Thursday, April 21, 2011

What's so great about Barabbas?

Pilate says to the crowd, "it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release 'the king of the Jews'?"

They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!"

We still shout this today.  When given the choice between an extremist and a more rational option people too often go for the extremist.  For those of you who did not get dragged to good Friday services every year as a child, Barabbas was a prisoner held at the same time as Jesus who had killed a roman soldier.  When given the option the people in the crowd decided to free Barabbas.  And like church goers reciting the Greek chorus of the above gospel passage we keep making this choice. 

When I look at the sensational stories and figures that dominate our attention in the media I see that we still pick Barabbas.  We respond to the violent and the simplistic in a reactionary way that politicians and others who rely on the manipulation of public thought exploit.  That's why we end up with celebrity presidential candidates who pander to the lowest common denominator (Trump, Palin, etc.).  Something in us wants the guy from the action movie to come and crush some skulls (or use that kind of totally uncompromising cowboy rhetoric), because that's how you get a happy ending in the movies.

On some level this touches all of us.  We see it more in the Tea Party and amongst terrorists, but to relegate it to only these corners of society makes us demonize the opposition and promotes exactly the kind of thinking I'm criticizing in the first place.  Still, it seems this kind of thinking overall is on the wane.  Terrorists turn to violence because they are marginalized and can't think of any other option.  While the Tea Party always had inflated numbers, now they can no longer draw even small crowds to their rallies.  Yet they still get far more coverage than much larger, rational, and important movements.  I could spend time documenting this, but that would bore me and you could just learn about this by watching Rachel Maddow.

Why do these sensational stories and personalities still dominate our media?  This stems partly from the fact that most news organizations function more as a business than a public service, caring more about television ratings and media sales then any other duty.  The sensational keeps eyes glued to screens and sells papers even if some of the more nuanced stories of the day have more pertinence.

So, what do we do?  While we can't control what the rest of the crowd calls for, we can make a choice to avoid this kind of sensational media ourselves.  We can vote with our dollars and our attention.  In many ways the bloated egos that make their way into the media landscape resemble bullies.  If you stop feeding them by acknowledging their antics eventually they stop trying and leave you alone.  Imagine if we could make the Sarah Palin's of the world go away by not giving them the attention they don't deserve.  We would have a more sane society, albeit one with slightly fewer spectacles to laugh at.  I'm sure we would find more things to laugh about if we stopped paying attention to these characters and the foolishness that surrounds them.   

Friday, April 15, 2011

Living in the Global Village of Marshall McLuhan

Reading last week's blog on science fiction I realized how much the work of Marhall McLuhan has influenced me and that I have barely discussed this.  One can better understand a lot of what I have to say about media and technology if they have at least a basic familiarity with his work.  So, I will dedicate this post to talking a bit about McLuhan.  Those who don't know his work will find this eye-opening, but those who already know a bit about him will likely learn something new as well.  In any event his predictions about how media would progress have proven more correct than anyone I can think of and his insights still challenge some of our basic assumptions.  When he was alive McLuhan had a reputation for being incomprehensible.  However today much of what he had to say seems obvious.  This attests to the clarity of his vision, while the fact that some of his work still puzzles us makes it seems he is still ahead of even our own time.  The interconnected world we live in today is the global village he so often talked about.

McLuhan became a kind of pop culture icon in the 60's and 70's, but most people seemed to forget about his work after he passed in 1980.  He was a medievalist and a Joyce scholar who turned his keen eye towards media, becoming the first prominent media theorist.  Most of his work looked at how print has transformed society, focusing not only on literacy, but what he called the "spectrum of effects", the unexpected developments that come along with the printing press. 

McLuhan saw every human made artifact as a medium, literally something that comes between us and our environment, or mediates our experience with it.  So his defintion of media was close to my own definition of technology.  He saw technology as an extension of the human body.  The wheel is an extension of the foot.  Clothing is an extension of the skin.  The camera is an extension of the eye.  A circuit is an extension of the nervous system.

In his 1967 work The Medium is the Massage which he produced along with graphic artist Quietin Fiore, he coined the phrase "the medium is the message".  By this he meant that the medium itself has as strong an effect on someone as the content presented through that medium.  So no matter what you read, the act of reading has the same effect on the way your brain operates.  He observed a "spectrum of effects" that stem from the invention of the printing press.  These effects included things like interchangeable parts which seem a necessary consequence of moveable type.  But they also include things like the modern idea of the individual, a concept that became more prominent as more people began to read on their own and form their own opinions.

Shortly before his death McLuhan developed a method he thought could help predict how a medium would effect society and what new medium would eventually spring from it.  He called this the Tetrad and represented it with this mobius strip like symbol.  Like an alchemical symbol it seems indecipherable at first glance.  Unlike the creator of an alchemical diagram McLuhan gave explanation, people had a hard enough time understanding him. 

This approach to media looks at the concept of figure in contrast to ground. A good example of a figure is an automobile. When we only look at the automobile we think about the advantages it gives us in being able to move around freely and quickly. Thinking like this concentrates on the figure. However, if we look at the ground, the environment the automobile operates in, we see something very different. We see that in order for the automobile to operate it needs an environment full of roads, gas station, factories, repair shops, parking spaces, toll booths, and etc. Not to mention the fact that when everyone tries to get in a car you end up with traffic which often seems to defeat the purpose of driving in the first place. The figure represents the immediately apparent observation, while the ground represents the broader environment that the new artifact creates, or needs to operate in.  In a moment we will see the Tetrad specific to the automobile and how McLuhan shows that the car leads inevitably to the suburbs.

But how does the figure/ground concept relates to the actual image of the tetrad? Look at the tetrad and think of an ant walking along one side of the ribbon. As the ant travels along the ribbon he eventually ends up on the other side without realizing where he crossed over. Had the ant observed the tetrad from our vantage point, he would realize that the tetrad twists and meets in an enigmatic formation similar to a mobius strip. However, the ant can't do this. He has concentrated entirely on the path of ribbon he follows without realizing the larger structure it makes up. Through study of the tetrad I believe McLuhan wanted to lift people out of their surroundings to see the bigger picture. In the same way a mystic can help someone achieve transcendence McLuhan's tetrad can help one step back and see the media environment they are embedded in.

From a more practical perspective, the Tetrad describes the four effects that we must consider when looking at a new medium.  McLuhan created them for all kinds of media. It asks: 

1.    What does any artifact enlarge or enhance? (Figure)
2.    What does it erode or obsolesce? (Ground)
3.    What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? (Figure)
4.    What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential? (Ground)
Here are some examples:

The Automobile
1.    Enchances privacy: people go out in their cars to be alone
2.    Obsolesces the horse-and-buggy, the wagon
3.    Retrieves a sense of quest: knight in shinning armor
4.    Pushed to its limit, the car reverses the city (urb) into the ex-urb (suburbs); brings back walking as an art form  

Printed Word
A) Amplifies private authorship, the competitive goal-oriented individual
B) Obsolesces slang, dialects, and group identity, separates composition and performance, divorce of eye and ear
C) Retrieves tribal elitism, charmed circle, cf., the “neck verse”
D) With flip from manuscript into mass production via print comes the corporate reading public and the “historical sense”

Periodic Tables
A) Intensifies classification
B) Pushes out alchemy
C) Retrieves the idea of families and of structures; reopens search for underlying unity
D) Reverses into wave theory of Erwin Schrodinger

A) Improves horizontal locomotion; increases speed
B) Obsolesces the sled, roller, wagon, stage
C) Brings frontiers within reach; retrieves ease of river traffic, like moving sidewalk
D) Reverses into airplane, via bicycle

Periodic Tables
A) Intensifies classification
B) Pushes out alchemy
C) Retrieves the idea of families and of structures; reopens search for underlying unity
D) Reverses into wave theory of Erwin Schrodinger

A) Improves (regional) simultaneous access to entire planet---everybody:  “On the air you’re everywhere”
B) Obsolesces wires, cables, and physicall bodies
C) Retrieves tribal ecological environments:  echo, trauma, paranoia, and also brings back primacy of the spatial, musical and acoustic
D) Reverses into global village theater (Orson Welle’s Invasion From Mars: no spectators, only actors

Cash Money
A) Speeds transactions
B) Obsolesces barter
C) Retrieves conspicuous consumption
D) Reverses into credit or non-money

A) Enhances image of future security
B) Obsolesces thrift as survival mechanism
C) Retrieves “Garden of Eating” (consumerism)
D) Pushed far enough results in indigence

Electric Media
A) Amplification of scope of simultaneity and service environment as information
B) Obsolesces the segmented visual, connected, and logical
C) Retrieves the subliminal, audile-tactile dialogue
D) Etherealization: the sender gets sent

McLuhan spoke about media with a sophistication that few people today have. When I listen to him I almost forget that he never saw the internet as we know it today. Yet he seems to have predicted it and many other media developments. His tetrad for global media networking lays out many of the phenomena we experience today as a consequence of our electronically interconnected planet.    

Global Media Networking
1.    Instantaneous diverse media transmission on global basis: simultaneous planetary feed and counter-feed
2.    Erodes human ability to code and decode in real time
3.    Brings back Tower of Babel: group voice in the ether
4.    Reverses into loss of specialism; programmed earth

This tetrad very accurately points out the effect our always connected world has on us. The constant stream of information that I alluded to at the beginning of this chapter has overloaded us. The sheer volume of data has made it difficult for us to take it all in and respond to it in a timely manner, by the time we do respond more information has accumulated and we must therefore refine our statement. At the same time the anonymous character of internet message boards, comments sections, and product reviews has brought back the voice in the ether. People often say they heard a piece of information without knowing the original source. Finally, this will lead to what McLuhan calls a programmed earth. I will discuss this in a later post about McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Until then think about the tetrad. Try applying it to different media and see what you get. Use it to look at older media like radio, as well as new media like Twitter.

I leave you with a great video clip of McLuhan talking about electronic media, his influence, Finnegan's Wake, and LSD.  Enjoy.



Saturday, April 9, 2011

Science Fiction

I'm still waiting on the photos for the blog I had planned for this week. So, instead I'm going to share a few thoughts on Science Fiction.

Ever since I first saw a VHS of Star Wars when I was 4 years old I have enjoyed sci-fi.  Although I will always enjoy science fiction, the older I get the more problems I have suspending my disbelief at the way these works of fiction deal with science and the cultural values of supposedly advanced civilizations.  Of course this does not occur as much in hard sci-fi, but most popular sci-fi (especially tv and film) does not fall into that category.  A lot of sci-fi uses the future more as a setting than anything else, I'm thinking of space operas and space westerns.  I don't mind this. In fact, lately I enjoy sci-fi because I think the scenerios in these stories tell a lot about our current values, fears, etc. than what the future will look like.  So, I approach this in the same way someone might approach myth.

When watching movies or tv shows that involve space travel, I find myself preoccupied with how, or if, they address time dilation.  As most people know, when you approach the speed of light strange things happen with time.  Someone in a craft traveling near the speed of light can go to a distant planet and return home, but when they do much more time will have passed for the people who stayed put.  If they take a long enough trip they might return to find everyone they knew died years ago.  Science fiction writers have addressed this different ways.  They never seem to address it in Star Wars (I'm just going on the impression the movies give and not delving into the novelizations etc).  They use the terms hyperspace and light speed interchangeably.  Star Trek, a franchise I have less familiarity with, does address time dilation, but it does so in a way that gets it out of the way rather than incorporating the phenomenon into plots.  In the Star Trek world the warp drives that spacecraft use create a bubble around the ship that prevents the crew from experiencing time dilation while the ship travels many times faster than light.  Even in the realm of sci-fi this always seemed far fetched to me.  But at least it addresses it.  Star Wars has vague talk of hyperspace which without directly addressing it could give one the impressiont that the hyperspace that Millennium Falcon travels through circumvents the effects of time dilation.

The scenario that bothers me the most in sci-fi is the alien invasion scenario.  I just don't buy it.  I don't believe that any civilization advanced enough to have mastered interstellar travel would need to invade other planets and strip them of their resources.   Nor do I believe creatures with these kind of destructive tendencies make it out of the gravity pit.  I think they destroy themselves, or stay stuck on or near their own planet if they can't figure out how to cooperate with each other and harness technology in a way that doesn't waste resources and toxify everything around them.  I really believe it is a kind of law of nature that these kinds of creatures self-quarantine themselves until they are technologically advanced enough and ethically mature enough to leave, or else they go extinct because they can't meet this goal.  The thought that this fate might befall us presents a much more realistic threat than an alien invasion.   More on how sci-fi deals with this a little later.

According to projections made by people like Ray Kurzweil, we will soon be able to fabricate nearly any material we need using nanotechnology and other cutting edge technologies.  So I think any civilization capable of the technology necessary to travel to another solar system will have not only achieved this, but taken it to levels we could not imagine.  They should also have figured out how to geo-engineer and terraform planets to their liking, so they probably won't want our planet itself.

I also think that moral and ethical standards go up as society becomes more technologically advanced.  I'm not saying we are perfect, or that new problems don't arise from new technologies, I'm saying that society is generally a lot more egalitarian than it was hundred of years ago.  So if we look at ourselves hundreds of years in the future I think we will find that our increase in ethical standards will have kept pace with our technological advances.  An alien civilization capable of reaching us would probably be many hundreds of years ahead of us technologically and therefore also more advanced when it comes to treatment of the other.  I would worry more about the indifference of such a society towards us than malevolence.

For these same reasons I also don't think if we manage to spread throughout the galaxy that we will experience war the way we do today.  Conflict perhaps, but not war.  So I also have problems with sci-fi which presents us having all the same problems we currently face today many years in the future.  I would wager that we may always have problems, but they will not be the problems we face today.

I see the alien invasion scenario as a projection of our own imperialistic tendencies onto a fictional race.  Western nations especially realize that we have colonized the rest of the planet and we fear that someday another race will do this to us.  On some level it shows a lack of imagination.  I think the same thinking gives us works where machines take over.  Nietzsche declared that man had killed God, we fear that our own creations will repeat this pattern.

At the same time science fiction also presents us with benevolent aliens that have come to help us.  In some ways this seems closer to the mark.  Yet, it still reveals a kind of naivete.  The idea that aliens will come and fix everything for us seems like a desire for a god-like/parental figure to make everything right.    I would guess we should try and fix our own problems instead of waiting for this (sorry UFO enthusiasts).

I enjoy all these scenarios so much because they show the difficulty of understanding advanced technology and the cultures that would use them.  Civilizations capable of space travel anywhere near the speed of light will likely have a much different conception of time than us.  We can't comprehend this, so our fiction reflects that.  These civilizations would also have difference cultural values because of their technological advancements, as well as different approaches to something as fundamental as natural resources.  Such a civilization would have taken control of their own evolution to such an extent that they would likely be totally incomprehensible to us at this point.  While hard sci-fi  addresses this I find the gap between what we see in more popular science fiction and what would likely occur both comical and revealing.  I might like them better than more realistic depictions.  I will probably revisit this topic at some point.