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Jonathan Druy has done it again. A great memorial web site for Neil Postman. A collection of eulogies, obits, etc. You'll remember I blogged his Ong site last summer.
submitted by Paul J Kelly on 2003-11-10T02:39 | Comment | Permalink

Although I was only there for the Saturday, I had a great time at NYSCA. Saw two panels apart from my own and attended the memorial for Neil Postman. For details on the people I mention and the titles of their talks, check the link provided to the NYSCA programme.

My co-presenters on "The Wonderful World of Blogs" were Eric Lears and Lisa Hanson. Eric spoke about implementing blogs in organizations and there's a pdf version of his talk available. Lisa covered the Sina Motallebi case and examined the cultural context of blogging in Iran. (I can't go into detail since, being a fellow presenter, I was unable to take notes.)

Lance Strate gave a fun talk on the Tolkien panel comparing Tolkien to McLuhan. Both were Oxbridge-educated, colonial, Catholic converts with anti-modernist sentiments who were big in the '60s. The two shared a fascination with speech, grammar and language. Tolkien said "All my work is philological"; McLuhan's doctoral dissertation was on the history of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and the dialectic) in Western education. Mcluhan took the side of the Grammarians and so, it seems, did Tolkien whose Treebeard says "My name is like a story". Next up was Susan Jacobson who demonstrated her Countless Stories production of testimonies from Tolkein fans. This is a non-linear story engine developed to accomodate open-ended narrative. You can see for yourself here. Type "treebeard" into the search engine for the Strate dope. Paul Levinson, who's been blogged more than once here, spoke after Susan. His "Confessions of a Science Fiction Chauvinist'" delved into the differences between sci-fi and fantasy. Although no fan of the latter, Levinson was taken by the Ring movies and suggested they might be science fiction after all.

My last panel of the day was "Media: The Dark Side". Lily Alexander discussed notions of shame and transgression in the context of the public trials of celebrities like Gary Condit, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, etc. She noted the historical link between shameful acts and drama. All those Greek plays--or at least the ones we know--are about vile behaviour. Paul Grosswiler spoke about student plagiarism and the Internet. It's been 36 years since McLuhan wrote: "Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one--instant steal!" (The Medium is the Massage) Grossweiler updated this analysis ("substitute 'downloading' for 'xeroxing'") and discussed and discussed McLuhanesque concepts like patchwriting.

The Postman memorial left no doubt Postman was a great teacher who made a strong impression on the lives of his students. Many spoke at the memorial. Having met Neil only once, I didn't speak. But I thought afterwards that, being one of the few Canadians in attendance, I might have acknowledged how he helped keep McLuhan's legacy alive. The Media Ecology Association is a continuation of Postman's efforts to teach us that the medium matters.

submitted by on 2003-11-09T04:50 | Comment | Permalink

This is the title of a talk I gave at the annual convention of the New York State Communications Association last October 25. Nothing innovative, just a synthesis of state-of-the-art thinking on blogs. The idea was to give a sophisticated understanding of the blog world to smart but non-techie communications scholars.

Abstract: Blogs cause a shift in the balance of power between writer and reader. Blog research and press coverage focuses too much on the supply side (writers), ignoring the two other main players in the blogosphere: readers and machines. The outlook for blogs depends as much upon innovation in reading tech (RSS aggregators) as in writing tech (blogware). Evolutionary trajectory of this medium is toward a relevance-switched content network. Current pre-occupation with "bloggers versus journalists" is an example of McLuhan's rear-view mirrorism. But misunderstanding new technologies is unavoidable, interesting and revealing.

Main points:

  • Following the common definition, thanks to Quick and Hiler: blogosphere is more than just blogs; it is the system or ecology within which blogs thrive.
  • Can be understood as a system of relationships between writers, readers and machines.
  • Too much research focuses on blog writers and not enough on readers and the technologies that facilitate contact between reader and writer.
  • Most important technology in this regard is RSS. It's a protocol for creating a machine-readable version of a blo . Causes loss of control by writer over presentation. My own site has, unknown to me, been re-presented elsewhere.
  • RSS readers aggregate summaries of blog content. In this context The Manchester Guardian and J. Random Blogger are on equal ground. Only difference is the Guardian has more subscribers. Bloggers should be promoting RSS readers as much as they promote blogging.
  • Without RSS aggregators supply will exceed demand. RSS readers allocate attention resources more efficiently. You can track 618 sites in 34 minutes! You can defend yourself against the remotely-defined interface. The reader calls the shots.
  • The reader's increase in autonomy is balanced by the writer's increased assurance of an audience. Ultimate goal is the relevance- switched content network. I don't care if more people subscribe to the Guardian than asweknowit. I just want to get to the right 50 people.
  • If all that matters is writers finding readers, and readers finding stuff, then "blogs versus newspapers", and every other current controversy surrounding blogs, is a sideshow distraction. It's a sign of early- stage misunderstanding of a technology.
  • But the hype and misunderstanding will persist. The blogosphere's creators are adept at the wishful metaphor, be it "memes", "neurons", or the alteration of "flows" (see #9). None of these are strictly true. Yet neither are they untrue, because technology is the embodiment of ideas and ideas guide the transformation of the material world. The blogosphere is a work in progress. We must learn to understand the role of hype, not condemn it.
  • Hype is not always a bad thing and to prove it I will show you my favourite example of 14th c. Italian media hype. This is the poet Boccacio writing about the painter Giotto: "There is nothing which Giotto could not have portrayed in such a manner as to deceive the sense of sight." Here is a Giotto. Not too real, is it. But Boccacio only knew about what came before Giotto. He couldn't have known what was to come. Neither can we. We will continue to creatively misunderstand the medium.
submitted by on 2003-11-09T03:36 | Comment | Permalink

A long and very good memorial by Jay Rosen.

I have no count, but I sense a dwindling number of people in the academic world who are unclassifiable. Neil Postman, who died Sunday, was one, and now we can say he will always be one. Such figures with reputation but no real discipline have a tendency to make people think. Postman had that.

He was expert in nothing. Therefore nothing was off limits. Therefore ones mind was always at risk, from a joke, a headline, an idea, a person walking through the door. The only way to respond to such strange conditions was with ready humor. And humor would bring you more ideas. Now what discipline, what department is that?

submitted by on 2003-10-09T03:05 | Comment | Permalink

Another great media ecologist has died. We mourn the loss. He will be sorely missed.

"Technological change is neither additive or subtractive. It is ecological. I mean "ecological" in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillar from a given habitat, you are left not with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival. . . In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry.

Postman, Neil, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York, Vintage Books. p. 18

submitted by on 2003-10-07T14:15 | Comment | Permalink

This one relates to recent comments from Jean-Luc Delatre. Harvard Business School prof. Henry Chesbrough makes the point that "the most valuable use of a technology by a customer or user is often very hard to foresee". He cites the VCR: originally intended for time-shifted viewing but no one foresaw the video rental market. Hollywood originally feared it but later adapted and profited.

So the emotional responses to innovation of "fear" and "replacement" are based on a misconception: the idea that the likely impact of a technology is readily foreseen at the outset. The reality is that extensive experimentation and trial and error may have to occur before the best use of a new technology can be discovered. And the creator of the technology may not even know what this best use might be.

So far so good. But he goes on:

This suggests that managers ought to downplay the hype about the enormous potential of a new technologyuntil some compelling uses begin to emerge - both to keep investor expectations down, and to reduce the possible consumer fear factor associated with that new technology.

This sounds unrealistic. Will the primitive and over-priced early version of a technology ever attract interest without hype, without an emphasis on potential over actuality? Innovators are risk takers, how can we expect them to exercise caution in their claims for their gadgets? And lastly, isn't the demand for attention so high, and the supply so rare, that the only way to attract investors is through attention-grabbing hype? Innovation practically requires hype and there's a built-in inflationary tendency in the development of new technology. Compelling uses later emerge for the successful mistakes. But has any modest technology ever made it that far?

submitted by on 2003-09-24T02:56 | Comment | Permalink

When a new medium is introduced to an environment, it does not merely transmit information about that environment, it changes it, sometimes profoundly.

Until around 543 million years ago, the onset of the Cambrian era in geologic time, all animals had the same flat, tubular shape. Then, in the proverbial blink of an eye, something changed. In what is commonly referred to as biology's Big Bang, a diversity of species emerged in a relatively short period. Instead of merely worms (and sponges and jellyfish, for you purists), the planet was suddenly inhabited by recognizable representatives of the roughly three dozen phyla that exist today, including Chordata, the one to which human beings belong.

The causes for this sudden shift have puzzled scientists since Darwin. A few years ago, thanks to a chance encounter with a bristle- worm fossil, Andrew Parker, an Australian marine biologist, thought he had the answer. His book, "In the Blink of an Eye," asserts that the event that changed the world was, in fact, the arrival of vision.

submitted by on 2003-09-03T02:38 | Comment | Permalink

Jonathan Druy has begun his blogging career with a Walter Ong memorial. It includes testimony from scholars and some nifty quotations from Ong's work.

Human self-counciousness, with the reflectiveness it entails, has made thought and language and has created the alliance between thought and language on the one hand and on the other the technologies of thought and language, writing, print, and electronicized verbalization. The meaning of the technologizing of the word lies very near the center of the meaning of the cosmos in its relationship to the human being and of the human being in relationship to the cosmos.

from Orality-Literacy Studies and the Unity of the Human Race (1987) from Faith and Contexts v1

submitted by on 2003-08-22T14:53 | Comment | Permalink

Another Ong obit. This one from the LA Times via the Boston Globe.
submitted by on 2003-08-19T14:14 | Comment | Permalink

Esteemed colleague of Mcluhan, author of The Presence of the Word among other books, inventor of the term "secondary orality" to describe the oral cultural traits of electronic media. Died yesterday at St. Mary's Hospital in St Louis. More obit links to come.
submitted by on 2003-08-13T19:56 | Comment | Permalink

Paul Levinson has graciously allowed me to post his great essay "Toy, Mirror, Art", which I've been meaning to blog for a while. What with this and the Hays/Benzon archive this place is building a great archive on the evolutionary understanding of technology and culture.

Paul's paper came to mind in my discusion with Ian Glendinning about DeLong and the misunderstanding of new technologies. There's something about the early fixation on the technology itself and not what it transmits (in the case of communication technologies) or does (in the case of other technologies) that suggested a pattern. After an initial novelty phase the technology fades to the background and the fixation is on content and function.

Such a pattern is outlined in "Toy, Mirror, Art". According to Levinson there are three stages a medium goes though: a toy or novelty stage, a mirror stage in which its representations are trusted conveyers of reality, and an art stage where the medium reconfigures and assembles reality in ways no other medium could.

Film is a good example of this. The content of the first films was virtually meaningless, a means of showing off new technical capabilities. Some were just visual gags, such as a guy sneezing. Only later, particularly with the Lumiere brothers and their "acutalities", was filmed noted for its ability to reflect reality. Gradually the technology disappeared into the background and content became king. Once celluloid splicing was exploited could film go beyond mimicking the eye's experience and portray a new visual reality.

Sound recording had similar novelty origins but the limitations of cylinder technology kept recording from breaking into the art stage until much later. Instead there was a prolonged mirror stage when sound recordings were simply records of past performances. Only beginning in the '50s with tape and dubbing did the studio become a laboratory of sounds no live performance could render.

All new communication technologies will begin as toys but not all will make it to subsequent stages. One thinks of Internet technologies like VRML or Netphones. Will video phones ever make it to the mirror stage (which is also the stage of mass appeal)? Are blogs there already or are they just another CB radio? The telephone seems stuck in the mirror stage, the proliferation of cell phone novelty technologies (texting, imaging, etc.) notwithstanding. Television may have become an artform with shows like Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show which proved the medium capable of questioning its own ability to convey meaningful content.

We're talking explanatory power here, folks. Levinson even compares these stages to trinities in other disciplines:

This toy/mirror/art or prereality/reality/ post-reality dialectic of technological development bears some interesting resemblances to several well- known models of human development, including Piaget's sensorimotor, concrete, and formal (abstract) stages of intellectual growth; McLuhan's oral, written, and electronic eras of comminication; Freud's oral, anal, and genital stages of psychosexual development (which Walter Ong has intriguingly compared to McLuhan's stages of communication, e.g., written and anal are retentive and reality-oriented); and Arthur Koestler's Jester, Sage, and Artist as the three unfolding expressions of human creativity. Note how technology as toy displays the subjectivity of the oral, the nonseriousness of the joke, the flexing of muscle for its own sake characteristic of sensorimotor activity, and the emphasis upon technique or delivery common to humor, oral communication, and sensorimotor behavior. Technology as mirror stresses accuracy, objectivity, and prominence of content of "knowledge" as befits both the sage and the scribe, as well as the literal transaction with reality basic to concrete operations. And technology as art, combining elements of the previous two stages, is both serious and subjective, capable of the emotional intensity of the genital stage (the multi- dimensionality of electronic communication) and the abstraction and restructuring of reality -- the triumph of form over content -- of the formal stage of intellectual functioning.

All this is to say that there is a peculiar kind of misunderstanding which takes place in the early stages of a technology. We are too wowed by the new powers and potential it offers to understand it critically. It's all potential and, as the Internet taught us in the '90s, we are only too willing to fill the blank slate of new tech with our hopeful projections. (Or, conversely, with baseless dystopian pessimism.)

The toy phase sets the stage for possible evolution toward the mirror stage, which we are entering now with the Internet as it fades into the background of our everyday lives. The dotcom bubble was the climax of the net's toy phase. What was required to push it to the mirror phase? If we had applied the more sober assessment criteria of the mirror stage (i.e. What can this stuff really do and what is it good for?) would we still have it today? I hate to say it but I think not. I submit that the dotcom bust was a misapplication of creative and financial energy that was nonetheless necessary for the Internet's survival.

submitted by on 2003-07-29T03:43 | Comment | Permalink

I've blogged similar stuff from DeLong and others (namely here, here and here) but I'm interested in collecting as many instances as I can of the theory that the waste and squander of the dotcom bubble was a necessary stage toward a long-term good. DeLong's analogy is between the electronic networks and the railroads. Their economic value was preceded by an irrational imbalance toward the supply side. The subsequent cheapening of the new technologies allowed for their exploitation by content providers with sound business models.

There are parallels in biological evolution. Darwin understood nature's wastefulness. Natural Selection requires that supply exceed demand. Punctuated equilibrium suggests that principle applies even to different species within a whole ecosystem. I don't know how to push the biological analogy further but there does seem to be a process in the history of technologies where a fetish phase necessarily precedes a more serious phase. I'll say more about this but I'd like to know more examples than just the Internet and the railroads. Anyone got any?

submitted by on 2003-07-02T02:23 | Comment | Permalink

Matt Ridley's argument against the precautionary principle is interesting enough, as these samples attest:

In the 1960s, most people believed [dyslexics and autistics] were caused by nurture - by parenting or schooling. Now most people believe they are primarily genetic. Has this change led to dyslexics and autistics being thrown on the educational scrap heap? Quite the reverse: a belief in genetic determinism has been accompanied by a renewed determination to find remedial education that works

The horrors of eugenics were helped not by biological discoveries - the eugenic movement pre-dated the rediscovery of the gene in 1900 by 26 years - but by biological ignorance.

[The] "Green Revolution" depended on genetically new varieties created by artificial mutation using nuclear radiation and chemical mutagens.

But I was most interested in this:

Malthus said we could never grow enough food; the Club of Rome said the oil would soon run out; Paul Ehrlich said the population would expand until it crashed.

(Population is the one issue where my optimism relies on a miracle. Given unlimited food, other species expand their numbers until they crash. Human beings, instead, go through something called the demographic transition, when they voluntarily adjust their birth rate once infant mortality decreases. It happened in Sweden first, Britain next, Thailand recently and it's happening in Bangladesh now. The forecast peak size of the world population has fallen from 15bn to 9bn in just 25 years. As I said, a miracle.)

Ehrlich is often ridiculed as a failed doomsayer but, as Ridley concedes, his hypothesis was sound. No one could have known about this miracle at the time Ehrlich wrote. There was no data. Our knowledge is always incomplete and it was prudent to take Ehrlich seriously at the time, it seems.

submitted by on 2003-07-26T03:15 | Comment | Permalink

"Visual Ecology of Terrorist Images": This was the most successful panel I saw in terms of coherence and breadth of coverage of the stated topic. Sue Barnes's "Visual Ecology: A Rhetorical Analysis of September 11th Postcards" contrasted visual with text narrative in examining the fascinating multi-image 911 postcards and how they represent collective memory. Ann Marie Barry's "The Neurology of the Definitive Moment" addressed the topic with regard to the neuroscience of visual perception, which is always a welcome approach. Julianne Newton and Rick Williams discussed their research into helping students grasp the intuitve and emotional impact of 911 images through word maps and associations. Their talk was titled "Personal Impact Assessment: Profiles of Visual Meaning in Terrorist Images" and it ended with a telling McLuhan quotation: "You can never perceive the impact of any new technology directly, but it can be done in the manner of Perseus looking in the mirror at Medusa. It has to be done indirectly."*

"War and Peace in the Global Village" was a discussion amongst Ronald Deibert, Raymond Gozzi, Paul Levinson and Joshua Meyrowitz about media coverage of the Iraq War which self-organized into a debate between Levinson and the rest. The view that the mainstream media played softball with the government is well-represented in academia and roughly corresponds to what Meyrowitz, Gozzi and Deibert argued. Both sides were compelling but one has to credit Levinson for holding his own against the other three. Two things he said made an impression: 1) The Vietnam War went on for years before any negative coverage appeared in the media. Today there's plenty of anti-war coverage; more, in fact, than the anti-war camp seems willing to let on. Is that not progress? 2) The fact we even know which stories should have gotten more coverage suggests they were not successfully suppressed. It was a feisty and entertaining exchange, not the overly-polite pseudo-debate I've seen too often at conferences.

I must also commend Deibert for pointing out that the core technologies of the Internet (routers, protocols, standards, etc.) are where the real action is in the battle for electronic freedom. To know the source of the Internet's political bias you have to look beyond the Web or email or any other of the media of the Internet.

Other highlights: The "What is Media Ecology" panel proved media ecologists are like Canadians, always questioning who they are. (But seriously, it was an informative discussion of the intellectual roots of media ecology.) "Writing Environments" with Paul Levinson and Mauri Kaipainen and Pia Tikka. Learning the University of the Arts and Marymount Manhattan College are collaborating on a webcasting initiative. James Carey saying that moving to NYC suddenly made him smart in the eyes of the media. "Evolution of Media: The Impact of Technology" with Ulla Bunz, Ellen Tashie Frisina, Frederick Wasser and myself. "Convergence of Divergence: Changing Media Environments" with Bruce Avery, Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker, and James C. Morrison. Lance Strate's exigesis of McLuhan's From Cliche to Archetype.

That wraps it up for this year. Next year's convention will be held June 2005 at Rochester Institute of Technology.

*Address at Vision '65, The American Scholar, p.202, Spring, 1966.

submitted by on 2003-06-16T13:44 | Comment | Permalink

Even though I had net access from the dorm I was too busy to blog. Here's my belated report on the Media Ecology Convention. It was great. I won't report on all the sessions I saw, just some of the keynotes and the Sunday sessions, which were especially good.

Leonard Shlain opened things with a talk based on his book Art and Physics which tells how art and physics both became incomprehensible at the beginning of the last century. Shlain demonstrated the coinciding results--simultaneity, relativity of perspective, etc.--which turn up in, say, a cubist painting and in Einstein's theories. A sample of his synthesis would be "near the speed of light things would actually appear like they do in Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase'". Thought-provoking and dazzlingly presented, as is to be expected from Dr. Shlain. He didn't touch upon why this happened, however. Why did modern artists begin to select for those kinds of effects? And, given that physicists have criteria other than subjective effect, how do the particulars of the history of progressive discovery in physics jive with changes in artistic style? If we were to assume, in good media ecological fashion, that electronic technologies like the telegraph and the telephone are a key to answering this, what did they make perceivable to physicists and artists alike?

Camille Paglia's Saturday afternoon talk was titled "Body-Image on the Media Screen". Paglia lamented the heightened sexuality but diminished eroticism of current images of femininity. Especially troublesome are the elongations of the female form you see on magazine covers and fashion ads these days. Have a look if you don't believe her. According to Paglia the saturation of such images is poison to young minds innocent of the diversity of feminine representations in Western art. So we were given a tour beginning with the Venus of Willendorf and ending with the Dixie Chicks on the cover of Rolling Stone. Here is a list and some notes I compiled during her talk (just type names or titles into Google for visual reference):

Venus of Willendorf
Cycladic art (2400BC, must have inspired Modigliani)
Egypt -- invention of cult of beauty; thin figures
"oscillations throughout history of ideal feminine type"
Minoan snake goddess
Elgin lounging goddesses: supposed misogyny not born out by Athenian visual culture
Boticelli's Venus ---> thin, elongated (Kenneth Clark's "crystalline" aphrodite, as opposed to "vegetable")
"read Kenneth Clark's book on the nude"
Titian --> plush nude, Venetian style (Urbino and Mirror venuses)
Rubens --> three graces, cellulite, powerful women
Ingres --> La Grand Odalisque, "hasn't walked on those feet"
Picasso --> Girl Before a Mirror (1932); turning away from the figure, flattening, movies ascendant at this time ('30s)
Jean Harlow
Norma Shear
Mae West --> retro at the time, pre-WWI hourglass, retrieval of victorian sexiness now suppressed by academic ideologues
"complexity of sexual imagination of early hollywood which is now missing"
Raquel Wlech --> gun slinger pose in One Million Years BC publicity still

There's never a dull moment during the "Camille Show". My only complaint was it was all polemic and no theory. But there's great raw material there. Her point about Marilyn Monroe not looking like Marilyn Monroe was astute. Monroe's physical form was not like the "cultural hallucination" that we project when we picture her in our minds--the flesh Marilyn Monroe had small breasts, dontcha know. So here's some (not terribly original) theory I imposed on her cavalcade: A painting is an explicit mediation. No matter how realistic the portrayal, the artist is always between viewer and image. The camera denies that mediation and now with the help of Photoshop we have the "unmediated realist ideal". This has a pernicious effect on those who are naive about mediation. Teaching the centuries of mediation practice in the West is therefore a good thing. If anyone has some good references on this topic I'd appreciate it.

submitted by on 2003-06-16T13:40 | Comment | Permalink

Off to NYC tomorrow to the Media Ecology Association's annual convention. I speak at 9:30 Saturday morning on a panel on evolution of media. Don't know what connectivity awaits me at Hofstra but I will try to at least post highlights over the weekend.
submitted by on 2003-06-05T03:23 | Comment | Permalink

Some interesting source material for my talk on McLuhan and Darwin this Saturday. Mostly from the letters, which I recommend and provide a link for. The last is a letter to Etienne Gilson which is probably the most significant thing McLuhan ever said about Darwin. I quote it in full since it's a fascinating testimony on method and the challenges McLuhan faced in academia:

"Every new technology is an evolutionary extension of our own bodies. The evolutionary process has shifted from biology to technology in an eminent degree since electricity. Each extension of ourselves creates a new human environment and an entirely new set of interpersonal relationships. The service or disservice environments (they are complementary) created by these extensions of our bodies saturate our sensoria and are thus invisible. Each new technology thus alters the human sensory bias creating new areas of perception and new areas of blandness. This is as true of clothing as of the alphabet, or the radio." (Letters, p. 369)

"Remember, I have the only communication theory of transformation--all the other theories are theories of transportation only." (Letters, p. 505)

"The new media are not bridges between man and nature; they are nature." (Essential McLuhan, p. 272)

My interest in Symbolist poetry from Poe to Valery inspired my interest in the study of media. Symbolism starts with effect and goes sleuthing back to causes. With the media we have massive effects and little study of causes since the user of the media, whether a language or the electric light, is the 'content' of the media. As content, we have almost no awareness of our surround. As somebody said: "We do not know who discovered water, but we are fairly sure it was not a fish.

Ovid [i.e., the Ovidian tradition] made a great comeback with the symbolist techniques in poetry since he too was concerned with understanding changes that could be programmed. Joyce, Pound, and Eliot use Ovid pervasively and technically. It was my study of these men that made me aware that tracking backward from effects to hidden causes, to the reconstruction of mental states and motives, was a basic pattern of culture from Poe to Valery. That is why I mentioned the fifteen books of Ovid in relation to Darwin. Is it not the case that Darwin is dealing with effects for which the causes are hidden and remote? Does this not put him somewhat in the position of the Symbolist for whom effects minus causes constitute the challenge to pattern recognition?

I leave the volume of Harold Innis with you since he too began the study of media as makers of new species of behaviour and organization. His initiating this programme in economic history baffled and alienated his colleagues and his readers. In my own attempts at understanding media I have discovered a uniform distaste in even my friendly readers and critics for the attempt to discover causality of any kind in the environmental action of media on man and society. I have found that scientists and students regard causes as mere concepts or categories to be described and classified. I would much welcome light on the causes for the non-interest in causes. (Letters, p. 420-421)

submitted by on 2003-06-05T03:16 | Comment | Permalink

One of the theses of this blog is that biological and technological evolution are continuous. Am I thus refuted?


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submitted by on 2003-05-28T21:19 | Comment | Permalink

I should mention that the example given below of necessity precluding health concerns with regard to cured meats comes from Paul Levinson's Digital McLuhan, Chapter 12, in a section called "Of Delicatessen and Convertibles":

"When the choice was between preservation and starvation, any ill effects of the preservatives short of causing immediate or demonstrable death were unimportant. The early technology was a trade-off which our ancestors had not much choice but to accept. But once the ingestion of ham and hot dogs became discretionary, the ill effects of nitrites and nitrates became fair and logical game for our concern."

Although I don't think the health effects of nitrites and nitrates were known before the fridge was invented, the point still stands. Levinson is illustrating McLuhan's idea that inventions can evolve into art forms or leisurely objects after they have outlived their original purpose. Therefore, the retracting roof of the convertible, no longer necessary after the availability of on-board air conditioning, became more important as a symbol of cool than for its cooling effect.

submitted by on 2003-05-24T02:47 | Comment | Permalink

I've now read two reviews about the recently published The Encyclopaedia of Stupidity by Matthijs van Boxsel and both trot out more or less the same examples of stupidity. Some certainly qualify, such as "zebra crossings increase pedestrian accidents" and "better hygiene creates susceptibility to bacteria". Others don't:

"Computers vastly increase the consumption of paper." The paperless society was only a hopeful outcome of the computer age, not the reason computers were invented. I didn't buy my computer to save trees.

"More pilots have been killed learning how to crash-land helicopters than have actually been killed in helicopter crashes." Not if the number of deaths is fairly low and we are only treated to rides by the more skilled survivors. Reckless but not entirely stupid in the sense of backfired intentions. (This example provided by the linked reviewer, himself writing a book on stupidity.)

"Many tanning lotions contain carcinogens." Close, but no cigar. If the carcinogens are necessary for blocking UV rays, then it's a matter of weighing the risks. Once could also say the following: "The curing of meats with nitrates and nitrites to avoid spoilage causes cancer and high blood pressure." But before refrigeration this would have been an acceptable risk.

"Energy-saving lightbulbs are mostly employed for decorative use in gardens." But any invention can be exploited for unintended purposes. It's possible they would have been invented just for the latter purpose. Infuriating maybe, but not stupid.

Incidentally, I've blogged on the topic of stupidity here, here, here, here and here. And I agree with the reviewer when he says the following: "But Wittgenstein said that if people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever happen. In this sense, human progress depends on the continuing practice of stupidity."

submitted by on 2003-05-17T16:06 | Comment | Permalink

I will be presenting a paper titled "Darwin and McLuhan" at the Media Ecology Association's convention this year at Hofstra University. Here are some convention details. It's always a good convention. I've been involved with MEA for a number of years now. Currently, I am their webmaster.

The paper was inspired by the McLuhanesque analogies which came to mind while reading The Origin of Species . I'll post notes here as I complete the paper.

submitted by on 2003-05-07T00:17 | Comment | Permalink

Henry Jenkins of MIT has a page of quotations from McLuhan's Understanding Media which includes one of my favourites. The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954 has made me think about the ways in which media limit and channel awareness.

It has now been explained that media, or extensions of man, are 'make happen' agents, but not 'make aware' agents. The hybridizing or compounding of these agents offers an especially favorable opportunity to notice their structural components and properties....They are put out long before they are thought out. In fact, their being put outside us tends to cancel the possibility of their being thought of at all (48-49).
submitted by on 2003-04-19T06:15 | Comment | Permalink

The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954 ended abruptly after it was realized the pits were not caused by hoodlums, radiation or other unruly elements. They had always been there, just never noticed before. People who had always looked though their windshields now started to actually see them. Then they looked around and noticed more environmental crap that had always been there: "Although the coal dust particles had nothing to do with the pitting, the populace at large finally noticed them, just as they noticed the window dings, for the very first time." At the peak of the confusion Seattle's mayor appealed to the Governor, and to Ike.

The excerpt below mentions some causes of "collective delusion" but no mention of the crisis that results when a medium, in this case the windshield, is suddenly rendered opaque. How can you become one with your automobile when your eyes and skin, simultaneously extended in this transparent barrier, are discomforting? Ever wonder about people who never clean their glasses? We aren't supposed to notice the media we depend on. Weird things can happen when we do.

The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954 did indeed become a textbook example of collective delusion, sometimes mistakenly referred to as "mass hysteria." To this day, sociologists and psychologists refer to the incident in their courses and writings alongside other similar events, such as Orson Welles' Martian invasion panic of 1938, and supposed sightings of the "Jersey Devil" on the East Coast in 1909.

The Seattle pitting incident contains many key factors that play a part in collective delusion. These include ambiguity, the spread of rumors and false but plausible beliefs, mass media influence, recent geo-political events, and the reinforcement of false beliefs by authority figures (in this case, the police, military, and political figures).

This combination of factors, added to the simple fact that for the first time people actually looked "at" their windshields instead of "through" them, caused the hubbub. No vandals. No atomic fallout. No sand-fleas. No cosmic rays. No electronic oscillations. Just a bunch of window dings that were there from the start.

(Source: BoingBoing)
submitted by on 2003-04-18T04:50 | Comment | Permalink

There are many reasons for to blog Leonard Shlain but, since I'm setting this up for the next post, I'm going to stick with what he says about the eye:

It wasn't only our brains that split, but also our eyes. Within each retina of the human eye there are two entirely different visual fields mediated by two kinds of cells: rods and cones. Rods fill up your whole retina; they allow you to see the parts of the whole. You get the big picture with the rods; you see in dim light with the rods. Cone vision, on the other hand, gives to your vision incredible clarity and color vision. The problem is that cone vision is tunnel vision; you only get to see one thing at a time!

How this fits into Shlain's thesis: literacy is associated with patriarchal domination. Reading activates cone vision. Men have more cones than women. Reading also lights up the masculine left brain hemisphere. The alphabet, therefore, is biased toward the masculine and against right-brained holistic awareness and pattern recognition. There's more than just this in his talk, which I caught at last year's MEA Convention.

submitted by on 2003-02-19T04:43 | Comment | Permalink

It seems books still matter in Russia. A youth movement called Moving Together (MT) launched a campaign against writer Vladimir Sorokin which led to him and his publisher, Ad Marginem, going up on pornography charges. The offending book is called Blue Lard. According to Jamey Gambrell:

MT's assault on Sorokin and other writers has much in common with the attacks by cultural conservatives in the US on the NEA and on controversial American artists. Although the situations in Russia and the US are clearly very different, in both cases organizations with specific political intentions have tried to exploit potentially controversial cultural issues in order to arouse public opinion. MT's goal may well be to push Putin to take a stand and act against "marginal" (i.e., "Western- inspired") cultural and social activity. It is also possible that MT wants to oust Mikhail Shvydkoi, the most liberal and sophisticated cultural minister Russia has had in some time.

Speculation in the Russian press about who and what is behind the Sorokin case has grown swiftly as new incidents accumulate that seem connected with it. In early September a small bomb exploded outside MT's central Moscow office. Officials from the prosecutor's office searched Ad Marginem's publishing office twice in September to collect documents related to the publishing and distribution of Blue Lard. Additional "expert opinions," which the prosecutor's office is required by law to obtain, also judged Sorokin's work "pornographic." One of them was written by members of the Union of Russian Writers, a conservative, nationalistic spinoff of the Soviet Writers Union. At the same time Victor Erofeyev published an open letter to Putin calling on him to intervene to stop the assault on Russian literature.

Comparisons to American cultural conservatives aside, is it conceivable anyone in the West would write an open letter to their head of state calling on them to stop the assault on their national literature? Or that a secular youth political movement would choose this means of advancing their cause?

submitted by on 2003-07-14T20:36 | Comment | Permalink

Brad DeLong cites this as an example of creative destruction. What awesome innovation wrought by intense competition and the fact you have six days to ship this perishable across the continent to people who will pay a premium for bagged salad.

Almost none of the technology now used in the industry existed 15 years ago. Mr. Goodman and his wife, Myra Goodman, the founders of Earthbound Farm, started growing lettuce in their backyard in the 1980's. Last year the business, which specializes in baby organic lettuce, had sales of more than $200 million. The Goodmans developed much of their machinery out of necessity a salad spinner, for example, that dries smaller batches of lettuce at lower speeds, causing less damage to the leaves. Machines like it are now widely used in the industry. In Earthbound's new 115,000-square-foot plant in Yuma, the water flumes have swirling jets to keep the delicate leaves from clumping. The temperature throughout the plant is controlled by a master computer. Charles Sweat, the chief operating officer, travels by company jet between here and the summer plant in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and he can adjust the temperatures by remote control on his laptop. Once the lettuce is bagged, it is sent off in refrigerated semitrailers to stores around the country. Company officials can only hope that the cooling units on the trucks work well and that the markets store the salad in a cool place.
submitted by on 2003-01-14T18:50 | Comment | Permalink

In the 1830s the railroad was said to have "annihilated space". Later in the century railroads were admired by a Nebraska newspaper editor because "In a quarter of a century, they have made the people of the country homogenous, breaking through the ... provincialisms which marked separate and unmingling sections." One of the heterogeneities they busted was the local time systems, of which there were as many as a hundred in the 1850s. On November 18, 1883 the railways deemed there be four time zones. The rest of the country had no choice but to comply, albeit grudgingly in many cases. Jack Beatty offers a synopsis of this episode in Michael O'Malley's Keeping Watch: A History of Time in America.
submitted by on 2003-01-06T14:40 | Comment | Permalink

Terborgh's review of Stille leads me to wonder if speed of knowledge creation compensates for lack of cultural diversity:

Stille describes our society as being in the midst of a fundamental rupture with the past. With more knowledge of the past than any previous society has possessed, we are losing, he argues, not so much knowledge as ways of thinking, expressing, and behaving. How different life was, he points out, before writing. Cultures evolved and knowledge proliferated, but at a vastly slower pace than today. The expan-sion of knowledge was largely propelled by the diversification of cultures as human beings spread around the globe. Today, countless cultures are withering under the homogenizing influences of TV and global trade, besieged by information to which more and more people have easy access.

In the preliterate past, information was committed to memory, not to paper. The total amount of information a culture could transmit to the future was limited by the memory of the village sage, and was thus more or less a fixed quantity. It is a system that worked well for thousands of years, but it was also fragile, demanding unbroken continuity. With the distraction of a single generation, all could be lost.

Stille describes how radio, television, and the written word brought about the death of oral traditions in contemporary Somaliland, a nation that did not possess a written language until 1972. Exposure to modern communication opens the deepest gap between the generations that human beings have ever experienced. Fascinated by exciting images of urban life, the young forsake traditional ways without so much as a backward look. Like Towitara, the Trobriand Island canoe maker whose story Stille recounts, the old die disillusioned and dispirited. The artistry that won them pride and status in traditional society is rejected as meaningless by a younger generation intent on acquiring radios and stylish clothes.

submitted by on 2002-12-17T21:22 | Comment | Permalink

Bob Frankston (by way of Brad DeLong) has some thoughtful things to say about tablet PCs and the involvement of the market in the evolution of technologies. Technologies are made of other technologies and must build the niche for which they are later optimized. Further, a technology is not fully defined until it is used. The real product testing in the trial and error evolution of technologies happens in the marketplace over which innovators have little control.

In reading Dan's comments on the TabletPC I'm reminded of the importance of shipping a product in order to learn what it really is. We shouldn't be very surprised that there have not been great advances in pen software since our attempts in the early 1990's. We've had to wait for more suitable hardware and a more powerful software base. Now that we have a device that is useful as a laptop we can start experimenting with the possibilities of the tablet. It is just the start of a learning process.


One reason we had to wait is that the table PC is not, in itself, a major product and thus is built out of existing technologies designed for other purposes. This is typical -- it doesn't make sense to make major speculative investments when you can make incremental changes and learn what is really important.

submitted by on 2002-12-11T20:45 | Comment | Permalink

Why are CNN and Fox adopting tenseless syntax in their verbal reporting? You know, "In North Dakota, high winds making life difficult; the gusts reaching 60 m.p.h." . . . "A Big Apple accident, two taxicabs plowing into crowds of shoppers" to cite two examples from this article. Geoffrey Nunberg doesn't know. It's not shorter, it's not closer to the way people really talk, and it's not the way headlines are written. But Nunberg forgets this is the way picture captions are written--"Hitler walking near the Eiffel Tower; Speer, Breker, and Giesler by his side". This syntax is simply support for images and footage which the mind takes to be the thing itself, present in time and space. Every artist understands this habit of mind, which Magritte called "The Treason of Images". To say "Bush met with Putin", as opposed to "Bush meeting with Putin", suggests a constructed, narrative sequence detached from the real thing. This distracts from the illusion of presence which the competitive news networks are compelled to promote.
submitted by on 2002-12-09T05:47 | Comment | Permalink

Freeman J. Dyson reviews Timothy Ferris's Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. The book is about the significant contribution amateurs are making to astronomy, discovering exploding stars, comets, asteroids, etc. It leads Dyson so speculate on an evolutionary pattern in the development of the sciences, from Baconian to Cartesian to a hybrd of the two:

'If Ferris is right, astronomy is now moving into a new era of youthful exuberance in which amateurs will again have an important share of the action. It appears that each science goes through three phases of development. The first phase is Baconian, with scientists exploring the world to find out what is there. In this phase, amateurs and butterfly collectors are in the ascendant. The second phase is Cartesian, with scientists making precise measurements and building quantitative theories. In this phase, professionals and specialists are in the ascendant. The third phase is a mixture of Baconian and Cartesian, with amateurs and professionals alike empowered by the plethora of new technical tools arising from the second phase. In the third phase, cheap and powerful tools give scientists of all kinds freedom to explore and explain. The most important of the new tools is the personal computer, now universally accessible and giving amateurs the ability to do quantitative science. After the computer, the next-most-important tool is the World Wide Web, giving amateurs access to scientific papers and discussions before they are published, allowing amateurs all over the world to communicate and work together.'

Biology is next because "the expensive genome-sequencing and protein-synthesizing machines of today will evolve into cheap machines that can stand on a desktop". When that happens,

'Genetic engineering of roses and orchids, ornamental shrubs and vegetables, will be a new art form as well as a new science. Homeowners in well-to-do suburbs will use the new tools to embellish their gardens, while subsistence farmers in poor countries will use them to feed their families with higher-yielding or better-tasting potatoes. Amateur plant breeders and animal breeders and ecologists and nature lovers will then be enabled to make serious contributions to science, just as amateur astronomers do today.'

submitted by on 2002-11-27T03:56 | Comment | Permalink

David Lodge is perhaps the first novelist to hit the books on consciousness studies. In this article he sets upon the "qualia" debate, or the problem of the irreducibility of first- person experience--how can the experience of the taste of pineapple be accounted for scientifically? He doesn't have the answer of course, but notes that novelists have been interested in qualia from the beginning, which was about the time the printing press was invented, and their interest coincided with that of philosophers in "memory, the association of ideas in the mind, the causes of emotions and the individual's sense of self":

'It is probable that the fairly recent invention and rapid development of printing contributed to that process. The increasing availability of books in which exactly the same story could be experienced privately, silently, by discrete individuals, was a marked departure from the usual transmission of stories in preprint culture by means of oral recitation or dramatic performance in front of a collective audience. The silence and privacy of the reading experience afforded by books mimicked the silent privacy of individual consciousness.'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T15:56 | Comment | Permalink

Brian Milner and Patrick Brethour wrote this op-ed for the Globe and Mail on March 30, 2001 (unavailable online). They agree with Adam Smith that the deceptions of the dotcom bubble will have good results:

'One day, there will be a statue, maybe two, erected to commemorate all the fallen investors and risk-taking entrepreneurs who have lost everything in the great technology meltdown. Their epitaph: Without the sacrifice of these greedy people, the 21st-century communications revolution would not have been possible.'


'Without [the lost] trillions, a wave of innovation that is set to change the way we all live and work would have been virtually impossible. An old proverb says that you cannot cross a chasm in two leaps. And so it is with the Internet: Half a high-speed network is no network at all. And it isn't cheap to build.'

'The stock-market bubble gave the tech sector an absolutely crucial lift across the chasm, enabling companies such as Nortel to invent -- or buy -- advanced equipment technologies and giving other firms access to the massive amount of capital needed to create the 21st-century Internet.'

Following this is a comparison to the railroad boom. More and better detail on that in Brad DeLong's "Technology and Opportunity"

submitted by on 2002-11-25T05:06 | Comment | Permalink

Daniel Akst thinks $35 billion invested in telecommunications infrastructure in advance of demand was a good thing:

'But was this really such a wholesale misallocation? Will society really suffer for the misguided enthusiasm of fiber optic investors and entrepreneurs? History suggests not. Again and again, investors have gone hog wild over new networking technologies, spent a fortune to install them and found themselves with vast overcapacity and ruinous competition. Yet eventually the capacity was always used, often for purposes never foreseen when it was installed. And in the long run, the economy was the better for it.'

submitted by on 2002-11-25T15:58 | Comment | Permalink

Steven Weinberg applies some media ecology in his review of Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science:

'In fact, as he admits, for Wolfram the real test of the complexity of a pattern is that it should look complex. Much of his discussion of complexity is anecdotal, relying on pictures of the patterns produced by specific automata that he has known. In this, Wolfram is allying himself with one side in the ancient struggle between what (with much oversimplification) one might call cultures of the image and cultures of the word. In our own time it has surfaced in the competition between television and newspapers and between graphical user interfaces and command line interfaces in computer operating systems.

'The culture of images has had the better of it lately. For a while the culture of the word had seemed to have scored a victory with the introduction of sound into motion pictures. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond recalls that in silent films, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." But now movies can go on for long stretches with no words, only the thunk of cars running into each other and the sizzle of light sabers. The ascendancy of the culture of the image has been abetted by computers and the study of complexity, which have made possible the simulation of complex visual images.

'I am an unreconstructed believer in the importance of the word, or its mathematical analogue, the equation. After looking at hundreds of Wolfram's pictures, I felt like the coal miner in one of the comic sketches in Beyond the Fringe, who finds the conversation down in the mines unsatisfying: "It's always just 'Hallo, 'ere's a lump of coal.'"'

submitted by on 2003-07-14T20:38 | Comment | Permalink

Jeremy Smith laments the deprecation of smell in the Western sensorium and offers the fascinating example of the Ongee, who give it top priority:

'When two members of the Ongee meet, they don't inquire after each others' health, but ask instead: "How is your nose?" Living on the Andaman Islands, out in the Indian Ocean, the Ongee universe is defined by smell. The passing of the year is marked by the scents of differing flowers as they come into bloom, and while a Westerner may touch their chest (the nearest point to the heart) when talking about themselves, the Ongee touch the tips of their noses.'

submitted by on 2002-10-24T18:52 | Comment | Permalink

A J. Bradford DeLong keynote comparing the railroad boom to the Internet boom:

'Just as the shakeouts and the mass bankruptcies of the railroads in the late nineteenth century had everything to do with financial management and irrational exuberance, and nothing to do with the technological opportunities and long-run economic benefits of rail transportation, so today's shakeout has little to do with the ultimate economic benefits that data processing and data communications are going to bring.'

How do economists account for the mismatch between such long-term goods and the short-term irrationality needed to create them?

submitted by on 2002-10-21T15:10 | Comment | Permalink

Ronald Dworkin describes the Chinese judicial system and its disinterest in the printed, published word:

'Two principles are central to the rule of law: that the coercive power of the state may only be exercised in accordance with standards established in advance, and that judges must be independent of the executive and legislative powers of government. Traditional legal practice in China has rejected both these principles, following instead what was often called the Confucian view: that law is a matter not of rules or general principles, but of virtue, equity, and reasonableness in individual cases. Judges developed no system of legal precedent: there was no understanding, that is, that judges in later cases would follow principles laid down in earlier decisions. Even now, very few judicial decisions are published.'

submitted by on 2002-09-26T02:48 | Comment | Permalink

Invention is the mother of necessity, according to Yuval Levin, Staff Member, President's Council on Bioethics:

'Modern technology creates needs at least as often as it serves them. All those sorry saps who happened to live before 1879 did not spend much time saying "If only we had electric lighting." But who among us now could live without it? No one could have imagined a real need for a radio or television before they were invented, but few of us could really give them up today.'

'This phenomenon is not altogether new. Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood the psychology behind it long ago. In his 1754 Discourse on the Origins of Inequality he says of human creations and inventions that "in time these commodities lost all their pleasantness through habit, and as they had at the same time degenerated into true needs, being deprived of them became much more cruel than possessing them was sweet; and people were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them." Far from leaving us satisfied, technological advances can often leave us feeling greater pangs of need than ever.'


This story was blogged at Techdirt and one "dorpus" offers some thoughtful criticisms of Levin's predictions regarding bio-tech and needs invention as well as some words about the genome hype.

submitted by on 2002-09-21T03:57 | Comment | Permalink

Brad DeLong blogs an article in the Economist about an ancient Greek multi-geared astronomy box. He sets it up with a brief summary of the problem of ancient technological creativity.
submitted by on 2002-09-21T03:32 | Comment | Permalink

The controversy over probate records seems not to bear on this aspect of Michael Bellesiles's narrative, but it's an interesting puzzle in technological adoption. Why were guns adopted so readily when they were clearly an inferior technology? This is from Edmund Morgan's review of Arming America in the New York Review:

'The story and the puzzling defiance of fact begin in sixteenth- century England with the substitution of the musket for the longbow as the standard weapon of the infantry in warfare. The people who supported the change acknowledged that muskets were militarily useful only at a range of up to eight or ten yards; the longbow was effective at two or three hundred. The musket could not be aimed except in a general direction; a bow in the hands of a skilled archer could regularly hit and kill an enemy completely beyond musket range. The musket, always a muzzleloader, took minutes to reload; an archer could aim and fire up to a dozen arrows in a minute. Muskets required continual cleaning and repair; bows were quickly made and easily maintained. In 1595, by order of the Privy Council, the English armed services abandoned the longbow and fought with muskets for the next two centuries and more. Nobody is sure why.

'Muzzleloading muskets were the firearm that the first settlers carried to America and virtually the only firearm available anywhere until the decade before the Civil War. The first muskets were matchlocks, heavy, clumsy weapons in which the charge was ignited by manually touching a lighted fuse to a small "touch hole" in the breech. By the middle of the seventeenth century, after a variety of experiments, gunmakers came up with the flintlock, in which the pull of a trigger caused a flint to strike a spark in a pan of powder adjoining the touch hole. This was the most advanced long arm for soldiers until the flint was replaced by the percussion cap in the 1840s. Muskets became less cumbersome and a little more reliable over the years, but they never attained the accuracy or the range of the longbow.'

submitted by on 2002-09-20T14:06 | Comment | Permalink

Dinesh D'souza opines in the Red Herring:

Of course there are many people in the West who harbor deep anxieties about technology, even as they concede, and enjoy, its conveniences. The biggest concern is that technology will undermine cherished values like privacy, individuality, community, and human dignity. The critics say that technological progress does not produce moral progress.

We can't just call these critics technophobes or Luddites. We have to meet their argument head on and show that technology doesn't just make our lives easier; it also strengthens our core values. Thus, technological progress can generate moral progress.

The most dramatic illustration of this is the abolition of slavery. Every ancient society had slavery: the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans, the Africans, and the Native Americans. Why did the people in power accept slavery so readily? The reason is suggested by Aristotle. In every society, he says, somebody has to do the dirty work. Only if slaves perform the menial tasks can other people find leisure to attempt higher pursuits, like painting, sculpture, and philosophy. Aristotle states that the slave performs a function similar to that of a mower or tractor. The slave is a human tool.

Aristotle's argument contains an interesting corollary: if a society has mowers and tractors, then it doesn't need slaves. Slavery in the West was abolished for many reasons, one being economic: many people realized that it was no longer necessary to force humans to do tasks that machines could perform more efficiently.

So technology helped to free human beings from bondage, and that is a moral gain because it extends a cherished value: freedom.

submitted by on 2002-09-18T00:04 | Comment | Permalink

Although Frank Furedi does not make the connection between our increasing risk aversion and the technological environment, the point has been made elsewhere, most notably by Henry Perkinson in No Safety in Numbers: How the Computer Quantified Everything and Made People Risk-Aversive. This also has implications for our assessment and selection of technologies, some of which we needlessly fear, others regarding which we are far too complacent. But Furedi offers an interesting account of the symptoms:

'One of the key points I make in my book Culture of Fear is that perceptions of risk, ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability.'

submitted by on 2002-09-18T00:39 | Comment | Permalink

Many important inventions were not originally intended for their subsequent uses. This Wired News article gives five examples: gunpowder, phonograph, mechanical clock, viagra and punchcard.
submitted by on 2002-09-17T18:09 | Comment | Permalink

"Historically, technology has had a huge impact on the use of language. Around 1811, the steam engine collided with the printing press, and the result was as explosive then as the collision of computers with the telephone network is now."
submitted by on 2002-04-26T21:43 | Comment | Permalink

Shouldn't Microsoft's reviled Clippy, that friendly paper clip helper who was recently phased out, been a spectacular success in interface design and human/computer interaction? He was, after all, the product of "in-depth interviews with more than 5,000 customers, on-site observations of 1,000 customers at work, and nearly 25,000 hours of usability testing and related research to ensure 'intuitive operation'."
submitted by on 2002-03-30T04:05 | Comment | Permalink

The difficulty of predicting the effects of new technologies is a problem for legislators when technology becomes a matter of policy. Advocates of the "precautionary principle" contend we're better safe than sorry and that we must consider the conjectural harm a technology might cause. This Policy Review article argues against the precautionary principle: "What is missing from precautionary calculus is an acknowledgment that even when technologies introduce new risks, most confer net benefits that is, their use reduces many other, often far more serious, hazards. Examples include blood transfusions, mri scans, and automobile air bags, all of which offer immense benefits and only minimal risk... Several subjective factors can cloud thinking about risks and influence how nonexperts view them. Studies of risk perception have shown that people tend to overestimate risks that are unfamiliar, hard to understand, invisible, involuntary, and/or potentially catastrophic and vice versa. Thus, they over estimate invisible threats such as electromagnetic radiation and trace amounts of pesticides in foods, which inspire uncertainty and fear sometimes verging on superstition. Conversely, they tend to underestimate risks the nature of which they consider to be clear and comprehensible, such as using a chain saw or riding a motorcycle."
submitted by on 2002-04-26T20:10 | Comment | Permalink

about this category

media ecology and evolution

Media ecology is concerned with the broad, often unnoticed effects of technologies on a culture. It is media studies in the tradition of McLuhan, Innis, Mumford and many others with a sense of the determining power of the tools a culture employs. Media evolution is concerned with the continutities from biological to technological adaptation.