant level of detail explaining why it was predicting these trends. For shareholders, though, the main point was this: Because Internet TV would be the driving force, most of the world's leading linear TV networks, such as HBO and ESPN, will or are already moving into Internet.

These are the providers Netflix sees as its main competitors now—not Hulu and not even Amazon, at least on a primary level. To be sure, Hulu and Amazon are still on the list of competitors; they are just not at the top of the list.

"The network that we think likely to be our biggest long-term competitor-for-content is HBO," the company said. "In addition to HBO, there are Amazon/Lovefilm/Prime, Hulu, Now TV, and many cable and broadcast networks in various territories."

Netflix did not respond to our request for further details.

I'll just add that this represents a kind of convergence, just as say Microsoft, Google, and Facebook once operated in very different markets and now find themselves going head-to-head with each other, along with Apple which has led the way in breaking down business boundaries. And speaking of breaking, the next section of the article is entitled "'They Are Breaking New Ground'":

By singling out HBO, Netflix is sending a message not only to HBO but to the rest of the market as well. It is saying, essentially, that it is no longer just a provider of existing content. Instead, it sees itself increasingly as a creator of content as well.

This may seem like big talk for a company that has only produced a handful of original shows, including Lilyhammer, House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, Arrested Development Season 4 and Orange is the New Black.

Even from this small base, however, Netflix has been very strategic with its offerings, Val Wright, principal at Val Wright Consulting, told the E-Commerce Times.

"It used analytics to match that customers who loved the original House Of Cards also loved Kevin Spacey and used that to cast the leading actor for their original series remake," she said. "They are breaking new ground with business models and customer experience."

So Netflix is getting aggressive, but then again its origin is in taking on what was once a blockbuster business of video rentals, beginning with videocassettes, and later with DVDs. It follows that the next section of the report is entitled, "'It's Throwing the Gauntlet Down'":

Netflix makes clear that it does not plan to let up.

"We'll continue to grow our original content as we gain scale, confidence and experience," it said in its update. "With each original, we learn more about what our members want, about how to produce and promote effectively and about the positive impact of originals on our brand."

Netflix's chutzpah is impressive, said David Cadden, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University.

"It's throwing the gauntlet down," Cadden told the E-Commerce Times. "Netflix has proven to be a technologically innovative company and one that is able to bounce back from self-inflicted errors Essentially, it's informing HBO, Amazon and the major networks that it's moving into the field of content production."

Chutzpah, I like that! As for the separation of carrier from content in telecommunications policy, it's not exactly like the separation of church and state in the constitution, it's a kind of boundary set up by various forms of legislation, and subject to Federal Communications Commission oversight. Put simply, there is no necessary reason to keep carrier and content separate, there is only the question of what best serves the public interest (and the FCC is supposed to act in support of the public interest, it ought to but often doesn't). Of course, from a media ecology point of view, you'd have to say that the carrier is the content.

Anyway, continuing on the theme of Netflix rising, the next section of the piece is entitled, "'The Shot Across the Bow'" and it features a quote from someone near and dear to all our hearts here at Blogtime Passing:

HBO appears to have already recognized the nascent competitive threat that Netflix poses.

Not so long ago, Netflix was seen as existing in a symbiotic relationship with cable channels and networks, noted Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.

"Viewers who previously would write off a program because they missed earlier episodes or seasons would catch up by watching them on Netflix, which would increase viewership for the current episodes on cable," Strate told the E-Commerce Times.

Now it's HBO that sees it must push into the on-demand format.

"HBO GO is the shot across the bow, turning the cable channel into a direct competitor with Netflix," Strate explained. "Netflix's modified vision statement reflects the new reality where the cable networks are positioning themselves in competition with, rather than complementing Netflix as an online content provider."
So, we really have a number of players converging on the same territory, new media-based companies such as Netflix, Apple, and Amazon, content providers such as HBO, Showtime, and Starz, and also carriers such as TimeWarner Cable, Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc., which provide broadcast and internet services and will be forced to adopt more of the a la carte model in order to stay competitive.

Anyway, it is certainly to the point that the options available to audiences are on the rise, as indicated by the final section of the article, "Numerous Hardware Options":

Demographics and changes in the marketplace make these shifts inevitable, said TubeStart CEO Josef Holm.

"More young people view online video than they do cable TV, and smartphones have made this trend even more ubiquitous," Holm told the E-Commerce Times.

"The increasing number of hardware options plays a role too," he added, pointing to Google's Chromecast as one example.

So, as the media environment continues to evolve, entrepreneurs will find new niches, established businesses will scramble to keep up, and government will be looking through the rearview mirror and continue to respond to problems that appear long after the fact. And of course it's only television, but there is also a larger issue here, a point made by Marshall McLuhan long ago, that the absence of an understanding and application of the media ecology approach leads to enormous waste of resources. In the meantime, excuse me while I catch up on some movies and programs on my iPad...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Power of Words

Yesterday I served as lay leader for the Friday evening Sabbath services at Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey, and I thought it would be worthwhile to share  the words of my sermon with you here on Blog Time Passing, especially since the subject of language and communication is one that is near and dear to my heart.

The Power of Words

In Jewish tradition, we call the sermon part of the service the D'Var Torah, which means word of Torah, which is based on the weekly Torah reading. And this week's Torah portion, Parsha Vayechi, is the last one from the Book of Genesis, and the theme that I want to draw from it has to do with the power of words.

But first, I want to mention that last Sunday (December 7th), I was a substitute teacher for our religious school's 6th and 7th grade Judaica classes, which was an absolute delight. And the lesson I taught was a special one on the power of words and the ethics of language. This included the basic moral teachings about the importance of honesty in most situations, and the various admonitions in Jewish tradition against gossip. You may recall, for example, the traditional version of our silent prayer, which begins, "May God keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile." The language is derived from the Psalms.

And to underscore the power of words, I pointed out that in Genesis, God begins the creation of the world with words, by saying Let there be light. He speaks Creation into existence, as the text says, "And God said, Let there be light, and there was light."

A little later in Genesis, after creating Adam, the Torah says that God had him give names to all of the animals, and it says that whatever Adam called them, that became their name. I should add that I had to explain that what the Torah meant by Adam giving them names was not names like Fred or Sam or Linda, but names like cow, and chicken, and whale. But the point is that giving names to all of the animals was the way in which Adam established dominion over them, and his role as caretaker of God's Creation.

The fact that names have power is also reflected in the one name that do not pronounce in the Torah and our prayerbooks, the Yod Hay Vov Hay that is not supposed to be said out loud, which is why we substitute adonai instead.

The power of names is also seen in the renaming of Abraham and Sarah, who were originally called Abram and Sarai, their new names symbolizing their new roles as patriarch and matriarch. It can also be seen in the second name given to Jacob after he wrestles with the angel, his new name being Israel. In this, we see a motif common to many traditional cultures, the use of an eponym to personify an entire group of people. It is a way of telling the story, and history, of a people by using a single individual as a symbol to represent the entire nation.

In this way, the descendants of the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob become known as the Children of Israel, one people, but they also are represented as a group of tribes. Jacob had twelve sons, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel. In order of birth, the twelve sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. Each one represented one tribe in the ancient land of Israel, with the exception of Joseph. Instead of a tribe of Joseph, there were two tribes whose names are represented by Joseph's two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

In this week Torah portion, Jacob is on his deathbed, and before he dies, he blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh. The Torah refers to Jacob by his other name, Israel, and says that he stretched out his hands and put them on the heads of the two sons, and blessed them, saying:

"God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day, may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land."

In this way, he indicates that his grandchildren and their descendants will be known by the name of Israel, as well as being identified as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Torah portion goes on to say,

So he blessed them on that day, saying, "With you, Israel will bless, saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.' "

And this becomes the traditional Jewish blessing over children: May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.

We can recall here the power of language, to bless, and also to curse, and more generally, to heal and to harm.

In this week's parsha, after blessing Joseph's children, Jacob then calls for all of his sons, and provides a final prophecy, saying,

Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.

He then says that Reuben, the first born, and Simeon and Levi, the next two, will not give rise to the dominant tribe of the twelve, but rather that it shall be the fourth son, Judah, saying:

Judah, [as for] you, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies, [and] your father's sons will prostrate themselves to you. A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah. From the prey, my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the student of the law from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples.

Jacob goes on to speak about his other sons, but I want to focus on this passage because, while the twelve tribes are united for the better part of a century under the reign of King David and King Solomon, they then split into two separate kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah, which took its name from the tribe of Judah.

When the Assyrians invade and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, ten of the twelve tribes disappear, leaving only Judah and Levi, the Levites being a priestly tribe with no permanent home. The people of the northern kingdom become known as the ten lost tribes, although some possible remnants of some of them have surfaced in recent years, but in the past some people went searching for ten lost tribes. For example, when the New World was discovered by European explorers, and they first encountered the native Americans, some thought they might be the ten lost tribes. But back in the ancient world, the people who were left behind in the northern kingdom, and others who settled there after the Assyrian invasion, became known as Samaritans. The phrase good Samaritan comes from the New Testament, and the Samaritans are still around today, in very small numbers, practicing a religion similar to Judaism.

The southern kingdom of Judah survived for a while longer, until the Babylonian conquest and captivity, but the Babylonians did not destroy the people of Judah, and later, when the Persian Empire conquered Babylon, the Emperor Cyrus allowed the people of Judah to return, and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and this is described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Later still, when the Romans conquered Judah, they referred to the kingdom in Latin as Judea. So, it is from Judah and Judea, or Yehuda in Hebrew, that we get the name Jews, and the word Judaism.

Jacob describes his son Judah as a lion, and the lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah, and of King David, who came from the tribe of Judah, and David's son Solomon. The Ethiopians believed that their royal line was descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and used the Lion of Judah as the symbol of their kingdom, appearing on their flag, until 1974, when the last king, Haile Selassie, was deposed, although he is still venerated within the Rastafari movement or religion.

Jacob uses the phrase, until Shiloh comes, and the meaning of those words is a bit of mystery. Some interpret the name Shiloh as a variation on the Hebrew word shaluach, which means messenger, and take it as a reference to the Messiah, which of course means different things to Jews and to Christians, while the Moslems interpret it as a reference to the prophet Mohammad.

Shiloh is also the name of a city, in the land allotted to the tribe of Ephraim, and that is where the Ark of the Covenant was placed after the Children of Israel return to the promised land following the exodus, which made it the religious capital of Israel before King David conquered Jerusalem and King Solomon built the Temple there. Instead of the phrase until Shiloh comes, the JPS translation of Genesis renders the passage, as long as men come to Shiloh.

Shiloh was located in what is now the West Bank, and this brings to mind the fact that there can be conflicts over names, and that some of those conflicts are more than scholarly disputes over the meaning of ancient biblical texts. This includes conflicts between Jews and Arabs over place names in the Middle East. The West Bank, which is now partially under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, has also been referred to as Judea and Samaria by religious and conservative groups opposed to relinquishing control of the territory, as it does correspond to the ancient land of Israel. The coastal region that Israel occupies today was, during the biblical area, the home of the Canaanites, otherwise known as the Philistines.

The name Philistine is a variation on Palestine, another name for the land of Canaan that is used over 250 times in the Bible. The various peoples in the Bible referred to as Philistines and Canaanites, like the ten lost tribes, no longer exist. But after the Romans destroyed the second Temple, sacked Jerusalem, and dispersed our people, they merged the provinces of Judea and Galilee and renamed it Syria Palestina. In the 20th century, the British Empire created the Mandate of Palestine after the First World War, and before the creation of the State of Israel, Jewish inhabitants and Zionist settlers were often referred to as Palestinians. Some argue that the Arab inhabitants of this area never called themselves Palestinians until the sixties, but that claim is not universally accepted.

There are conflicts over names because words have power. And whoever has the power to name things can exert a certain amount of control over those things, just as Adam did in naming all of the animals. The lesson that we can take from the Torah, and from all of human history, is the importance of using our words, and the necessity of using them with care.

Three of the Ten Commandments teach this lesson. The prohibition against graven images can be understood as a commandment to do what parents tell their children to do, to use your words, to communicate with language. The commandment not to take God's name in vain tells us to show respect for the sacred, and the commandment not to bear false witness tells us to show respect for others. And what this requires of us is to be aware, to be mindful of our use of language. It is all to easy to speak without thinking, and what our tradition teaches us is to think, first and foremost, to think before speaking, to be mindful of what we say.

Abraham Lincoln said, "better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." And President Obama asked us to observe a moment of silence tomorrow (Saturday, December 14th) morning at 9:30 AM in memory of the children and teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Silence is the counterpart of words, and without silence, we would be left speechless. Without some degree of silence, language degenerates into noise.

I think that the same advice we give children about crossing the street can be applied to our use of words: Stop. Look. And Listen. Listening, above all, requires us to be silent, and attend to what others have to say. To listen shows respect for others' words, and for others as persons, and without listening there can be no understanding.

Stop, look, and listen, to each other, and to ourselves, to the still small voice within. Listen to ourselves, and consider the power of our words, think about how others may react to our words, what they might feel when they hear what we might want to say. To be sensitive to the effect that our words have on others. To be ethical in our use of language. And to recognize the value of silence, and to be mindful of the words of our silent prayer: May God keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. Amen. And Shabbat shalom.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Hairy Situation for TV News

So, we're heading into one of the worst times of year for news gatherers, the ten days or so encompassing Christmas and New Year's. The only other time of year that's equally slow for journalists are the dog days of August.

And this past August, a rather hairy situation arose across the pond in Great Britain, involving a TV news personality—and they are personalities, after all, whether they are qualified as journalists or not as well, or else we wouldn't be having this discussion.

The story was covered by Palash Ghosh of the International Business Times, and it went by the name of, Jeremy Paxman’s Beard: Why Are Television News Presenters Almost Always Clean Shaven?  It was posted back on August 13th, and yeah, I'm quoted in it, why else would I be bringing it up here, after all?

Here's how it begins:

Jeremy Paxman, one of the most well-known and controversial of Britain’s television news presenters, has made some news of his own -- he appeared on the air wearing a mustache and beard. The 63-year-old, who has hosted ”Newsnight” since 1990, explained on the air that he grew the beard while on summer holiday and didn’t feel like shaving it off when he returned to work.

Paxman's unexpectedly hairy appearance on Monday night on BBC2 sparked a tidal wave of commentary (mostly cheeky) on Twitter as well as by other members of U.K. media. Lauren Laverne, a BBC music DJ, liked the beard, calling it “Fawkesian,” an apparent reference to Guy Fawkes, the early 17th-century man who tried to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I. Kevin O’Sullivan, the TV critic for the Sunday Mirror, beamed: “Facial hair becomes him [Paxman].”

So, this is a story that did not get much coverage, facial or otherwise, over here in the United States. The reference to Guy Fawkes may summon up images of V for Vendetta, from the graphic novel and film adaptation, and the Guy Fawkes mask that the title character wore:

As for whether this was a fair comparison with Jeremy Paxman, I'll let you be the judge:

Personally, I can't help but see a resemblance to a more clean shaven and less nonfictional newscaster:

But hey, that's just me. Of course, this might make for an interesting plot point for the next season of the HBO series, The Newsroom, with Will McAvoy, the character played by Jeff Daniels, depicted above, growing a beard; his producer and paramour MacKenzie McHale, being British, saying she loves the new look; and Jane Fonda, who isn't given much of a workout playing broadcast CEO Leonia Lansing, demanding that he shave it off. Sam Waterson's character, news division president Charlie Skinner, can say that he doesn't think a beard looks good on a news anchor, but that he will nevertheless defend McAvoy's right to refrain from removing his whiskers.

But I digress, so back to the article:

Others were less than thrilled by the follicles. Paxman’s BBC colleague Emily Maitlis sarcastically tweeted: "Right that's it, I'm working on a mustache for Thursday's Newsnight." Jenny Éclair, the comedienne and actress best known for her role in “Grumpy Old Women” television series, commented: "I like Paxman's beard. Looks like he might ride a Harley [Davidson motorcycle] come the weekend."

Ian Rankin, the Scots crime novelist, quipped: "It is 1973 and I'm really digging the new album by Paxman's Beard." A presenter on Channel 4, the decidedly dark-haired Kirstie Allsopp commented: “Paxo [Paxman] with a beard is like me going blonde; there are just some things that are not meant to be.”

Similarly, according to the Daily Mail, broadcaster and journalist Danny Baker boldly declared: “I really do not think Jeremy Paxman should be granted a beard. It's corrupt. Disney had it right. Hey BBC: no news beards.” Baker added: “Do you think a single person in the news room had the balls to say 'Hey Jeremy. The beard. You look f__king ridiculous.” Perhaps the best comment came from political blogger Guido Fawkes, who joked: “Paxo looks like he’s making one of those ‘hostage pleads for release’ videos.”

It does seem that some of these folks are piling it on a bit thick, doesn't it? But the Brits are known for their sharp put-downs. And what does Mr. Paxman have to say about all this (it wouldn't be peace, man, now would it?)?

Paxman himself conceded that his hirsute appearance is highly unusual for BBC television. "Unless you're lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on ‘Only Fools and Horses [a popular British sitcom];’ [Greek rock singer] Demis Roussos or [convicted terrorist] Abu Hamza, the BBC is generally as pogonophobic [fearful of beards] as the late-lamented Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha," he said.

For now, Paxman seems enamored with his new look, despite the jokes and criticism. "I have grown a beard for the last few summers, and suddenly wondered whether I really needed to shave it off to present Newsnight," he said, according to BBC. "I may keep it or I may shave it off, but I think I'll make my own decision."

BBC’s stance on its star’s new look is unclear. A source told the Guardian: “Yes, he has grown a beard. It's fair to say there will be no action as a result of this.” Interestingly, last year, Paxman derided the Liberal Democrats party by noting that the “beard quotient seems to be down” at their annual conference.

But Paxman has found very strong support from a British organization called The Beard Liberation Front, which campaigns for the right of men to wear beards in the workplace. The group said that Paxman has made “broadcasting history”. “It had previously been thought that the BBC had an informal beard ban on news anchors,” BLF said in a statement. “Paxman’s beard is a blow against pogonophobia in public life.”

Pogonophobia? The Beard Liberation Front? Is this for real? Well, there do have a Wikipedia entry, if you can believe it, and here's the first paragraph:

The Beard Liberation Front (BLF) is a British interest group which campaigns in support of beards and opposes discrimination against those who wear them. It was founded in 1995 by socialist historian Keith Flett who continues to organise and represent the organisation. Apart from its numerous campaigns in support of beards and against discrimination in the workplace and discrimination against those who wear beards as part of their religion, it currently hosts the annual Beard of the Year award.

Beard of the Year Award?  Errr, hmmm, ahem, ahhh..

(hint, hint)

So is this all a big put-on?  Well, here's what the Wikipedia entry continues to relate:

On the face of it, the campaign is semi-humorous, with its outwardly frivolous aims, its occasionally outlandish claims of discrimination and conspiracy and its founder, who is also the spokesman for the Campaign for Real Conkers. However, the organisation has drawn attention to more serious issues, having spoken out against, among other incidents, the suspension of a fireman for refusing to shave off his goatee and the banning of beards among ExxonMobil oil workers (in both cases employers claimed that beards interfered with breathing apparatus). Flett believes that an issue of "real discrimination" exists against men with beards. Although he admits that a beard, unlike race and gender, is a matter of choice, he has claimed that beardism is associated with more serious forms of discrimination:

Beardism? Well, I suppose I'm lucky to be in a profession, academia, where beardism is simply not considered politically correct. If anything, there may be some bias against the clean shaven look. Perhaps that's why Al Gore grew a beard after losing the 2000 presidential election and going off to teach at Columbia University's Journalism School:

Now c'mon, mine is better, don't you think? Anyway, enough about the Brits, let's turn to American TV news, shall we, as the article continues on:

In the United States, leading television news anchors are typically clean shaven, although it in unclear if this is dictated by station policy or not. The CBS Evening News, perhaps the most dominant of all American news broadcast programs, has had five major male anchors over the past 60 years, Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer and Scott Pelley -- all were clean shaven, aside from Cronkite who sported a neatly-trimmed mustache. (However, Ed Bradley, an African-American news presenter who sometimes anchored the CBS Evening news and later became a member of the “60 Minutes” team, usually sported a moustache and beard.)

Walter Cronkite

Ed Bradley

On NBC News, going back to 1949, all male anchors, including the latest two, Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw, had no whiskers at all. On the ABC Evening News, only one anchor, Max Robinson, the first African-American network anchor, wore a conservative mustache, in the late 1970s. Among cable news presenters, Wolf Blitzer of CNN has a neatly-trimmed grey mustache and beard, while Geraldo Rivera, now at Fox News, has always worn his trademark thick mustache, but no beard. In the 1990s, another African-American anchor on CNN, Bernard Shaw, did sport a trimmed mustache.

Max Robinson

Wolf Blitzer

Geraldo Rivera

Bernard Shaw

But these are rare exceptions – as with politicians and corporate executives, facial hair seems to be a big no-no.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for, as I descend from the hairy heavens to impart my wisdom upon the world on this weighty matter (you do detect the note of sarcasm in my tone, don't you?):

Dr. Lance A. Strate, professor of Communication and Media Studies and associate chair for Graduate Studies at Fordham University in New York, told IB Times that television newscasters have been referred to not only as “talking heads,” but also as talking “hair-dos,” due to the fact that their appearance is carefully prepared for broadcast, from the application of hair spray and make-up, to the choice of clothing. “Credibility on television is all about the look and sound of the newscaster, as opposed to their credentials or the content of the reports they read off of a teleprompter,” he said. “While there still are individuals devoted to serious journalism involved in TV news, the needs of the camera come first, and dictate what will follow.”

This means that newscasters tend to be attractive, but not so very attractive as to undercut the serious image that they are trying to portray, Strate added. “The best look is not too distracting, the kind of look that is almost transparent, a look that viewers can relate to and identify with,” he noted. “For male newscasters, this means that they typically are not bald or overweight (unless relegated to some specialty niche like weather or commentary). They don't have long hair because that conveys an image of being outside of the mainstream, rebellious, independently minded, etc.”

Beards have a similar connotation, often associated with “intellectuals” and “artistic” types, while mustaches are more mainstream in being associated with a masculine look, but less common today than in Walter Cronkite's time, so we're more likely to see them on sports reporters than news anchors.

The main problem, he explained, is that on television anything that calls attention to itself, be it facial hair, long hair, a bad toupee, hair dyed an odd color, even hair that's unruly, will attract the viewer's attention, distracting and detracting from the intended message. “Broadcasters, being in the business of attracting the largest possible audiences and selling access to those audiences to advertisers, naturally prefer the least objectionable content, the result being a fairly homogenous set of types presenting the news on TV, which includes men with deep pitched voices, and Asian women whose stereotype of seriousness and intellectual achievement are consistent with the image TV news organizations want to convey,” Strate concluded.

And so, there is a serious point to be pulled out of all this silliness about facial hair, but I have to admit that it was not easy responding to the query about this issue without turning it into one big joke. So if I managed to avoid that trap, I guess you could say that it was a close shave...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Can We Survive Entertainment?

Here's my last guest post for the Hannah Arendt Center's blog, dated August 12th, which you can read over there by clicking here, or read over here by, well, reading on...

"The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. "

-Hannah Arendt, "Mass Culture and Mass Media"

I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to.  I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt's essay, "Mass Culture and Mass Media," is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death.  Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties.  To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:

There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:

And this is where Arendt's quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:

If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the past," this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?

In returning to Postman's critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education.  In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.


A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching?  It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game.  These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented.  In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education.  Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?

Regarding Arendt's comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism).  There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers?  It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.

The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible.  For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive.  The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content.  Of course, it's possible to run counter to the medium's bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.


The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism.  Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process.  Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action.  The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it's to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground.  And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.

Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed "the most trusted man in American." And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.  And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment.  But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?

Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect.  On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist.  And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.


Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse?  In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'"  Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley's final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:

Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom.  But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)

It's not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment.  Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture.  For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance.  For Arendt, in "Mass Culture and Mass Media," the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:

An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The "thingness" of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty.  Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.

Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called "la technique," the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative.  The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment.  We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds.  She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts.  Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?

Thanks, as always, to Bridget Hollenback of Bard College's Hannah Arendt Center for her blogemeister work over there, and providing the illustrations that I have borrowed for this repost.