Tag Archives: digital media

Living ‘Virtually’

A “virtual seminar” is a non-sequitur.  So is a “virtual experience,” unless a person really does feel enchanted by what they see on their phone or a computer screen.

A tech columnist in the New York Times just noted that he’s never been more busy that with his “virtual” life online.  Indeed, he expressed some pleasure with “living online,” noting that he has more invitations to watch, observe and participate than he has ever had.  He said he was surprised at how lonely he wasn’t.

It’s possible, I supposed.  And to be fair, many of us are able to move onward in this troubled spring doing some of our work online. But here’s the rub.

We can easily let our language deceive us to accept that “living online” is existing in some sort of elevated state. All we need, goes the logic, is a good screen and the endless platforms and distractions it can offer us. Without doubt it surely gives us a chance to connect with others, many of whom have arranged their public screens a little like the department store window displays. Others use Twitter to hone their skills as potential insult comics. These kinds of things surely represent some kind of life, but one that seems less than fully actualized.  Media forms that truncate our natural sociality diminish us.  We offer a smaller and less nuanced version of ourselves online.

“Computer-mediated reality” remains a distant runner-up in the sweepstakes of what it means to be part of the world.

I’ve tried to convince myself and my students that finishing out a class this spring as a “virtual seminar” is doable.  And we are all game  to try.  But I will sorely miss being in the same space with my sexteen students–reading their body language of engagement or boredom–as we bore into the work of a series of thought-provoking writers. Earlier in the semester we surely had moments of insight.  I’m less certain that will happen online. To be sure, the readings can continue without a meeting together, but probably about as well as a book club that never bothers to collect themselves in someone’s living room.

A “virtual seminar” is a non-sequitur.  So is a “virtual experience,” unless a person really does feel enchanted by what they see on their phone or a larger computer screen.  Can that be possible?  I’m from Colorado.  Enchantment is seeing Mount Evans tower above Denver in the late afternoon.  Enchantment is sitting at Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, looking at 14,000 foot peaks that seem close enough to touch.  Enchantment can even be taking in the expanse of New Jersey’s beautiful Rosemont Valley from a neighboring ridge.

Language often has a way of laying down apparent “truths” that aren’t quite so obvious on closer examination. I’m glad to use computers as tools to wrap up this broken semester.  But “computer-mediated reality” remains a distant runner-up in the sweepstakes of what it means to be part of the world.

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Social Media Just Aren’t That Interesting

Powerful?  Undoubtedly. Fascinating to study? Not so much.

Social Media. I teach and write about their uses and commercial functions.  But when push comes to shove (and there is a lot of intellectual shoving here), they just aren’t that interesting.  They are often the routes by which Americans now “connect” with each other. “Communicate” would be an overstatement. Are social media powerful?  Undoubtedly.  An interesting communication form to study?  Not so much.

Texting and posting via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and many other digital forms of Post-it notes usually offer us what is too often the equivalent of the stuff left over in the back desk drawer of the mind: discarded fragments of what still remains to be worked out, or judgments of others that are no credit to one’s own character. It can be a dispiriting thing to stroll through a university library full of tomes of worked out narratives and carefully curated insights into the human condition.  But if one looks at nearby tables, it seems that too many people seated in front of their laptops are doing little more than exchanging thought-fragments that now pass for flashes of judgment.  On the shelves the serious work of linear thinkers mostly remain untouched, while library patrons seem to be surfing through throwaway messages mostly because they can.  And their pictures can be just as problematic, suggesting levels of crippling self-involvement that leave little time or room for others.

My complaint is a professional one. My field used to have a sweeping focus on message analysis, examining those in public life who had interesting, frightening or far-reaching things to say.  But now, it seems, we have returned to the kinds of preoccupations that then defined our still-immature field in the 1960’s: when television was the newest medium and we studied its disposable content with an intensity it rarely deserved. And so here we are again 60 years later, looking at “emergent media” and marveling at .  .  . what exactly? The President’s awful bullying and bluster?  Celebrity comments that “go viral?,” corporations that have mastered micro-targeting because of the trail of digital bread crumbs the rest of us leave?  In terms of the quality and thoughtfulness of the messaging, it’s all pretty tepid stuff.  Perhaps television’s Ellen DeGeneres has it right.  She looks at texting as a source of humor: worth a laugh, but not much more. To be sure, the first wave of media theory with McLuhan and others was exciting.  More recent efforts seem less compelling.

The seemingly durable canons of the field used to include entire philosophies of communication thought out in exquisite detail by thinkers like Kenneth Burke, Susanne Langer, Neil Postman, Hugh Duncan, Wayne Booth, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and many others.  Their names may not be familiar, but their work propelled generations of scholars to take the work of message-analysis seriously.  Burke in particular offered a complete and evocative world view of communication that many of his acolytes adopted and still teach (in my case: to perhaps 6000 students so far).

Remember the famous line in Sunset Boulevard (1950), when the fading Norma Desmond is reminded that she “used to be big”?  Her response seems fitting to for a field that seems lost in the tall grass of pixels and platforms rather than a higher terrain beyond.  “I am big,” she responded. “It’s the pictures that got small.”