I was going to begin this post with the phrase, “When I was in college,” but I thought that would be disengenuous since it implies that I did in fact graduate from a four year college or university with a degree of some sort. While its true that I am in posession of a degree of some sort, an Associates of Arts in (try not to laugh) Communications, that isn’t typically what comes to mind when someone references their time spent at an institute of higher learning, as esteemed as the Santa Rosa Junior College may be (after all, it does have ivy covered brick buildings). And technicaly speaking, I still am in college, still in my ongoing pursuit of that elusive BA in History. So to say “when I was in college” I feel would mislead the reader, you, and damage any shred of credibility I may have had remaining. Of course, this little digression probably severed that last shred anyway, so really what’s the point?
Now, what was I going to say? Oh yes….
My first semester at the two-year junior college I atteneded, into which I crammed a solid four years, I took a class on mass communications. My main reason for taking the class was that the course description in the catalog seemed to imply that it involved a good deal of movie and TV watching and analyzing of the same. I did pretty well, except that since it was my first class of the day, I often arrived late. It was when grades came out that first semester that I discovered that college professors aren’t like high school teachers and won’t sent a note home to mommy and daddy alerting them to your tardiness, thereby initiating corrective parental action in the interest of saving your grade. The second time I took the class I was in the throes of what I like to call my Educational Dark Period. This time around I had a different teacher, one who had a very different interprataion than my previous one of what the course should be. A lot less TV watching, and a lot more reading and thinking. I was not prepared for this. The third and final time I took the course, in the dawn of what I like to call my Educational Awakening, I had the same teacher as the first time, took the class in the afternoon, and was mentally prepared for anything. I got a B.
Somewhere in all or parts of those three tries, we discussed the message and the medium of modern communicaiton. Quick communicaitons lesson, the message is the content (news, information, etc.), the medium is how we access it (newspaper, TV, internet, etc.). In 1964 a guy named Marshall McLuhan wrote a book called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he posits that, to quote his famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” I won’t go into any more details of his theories, but that phrase is interesting in and of itself and I think is more true now than ever. In the early days of TV there wasn’t much by way of content. But who needs content? There’s a magic picture box in my living room! Even before content finally became systematic and more sophisticated the television itself, the medium, had changed the culture. People stayed in, they started eating their meals in front of the tube, hello TV dinners and TV trays. It had a significant impact on the culture. The same can be said of virtually every new innovation in mediums since: audio tape, compact discs, the Internet, mobile phones, everything.
In the New York Times last week, columnist David Brooks wrote an interesting article that is sort of related to this. In a “Dear Abbey” type format, he traces the history of what he calls cultural one-upsmanship. Whereas, the heights of the cultural totem pole were, for centuries, things like the opera, literature, poetry and the like, since the 1960’s there has been a change. Now the totem toppers are those with the newest generation iPhones (that’s not a slam on you, dad, especially since you’re giving me your iPod :]). The iPhone, and mobile phones in general, have had, and are having, nearly as great a cultural impact as the TV, maybe even equal to. Think in terms of politics. Couple the Internet with everyone’s cell phone video cameras, and politicians have to be more cautious then ever about what they say, even in what before would have been considered “safe” environments.
One new media related techno doohicky that is causing a stir right now is the Kindle from Amazon.com. It’s basically an electronic book. Or more like an electronic library that’s the size of a book. You can check out more about it here. I think it has the potential to be the “next big thing.” A medium that can have the kind of cultural impact of the TV. Or it could go the way of BetaMax and Laser Disc; a few early adopting zealots, but no mass appeal. We’ll have to wait and see on that one.
I bring up the Kindle because I have heard many Old Media folks (print journalists, novelists, people over 40) lament its inception. “Nothing beats the feel of wood pulp between your fingers and the musty smell of a real to life book,” they say. “Who wants to curl up by the fire with a miniature computer monitor? Not I,” say the aged. I’m not totally discounting their feelings, but that kind of talk smacks of Not Like the Good Old Days faux-nostalgia. Like those people who say they miss their old ’53 DeSoto. Do they really? It might be a nice thought, but remember how you used to have to start it 20 minutes before you actually wanted to drive it just so it would warm up? It might be nice for the occasional Sunday drive, but not for everyday. I love books as much as anybody, to the point where I’ve been repeatedly forbidden to buy anymore until I finish the ones already on my shelf. But if I had a Kindle I wouldn’t need that shelf, would I? So in a kind of reversal, its the older folks that are clinging to the medium, rather than the message.
To wrap up this already too long post on things that probably don’t interest you, I will recount one last, very topical story that is especially appropriate given the first part of this sentance. I was listening to KNBR sports talk radio the other day and the host, Ralph Barbieri, was deriding bloggers as a group, though specifically sports bloggers. He said something along the lines of, “Who do bloggers think they are anyway and doesn’t there have to be a hefty dose of narcissism involved for them to think that anybody cares what they have to say?” Besides the obvious irony of a sports talk radio host musing on who is qualified to offer an opinion up for public consumption, the comment struck me as paranoid and a little old-fogy-ish. He was denegrating a group that basically does the same thing he does, just using a different medium; internet versus radio. Using sports talk may not be the best example for the point I’m trying, poorly, to make, but it dovetailed nicely with the Brooks article and the ongoing backlash to the New Media by the leery Old Media establishment.
Ok, next time I promise something more fun.