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18th September 2011

From The New Media Invasion

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Introduction to a Catastrophic Bifurcation

by John David Ebert


When Worlds Close Down

Every culture opens a window onto a particular world horizon that is accessed via one or another form of media. Normally, the process of articulation and unfolding of a cosmos is two-fold, that of annunciation and transmission: annunciation, that is, of a vision to one sort of prophet, while another one, receiving the vision, then creates the necessary medium for transmitting it on a mass scale. Thus, Abraham, living in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, hears the voice of an obscure and hitherto unknown god that tells him to leave the land of his birth and migrate to another land, Canaan, which this god will make known to him. Generations later, after enduring the collective traumas of Egyptian servitude, the vision descends to Moses, who invents the medium of the alphabet and brings it down from the top of the mountain as the new means for communicating the Hebraic vision of a non-visual deity who makes his will known via a non-pictographic script.

Later, reiterating the structural dynamics of the same process, an illiterate carpenter will venture into the desert in quest of a new vision bestowed upon him by a descending dove – the ancient signifier of the love goddess Aphrodite – in which the dove’s revised meaning will now stand for a religion of an-erotic brotherly love. A generation or two more and a man named Saul, hit by a vision on his way to Damascus, will change the signifier of his name to Paul and then invent the new literary medium of the Christian epistle as a means for conveying this desert vision to the other members of the worldly City of God.

The vision, then, comes first – whether that vision is of an acoustic or imagistic nature – while the medium for transmitting it is then invented subsequently. Note that the morphology of the process of world-formation implies that a literate mentality is absolutely unnecessary for receiving world-shaping Visions that become foundational for entire civilizations. Literacy only becomes necessary, along the lines of the Shannon-Weaver model of communication, for sending that Vision along the constraints of one or another cultural channel to a receiving audience.

When, however, worlds close down and visions become extinct, so too, their corresponding media disappear. Thus, Egyptian hieroglyphs vanish at the end of the fourth century when the vision that had animated Egyptian civilization for three thousand years had crumbled and fallen into desuetude. The cuneiform tablet, likewise, had by then already disappeared (end of the first century) along with the Mesopotamian way of life that Abraham was already paying farewell to in about 1800 BC.

Likewise, when the literate world configured in the fifteenth century by the advent of the printing press – a world structured by individuality, nationalism and abstract, three-dimensional space – begins to disappear somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century in a haze of violent, earth-shaking battles and academic disputes in which their corresponding metanarratives are taken apart, dismantled and deconstructed – then it is only a matter of time before the media which made that world possible, which had fed and sustained it for centuries with printed books, magazines, newspapers and bookstores, also begin to vanish.

Which brings us to the edges of history, where we, today, currently find ourselves gazing off into the abyss of a new media extinction event in which absolutely all the media which have built and shaped a literate Gutenbergian cosmos for five centuries are, within the space of about a decade, ceasing to exist.

Extinction Event

What made this ecosystem possible in the first place was a society equipped with printed reading matter and the corresponding mercantile economy of booksellers, shopowners and vendors which came into being in order to purvey those texts in the form of identical copies of mass-reproduced objects to a European public whose vision had been honed to a keen edge by the recent invention of lenses. Spinoza, lest we forget, made his living as a lens grinder, and the achievements of natural philosophers like Roger Bacon, Galileo and Descartes were made possible, to a very large degree, by their fascination with the properties of optical devices.  This was a culture, in other words, that was thoroughly fascinated by the dynamics of vision, and everything that it produced, from printed books to depth-perspectival oil paintings, were manifestations of this fascination.

The new digital world that is coming to replace this optical horizon of Western civilization, on the contrary, is one based upon the revelation of the integrated circuit: a world of hidden, non-visible electromagnetic fields of force. This invisible cosmos of photons and electrons traveling at the speed of light – think of the old iconic RKO tower beaming its zig-zags to all quarters of the compass – now cocoons the entire planet in a sort of invisible macrosphere composed of ghosts, phantoms and etheric information searching for antennae like Shannon’s proverbial receiver waiting to catch and rearrange the data into an observable, yet phantasmic, reality of pulsing signals given form as recognizable images.

This is a new cosmos altogether, one that is moving too fast for the media of old Europe, with its linear first-one-thing-then-another logic to keep up with. And since it can’t keep up, that world, together with all its media of communication, is dissolving into the slag heap of melted visions and worn out cosmologies along with all of history’s other discarded world horizons.

The sum total of these vanishing media, however, is currently amounting to something of an extinction event analogous to all those other great geo-ecological extinctions which scientists and environmentalists have mapped out for us. But whereas those events – there were five of them, the most recent being the one that killed off all the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago – took place offstage, as it were, in a distant temporal horizon that is inaccessible to our contemporary mode of experience, the current media extinction event is happening right in front of our eyes.

One morning, for instance, I woke up to do a Google search only to find out that record stores had disappeared while I wasn’t looking. Indeed, I read that Tower Records had closed the doors of its last store in December of 2006, just a few years after Apple’s release of its iPod and iTunes Music Store in 2001. Tower Records, gone? But how could this be?

And that’s not all: bookstores may soon follow, for they have been closing their doors steadily since the advent of Amazon.com in 1995, and now, with the release of the third generation Kindle in August of 2010, the book itself as a physical entity may soon go the way of CDs, records and tape cassettes. Borders Books, moreover, is in serious financial trouble, and Barnes and Noble is doing nowhere near the kind of business that it once used to. DVDs, too, may not last much longer, as Netflix’s streaming of movies on their website begins to catch on, and the movie studios themselves introduce Video on Demand services which will make movies available over the Internet within a mere 45 days of their theatrical release.

Newspapers, furthermore, which came into being during the early part of the seventeenth century, and magazines, which originated about a century after that, are folding up at an alarming rate. Newspapers that have either filed for bankruptcy or will be transferring to exclusively online versions include The Philadelphia Daily News, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Miami Herald, The Detroit News, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Sun Times, The New York Daily News, The Fort Worth Star Telegram and The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Tribune Company, furthermore, which owns both The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy in December of 2008. Not long ago, The Christian Science Monitor shifted from a daily to a weekly paper, while The Washington Post – the very paper that uncovered the Watergate hotel break-ins back in 1972 – announced in 2009 that three of its regional bureaus in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would close.

The list of magazines that have folded up in the past decade is cause for similar alarm: Mirabella, Mademoiselle, Lingua franca, The Partisan Review, Book Magazine, Circus Magazine, Premiere Magazine, Life, House and Garden, PC Magazine, Playgirl, Vibe, McCall’s, Teen Magazine, Country Home, Gourmet Magazine, and many other, more obscure titles.

The actual physical world space of capitalism, too, seems to be breaking apart and destructuring, for retail stores are collapsing all around us like singularities into the dead space of economic penury: in June of 2008, FedEx announced that they were removing “Kinko’s” from their store signs, having already purchased the company in 2004; in February of 2010, meanwhile, Hollywood Video filed for bankruptcy and has now vanished along with Kinko’s. KB Toys, Linens ‘n Things, the Sharper Image and Steve & Barry’s have all folded up for good. Blockbuster intends to close some 20% of its stores, while Starbucks has plans to shut down 600 or so of its stores, and Circuit City has closed its doors (its rival, Best Buy, meanwhile, is reporting loss of market share for the first time ever as of 2010). Sears, too, is in dire straits, with a ten percent loss of its revenue since 2005, when it made a desperate merge with Kmart. Sales at J.C. Penney’s have declined by six percent, and other stores like Macy’s, the Gap, Zales Jewelers, Foot Locker, Dillard’s and Whole Foods are all cutting back and closing stores. Shopping malls themselves, furthermore, are in a state of decrepitude, and are becoming an increasing economic, as well as visual, blight all across the American landscape.

Not since the end of the fourth century AD, when the Christian Emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism, has there been any comparable Media Extinction Event. In 384, Theodosius banned the ancient practice of haruspicy (the examination, that is, of the entrails of animals for omens, which had been practiced since the early days of the Sumerians); pagan feast days were declared work days in 389; a few years later, in 391, the Serapeum, a temple annex of the great library of Alexandria, was sacked and burned under his orders, resulting in the loss of countless manuscripts; in the same year, moreover, Theodosius issued a new decree outlawing blood sacrifice and insisting upon the closure of all pagan temples; also in 391, the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins disbanded; the last Olympic Games  took place in 393. The fourth century was, furthermore, the final century in which Egyptian hieroglyphics were written.

Subsequent centuries have featured assaults on books and learning (as for example, when the Arabs finished off the Alexandrian library in the seventh century), book burnings and barbarian invasions, but nothing on the scale of what happened in the fourth century, in which pagan media of all kinds were forcibly extinguished. What is happening today is, of course, not taking place at the point of the sword, but as part of the internal exigencies of capitalism. Nevertheless, the scale of the two events is just about commensurate.

The Internet vs. The Printing Press

If an extinction event is characterized by a vast reduction of species biodiversity in favor of fewer of them, then I think it is possible to theorize that ever since about the year 1995, when the National Science Foundation released control of the Internet to the private sector, we have been living through an analogous phenomenon on the plane of media and culture. A single colossal entity, the Internet, together with a handful of electronic gadgets which swarm around it like a cloud of flies, is emerging from the devastated mediascape as a powerful force of centralized communications. Almost every digital gadget in existence is compatible with the Internet in some way, including the personal computer itself, without which, we should remind ourselves, the Internet would not even have been possible.

I think it is important, though, not to see this, as is commonplace in most contemporary discussions of the social effects of the Internet, as analogous to what happened with the rise of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century. There are some important reasons for this.

The printing press, for one thing, emerged out of world circumstances which were entirely favorable to it, for its nature as an ocular medium was already consistent with the optically based aptitudes of the society that gave birth to it. It simply brought this specular gaze, which was already being honed by painters and Scholastic philosophers, to a fine focus.

The Internet, on the other hand, is not an ocular medium, but a digital one, and as such, it is inherently incompatible with the Gutenbergian nature of the print-based society into which it crashed like a bolt from the blue. Its advent is sudden and discontinuous, whereas that of the printing press had been more gradual and evolutionary.

Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her magisterial two-volume study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change,[1] made the argument, back in the 1970s, that the effects of typography were not so much evolutionary as revolutionary and that its effects were rather more sudden than her media studies peers had then assumed. But it should be pointed out that the word “sudden” is a relative thing: her idea of the “suddenness” of the printing press involved it exerting its effects over the course of about a century and a half. The damage wrought by the Internet to our media landscape, on the other hand, has taken place in about the same space of time as the proscriptions of Theodosius in the fourth century, namely, over the course of a mere fifteen years. This is neither evolutionary nor revolutionary, but catastrophic.

Indeed, the disturbing and transformative effects of the printing press are undeniable, as Eisenstein describes them: from approximately 1450 – 1600, the advent of typography favored a shift away from scriptoria and professional (“lay”) stenographers to printers, which created new jobs for typesetters and compositors while putting scribes completely out of work. It also forced the Renaissance bookdealer, who had previously made his living selling illuminated manuscripts as works of art, to close the doors of his shop for good. Illuminators themselves found work for a time applying the same old techniques to the new medium, for the first printed books, ”incunabula” as they are called, were virtually indistinguishable for a time from illuminated manuscripts.

The printing press also created intellectual property laws and the concept of “fame” as we know it, for it eroded the anonymity of oral sayings by fixing one’s name in place on the title page, thus permanently associating the individual with a particular text that had sprung from his own brain like Athena from the head of Zeus. The unleashing of hordes of new texts, meanwhile, created the conditions for the possibility of the encyclopedically learned scholar, like Erasmus or Montaigne, thus transforming the mythic figure of Saint Jerome into a quotidian reality. The individual was no longer part of a vast social machine but rather cut loose from the Medieval collectivity by the linear framing processes of printing, as though saints were now being removed from niches where they had been buried in the walls of Gothic cathedrals and taking on their own lives as articulate men capable of explaining the symbolic subtleties of the Gothic edifice to a vast new reading public.

Thus, the overall impression that is conveyed by the details of this media revolution is one of linear continuity with the optically embedded structures in the mentality of the pre-printing press Western episteme. The sense of order and organization that is associated with typography – indexes, Arabic numerals, title pages and citations – is consistent with the already extant tendency toward linearity and ocularly inspired thinking that is evident in the Medieval scholastic mentality. Thus, if any culture was going to produce mechanized printing, it would surely have come forth out of the implicitly ordered and organized mentality of the Scholastic universe that had already dedicated itself to carefully detailing, arranging and tracking Classical texts preserved from the ruins of antiquity.

With the Internet, on the other hand, what is most strikingly evident is its discontinuity with the surrounding culture out of which it emerged, a culture that had built itself around printed media for five centuries prior to its advent. The Internet actually reverses and disrupts all of these structures: on the ironically named website Project Gutenberg, for instance, texts are simply dumped in and stripped of all their sensuous elements, fonts, typefaces, and indeed all haptic sense of texture have been removed from the books, and consequently, one is presented with a collection of unreadably bland documents that no one would ever want to spend much time bothering about. Blogs, meanwhile, are sloppy, informal and disorganized, and are rarely, if ever, proofread for grammatical and spelling errors with which they are normally saturated. Even on professionally designed websites, moreover, images are routinely misaligned, out of place or just plain incorrect. On Amazon.com, for instance, it is not uncommon to encounter book covers matched with the wrong captions, and so forth.

Many of these Internet sites, furthermore—as Andrew Keen points out in The Cult of the Amateur–are in reality low budget operations with little in the way of ad revenue to finance them and so cannot afford to pay good journalists and writers to create worthwhile articles and essays. As a result, there is a vast decrease not only in the quantity of kinds of available media, but also in the quality of the information that is offered as a monolithic substitute. We are being forced, in other words, to trade off a diversity of media sources – magazines, newspapers, etc. – for only one kind of media: digital. The disappearance of diversity, especially of media, is never a good thing, for in this case, it amounts to a massive cultural impoverishment. As a result of the elimination of choices, we are increasingly forced to rely more and more on the Internet in order to get access to our media, our news and our information, articles, essays, reviews, etc., which is only one means of purveying such media, and arguably, not even the best.

So the Internet is a force of disruption and discontinuity in the evolution of the Western mediascape and is in no way analogous to the revolution in printing inaugurated by typography in the fifteenth century. It is rather the incarnation of a new kind of mentality altogether, one in which technology, learning and information occur at the speed of light via digitization. It is a mentality that is at its best when its concern is with images, pattern recognition and icons; at its worst when it attempts to take over and mimic the functions of the Gutenbergian landscape that it is in process of dismantling.

Thus, the printing press builds up, favoring structurally organized hierarchies of knowledge, whereas the Internet tears down, favoring nomadologies of one sort or another (along with their attendant antipathy to knowledge apparatuses: historically, nomads are illiterate). To borrow from the language of the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, then, we can say that the Internet is a nomadological technology while the printing press is a technology of state apparatuses.

The Internet and Radio

There is another medium, however, that serves as a much better analogy to the Internet, and that is radio.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the telegraph had given birth to two further media: the telephone, in which the disembodied human voice was transmitted across vast distances through wires; and the wireless telegraph, in which the atmosphere was stained with Morse code signals which saturated it in all directions simultaneously. The wireless, in turn, gave rise, about the year 1920, to radio, in which the heavens crackled with human voices and music coded into the ether like a technologized version of the ancient elemental spirits which were once thought to flit about amongst clouds, fields and trees intermittently.

Radio, you might say, added an ear to the ocular world of Gutenberg that had been missing since the days of the fifteenth century when oral traditions began to drop out and give way to printed works. The Medieval jongleur and the court storyteller – basically involved in staging Medieval radioplays – were obsolesced by the Renaissance man of the printed book whose written stories, plays and novels began to favor the eye at the expense of the ear. Radio brought back the Medieval storyteller and transplanted him into the middle of the suburbs, where the denizens of the average living room became his new audience.

But radio was a very different kind of medium from anything that had gone before it because it was the first medium to offer its content “free” to the public. The initial problem that it raised, correspondingly – and it was a problem that would later be raised again by the Internet – was how the new medium would pay for itself.

The inceptual imagination of radio was that it would be a sort of ennobling medium that would bring the arts and culture to the living rooms of suburbia (just as Starbucks later brought espresso from the cafes of Vienna to the sidewalks of Main Street). There was great reluctance, consequently, to freight the new medium with advertising, since in those days the living room was thought to be a place where the crass vulgarities of the marketplace did not belong. President Hoover’s comment that it was “’inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes, to be drowned in advertising chatter’”[2] now seems almost comical in its naivete. Various solutions were suggested: a private tax, perhaps, or else wealthy endowments from some Andrew Carnegie type of philanthropist?

Eventually, the aura of advertising that began to glow around the names of various programs, like the Everready Hour or performers like the Vicks Vaporub Quartette, began to provide the answer.[3] Within just a few years, the previous resistance to advertising had vanished, and the medium was so completely hi-jacked by advertisers that they actually began to dictate the content of shows, writing them and selling them as package deals to the networks. Eventually, radio became the one medium to draw its entire source of revenue from advertisers, and this solved, once and for all, the problem of how to pay for the new medium.

Another issue that radio raised was that of intellectual property rights, just as the Internet has done in our own day. The answer to the question, should royalties be paid for the right to use and broadcast music over the air? may be obvious to us, but back in the 1920s, it wasn’t obvious at all. In 1922, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) demanded royalties for music played on the air, reminding one of the various suits filed by the Authors Guild and a convocation of publishers against Google in 2005 for the right to scan books electronically. Back in the 1920s, however, broadcasters pointed out that copyright holders were being greedy, since it was thought that by playing their music on the air, they were already getting free advertising. But, of course, we know very well how the copyright issue turned out.

Now the link between media and economic landscapes is not usually thought much about, but radio, too, had devastating effects on the economy of the 1920s just as the Internet has had in our own time, for as Paul Starr has pointed out, “radio in the 1920s, like the Internet three-quarters of a century later, plunged record (as well as sheet music) sales into a deep downturn,” for rather than pay for the records, people preferred to listen to the music broadcast over the air for free.[4] The record companies managed to solve this particular problem by putting out the recordings of such hitherto overlooked music as jazz, which wasn’t then being played on the radio—since it was considered “disreputable”—and thus served to create the jazz explosion of the 1920s.

There are of course important differences between the two media that should not be overlooked: the fact, for instance, that whereas the Internet is not owned by anyone, radio fell very quickly into the private ownership of just a few large networks. The damage inflicted by radio on other media, furthermore, has come nowhere near that which has been wrought by the Internet, for though radio was as different from printed media as the Internet is–coming down, as it were, from heaven to earth–it was not a medium that sought to replace and imitate those other media like some ersatz invasion of the body snatchers, but rather supplemented them with the invention of new literary genres like the radio play.

Radio, though, not only caused a downturn in the sales of records, it also siphoned off advertising revenue from newspapers and magazines – just as the Internet has done today – and may therefore have contributed to shifting the economy into that turbulent flow which we call the Great Depression. Perhaps not coincidentally, the advent of the Internet, too, was followed about a decade later by another Great Depression (although it has not yet been called this) and so it may be that we need to be more attentive to the politically and economically destabilizing effects of these new media on the respective societies into which they were born.

Destabilizations

The great media essayist Neil Postman, in his writings, used to point out that the one thing we almost always forget to ask in our excitement over the possibilities unveiled by new technologies is what way of life will be undone by this or that new gadget. This is a question which I think needs to be asked today more than ever. For every new technology invented, new vectors of turbulence are introduced into a society, and those vectors can sometimes result in explosive bifurcations which can be surprisingly destructive of existing socio-political configurations.

The role of television in the destabilization of the Soviet Union, for instance, which Gorbachev had, for the first time in Russian history, allowed to broadcast Politburo meetings live in the late 1980s, has yet to be studied, but the effects of Twitter during the 2009, presidential elections in Iran, very obviously catalyzed the transformation of the crowd into a plasma that nearly overwhelmed Ahmedinajad’s regime. Then there is Xerox’s invention of the copy machine, which came into widespread use in the late 1960s, and which enabled Daniel Ellsberg to photocopy the Pentagon Papers and hand them over to the New York Times, which published them in 1971, revealing a whole series of lies and cover-ups on the part of the US government which set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the conclusion of the war a few years later.

It was Harold Innis, the cofounder of the American media studies tradition, who first remarked in his Empire and Communications that the rise of radio as a new medium in the 1920s may have contributed to destabilizing the economy and thus indirectly bringing on the Great Depression.[5] In his other great media studies book, The Bias of Communication, Innis even suggests, rather cryptically, that the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s may have played a role in the outbreak of the Civil War: “As in England the telegraph destroyed the monopoly of political centres and contributed, in destroying political power, to the outbreak of the Civil War.”[6] There does, then, appear to exist an interesting pattern of economic depressions and wars occurring in the wake of volcanic periods of technological upheaval: the depression of 1837 – 43, for example, followed immediately upon a major public works project of building railroads, canals and urban roads.

The problem is that while healthy economies are able to integrate the turbulences caused by new technologies, economies that have already been weakened for one reason or another – by, say, old age or dwindling resources — may not be able to withstand the impacts of new innovations, especially if there are a lot of them occurring within a short space of time, as was the case in the 1920s. As a result, the proliferation of new gadgets creates structural instabilities in the economy which gradually accumulate and then, if conditions are right, brings about a catastrophic bifurcation in which the economic system collapses. As the system then restructures itself, it must take the new technologies into account, favoring certain of them, while excluding others. Thus, the evolution of economies and technologies are involved in an intimate feedback loop of structural coupling in which changes made in one sphere (i.e. technology) create changes in the other sphere (the economy) which then feed back into the original sphere and change it to suit the needs of the new situation.

As the philosopher Bernard Stiegler puts it in his book Technics and Time:

The transformations of the technical system regularly bring in their wake upheavals of the social system, which can completely destabilize it when ‘the new technical system leads to the substitution of a dominant activity for an out-dated activity of a totally different nature’ . . .The relation between the technical and social systems is thus treated as a problem of consumption, in which the economic system is the third component: the development of consumerism, accompanying constant innovation, aims at a greater flexibility in consumer attitudes, which adapt and must adapt ever more quickly, at a pace obviously not without effect on the specifically cultural sphere. The twentieth century thereby appears properly and massively uprooting—and this will always provide the theme, in terms of alienation and decline, of the great discourses on technics.[7]

It therefore seems not implausible to me to suggest that we are caught in a period of turbulence similar to the one which took place in the 1920s—and before that, the 1830s–in which the new medium of radio – together with all sorts of new domestic gadgets such as the electric oven, the dishwasher, the refrigerator, etc. – exerted so many stresses on an already weakened economy that it brought about the total collapse of that economy.

The current crisis, admittedly, is a many body problem which involves multiple layers of interfolding causes—subprime loans and credit default swaps are only the surface layer, in my opinion—but surely the massive proliferation of gadgets during the years from 1995 to 2008—i.e. the Internet, digital cameras, video games, handheld devices, etc.—has played a major role in the present collapse, since it has forced us into a survival mode in which we have to adapt very rapidly in a very short space of time to tremendous economic, political and technological changes. As P.W. Singer remarks:

. . .we experienced more technologic change in the 1990s than in the entire ninety years beforehand. To think about it another way, technology in 2000 was roughly one thousand times more advanced, more complex, and more integral to our day-to-day lives than the technology of 1900 was to our great-grandparents. More important, where they had decades and then years to digest each new invention, ours come in ever bigger bundles, in ever smaller periods of time.[8]

Just to take one example: as I was in the midst of revising this book, I came across an article in The Atlantic Monthly’s online journal in which the writer described how he thinks the iPod will become obsolete soon as the result of new cloud computing music websites like Grooveshark, rdio.com, or emusic.com. The writer points out how he no longer has any need for the iPod, since he uses his smartphone to download all the songs he wants, after paying his website a mere $36.00 annual fee for unlimited song downloads. What does he need an iPod for, or even the iTunes Music Store, in light of such a development?[9]

This is a pace of change that is absolutely breathtaking and it is nearly impossible to keep up with its demands. Indeed, by the time this book is published, much of it will have been rendered obsolete by new gadgets that have come along in the meantime.

The effects of such a rate of change upon the human psyche as well as the organization of society is nothing short of catastrophic, which is precisely why we periodically require catastrophes and breakdowns in order to give ourselves time to readjust and catch up with it. To quote Marshall McLuhan: “Most people take a long while to adjust to quite simple changes. And when invited to readjust their entire lives every few years to very vast changes, people tend to fall apart.”[10]

Thus, the world that we have come to know—especially the one those of us who have reached middle age grew up in—is now collapsing all around us. We have entered a cultural and social pralaya, from which, I have no doubt, the world that emerges will bear only faint resemblance to the one inside of which we were encased up until the late 1990s. As different, say, as the 1950s were from the 1930s, two decades straddling either side of the catastrophes of the Great Depression and the Second World War, respectively.

The present book, then, is a report from the battlefield, as it were, meant to chronicle what it is like to live through such a shift, and how our perceptions and actions are being forced to change so drastically in order to adapt to the world that the new media are currently unmaking all around us.

–Excerpted from The New Media Invasion, which can be ordered from Amazon at:   http://www.amazon.com/New-Media-Invasion-Digital-Technologies/dp/0786465603/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1316314973&sr=8-1


Notes

[1] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[2] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 338.

[3] Ibid., 355.

[4] Ibid., 339.

[5] Harold Innis, Empire and Communications (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), 162.

[6] Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 59.

[7] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1, The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), 32.

[8] P.W. Singer, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (NY: Penguin, 2009), 101.

[9] Derek Thompson, “The iPod is Dead to Me,” found online here: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/10/the-ipod-is-dead-to-me/65148/

[10] This quote comes from McLuhan’s interview with Edwin Newman, which can be found on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9Eq3sDgl9o

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  1. 1 On September 22nd, 2011, Stu said:

    Hi John,

    I have a few more questions that I’ll get to after work, but the immediate one that pops into my head is:

    I understand McLuhan’s adage that the media of one age becomes the content of the next in two ways: First, that a new medium will deliver the previous one in a new way. So we use the internet, which is a new system of delivery, but on the internet we read text, view images and video, etc. The internet is revolutionary in its accessibility, or perhaps in the way it alters the relationship between content creator and content consumer, but the fundamental means of communication are not altered in a way comparable to the shift from oral traditions to writing. The shift from talking and hearing to writing and reading implies a complete restructuring of the brain, and a complete overhaul of the basic characteristics and structures of inner mental space. I am not sure how the shift from reading text on a bound book passed down from a corporate publisher to reading text on a screen published by a middle-class kid from India implies quite the same level of profound change.

    To be sure, the change is profound. McLuhan discussed a simple invention of a TV remote profoundly altered the public’s relationship to authority figures, because it gave people the power to effortlessly switch between different presentations. No longer were they being dictated to by an all-powerful newscaster or ethereal movie star; they had gained the power of comparison, and thus the on-screen personalities became more humanized and lost a bit of their luster. The effect carried over to the public’s relationship to government officials, priests, police officers, etc. and had an important effect on social stability. The internet is bringing about changes that are several orders of magnitude greater than something like the remote control. The effect on experience and perception of being able to, for example, discuss religion or politics in real time with a kid in China, cannot be overstated. But I am not quite clear on how we can compare it to pagan religious purges when people are reading Stephen King on their Kindle instead of a paperback.

    Secondly, I understand McLuhan’s statement in the self-conscious, deconstructionist sense. That is, we might have watched a movie twenty years ago, but now we can follow a blog that will document, nearly in real time, the daily workings of a movie being made, the mundane details of the actor’s lives, multi-facted commentary on what the movie means and opinions on whether it achieved its purpose, etc etc etc. Or we have sites that try to make conscious the techniques, goals, and effects of advertisements. So the existing medium of film/movie theater/living room is itself laid bare and taken apart for our consideration and consumption. In this sense, I can certainly understand the catastrophic nature of the changes taking place. The loss of authority and the destruction of institutions will be total and irreversible. You’ve mentioned the unreliability of Wikipedia. The funny thing is, most people know that Wikipedia is unreliable, but it doesn’t stop them from using it, even citing it in papers for school. I have had professors that accept it as a valid source. People live in an unreliable, relativized environment in which things are not expected to really be true. It is completely related to the withering away of faith in all other institutions: nearly everyone expects politicians to lie, and so no one is really outraged when they turn out to be liars; we expect corporations to be ravenous meat grinders, so people don’t really get upset when they act like monsters. People expect the public schools to fail, so no one really gets upset when LA Unified has a 50% dropout rate. It goes on and on and permeates most of our lives and social experiences. The loss of faith is total when people reach a point where they cannot really think of a good reason for living the way we live or doing things the way we do them, as opposed to any other way, say, the Saudi Arabian way.

    Anyway, I gotta get back to work. I look forward to reading the book.

  2. 2 On September 22nd, 2011, John David Ebert said:

    Hi Stu,

    Great comment, as always.

    Let me attempt to clarify: the shift from oral media to written media (clay, papyrus, stone, etc.) is profound and I don’t think you would argue that its profundity is so deep that it is capable of restructuring and reshaping entire societies from the ground up. What you are debating is whether the shift from printed media to electronic media is anything comparable, since on the surface, electronic media makes printed media more, rather than less, accessible. Here’s the problem, though: electronic media, i.e. those based upon video screens as the primary means of purveying “written” content, is only one single form of media. Reducing and making printed texts accessible via the Internet or the Kindle is not actually creating more, but rather, less media diversity, since all media are now electronic. The Gutenbergian revolution was actually based upon an explosion of media diversity: it enabled the creation of magazines, newspapers, brochures, books, bookstores, etc. Then, on top of that, another media stratum was overlaid at the end of the nineteenth century with media like records, the telegraph, the wireless, the telephone, etc. By the middle of the 20th century, this was such an overwhelming diversity of media sources and outlets that it made available to the consumer all kinds of ways and means of getting access to knowledge.

    However, with the advent of the Internt and the Digital Revolution, generally, all these media are vanishing and disappearing inside the digital world, whose major exponent is the Internet. We are losing variety and media diversity, and we are asked to accept getting our knowledge and information from less, not more, media. When magazines, newspapers and books fold up and go inside the Internet, then we have a single medium consuming all the others. This not only causes massive economic damage — we’re swimming in it right now — but now our sources are fewer. And not only are they fewer, but they are less reliable (Wikipedia is a good example of this). Internet sites, for instance, do no make good replacements for magazines and newspapers because they foster amateurishness. They are not usually proofread, they are rife with errors and the reduction of the time-window from deferred time to real time actually helps propagate rumors rather than actual facts much more quickly than would otherwise be the case. Many of these sites, because they do not have the same ad revenue base which printed media once had, cannot afford to pay top quality journalists and writers to do the research and obtain information in a reliable manner, so there is a decline in quality, as well as in quantity. This means fewer economic opportunities available to the society as a whole, and a diminished economic window with job loss, high unemployment and welfare as the result. A lot of writers and editors and journalists are now finding themselves in unemployment lines.

    So the price of the kid in India reading Stephen King on his Kindle is that this decentralization of the media encourages the vanishing of the book, together with the entire ecological environment that allowed it to flourish as a medium to begin with. Make no mistake about it: we are witnessing the twilight of the book. Within less than a century, it will be gone, with electronic media having completely replaced it.

    So I think it turns out that the shift from Gutenbergian media to electronic media is indeed catastrophic. The record store is gone; Borders is gone; bookstores in general will soon be gone; the post office can’t pay its bills anymore since postage money that it once depended upon has been siphoned off by the ease of bill-paying on the Internet; newspapers are disappearing and will soon be gone; magazines, too. If you don’t see this as an extinction event, I don’t know what to say. Maybe it’s just a case of glass half-empty or half-full. In this case, I definitely see it half-empty.

    The parallel with Theodosius’s forcible extinction of pagan media is drastic: perhaps that was more catastrophic than this event, so maybe I’ve exaggerated for hyperbole. But then, maybe not. My suspicion is that so far we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg with this event. Our economy is a mess, and few people see the connection with all the new media. It is possible that the entire worldspace of retail stores will disappear and we will see the closure of malls everywhere. This process is already starting to happen. Where else might it lead? To the disappearance of coffee shops, too, since less people will be out and about milling around? Then to the disappearance of public spaces in our cities as a whole, which will no longer be factored in to their design, since no one has any need to use public space anymore, when all your shopping can be done online, your bills paid online (no need for the post office), etc. Indeed, why leave the house at all?

    So I see this as catastrophic but maybe I’m old-fashioned and just exaggerating. In the 1960s, McLuhan found himself surrounded with such a great diversity of media that he was forced to write “Understanding Media” as a means of catching up with it. But now today, the opposite is taking place, for all that media that McLuhan strove to “understand” is now disappearing all around us, and I find myself, three or four decades later, as an American intellectual surrounded not by a proliferating landscape of new media but by a landscape of vanishing media. I have, in my four decades on this earth, never seen anything like the rapidity with which these media are disappearing. The new media that is replacing all the old media talked about by McLuhan, furthermore, is actually not a diversity, since it’s all variation of one, digital medium.

    So, my book is an attempt to record a media extinction event that is traumatic to those of us with old school media sensibilities who do enjoy all the new media — I’m using it right now, and it’s a great privilege to be able to do this — but who are also made very, very nervous by the disappearance of an environment that we grew up in and which is now disappearing in the space of a mere couple of decades. The Internet is a fantastic medium, pregnant with still unfathomed possibilities. But I’m not sure that the people who are creating this digital revolution have really thought much, or even much care, for the price that we’re paying in terms of the slow, steady disappearance of our public, civic spaces which are becoming ever more and more quiet, depopulated and vacant.

  3. 3 On September 23rd, 2011, Stu said:

    Thanks John. I really appreciate that you take the time for thoughtful replies. That you do so is one of the great strengths and arguments for the internet and the evolutionary possibilities of new media. I discovered your work after being led from Bill Moyers to Joseph Campbell, from Campbell books and lectures to Spengler, and from Spengler – indirectly – to Gebser. I was having trouble with Gebser and was scouring the internet for lectures or writings, and found yours on YouTube. I’ve since read each of your books and passed them around, followed your essays, and taken some cues on books and movies from several of your reviews. I’ve discussed your ideas with friends and cited your work in papers I’ve written for school. This is truly phenomenal when you think about the circuitous route your work took in order to land on my professor’s desk or in my friend’s library. Of course, there is a dark side, well described in your post and illustrated perfectly in two of 2010’s most widely played television commercials (I remember they would play during NFL games, which is about the biggest stage in our culture, itself a poor commentary):

    1) The first was an Apple ad, I think, where a kid is in his house watching a game on TV. He takes the TV off the wall and it shrinks down to an iPhone and he continues watching the game as he walks outside. The sun is shining, birds are chirping, but he’s oblivious. He gets to an outdoor cafe, sets the iPhone on the table, where it becomes a laptop, in which he continues to be absorbed. He gets up and walks back home, picking up the laptop, which changes into an iPad. A storm starts pouring rain, people walk by, but he notices nothing but the screen of the iPad and his game. Finally, he arrives home, puts the TV back on the wall, and continues watching his game. All I could think was “We’re all going to die.”

    2) The first time I saw that ad, even as I was still lamenting being born in the late decadent phase of a dying culture, the very next commercial was even worse. It was for DirecTV or Dish Network or something like that. It starts out and shows a city intersection at night. A police car is on fire, windows are broken, and some thug is taking an old lady’s purse from her as she screams. A few robbers burst out of a bank with the loot and take off without interruption. It is total chaos. The scene shifts over to the living room of the city’s superhero as he sits in his costume watching all the hundreds of channels available to him on DirecTV. His Batphone is ringing off the hook, but he doesn’t notice. He’s too busy wiping dribbled food off his chin and watching TV. The voice over informs us that due to all the available channels, “Yeah, you’re gonna be busy.” The superhero in American mythology represents many things, and one of them is certainly the archetype of masculine social responsibility. I don’t know if the advertisers were clever enough to realize that they are advertising to millions of real American men as they spent hours watching a football game even as their actual society outside is coming apart at the seams. All I could think after seeing that one was “We’re all going to die, and we deserve it…”

    I couldn’t find the Apple commercial, but the DirecTV one is here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKzB-DAiLR4

    It may be that the internet and other technological innovations over the last century will be a great boon to society… just not ours. The changes that are occurring are possibly too great for our social institutions and way of life to survive. But the only way out is through, so when all our coastal cities are underwater, when 2/3 of the population has diabetes from crap food and cancer from an entire life of full exposure to cell phones and other radiation, and when attention deficit disorder is so common that it is no longer considered a disorder, I’ll hop on my flame-thrower equipped motorcycle and meet you at the Thunderdome.

  4. 4 On September 23rd, 2011, John David Ebert said:

    Yeah, I’ve seen that Apple commercial and it’s funny because the underlying subtext of it says that the only thing that matters nowadays is the electronic screen and Reality itself is now cast in a supporting role in a production in which the screen is the star. Everything else, including values, are dispensible.

    Of course, I use all these gadgets — I’m using the Internet right now — and I’m not disputing that they’re a lot of fun to use. But I think that if I’d known what the consequences were going to be in advance, I would’ve said, “Well, they’re not THAT fun.”

    What I object to is the lack of choice that we’re given in the matter: I cannot choose to write on an IBM Selectric anymore because the technology just isn’t part of the present social structure. Few publishers even bother accepting printed out manuscripts anymore. And I can’t watch old videotapes because they no longer make them or the players to watch them on. And despite the fact that records had better sound than CDs or digitized music, they no longer make many of those anymore, either, except for hobbyists. The puzzling thing is how all this seems to be happening by a strange cultural consensus in which there is no room for dissent or debate. I wrote this book out of Neil Postman’s repeated insight that whenever a new gadget comes along, in our rush to embrace the new technical possibilities, nobody ever bothers to stop and say, “Wait a minute, here. What way of life will this new gadget UNdo?” Hence, the book’s subtitle.

    Every gadget that comes along, no matter what it is, undoes some previous way of doing things that may be more or less destructive to the society in question, depending. For example, with the installation of the TV into bars, singing in pubs disappeared. Hence the absence of communal spirit in them nowadays, where TV fosters the private alcohol-soaked individual alone in his dwelling space. The coming of the automobile destroyed the downtown city centers and fostered urban sprawl, the rise of suburbs and the decline of communities and neighborhoods. The advent of the phonograph at the end of the nineteenth century obsolesced the practice of learning a musical instrument as an intrinsic part of one’s education. And so on.

    This is why ancient societies have typically rejected new technologies, because there is an inherent suspicion — and it turns out to be correct — that they will cause more damage to the society than good. But Western civilization decoded all the flows, removed all the taboos, and set Desire free to run through its preferred channels. Now there’s no turning back.

    Needles to say, I never use these gadgets until circumstances force me to. I was the last guy on the block to get a computer, to get the Internet, to get a cell phone, etc. I still don’t own a Kindle or an Ipad, but I’m sure that will change as my options run out.

    Well, enjoy the new book, and I’ll look forward to your criticisms and comments when you’ve read it. Glad to see that my work has been useful to you. It’s always gratifying to hear that someone has been able to make use of it. That means my efforts have not all been wasted.

  5. 5 On September 27th, 2011, Mike K. said:

    I just finished reading the chapter on digital photography. Have you written anything on high definition movies or the recent 3D craze?

    I’ll be sure to write-up a little review on Amazon soon. Good stuff, as usual.

  6. 6 On September 27th, 2011, John David Ebert said:

    No, Mike, I haven’t written anything on 3D or digital movies. George Lucas said that digitization would bring film closer to painting, in that the director could now realize the images he had in his head directly on film. The problem with this, though, is that the images as digitized have a two-dimensionality about them that is unconvincing to the eye, and actually brings the medium closer to video games than painting. In addition, there is a failure to discern atmospheric perspective in these images: Leonardo was the first to discover this phenomenon, namely, that images in the far distance are not in the same focus as those in the foreground and have a smoky haze about them. In CGI movies, the objects in the background are in the same focus as those in the foreground — the city on the planet of Naboo in “The Phantom Menace” is a good example of this — and therefore do not convince the eye. They actually look flatter and even more two dimensional than the images of traditional celluloid.

    3D, then, is an attempt to compensate for this visual flattening out by mechanically adding a third dimension. The source of its popularity is perhaps a subliminal need on the part of the viewer for some kind of depth to these electronically flattened images. But the 3D isn’t very convincing, either. It just puts the viewer into a 3D world surrounded by two dimensional images.

    Looking forward to your Amazon review.

  7. 7 On September 29th, 2011, John David Ebert said:

    Thanks, Mike, for your Amazon review. Very flattering. And since the official literary establishment ignores my work, it’s nice to be able to have Amazon as a forum for public comment. The Internet does have its advantages.

  8. 8 On August 28th, 2013, Ryan R. Johnson said:

    Independent film companies are showing how the key companies will no longer will be the sole judges of the things consumers really want. As soon as you add to that distribution world wide web, headlines, web pages, from chat to whole movies. It’s a really whole new environment. Some of it fine, some not.

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