Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Metaphysics of Media

Several months ago, Mike Wesch from the University of Kansas posted a video called A Vision of Students that has been watched nearly a million and a half times and has been quite influential in that part of academia that looks upon new technologies as the savior of America education.

In researching my next book, The Metaphysics of Media, over the last several years I came across a lot of information that calls into question the unspoken assumptions of A Vision of Students and others of Mike Wesch's videos. I wish you'd watch some of Wesch's videos and consider his ideas, because they are -- or are becoming -- the mainstream view about the new technologies we call "Web 2.0" and, frankly, I can't seem to find the same level of enthusiasm and support for that view as the rest of our culture has.

At any rate, I produced this response to Wesch's "Vision" based (loosely and very generally) on a couple of themes in my new book, The Metaphysics of Media (hopefully soon to be published). I would love to hear reactions to both sides of the debate.


Professor Wesch said...

Hi Dr. Fallon,
I really enjoyed watching your remix of the video I created with my students. You are not the only one who reads blind optimism into my videos. Optimistic yes, but not blind. I like to think of it as critical optimism, recognizing that we are at an important moment in which widespread media literacy and awareness is critical. It strikes me that we have very nearly the same *assumptions* about media - founded in the insights of media ecology - and expressed nicely by your opening and closing words of this video. And it seems that we have identified virtually the same problems in our current education system. You suggest that the solution is asking them to read more. But as you know that is no simple proposal.

My proposal is this: 1. find a grand narrative (contra Post-Modernism) that the students buy into so that what they read is relevant and significant to them. I use the Spaceship Earth metaphor for my Intro to Cultural Anthropology class, and it works amazingly well. Students feel like caretakers of the earth and know that they need to read to find the solutions to the world's problems. 2. Create a learning environment that leverages and values the learners themselves. Students are more engaged when they feel like they are part of something, and simple collaborative technologies like wikis and Google Docs can facilitate this (as can a chalkboard). A tool wisely used keeps us from being "the tool."
3. Do both of these in a way that realizes and leverages the existing media environment (and thereby allows *students* to realize and leverage the existing media environment). You can see more about how I try to do all this (even in a huge lecture) by looking at my World Simulation project or watching the talk I recently gave at ELI on "Human Futures for Technology and Education: The Crisis of Significance"

This is where we differ. I do not view print literacy as sufficient. Students need broad-based media literacy in both read & write modes (critical consumption and production). I also question the crude dichotomy of presentational vs. propositional logics you are using here. I think it fails to capture the nuances of how people actually participate in our current cultural and media environment.

Buying into these terms for a moment, I wonder if there isn't some value in helping our students become more critically literate in presentational modes. More awareness and the ability to produce multi-media presentations themselves can help students see beyond the facade of production. Doesn't a multimedia world demand multimedia literacies?

Anyway, I am looking forward to seeing your book. Your book on the Irish was fantastic and worthy of the MEA award.

Thanks for taking the time to create a dialogue with my videos!

~ Mike

Dr. Fallon said...

Thanks, Mike, for the quick response and the kind words. Congratulations to you, too, for winning the Culkin Award at least year's MEA convention. Sorry you couldn't be there.

I realize it's difficult to express the nuance of everything one wants to say in a sentence or two, and a sentence minus presence makes it more difficult. For the record, I do not think your optimism is at all blind; and I hope you won't take me for a Luddite.

But there's no question you are far more optimistic than I am, as are most Web 2.0 folks.

You suggest that the solution is asking them to read more. But as you know that is no simple proposal.

No, but neither do I see it as a "solution." I see it as a necessary cultural reorientation, one that must take place at home (where educators have no control) and in school (where we do). This cuts against the grain of our culture, and I know you know what I mean by that: it is not just a change of habits, but a change of thinking.

Your proposal is great, and not terribly different in some ways from the classes I teach at Roosevelt University. Teaching in a journalism program, the "grand narrative" I try to get my students to buy into is the pursuit (not the posession) of truth, probably somewhat more difficult than the "spaceship earth" idea. I also do not shy away from getting them "literate" in new technologies; in a class I teach in "alternative media," I've got them blogging and vlogging about social justice (all original videos -- some quite good), and finding or creating interactive networks of activists who are interested in the same subjects about which they write.

I do not view print literacy as sufficient.

Nor do I. But I do see it as absolutely foundational. For a couple of reasons, but one really important one:

I also question the crude dichotomy of presentational vs. propositional logics you are using here. I think it fails to capture the nuances of how people actually participate in our current cultural and media environment.

Well, to the extent that complex ideas can be spoken of only crudely in a three-paragraph post, I can't say I blame you.

I sometimes think that we look at the intriguing (and baffling) aphorisms of folks like McLuhan and Innis or Ong as (merely) metaphor: Does reading really "restructure consciousness," or is he really just trying to make a point? Is there such a thing as a "tribal mind?" I mean, really? IS the medium the message?

Although none of it (that I'm aware of) has been done to test media ecological principles, there've been a lot of neurological studies using fMRI technologies that supports this dichotomy of propositional versus presentational structures of thought. They've been able to track synaptic firings across specific neural pathways for different cognitive activities, and it turns out that we really do "think differently" when we read than we do when we use visual media.

A full bibliography will, of course, be a part of my book, but right off the bat, I find Anderson, Fite, Petrovich, and Hirsch (2006), and Bavelier, Corsina, Jezzard, et al. (can't find the date at the moment) to be very important. There's also Maryann Wolf's "Proust and the Squid," which gives a compelling argument for the critical need for engagement with words at both an early age, and throughout life.

Buying into these terms for a moment, I wonder if there isn't some value in helping our students become more critically literate in presentational modes.

Absolutely. That's what "media literacy" or "visual literacy" is after all. But it is also important to note that while one can be critically of presentational modes one cannot be critical in presentational modes. We criticize in word-based concepts. Critical thought is based in propositions, not sounds or images.

Anyway, thank YOU for jumping into the dialog so quickly. I hope we can keep it up, and perhaps discuss it at greater length -- perhaps at the MEA in Santa Clara this June?


Professor Wesch said...

Sounds great. I'm planning on being there. In the meantime I will check out the references you mentioned. I have been toying with an attempt to reframe the debate on the effects of media on cognition by looking at thinking as a social process (not just an individual "in the head" process). This is mostly framed by the effects of media I saw in a rural New Guinea village as writing came to a prominent role there. I'll see what I can come up with between now and June and hope we can talk then. ~ Mike

Robert K. Blechman said...

I'd like to add a belated thought to this discussion. I suggest that a better way of characterising post-literate thought is Claude Levi-Strauss's notion of "bricolage." Levi-Strauss explains the critical thought processes of pre-literate man as akin to the tinkerer who works with whatever materials are at hand. The pre-literate intellect builds narratives out of the concrete elements of his environment, and the metaphoric associations which result help him to resolve contradictions within a culture. In other words, the pre-literate myth maker is engaging in his own type of critical thinking.

This approach to critical thinking is neither better nor worse than propositional thinking, just different.

We, as media scholars, can comprehend and develop pedagogies based on the notion of bricolage. Approaching the ways post-literate students think critically by considering bricolage gives us tools to understand what is happening without resorting to mandates of literacy as the only solution to current perceived learning gaps.

Dr. Fallon said...

Thanks for joining the discussion, Bob. I'd be very happy if we talked about this far more than we do.

Your point about "difference" without making a qualitative judgment is well-taken. It is especially when we avoid qualitative judgments, I think, that the new epistemologies look so palatable.

But in the spirit of Jacque Ellul and Neil Postman (and, I think it would be only fair to add, Dominic de Guzman), I feel compelled to make those value judgments and often wonder why -- what is it about our culture at this moment? -- we are so hesitant, perhaps even embarrassed, to do so?