Coming to terms with media trade offs
I am all for newer media. Cable television, streaming video, blogging, social networking, digital readers, smart phones, texting and free wireless networking at most fast-food locations have made life far easier in many ways and facilitate communication that would have been difficult in times past. Furthermore, I see the potential for the increasing work in new media providing ground for the increase in undergraduate study of rhetoric in order to facilitate content creation.
Right now, communication as a discipline has not caught up with these advances, and possibly to be the best we can be, we shouldn’t try. Training students in particular technology is setting them up to experience obsolescence as soon as they graduate. Instead, we should probably focus on universal rhetorical principles that seem to make sense regardless of technology, such as those reaching clear back to Aristotle’s On Rhetoric. Nonetheless, what we should do is make sure the students understand the concept of universal principles themselves and that what they learn in one class should be applicable to others.
Perhaps one of the universal principles that we need to make sure they understand is one that was articulated by Marshall McLuhan half a century ago; with every advancement in technology, there is a trade off. The mobile phone and the related drop in the rates of transmission costs due to improved bandwidth is a good example. I remember as a child my mother lamenting that she would like to talk to her mother (my grandmother), but the cost of a telephone call was prohibitive. By the time I got to college, 10₵ per minute was the going rate of a domestic call. I developed a habit of talking to my parents who lived four hours away at least weekly. However, at 10₵ a minute, it was still quite outside a college student’s budget to call often. So, I would call my parents, let it ring three times and they’d call me back. I was well aware of how wonderful it was the phone calls were so cheap! That cost has plummeted. Now, most of my students call their mothers between classes. It is a stereotype that students come out of an exam crying on their phones that “the professor is so mean” and that “there were questions on the test we never discussed in class” (in my class, that is always true because I expect students to do the reading as well as attend class).
All of this is truly wonderful. It really, really is. Because of changes in media, my students have a connection to family that is deep and lasting and that I can’t really understand. My parents knew that when we separated, we were separating. We knew that the relationship was changing. When I speak to my parents, whether it is by telephone (which does not happen every day) or when I get to make a rare appearance in person, it is a call for celebration, a reunion, a joy for all parties. For people today, family reunions will be something of a redundancy, even though they live further apart than ever. My students’ parents never really separate from their children. This attachment to family that began in the millennial generation and that continues today is something that those of us from generation X and older look on with a bit of wonder, sometimes envy and sometimes revulsion.
Why both envy and revulsion? Because there is a trade off. The one that concerns my colleagues and me the most is the lack of independence on the part of our students. Every problem, every difficulty, every heart-break and let down results in a call to Mom (always Mom, never Dad ((perhaps a subject of another blog because that is certainly something with which we need to come to terms))). Even as a grade schooler, my relationship with my parents was not as close as the average college student’s relationship with her or his parents. While I envy that closeness, I am revolted by the fact that these seeming adults cannot “cut the cord,” as the metaphor goes, and live a life that is independent from their parents.
A similar set of revulsion and wonder can be paid to the way that news, especially political news, is disseminated. As a child, my parents followed pretty traditional gender roles with the exception that my father did most of the grocery shopping. Sometimes, he would return from the grocery store with a paper bag filled with groceries and a copy of Newsweek, a news magazine that no longer even exists today. In those days, grocery stores sold news magazines, which is something that they absolutely do not do now. When we had a television, which we only had off and on growing up, my Dad would try to watch the evening news most days. My Dad is a fairly conservative guy (a picture of “compassionate conservatism”), and would often complain of the liberal bias in his news magazine and his news television programs, but continued to consume the media. No doubt something similar happened in liberal households throughout the United States at that time. A conservative bias per se in media was probably not a complaint but a “pro-establishment,” “pro-management” or “anti-labor” sentiment probably irked the more liberal consumers who continued to consume the news available.
There were quite a few intentionally right-wing or left-wing weekly publications that were being produced as well. I know that I saw Christianity Today and several hunting and fishing magazines that espoused an openly conservative bias in my home as a kid. My guess is that the average liberal household did not have many of these passing through their mailboxes. My father was never a subscriber to widely focused conservative magazines such as National Review, but that was probably because it is kind of expensive.
Growing up in a conservative household has led me to become kind of a conservative guy myself, though more Libertarian than Republican. My grandmother subscribed me to Time (the last remaining general news weekly), so I read that with the same eye rolling with which my father read Newsweek. I am a subscriber to National Review. Real Simple, Reader’s Digest and People also come to my mailbox due to my wife’s interests and I find myself reading them far more often than I am comfortable admitting. Print media in various forms takes up a significant portion of my home and positively fills my office.
There is another way I consume news too. I consume news on the internet. I used to consume news via various cable channels as well, and if we can ever adjust our finances, I’d like to again. Still, there is a huge difference that works itself into differences in these new media than what was happening in print.
I would take my subscription to National Review as a prime example. Because it has an openly political bias, one can easily compare it to new media with similar bias. The latest edition of the National Review magazine deals with the national issue of gun control. It deals with it in a careful, reasoned and thoughtful way. It is a conservative publication, so the careful, reasoned and thoughtful arguments lead to the conclusion that gun control should be focused on limiting government control, rather than restricting individual rights (see, I’m biased too). To read the articles in the print magazine, I had to turn to a dictionary at least twice that I remember. I was also quite thankful for some training in political philosophy so that I could understand the nuances of the arguments they were making. The articles were written in a polished, unhurried manner making extensive use of intellectual vocabulary, historical precedent and critical syllogistic reasoning. While a liberal would undoubtedly disagree with most of the axioms and some of the reasoning, no liberal would read the print copy of the National Review and come to the conclusion that conservatives were crazy. There is a bias, but that bias is explained, not assumed.
Compare this to newer media with similar bias. Watching Fox News editorials, or engaging with the major political blogs like Breitbart, or even looking at National Review’s website, rather than their print publication, provides interesting points of analysis. The language is simple and terse, even rude to those who might disagree. The philosophical analysis is non-existent. The sites are designed to cause cursory clicking from one page to the next. The editorials are reduced to the literal shouting of talking points. They are dismissive of those who would disagree and use constant hyperbole (intentional overstatement), mockery (making fun), flooding (making vast lists of charges with varying degrees of veracity as though they were all equal) and ad hominem (name calling). This is exacerbated by blogging and private video creation as well. This rude, extremist meanness is often funny, but does now really add to the conversation. This video, for instance, is funny, but does not add to any kind of intelligent debate.
Of course, some liberals see this as a purely conservative problem. I engage with more than enough left-wing media to know that knew media on the left is equally guilty of these charges. In fact, several of my left-leaning friends proudly shared this video of Rachel Maddow engaged in all four of the rhetorical fallacies outlined above.
Still, I don’t see the new news system as “bad” exactly. There are real advantages. There are advantages to the ease with which one can find like minded media. Certainly, this adds to confirmation bias, and tribalism, but a Democrat in Alabama or a Republican in Vermont can realize that they are not all alone in the world. Realizing that one is not all alone is a good thing, really. The speed at which new information can spread is wonderful. When Governor Romney made his infamous “47%” remark this last election season, he had to defend it right away. New media made this something that was not just rumor or innuendo. The recording was right there. As much as I did not favor the President in this election (but didn’t vote for either major party), I still believe that this was as it should be. Controversial statements should be discussed, not denied. The slow media of network news at five o’clock and weekly magazine coverage could not have made the discussion happen. It did happen, however, and at least partially because it happened, America, in the majority, chose Obama.
I like that I can write this blog. I know that very few people will actually read it, and it functions more, as my subtitle implies, as a means for me to “come to terms” with various and sundry topics. I like that it is something more public than a journal. I like that anyone can blog and some can become very successful at it. I like that freedom, that liberty, which lower cost publication has afforded to all of us. Unfortunately, the drive to click and garner quick agreement does have its draw backs. Some people who come across this blog may not bookmark it because I use big words or have political opinions different from theirs. There is a trade off in the movement to new media.
And that is the real point of this posting. Changing media involves trade offs. It is not a new or original idea, but it is one with which I am coming to terms right now.