03 October 2009

New media musings; quo vadis?

If I'm asking a rhetorical question about new media, I think it should be "Qua es vos iens" instead of "Quo vadis." I think. I guess it doesn't matter though. Latin's dead and everybody knows what "Quo vadis" means. Right? Well just in case, "Quo vadis" means "where are you going?"

I've been talking a lot about new media and social networking for the last couple of weeks. I never set out to become some kind of a player in the communication revolution going on in the world, but from the sound of things, that's precisely what I've become. I say from the sound of things, because I get approached pretty often by people who are looking for my opinion on these matters. This amuses me to no end. I'm just a guy of varied interests who likes to write. But I'm also someone who's been infected with a zealot's passion about all things new media. Even though I never set out to do anything but provide an online resource for my clients, this blog has taken on a life of its own and in so doing, it lit a fire inside of me I never knew was there.

I am amazed by the number of people I've met through this blog. And these are people with whom I've cultivated real relationships, despite the fact that I've never "met" most of them in the traditional sense. Were it not for blogging, news aggregators, Twitter and Facebook there is no way our paths would have crossed. Or could have crossed. This kind of global community building was impossible a short time ago. Never before in human history has it been possible to connect with people on a global scale like this. It's new, it's interesting as all get out and it's happening at increasing speed. I find it thrilling, but a surprising number of people are petrified by it. Along those lines, this video was being batted around Twitter this week:

Pretty wild stuff. This communication revolution isn't without its detractors or its casualties though. I've been a diehard newspaper guy my whole life and it's painful to watch them committing hara-kiri. I'm convinced that it is a suicide though. Print media won't adapt to the changing ways people get information and they won't let go of an old business model. Journalism's not going anywhere and Lord knows punditry's not either. But the idea of buying a newspaper every morning is dying fast. I'll miss newspapers as I've known them my whole life, but if we're lucky they'll take local TV news with them to the gallows.

Last Sunday I was caught in a traffic jam of biblical proportions on the freeway that connects Orlando to Tampa and then to St. Pete. What's ordinarily a two- to two-and-a-half hour drive turned into a five-hour-long ordeal. Clearly, there was a problem somewhere on I-4. As I was sitting in traffic, I started looking for a live traffic report on my iPhone so that I could find out what was happening and how long I could expect to be delayed. I Googled every search term I could think of but could only find the most vague of mentions of what I was involved in.

This is an actual photo I uploaded to Twitter as I sat in traffic last Sunday.

Whatever it was that was causing the delay, I couldn't find anything substantive on the websites of the newspapers or TV stations from Orlando, Tampa or Lakeland. It was a Sunday afternoon after all. So on a whim, I started Tweeting about being stuck on I-4. There were thousands of cars sitting all around me and as I started searching for Tweets about Sunday afternoon traffic in central Florida, I hit a goldmine of other people who were stuck in the same jam and Tweeting about it. Within five minutes I learned that there was a massive pile up about 20 miles ahead of me and that there was another big one about 50 miles ahead of it. These pile ups affected hundreds of thousands of people that day, not the thousands I suspected.

The traffic woes had erupted quickly and since it was at 5pm on a Sunday, the traditional new sources couldn't or hadn't responded to it yet. However, a couple of hundred participants in the actual event were armed with smartphones and Twitter accounts, and together we pieced together what had happened and how long we'd be sitting in traffic. That knowledge didn't speed anything up or make it better, but it sure was nice to know what to expect. It was a perfect illustration of the power of new media, or citizen journalists, or the communication revolution or whatever you want to call it.

I hear and read all of the hand wringing and the dire predictions of a falling sky, but I don't believe it for a second. It's human nature for some people to resist technological change. In another great find from Twitter this week, someone Tweeted a link to a blog called Alas, a blog. The post on Alas, a blog was an excerpt of an interview from Slate with a man named Dennis Barron. Dennis Barron just wrote a book about social media called A Better Pencil.

From the piece in Slate:

By now the arguments are familiar: Facebook is ruining our social relationships; Google is making us dumber; texting is destroying the English language as we know it. We're facing a crisis, one that could very well corrode the way humans have communicated since we first evolved from apes. What we need, so say these proud Luddites, is to turn our backs on technology and embrace not the keyboard, but the pencil.
Such sentiments, in the opinion of Dennis Baron, are nostalgic, uninformed hogwash. A professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Baron seeks to provide the historical context that is often missing from debates about the way technology is transforming our lives in his new book, "A Better Pencil." His thesis is clear: Every communication advancement throughout human history, from the pencil to the typewriter to writing itself, has been met with fear, skepticism and a longing for the medium that's been displaced.
Historically, when the new communication device comes out, the reaction tends to be divided. Some people think it's the best thing since sliced bread; other people fear it as the end of civilization as we know it. And most people take a wait and see attitude. And if it does something that they're interested in, they pick up on it, if it doesn't, they don't buy into it.
I start with Plato's critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They're not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down -- the ultimate irony.
We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won't have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there's no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant -- it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of "this is going to revolutionize everything" versus "this is going to destroy everything."

I think I just added a new title to my reading list. But I think I'll buy a copy of it for my Kindle.

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