Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Converging Ourselves to Death (Speech)

This is a slightly revised version of the speech I presented last month as keynoter for the Rocky Mountain Communication Association's 2010 conference in Denver. The trip was a delight, especially the opportunity it provided to photograph farm relics and neon signs. But the best part was the chance to meet some really cool folks (including some outstanding faculty members and graduate students at The University of Northern Colorado). I just thought it'd be useful to archive my RMCA remarks, if only to bring back some happy memories...

Think back to the last time you were several places at once.

Visualize the moment.

Imagine you're chatting on a mobile phone while scanning a website on your laptop. Perhaps you catch a glimpse of video on another screen nearby. Maybe you're doing these things on the same device.

OK, how many places so far? Three?

You might add the physical place where you are and the mental place where you wish you could be. At this point you might expand your mental map to accommodate five simultaneous places.

Then along comes Mark Edmundson's Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Dwelling in Possibilities [He's the fellow who inspired this particular thought-experiment]. Edmundson challenges us to consider the technological fragmentation experienced by our students. He asks, what does the world become when seen through their eyes? How many places do they occupy simultaneously?

Sometimes when I leave the classroom, feeling a little dazed by all those tweets and beeps while I try to facilitate a conversation -- maybe one too many allegedly silent vibrations that nonetheless shout, "I'm here, but not really!" -- I imagine my students' lives as a proliferation of screens, or maybe kaleidoscopes whose views cannot expand beyond a small circle of possibility.

Maybe it's the World Wide Web that has exploded what counts as knowledge and meaning beyond the confines of my classroom, the one that resides in a building whose architectural design could also have been used to erect a factory -- or a prison. Here I recall Kenneth Gergen's nearly perfect term for the impact of technological fragmentation on human consciousness. "Multiphrenia," he called it.

Upon reflection, I realize that this explosion of possibilities did not shatter the here and now quite so recently. We can't take the easy way out and blame the internet. No, we must drill further down through the years, excavating the strata of the twentieth century. And then, digging deeper, we must break open the seals and peer into the dusty caverns of the Victorian Era.

Looking down upon that enclosure, Looking Backward, as Edward Bellamy would have us do, we witness the great engineers of that era, those confident architects of modernity who imposed the perfect geometry of their ambitions upon the earth and promised to build a glass-and-iron enclosure to gather all the world under one roof.

An arcade, a world's fair, an amusement park -- a Crystal Palace.

From that place and time, we more purely recognize our current Age of Convergence: the desire to summon forth all possibilities into one position of power. A convergence that, surprisingly -- and somewhat sadly -- overwhelms our inclination, if not our ability, to follow the advice of Ram Dass:

Remember, Be Here Now.

I deliver these remarks -- here, now -- as both a critic and as an evangelist. I'm a communication professor who was hired to teach courses on internet culture during those hot days in Silicon Valley when students kept a close track on their stock portfolios while I walked them through basic HTML.

I’m also an anxious observer of our emerging technopolis, one who dreads each new device and operating system I must buy and master to function across broad swaths of contemporary life.

I'm a shameless tourist of places and ideas, a bit of a nomad intellectually (if not a dilettante).

But I'm also a cultural Southerner, one possessed by an unapologetic nostalgia for places rooted in time, for experiences that cannot be translated or transferred.

Let's just say, I'm somewhat ambivalent about our conference theme.

Convergence, we might hope, could be the final goal of communication, the gathering of voices into the semblance of a public sphere, of civil discourse. And certainly we hope that our classrooms will be filled with all the good ideas that can be cultivated [We being editors, I suppose, of "All the News Fit to Print"]. Yet, we learn as photographers that setting a wide depth of field reveals a world in focus but sometimes leaves us with nothing in particular to see.

That's why, with apologies to Neil Postman who inspired the title of my talk, I warn that we risk Converging Ourselves to Death.

We begin with a tale of too many choices.

Hamlet exclaimed: "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." In a broader context, Shakespeare suggests that our limitations mingle with our lamentations. Yet a modern nightmare is not the paucity of choice but rather its paralyzing excess. Peripatetic, we imagine ourselves as freely mobile, surfing an ocean of options, moving faster and faster to the beat of the waves.

Yet how surprised we are when we drown in data. So we specialize, hoping to channel the flood of information. Yet the global convergence of choice (sometimes the convergence of fact and opinion) only deepens the deluge.

Just imagine being a medical doctor in this Age of Convergence. Imagine how much must be known when so much can be known. Here's an illustration I recently read in The Economist:
"Whereas doctors a century ago were expected to keep up with the entire field of medicine, now they would need to be familiar with about 10,000 diseases, 3,000 drugs and more than 1,000 lab tests a study in 2004 suggested that in epidemiology alone it would take 21 hours of work a day just to stay current."
Our students know this feeling all too well.

Yet rather than focus further, instead of drilling more deeply and more narrowly into one choice or another, many follow the counter-trend: the convergence of formally distinct things into meta-processes with no meaningful distinction between here and there, between being and doing. If one cannot know everything, perhaps one cannot know anything.

Copying-and-pasting become authorship -- plagiarism, an issue of technology not of identity, merely an economy of scale. In the corporate domain and in the educational domain, more and more once-sacrosanct signs of selfhood become outsourced. Even the evaluation of plagiarism need not depend on the sharp eyes of a professor, thanks to

Needless to say, this process accelerates even further when the corporation and the college become indistinguishable. For many observers (and more than a few participants) the motive force for all this convergence is technology alone. The ethic -- is efficiency.

Consider a provocative prediction recently offered by Greg Papadopoulos. In a blog-post that bounced from techie to techie worldwide, Papadopoulos revitalized Thomas J. Watson's infamous prediction that the world of the future will only need five computers. Watson may have been mocked through the years (if he ever actually made such a prediction, Papadopoulos reminds us) but the idea may turn out to be sound.

One of these five computers is Amazon, that global river of electronic commerce that produces little but processes endlessly. An even more obvious example, says Papadopoulos, is Google. Once simply a clever search engine, Google has become a convergence of processors and processes that blurs the distinction between search and discovery.

Think about it… When your tools for writing and speaking and searching and storing aren't just supported by the same company -- but increasingly the same thing -- convergence becomes more than a technological fact. It becomes a social force.

What could possibly come next?

Looking forward (with a necessary nod to that frustrating but visionary theorist, Marshall McLuhan) we behold a vision of the planet stitching itself together electronically, forging a singular nervous system composed of data, lots of data that must be collected and tagged and analyzed and operationalized. Seas of data. Oceans of data. More than megabytes or terabytes or petabytes or yottabytes. So much data that no human being can ever hope to catalog it all.

Recalling a recent Facebook petition to amend the list of approved SI-prefixes, we might measure data one day in hellabytes (though, as our friends at Google will attest, a hellabyte is pretty puny when compared to a Googolbyte).

Some folks refer to this emerging network that collects data from embedded sensors and interactive devices as an "Internet of Things." Study those friendly YouTube videos produced by IBM to sell this idea, and you'll recognize the world of today -- only one made more efficient, thanks to this corporate convergence of computers into a ubiquitous network (and sales force).

People celebrating the "Internet of Things" don't see a technological sublime so much as a gradual tightening of our consensual bonds... What Cisco calls "The Human Network."

Other folks, like Ray Kerzweil survey the horizon and see signs of singularity, the convergence of machine intelligences, the vertiginous spinning of cycles that will transform humanity, viciously or virtuously, into something unrecognizable from its present state.

Fredric Brown's short story, "Answer," makes it, at least, comprehensible. Here's a summary [Note: here's Brown's original]:

It is the future. And all the computers in existence are integrated into a supercomputer. Mortal minds built it, but individual brains can hardly match its collective power. With this convergence, there is hope that one device will gather all the knowledge available to our tiny minds and answer the questions that exceed our intellect. Thus the moment arrives and the switch is thrown. The supercomputer is online. An operator addresses the machine with the most obvious question: "Is there a God?" A flash of lightning strikes the device, destroying the off-switch, and the answer marks a new day: There is now.

All right, we needn't dwell in dystopian musings when discussing convergence. T.S. Eliot's Prufrock might "[squeeze] the universe into a ball," but the world we call "real" somehow manages to spin slowly enough for most of us to stick around. It's just doesn't spin the same way for everyone.

Put another way, convergence is global, but it is hardly universal. Consider China, where three mega-cities -- Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou -- have converged into a mega-region comprising about 120 million people. Back in the U.S., 30 percent of Detroit's 138 square-miles of land are abandoned [I borrowed this statistic from Time Magazine's Detroit Blog]. In the Motor City, as the prairie takes hold, some streets don't need paving; they need mowing. In some places -- in the slums that ring the gleaming world-cities and amid the decay of industrial-age sprawl -- convergence is another word for collapse.

And in those deserts of the real we find nothing more, and nothing less, than a particular people in a particular place.

Where then do we find ourselves in this Age of Convergence?

Where, and how, and as whom? Starting with the "where," we might ultimately occupy a small place -- not the one condemned by Jamaica Kincaid in her book A Small Place, but rather a seemingly infinite space shrunk into a nutshell, a place no more real than a map-of-empire that flutters raggedly atop the desert.

Baudrillard and Borges searched the detritus of modernity for this ruin, and I followed their trails for a time. But the real-fake city, its intoxicating, phantasmagoric convergence of pleasures and places -- its new airports and malls and hotels that have learned much from those old arcades and world's fairs and amusement parks -- the world that has learned much from Las Vegas -- calls forth the flâneur gaze of Walter Benjamin.

I imagine Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, strolling the convolutes of his labyrinth-city of juxtaposed orders -- one turned inside out, the other turned outside in -- and all those crystal palaces click together, converging into the same place.

Inspired by Benjamin's doomed quest, I also stroll an architecture of ideas, borrowing Latin and Greek roots to illustrate omnitopia, a structural and perceptual enclave whose apparently distinct locales convey inhabitants to a singular place.

On describing omnitopia -- a convergence likely to elicit linguistic clucks -- I recall C.P. Scott's response to a similar etymological mash-up: "Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it." Ever the optimist, I continued anyway. Writing my book, City Ubiquitous, I proposed five components of omnitopia: dislocation, conflation, fragmentation, mobility and mutability.

This framework has helped me see some fascinating phenomena in the past few years. Of course, I am hardly the first person to jam the Latin "all" and Greek "place" together. Other writers have also played with "omnitopia" [Dung Kai-cheung, Karen Cunningham, and Robert Redeker, most notably]. Only thanks to Google do we discover each other and smile.

Where I depart from most others, though, is my interest in how we experience convergence from the perspective of pleasure. Thanking Brian Ott for this inspiration, I also offer props to Michael Bowman for his advice that I more closely investigate Benjamin's concept of intoxication during my last research trip to Las Vegas. I should add that Bowman, without knowing it, inspired me to re-read Hunter S. Thompon's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from a more, shall we say, methodological perspective.

Putting it directly [and it's about time] the pleasure of convergence -- and its price -- is the power to shrink the world into a more manageable form. Thus the reality of places and people, the bumpy and complex reality of things, converges into a small constellation of images and texts that are prized for their iconography and ease of transference, not their verisimilitude.

Speaking first about photographs and then about other souvenirs of modernity, Benjamin reminds us in his Little History of Photography:
"Such works can no longer be regarded as the products of individuals; they have become a collective creation, a corpus so vast -- it can be assimilated only through miniaturization."
Eventually things themselves become less meaningful. Even prints of places [photographs] diminish in value. In fact, Caitlin McDevitt writes in the Washington Post that the number of photographs printed in 2013 will be one-third less than those printed in 2008. Social-networking sites help explain why: "Nearly 40 percent of households with digital cameras no longer print out their pictures."

Why should they?

Prints are here or there. The value of convergence is everywhere. The pleasure is not in the thing itself; the pleasure is the collapse of distance between one thing and a myriad of other things. Commoditized, things and people blur into one endless continuum [The writers of South Park made that point most recently with their Facebook episode, You Have 0 Friends].

In search of aura, we may reject convergence. Yet this omnitopian mode of thinking has much to teach us about the state and fate of the world.

Which leads us to the final question: Who are we in this Age of Convergence, particularly those of us who would profess the art and science of communication? And what do we have to teach? I ask this, limited somewhat by my own personal blinders as a college professor. Yet I imagine we all have some opinion about the role of the classroom in an era when bricks and mortar seem hopelessly out-of-date.

I once read [and forgive me, I don't remember where] that a time traveler from the nineteenth century would marvel at our age -- gasping at the speeds of our interstate highways and the sounds of ubiquitous voices, staring awestruck at our "days of miracle and wonder." Knocked nearly silent with reverence for our panoply of communications technologies, the traveler might barely be able to mouth the words: "This is a long distance call." Yet our temporal pilgrim [a person for whom Paul Simon's Boy in the Bubble would contain no irony] could visit a typical college classroom, sit in one of those chairs arranged by rows, and stare up at a lecturing professor -- and feel right at home.

Maybe it's true: Maybe the edu-disciplinary apparatus has changed that little.

So we fill the classroom with multimedia stimuli, promising more synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and we teach our students to become sifters of knowledge, drifters upon the ocean of data. We teach form, because few of us have the time or desire to evaluate content. And we abandon the pretense of isolation when, after all, no disciplinary bulwark can stand up against a campus committee possessing the power of the purse. Many of us, despite our best intentions, teach our students that no hidden truth can withstand a Google search.

In short, we tear the Ivory Tower down.

And I say, Good Riddance.

My personal kind of convergence, a breezy intersection of high theory and low culture, some sampling from varied literatures (as if the marketplace of ideas is really an all-you-can-eat buffet) and most definitely the collapse of formally insurmountable barriers between "us" and "them" -- between "you" and "I" -- this particular persona I perform as a teacher and writer would have no place in that old Tower. In every possible way, convergence brought me here. It gave me the opportunity to speak with you.

So despite my ambivalence, I'm not here to trash convergence.

I simply believe that increased communication made possible by convergence -- thanks to collapsing barriers between fields of inquiry and the torrents of media that allow us to whisper or shout -- sometimes to a few, sometimes to multitudes -- this convergence compels us to consider what we value as communicators.

As for me, and the classroom I long to share with my students, I value the French notion of locale, a place imbued with time and character. I'm not talking about fauxcales like FarmVille or "Your Neighborhood Applebee's" or some Stealth Starbucks swirled up to resemble an "authentic" coffee bar (whatever that means). I'm talking about a place, one that's artificial as all places are to some extent, yet one composed of people who believe they can be who they are.

The classroom can be that kind of place -- even in this Age of Convergence.

The world outside becomes a vivid context for the words we read. The laptop on my podium opens up more windows than one room can ever contain. And my students have finally taught me that they don't only use mobile phones in class to tap out secret texts. But the unmediated moment of serendipity -- the courage of a shy student choosing to take a public stand -- the thrill when a lecture veers off course and becomes a conversation -- the surprise when strangers gather around the light of an idea and warm up to each other…

This convergence, more than any other, is communication, the open door that leads to the one most important place in the world: the place where people are who they are together.

I conclude, grateful for the time you've granted me, with a reminder. As students of communication -- and all of us have much to learn -- we need not build Towers of Ivory or Information.

The cell locks us into a contract without real contact.

Yes, we are mobile, no matter where we go or stay in the physical world. But our mobility is not our identity. Something dusty and old remains, a remnant of why we joined ourselves into civilization in the first place.

In this Age of Convergence we form wandering tribes that get lost now and again in the desert. We thirst for connection, and sometimes we despair. Still, wherever we go, our society is mediated by communication, not by its tools. In this way, omnitopia and locale reveal the same truth.

Convergence cannot be confused with community.

(Image Credits: McDonald's: Andrew F. Wood - Crystal Palace: Wikipedia Commons - Old Man and "Computer": Troels Eklund Andersen - Las Vegas Skyline: Andrew F. Wood - Classroom: Pink Floyd's The Wall - Loneliest Phone Booth: Andrew F. Wood)

1 comment:

Coach Clark said...

Love this. All of it. Esp the last third.