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Mitchell Stephens Thinking Through Moving Media

social research Vol. 78 : No. 4 : Winter 2011 1133

WhAT reVoluTIoN IS IT, ANYWAY?

That we are in the midst of a major communications revolution is hard

to miss nowadays. Individuals who only had a decade or so to get used

to sitting at their desks and accessing an overwhelming collection

of information, products, news, and entertainment can now sit in a

restaurant and involve themselves in what has grown to include much

of the world’s available supply of information, products, news, enter-

tainment, and people. We have begun to divert ourselves, socialize with

each other, educate ourselves, and update ourselves in ways that did

not exist when anyone over 20 today was born. Our old communica-

tions machines—typewriters, music discs, film, landline telephones,

wireless transmitters, and the printing press—have been overthrown

or are tottering.

But what exactly is perpetrating this revolution?

There are many candidates for the “invention” of our time—the

one that seems to have pressed the “refresh” button on a significant

stretch of human culture. What was the key breakthrough? Was it

the computer, the personal computer, the Internet, the World Wide

Web, Google, the smart phone, or perhaps even Facebook? Or was it

the digital coding of information in general that has been leading us

into a new era? This essay will employ a historical perspective in an

attempt to sort out some of these contributions and it will propose

that the truly revolutionary invention of our time may turn out to

be none of the above. Instead, it may prove to be an invention with

older roots: the moving image and its younger companion, the moving

word.

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Looking back it is not difficult to see the vast transformative

power of writing and print. But what is our communications revolution

doing to us? Certainly, it is—as did writing and print—radically easing

our access to information. Certainly, it has—as did writing and print—

made possible entrancing new ways for us to communicate with and

entertain each other. Certainly, it is in the process of eradicating—as

writing and print began to do—geographical and financial boundaries

to information and communication.

But my thesis is that this communications revolution, like those

led by writing and print, will have a more profound effect, a more

thoroughly revolutionary effect, than merely facilitating our access

to wisdom, diversions, or each other. This essay will argue that this

communications revolution in its most radical manifestations will help

us develop new ways of thinking.

What are those radical manifestations? One way of approaching

that question is to consider the curious incident of the old men in the

beginning of the twenty-first century.

The old MeN Who dIdN’T gruMble

New communications technologies inspire complaints. Usually the

attacks are launched by those most attached to the old communica-

tions technology, those whose power, indeed, rests on the old technol-

ogy. For most of history that has meant that most such complaints have

emanated from old men.

The classic example is to be found in Plato’s Phaedrus (1956). Here

a nested series of bearded old men—Plato writing about Socrates, who

claims to be quoting an Egyptian king, Thamus—participate in a take-

down of writing as not producing “wisdom” but “only a semblance of

it,” not “wide knowledge” but only “the delusion” of having it. Writing,

for these men, is illegitimate, a “bastard,” because it escapes its

“father.” Meanwhile, the established and threatened form of commu-

nication—a conversation “under a teacher’s instruction,” under an old

man’s instruction—is celebrated as “a discourse inscribed with genuine

knowledge in the soul of learner.” As is often the case with old men

Thinking Through Moving Media 1135

grumbling, this epistemological critique barely conceals concerns

about etiquette and power: a piece of writing, Plato has Socrates warn,

is capable of “falling into the hands of those who have no concern with

it . . . it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid” (68–69).

Many passages in the Bible—which, of course, is chockablock

with bearded old men—can be read as devaluing a then still relatively

new technology—though not a communications technology: agricul-

ture. Note the many times characters, seeking spiritual renewal, return

to the “wilderness.” This, for example, from Exodus: “They turned

toward the wilderness, and there, in a cloud appeared the Presence of

the Lord.” And, on the face of it, the second commandment, as revealed

in Exodus, is not just an attack on a still relatively new communications

technology; it is an explicit and unambiguous prohibition of it: “You

shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what

is in the heavens above, or on the earth below or in the waters under

the earth” (Tanakh 1985: 110, 115).

Few technologies have inspired as much grumbling, in their

extended youths, as print. Pope dismissed “[p]rinting as a scourge for

the sins of the learned.” Near the end of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy calls

“the dissemination of printed matter” the “most powerful of igno-

rance’s weapons.”

In my book, the rise of the image the fall of the word, I collect numer-

ous examples of similar grumbling by old men, with or without beards:

against opera (“chromatic tortures,” it was dubbed in eighteenth-

century England), against theater (“the sewer in which the rebellious

vices exhaust themselves,” proclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson), against

radio (“has means of appealing to the lower nerve centers and of creat-

ing emotions which the hearer mistakes for thoughts”) and even

against the pencil with an eraser when that was new (“It might almost

be laid down as a general law that the easier errors may be corrected,

the more errors will be made” [1998: 31–5]).

By the 1980s, women certainly had won the right to have their

grumbling heard: Tipper Gore’s campaign against violent or sexual

music lyrics or videos, under the aegis of the Parents Music Resource

1136 social research

Center, is an example. And those of us currently becoming old will

remember the unisex and almost universal grumbling that greeted

television: “pablum,” “the boob tube,” “the idiot box,” “a vast waste-

land,” which was “turning brains to mush” (Stephens 1998: 27, 31–36).

There’s a cycle to this, and it always ends the same: once a form of

communication is itself threatened by a powerful and even newer form,

the grumbling about it stops. After the arrival of TV, it is very difficult to

find Pope-like or Tolstoy-like critiques of print. And even the chorus of

complaints against television now seems suddenly to be quieting.

My book was written in 1998, before the Internet had begun to

display its powers, so it did not deal with a curiosity in regard to our

current communications revolution: the fact that old men and women

have not been emitting all that much grumbling. Yes, some excep-

tions have been taken: op-ed pages and the Web itself have featured

a few attempts, for example, to rebut the argument that the success-

ful protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt

can be credited entirely to social media, though the arguments they

were rebutting, giving social media that much credit, proved difficult

to locate (Rosen 2011). Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the

New York Times, is among those who have made clear that he is a Twitter

skeptic: “the enemy of contemplation,” he calls it, adding the hardly

controversial charge that Twitter is “ephemeral.” Keller also quotes

the novelist Meg Wolitzer describing today’s technology-suckled high-

schoolers as “The generation that had information, but no context.

Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing” (Keller 2011).

Similarly, there are plenty of examples of the affection for

forms like printed books (oh the smell!) or newspapers (. . . with a cup

of coffee in the morning . . .) that one would expect to accompany

their gradual demise: “Newspapers dig up the news,” insists John. S.

Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Others”—presumably

bloggers and websites like Huffington Post—“repackage it” (Stephens

2010). However, old-fashioned, decline-of-civilization grumbling—

“semblance,” “bastard,” “you shall not,” “scourge,” “ignorance’s weap-

ons,” “tortures,” “sewer”—has been conspicuous in its absence. Keller,

Thinking Through Moving Media 1137

for example, though well positioned for the role of prophet of doom,

not only is temperate, even whimsical, in his critique but goes out of

his way to list good points of social media.

Yes, you can find more heated criticism if you look hard enough.

The Web is so capacious that just about everything gets said there

sometime by someone. (I was even able to locate one 70-year-old retired

sportswriter in Arizona, who had just been criticized on the Internet,

proclaiming: “The Internet is like a sewer” [Garber 2009]). Still, the curi-

ous fact is this: our old men and women, at least those who can manage

a touch screen, seem reasonably fond of a lot of what appears on such

screens. Is there something about this communications revolution that

has caused them to surrender their historical role?

SeTTINg cIcero IN TYpe

Among Marshall McLuhan’s more interesting and more reliable points

is the observation that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another

medium.” He explains that “the content of writing is speech, just as the

written word is the content of print” (1995: 151). Each new medium

“imitates,” as McLuhan did not quite say, a medium that came before.

Plato, the point is, wrote dialogues. And early printers simply set old

handwritten manuscripts in type. By the year 1500—in the first half-

century of printing, in other words—317 different printed editions of

Cicero, who had been dead for a millennium and a half, appeared in

Europe (Stephens 1998: 47).

A new medium must, of course, add something of value; other-

wise, no one would bother. Printing enabled hundreds of copies of each

of those editions of Cicero to disburse themselves across the continent.

But there was little to distinguish the copies themselves from their

handwritten model: they were printed in a black typeface intended to

mimic the script used by copyists, and they lacked such amenities as

tables of content, indexes, title pages, Arabic page numbers, and stan-

dardized spellings.

What McLuhan fails to note in his formula is that the “content” of

a new medium does not remain a previous medium. Media do eventually

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stop imitating. They eventually acquire their own varieties of content,

finding in the process new ways of justifying their existence. Reprints

of Cicero would eventually be nudged aside in Europe and its colonies

by two mostly new forms: the printed newspaper and the novel. Those

tables of content, indexes, title pages, Arabic page numbers, standard-

ized spellings and more legible typefaces all also arrived, for the most

part, after the printed book and periodical. But this process of figur-

ing out new, original forms to exploit the considerable potential of a

new medium inevitably takes a while. The first printed newspaper and

the first printed novel appeared in Europe a century and a half after

Gutenberg.

Usually, the more imitative the content the less old men grum-

ble. Pope had nothing against reprints of the “Ancients”; it was all

that new stuff from the “Moderns” that was scourging the “learned”

for their “sins.” Movies had an early burst of respectability when—in a

movement called film d’art, begun in Paris in 1908—their imitation of

theater grew most reverent and their choice of plays at which to aim a

camera grew most refined. Even television, that most grumbled about

of media, managed to please the critics and even be accorded a “golden

age” when for a few years in the 1950s it began broadcasting live plays.

Is the reason we are not hearing more grumbling about the

Internet and its cousins because we are still in the setting-Cicero-in-

type phase—the film-d’art phase, the showing-live-plays-on-TV phase?

Our digital gizmos seem to possess all the glamour and impudence we

associate with the cutting edge. It is hard to think of them as imitat-

ing. But all new forms of communication once seemed poised on the

cutting edge. And all new forms of communication have imitated.

Somewhere in every one of our smart devices—from laptop to

iPhone to iPad—is something that serves as a keyboard: a reworking of

the typewriter. The “graphical user interface” on our various screens

has featured the accouterments of desktops: files, scissors, a clip-

board—another form of imitation (a “metaphor,” it was initially called).

The Web has organized itself into “sites,” as if pretending to be a neigh-

borhood filled with shops. Email is, to say the obvious, imitation mail—

Thinking Through Moving Media 1139

super-swift, super-convenient mail. Instant messages and texts are even

swifter mail. YouTube places a miniature TV screen on our computer,

smart phone, or tablet screens. Blogs look a lot like journals or diaries,

turned upside down. Facebook, too, has diary-like elements, as well as

scrapbook-like elements and letter- or telegram-like elements. We use

Twitter to “curate”—to direct each other to attractive songs, videos,

and writings in this world full of wonders, this world-become-museum.

We use Twitter, too—along with all those swift messages, texts, and

scrawlings on Facebook “walls”—to engage in what once might have

been called “chitchat.” But the earlier form of communication that has

probably been most imitated on Web, smart phone, and tablet “pages”

has been old, respectable, and endangered print.

Most news sites online are essentially tables of content, which

justify their existence with one impressive addition: the ability to skip

instantly to any story listed or previewed there. Commercial websites

mimic the printed catalog—with, again, that remarkable ability to hop,

step, and jump. Wikipedia is, of course, a version of another form origi-

nal to print, which first appeared in Paris in the eighteenth century:

the encyclopedia—though one of unprecedented size, composed by an

unprecedented number of authors. Spell check, track changes, those

hundreds of fonts, the great convenience of the online dictionary and

the online thesaurus—this is print that has died and gone to heaven.

And Google, with its sleek, minimalist design; Google, this newly

minted verb; Google, which appears for the moment to have placed

itself at the heart of this communications revolution; Google, which

increasingly looks like a compendium of all the world’s knowledge;

Google is what? I think it is pretty clear that this “search engine” is just

a version of the original search facilitator—the index that eventually

started appearing at the back of printed books. Google, in its magnifi-

cence, is a universal index.

In 2008 the Atlantic did have a go at grumbling about Google.

Nicholas Carr, though not even 50 at the time, undertook the chal-

lenge, falling back, notwithstanding some perfunctory nods in the

direction of cognitive science, upon the same sort of critique that has

1140 social research

been leveled against all media that are more efficient than their prede-

cessors: that too easy and too fast threaten to make us lazy, skittish, and

superficial. Google, Carr fretted, is “chipping away” at the “capacity for

concentration and contemplation” (Carr 2008).

But Carr’s effort, too, is halfhearted: he admits that he might be

a “worrywart” and acknowledges the limits of his own argument by

noting that there were similar critiques of writing and print. The truth

is that it is hard even for middle-aged or old men and women not to be

impressed with the dozen or so fine answers, along with 41,700,000

other mostly useless answers, you can get in .26 seconds in response to

a Google query. Given the number of crotchety critics wandering the

planet these days and their propensity for working themselves into a

lather about anything from a video to a vaccine, Google and company

have gotten off remarkably easy.

The phrasing I have leaned upon in this article is borrowed from

Sherlock Holmes, of course—speaking in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story,

“The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” The great detective deduces from a

dog’s “curious” failure to bark in the night that the animal must have

been familiar with the perpetrator. Our old men and women, I am

arguing, are relatively content with so much that is happening in our

new media because they are familiar with it, because it has so much in

common with their beloved print.

So far.

“ANoTher TIMe, TheN, SocrATeS”

Socrates might not have been the fellow you wanted to encounter as

you went about your business in fifth century BCE Athens. The old

philosopher was a great enthusiast, of course, of discourse—arguably

the most important proponent of this form of communication the

world has seen. But he had an odd way of going about a conversation.

If Plato’s dialogues can be taken as an accurate reflection of

Socrates’ conversation, we know that he could upon occasion simply

tell and hear news. In the Charmides, Socrates, having returned from a

battle, goes to a gymnasium, which, in Benjamin Jowett’s translation,

Thinking Through Moving Media 1141

he describes as one of his “old haunts.” The friends who greet him ask

for “the story” of that battle, and Socrates dutifully provides “the news

from the army” and answers their questions. Socrates, in turn, proceeds

to ask them “about matters at home.” The matter in which he seems

most interested: “whether any of” the young men are “remarkable for

wisdom or beauty, or both.”

But Socrates, in Plato’s account, does not indulge in news or

gossip for long. The young man who seems most to excel in beauty, and

perhaps also wisdom, Charmides, sits down besides the old philosopher

at that gymnasium, and soon Socrates, as is his wont, has confronted

him with a philosophic question: “what, in your opinion, is temperance

(sophrosyne)?” Charmides answers: “quietness.” Socrates demonstrates

at some length that “quickness and cleverness” are better than “quiet-

ness.” Charmides then proposes “modesty” as his definition of “temper-

ance.” Socrates, with help from Homer, dismisses that suggestion, too.

In taking on the young man’s next attempt at a definition,

Socrates also ends up taking on Critias, Charmides’ older “guardian and

cousin.” Indeed, Socrates interrogates Critias, his friend and student,

with such vehemence, that Critias accuses him of merely “trying to

refute me, instead of pursuing the argument.” Socrates doesn’t dispute

the accusation: “And what if I am?” (Plato, Charmides)

To engage in a conversation with Socrates—whose name appears

in many definitions of irony—is to have your words turned inside out

and against each other. “Whatever statement we put forward always

somehow moves round in a circle, and will not stay where we put it,”

complains Euthyphro, another young man who has fallen into a conver-

sation with Socrates. (Plato, Euthyphro: 13). One learns. Charmides

certainly learns, though they never do settle on a definition of temper-

ance. Euthyphro has much to learn.

But talking with Socarates offers quite a different experience

than most residents of Athens or anywhere else expect from a conversa-

tion. He rarely shot the breeze. He engaged in few pleasantries. Instead,

he jumped on contradictions. He bore in. He mocked. He tore apart.

This description, which echoes that of Euthyphro, is from Plato’s Laches:

1142 social research

Whoever comes into close contact with Socrates and has

any talk with him face to face, is bound to be drawn round

and round by him in the course of the argument—though

it may have started at first on a quite different theme—

and cannot stop until he is led into giving an account of

himself, of the manner in which he now spends his days,

and of the kind of life he has lived hitherto; and when once

he has been led into that, Socrates will never let him go

until he has thoroughly and properly put all his ways to the

test (Plato, Laches: 187e).

Socrates is certainly aware that he can be a handful: “All day long

and in all places [I] am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuad-

ing and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me. . .”

(Hulse 1995: 21). There is something intemperate, if you will, about the

way Socrates converses. Alcibiades acknowledges that often “I act like

a runaway slave and keep out of his way” (Parker 1979: 14). Euthyphro

eventually unfastens himself, “Another time, then, Socrates. I am in a

hurry now. . .” (Plato, Euthyphro: 20).

I want to argue that there is a larger explanation for Socrates’ odd

and difficult conversation, that it was not just due to this singular man’s

odd and difficult personality—or, as Plato would have us believe, his

exalted ethical standards. My point is that thought in fifth-century BCE

Athens—the kind of thought that Socrates exemplified—was outgrow-

ing the oral tradition, outgrowing mere conversation. It was a kind of

thought formed, in part, by writing—or, more precisely, by a kind of

proto-writing. Socrates, as was typical of Athens’ free-born males, was

literate. Indeed, Greece, where vowels were first added to the alpha-

bet, was the first country to have widespread literacy (for free-born

males). And writing, thinkers two and half millennia later have come

to believe, encourages analysis (including ethical analysis), encourages

turning ideas inside out and against each other.

But unlike his contemporary, Thucydides; his student, Plato;

or Plato’s student, Aristotle; Socrates did not write out his thoughts.

Thinking Through Moving Media 1143

Instead, he tried to force literate ways of thinking into an earlier form of

communication. It was a sometimes awkward attempt, requiring “fasten-

ing on,” full of “arousing and persuading and reproaching,” not always

welcome: “Another time, then, Socrates.” It left the old philosopher suffi-

ciently unpopular that a majority of his fellow citizens voted that he be

executed. (It didn’t help that his students Critias and Charmides proved

intemperate, vicious actually, when they imposed an oligarchy on

Athens.) Socrates was in no position to understand that he was asking too

much of discourse. But the thoughts in Socrates’ conversation—despite

his reverence for discourse—were looking for another medium in which

to express themselves. They were looking for writing.

“No innovation,” writes the French historian Fernand Braudel,

“has any value except in relation to the social pressure which main-

tains and imposes it.” (1984: 431) Here I am talking about an intellec-

tual pressure—the pressure to analyze—that flowed from, imposed,

and then maintained this astoundingly powerful innovation: writing.

With Thucydides, Plato and, in particular, Aristotle—with writing—the

Greeks obtained, to take out of context a line from Shelley in Prometheus

Unbound, “wisdom” that “once they could not think.”

A beTTer gAzeTTA

Eventually, there would be an even newer wisdom for humankind to

begin trying to think. In due time (a couple of millennia), a new kind

of thought began to push up against the limits of writing. I will try to

make this point with regard to my research on journalism.

By 1566 a newssheet was being distributed, weekly, in Venice. I

found copies hidden among diplomatic letters in London. It was called,

among other names, the gazetta, which may have been the name of the

coin for which it sold: hence, the title of so many of the world’s newspa-

pers; hence, the Russian word for newspaper. And since the European

newspaper has spread around the world, and since the European news-

paper descends from these Venetian news sheets, every newspaper in

the world today has DNA that can be traced to 1566 in Venice (Stephens

2007: 133–139).

1144 social research

Where was the new thought here? With weekly and therefore

more established and dependable distribution of news, a mostly new

political force was being created: a public, increasingly as informed

on events as its leaders. And this public was gaining an increasingly

comprehensive and reliable view of the world as a well-lit, comprehen-

sible place—the stage upon which a series of discrete but connected

events, a week’s news events, occurred.

This way of thought came, in part, from printing—or, again

more precisely, a proto-printing. The letterpress had arrived in Venice

almost a century earlier. Literacy was on the rise, now that there were

so many more books around to read. And all those reprints of Cicero

and his contemporaries, as they were imbibed by Europe’s literate,

were beginning to increase the continent’s knowledge levels. One-shot

printed newsbooks and news ballads had also been appearing, featur-

ing glimpses, however incomprehensive and unreliable, of events far

away. Copies of Columbus’s own letters on his discoveries had even

begun appearing, shortly after his return in 1493, in multiple editions

across the continent. The flow of news and ideas had been increasing in

volume and speed.

But those 1566 Venetian news sheets were not printed. Each copy

was handwritten. This comprehensive and reliable view of the world

could only display itself, consequently, in some hundreds of copies.

Given limits in distribution, the public in question was so small it

barely deserved the name. And this comprehensible and reliable view

of the world had to pass through the hands of slow and potentially inac-

curate copyists.

The kind of thinking exemplified by the gazetta, in other words,

was not well served by the gazetta. This way of thought was pushing

past, through, beyond the limitations of the handwritten. And some

other new—and connected—religious, scientific, geographic, mercan-

tile, and literary worldviews were also bumping up against those limi-

tations in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. They each had their

own dissatisfactions with writing. Scientists, for example, needed

more regular and reliable information on new discoveries than even

the most industrious letter writers could provide; merchants—at least

Thinking Through Moving Media 1145

those not wealthy enough to hire their own correspondents—needed

better information on events that might influence markets. They, too,

required a new form of communication to illuminate, examine and

sustain the new rounder, plainer, more realistic, more knowable world

they were espousing.

The wanted form of communication began to arrive when the

printing press turned away from reprints of Cicero and began devot-

ing itself to forms that made better use of its capabilities. As Socrates’

way of thinking began to find its true home in the writings of Plato, the

worldview initially inscribed in the gazetta began to find its true home

with the appearance of the world’s first printed weekly in Strasbourg in

1605. Don Quixote also appears in 1605. A way of thought was facilitated

by the new newspaper, the new novel, the new scientific journal (later

in that century). It became a dominant way of thought in Europe and

America up until the …