Category Archives: Old Media

Now We Know How the Monks Felt

I’ve been using this McLuhan quote at the beginning of my research focus statement.  It’s from The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962:

“An age in rapid transition is one which exists on the frontier between two cultures and between conflicting technologies.  Every moment of its consciousness is an act of translation of each of these cultures into the other.  Today we live on the frontier between five centuries of mechanism and the new electronics, between the homogenous and the simultaneous.  It is painful but fruitful” (p. 141).

I contend we stand at a similar frontier right now.  And nowhere is it better illustrated than in David Rothman’s rant about Second Life.   Here we see what McLuhan calls an “advantage” of being on the frontier of a culture class: the ability to generalize.  Rothman, after complaining about a software upgrade that had eaten his password, decides that he would rather spend his time with books but, more importantly, he assumes that his opinion must be shared by millions: “On-screen instructions say I should contact tech support, but should I bother? I’d rather catch up on my book reading and on RSS feeds relating to books and e-books. I’ve got enough media in my life, thank you very much, and millions of other people would probably feel the same way.”

I’m sure there are people who feel that way along with people who prefer having this particular media, and frankly, that’s what makes it pretty darn exciting. I am a bibliophile like Rothman.  I prefer nothing more than curling up with a good book and am still in the process of reading pdf files without printing them out.  But, every other week, I take a visit to Second Life to meet with other teacher-educators from all over the world.  Yes, there are plenty of other ways we could meet virtually (chat, elluminate, forums), but I find doing it in SL fascinating.  Rothman, probably, would be OK with this use as he sees value for specific kinds of uses of SL.

But, I sometimes visit just to sit quietly with my avatar along the river or ride the intertube that someone had thoughtfully created.  It is winter, I am in graduate school, and I miss my kayak.  I visit the planetarium or chat with folks outside an art exhibit.  My involvement with SL has not diminished my commitment to typography; it is completely different.  If anything, the media I have begun to abandon is broadcast television.  I can watch whatever I need to online when I am ready.  So, it is rare for me to reserve time to watch television.  I am what Jenkins calls a zapper…I move restlessly from channel to channel.  But increasingly, I am not turning it on at all.

However, I am not going to make the generalization leap that Rothman does:  I do know from talking to people that others have also indicated that they tend to watch less television than they used to because they have adopted other media for getting the news or entertainment.    But I also know that lots of people still watch television.  They may also consume other media related to that television program, but they also sitting down at a specific time to tune into a specific television show.

I would suggest, in an addendum to McLuhan’s ideas about generalizations, that these frontier moments open the possibility for a wide variety of media relationships that may, in some cases, be determined by the analog lens that you apply to the new media.  For instance, people of the book come into the World Wide Web looking for ways to share information about a printed technology.  Librarything, Librivox, and Book Crossing are just a few of the websites that celebrate Gutenberg’s technology.  And, for Rothman, that’s as far as he wants to go.  And, that’s fine.  We each make personal decisions about how we are going to get involved in any media, both old and new.

Not to sound like a Pollyanna here (it’s a literary reference, BTW), but I would like to see us embrace the diversity of relationships that we may have with media, and try not to generalize our experiences for others.  As I begin my own research into the literacy practices of students and teachers, I want to uncover the individual voices and experiences, beginning as Lemke (2006) does “with the study of how people make meaings and experience feelings across real time as tehy interact wiht rich, complex multimodal artifacts and environments” (p. 9).

State Contractor Files Federal Lawsuit Against Me » Maine Web Report

State Contractor Files Federal Lawsuit Against Me » Maine Web Report

So, I keep thinking that I need to get back to reading about media literacy and working on my bibliography.  Then, I take “just a second” to check my rss feeds on netvibes and some media story captures my attention.  Today, Andy Carvin pointed me in the direction of Lance Dutson, who was sued by the advertising agent for the state of Maine.  What did he do?  He published a copy of their ad that includes a 1-800 number that goes to a sex site.  I missed this when it first broke in April.  Grad school does that to you.

Stories like this illustrate the fact that the curriculum for a media literacy course is happening right now.  What are the issues here?  If a print or online newspaper like the NY Times published the ad along with the news story, I don’t think the ad agency could do anything but hang its head.  So, why go after the blogger?  Because he isn’t a “real” journalist?  He does belong to the Media Bloggers Association, and pressure from bloggers and others led to the lawsuit being dropped.

This is old media versus new media.  Once again, as in the case of Wikipedia, old media resorts to the courts while new media resorts to public opinion.  Old media thinks it can own stuff, particularly software, so a seemingly cutting edge company like Blackboard, which even though it operates on the web really acts like old media, uses the patent system to put pressure on competitors.

Leonardo da Vinci


Leonardo da Vinci in Milan near La Scala Opera House, June 2004

Read Sherwin B. Nuland’s biography of da Vinci.  It is part of the Penguin Lives series, which are short bios (< 200 pages) written by non-biographers.  Nuland is a surgeon who teaches at Yale.  While his biography focuses on da Vinci’s anatomical work, there are also some interesting comments about art and vision that relate to media.

Leonardo was one of the first to do drawings of actual cadavers.  According to Nuland, most physicians of the time “regarded drawings as distractions from the text, using them only to support theoretical constructs about which the student was meant to learn by reading.” (p. 121).  This bias continued for many centuries.  Nuland quotes a review of the famous Gray’s Anatomy by Oliver Wendell Holmes that criticizes the text for its numerous drawings: “[L]et a student have good illustrations, and just so surely will he use them at the expense of the text” (p. 121).  And this from 1859!

John Zuern’s contemporary answer to Holmes is found in his essay, Diagram, Dialogue, Dialectic: Visual Explanations and Visual Rhetoric in the Teaching of Literary Theory.   According to Zuern, images are not just window dressing, something to accompany the more important text.  Instead, “at their best, images that seek to help students understand ideas are able to perform two tasks: providing a clear representation of the concepts and offering a way of testing, challenging, critiquing that concept” (p. 70).  He laments that most images in popular books about philosophy and literary theory “almost never exploit the capacity of the image to question the concept it is supposed to convey” (p. 70).  Da Vinci understood, as his contemporaries did not, the importance of seeing as a way of supporting thinking and understanding:

“It is direct vision that differentiaties Leonardo’s studies from all that fell under the heading of Galenic.  In order to answer his perennial question of why, he had first to understand how, which demanded a meticulous attention to accurate anatomic detail such as had never before seen so much as considered by any predecessor.  To see clearly, to interpret objectively–these were the keys to solving nature’s riddles.  His was the artist’s eye, but his also was the scientist’s curiosity and the scientist’s apperception that only by reducing a phenomenon to its component elements can it be fully understood.  And only by knowing that minute particulars of structure can function even begin to be elucidated.” (p. 128).  Nuland goes on for several pages singing the praises of Leonardo’s drawings an dillustrations.

Finally, Nuland describes Leonardo’s work with the eye.  While the thought at the time was “that vision was perceived within the lens,  he was able to satisfy himself that seeing is in fact the result of light being focused on the retina.” (p. 134).   He did not, however, solve the riddle of upright images.

What’s the lesson here?  There are at least two.  First, as long as we continue to rely on printed textbooks as our primary texts, we must be thoughtful about the images we select and include as many as possible.  In addition, we must recognize the power of the image to expand understanding rather than simply mimic the text.  Second, we must seek out images to share with our students and discuss them openly with them, digging into the image to pull out is meaning.  And, as one of my professors at WM does, we need to have them construct their own images and models that help them better understand their learning.

Giacometti Quote in SL

“I used to see the world through the goggles of the existing arts.  I would go to the Louvre to see the paintings and scultpures of the past, and I found them more beautiful than reality.  Today, when I go to the Louvre, all these representations of the external world — and until fifty years ago, all painting, all sculpture were direct representations of the external world, weren’t they? — strike me as partial, precarious.  I ask myself why the devil they could have seen it like that.  And what astonishes me, what really gets me, isn’t the paintings and scultpures anymore, but the people who look at them.  Now I look only at the people who are looking.”

Alberto Giacometti, 1967