We Can Change the Media

IMG_8021We can’t begin to fix our world’s most urgent problems using the media that facilitated them. Emerging, sui generis media are necessary to confront the existential threat of the climate crisis and the increasing tribalization of society. It’s entirely within our power to deliberately engineer a media ecology that will promote human virtues like kindness, compassion, and community, at precisely the moment our planet needs these virtues most.

As the media evolves, it alters brains and societies which subsequently invent new mediums, which alter brains and societies. It’s easy to forget that the media we consume is undergoing a constant transformation. We used to gather around the family piano for music. Now we check our phones every three minutes. Just as people no longer buy sheet music, one day we will no longer be so obsessively glued to our pocket computers. The media will change, and we’ll change along with it.

Decades from now, it will be said that in the early years of the twenty-first century, mass adoption of portable computing and communications devices coupled with the spread of social network technologies, Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AIML), cloud computing, virtual and augmented reality, and the blockchain created conditions that rewired the human brain and subsequently changed society.

What’s striking, in 2019, is the overriding sense that we’re stuck with the conditions of our media ecology, manifest through apps on our smart phones and other devices. We’re not. These conditions are historically anomalous. For the most part, we uncritically accept the properties of our current media ecology, even though key elements of this interconnected system of hardware, platforms, and apps barely existed a decade ago.

Twitter, Fox News, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix pull us into an uncertain future while technologies like books, DVDs, and network television provide a sort of umbilical cord back to the twentieth century. We exist in a painful, liminal state in which we seem to have traded intimate and private human connection for instantaneous, global connectivity. The malaise of the early twentieth century lies in the strange sensation that we enjoy advantages undreamed of by people a hundred ago, yet find ourselves partioned from one another, incubating in either of two increasingly strident ideological echo chambers.

We seem to have come to a cultural consensus that the state of the world is terrible and getting worse. We feel more divided than ever, and attempts to connect with those who perceive the world in radically different terms than our own are futile at best, and at worst acquiescence to the morally repugnant. This isn’t because a fundamental property of being human makes it so. It’s because our platforms create a vortex of self-fullfilling negative prophecy that drag us deeper into hopelessness. Life doesn’t have to be this way. It’s going to stop being this way soon.

To understand how, we can first consider how the field of media ecology has proceeded through two phases and is about to enter a third: awareness, exploitation, and deliberate mindfulness.

First came the awareness that the methods by which we receive content influence us more profoundly than the content itself. We woke up to the fact that watching a lot of television changed how human beings conceived of reality in some fundamental ways. The media ecologists who continued pursuing the questions that theorist Marshall McLuhan initially raised, including Neil Postman and Sven Birkerts, spent much of the eighties and nineties critiquing television. Their engagement with media ecology took the form of elegies for print and the observation that we were “amusing ourselves to death.” Some of these mildly subversive critiques crept into popular entertainment, in such works as Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the TV series Max Headroom, John Carpenter’s They Live, and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.

Then the Web appeared. In the late nineties and early decades of the twenty-first century, our academic understanding of media ecology got absorbed into the business strategies of disruptive new platforms. Exploiting a new understanding of the neurological consequences of consuming various forms of media, these companies, some of which Jaron Lanier has come to call behavior modification empires, used what they understood about manipulating the brain’s pleasure centers to improve their shareholder value. These efforts were enough to sound alarms throughout Silicon Valley’s leadership class, prompting some to limit their own childrens’ access to the very devices and platforms they had invented and to issue public warnings and mea culpas. The government, meanwhile, has struggled to regulate platforms that they largely misunderstand, and which have proved to be major players in the drama that is the dismantling of democratic norms.

Any time that I feel unsatsified or disappointed with whatever is going on in my own life, I ask: so how is it I want things to be? I’m also tempted to ask this question to various friends or acquaintances who seem trapped in negative world views. At some point, it can be useful to ask such a person: how is it you wish to feel?

We can pose a similar question whenever we confront the tornado of knives that is Fox News, Twitter, and the rest. In 2019, the media itself is making us feel pretty miserable. So what would a medium that uplifts, empowers, and helps us truly connect with one another look like? What parts of the brain would it stimulate? How can we engineer user interfaces to encourage a bias for belonging? How can media—not the messages delivered by media, but the structural properties of media itself–prepare Generation Z to confront the growing threats of our own making to the existence of life on earth?

These are the sorts of questions I intend to take up on this blog. I have some kernels of ideas about how to engage emergent technology to honor humanity’s more noble and loving tendencies, and I’m curious to see where they lead. My goal is to use this blog as a petri dish for these ideas, and hopefully inspire a conversation among others, like me, who know that more humane methods of communication are yet to be invented if only we can imagine them.

Memoir Excerpt #2

The following excerpt is from my memoir, Some Dude’s Life

Television

Briefly, when I was around five years old, I became convinced that it was possible to trigger the faceless reactions of a live studio audience in my everyday life. I was a big fan of Happy Days and worshipped the Fonz. One night, as we were heading over to the Jeffersons for dinner, I decided that I would make my entrance like Fonzie, with the lapels of my jean jacket popped and my thumbs out. I assumed that this entrance would be met with the disembodied, admiring whoops that signalled Fonzie’s entrances at Al’s, but when I strutted through the Jefferson’s front door going “Ayyyyyyy!” only Tracy reacted, bursting out laughing, leaving me confused and disappointed.

Network television was the shag rug womb of the 1980s, its electrons firing insistently through the week, delivering comical misunderstandings, cops who had no choice but to break the rules, and adults looking devious while holding glasses of Zinfandel. My mother plopped me in front of a Canadian version of Sesame Street, with animated segments that taught the alphabet and numbers in French (“Un, deux, troi, quatre, cinq…”). Half a life later, watching a DVD of some of these epiodes as an adult, I was overcome by the eeriest nostalgia. I had no visual memory of these cartoons and sketches, but some part of my midbrain received them as echoes rising as from a televisual mine shaft plunging deep into preverbal memory.

The Monkees, a staple on KVOS channel 12, inspired my imaginary friends, Jack and Johnny, with whom I played in an imaginary band. I came to understand the 1940s cultural references in Warner Brothers cartoons and what “whoopie” meant on The Newlywed Game. I became emotionally invested in the plight of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island. In one episode, they’re hit with a typhoon, forcing them to frantically scramble for shelter. When the storm whipped Gilligan’s hat off his head, I burst into tears. Gilligan losing his iconic hat was an unimaginable tragedy to me. One scene later, he reappeared, having miraculously retrieved the hat, and I felt both relieved and disappointed that the show had skipped over how it had ended up back on his head.

The bargain basement parallel reality of Canadian broadcasting gave us two shows that in retrospect seem to have been more hallucinated than broadcast. The Friendly Giant featured an old man who stood amid dioramas, arranged doll furniture, and played folk songs on a recorder with a chicken puppet. Then jolly Mr. Dressup appeared, with his puppets Casey (a little boy) and Finnegan (a mute canine). I adored Mr. Dressup because he drew pictures on pads on an easel and looked like my dad.

My dad watched the news. Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson intoned the Pynchonian names of the Reagan era: Casper Weinberger, Tip O’Neill, Booth Gardner, Scoop Jackson, and, in the Gipper’s second term, Fawn Hall and Ollie North. The three networks kept American culture glued together by asserting a prevailing morality while simultaneously making playful jabs at the mainstream. No one was more deft at this balancing act than Johnny Carson, as reliable as a cultural metronome, taking another pretend golf swing, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. Then David Letterman sneered his way through the country’s rec rooms, throwing frozen turkeys off buildings onto trampolines and prank calling delicatessens.

Saturday Night Live entered my consciousness in the Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat and Billy Crystal “Maaaah-velous” era. One afternoon after YMCA day camp, my mom said, “Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and Dennis Miller are doing a free standup show at Seattle Center tonight. If we leave right now we can make it.”

Crossing each of the 55 miles between my house and Seattle took about a minute. My mother and I showed up right on time at the Mural Ampitheater. I remember Dana Carvey gazing skyward and saying in his Church Lady voice, “Well! The Space Needle looks like a giant penis!” My mom I doubled over on the lawn, howling.

Cable arrived, but not where I lived. If you wanted cable channels in Conway, Washington circa 1985, you had to commit to a satellite dish the size of a pizza, if pizzas came in sizes large enough to feed hundreds. So I rarely glimpsed MTV, but when I did, at friends’ houses in Mount Vernon or in vacation motel rooms, it grabbed my attention like nothing else. The Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, ZZ Top, Michael Jackson, Madonna, post-makeup Kiss. If I wanted to watch rock videos at home, I had to tune in to Friday Night Videos, which aired so late on KING-5 it should have been called Saturday Morning Videos.

There was a local Seattle show called REV: Rock Entertainment Video on Sunday afternoon. It was on REV that I witnessed live footage of a performance by a Seattle band called Red Dress in which the singer, Gary Minkler, prowled the stage singing a song about eating mice. “I like to eat my mousies raw, I love to eat them raw!” This was around the same time one of the local stations miraculously broadcast a profanity-filled documentary called Streetwise about Seattle homeless kids who scrounge food from the trash, solicit johns, and smoke weed. Even though it was only an hour south, Seattle in the eighties came across as dangerous and transgressive yet unfailingly dorky, crawling with rodent eaters, teenage hookers, and John Keister deadpanning “The Rocket Report.”

Network television didn’t show me the kinds of environments I spent my time in, but I brought television’s narratives with me into the outdoors, acting out plots I’d seen on my favorite shows, like Matt Houston, the crime-fighting Texas oilman. Or The Fall Guy, the crime-fighting stuntman. Or Knight Rider, the crime-fighting motorist with a talking car and a perm. Most revered among these wisecracking vigiliantes was The A-Team, in which Hannibal, Murdock, Face, BA Barackus, and a criminally underwritten token female character thwart wrongdoers in a place enigmatically known as “the Los Angeles Underground.” Every week, I wondered when it was they were going to get around to visiting the tunnels of this subterranean part of LA.

Television was a tributary that merged with Stephen King novels, heavy metal albums, John Hughes movies, and Dungeons and Dragons modules to create a roaring river of entertainment in my brain. I squirmed on our thick living room rug over the sexual tension of Three’s Company, scrutinized the weird sci fi/fantasy hybrid cartoon Thundar the Barbarian, and came to know the celebrities who amused each other to no end on The Gong Show. Most of all, I looked forward to Sunday night’s double punch of the uncanny that was That’s Incredible and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a show that exposed a world full of ancient tombs, religious cults, mummies, and zoological oddities. Jack Palance narrated these tales of the macabre in a voice that sounded like it had been scrubbed with steel wool. In one episode, a man reported on a near-death experience in which he momentarily descended to Hell. It terrified me so badly that I burst into tears, fled the room, and cowered in my bed.

Television provided the themes of morning bus ride conversations. With under a dozen channels to choose from, chances were high that my friends and I had spent the previous evening tuned into the same shows. One week, a series of Ray Harryhausen movies aired in prime time and my friends and I spent the ride up Starbird Road recounting highlights from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, debating how various lines had been delivered, piecing together a story doomed to be lost outside our recollections. We witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall and the explosion of the Challenger, understanding that this might be our only opportunity to experience this moment in history unless we happened to hit the record button, at the risk of taping over our moms’ Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda workout tapes.

When VCRs appeared, they were boxy and mechanical and faux wood-grained, bearing into America’s living rooms a hushed promise of pornography. Early on, video stores rented out the machines as well as the tapes. I joined the Jeffersons for marathon viewings of Friday the 13th, The World According to Garp, and Blade Runner. The act of watching whatever movie you wanted, in your own home, whenever you wanted, with the option of being able to pause it and take a pee, was such a novelty that we popped popcorn and bought Red Vines and Junior Mints for the occasion.

***

In the summer between fourth and fifth grade, I enrolled in a journalism program for “gifted” kids. The program involved weekly meetings with a reporter from the Skagit Valley Herald, a friendly, if chronically exhausted woman with a column in the Living section. By the end of the session, I’d see my first ever published piece of writing appear in the Herald, a short article about my friend Matt Nelson’s experience at a track and field tournament. My journalistic ambitions extended beyond print, however, and when I started asking questions about television news, the reporter arranged a field trip to Seattle’s KING-5, the regional NBC affiliate.

The plan was to have lunch with Cliff Lenz, host of the morning show Good Company, then attend a taping of the show. When we showed up at the station, Cliff descended the stairs into the lobby like a television god. Was he good looking? Hell yes. Charming? Check. A giant in the field of softball interviews for a tiny media market? You know it, Seattle.

We ate lunch at the commissary, where I spotted several other television personalities while waiting in line for my burger and fries. When I got to our table, the only open seat was next to Cliff. Everybody still had their plates of food on their trays and there wasn’t much room to set my own tray down, so I sort of overlapped it with Cliff’s tray. My plate with the burger and fries immediately slid off the table and splattered on the floor. Somehow, despite my mortification, I managed to get a new lunch, and Cliff proceeded to regale us with high-powered broadcasting lore, destroying my dreams of a career in TV journalism in the process.

“So,” Cliff said, turning to me, “I understand you have an interest in going into TV news?”

“Yeah,” eleven year-old me said, “I do.”

The morning show host leaned in close and lowered his voice to a villainous whisper. “Then you’d better have A LOT of money.”

The studio felt smaller than it appeared on television. They described how the cameras worked and instructed us to pay attention to the Applause sign. There was a segment with a chef who made something called “invisible zucchini bread.” I sat rigidly in the studio audience in a state of sustained horror over having dropped my burger in front of somebody so famous (and rich, apparently).

Weeks later, my mom kept me home from school so we could watch the broadcast of the show. We didn’t own a VCR, so this was our one and only chance to see me on TV. She squealed when Cliff promised to be right back after these important messages and the camera zoomed in on my grinning face. I was applauding, as instructed. My hair was an oily mess and on my chin, beaming like the signal from a television tower, throbbed a gigantic zit.

Some Dude’s Life

I recently completed a memoir about my first 20 years. I’m calling it Some Dude’s Life in a nod to Tobias Wolff. Here’s the first page.

IMG_7990
My paternal grandfather’s watercolor of my childhood home.

Memory

…sky cloud dirt grass fallen leaves stiff with midwinter frost in the final quarter of the twentieth century. I’m nine years old, standing in a corner of our property among alder saplings, concentrating on recording as precisely as I can everything my senses pull into consciousness. My toes are cold, the elastic cuffs of my jacket crusty where I’ve wiped my nose. The delicate scent of alder smoke hangs comfortingly in the air. Ewes bleat and beyond the herd surges the tide of motors and tires on the interstate. The house has caught some pinkish golden afternoon light on its west-facing siding and appears to glow. A thought pins me indelibly to this savored present: if I commit absolutely to my writing, at this moment, by the time I’m an adult I’ll become one of the great writers of my time.

Here the memory reveals itself as something under construction; the red blinds in the window belong to a bedroom that wasn’t added onto the house until years later. I keep picking over that misremembered bedroom window as I queue up this sequence and play it again. I focus on a leaf, a blade of grass, a rock, the fence, not so much accessing sense objects as reconstructing them, neuron by flighty neuron, my memories as unreliable as the emotions imprinted on them feel true.

I slowly zoom in on that window and hear the blunt, pubic thud of glam metal coming from within. Wait. Listen closer. Yes. I do believe that’s “Round and Round,” by Ratt.