New massages from an old media guy. Or maybe old massages. Or just therapy.
Back when I had a punk rock/folk art/west coast cartoon surrealist art gallery, and AOL was new and groovy, I spent some time in an alternative rock folder. My intent was to see if attending to the conversation in this folder would help me to determine which posters featuring which new bands I should buy.
Instead, I found myself in a pointless discussion about Nirvana with somebody who was, memory says, a sophomore at Wayne State University. I had been a working music critic/journalist in Seattle throughout the grunge years. After a few rounds trying to disabuse this poster of a variety of arrant notions, I realized I was wasting my time and running up my bill in the bargain.
And resolved never to do so again.
Ahem. Until this last week when I got caught up in an unintended flame war here. Which I shouldn’t have done, but I was in a mood and, also, curious. Even though I’m no longer a landed participant in the media wars, I remain curious how they work, how information is being received and disseminated. How we are being transformed by the technology we use so constantly and fretfully.
By way of fuller disclosure, sometimes my (self-appointed) role here is to be a provocateur. To stir up things, because (alas) it seems clear that in this new media stirring up a storm draws more readers than does a decent piece of writing. And so now I know that even though it was not — on that occasion, anyhow — my intent to dance with hornets, it worked. That particular blog received four times the page views my normal work here does. (And, again, that wasn’t my intent.) Now, whether those additional views will translate into new readers for Kyla’s site, I don’t know. They may well have been horrified at the idiocy on display and sworn off the whole thing.
I have a handful of interwoven thoughts to share this morning.
(1) Back when Marshall McLuhan’s theories were of such cultural import that he had a cameo in one of Woody Allen’s funnier movies, I never read him. I did haul his books from apartment to apartment for years, and I did glean from a class on communications theory which abstracted some of his writings a particular way of looking at media, a criticism he leveled at television. Hot v. cold, and I sometimes get them backwards, but the point is the same.
Hot media forces the recipient to use their head, their imagination. To actively consume. To question and think and integrate the ideas into their existing schema. Books and magazines are hot media, or were in the old days.
Cold media – television, in McLuhan’s time — filled in all the blanks. It obliges one to do nothing more than passively sit still and take what is given. The late poet Steven Jesse Bernstein had a more succinct, sexual way of phrasing that.
I bring this up to test a theory: That the internet has been transformed from hot to cold. Or maybe it was always cold and I simply refused to acknowledge that fact.
If I understand what I learned last week correctly, the expectation now is that writers/bloggers/journalists (whatever we are now; whatever I am in this context) are really aggregators. What is wanted, then, are links…in our case, to sounds and images. Not ideas, so much.
So if I wrote three paragraphs extolling the virtues of Ted Hawkins and by some miracle found that somebody on YouTube had posted a live, in performance video of Mr. Hawkins (they hadn’t, the last time I checked, which is an ongoing frustration), that would be a more successful blog than if I simply wrote at length – as I am doing now – about ideas which happen to interest me.
I am not sure that this constitutes progress. But, then, it’s not up to me, is it?
That said, I am not an aggregator. I’m a guy who chooses to think in public. Sometimes I am wrong. Sometimes I am wrong on purpose. I’m not going to link to shiny new things. I want you to read some of the things I write here and go away thinking. I want you to pick up CDs off the shelf dusty with disuse and see what they sound like. I want you to read books. I want you to go for long walks or drives or whatever it is you do and contemplate ideas raised here.
Maybe that’s not what this is for, anymore. But it’s what I’m for.
(2) The difficulty of context. I did not do well in that CMU 102 class at the University of Washington, but I did grasp a couple concepts which have served me over the years, regardless the lousy grade. (And usually I got good grades.) I have used this example before, but it serves.
The studies in the late 1970s argued that roughly half of what people read or hear is routinely misunderstood. When I write about language being slippery, this is what I mean.
An example, which was reinforced a few weeks back at the manhut when a stray kitten crawled up in my lap and purred itself to sleep. (Not very manly, eh? Good football game that night, though, whoever played. And finest kind homebrew.) The noun cat. Three letters, a simple word.
At least it should be a simple word.
But if you happen to be a new mother who believes the old wives’ tale that your cat will be jealous of the new child and sleep on its face to smother it, well, the word cat is fraught with all kinds of fears. And the cat itself is consigned to the cold outdoors. Or, if you’re allergic to the critics, the seemingly normative sentence “The cat sat on the couch” means something different to you than it does to me.
(A reminder: My family does better with cats than we do with humans.)
I worked my way through college setting type, and formed the notion that if I had some control over how the words looked – if I could set the context – I could bump the needle of communication up a few percentage points. This is how and why I came to study graphic design, not formally but in my role as typesetter and editor, and in my friendship with a handful of terrific and under-appreciated publication designers (Dale Yarger, Jesse Marinoff Reyes, and Art Chantry).
What I believe, after all those years, is that working in concert with a writer and a gifted photographer, I am a tolerably good enough art director to make the whole package tell the same story. To amplify itself so as to make its meaning more clear. Not crystal clear, but better. If you noticed, for example, typically the main features in the magazines were set in a different typeface from the balance of the magazine. This wasn’t simply because I am a restless designer; it was because I carefully selected a typeface to set off the mood and message of the piece.
This is, I understand, a small thing, an irrelevant thing in the new media where I now ply my trade. My former trade.
But as a publication designer I can (sorry: could) change how words feel to you as a reader, not simply by what typeface I choose but by what size the letters are, how long the lines are, and how they are decorated with imagery.
None of which I can do here.
I am, perhaps, the only person who is frustrated by this.
Pete Townsend has a great song (on Rough Mix, I think), “I just want to be misunderstood/I want to be feared in my neighborhood.” Fun to sing along with, not who I have ever wished to be.
There was a third item, but it will keep. This is already too long.