Monday, December 14, 2015

When media is everywhere where are we?

There used to be this thing called media, that happened on fairly expensive, unwieldy equipment, almost always kept indoors, and created by an elite group of people that presumably knew better than the rest of us. It was transmitted to us at first be relatively few channels, later by too many, and still it seemed there was never anything on we wanted to watch.

Today there’s this thing called media that still resides in our homes but it also resides in our workplaces, in our social spaces, and in the palms of our hands, where, each year, increasing amounts of it are created and consumed.

This means many things, some culturally significant, others entertaining or bad for our health. Or both. For example, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices we (or is it just me?) often find ourselves annoyed in public spaces, at stores, and on transit; all because some people don’t consider that the world does not want to be privy to their extended conversations.  

Chiropractors of the world may rejoice, but many of us suffer from, or are apparently about to suffer from, ‘text neck’. 

And otherwise (presumably) rational people are succumbing to face plants in conspicuous places.

But beyond the ubiquity of communication – and the psychological and physical discomfort noted above – what are the ways in which we can better understand the effects of mobile media in relation to our environment?

Seeing that it’s the holiday season, the Demassed blog is offering up a platter of miniature cognitive sandwiches in the form of some issues on this topic that were recently discussed by the group assembled for the Monday night seminars, a tradition started by pioneering media theorist Marshall McLuhan during his teaching days at the University of Toronto

The topic on the table was: In the mobile world is there a sense of place?  Taking it on were:

Some thought starters were introduced to frame the discussion:

The concept of acoustic space: A space with no centre, no front, characterized by an “all-at-once-ness”, in the parlance of McLuhan himself.

The work of theorist Joshua Meyrowitz, who, 30 years ago, wrote an incredibly forward looking book on the impact of electronic media on our behaviour called "No Sense Of Place", introducing such ideas as the blurring of public and private experiences and the creation and merging of new identities created through our exposure to broadcast media. Bold thoughts indeed for 1985, and definitely following in the footsteps of McLuhan’s work on concepts such as the de-tribalizing effects of media; e.g. the printed word took us away from our ‘tribes’ because we could consume information privately, in isolation, away from our communities. Similarly, broadcast media has the power to re-tribalize disparate, large groups of people, on the basis that they are exposed to similar cultural expressions and norms. In other words, looking at our relationships with the world as media-ted.

The question of the evening was then posed: In the mobile world is there a sense of place? The discussion went on for an hour or so but in the name of brevity I'll bring you a handful of highlights.

Ferrara of the Institute Without Boundaries urged us think about, for example, big box retail as a response to the end of the physical world we once knew. It may be that mobile, rather than creating placelessness, allows the injection of place into everything. We are nomads and every place is part of our life as we move through it. Placelessness = industrial society and we are now post-industrial.

Cognitive Neuroscientist Ellard pointed out that the hardware in our brain wants to recognize particular places. Mobile devices intensify our sense of place; a new kind of awareness results. We now carry media-ting devices and the ability to insert and extract information on the go. This adds place-ful-ness to what otherwise might be placelessness.

Journalist and author Silcoff put it this way: We’re all armed with digital Swiss army knives, so how does this change our relationship to the world? Possibly by what we no longer have, such as the disappearance of things like the banks on the corner, that at one time were some of the grandest architecture in our everyday environments.  Instead we get decentralized, specialized cityscapes. Kids find their place in this world early, via screen time. Note that many of the younger generation don’t know how to use a paper map, because digital maps bring the world to wherever the user is and zero in on that location accordingly, whereas paper maps require the user to find his/her place in the larger landscape. 

Such inversions of context and power structures are typical of the Gutenberg revolution, as well as such McLuhan-inspired ideas as 'we shape our tools and then our tools shape us'.

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