In this weekend’s essay I want to try to tie together a bunch of scattered ideas that have been floating around in my brain regarding the word “media”, including classroom computers, truth commissions, broadcast technologies, existential psychologies, tribal identities and numerous points in between. Let’s see where this takes us.
This relates back to a number of things, but the starting impetus for this line of thought comes from my good virtual friend Tom’s recent Neil Postman kick. Exploring ideas ranging from the need for deeper personal contact and shared motivation in education (something very close to my heart) to complaining about the increasing presence of communication technologies in the education process (which I see as rather Luddite), his Postman analysis comes back to the issue of whether technological efficiency has become too much an end unto itself rather than a valuable means of accomplishing other significant ends. This, I strongly agree, is a question quite worth asking, but I would strongly disagree with any assertion that it is answered in the asking.
When it comes to classroom technology, on the one hand Clifford Stoll’s TED talk comes to mind (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/clifford_stoll_on_everything.html) where (at about 1:45 into the talk) he makes a passing plea to keep computers out of classrooms. I must say that in this talk as a whole Stoll became one of my personal heroes, to say nothing of playing a major roll in getting me hooked on TED talks in general, but I’m still not entirely sure about his reasoning on this one. Knowing that he might be facing a hostile audience on this point he sets the whole issue aside in short order, saying that to him the arguments are obvious to anyone who has hung around elementary school classrooms. I’m not sure if it’s close enough, but having been a seventh grade home room teacher again this past school year, I still don’t see any arguments against computers in school as terribly obvious. In fact, on the basis of my own teaching experience, I’m more inclined to agree with Salman Khan’s perspectives on computers being potentially useful for further humanizing the classroom experience (http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html).
But as many (including my friend Tom) have pointed out, the bulk of Postman’s most important cultural critique comes, in fact, from the ancient past of the mid-80s; before cell phones and the Internet became THE significant technologies of the generation, when listening to music on vinyl was still the mainstream way of doing things. If he thought media saturation was a problem then, imagine what he might have to say about things now!
But then another aspect of the aging process for Postman’s writings is that some of the alarms he sounded have now been shown to be just plain unfounded. The strongest argument to this effect has to do with Finland’s international success in education. In direct contradiction to Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” thesis about audio-visual mass media entertainment being a deadly distraction from the mental discipline and face-to-face interaction necessary for higher learning and societal involvement, entertainment television is actually the secret weapon which has earned the Finnish education system its world #1 rating. As much as school officials would like to give the credit to their institutional structures, when it comes right down to it what makes Finnish kids so good at academic skills is all the TV they watch. With their steady diet of foreign entertainment programming, subtitled into their native language rather than dubbed, Finnish children learn to read early and fluently, as well as learning to think and communicate in multiple languages. This in turn gives them the confidence and competence to master other academic skills.
Another interesting statistical factor is that when it comes to English as a second language in Finland the stereotypical feminine advantage in language arts has entirely disappeared, or been reversed even. Girls still get a lion’s share of the top marks in studies of French, German, Spanish and Russian, but in English boys are out-performing their sisters by a comfortable margin. Why? Because boys play more computer games than girls, causing them to pick up the language these games are written in faster. So whatever damage mass media and computer games may be causing in society, they really aren’t hurting young people’s academic potential.
In my mind there is also a bit of irony to this whole question since, as pleasant a casual companion and as valuable a discussion partner as Tom has become for me over the past year or so, he and I have never actually met “in the flesh”; we only know each other by way of the Internet. In that regard he goes in the same category with many of the most interesting and personally important contacts I have made over the past 15 years or so. Ever since the mid 90s, when I began the research for my master’s thesis on Mark C. Taylor’s work, including his pioneering efforts to organize international joint university seminars via video link (which today, via Skype, is an everyday academic routine), relationships with people who I only know or who I first met by way of Internet connections have become an increasingly important part of my life. Some of these folks have provided me with insights, encouragement and practical help that have been vitally important to me; and it would be fair to say that my life would be significantly poorer without them. So bearing all that in mind, why should I be worried about the Internet damaging my social life?
Beyond that, this blog, and the (literally) millions of others (sort of) like it, are testimony to the ways in which the media technologies of our generation have enabled otherwise unremarkable people, of limited economic means and social status, to freely express themselves to the world in ways that may turn out to be historically important for the enrichment of life for many and the betterment of mankind. Without the Internet I might well have become a teacher, but I never would have become a writer. So if any of what I have to say here has its own intrinsic value, and of course I’d like to believe that it does, that can be taken as further evidence of the positive effect the Internet is having on learning cultures.
Nor is this the only way in which “media”, in all its/their meanings (as the plural of medium), has a more positive ring for me than it does for many others. Let’s look at a couple more of those.
When you speak of media, you are in one way or another always talking about things in between other definitive markers: a medium soft drink, between a small and a large; a artistic medium, relaying an aesthetic experience between the artist and the audience; a spiritualist medium, (claiming to be) relaying messages between the dead and the living; and of course mass media, delivering messages from established author(itie)s to the popular masses. This very in-betweenness is seen by many as a dilution or compromise on what they consider to be fundamentally important issues. Media, by definition, is somewhat a matter of compromise, and one of the highest compliments that can be paid in our generation is to refer to someone as “uncompromising” at what they do. When it comes right down to it, extremes are much easier to stand up and defend than such in-between positions.
There is even a biblical argument in favor of extremism for its own sake: In the last book of the Bible, the Revelation, St. John relays prophetic messages to seven different churches, the last of which gets by far the harshest treatment. This is the church of Laodicea, of which he says, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot […] So, because you are lukewarm […] I am about to spit you out” (Rev 3:15-16). Behind this was the fact that at a time when Christian believers were being hunted down and killed for their faith, and John himself had been placed in quarantine as a lunatic for his message, this Laodicean church was all about just getting along with the forces hostile to the Church as a whole. So of course this pissed John off a bit, and his message to them from God somewhat reflects that. He hits them with a critique of everything that’s wrong with compromise: Hot can be great; cool can be great; lukewarm sucks.
We see this approach in many other areas as well: If you’re going to call yourself a biker, you can’t have some mid-sized Japanese machine; it has to be a Harley, with well over a 1000 cc motor. If you’re going to be a US political conservative you can’t just oppose high taxes on small businesses; you have to also be pro-military, anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, pro-private gun ownership and above all militantly anti-public health care. In so many other ways as well, being “uncompromising” is short hand for being “more Catholic than the Pope” within your own chosen area of personal identification.
There’s something immanently understandable about such gravitation towards the extremes, but still it makes me wonder: Doesn’t anyone ever think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears anymore? With all the emphasis on getting things as hard as possible, or as soft as possible, or as hot as possible, or as cold as possible, whatever happened to trying to get things “just right”? I mean, how much of our personal balance do we have to keep sacrificing on the altar of ideological purity?
On the one hand I understand the drive to be among “the select few” in any given pursuit, believing that this will lead to some level of immortality. I would even agree with the idea that there are some things worth taking an absolute, uncompromising stand on, regardless of the logistical and/or cultural challenges these beliefs may entail –– such as belief in the total unacceptability of slavery, or the right of every child to a basic education. I just don’t believe that being a fundamentalist for the sake of being a fundamentalist –– emotionally committing oneself to some particular idea as THE TRUTH, and as a matter of principle denying the legitimacy of any thought that might challenge that position –– is a particularly fruitful or rewarding way to live.
Now of course the world is full of fundamentalists of various sorts, and there’s little we can do to change that. It might even be said that commitment to one form of fundamentalism or another is more the rule of human behavior than the exception. So what should we do about it? How can a person who is surrounded by fundamentalists become a well-adjusted member of that society without becoming a fundamentalist himself? He can’t. Isn’t social acceptability more important then than open-mindedness and actively seeking for greater knowledge and understanding? Well ummm… hard as it may be to maintain such a position in practice… no.
On this one I agree with Abraham Maslow: There are distinct problems with taking social adjustment as a basic standard for mental health. As valuable as “fitting in” can be under “normal circumstances”, we are still left with the question, “What do we say of the well-adjusted slave?” Do we really want to learn not to struggle or resist when our basic freedoms are taken from us? And as little regard as Maslow had for those who could readily accepted the physical bondage of slavery, I suspect he would have had even less regard for those who readily accept the mental bondage of fundamentalism. To remain mentally free, one needs to stake out a position between all of the dominant fundamentalisms; a position from which one can question dogmas, resist traditional assumptions and seek for truths that don’t depend on any cultural status quo. Maslow referred to this as being “self-actualizing”.
So in terms of both communications technology and ideological identification I gravitate towards supporting the media (also know to some as the mediums). This in turn puts me in the position of potentially being able to mediate. Mediating is about making peace –– something that Jesus said entitles one to the blessing of being called a child of God. To make peace one needs to step away from alliance to one warring faction or the other. A mediator needs to have empathy with all parties but absolute loyalty to none of them. Thus, to all those who swear that those who are not for them are against them, mediators are by definition enemies. But once in a while, just once in a while, it works. In those rare events the mediator succeeds in enabling those on each side of the table to see each other as human beings, each with their own understandable interests and perspectives that are worthy of consideration. Once in a while those on both sides can find ways of respecting and accommodating each other’s interests rather than killing each other over their conflict of interests. When that happens, when it actually works, the experience comes very close to being something divine.
That is where I wish to focus my pursuit of the immortal: not in locking myself into some absolute form of ideological purity, but by remaining in the media –– in the flow between those positions carved in stone. After all, in the contest between rock and a continuous flow of water, wind or life, it is almost always the rock which proves more vulnerable and malleable, and the living flow which proves more lasting.
Long live the mediated life!