Tag Archives: Plato

A Sampling of Revelatory Books on Human Communication, Updated

book cover zenGood studies of human communication force us to rethink assumptions that are sometimes more comfortable than accurate. They give new life to the familiar and routine.

This very selective sample of books about communication is wide-ranging, mixing history and media theory with some far-ranging discussions of what is possible in human communication. Some of these studies are recent and helpful in understanding how digital media have altered social relationships. Others were published years ago, but will be thought-provoking for anyone interested in exposing the inner layers of communication. They are listed in approximate order of their accessibility to a general reader.

  • Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Morrow, 1974). This multi-million-seller which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary is many things: a narrative of a troubled life, a road-trip saga, an account of different modes of thinking, and an evocative introduction to Plato’s concerns about the corruptions of communication.  Pirsig weaves all of these threads into a coherent personal narrative focused on his friends and his son. He’s especially intrigued that his chosen field of study, rhetoric, was borne under the dark cloud of intellectual illegitimacy.  Plato argued this negative theme in various ways over the course of his life. It’s a claim that Pirsig wants to explore, sometimes while sitting on the saddle of an aging Henderson as he travels through America’s northern plains. Along the way the main event of the narrative is his active mind, considering everything from intellectual black holes to the nature of insanity.
  • Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Anchor Books, 1959). Goffman was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, conducting
    Erving Goffman Source: Wikipedia.org
             Erving Goffman

    research that had a global reach. His methodology of deep observation of everyday events provides all kinds of insights about the intricacies of even simple interactions. The book remains a stalwart for anyone interested in the sociology and communication, and for good reason. His observations of everyday settings–restaurants especially fascinated him–is the perfect antidote to the bland survey research that now dominates so much of the social sciences. And because he helps us see the familiar in new ways, he’s fun to read.

  • empire of their ownNeal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Anchor, 1998). Gabler’s study of the first film entrepreneurs is a wonderful piece of social history that is especially timely in the current climate of narrow nativist sentiment. Gabler documents our debt to a select group of Eastern European Jews who gave us the Hollywood film factories. These men were driven to turn out reliable middle-class visions of the American dream, even though they were the victims of virulent anti-Semitism. The ironic result is that they were sometimes kept out of key institutions in the very town they created. The book also confirms how vital film and its modern forms remain to understanding the American experience.
  • the shallowsNicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011). Carr’s popular book makes the case that the pacing and fragmentation of internet content is undermining our abilities to be critical thinkers. Though this study has produced a number of doubters, he is mostly convincing in describing how heavy doses of screen time have altered our abilities to concentrate and focus. We may be schooling ourselves out of the kind of rigorous concentration that has contributed mightily to human progress. His observations raise questions that everyone who is part of the wired planet should consider.
  • reclaiming conversationSherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015). In this useful and eminently readable study, the M.I.T. researcher explains why conversation as the default model for communication is threatened. Using this benchmark, she offers extensive interviews with children and young adults that suggest a drift toward preferences for connecting that weaken links to full and vital face to face exchanges. Her concern is how to maintain the natural social natures of our children, who now fear the unpredictability of direct contact with others. As she notes in her conclusion, “We want more from technology and less from each other. What once would have seemed like ‘friendly service’” from a sales clerk has “now become an inconvenience that keeps us from our phones.”
  • no sense of placeJoshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place (Oxford, 1986). Although written a number of years ago and in advance of widespread use of the internet, Meyrowitz still makes what I believe is the single best case that newer forms of human communication have undermined the psychological security that came with living only in real space and time. The book is revelatory in its assessment of how visual media work as irresistible magnets for our attention, and how visual media often weaken connections that truly matter. Given his use of seminal thinkers like Goffman and Susanne Langer, Meyrowitz’s framework for assessing communication processes is unsurpassed. By the end of the book he’s offered a haunting intellectual case for how electronic media have undermined the sources of personal identity.
  • speaking into the airJohn Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air (University of Chicago, 1999). Peters is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa and a frequent critic of the common but mistaken assumptions we have for communication. The Introduction to this book is alone worth a look. It takes apart most of the cherished myths we hold, among them: that communication is the best pathway for settling long-standing differences, and the idea that disagreement is just a matter of misunderstanding. From his very first sentence that “Communication is a registry of modern longings” a reader can sense a study that will offer challenging arguments and interesting insights. The references in the book are sometimes obscure.  But every chapter has interesting observations, most of which come by quoting writers and thinkers who were experiencing the powers of telegraphy and the telephone for the first time.  Peters also has surprising things to say about communicating with machines, animals and perhaps other sentient beings “out there” in the universe.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


Focused on the Rear View Mirror


Too much attention to where we have been can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s a natural impulse to look to the immediate past to make judgments about the future.  In a sense it is all we have.  And yet for all the changing norms affecting how we connect with each other, it’s still too easy to become wedded to selective memories and romanticized histories.

I seem to recall ever-widening eyes while older members of my family rhapsodized about their own childhoods on horseback, or camped out for the summer near the family’s not very successful silver mine. The stories seem to come from a Technicolor world filled with older family members that were larger than life.  One could imagine that they were not that different from those all-American stoics who patiently guided the Smith family through the giddy summer of 1904 in MGM’s Meet Me in Saint Louis.

By contrast, my adolescence seemed to unspool around a far less exciting existence seemingly shot in grainy black and white. To be sure, I have sense colorized it, especially the bits that took our family back to the wonderful mountains not too far from that old mine.  But I still marvel at the elders I’ve constructed who lived unpredictable lives in fabulous times.

There’s a point to all of this.  We tend to create memories that are equal parts history and fantasy.  After all, we are not digital devices. Accuracy of recall is a strength of hard drives, not  humans. We often select what are perceived simplicities of the past, especially forms of family intimacy that probably overstate the closeness we desire and the tensions we’d like to forget.

It’s worth remembering that too much attention to the receding landscape in the rear view mirror can mean that we are perhaps missing beguiling possibilities just around the corner.

It’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge the dominance of previously invincible media. 

Nowhere is this more true than in our preferred ways of connecting with others. We know how and when connecting works for us.  We understand our strengths, even as we puzzle over new digital platforms and their peculiar rules of engagement.  But as the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan cautioned, media types and forms of address evolve ceaselessly and irrevocably,  as relentless in changing the landscape as the flow of volcanic magma from Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea.

There’s no going back. Old forms of media don’t necessarily die out. They co-exist or become transformed.  Think of radio today, sixty-five years after television captured its place as the nation’s preferred medium.  Radio is still with us and doing reasonably well.  But it’s inevitable that new forms will rise and challenge previously dominant media.  In his day Plato decried the growing interest in written texts. Similarly, John Philip Sousa was none too happy to have his music imperfectly captured on noisy shellac recordings.  And yet the work of both  is alive because of the “new” media they reluctantly anticipated.

The challenge is to get the mix right for an individual life.  We need to be more conscious of the expansion of social media and cell technology have cost us and what they’ve allowed.  Choices must be made because our lives can easily be trashed and overwhelmed by media distractions.

One example: It’s easy to poke fun at online dating services. They are sold to us mostly by peddling notions of romantic love that haven’t been in vogue since the 50s.  And yet just when we think we couldn’t push ourselves any further from authentic personal relationships, a  friend beams with pride over the new person who has entered their life through a digital porthole. Cole Porter didn’t write love songs about online romance.  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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