Technophiles and technophobes

In the Mass Media & Culture class, we've been talking about different theories about and attitudes toward the role of media technologies in our culture. This week, we read some chapters from Neil Postman's book "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology." (The subtitle says it all!) In the comments posted below, students are giving their perspective on the concepts of technophilia and technophobia, in three parts: 

– Do you consider Postman to be a technophobe or a technophile? Why?

– In what ways do you agree or disagree with his views?

– Which of these terms best describes you? Give some examples.

Digital natives, digital immigrants…

We were talking last week in my Media & Culture class about Neil Postman's views on "technopoly," the idea that technology is not only becoming a bigger part of our culture but pretty much taking it over. (More on Postman in a later post!) This led me to ask students: Do any of them get frustrated with the role that digital media like cellphones or the Internet plays in their lives? Answers were affirmative but focused on the absence of technology, not its presence: Yes, I hate it when I forget my cellphone and have to spend an hour going home for it. Yes, it's annoying when I can't get a signal, my computer is too slow, etc. The class argued against Postman's perspective but unwittingly confirmed it, universally perceiving digital media as pure boon without bane.

I started thinking, "Hey, maybe it's just me. Or maybe the difference in attitudes is generational." (Despite the fact that, in my late 30s, I'm not quite a generation older than the students.) This discussion came in the wake of our watching a PBS Frontline documentary about "Growing Up Online" that's full of scare-mongering and moral panics by parents and teachers about What The Internet Is Doing to Our Children and How Powerless We Are to Stop It (alternate online identities, soft-porn profile pictures, privacy issues, cyberstalkers and predators, etc.) The adults featured in the program made a few good points but overall their moralistic concerns seemed a little overblown, to the mind of this teaching non-parent, anyway.

One theory for undertanding this shift that the PBS producers are keen on — and that I also find useful, to a point — is that of "Digital Natives" and "Digital Immigrants." The terms seem to be coined by Mark Prensky, who describes himself as
"an internationally acclaimed thought leader, speaker, writer,
consultant, and game designer." He says that people who were not born into the digital world but have adopted many aspects of new technology are immigrants, whereas students are native speakers of the "language" of computers, video games and the Internet. It's safe to say that I'm the latter and my students are the former.

It's also safe to say that Prensky is the anti-Postman. While they both believe, as do I, that this shift from a print culture to a televised and now digital one represents a huge discontinuity with profound consequences for education, Postman is sensibly skeptical about the presumed gains and unusually attentive to the potential losses that this brings. Prensky, on the other hand, has blind faith that the digitally molded minds of today's students represent a great leap forward for humanity. As Mao's cultural revolution proved, great leaps are not always forward-bound.

My postcard experiment

Vintagepostcards1

Some of the vintage postcards that my friends might — or might not — have received recently.


To indulge my new fetish for slow media, I just sent a few dozen postcards to friends and family this weekend. For some reason, it felt like an experiment. I'm interested in seeing how, or whether, people respond to them. It's probably somewhat rare these days for any of them to find a postcard — especially one from me, in any case — in their mailboxes. Also, it seemed like it would be fun to send this small collection of humorous vintage postcards that I bought back in 1993 (above). It seemed like it was time to finally use them.

I must say, preparing those postcards to mail was kind of a pain. One post office was out of postcard stamps and there was a long line at the other one, which didn't have a stamp vending machine (just realized I could have ordered them online!). It took almost a week to get them out. I got writer's cramp. It was tedious repeating slight variations of the same message on all those cards. My handwriting is terrible when I write that much that quickly, so people will probably struggle to read the messages. The space constraint felt unfamiliar; one of the blessings/curses of postcards, of course, is that you can only write a few lines. That wasn't nearly enough room to accommodate everything I wanted to say to some friends, while short messages left conspicuously blank space on other cards.

I recently moved to a new city, so the premise for corresponding with everyone was conveying the new address. I could have done this by e-mail and avoided the space constraint. Also, ironically, I had to check Facebook profiles for several people to make sure they still lived where I thought they did. (They didn't! One family from North Carolina just moved to West Virginia, another friend from Louisiana seems to be in Florida now, etc. Guess there's little impetus now to inform people of new whereabouts since they can always find you online regardless of where you live.) Although several people send me Christmas and birthday cards, the rest probably won't use my snail mail for anything, anyway.

Basically, I'm never doing that again. Unless I get a lot of positive feedback from recipients that makes it seem worthwhile — feedback that would have been facilitated if I had sent e-mails and people could have replied at the click of a few buttons. Will people contact me to comment on the unusual postcard, or respond in kind somehow? Will the postcard get delivered to the right place, since USPS probably doesn't either forward them to new addresses or bounce them back to the sender? Will anyone even notice the cards in his or her neglected mailbox, mixed in with bills and catalogs and junk-mail? If the postcards do arrive, however, there's a chance that recipients will enjoy and display and share the postcard more than they would an e-mail message.

Media & Culture class

Students in the “Media & Culture” class (JOU 109) at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University will be contributing to this blog during the Fall 2009 semester, to share their thoughts on some of our readings, assignments and experiments.

One of the experiments we did this month was a Media Abstinence Day, where everyone was supposed to avoid cellphones, computers, TV, etc. for a whole day. Some students reported that they managed to do it! Some got through most of the day, perhaps with minor slip-ups when they checked a text message out of habit or accidentally started watching some TV when someone else in their house turned it on. A few people said they were miserably bored and made a conscious choice to give up the experiment early.

The people who did best on this assignment were those who picked an avoidance day when they had something else to keep them busy, like playing a game of softball or working at a job that doesn’t involve computers. They also found it helpful to warn friends and family in advance that they would be unavailable, so they didn’t feel as much external pressure. (Though at least one student said that his friends taunted him with their smartphones and laptops, trying to bump him off the wagon.)

Members of the class will be posting their essays about the Media Abstinence Day below.

Students should click here to give midterm feedback.

Is there a “Slow Media Movement,” or is it just me?

"South Park" creators Matt Stone & Trey Parker made this animation, featuring Zen philosopher Alan Watts, that criticizes the culture of busy-ness.


Communication is a zero-sum game, to me. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, all the time I spend with one medium is time I can't really commit to another. People like to think that they can multi-task, but a lot of limitations come into play. You can listen to NPR while you type your blog (as I'm doing now) but blogging can't be performed simultaneously with writing a postcard (my next task). Also, the quality of my attention to the radio is pretty low right now; Terry Gross' guest sounds vaguely like Arianna Huffington but I couldn't tell you what the topic is.

To appease my longing for analog media, I've started toying with the idea of doing a digital media fast. All the time I spend online now will be devoted instead to postcards, letters, and whatnot. This will require a lot of substitution: landline for cellphone, fax for e-mail, record player for i-Pod, etc. Essentially, I'm going to pretend that it's 1989. In trying to come up with a term for this category of media that I'm trying to reinvigorate, I came up with "analog" and "anachronistic" before settling on Slow Media, in the spirit of Slow Food and the attendant Slow, or Slow Living, Philosophy.

As it happens, a quick Google search for "slow media" shows that other people have spontaneously generated the same concept and made the same connection. Helen de Michiel, a filmmaker who produced "Turn Here Sweet Corn" in 2001, links community-supported agriculture to the "slow media practice" that she espouses. Matt Shepherd, who seems to be a comic-books kind of guy, asked last year whether Slow Media was "a movement or a menace" and concluded that it was neither. He considers hand-written letters,
books/comics ("especially local authors"–analogous to "food miles," perhaps?), conversation groups, theatre,
and live music to be slow whereas fast would mean "cell phones, movies, the Internet, recorded
music and Clear Channel-type radio." I have my own ideas about where this boundary should be, so 'll have to get back to this definition in a future post.

I've mentioned my digital media fast to people a few times, and most of them seem to think that I'll be depriving myself of the Internet and cellphones. But it feels more like liberation than deprivation. As Matt Shepherd noted in his blog, "Saying 'Hey, cell phones suck' is not nearly as interesting to somebody as presenting a positive alternative." He also points out the irony of fostering a Slow Media Movement online but hey, what else are we gonna do?