Monday, April 22, 2013

Not Quite Paperless

Media ecology scholars such as Marshall McLuhan spoke about how the electronic media environment brought about the end of the print era, and back in the sixties and seventies when McLuhan was sharing such observations there was a great deal of doubt, because television seemed to be co-existing relatively well with print media. Sure, the introduction of television resulted in the demise of the general interest magazine, but that medium found a new niche in specialized topics, just as radio had readjusted to the new media ecosystem by focusing on playing recorded music, or news and talk formats. And yes, the number of newspapers did decline to the point that most towns and cities only had one daily, but the newspaper medium itself remained well entrenched. And the medium of the book retained its high status and general popularity, although bestsellers were pushing other titles out, and the pocket book format was gradually declining (replaced to a large extent by the trade paperback).

But holding aside the very significant questions regarding whether we have become a postliterate culture, whether people are reading as much or as deeply as they were before, it is certainly clear that to the extent that we all are still reading, we are spending much less time on print media, and spending much less money on print media. Print media industries were coasting along in slow decline up until the financial collapse of 2008, and it was that disruption that revealed the vulnerabilities in the print business model, and led to a much more drastic shakeout than what was going on before.

The financial downturn was followed by the introduction of the iPad in 2010, which may well have been the final nail in the coffin for print media. Of course, this was preceded by the introduction of the Kindle in 2007, which led off the revolution. But the iPad knocked the ball out of the park (sorry but it is baseball season so please forgive my metaphoria). Simply put, when we read documents, we hold them much closer to our eyes than when we look at a desktop computer screen, which is why we may still have trouble reading off of a computer even with the high quality of contemporary screen technology, and the same is true of the laptop computer, unless you were to awkwardly hold it up to your face. The key element was the removal of the keys, the keyboard that is, making the tablet a medium we can read while keeping it about the same distance from our eyes as we would a print medium.

Of course, publishers have been scrambling to convert their publications to electronic form, and this has met with some success. As McLuhan observed, one medium can become the content of another, and print media are, in part, the content of computer media, meaning that the material qualities of print disappear, and its non-material form becomes part of the content of digital media, as a potential stylistic element.

So, years ago folks started to talk about a paperless society, and others pointed out that with computers and printers, we were actually generating more paper documents than ever before. And this was true for a time, but in the big picture it was a brief transitional period I would venture, and now we are genuinely reaching the point where pulp is becoming little more than fiction.

But there still are limits to this transition. A French television commercial posted on YouTube last month makes for a humorous comment on the one aspect of life where going paperless can be problematic:

So, beyond the humor, there is the larger point that toilet paper is a cultural convention, admittedly one we don't like to talk about too much, at least not past the age of 8.  But it is worth noting that for most of human history, there was no such product, and people used alternative methods, and it is not entirely clear that our own practice is the best that anyone's come up with, or the last word in human hygiene (I wonder what they use on the Starship Enterprise?). You can read a bit about it in the Wikipedia entry on toilet paper, or the History of Toilet Paper website. 

The only point I want to make is that, from these sources we can learn that toilet paper was introduced in 1880. And this follows a major revolution in the manufacture of paper itself in the mid-19th century. From the time paper was invented in China in the 2nd century up to this point, the writing surface was made from linen, making it more expensive and more difficult to manufacture than today's product. It was during the 19th century, spurred on by a shortage of linen, that the alternative method of producing paper from wood pulp was introduced, and widely adopted by the end of the century, resulting in a revolution in publishing. And while paper was sometimes used for toileting purposes going back to ancient China (according to Wikipedia), the specialized product sold in rolls (a retrieval of the scroll from antiquity?) did not exist until the late 19th century.

It is perhaps worth adding in this context that both McLuhan and Walter Ong noted the parallel between Freud's psychosexual stages of oral, anal, and genital, and the media ages of orality, literacy, and electricity. And there are some characteristics common to both the literate mindset and the anal personality type.

In any event, all this is a connection worth noting, at least in passing, as we know that whether it's paper, print, or even electronic media, this too shall pass...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Google Glass iMenagerie

Back on February 4th, I posted an entry under the heading of An i for an Eye that included some discussion of Google's Project Glass. Just to refresh your memory, here's a video showing the current state of the technology, which was posted last month:

As you can see from the title of the video, the emphasis is on the camera function, although elements of Google search are also incorporated. This is a bit more modest than the original vision (sorry for the pun) Google had presented (as I noted in my An i for an Eye post), but in any event, it was back in February that Google released more details about the project. Here are some excerpts from a short article on it in Deutsche Welle, where Google Glass is described as "a smartphone-like product that is controlled by voice commands":

Controlled by voice commands, the small set of eyeglasses project information unobtrusively to a tiny display screen attached to a rim above the right eye. The glasses run on Google's Android operating system for mobile devices.
Google Inc. first sold the glasses to computer programmers at a company conference last June where Google co-founder Sergey Brin first demonstrated the device. The company first began developing the glasses in 2010 as part of a secretive company division now known as Google X.
As the device is hands-free, Google Glass is supposed to make it easier for people to take pictures or record video wherever they are. Wearers can also conduct online searches by telling Google Glass to look up a specific piece of information.
Google also posted a YouTube video Wednesday showing people wearing the glasses while skydiving, riding a rollercoaster, dancing, skiing and even swinging on a trapeze.
The mass-market version of Google Glass will cost less than $1,500, but more than a smartphone.

It does sound pretty cool, doesn't it? Of course, it also sounds like it will feed directly into our "almost infinite appetite for distractions" to quote from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisted, a quote that Neil Postman invoked in his Foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death.  

But holding such considerations aside for the moment, as well as Postman's most basic question, to what problem is this a solution? (the problem of having to hold a camera and/or mobile device with your hands), back on February 25, I was asked to respond to a practical inquiry. This was for Mike Daly's Today's Burning Question feature for the Adotas website.  Specifically, it was, Today’s Burning Question: Marketing Implications Of Google Glass, and here's how Daly introduced it:

Another day, another screen size!
On the heels of Google’s unveiling of new details about Google Glass, we asked our panel of movers & shakers: “How will online marketers capitalize on the impending availability of Google Glass?”

and here's my response:

“Google Glass will open up an entirely new world of first-person video that will radically transform the art of filmmaking and video production, journalism, public relations, and advertising and marketing. It will take a bit of time to adequately explore the possibilities of this new medium, and for audiences to become accustomed to the perspective, but ultimately it is a point of view that better suits the electronic media environment in that it puts viewers at the center of the action, rather than positioning them in an objectively distanced manner, as outsiders looking in (the point of view associated with reading and print media). As such, Google Glass is well suited for capturing the look and sound of an environment or surrounding, as opposed to smaller products that might be better displayed by more traditional camera-work, using for example close-ups, two-shots, etc. The strength of this new medium lies in providing a virtual sense of place, a sample of the experience of actually being there, and this will have immediate and enormous relevance for the travel and tourism industry. Google Glass is well suited for presenting a walk-through of an unfamiliar locale, a tour of a resort or hotel’s rooms and facilities, a vacation spot’s attractions, theme park rides and recreational activities, and modes of transportation such as a cruise ship or train.” – Dr. Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University.

You can read the other responses over on the Adotas page. But maybe to return to Huxley and Postman's point about distraction, and other concerns regarding new media, this next video handles the subject with great humor, and while the title, How Guys Will Handle Google Glass, led me to believe it might be a little to racy for this family-oriented blog, let me assure you that it is rated PG at worst:

And to return to a more serious mode, here's one more video, this one having been posted just a few days ago, CNET Top 5: Best uses for Google Glass. The first couple are not very impressive, but kudos for bringing up the negative effects in the midst of discussing some reasonable benefits that this new gadget might have to offer.

One last note that no one seems to be bringing up is the potential benefits the technology might have to offer to people with disabilities, particular vision impairment. If you could use the device as a hands free magnifier, and use voice commands to control the level of magnification and other factors, there would be no more need for bifocals and progressive lenses. And individuals with macular degeneration, like my mother, could switch back and forth between a very high magnification for reading to something better suited for moving about.

Oh, and let me conclude by noting that the title of this post is of course a play on the title of the Tennessee Williams drama, The Glass Menagerie, with the ubiquitous small i for internet prefix added on, to invoke a little pun on imaginary, because, after all, what this is all about is speculation, and the products of imagination. And if you don't care for my neologism, all I can say is that people living in Google glass houses shouldn't throw iStones...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Keep Calm and Don't Panic

One of students in my Introduction to New Media class at Fordham University, Kevin Levin, brought this popular bit of internet culture to my attention, the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. I don't know how I missed it!

This came up in regard to our class discussion of memes, itself a concept made popular by the internet, so let me say a few words on that topic (and if you've heard me go on about this before, feel free to skip ahead).

As you may know, the concept of the meme was introduced by British scientist Richard Dawkins in his 1974 book, The Selfish Gene.  There, Dawkins made the novel argument that evolution is driven by genes rather than organisms, that genes are biological replicators, and organisms are mechanisms by which genes reproduce themselves. That reverses the more common view that genes are the mechanism by which organisms reproduce themselves. This view, I might add, while intriguing, has been solidly criticized and, in my view, disproved by the arguments put forth by Terrence Deacon in his recent book, Incomplete Nature.

In any event, Dawkins mostly was writing about genes, but also threw in a chapter on the concept of ideas having a life of their own, being in effect self-replicators. To follow his line of thought, the idea of memes spread from his thoughts to his book, and then reproduced itself when I read it, the copy or offspring of the idea taking up residence in my brain. And whenever I tell someone else about memes, assuming they haven't heard about it before, it's replicated itself once more, again and again and again.

This idea did not become popular, though, and therefore was not a terribly successful meme itself, until the internet. Once email became popular, and people started forwarding interesting items to a bunch of other people, and they in turn forwarded the item to still more, and so on and so on, all with the forwarding history accumulated within the email, so you can see how the message has spread, and maybe even have your item sent back to you after several forwards, only then could people actually see the spread of ideas at work and relate it to the concept of the meme.

At that point, folks starting talking about memetics as the science of memes, and also invoked the more familiar term for self-replicating genetic matter, the virus.  The idea of a computer virus became well known in the early days of the internet, as connectivity was the key to the spread of such malware (to use a newer, and less metaphorical term). The computer virus, however, was not simply a replicator, but rather a program that also carries out functions that are unwanted and harmful, like deleting your hard drive or transmitting  information from your computer to some other location. A program that does nothing more than replicating itself is called a worm, which, while not actively harmful, could crash systems by filling up all available memory and data storage capacity. But despite the fact that there is more to computer viruses than replication, the metaphor of the virus got picked up as an alternative to meme, especially in the adjective form of going viral, viral marketing, etc.


Now, as a media ecology scholar, I have to add that the concept of the meme, while popular, is problematic. In one sense, there is nothing new about studying the spread of ideas. There is a longstanding research area known as diffusion of innovations, sometime social diffusion, and it is closely related to ideas such as two-step flow theory in mass communication (the idea that ideas spread by the mass media do not directly influence the attitudes, opinions, and behaviors of individuals, but instead are mediated by influential individuals referred to as opinion leaders), by the sociological study of rumors, not to mention studies of folklore , and also research into social networking.

So there is nothing new about memes except for the biological metaphor, and the metaphor itself is problematic.  Genes are a logical construct, a way of talking about the behavior of actual genetic material, you know, chromosones, and those amazing double helix molecules of DNA. In other words, genes are not real, in the sense that DNA is real, which is to say that they are not concrete phenomena. The only sense in which genes can be said to exist is insofar as they are based on a material medium (in this case, the medium is the molecule), they don't exist in a vacuum, in the ether, as an ideal form as it were.

But when it comes to memes, as they were originally presented by Dawkins, and as the idea has been picked up by others, the material basis that is taken for granted in regard to genetics is either overlooked, forgotten, or simply thrown out of the window. So in memetics, the talk typically is of ideas having an existence independent of any physical phenomenon. This is where media ecology is essential, because we need to remember that there is no content without a medium. Indeed, we need the medium to begin with, to provide the raw material out of which to form the content.

Now, let me just pull back a little and say that this does not mean that nothing interesting has come from the discussion of memes. It can be useful, it's certainly a compelling metaphor, and I myself have used the term on occasion. But it needs to be used with caution, and understanding of the larger context.

A further complication has been the appearance of meme generators, which I assume are connected to the sudden rise of Pinterest in the social media world to a position only surpassed by Facebook and Twitter. Of course, Facebook itself also has a lot to do with it, so even if you're only on Facebook, you may have noticed an explosion of these visual images plus text, all very formulaic. For example, there's the still from the first Lord of the Rings film, where the original line in the movie was, "one does not simply walk into Mordor," and here are some generated memes:

You get the picture, I'm sure. And as for memes having a material basis, it's clear that these types are entirely based on the specific medium of personal computers and the internet, and would not exist in this way without them. The Keep Calm and Carry On meme has also existed in similar form, and well before the advent of meme generators, which after all simply make it easier and more accessible to do the kinds of things that folks have already been doing with Photoshop (and that has been made famous by sites like lolcats). So here are some variations on the the Keep Calm theme:

And on and on and on.  Now, when it comes to the study of rumors and folklore, one of the most fundamental, and interesting questions, is where did it begin? Who started the ball rolling? How did it spread? Well, in this instance, there is an answer, and it is quite fascinating, involving as it does an accidental find, a kind of revival, and the power of the internet. It's all explained in this video that my student Kevin turned me on to, that I want to share with you now, The Story of Keep Calm and Carry On:

And to be fair, here's the write-up from YouTube:

 To find out more about Barter Books visit to download the 'Keep Calm' iphone app visit

A short film that tells the story behind the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster. Its origins at the beginning of WWII and its rediscovery in a bookshop in England in 2000, becoming one of the iconic images of the 21st century. Film, music, script and narration by Temujin Doran. Concept and production by Nation.
Now, what I want to emphasize at this point is how very, very British this all is. Stiff upper lip, and all that. I mean, it sums up much of what is distinctive about English culture, the emphasis on rationality, determinism, sheer grit. Keep calm and carry on indeed! 

The downside is that it makes one a bit stiff, overly formal, and quite a bit repressed. That is the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant stereotype, and while we here in the United States are not as extreme as the Brits, we do tend to share in that cultural trait, even if we're Catholic or Jewish, from varying ethnic backgrounds, and even non-white. You don't have to be a WASP to love this behavior pattern, but it is associated with affluence and being a member of the social elite, or trying to be part of that class. Personally, I admit to having some of that sensibility, and oft times wishing I had more, but I'm also grateful that I have the freedom to move back and forth between that type of behavior and other alternatives.

I should also note that the current fascination with Keep Calm and Carry On clearly involves a bit of irony. The propaganda value of the poster and saying are clear enough, and folks today cannot and would not take it as seriously as it would have been taken back during the Second World War. To take a page from Neil Postman, the poster originally had a bit of an Orwellian cast to it, but now is used in a Huxleyian mode, as an amusement. 

But it's not either/or, I hasten to add. Nowadays, we can have our cake and eat it to, be ironic and be ironic about being ironic, which is almost like being serious, except we're being serious while being ironic at the same time. It's nonlinear, non-Aristotelian, as Korzybski would have it, and what some would term postmodern. But media ecology scholars understand that to mean that it is a product of the electronic age.

So, anyway, after seeing that video, it hit me that the motto used by the science fiction humorist Douglas Adams for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Don't Panic, comes from the same sensibility.   If you're not familiar with the work, it started as a BBC radio program, then was turned into a series of novels, then into a TV miniseries (again BBC), and then adapted into a motion picture somewhat less than faithfully. The film is ok, but the novels and recordings are brilliant comedy, in my opinion. Sadly, Douglas Adams was taken from this world much too soon. 

In case you're not familiar with the Hitchhiker's Guide, and I can't imagine why you wouldn't be, I was pleasantly surprised to find over on YouTube the BBC television adaptation, so here is the first 9 minutes for your viewing pleasure. But if you're the impatient type, the bit about Don't Panic comes up during the first 2 minutes:

So yes, it's very British humor, and that was always very apparent, but I have to confess that the very British quality of the phrase Don't Panic simply never occurred to me until I watched the video about Keep Calm and Carry On.  Maybe I'm just a little slow on the uptake, maybe it's just that Don't Panic is more common to our shared Anglo-American culture than Keep Calm and Carry On

Or maybe there is something altogether universal about Don't Panic after all, as it never quite pays to lose your cool, at least not to that extent. But, on the other hand, there is something that seems to be unavoidably specific to Keep Calm and Carry On. Funny how much difference it makes to take similar sentiments and phrase them in negative and positive terms. To avoid the negative seems universal, to promote a positive comes across as particular.

Well, all this speculation is perhaps more than you care for, and maybe it's just me, but I won't worry about it. No, I think I will just keep calm, don't panic, and keep on carrying on...