Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Time in "Cyberia"

At one point over the holidays, three of our family/guests—adults one and all—were sprawled out around our living room, each staring into some kind of screen—two laptops (we have wireless access in the house) and a Play Station.

One checked e-mail, another visited MySpace "friends," another was on a quest for a sniper gun in some cyber warehouse.

An eerie glow bathed their faces; no one spoke; no one cared or particularly noticed that they were together.

And yes, I confess that in the pre-dawn hours, I too put in "screen time." After feeding the cat, I "feed" The Red Electric, just as I am as I write these words.

One of our number was a true TV junkie. As we prepared dinner, he sat in the TV room and channel surfed. Alas, he kept running out of channels. We have a mere 32 on our "basic service" but he is accustomed to clicking through 246 or some astonishing number. We could tell when he surfed beyond our cable's limit. It was a kind of video wipe-out. The unfettered static from the frenzied, foamy screen would simultaneously roar and hiss and squawk at him.

He would grumble and fuss in disbelief before righting himself and surfing back to some working channel.

Media in upheaval are throwing us into upheaval.

A couple nights ago the Lehrer News Hour had a segment on the demise of print journalism. "The experts" have taken to calling newspapers a "legacy medium."

The term reeks of doom.

A legacy is something valuable you leave to posterity after you die. I happen to have started a newspaper in this community. I'd be kidding my self to think of it as one day being my legacy. At best it will survive in musty, bound volumes hidden away, unread, on some archival shelf.

McLuhan would say that new media are literally changing who we are. Kids, especially boys, are much more dexterous with their thumbs than their forefingers because portable video consoles are operated with thumbs. Blackberries, the electronic kind, require the same thumbs.

The language is changing too—words unheard a year ago are now in common usage. Math, of course, is something you do on a calculator, if you do it at all. Multiplication tables anyone? And what is a dictionary or a phonebook or an encyclopedia in a Google world?

I teach at Portland Community College and in my first “Information Gathering” and “Writing for the Media” classes next week, I will ask the questions, "What does it mean to be informed?" and "Given your answer, how does one become informed?"

The answers should serve as markers.

A more relevant question might be “Who is your avatar?” Avatars are those video role-playing creatures created to represent (be?) each of us in the cyber world. Fat people can have thin avatars, dull people can have clever avatars, those who have failed can be successful, etc.

This is the stuff of science fiction. Dreams come true in a dream world. Which world (or persona) is more real, the "real" one (with real friends and real family and real love in a real living room on a real holiday) or the hyper animated, time gobbling "cyber" one tucked behind the glow of the computer screen where we can shape and edit ourselves and gather “friends” on MySpace?

We know that time spent in cyberia is spurting ahead, pushing aside other activities. At some point we will spend more time the cyber world than we do the real one. We will care more about what happens in "cyberia" than we do in "reality."

Many people now have stronger attachments to media-concocted creatures—actors or celebrities or, god forbid, politicians—than they do to friends and relatives. With precious few exceptions, the feelings are based entirely on carefully orchestrated imagery. When people say, "I just really love Katie Couric (or Brian Williams or Tom Hanks or George Bush or John Kerry)," I still ask, “Really? How well do you known them?”

Often they just shrug and say, “Well, you know what I mean.”

I’m not sure I do.

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