Archive for the ‘Internet’ category

Ch. 6 – The Age of Show Business

February 2, 2008

(Continuing with my book blog club…)

Presidential Debates as Entertainment

In this chapter of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman begins with the claim that “Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it.” He also continues on with his thesis that technologies are merely machines and that a ‘medium’ is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates. If this is so, then the computer and Internet are the “machines” that create a new medium of social and intellectual discourse. Since Postman clearly argues how the television has detracted from intellectual discourse and literacy throughout the world, I want to contrast this with the powerful emergence of the social and intellectual environments created on-line.

Television appeals largely to emotional and visual gratification and entertainment. Television does not embrace conversation, dialog, or debate. The presidential ‘debates’ are not really debates at all. They are entertainment with a little substance thrown. These debates are more about looking good, giving off good impressions, being witty, controlled, speaking well, showmanship, … There is really little room in the televised format for true debate. Issues are brought up, candidates respond within the constraints of allotted time and set format, and then a new question or issue is presented. Issues are not exhausted, argued in depth, or resolved. The media seems more concerned with who beat whom with little in-depth analysis of their ideas or arguments…. because there really was no depth at all. Hillary’s tear received more press than did her ideas. Barack’s slight of Hillary at President Bush’s state of the union address was given more importance than were Bush’s ideas analyzed. During the address, the cameras had to continue with rapid cut-aways to celebrities and candidates, as their visual expressions were more interesting than what the President had to say. Perhaps the cameras could catch something that would be newsworthy for days… an untimely frown from Obama, Hillary dozing off or secretly smiling at Schwarzenegger flexing his muscles, or Kennedy and Obama playing rock, paper scissors…

As Postman writes, “Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it… It must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest.”

Americans “do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

Then there is Web 2.0…… This is a “medium” that is giving the television world a run for its money. As educators, if we can capitalize on students’ natural proclivity for working and thinking in this environment, we just may have a chance at turning them from knowing the world through the lens of television media to truly understanding the world through personal perspective, through intelligent thinking and meaningful discourse, through communication locally, nationally, and globally with others and getting first-person perspective that does not get filtered through any other lens.

If anything, Postman’s ideas here give credence to this new 2.0 medium that has emerged. I shudder to think about all of the money that has been spent on getting television into schools and the return that it has brought – the advertising that students have been subjected to and the passive entertainment that has been disguised as learning (I am not saying that television has no value in the classroom.) How can administrators NOT get on board with this new environment that begs for intelligent thought, active literacies, collaboration, conversation, connection, creation, reflection, analysis,… Of course, it takes teachers to get on board and orchestrate all of this at some level. But it also takes informed and visionary administrators and I.T. personnel to make it happen.

As an example of the level of analysis and intelligent thought that television will not ever show (since television cannot show thought), check out Wesley Fryer’s recent post over at the Moving at the Speed of Creativity blog about NCLB.

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Ch. 3 – Typographic America

January 17, 2008

(Continuing with my book club…)

In this chapter, Postman recounts some of the major changes that occurred in America with the introduction of the printing press… Yes, books. But also a ravenous hunger for newspapers. He describes the general public as being quite literate and hungry for the written word, as there were no other informative media available other than the public orator who would come and speak in public forums. They were very well attended.

In the 1770s, even the poorest of common folk could read. Reading was not considered an “elitist” activity at all. This really made me think of how things are today, where literacy rates often decline in relation to socio-economic status. Is this in part because of the competing new media (movies, video games, television…) that discourages traditional literacies ? I think this may be a direction that Postman heads in future chapters.

I found incredible parallels between the emergence of newspapers in the late 17th/early 18th centuries and blogs in the 21st century. Postman describes how in the late 17th century how newspapers became so important in Boston to “combat the spirit of lying” that was going on in politics. However, the second edition of the Publick Occurrences never happened, as it was suppressed by the Governor for being too truthful (truth hurts!). Thank goodness for our freedoms of speech. By 1730 there were seven successfully published newspapers in the 4 colonies. By 1800, 180 papers were published.

Newspapers were referred to as the “spring of knowledge. The general source throughout the nation, of every modern conversation.” Per capita at end of 18th century, there were more newspapers in the US than there were in England due to America’s newfound freedoms.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets (and newspapers), which are circulated for a day within incredible rapidity and then expire.” He goes on to write that just as the firearm equalized nobility with the “vassal”, so did printing and the post (just like blog posts). Can you imagine if the common man of the 17th/18th century had access to some medium to easily publish his/her thoughts to the culture of the times? Information has truly revolutionized our society. There are now somewhere between 50 and 150 million blogs out there.

Today, anyone with Internet access (or a cell phone) can blog. Bloggers have changed reporting and the speed at which information reaches the masses. Blogging empowers the ‘common man’ who does not have access to publish in conventional information outlets (news, published books/articles, magazines,…). It has helped, just like the firearm and newspaper, as de Tocqueville put it, to “equalize nobility with the vassal” (YouTube debates?). Along the same lines, it can empower students and give them a voice like never before. Of course, with such power needs to come responsibility – and that also must be taught in parallel. Cyberbullying, for example, is related to this newfound power of youth minus the responsibility.

I don’t think that Postman was thinking about such parallels when writing this chapter since his book was written in 1985, long before blogging, podcasting and the like truly took off. I wonder what he thinks about such forms of communication that empower the individual like never before. I don’t think this type of activity would fall in his thesis of “amusing ourselves to death”. Of course, these new information tools can be used for trivial purposes, no doubt. Our challenge is to educate our students and colleagues on the empowerment that comes from having a powerful voice without boundaries. If we have important things to say, they are not merely relegated to the bulletin board, hallway display, or faculty room/water cooler chatter. I think a major hurdle is to shift from the thinking that we either have no voice or our voice does not matter to participating in global conversations about what we are passionate about. If we have nothing to say or are not passionate about anything, that says something, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it’s amazing what this one chapter sparked in my mind. I look forward to more such tangents.

Vacation/Internet Cold Turkey

January 2, 2008

Wow… after being away for 2 weeks, and I mean 2 weeks away from any sort of Internet connection at all, I really feel behind in the world, in my social network, in my writing, email… This is the first time in a long time that I have been disconnected for so long. And, since I have become more connected on-line, this 2-week separation seemed quite hard. It now seems like quite a daunting task to catch up on all of the blogs that I enjoy following. Thanks to my RSS aggregator, NetNewsWire, this task makes it much easier. I can download all of the entries of all the blogs that I follow at once and quickly skim through entry titles and short descriptions. When something of interest catches my eye, I can read the detailed post and even visit the actual blog site from within NetNewsWire. And, all of this can be done off-line once the RSS feeds have updated. So, here’s to the power of aggregators! I still have entries to skim and perhaps read in full, but it is much less daunting this way.

Just one thing before I close this entry. It is unrelated, but I was interested in the idea of how employers are increasing their presence within social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace for the purposes of recruiting. This was one of the stories on the national news this morning. They mentioned that this new age of social networking is becoming very powerful for both employers seeking employees and individuals seeking to be employed. I went to Facebook and indeed, there are many social networks focused on employment. It makes me think that I may need to change my profile and page content to better reflect the professional rather than the personal side of my life. I have little there and certainly nothing that would put a potential job in jeopardy, but it certainly is not geared toward employability! Perhaps I need two distinctly separate profiles/accounts.

Anyway, Happy New Year. It will certainly be an exciting one, I think.