Every semester I face this same problem.
I am a university professor of mass media, and the challenge I face is threefold:
- Should I focus on the new media delivery systems, or on the nature, purpose, and impact of the media on news and entertainment consumers?
- If I focus on the delivery systems, how can I be sure my 20-year-old students don’t already know more than I do about them?
- Is anyone really paying attention to the kind of content we are getting from the media these days and, if not, shouldn’t I focus on that?
The challenge of time
The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that I have less than 48 total contact hours with these kids over three months time. In that time I must try and detail the traditions of the news and entertainment media since Day 1 while also going over the sea changes occurring just over the past decade alone.
Can I have a lifeline?
Speaking in tongues
Oh yeah, and add this problem to the mix: Few people have the same idea of what the following terms even mean, at least operationally, today:
- New Media
- Media Convergence
We’re not talking textbook definitions here, although even those change from generation to generation. We are talking about the nature, purpose, and impact of these terms.
Remember the old song lyric, “You say tomato, I say tomahto.” Just substitute any of the above media terms and you get the Tower of Babel scenario existing on college campuses existing between student and prof in talking about the media.
A relic from the past
A couple years ago, for example, I was talking about newspapers in a media class, and I held up an ink-on-paper copy of the Los Angeles Times.
A hand shot up in the back of the class and a student, who acted like he’d never seen one of these artifacts before asked: “Where do you get one of those things?
I’ve become used to what others might perceive as a startling phenomenon, so I suggested simply that the student walk just outside our building and buy one from the newspaper rack. I have no idea what he thought that sidewalk structure was for, since he had undoubtedly passed it several times a day.
The first chapter in the media text I’m using is called, “Media Literacy,” and I’ve come to understand why the author put that topic front and center. It simply means becoming literate about the most powerful institution in our lives today.
Not only is it important, given the huge influence the media have on how we run our daily lives, but it is also something a lot of young people have not thought much about.
Adrift at sea
Here’s what author John Vivian says about this in his book, The Media of Mass Communication.:
“We swim in an ocean of mass communication, exposes 68.8 percent of our waking hours to media messages. So immersed are we in these messages that we often are unmindful of their existence, let alone their influences.”
I mean, they know how to use the technology better than most of us. But what that technology can do for — and to – them is another matter that often escapes their attention.
A loaded weapon
In another realm, one might ask what kind of society we would have if everyone understood how to shoot a gun but gave no thought to how one should behave with that gun.
That’s not such a far-fetched analogy. Just ask the families of those young people like Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi who committed suicide after a sensitive video of him was uploaded to the Web. Or ask the families of the 25 passengers killed on an L.A. commuter train in September, 2008. The driver of that train was texting when he crashed head-on into another one.
Thinking back to my opening dilemma, I recall a saying that suggests we should always play to our strengths. That makes sense to me.
I’ll assume the students know how to pull the trigger of their iPad.
As for me, I’ll focus on gun safety.
Ever feel like you’re addicted to your cell phone?
If so, you’re not alone. A recent study shows nearly 2 million Americans find it hard to leave home without these devices; worldwide, the total leaps to more than 1.5 billion.
Quite an acceptance curve for a product that is less than three decades old.
As for me, the newest media ritual occasioned by my own Droid obsession is staying abreast of the NBA playoffs, usually at times when I should be doing something else. But hey, it’s the Thunder, right?
Still, a dinner conversation with your significant other can be undermined pretty badly by a Droid-delivered NBA game.
If you’ve seen the AT&T “romantic dinner” commercial, you know what I’m talking about. Here’s a guy with this attractive woman and he is trying to balance his interest in her and the game on his iPhone. Operating in what he thinks is a stealth mode, he shoots glances to the phone on his lap while holding hands with his date.
A state of angst
While women viewers feel for the date, male viewers identify with the guy. He’s operating in what communication researchers call “a state of cognitive dissonance” or what most of us just call tension. He wants to score, but he also wants the score.
Despite what he thinks, he’s not doing a very good job. His date is onto him, and you get the feeling the question isn’t far off: “Okay, so what’s it gonna be? Me or the game?”
And the answer, of course, is …
The great debate
On a related note, I teach a university course in interpersonal communication, and this commercial always produces a spirited debate in class about a dating scene that is obviously a common one. And, in a larger vein, it goes to the question of how much we want to commit to the virtual world of the pixels as opposed to the attractive person sitting right in front of us.
This blog has addressed this real-world/virtual-world tension before. But before, it was usually the laptop that produced the tension. Now it’s the cell phone. After all, you can’t set up a laptop in front of you when you’re out on a date. Well, you can, but good luck getting a second one.
But who needs a laptop when we have the smart phone? Remember, though: just because that device is smart in what it can do, we still have to be smart in when it should make an appearance.
Texting while what?
I mean, there are times when that preoccupation can be downright dangerous to our health, right? The big one is texting while driving. But how about texting while just plain walking?
Some of you may have seen the video of a woman falling into a mall fountain while texting as she strode along, oblivious to the watery hazard in front of her.
If you think that’s absurd, how about Bonnie Miller, from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who walked right off the pier into Lake Michigan while texting a friend on her cell phone?
According to a recent study in the journal, Gait & Posture, texting while talking has a definite disruptive effect on our gait, setting us up for similarly embarrassing, if not dangerous, moments like these. An article in Men’s Health News discusses it.
In that study, a group of 20-somethings was randomly selected to walk while texting or talking on a cell phone. Researchers discovered that these twin concurrent activities caused the subjects to stride toward a target much more slowly than normal, and that they veered off course by 61 percent. Many actually walked beyond the target without realizing it until it was too late.
Hence, Mrs. Miller, the woman who wound up needing rescue from Lake Michigan. Her 15-year-old son said she had time to utter, “Oh God!” and then he heard the splash.
A watery rescue
She was rescued by her husband, Greg, and she is now speaking out to anyone who will listen about the dangers of texting while trodding.
This crazy kind of activity is how vital we believe our cell phones to be. We will actually risk our lives to update a friend on what we’re doing right now. Like swimming in Lake Michigan.
Dare one say we’re drowning in our addiction?
Suppose you are one of the diehards spending a couple hours browsing through the stacks of a bookstore and come across the following titles: Life on the Screen, The Second Self, and Alone Together. You might reasonably assume that you have stumbled into a section on movies and, maybe more specifically, what it’s like to be a Hollywood actor.
In some ways, you’d be right if you consider each of us to be actors on the world’s stage as we go about living our lives, interacting with others, and trying to project a self that rings true — or not.
Yet each of these three books is not about movies, but about what has happened to our lives in the age of computers, the Internet, and the Web 2.0 media.
The books are about how we go about defining ourselves, to ourselves and others, in the age where RL meets VR in the MUD.
For the yet-uninitiated, that means Real Life meeting Virtual Reality in the Multi-User Domain.
The books are all written by Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor of Technology and Society, and they span the years of 1997-2011. Taken individually or together, they show how our current age is different from any previous era humankind has ever encountered.
A nicely written excerpt from Publisher’s Weekly presents the gist of Turkle’s latest work, Alone Together, which has the provocative subtitle, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
“Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other.
“She encounters dissatisfaction and alienation among users: teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration but by how they are perceived by the online collective, mothers who feel texting makes communicating with their children more frequent yet less substantive, Facebook users who feel shallow status updates devalue the true intimacies of friendships.”
A sobering thought
The disturbing conclusion is, “Turkle ‘s prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.”
On several levels, that seems so. Anytime we see two people who are presumably on a date at a restaurant, yet there they sit more engaged in their I-phones or Droids, we get the picture.
Indeed one of the funnier commercials on television depicts two of these individuals. The woman is trying to have a real conversation with her date while suspecting he is more involved in checking game scores on his smart phone. And the reason it is so funny is because it is so true. We’ve all been a part of this scene, no?
Things that aren’t real
Carl Hays, a writer for Booklist, notes the following irony found in Turkle’s examination of the interface between humanity and technology:
“Turkle suggests that we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.
“In her university-sponsored studies surveying everything from text-message usage among teens to the use of robotic baby seals in nursing homes for companionship, Turkle paints a sobering and paradoxical portrait of human disconnectedness in the face of expanding virtual connections in cell-phone, intelligent machine, and Internet usage.”
When we are in the presence of a friend or loved one yet choose to focus our attention on the machine in our hand, we are in fact treating the machine with more respect; treating it as if it is more real than the person sitting next to us.
What makes Turkle’s observation more intriguing is that she has been making them for so long. Life on the Screen was published in 1997. How computer-savvy were you fifteen years ago? Did you even have an Internet connection in your home then?
Still, in that book Turkle posited that the Internet, with its bulletin boards, games, virtual communities, and private domains where people meet, develop relationships or emulate sex, is a microcosm of an emerging “culture of simulation” that substitutes representations of reality for the real world.
What we had in 1997, Turkle said, was a new way of developing an identity. This new pathway was “de-centered and multiple,” meaning it was created outside of our beings; that we used multiple Internet means and models for creating a sense of who we are as unique individuals.
If it was true then, especially for the more malleable minds of the young, how much more true might it be today as the Web has gone through mega-changes since 1997?
As one college student put it, “RL is just one more window, and it’s usually not my best.” The haunting thing here is that he is considering the worlds he inhabits through his computer as real life. He is discussing the time he spends as four different characters – avatars – in three different MUDs. Add in the time he spends doing his homework on his computer, and he lives more of his life there than apart from it.
This kind of life requires people like this student to split themselves into different selves, turning on one self and then morphing into another, as he cycles from window to window on the screen. He believes it allows him to explore different possibilities of who he might be.
Some simply say, “The Internet lets you be who you pretend to be.”
A 2001 flashback
And, in an unsettling flashback to older generations of scenes from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we seem to be losing our self-control to computers. As those space travelers did, we no longer give commands to our computers; we have dialogues with them.
And often, the computers seem to have the last word.
In another era, WWF stood for the World Wrestling Federation. Still does, I suppose, although today those initials are more commonly known by online gamers as Word with Friends.
Somewhere around Thanksgiving I got hooked into this addictive game which, along with other games like Hanging with Friends and the (non-interactive) Angry Birds are taking up a lot of people’s times these days.
With its ubiquitous accessibility, via terminal, laptop, notebook, or smart phone, Word with Friends seems, indeed, to be everywhere. And with its links to Facebook, many of the moves you make show up on your wall, thereby advertising its presence to many others and the many others who have befriended those many others.
Who wouldn’t want it known that their best achievement of the day was scoring 131 points by their adroit playing of the word “djebel?”
A domino effect
It’s the well-known domino effect, and it now has more than 3 million Facebook users “liking” this game, and probably wasting a lot of otherwise productive hours playing it.
Those prone to finding their glasses to be half-full as opposed to seriously leaking, would point out that you can increase your vocabulary with such word games as this thinly-veiled version of the classic game of Scrabble.
I suppose my reaction would be, True if you think any of the following kinds of words will be useful for you in the conversations of life:
Qi, qat, xi, vodoun, oedemas, yegg (egg with an extra-large yoke?), quin, jeux, nixe, nae, qua, tael, ratel, eclat, recta (2 rectums?) and quean.
Or how about rec, rem, urd, mae, ecu, kex, kae, and jauk?
All these and many other wonderful words are legitimate parts of the King’s speech, according to your friends at Words with Friends. And of course we use these gems all the time in our everyday chats. These are the words that come tripping off our tongue when we are confronted with six consonants and a vowel (or, worse yet, the opposite). Right?
Well, only right if we are using a handy-dandy word unscrambler. Or is that descrambler? Neither seems to find favor with the text program I’m using now.
These descramblers bring up a serious ethical issue, of course, to players of WWF: Is it cheating to
use a crutch like that? Or is a descrambler really a crutch? Might it merely help you to unclutter all the knowledge of universe you already possess so that you can get right to these words that you already knew so well?
The tree and the thud
And, like the tree no one ever saw or heard falling in the wilderness, does it matter if no one hears it? Would Aristotle or Immanuel Kant insist that you come clean and tell your opponent you’re using a descrambler before starting the match? And if BOTH of you use that aid, does that negate the ethical quandary and create an even and virtuous playing field? Or is it that you are both now cheating?
But if you’re both cheating, why play the game at all?
The game of life
The backers of WWF would say that playing this game allows each of us to come face to face with deep and important ethical principles which can only help us out in the rest of the game of life.
This all, of course, presumes that people are actually playing WWF and not just logging on to use the chat box, which is one great way of getting around paying for a text package on your cell phone, especially since you can access WWF on that very phone and text until your heart’s content — or until you run out of words — for free.
A serious side
Proving once again, however, that there is an upside to everyone wasting time on the Web, consider the following story posted just today by CBS News:
“Beth Legler, of Blue Springs, Missouri, began playing Words with Friends more than two years ago on her cell phone, reports KCTV CBS 5 in Kansas City. That’s when she met an Australian couple named Georgie and Simon Fletcher of Queensland, Australia.
“One day during a game, Georgie told Beth that Simon was feeling under the weather, so Beth asked her to describe his symptoms, since Beth’s own husband, Larry, was a doctor.
“When hearing that Simon was experiencing fatigue so severe that he couldn’t walk to his mailbox and burning in the back of his throat, reports MSNBC, Dr. Legler had some words of advice for his wife’s online friends: get to a doctor immediately.
“Legler thought Simon was experiencing angina, a condition that occurs when your heart doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. That causes pressure or squeezing in the chest, but could cause pain elsewhere in the body like in the shoulders, arms, neck, or back. What usually causes angina? Heart disease.
“Simon was reluctant but went to the doctor, and as it turns out, Dr. Legler was right: Simon had a 99 percent blockage in his artery and was on death’s door.
“Simon had two stents implanted through emergency surgery, and has recovered. ‘I owe Larry everything,’ Simon told KCTV. “I’m really lucky to be here.”
“Said Beth, ‘It’s been a wonderful experience to have had made some great friends and know that Simon is well because of a word game.’”
Wow. I’m speechless. Or is that aphonic?
Like a lot of young university researchers, I once placed almost total confidence in numbers as the basis of knowledge.
If a research study were done properly, the variables were all brought under control, the observations all reduced to numbers and those digits were crunched properly, then the results formed a stronger basis for knowledge than anything else on the planet.
Those results were stronger than anecdotal evidence, stronger than what your mom or dad told you, stronger than common sense. In fact, a researcher once convinced me common sense didn’t even exist. I believed it until a good friend — herself a scientist — pointed out one day that everytime I came in from across a muddy yard, my shoes would leave tracks on the carpet. So take off your shoes.
That, she rightly noted, is common sense.
Since then, I’ve had new respect for that concept. I still place value in well-executed quantitative studies, but I also place a lot of value in common sense.
For example, media researchers will often tell you there is no body of research that proves violence on the Internet, television, video games, or in the movies leads to real-life violence. If young Edgar witnesses a spate of bodies dropping in prime time, it doesn’t follow that he is going to become the next Jeffrey Dahmer. But it is also true that the two young Colorado shooters who left 12 bodies in their bloody shooting rampage at Columbine High School were extremely heavy players of Internet games.
New York Daily News health advice columnist Dr. Dave Moore recently told a reader that the gaming habits of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were contributors to their bloody Columbine act, and explained why their favorite game of “Doom” was so dangerous. Doom was the hottest 3D action game of the time, launched in 1993 and named video game of the year in 1994 by PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World.
Video Game Addiction
Still, Dr. Moore told the advice-seeker, “You, and unfortunately parents, are clueless about what creates the video game addiction. What separates Doom from other video games and toys is one big point. They are deliberately programmed to make the player a ‘first person shooter’. You are not controlling a character, YOU ARE the character. Parents can see that transformation start in their video gaming kids – what addiction specialists call negative developmental changes.”
A quantitative researcher would say there were other variables involved with Klebold and Harris that would not be found in an across-the-board sample of teenagers. That’s true, but there are still a healthy number of kids out there with the unhealthy tendencies and vulnerability of these two, waiting to be triggered by mediated violence. Communication researchers have identified what they call an Aggression Stimulus Theory or Aggressive-cue Theory that shows the media violence can prepare someone — condition him or her — to act violently.
A Literal Defense
On the other side are defenders of the video game, Doom, now in its third iteration. This observation comes from a site called Old.doom.com: Choosing to take a more literal approach to the connection between the features of Doom and Columbine, the unnamed writer says:
“I personally believe that Doom had nothing to do with the Columbine High School attack. I seriously doubt that Kelly Fleming was running at the shooters hurling fireballs from her hand when she was shot or that Corey DePooter was chrarging them with a shotgun. In Doom, Hell Knights don’t comfort each other under the table crying. Humans have been killing each other since the beginning our of existence, before Doom was ever around. Harris and Klebold were going to shoot up their school no matter what.”
Good News, Bad News
Some parents might breathe a sign of relief to discover that heavy television viewing has decreased somewhat among teens, and that some video stores are having trouble keeping the doors open because of lower sales. The bad news, of course, is that young people are flocking to the Internet instead to get their kicks — literally when it comes to violent online video games. So the influence that may have helped propel Dylan and Eric is still there; it has just changed platforms.
Check These Out
If you want to attach some weight to statistics, try these from the Web site, Enough is Enough:
* American teens are more wired now than ever before. According to our latest survey, 93 percent of all Americans between 12 and 17 years old use the internet. In 2004, 87 percent were internet users, and in 2000, 73 percent of teens went online.
* 20 percent of teens have engaged in cyberbullying behaviors, including posting mean or hurtful information or embarrassing pictures, spreading rumors, publicizing private communications, sending anonymous e-mails or cyberpranking someone.
* 48 percent of K-1st reported viewing online content that made them feel uncomfortable, of which 72 percent reported the experience to a grownup, meaning that one in four children did not.
* 63 percent of teens said they know how to hide what they do online from their parents.
* 65 percent of high school students admit to unsafe, inappropriate, or illegal activities online
And the prevalence of Internet gaming?
* The most common recreational activities young people engage in on the computer are playing games and communicating through instant messaging.
Here’s what the site, Teen Violence Statistics says about internet violence, its methods and influence:
“While most people think of teen violence occurring at school or in the teens’ neighborhoods, some teen violence occurs or starts on the Internet. The Internet can both encourage and prevent teen violence, depending on who pays attention or speaks up.”
And the ways that can occur? The same Web site notes:
Teen Internet violence and cyberthreats can occur in many ways. A teen may use the internet to:
- Directly threaten to hurt someone
- Indirectly threaten someone, like saying, “You’d better watch out at school tomorrow”
- Manipulate someone by threatening to hurt their loved ones
- Write about hurting him or herself, wanting to end it all, or feeling that life isn’t worth living
- Read or publish hateful information about a certain person or group of people
- Talk about wanting to hurt or kill other people
- View or post threatening pictures, songs, videos, or other forms of media
- Play games that encourage violence. Studies have found connections between playing violent computer games and acting violently toward other people.
- Visit web sites about violence or self harm
- Engage in cyberbullying
The Best Math
As I think about it, probably the best means of gaining knowledge about issues like this is to combine statistics and common sense. When it comes to the dysfunctional aspects of Web addiction, that’s when the numbers really add up.