This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: “Define Media Ecology.”
The meaning of the phrase “media ecology” will likely depend on the context in which it is used. When the phrase appears in popular discourse, it is often used in a journalistic or editorial context to refer broadly to the array of extant media forms in a sense that could also be captured by similar expressions such as “media environment” or “media landscape”. President Barack Obama used the phrase in this sense in an interview published in the November 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. While his discussing his success in reaching demographically diverse audiences, and particularly younger Americans, Obama referred to “this whole other media ecology of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy.” Obama characterized his decisions to appear on late night talk shows and the online comedy series “Between Two Ferns” as strategic adaptations to a changing media landscape, one in which young Americans are receiving news and information through social media sites rather than through traditional media channels and news sources. In order to reach a demographic that is largely not tuning in to TV and other traditional media outlets, Obama appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to discuss the Affordable Care Act in a comedy video that went viral online, and ultimately reached more members of a younger age bracket than he might have through a standard speech or news sound bite.
This essay offers a different definition of media ecology, although one that is not entirely dissimilar to the popular usage of the term. Within the fields of media and communication studies “media ecology” denotes a distinct line of inquiry shaped by certain questions and assumptions. Even in this specialized use of the phrase, media ecology can be understood in many different ways. Media ecology is a perspective on media effects. Media ecology is a tradition of scholarly inquiry characterized by common concerns and related areas of inquiry. Media ecology can also be understood as a body of literature in media and communication studies. The writing and research that make up this body of literature, however, demonstrate many of the concerns about media that are indicated by deployment of the phrase in popular discourse. For example, many media ecologists have focused their studies on the changing nature of public discourse in the context of a rapidly changing media landscape, as well as questions of media usage and relevancy across different demographics of media users and audiences.
In order to develop a general definition of the media ecology perspective this essay will consider three of the major conceptualizations of the term throughout the literature, as offered and exemplified by three scholars most closely affiliated with the tradition. The first of these figures is Marshall McLuhan, a central thinker in the media ecology literature and perhaps the most influential theorist in the field. McLuhan is a significant figure in the development of media studies, and several of his insights and aphorisms about media effects serve as foundational elements of the media ecology perspective. The key aspect of McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of media as extensions of human faculties. The second figure is Neil Postman, an intellectual, educator, and founder of the program in Media Ecology at New York University. Postman trained and inspired a generation of card-carrying and certified “media ecologists.” Postman’s use of the ecological metaphor is tied to his idea of media as environments. Lastly, Lance Strate is a graduate of the NYU media ecology program and a founding member of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA is a scholarly and professional association that works to continue, refine, and expand the media ecology tradition. Strate’s understanding of the ecological metaphor is defined by his approach to media as media.
Media ecology is an intellectual perspective concerned with the impact of communication technology on human culture and behavior, particularly in relation to environmental and ideological effects attributable to the inherent characteristics of technological forms. Across the theories surveyed here (as well as many others not mentioned in this essay) these various perspectives that comprise media ecology share these features in common.
McLuhan and the Toronto School: Media as Extensions
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a graduate student he studied at Cambridge and was particularly interested in the trivium, the part of the liberal arts comprised by logic, grammar, and rhetoric. McLuhan wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, a somewhat obscure figure who was a prodigious pamphleteer. McLuhan held several academic posts before settling at the University of Toronto. His interest in classical literature and print culture, as well as education and pedagogy, lead him to an interest in how emerging electronic modes of communication would impact traditional literacy and learning. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, looked at the role of the mass communication media in producing popular culture, with a particular focus on advertising. McLuhan wrote in the book that for the first time in human history thousands of the best-educated minds were actively engaged in the business of influencing the “collective mind”. McLuhan used Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Descent in the Maelstrom as a recurring literary reference but also significant analogy for his purpose in writing the book. In Poe’s story, a mariner is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool. The mariner studies the effects of the whirlpool on other objects (barrels, ropes, and other detritus from the sunken ship); by observing the maelstrom’s effects on each of these objects, the mariner is able to comport himself in such a way that he manages to swim away, rather than be carried under and drown. McLuhan makes an analogy between the situation of the mariner and the threatened by a whirlpool of pop culture and mass media messages. His second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, posited an array of sweeping societal effects ushered in by the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan argues that the introduction of movable type printing had major ramifications for European consciousness and culture. Specifically McLuhan highlights the uniformity and repeatability of the texts produced by the printing press, connecting this uniform and repeatable character to the rise of nationalism, new specializations and regimentation in society, and associated feelings of alienation. It was in this book that McLuhan first used the phrase “the global village” to refer to the linking and homogenizing effects of the mass media.
McLuhan’s breakout book and most lasting contribution to media studies came in 1964 with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This book also presented McLuhan’s ideas about media as extensions, a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of the media ecology perspective. Central to McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of sense-ratios, and the idea that the characteristics of each communication media altered the relation of the five senses to each other. Key to this concept is the dichotomy between aural space and visual space. Before the invention of written language humanity lived in acoustic space, defined by the primacy of spoken communication. Acoustic space, McLuhan says, engages all of the senses at once (besides hearing the spoken communication you also visually register the source of the sound, and the sonorous even has an embodied/tactile element, etc.). By contrast, the printed word of typographic space engages primarily with the visual sense. In McLuhan’s terminology, acoustic space is characterized by an “all-at-once-ness,” a simultaneity of sensory engagement. An additional component of this aspect of acoustic space is that spoken language is not recorded or “frozen in time” as written language is, further contributing to this temporal notion of “all-at-once-ness.” Typographic space is characterized by a linear, segmented, “one-at-a-time-ness.” Just like reading the printed word, typographic space (or typographic consciousness) comprehends discrete elements in a linear fashion. McLuhan believed that the advent of electronic media signaled a return to acoustic space. The flow of images and disjointed nature of channel surfing introduced by television disrupted the linear character of typographic culture. Television enables a stream of images and information from different times, places, and sources, thereby retrieving the “all-at-once-ness” of acoustic space and inaugurating the electronic global village.
Understanding Media also included McLuhan’s first use of the expression “the medium is the message.” Through this phrase McLuhan sought to convey the idea that the lasting significance of any communication technology is not the specific content it transmits, but rather the change of pace and scale introduced into human affairs by virtue of the technology’s inherent characteristics. This articulation represents a further development of the ideas first put forth in Gutenberg Galaxy. The electric lightbulb is an archetypal example for McLuhan, as it has no specific “content” per se, but its introduction into society lead to significant changes as artificial light made possible a range of activities to be done indoors and times of the day that would not have been practical previously. As evident by the book’s subtitle, McLuhan saw all media and technology as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. The wheel is an extension of the foot, as it “extends” the capacity for human travel by enabling the covering of distances beyond what is capable by mere human locomotion. Clothing and housing are extensions of the skin and body, increasing capabilities for shelter and protection. The technology of written language is understood as an extension of the eye, as it enables a “seeing” of things not actually present but represented in the language. Every extension, however, is accompanied by an amputation. McLuhan says that in response to the shock and disorientation of these extensions changing the sense-ratios, the central nervous responds by “numbing” other areas in order to cope. Radio may extend our aural senses, but there are associated deficiencies in other senses, such as the visual. These extensions and amputations have psychic and physiological effects. This represents a key use of ecological metaphors in McLuhan’s media theories, one based on the self-regulating perspective on ecological systems, where a change in one part of the system results in changes in other areas in order to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis.
There is an additional component of McLuhan’s use of ecological metaphors. He argued that not only did media alter the relationships of the five senses to each other, they also altered the relationships between different media. Thus the introduction of popular radio broadcasts impacted how news was reported, and also affected the use of sound in motion pictures. When media combine, McLuhan said, the form and use of each are altered. Furthermore, the pace, scale, and intensity of human affairs are affected, as are the sense-ratios of the users. McLuhan used the ecological metaphor again in reference to a holistic implementation of various media technologies so as to compensate for ways in which they might “cancel each other out.” Specifically in relation to using media to facilitate classroom learning, McLuhan suggested using different media for different purposes in such a way that the media complement each other and provide the fullest sensory engagement. McLuhan’s writings on the societal impacts introduced by communication media proved very influential. Walter Ong, whose MA thesis was supervised by McLuhan, went on to write Orality and Literacy, a book comparing differences between oral cultures and literate cultures through a broad historical survey. Orality and literacy studies remains an important aspect of media ecology-related communication studies. Elizabeth Eisenstein cited McLuhan in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her work investigates social and cultural changes in literate western European society following the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press, and has been credited with bringing needed clarity and scholarly rigor to McLuhan’s notions of oral and literate cultures. McLuhan came to be retroactively associated with a group of other scholars who had been working at the University of Toronto around the same time, although all members of this loose affiliation had worked separately from one another. This group became known as the Toronto School of Communication Studies. The influence of these scholars would eventually lead to another school arising from similarly minded thinkers in the United States, which would become known as the New York School.
Postman and the New York School: Media as Environments
Neil Postman was born in 1931 in New York City. He earned a PhD in education and wrote prolifically about learning and pedagogical practice. In 1969 he co-authored Teaching as a Subversive Activity with Charles Weingartner. In the book, Postman and Weingartner posited an inquiry-based method of pedagogy. They outlined a set of ideals and practices that should guide teachers, as well as specifying techniques that should be avoided, with the goal of inculcating characteristics of “good learning” among students. In 1971 while at NYU’s Steinhardt School of education, Postman founded the graduate program in Media Ecology. Postman thus coined the phrase, although the exact origins of the term are somewhat disputed. Postman seems to have believe at times that McLuhan used the phrase “media ecology” in Understanding Media, though in fact that term does not appear in the book although the ecological metaphor of media effects and relationships is clearly present. Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric has suggested that he and his father came up with the phrase during the year McLuhan was teaching at Fordham University in 1967; Eric has said that McLuhan then mentioned the term to Postman, and Postman “ran with it.” Graduates of the Media Ecology program have mentioned to me anecdotally that Neil Postman used the phrase precisely because of its nebulous nature. “People will ask you, ‘What’s media ecology?,’” he told students, adding, “Then you get to define it!” In 1982 Postman authored The Disappearance of Childhood. In this book Postman argued that the notion of childhood was a relatively recent social phenomenon. Historically “child” had merely designated that someone was a “daughter of” or “son of,” but it had since come to refer to a stage of development before adulthood. Postman pointed to the role of the printing press in this change, arguing the introduction of literacy created a “world of adult secrets” that was only accessible to literate adults. This also led to changes in learning, as literacy now became a necessary part of education. As his argument here indicates, Postman was primarily interested in the social effects of communication technology, rather than the sense-ratio effects that McLuhan emphasized.
In 1985 Postman’s best-known book was published, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman begins the book by comparing the dystopic visions of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian government controls an austere state, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populace self-medicates themselves into a blissful narcotic state. Part of Postman’s argument is that Huxley’s vision is much closer to contemporary society than Orwell’s, and he compares the soma drug of Brave New World with the effects of television consumption on the populace. Following McLuhan’s maxim that “the media is the message,” the first chapter of Postman’s book is titled “the medium is the metaphor.” Postman states “form excludes the content” in arguing that each medium of communication can only sustain a certain level of ideas or discourse. When literate culture (and oratory based on written language) predominated, public discourse consisted of statements and propositions that an audience would evaluate as true or false. This sort of exchange contributed to public communication based on rational discourse. Postman highlights the introduction of the telegraph as a turning point in the nature of public discourse. The telegraph made possible communication and information exchange virtually unbounded by geographic distance. The near-instantaneous transmission of information was revolutionary. This brought about several significant changes to the character of discourse. For one thing, Postman states, just because Maine could now talk to Texas doesn’t mean that they had anything worthwhile to say to one another. In other words, the mere possibility of persistent communication came to be seen as a necessity for persistent communication, in a manner that devalued and degraded the quality of the discourse. Part of the reason for this degradation lies in the inherent characteristics of the telegraph to transmit certain quality and quantity of information. Another significant aspect of this development is the great increase in information that the telegraph contributed to. Postman points to the persistent communication of the telegraph (along with the mass reproduction of images around the same period of time) as resulting in a deluge of information. In response, there was a shift from audiences discerning the context of information and evaluating it, to instead collecting information (often irrelevant information) largely independent of any context. Television represents a further change in the nature of public discourse. Postman states that he is not against television as a means of entertainment, but rather his concern is that the very nature of television reduces all serious discussion to the level of entertainment. All television content is packaged and presented as a commodity, leading to a leveling of all televised content in a way that further contributes to the lack of rational debate in public discourse. Postman references politics as a key arena where these changes play out, as election campaigns become “battles of advertisements,” where candidates are turned into images and brands that then craft sound bites to sell a generalized notion of what they think the country lacks, just as advertising functions.
Postman may have been the first person to offer a definition of media ecology, stating: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” He said that media ecology is concerned with how media affect thoughts, feelings, and values. He also said that the role of media technology in influencing human affairs is directly implicated with the species’ prospects for survival. In 1973 Christine Nystrom became the first graduate of the Media Ecology program, writing a dissertation titled “Toward a Science of Media Ecology.” Nystrom characterized the sweeping social changes indicated by McLuhan and Postman as a transition from a compartmentalized Newtonian world to a more holistic world defined by interrelatedness and interdisiciplinarity. Other graduates of the Media Ecology program would continue the process of defining media ecology, and further contribute to the field’s interdisciplinarity.
Strate and the Media Ecology Association: Media as Media
Lance Strate graduated from the Media Ecology program in the 1990s. While at NYU he had worked with Neil Postman on several published studies, and Christine Nystrom had served as his dissertation advisor. In 1998 he was a founding member of the Media Ecology Association, inaugurated at Fordham University, and served as the association’s first president. The association holds an annual conference, and mains a strong presence at related scholarly events. They also publish a journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, named for the “Explorations” publication that McLuhan was involved in at the University of Toronto, and where many of the key concerns of media ecology were first articulated.
Strate has contributed not only to the institutionalization of the media ecology perspective, but also its ongoing definition. Strate writes: “Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media philosophy, and medium theory, and mediology.” This part of Strate’s definition refers to the Toronto school associated with McLuhan, and the New York School associated with Postman. In referring to technological determinism, it also references one of the most persistent criticisms of the media ecology perspective, that the theory is inherently deterministic (see Curry Chandler’s “Marshall Arts: An Inventory of Common Criticisms of McLuhan’s Media Studies,” in Explorations in Media Ecology). By doing so, Strate seeks to acknowledge determinism as part of the media ecology legacy, and one that is commensurate with the theory rather than an internal contradiction that undermines it. Strate also references other strands of media theory that can be traced to media ecological roots, including “medium theory” which was coined by Postman and Nystrom’s student Joshua Meyrowtiz in his book No Sense of Place. His definition also includes other strands of scholarship that are typically included in or conflated with the media ecology perspective: McLuhan studies, orality-literacy studies, and media philosophy and history.
In a 2008 article, “Studying Media AS Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Perspective” Strate builds a definition of media ecology around McLuhan’s maxim “the media is the message.” The medium is the message, Strate says, because the medium precedes the message; communication cannot exist without a channel, information cannot exist in a vacuum. As these variables change, so too does the message being communicated. Furthermore, Strate states that the nature of structure of technology is ultimately more significant than our intentions in using it. The materials we use, and the methods with which we use them, will ultimately determine our outcomes. The symbolic form of our communication is the lasting significance of that communication, rather than the specific and individual messages that are conveyed. In all of these ways, Strate argues that “the medium is the message,” and therefore that the media ecology perspective entails studying media as media. It is in this sense that Strate meaningfully distinguishes media ecology from other perspectives in communication and media research, which also acknowledging and affirming the various intersections and related fields. Strate suggests that the differences in definition surrounding media ecology are an inherent strength of the perspective, rather than a weakness.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm.
Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.
To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.
The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.
This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.
Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett
Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”
Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.
Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”
The Modern City as Public Realm
In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.
In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.
Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.
Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres
Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.
Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.
Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.
There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.
Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.
Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.
These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.
For a change of pace this week, I thought I’d write about affect in relation to the urban condition. Specifically I am going to focus on Nigel Thrift’s chapters on spatialities of feeling from his book Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. Thrift begins the first chapter by characterizing cities as “maelstroms of affect,” and asserting the “utter ubiquity of affect as a vital element of cities” (p. 171). Thrift questions why “the affective register” has not formed “a large part of the study of cities,” and states “to read about affect in cities it is necessary to resort to the pages of novels, and the tracklines of poems” (p. 171).
I have to question what Thrift means by “the study of cities,” particularly in relation to the history of urban sociology. There is a lengthy history in this tradition of studying the affective register of cities, from Weber’s anomie and Simmel’s blasé attitude, through the emergence of modern criminology and social scientific studies of urban anxiety and the fear of crime.
There are, of course, prolific approaches available for studying cities. In addition to approaches from fiction and prose, and the aforementioned social scientific methods, there abound philosophical, psychogeographic, and theological engagements with urban life. One approach to the study of cities that has been especially amenable to the affective register is the domain of urban design and planning. Practitioners and commentators from this realm (who often, erroneously and unfortunately, mistake their practice for urbanism entire) have long used affective language to describe and design urban spaces: happy streets, friendly spaces, menacing buildings, etc.
Thrift is not explicitly discussing “smart” urbanization projects, but of course much of the analysis across these two chapters is directly applicable to such initiatives. Shockingly, Ernst Bloch also says much of relevance to smart cities in his 1929 essay “The Anxiety of the Engineer”. Thrift’s summation of Bloch’s “apocalyptic” vision of cities from that essay reads like a ripped-from-the-headlines encapsulation of contemporary urbanization trends: “Transfixed by the idea of a totally safe and calculable environment, the capitalist city is fixed and unbending in the face of unexpected events: ‘it has rooted itself in midair’” (p. 198). It’s a fantastic connection to make, though I despair at my ever-growing reading list.
Lastly, I want to touch upon Thrift’s discussion of the misanthropic city. My first reaction was to respond that cities aren’t misanthropic, people are; but then I recalled my recent trip to Las Vegas. Returning to the affective register of urban design, I must say that Vegas is certainly a misanthropic city. It is a city built for money, not for people. To the extent that it is built for people, it is designed not to affirm or edify humanity’s highest qualities, but is rather constructed to amplify our basest and most animalistic aspects. Compulsion, lechery, and stupefaction are the human attributes “celebrated” in that space. From an urban design perspective, Las Vegas is among the most misanthropic of cities.
Of course, Thrift is not referring to misanthropic urban design (although the invocation of infrastructure is an interesting, and perhaps fecund, reference point for urban affect), but to misanthropic attitudes and behaviors among urban denizens. I do not ascribe to calls for kindness and idealized sense of community in the city, as I find they are often simplistic and embarrassingly maudlin. Indeed, the disconnectedness and universal strangeness that has long been decried as manifestations of the inherent disharmony of urban life, are in fact principal among the reasons that I love life in the metropolis. Nevertheless, I do appreciate that amidst the anxiety and imminent catastrophe of urban life, Thrift finds spaces for kindness and hope.
Radical black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde found productive potential in anger. According to Lester Olson, in his article “Anger among allies”: “Lorde distinguished between anger and hatred, and she salvaged the former as potentially useful and generative” (p. 287). Lorde’s distinction between anger and hatred is developed in a quote from her remarks: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 298).
In a quote from her address titled “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde uses the metaphor of the virus to describe hatred:
“We are working in a context of oppression and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.” (emphasis added)
This thematic link between hatred and disease is also present in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. While the film’s characters never state the distinction between anger and hatred as explicitly as Lorde does, the film makes many associations that establish a difference between the two. The action of the film takes place in a roughly 24 hour period, during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn, New York. The temperature is referenced throughout the film, and the link between the heat and character’s emotions is made early on. Anger is associated with heat: characters talk about “getting hot” as a euphemism for getting angry. By extension then, the hottest day of the summer could also be understood as the angriest.
Hatred, on the other hand, is continually linked with sickness and disease. Early in the film, when pizzeria owner Sal arrives with his two sons to start business for the day, his son Pino says of the pizza shop:
“I detest this place like a sickness.”
Sal admonishes his son, saying: “That sounds like hatred.”
This connection returns at the end of film, again in front of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which at this point has been reduced to a smoldering shell. Mookie seeks Sal out to ask for the wages he is due from the previous week’s labor. Angrily, Sal throws $500 in $100 bills at Mookie, twice as much as he is owed. Mookie leaves $200 on the ground, telling Sal that he only wants what he has earned. There is a stalemate as the two men stare off, the $200 between them, and each of them waiting for the other to pick it up. Apparently not understanding why Mookie would leave the money lying on the ground Sal asks him:
“Are you sick?”
Mookie replies: “I’m hot as a motherfucker; I’m alright, though.”
Mookie’s response here should not be understood merely as a comment about the weather. Yes, he is hot because of the summer heat, but the associations presented by the film make clear the deeper meaning of this exchange. Mookie is angry, angry as a motherfucker; having endured the ordeal of the hottest day of the summer, culminating in his throwing a trashcan through a shop window, and now he finds himself the following day with his various responsibilities still in place, but now without a source of income. But he does not hate Sal. He is not infected by hatred. He is not sick.
If the film associates hatred with sickness and disease, how does it relate or portray love? The radio DJ character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, seems like an obvious connection. Another important component is the name of Senor Love Daddy’s radio station: We Love Radio 108 (“Last on your dial, first in your heart.”). The name of the radio station not only presages Clear Channel Communications’ eventual rebranding to I Heart Radio (kidding, of course), it also establishes a connection between love and another of the film’s characters: Radio Raheem.
Radio Raheem is arguably the character most closely associated with the concepts of love and hate. Raheem has custom brass knuckles on each hand: the word “LOVE” on his right hand, and the word “HATE” on his left. Through the presence of these words on his knuckles, and his performance of the accompanying story about the struggle between love and hate, “the story of life,” Radio Raheem recalls Reverend Harry Powell from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter. Reverend Powell has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles: love on the right hand, and hate on the left. He also tells “the story of life,” which, although using different language than Raheem, tells essentially the same account of a struggle between hate and love, where hate has the upper hand for a while but is eventually beat out by love.
In Night of the Hunter, Reverend Powell’s performance of pious geniality conceals a dark secret: he is a serial killer, traveling the country seducing widows whom he soon murders before absconding with what wealth he can steal. In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem is not revealed to be a serial killer, but he is done in by a sort of serial killing: the recurring killing of men of color perpetrated by police officers. The characters of the film react to Raheem’s death in a personal way (“They killed Radio Raheem!”), but it is clearly also a reaction to this serial killing of black men that contributes to the crowd’s reaction (someone is heard exclaiming, “They did it again!”).
A final question: Is Do the Right Thing a polemic? I find it interesting to consider the question in light of the definitions offered by various authors. In her article on Larry Kramer’s polemical form, Erin Rand writes of polemics:
“Hence, polemics refute dominant ideologies and modes of thinking by rejecting the primacy of reason an invoking explicitly moral claims. In polemics a moral position is not simply advanced through rhetoric, but morality actually does rhetorical work.” (p. 305)
Rand traces the meaning of “polemic” to the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike”, and when Lee’s film was released many reviewers and commentators were concerned that it amounted to a call for violence. I am not sure the film satisfies Rand’s four elements of rhetorical form, but I do believe it satisfies the rhetorical move that Olson calls shifting subjectivities:
“An advocate articulates a shift in the second persona of an address, wherein the auditors or readers occupy one kind of role initially and then, drawing on what is remembered or learned from that position, are repositioned subsequently into a different role that is harder for them to recognize or occupy, but that might possess some transforming power.” (p. 284)
As film critic Roger Ebert recounted in an essay about the film:
“Many audiences are shocked that the destruction of Sal’s begins with a trash can thrown through the window by Mookie (Lee), the employee Sal refers to as “like a son to me.” Mookie is a character we’re meant to like. Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.” But the movie in any event is not just about how the cops kill a black man and a mob burns down a pizzeria. That would be too simple, and this is not a simplistic film. It covers a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, so that we get to know the neighbors, and see by what small steps the tragedy is approached.”
Some critics and audience members objected to what they interpreted as Lee’s call for violence, and at least an implicit approval of property destruction. We heard similar rhetoric last year, when protests in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became characterized by media emphasis on incidents of property damage and looting. The state response to protests is always characterized by a tolerance so long as demonstrations are peaceful and “civil,” and when this line is broached it functions to demonize and dismiss the “protestors” at large. Is this not evocative of the white woman who purportedly said to Audre Lorde, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you”?
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the word “meme” to refer to a hypothetical unit of cultural transmission. The discussion of the meme concept was contained in a single chapter of a book that was otherwise dedicated to genetic transmission, but the idea spread. Over decades, other authors further developed the meme concept, establishing “memetics” as a field of study. Today, the word “meme” has entered the popular lexicon, as well as popular culture, and is primarily associated with specific internet artifacts, or “viral” online content. Although this popular usage of the term is not always in keeping with Dawkins’ original conception, these examples from internet culture do illustrate some key features of how memes have been theorized.
This essay is principally concerned with two strands of memetic theory: the relation of memetic transmission to the reproduction of ideology; and the role of memes in rhetorical analysis, especially in relation to the enthymeme as persuasive appeal. Drawing on these theories, I will advance two related arguments: ideology as manifested in discursive acts can be considered to spread memetically; and ideology functions enthymemetically. Lastly, I will present a case study analysis to demonstrate how the use of methods and terminology from rhetorical criticism, discourse analysis, and media studies, can be employed to analyze artifacts based on these arguments.
Examples of memes presented by Dawkins include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches” (p.192). The name “meme” was chosen due to its similarity to the word “gene”, as well as its relation to the Greek root “mimeme” meaning “that which is imitated” (p.192). Imitation is key to Dawkins’ notion of the meme because imitation is the means by which memes propagate themselves amongst members of a culture. Dawkins identifies three qualities associated with high survival in memes: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity (p.194).
Distin (2005) further developed the meme hypothesis in The Selfish Meme. Furthering the gene/meme analogy, Distin defines memes as “units of cultural information” characterized by the representational content they carry (p.20), and the representational content is considered “the cultural equivalent of DNA” (p.37). This conceptualization of memes and their content forms the basis of Distin’s theory of cultural heredity. Distin then seeks to identify the representational system used by memes to carry their content (p.142). The first representational system considered is language, what Distin calls “the memes-as-words hypothesis” (p.145). Distin concludes that language itself is “too narrow to play the role of cultural DNA” (p.147).
Balkin (1998) took up the meme concept to develop a theory of ideology as “cultural software”. Balkin describes memes as “tools of understanding,” and states that there are “as many different kinds of memes as there are things that can be transmitted culturally” (p.48). Stating that the “standard view of memes as beliefs is remarkably similar to the standard view of ideology as a collection of beliefs” (p.49), Balkin links the theories of memetic transmission to theories of ideology. Employing metaphors of virility similar to how other authors have written of memes as “mind viruses,” Balkin considers memetic transmission as the spread of “ideological viruses” through social networks of communication, stating that “this model of ideological effects is the model of memetic evolution through cultural communication” (p.109). Balkin also presents a more favorable view of language as a vehicle for memes than Distin presented, writing: “Language is the most effective carrier of memes and is itself one of the most widespread forms of cultural software. Hence it is not surprising that many ideological mechanisms either have their source in features of language or are propagated through language” (p.175).
Balkin approaches the subject from a background in law, and although not a rhetorician and skeptical of the discursive turn in theories of ideology, Balkin does employ rhetorical concepts in discussing the influence of memes and ideology: “Rhetoric has power because understanding through rhetorical figures already forms part of our cultural software” (p.19). Balkin also cites Aristotle, remarking that “the successful rhetorician builds upon what the rhetorician and the audience have in common,” and “what the two have in common are shared cultural meanings and symbols” (p.209). In another passage, Balkin expresses a similar notion of the role of shared understanding in communication: “Much human communication requires the parties to infer and supplement what is being conveyed rather than simply uncoding it” (p.51).
Although Balkin never uses the term, these ideas are evocative of the rhetorical concept of the enthymeme. Aristotle himself discussed the enthymeme, though the concept was not elucidated with much specificity. Rhetorical scholars have since debated the nature of the enthymeme as employed in persuasion, and Bitzer (1959) surveyed various accounts to produce a more substantial definition. Bitzer’s analysis comes to focus on the enthymeme in relation to syllogisms, and the notion of the enthymeme as a syllogism with a missing (or unstated) proposition. Bitzer states: “To say that the enthymeme is an ‘incomplete syllogism’ – that is, a syllogism having one or more suppressed premises – means that the speaker does not lay down his premises but lets his audience supply them out of its stock of opinion and knowledge” (p.407).
Bitzer’s formulation of the enthymeme emphasizes that “enthymemes occur only when the speaker and audience jointly produce them” (p.408). That they are “jointly produced” is key to the role of the enthymeme is successful persuasive rhetoric: “Owing to the skill of the speaker, the audience itself helps construct the proofs by which it is persuaded” (p.408). That the enthymeme’s “premises are always drawn from the audience,” and the “successful construction is accomplished through the joint efforts of speaker and audience,” Bitzer defines as the “essential character” of the enthymeme. This joint construction, and supplying of the missing premise(s), resonates with Balkin’s view of the spread of cultural software, as well as various theories of subjects’ complicity in the functioning of ideology.
McGee (1980) supplied another link between rhetoric and ideology with the “ideograph”. McGee argued that “ideology is a political language composed of slogan-like terms signifying collective commitment” (p.15), and these terms he calls “ideographs”. Examples of ideographs, according to McGee, include “liberty,” “religion,” and “property” (p.16). Johnson (2007) applies the ideograph concept to memetics, to argue for the usefulness of the meme as a tool for materialist criticism. Johnson argues that although “the ideograph has been honed as a tool for political (“P”-politics) discourses, such as those that populate legislative arenas, the meme can better assess ‘superficial’ cultural discourses” (p.29). I also believe that the meme concept can be a productive tool for ideological critique. As an example, I will apply the concepts of ideology reproduction as memetic transmission, and ideological function as enthymematic, in an analysis of artifacts of online culture popularly referred to as “memes”.
As Internet culture evolved, users adapted and mutated the term “meme” to refer to specific online artifacts. Even though they may be considered a type of online artifact, Internet memes come in a variety of different forms. One of the oldest and most prominent series of image macro memes is the “LOLcats” series of memes. The template established by LOLcats of superimposing humorous text over static images became and remains the standard format for image macro memes. Two of the most prominent series of these types of memes are the “First World Problems” (FWP) and “Third World Success” image macros. Through analysis of these memes, it is possible to examine how the features of these artifacts and discursive practices demonstrate many of the traits of memes developed by theorists, and how theories of memetic ideological transmission and enthymematic ideological function can be applied to examine ideological characteristics of these artifacts.
Balkin, J.M. (1998). Cultural software: A theory of ideology. Dansbury, CT: Yale
Bitzer, L. F. (1959). Aristotle’s enthymeme revisited. Quarterly Journal Of Speech,
Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (original
work published 1976)
Distin, K. (2005). The selfish meme: A critical reassessment. New York, NY: Cambridge
McGee, M. C. (1980). The “ideograph”: A link between rhetoric and ideology. Quarterly
Journal Of Speech, 66(1), 1-16.
McLuhan’s approach to media studies is almost always characterized as deterministic. The entry for McLuhan in the Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory states in part: “McLuhan’s version of technological determinism is extreme […] the most striking feature of his studies of the media is their total failure to discuss the ownership and control of means of communication.” McLuhan addresses the issue of determinism early on in The Gutenberg Galaxy, writing: “Far from being deterministic, however, the present study will, it is hoped, elucidate a principal factor in social change which may lead to a genuine increase of human autonomy.” Rather than tackle the issue of whether McLuhan “really was” a technological determinist, I will take McLuhan at his word regarding the stated goal of his media studies: “Study the modes of the media, in order to hoick all assumptions out of the subliminal, non-verbal realm for scrutiny and for prediction and control of human purposes.” So if McLuhan’s goal in The Gutenberg Galaxy is to increase human autonomy in the electronic age, what does that look like in practice and how would it be accomplished?
As noted in one of the introductions to The Gutenberg Galaxy, literature is major touchstone for McLuhan’s work. His frequent use of literary allusions and the stylistic decisions employed in his works have caused some critics to consider his books more literary exercises than scholarship or theory. One such literary reference in Gutenberg Galaxy is the short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s story, three brothers on a fishing trip are drawn into a whirlpool. As their ship is pulled into the vortex, two of the brothers drown. The fate of the third brother is described in this excerpt from the Wikipedia summary of the story: “At first [he] only saw hideous terror in the spectacle. In a moment of revelation, he saw that the Maelstrom is a beautiful and awesome creation. Observing how objects around him were pulled into it, he deduced that “the larger the bodies, the more rapid their descent” and that spherical-shaped objects were pulled in the fastest. Unlike his brother, he abandoned ship and held on to a cylindrical barrel until he was saved several hours later.”
McLuhan alludes to the vortex in Poe’s story to describe the plight of individuals making sense of a world caught between literary culture and post-literate technology. He writes: “May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of other cultures?” (p. 88). Extending this metaphor, McLuhan is ostensibly equating his approach to media studies with the sailor’s study of the actions of the objects in the vortex. This suggests that by understanding the effects brought on by the interaction of various media in the electronic era we can consciously act and thereby not be drawn under the water, as the sailor in the story survived by acting deliberately and not succumbing to panic and terror as his brothers did.
The notion of conscious acts seems key to McLuhan’s project of increasing human autonomy in the face of wide-sweeping technological determinism. The Gutenberg Galaxy is peppered with references to Finnegan’s Wake, often accompanied by allusions to waking up and regaining consciousness. McLuhan writes about “hypnotic” and “entrancing” effects of media, of the “involuntary and subliminal character” of perspective engendered by print. He says that “the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life” (p. 280). This returns us to McLuhan’s stated goal in his media studies, of unearthing subliminal assumptions for scrutiny and the basis of conscious decision-making. In essence, the aim of McLuhan’s probes, puns, and provocations could be summed up in a single sentiment: “Wake up!” Returning now to my initial question: how does McLuhan propose that we “wake up” and become more conscious of media effects? The Gutenberg Galaxy ends on a cliffhanger, and with a promise that McLuhan will return in the sequel, but the concluding chapter makes the case that it is the function of art to rouse the sleeping to consciousness, and draw attention from a focus on content to an awareness of form.
- Almetria Vaba of PBS Learning Media has posted a collection of resources for exploring media literacy through the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.:
Examine the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement with hundreds of PBS LearningMedia resources. Here is a sampling of resources from the extensive offering in PBS LearningMedia. Use these resources to explore media literacy from historical documentaries to media coverage of social movements.
- Sonia Paul at PBS MediaShift reported on a recent Pew Research study on social media, stress, and the “cost of caring”:
Among the survey’s major findings is that women are much more likely than men to feel stressed after becoming aware of stressful events in the lives of others in their networks.
“Stress is kind of contagious in that way,” said Keith Hampton, an associate professor at Rutgers University and the chief author of the report. “There’s a circle of sharing and caring and stress.”
- Lily Hay Newman reported on the survey for Slate:
In a survey of 1,801 adults, Pew found that frequent engagement with digital services wasn’t directly correlated to increased stress. Women who used social media heavily even recorded lower stress. The survey relied on the Perceived Stress Scale, a widely used stress-measurement tool developed in the early 1980s.
“We began to work fully expecting that the conventional wisdom was right, that these technologies add to stress,” said Lee Rainie, the director of Internet, science, and technology research at Pew. “So it was a real shock when [we] first looked at the data and … there was no association between technology use, especially heavy technology use, and stress.”
- LiveScience writer Elizabeth Palermo looked at the gendered differences found by the study:
The higher incidence of stress among the subset of technology users who are aware of stressful events in the lives of others is something that Hampton and his colleagues call “the cost of caring.”
“You can use these technologies and, as a woman, it’s probably going to be beneficial for your level of stress. But every now and then, bad things are going to happen to people you know, and there’s going to be a cost for that,” Hampton said.
- Nicholas Carr recently penned an editorial for The Guardian considering whether we are becoming too reliant on computers:
The real danger we face from computer automation is dependency. Our inclination to assume that computers provide a sufficient substitute for our own intelligence has made us all too eager to hand important work over to software and accept a subservient role for ourselves. In designing automated systems, engineers and programmers also tend to put the interests of technology ahead of the interests of people. They transfer as much work as possible to the software, leaving us humans with passive and routine tasks, such as entering data and monitoring readouts. Recent studies of the effects of automation on work reveal how easily even very skilled people can develop a deadening reliance on computers. Trusting the software to handle any challenges that may arise, the workers fall victim to a phenomenon called “automation complacency”.
- David Whelan at Vice interviewed Carr on the issue of technology dependency:
Should we be scared of the future?
I think we should be worried of the future. We are putting ourselves passively into the hands of those who design the systems. We need to think critically about that, even as we maintain our enthusiasm of the great inventions that are happening. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not saying we should trash our laptops and run off to the woods.
We’re basically living out Freud’s death drive, trying our best to turn ourselves into inorganic lumps.
Even before Freud, Marx made the point that the underlying desire of technology seemed to be to create animate technology and inanimate humans. If you look at the original radios, they were transmission as well as reception devices, but before long most people just stopped transmitting and started listening.
- Writing at Figure/Ground, John Dowd argues that being there still matters for teaching and learning in the digital age:
From an educational perspective, what we must understand is the relationship between information and meaning. Meaning is not an inevitable outcome of access to information but rather, emerges slowly when one has cultivated his or her abilities to incorporate that information in purposeful and ethical ways. Very often this process requires a slowdown rather than a speedup, the latter of which being a primary bias of many digital technologies. The most powerful educational experiences stem from the relationships formed between teacher and student, peer and peer. A smart classroom isn’t necessarily one that includes the latest technologies, but one that facilitates greater interaction among teachers and students, and responsibility for the environment within which one learns. A smart classroom is thus spatially, not primarily technologically, smart. While the two are certainly not mutually exclusive (and much has been written on both), we do ourselves a disservice when privileging the latter over the former.
- Dowd’s argument here is similar to Carr’s thoughts on MOOCs:
In education, computers are also falling short of expectations. Just a couple of years ago, everyone thought that massive open online courses – Moocs – would revolutionise universities. Classrooms and teachers seemed horribly outdated when compared to the precision and efficiency of computerised lessons. And yet Moocs have largely been a flop. We seem to have underestimated the intangible benefits of bringing students together with a real teacher in a real place. Inspiration and learning don’t flow so well through fibre-optic cables.
- MediaPost editor Steve Smith writes about his relationship with his iPhone, calling it life’s new remote:
The idea that the cell phone is an extension of the self is about as old as the device itself. We all recall the hackneyed “pass your phone to the person next to you” thought experiment at trade shows four or five years ago. It was designed to make the point of how “personally” we take these devices.
And now the extraordinary and unprecedented intimacy of these media devices is a part of legal precedent. The recent Supreme Court ruling limiting searches of cell phone contents grounded the unanimous opinion on an extraordinary observation. Chief Justice John Roberts described these devices as being “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”
We are only beginning to understand the extent to which these devices are blending the functionality of media with that of real world tools. And it is in line with one of Marshall McLuhan’s core observations in his “Understanding Media” book decades ago.
- Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic contributed a piece to The Guardian referencing Carr to consider how technology has downgraded attention:
As early as 1971 Herbert Simon observed that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”. Thus instead of reaping the benefits of the digital revolution we are intellectually deprived by our inability to filter out sensory junk in order to translate information into knowledge. As a result, we are collectively wiser, in that we can retrieve all the wisdom of the world in a few minutes, but individually more ignorant, because we lack the time, self-control, or curiosity to do it.
There are also psychological consequences of the distraction economy. Although it is too soon to observe any significant effects from technology on our brains, it is plausible to imagine that long-term effects will occur. As Nicholas Carr noted in The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, repeated exposure to online media demands a cognitive change from deeper intellectual processing, such as focused and critical thinking, to fast autopilot processes, such as skimming and scanning, shifting neural activity from the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in deep thinking) to the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain engaged in rapid, subconscious transactions). In other words, we are trading speed for accuracy and prioritise impulsive decision-making over deliberate judgment. In the words of Carr: “The internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it”.
- James Vincent at The Verge covered a recent study that links nighttime screen use with less REM sleep:
The research carried out by the Harvard Medical School and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studied the sleeping patterns of 12 volunteers over a two-week period. Each individual read a book before their strict 10PM bedtime — spending five days with an iPad and five days with a paper book. The scientists found that when reading on a lit screen, volunteers took an average of 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and received 10 minutes less REM sleep. Regular blood samples showed they also had lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin consistent with a circadian cycle delayed by one and a half hour.
- At AdBusters, Douglas Haddow writes that sleep is the enemy of capital:
Ever since the frequent cocaine user and hater of sleep Thomas Edison flicked on the first commercially-viable electric lightbulb, a process has taken hold through which the darkness of sleep time has been systematically deconstructed and illuminated.
Most of us now live in insomniac cities with starless skies, full of twinkling neon signage and flickering gadgets that beg us to stay awake longer and longer. But for all this technological innovation, we still must submit to our diurnal rhythm if we want to stay alive.
And even though sleep may “frustrate and confound strategies to exploit and reshape it,” as Crary says, it, like anything, remains a target of exploitation and reshaping – and in some cases, all-out elimination.
- In an interview with TruthOut to discuss his latest book, Robert McChesney addresses telecommunications monopolies, net neutrality, and advocates radical solutions to systemic problems:
What is striking about this corporate monopolization of the internet is that all the wealth and power has gone to a small number of absolutely enormous firms. As we enter 2015, 13 of the 33 most valuable corporations in the United States are internet firms, and nearly all of them enjoy monopolistic market power as economists have traditionally used the term. If you continue to scan down the list there are precious few internet firms to be found. There is not much of a middle class or even an upper-middle class of internet corporations to be found.
This poses a fundamental problem for democracy, though it is one that mainstream commentators and scholars appear reluctant to acknowledge: If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy. Concentrated economic power invariably overwhelms the political equality democracy requires, leading to routinized corruption and an end of the rule of law. That is where we are today in the United States.
- In light of recent terrorist attacks and renewed hysteria about fundamentalist ideologies, I revisited Mark Manson’s essay probing why there seems to be more fundamentalism in the world today:
The short answer is technology. Yes, Facebook really did ruin everything. The explosion in communication technologies over the past decades has re-oriented society and put more psychological strain on us all to find our identities and meaning. For some people, the way to ease this strain is to actually reject complexity and ambiguity for absolutist beliefs and traditional ideals.
Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that it would be just as difficult to not believe in God in 1500 as it is to believe in God in the year 2000. Obviously, most of humanity believes in God today, but it’s certainly become a much more complicated endeavor. With the emergence of modern science, evolution, liberal democracy, and worldwide 24-hour news coverage of corruption, atrocities, war and religious hypocrisy, today a person of faith has their beliefs challenged more in a week than a person a few generations ago would have in half a lifetime.