Thursday, July 31, 2008

Leaving knowledge to the Internet

Marshall McLuhan, as I’ve noted before, wrote about how technology creates what he called “extensions of man.” The car is an extension of the foot, the telephone is an extension of the voice, the radio is an extension of the ear.

The internet is turning out to be an extension of the collective memory. That’s good and bad. We have come to rely on the Web as a ready source of information, but it has also become a reason not to retain knowledge personally. If some fact is a click or two away, why do we have to remember it?

I sense that I am experiencing this approach to knowledge with my students. They assimilate less and less because they know that it is readily available to them on-line. The result is that if you ask them a question and they don’t have ready access to their Internet “memory chips,” they draw a blank. Carried to its extreme, they are prevented from thinking on their own without the aid of their computers.

Mark Bauerlein, in his book “The Dumbest Generation, (How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future)” concludes, “The Dumbest Generation cares little for history books, civic principles, foreign affairs, comparative religions, and serious media and art, and it knows less.”

I disagree that the “Millennial Generation,” as it has been called, “cares little” about the above. They DO care, sometimes passionately, but because of their reliance on the Internet, they haven’t absorbed knowledge about their concerns, and so can’t and don’t converse readily about them.

In a sense they are literally “dumb.” They can’t speak for their lack of assimilated knowledge.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Will on-line newspapers adopt TV news values?

I took my “Mass Media and Society” class to The Oregonian and Willamette Week last night and came away more certain than ever that newspapers are in their death throes. Sure, we heard a lot of brave words about the future, but when the editors we talked to got down to specifics you could tell the ground was shaking beneath their feet — and that they had only vague ideas about what to do about it.

Convergence to screens like the ones we are staring at means that we’ll be seeing more and more video on “newspaper” web sites. In other words, newspapers will evolve into TV news programs. More and more news decisions will be driven by the demands of video’s moving, mesmerizing images. We will have less explanation and analysis and more touching, emotive “scenes” and “moments.”

The appeal will be to feelings, not thought. To haphazard, disconnected impressions, not linear, logical reasoning.

Technology is in the driver’s seat, and I for one don’t want to go where it is taking us.

The other concern at the newspapers is that the era of presses as money-making machines is over. No lucrative replacement is anywhere in sight. The Internet produces a small fraction of the revenue print did for papers. And so the forced transition of newspapers to the internet has meant smaller staffs, smaller papers, reporting on the cheap (read, crime news) and fluff.

There is no end in sight.

As I sat in its big news conference room, I imagined the hulking Oregonian building on SW Broadway housing neat insurance companies or law offices. Out with cluttered journalists’ cubicles.

As I see it, the best we can hope for are little networks and co-operatives of quasi-independent journalists who band together to market themselves and to build reputations for accuracy, fairness and compelling writing. But even they will have to compete on, and succumb to, screen images that purport to inform.

Old newspapers (and books and magazines) will be collected like typewriters, slide rules and “film” cameras.

The last print journalism to go will be the small, so-called “niche” publications. Many of them will be (and are) little more than advertising vehicles.

Then they too will give way to portable reading devices, whose photo reproductions will match, or exceed, those of the glossiest magazine. More than that, their photos will be (and are) moving pictures. Vanity Fair, Wired and The New Yorker can never match that capability within the confines of the printed page.

Finally, as the ways we are informed rapidly evolve, we, as sentient beings, will be changed. Note that we will not choose to change. The media environment will literally change us in how we relate to each other, how we make judgments, how our children learn and come of age, how we act and react, how we form our values, how we confront the future.

The speed of the change will be measured in a handful of years, perhaps even months. What took a century before, may take, at most, a decade. (Try to remember where we were in 1998.) In a single lifetime, a person will experience four or five generations remarkably dissimilar, almost alien one to another.

And above it all will be inexorable technological change whose far-flung, independent engineers and scientists will continue to be blind to, and seemingly unconcerned about, their inventions’ consequences to humanity and the planet.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Note between Pages

Before you donate books to a community book sale, you might want to check to see what is tucked away, unbound, between the pages.

Uncashed checks? Love letters? Poison pen notes?

I mention this because I purchased a dividend when I bought a copy of C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man” at Sunday’s Hillsdale Book Sale. It yielded a gift note that clearly wasn’t intended for my eyes — or yours. The contents provide a window into a domestic drama worthy of a novel.

Would that C.S. Lewis’s book were equally engaging. The bulk of “The Abolition of Man” is a slog.

But the little three-page, hand-written note that fell out of it had immediate allure. After considerable reflection, I've decided to share its essence. No last names are evident in this note from mother to son, and I won’t divulge first names. The note is dated, but I’ll withhold that as well. Fortunately, I have no idea who the mother and son are. I can safely assume you are equally ignorant of their identities.

To proceed ....

The content of the gift book turns out to be at least partially connected the note’s ultimate message — a mother’s convoluted, pained advice to her son about his romantic liaison and apparent infidelity.

After commenting on the plight of the Ten Commandments in this modern world, she writes, “There is no perfect person with whom to mate.” But she continues, the hope is that “as one struggles on the path of life,” an initially imperfect mate “may become the perfect mate.”

Then she reveals, “It has been hard for me to speak about this as you children grew up as it seemed so hypocritical. I never approved of what I did and hoped you would escape my ways. It has certainly caused more grief and destruction not only to us as a family but to those who held us up as something rather special.”

After that sweeping, intriguing confession of parental regret, the writer lurches off into one heat-seeking piece of advice. “Please do be careful and rethink your affair with XXXX — We must not throw away people, for we throw away ourselves.”

“I love you very much, more dearly than you can imagine. Mom.”

How did mom find out about the affair? Did she have her own family-destroying affair? Did it galvanize an imperfect mate into a perfect one? How did she finally bring herself to write this note? What was her son’s reaction?

Did C.S. Lewis, the Cambridge Christian sage, help?

If the son made it to page 109 of this dense little 121-page book, he would have faced religious fiat and warning. There Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” cites three laws of “Sexual Justice.”

From a Babylonian “List of Sins,” a moral question: “Has he approached his neighbor’s wife?”

From Exodus, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

From the Old Norse Volospå, “I saw in Nåsrond (hell) … beguilers of others’ wives.”

I'm left with this question: When I donate the book to the sale next year — as I most certainly will — should the note remain with it? Or should this be the end of the liaison?

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Monday, July 28, 2008

No fear; No TV

Oregonian columnist Renee Mitchell today bemoaned the reported decline of civility in the city. People no longer greet each other, or wave or learn each other’s names, she opined.

“We’re afraid to venture out at night because we don’t know who’s out there, lurking in the darkness. Or what they’re capable of,” she wrote.

She cited statistics showing that more and more people are feeling unsafe beyond the confines of their houses. The nights are particularly unnerving.

Her solution was to encourage neighbors to attend National Night Out events on August 5. Dozens of the neighborhood get-togethers are planned around the city.

That’s well and good, but what about the rest of the year? And what about that lingering feeling that to be alone on our streets at night is taking your life into your hands.

I wrote Renee to suggest that people should consider simply shutting off their TVs — in particular the lurid crime reporting foisted on a gullible, but sensation-seeking public. FOX News on KPTV, and its ratings-hungry mimics, thrive on broadcasting mayhem. It’s cheap, reality-twisting reporting.

Much of the rest of TV does the same, making violence and its lurid appeal its stock-in trade. I suggested to Renee that her own newspaper, as it struggles to maintain readership, seems to be printing more crime news and giving it more prominence.

Several years ago media researcher George Gerbner discovered that heavy viewers of TV had an inflated sense of how much crime is in their communities. They had come to accept the crime-infested media portrayals over the reality of the world outside their doors. In short, TV was frightening them into home-bound isolation. He called the phenomenon “The Mean World Syndrome.”

So if you want to feel safer and better about your neighborhood, by all means go to the National Night Out in your neighborhood. But if you want to feel better permanently about the world around you, TURN OF THE TV NEWS. Better yet, call the stations to complain.

P.S. On a related note, attendance at our inter-generational Thursday Game Board Nights at the bottom of our hill is picking up. And, yes, we are learning each other’s names and getting to know, trust, and like each other.

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Devouring pancakes and books in Hillsdale

Yesterday, hundreds of Hillsdale friends and neighbors descended on a parking lot to devour blueberry pancakes (and scrambled eggs and sausage) and to browse through and snap up hundreds of books.

The pancake breakfast, organized by the Hillsdale Business and Professional Association as "thanks" its customers, fed some 650 diners. This year's event was the 32nd. It became a "tradition" long ago.

At the back of the lot between the Key Bank and Casa Colima restaurant, the Hillsdale Alliance held its 3rd annual summer book sale. And estimated 7,000 books had been donated over four collection Sundays at the Hillsdale Farmers Market. The sale netted $4,300. On average, books sold for a buck a piece. The proceeds go to Alliance members, which include Hillsdale's three public schools, the Farmers Market, the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association, Neighborhood House and the Library.

Dozens of volunteers worked on both events. As one of them, I'm grateful there were so many who worked so hard.

The breakfast and the sale were huge efforts, but at the end of the day, we realized that we had created a lot of fun — all in the name of community and celebration.

A note on the two guys flipping pancakes. The one on the right is Richard Garfinkle, known to one and all as "Dr. Rock and Roll." He's been flipping pancakes nearly as long as he has been straightening teeth. On the left is "The Rookie Flipper," Tom Mattox, director of outreach for the Food Front Cooperative. A year ago Tom and Food Front had no idea that they would be in Hillsdale serving a pancakes on July 27, 2008.

Now they are just a month away from opening a store here. Let's hope they are destined to flip pancakes the last Sunday of July for eons to come. No doubt Garfinkle will be there to guide them.

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