Desert island medium

If you were stuck alone on a desert island for three days and could pick one single medium to use, which would it be? Assume that all of your material needs are met: food, drink, clothing, shelter. 

The mediums on offer include books, iPods, phone calls, texting, magazines, Facebook (not the whole Internet; just the Facebook site), newspapers and radio. Cellphones and computers, of course, merge so many different functions that we tried to unbundle those modes here, for argument's sake.

A quick classroom poll tonight yielded a surprising result. The winner, by a margin of 2-to-1, was books. Texting, phone calls and iPods all got two votes each. Magazines and Facebook each got one vote. Newspapers and radios came up friendless, at least for a 72-hour stay under these conditions.

People cited "escape" and "passing the time" as reasons to choose books, while others preferred phone calls as a means of "connecting" or getting information through two-way exchange.

Maybe print culture isn't dead after all, though books and magazines together earned support from four students while digital media as a single category garnered favor from five.

Some students pointed out the power limitations of electronic devices and suggested that their choice would veer toward print if they knew they wouldn't have three days' worth of juice.

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.