Tag Archives: Neil Postman

Riots in Real Time

L.A. is such a mystery to me, as much now as it ever was; as baffling now as it was to my 9-year-old self watching the 1992 riots unfold live on the news, or to my 11-year-old self witnessing the surreal O.J. Simpson Bronco chase on the 405, a freeway I’ve come to know well in recent years.

In my younger days, L.A. was Bayside High, California Dreams, Encino Man, “Valley Girls,” Beverly Hills 90210, Disneyland, Hollywood, the Oscars. Or it was a place of constant calamity: the Northridge earthquake, mudslides, fires, various  car chases chronicled by the vulture news helicopters L.A. helped normalize. The point is: my understanding of L.A. was (and still is, to some extent) formed by media portrayals, mass-communicated narratives of “reality” packaged chiefly as entertainment. This is how we understand the world.

The ubiquity of media and its nonstop coverage of events has gradually shaped the way we perceive reality. So much of what we know about the world, and how we know it, relies on the way we receive it via media. When I was growing up, that meant television and movies. Now, it includes a whole lot more.

I expect that for many in my generation who grew up far from Los Angeles, the L.A. Riots were a formative influence in the shaping of perceptions of the City of Angels. I remember watching it on the evening news from my comfortable suburban home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, feeling like I was witnessing something from a movie, or at least something happening in a third world country. The surreal drama and (dare I say it) can’t-turn-away entertainment of it all was precisely what the mediators were going for. It’s engrossing. Big ratings.

Los Angeles lends itself especially well to the surrealist blurring of “news” and “entertainment,” perhaps because this town is the world’s largest factory of fiction, even while it is home to 4 million very real and very explosive, intersecting stories. In many ways the city narrates itself, making sense of its impenetrable complexity through reductionist cliches (E!), gossip blogs (TMZ, Gawker) and self-referential experiments in storytelling (think of The Hills, the Kardashians or anything featuring non-stars who become stars simply by playing the part on TV).

Against this backdrop, I present @realtimeLARiots for your consideration. Operated by L.A.’s local NBC news station, this Twitter account has over the last few weeks presented a fascinating experiment in anachronistic media narrative: what would the #LARiots have looked like to us had they been narrated tweet-by-tweet? In 1992 all we had were local news choppers and CNN coverage. TV. Twenty years later, the Internet and social media allows for a more real-time, fragmented, staccato form of storytelling. What does  that look like when applied to a dynamic, unfolding-over-days crisis like the Rodney King riots?

I followed @realtimeLARiots because I thought it would be interesting/entertaining to relive those riots via Twitter; a history lesson as told through a contemporary medium. And indeed it was. The account incorporated archival photos, videos, quotes, and statistics seamlessly, telling the story of the riots through 20 years of collected data and hindsight, with a tone of urgency (#crisis) that lent the experiment a feeling of almost-authenticity.

The experiment raised a few questions for me:

  • How have “big events” been understood in recent years in a different way through social media than they would have been had they occurred decades ago? 9/11 predated social media, but it’s interesting to think about how our understanding of that day might look different had we all experienced it on Facebook and Twitter.
  • What does it mean to receive 140-character bursts of news (#UPDATE: Riot-related injuries up 1,800, says LA hospitals)–news that is very real and tragic for the people it is actually happening to–in between tweets about Jessica Simpson’s baby and a viral video about cute kittens? How does the leveling “feed” format of social media intake change the way we understand the weight and significance of any given thing?
  • What is the real purposes of something like @realtimeLARiots? Is it to educate and inform, to entertain, or to try something interesting and experimental with Twitter? I suspect it is the latter.

The whole thing feels like something Marshall McLuhan or Jean Baudrillard would be fascinated by, and indeed, I think this quote from the latter captures something of what we’re talking about here:

“…what if the sign did not relate either to the object or to meaning, but to the promotion of the sign as sign? And what if information did not relate either to the event or the facts, but to the promotion of information itself as event? And more precisely today: what if television no longer related to anything except itself as message? This is where McLuhan’s formulation can be seen to be absolutely brilliant: the medium has swallowed the message and it is this, the multi-medium, which is proliferating in all directions. And we are, indeed, seeing terrestrial and cable channels and services proliferating while actual programme content is disappearing and melting away — the TV viewer’s almost involuntary channel-hopping here echoing television’s own obsession with its own channels.

“But this is not where the true corruption lies. The secret vice, already pointed out by Umberto Eco, lies in the way the media become self-referring and speak only among themselves. The multimedium is becoming the intermedium. This already problematic situation is aggravated when it is a single hypermedium — television — eyeing itself. All the more so as this tele-centrism is combined with a very severe implicit moral and political judgement: it implies that the masses basically neither need nor desire meaning or information — that all they ask for is signs and images. Television provides them with these in great quantities, returning to the real world, with utter — though well camouflaged — contempt, in the form of ‘reality shows’ or vox-pops — that is to say, in the form of universal self-commentary and mocked-up scenarios, where both the questions and the answers are ‘fixed’.”

-Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out (2002)

I Joined Facebook… Sigh.

September 19 was a dark day for me… but one that I feared would come soon enough.

I joined Facebook.

This is after years and years of publicly campaigning against it in articles such as this and this… oh and this one as recently as January where I talked about “the irrevocable damage Facebook and its various counterparts have done to meaningful communication.”

And now I am a part of the monster, feeding it like everyone else…

Laughable, I know. It will take a while for me to recover from this swift idealistic collapse. Now I know what Obama must feel like after talking so much about not running a negative campaign and then being forced to do it anyway.

Not that I was forced to do it, but believe me when I say that I had to join Facebook. Any professional journalist really cannot function without it these days, and my job at Biola magazine (especially some articles I’m writing now) necessitated some serious usage of Facebook.

I sickens me when technology wins, when I can no longer survive without it. This is like the cell phone: so many people held out and refused to get them five years ago, but now we’d all die without them. These are moments when Neil Postman’s Technopoly seems more prescient than ever.

I joined Facebook with the hope that I could “hide” and only use it secretly for work purposes. Ha. That lasted about 30 minutes earlier today, quickly devolving into just another Facebook startup: “friends,” friend-requests, profile-making, etc. I’ve really fallen fast, giving myself over to my sworn enemy with crude ease and jolting swiftness. At this rate of ideological turnaround I will be Facebook’s biggest champion by this time next week. Heaven forbid.

Four Easy Pieces

I.

A lot of people are hating on Prince Caspian, for understandable (if not completely sympathetic) reasons: the movie is vastly different than the book, especially in overall tone and spirit. The film is a swashbuckling war epic that is about 66% battle scenes and/or sword fights, and certainly this is not what Lewis’s classic children’s tale is about. And yet I enjoyed the film, and I’m perplexed at all those who angrily dismiss it as “missing the point.” What do you expect when a children’s book from 50 years ago is transformed into a big-budget summer blockbuster in the year 2008? (That said, I do suggest reading this creative critique of the film.)

I don’t want to defend the film too much, because it is certainly not perfect; but to judge it on the merits of the book is not completely fair. The moving image, after all, is a remarkably different medium than the written word. Cinema removes the element of imagination (or at least downplays it) which is crucial to books and novels (especially children’s fantasy!). In books, we visualize the characters, settings, and action. In film, it is done for us—our attention directed hither and yon from one set piece, sequence, or costume to another. In lieu of the removed element of “interaction” (the ability of the reader to co-create the reality of the story), cinema must compensate in other ways: offering high-intensity spectacle, gloss, and action to hold our interest and transport us into a world.

To fault Caspian for being too action-heavy, then, is to misunderstand the purpose of cinematic adaptation. A film could never equal the experience of a book; the best book-to-film adaptations are those that are the most true to form (i.e. cinematic) and that don’t get bogged down in something that is ontologically contrary (i.e. the literary). Film theorist Andre Bazin harped on this, and for good reason. He wrote that “If the cinema today is capable of effectively taking on the realm of the novel and the theater, it is primarily because it is sure enough of itself and master enough of its means so that it no longer needs assert itself in the process. That is to say it can now aspire to fidelity—not the illusory fidelity of a replica—through an intimate understanding of its own true aesthetic structure which is a prerequisite and necessary condition of respect for the works it is about to make its own.”

The film version of Narnia does Lewis justice to not try to capture his literary genius on film. It does better to focus on its own form (spectacularized summer blockbuster) and wow the audience with cinematic wonder, in the way Lewis wows us with his poetic literary whimsy. One might complain, for example, that the film transforms Susan into a Tarantino-eque killing machine, wielding a bow-and-arrow with Legolas-like tenacity. But this is a film, built around action, so it’s much better to have our heroine Susan smack-dab in the middle of it all rather than cheering from the off-camera sidelines. Sure, the film loses much of the book’s innocence and spiritual “themes”—the “deeper magic” of Narnia, after all, is not something that WETA special effects can really evoke (certainly not as well as the written words of Lewis could). But the film offers us something altogether more visceral that the book could never express. But we’re talking about apples and oranges here: films and books. We should move on.

II.

“The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan. Meaning: the form of a message shapes its content. Indeed, the form is itself a kind of content. McLuhan wrote in the 60s, as the television form was revolutionizing the world. His contribution to communication theory was the idea that technological change (with particular respect to media and communication technologies) shapes humanity in deep and significant ways: new media forms “work us over completely,” he wrote. “They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

McLuhan divided history into eras and epochs of media transformation: the tribal era (oral, tribal culture, face-to-face communication), the literate era (invention of alphabets and written language, emphasis on the visual), the print era (printing press, birth of mass communication, visual emphasis), and the electronic era (computers, telegraph, emphasis on touch and hearing). Whether or not one agrees completely with McLuhan’s somewhat suspicious lineage here, I think it is definitely true that technology effects how humans relate to each other and the world.

And I wonder if we are not moving into some new “era” that is better fit to our digified, attention-challenged generation? A sort of bite-sized, schizophrenic, decontextualized-yet-hyperlinked period of human civilization.

III.

Television was probably the beginning of this “snack” era. Its form, as noted by McLuhan’s heir Neil Postman, was one of decontextualized soundbites: segments of entertainment juxtaposed with advertisements, “news,” sports, and other diverse occurrences. The form of television news, for example, was one of total and utter schizophrenia: “this happened… and then this… now weather, now sports, now BREAKING NEWS, now pop culture fluff…” This very form (emphasizing ands rather than whys), argued Postman, has conditioned the human mind to be less capable of understanding context and perspective. In the stream of broadcast images and commercials, there is very little recourse to depth or understanding.

And how much moreso is this the case with the Internet! Here we are freed from all over-arching narratives, causal linkage or contextualized coherence. We can (and do) hop from CNN.com to TMZ.com, from Bible.com to ESPN, picking up bits and pieces and snippets of whatever our fingers feel led to click on. Since I’m on my computer now I might as well mimic this in my writing, since writing as a form is changing as well…

Here I am on CNN.com, surveying the “news” on Sunday, May 18, 2008. Oh, there is a positive review from Cannes of Indiana Jones! Richard Corliss liked it, saying that it “delivers smart, robust, familiar entertainment.” This eases my mind a bit… though I have heard that other Cannes audience members were not quite as wowed as Corliss was… Speaking of Cannes, I just saw a picture of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie from the Kung Fu Panda premiere. Looking very, very good. I hope Brad Pitt isn’t messing up Terrence Malick’s new film Tree of Life, which is filming in Texas right now. Evidently Angelina is pregnant with twins, which probably means some unfortunate little Burmese orphan won’t get adopted this year. Speaking of Burma, I’m now clicking on the latest CNN headline about the cyclone in Mynamar… Evidently the UN is now saying over 100,000 might be dead. Meanwhile, China just started its three days of mourning for the earthquake victims, which now number 32,477. And if we’re talking numbers, I now see that Prince Caspian raked in $56.6 million to be the top film at the box office this weekend. That’s a lot more that Speed Racer made last week, but a lot less than Iron Man made in its first weekend. And the death toll from the earthquake in China is a lot more than the toll of those killed in tornadoes last weekend in America (24 I seem to recall), but a lot less than the 2004 tsunami disaster (more than 225,000 killed).

IV.

Unfortunately, as easy and accessible as the “news” and “numbers” are for all these things, there is scarcely little in the way of making sense of it all… Indeed, the very fact that we juxtapose things like Cannes glamour and human misery (earthquakes, cyclones) as if they were equally crucial bits of information makes it difficult to think of anything in terms of meaning or context. But perhaps we don’t want to. Perhaps the world is just too crazy, too horribly gone-wrong to reckon with on any level deeper than the snack-sized soundbite. To come to terms with the scope of the Asian disasters means to think about deeper things like God, death, evil, and nature, which gets quite broad and philosophical in a jiffy. Taking time to make connections is a dying art, just as reading is… and writing, and newspapers, and printed anything… Basically the “long form” and all that that entails is falling to the wayside in our easy-pieces-based culture. Thus, I should probably end this rather long blog post, and I should probably end somewhere near the start, as if clicking back on my browser about fifty times.

Prince Caspian the book and Prince Caspian the movie are quite different things, representing different times and cultures and mindsets. It’s true that the latter loses some of the magic and meaning of the former, but so it is with life these days. We’ve supplanted meaning with simulacra and snack-sized spectacle. Even though we probably need it more than ever, “the deeper magic” is ever more abstract and inaccessible to a world so desperate for instant and easy gratification.