The March 13 cover of Wired Magazine is a good example of using visual rhetoric to explain how older technologies are being "killed off" by newer ones. The cover shows a bullet smashing through a portable AM/FM radio to illustrate the widely held notion that iPods and media monopolies are killing radio.
However, Charles C. Mann's article "The Resurrection of Indie Radio" in the March 13 issue of Wired suggests a different point of view:
Noting radio's declining audiences, recurring low-level payola scandals, horrendous public image, and competition for drive-time ears from iPods, satellite broadcasting, and cell phones, pundits have been gleefully pronouncing the medium's last rites. But they may well be wrong. Rather than being on life support, radio in fact is on the verge of its boldest technological change since the introduction of FM stereo in the 1960s. Not only that, it may be on the threshold of another golden age, one which could have almost as powerful an impact as the first. And in the vanguard of this movement, bizarrely enough, are many of the same flaccid, reactionary media giants that put radio in a coma to begin with.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how, according to the mainstream media, emerging technologies such as the Internet signify the death of journalism, photojournalism, public relations, television, and telephony, i.e., "everything."
The first thing I would like to suggest about all of this is that emerging technologies signify opportunities for us to reflect upon how communicative processes may or not be changing in the world. In fact, just sitting here publishing to my blog about things I care about may help answer my own questions. Sort of, maybe, whatever.
The danger of all this is that it is so easy to get caught up in the hype of the latest and greatest technology that we forget about the qualitative aspects of communication. Speed is cool. Speed is sexy. Speed sells. I want speed. Give me speed.....
If I don't "get it", will getting more of it, in less time, really help me "get it"?
I think about rituals and habits a lot when I observe how students appear so "plugged" into new technologies in the classroom that they seem to "tune out" to learning and listening. I think about how the laptop computer, wireless internet, text messaging, cellular phones, camera phones, iPods, and instant messaging changes how I communicate with students in the classroom.
Bryan Alexander, co director for the Center of Educational Technology at Middlebury College,
wrote on the Humlab Blog about how my observation "draws our attention to the fairly murderous rhetoric sometimes attached to new media."
This signals a connection to the Internet as horrible, threatening place meme. It also suggests a link to social Darwinism, with its fetish of competitive violence.
Moreover, the blogger goes on to link this discourse with an uncritical obsession with speed.
Why do we have to perceive something new as the "death" of something older?
I am curious about how human beings use metaphor and language to symbolize the uncertainty of societal and technological change. I was wondering what a conversation would have been like between a blacksmith and an auto mechanic when the blacksmith had to change a flat tire for the first time.
In his book Language as a Symbolic Action, Kenneth Burke suggests that in order for words to be reflection of reality they also can be considered a "selection" as well as a "deflection" of this reality. Burke argues:
Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality (p. 45).
As I understand it, Burke seems to be saying that every time a phrase such as "The End of Radio (As We Know It)" is used to describe a reality, there is also an implicit and explicit process of selection (to point out of something) as well as a process of deflection (to point away from something).
Clearly, language can create a tension in how we make sense of something. The role of the media, at least one role of the media as I see it, is to help us understand issues relevant to our lives. Using language to suggest that one from of technology "kills" another form of technology actually deflects "reality" away from inevitable change. The rhetoric of death surrounding new and old technologies deflects our attention away from the fact that what we are really afraid of is how this change impacts our lives. This sort of symbolic language creates, in some way, fear and confusion about emerging technologies. Further, this rhetoric creates a culture of division and alienation between those that are quick to grasp new ways of doing things against those that are comfortable with past ways of doing things. I would suggest that there is plenty of room for both old and new ways of thinking about technology. The problem with hyped-up mainstream media language is that it has a tendency to be overly simple, dumbed-downed when explaining complex ideas and issues to a general audience.
We select language to describe and explain something according to the expectations and obligations we feel are at stake in the communication. We use dramatic words and images to persuade others that our point of view is valid, worthy of consideration or truthful. We use language, visual or textual, to draw attention to something. The fact that human beings use language symbolically to communicate, in this instance a rhetoric that associates emerging technologies with death and destruction, comes as a second nature to us. Symbols can communicate higher more abstract ideas beyond the often obscure, mundane, calculating, causal and commonplace language of science used to express fact. Symbolic language extends fact to the realm of emotion, speculation and drama.
Special thanks Bryan Alexander for making me think about this aspect of language more. This is a much needed conversation that we should dedicate ourselves to developing over time.