28 September 2005

Reality TV Shows are Obsolesced

This is the observation made collectively by the participants in one of my "playshops" this morning at the Högskolan för lärande och kommunikation i Jönköping. These first-year students have just begun their studies in media and communication, and have had one introductory lecture, and one playshop. The observation was that since ubiquity is a sign of obsolescence, then the explosion of so-called reality TV shows may suggest that they are in their obsolescence - consider Survivor, Fear Factor, the Idol shows around the world, Big Brother, America's Next Top Model, So You Think You Can Dance, Paris Hilton goes to a Farm, Farmers go to the City, and so on and so on.

Well, if reality TV is being obsolesced, what are the other aspects? The tetrad fills in more or less like this: Reality TV is obsolesced by "real" reality on TV in the form of scenes from the Iraq war, scenes from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and other sundry disasters and plane crashes. When pushed beyond its limit, "real" reality becomes "unreal" reality in the form of crime dramas, for instance. What is retrieved from the past is another famous war appearing on TV, that being Vietnam.

"Real" reality (war, destruction)
"Unreal" reality (crime dramas, e.g., CSI:Everywhere)

Vietnam ==> social revolt

Reality TV (Survivor, etc.)

Not a bad analysis for a group of beginners (with just a little help from their friendly, neighbourhood prof).
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27 September 2005

Impact of Digital Photography? Expert thinks it may be a "new type of dark age"

I guess I'm the so-called expert. Yahoo News picked up a story done by Canadian Press journalist, Angela Pacienza on my "Memories" talk that a did a couple of weeks ago.

Someone more expert on photography than I makes this observation:
Stephen Bulger, who runs the Stephen Bulger Gallery in downtown Toronto, says photos that we hate today might become prized possessions in 20 years. "What's happened over and over again is that people using analogue (film and paper), invariably there's something that causes them to go back to a particular roll of film they shot and somewhere on that contact sheet there's a photograph that didn't strike them as being very significant until well after the photograph was taken," said Bulger. Had those photos been on CD, the quality would have deteriorated significantly to the point of being unreadable. "CDs don't last forever," Bulger warns. "It won't last as long as film will last."
So next time someone says to you, "Take a picture. It lasts longer!" you can reply, it ain't necessarily so.

Update: Here's an item from BoingBoing that cites a Library of Congress report about the loss of culture that is occurring from the future unavailability of our sound recordings. From the article:
Evidence uncovered in this analysis suggests that a significant portion of historic recordings is not easily accessible to scholars, students, and the general public for noncommercial purposes. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one appears to be a convergence of two factors. The first is that the physical barriers created by recording technologies change often and have rendered most such recordings accessible only through obsolescent technologies usually found only in special institutions. Second, copyright law allows only rights holders to make these recordings accessible in current technologies, yet the rights holders appear to have few real-world commercial incentives to reissue many of their most significant recordings. The law has severely reduced the possibility of such recordings entering into the public domain, at least until 2067.

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The Next Project: The Future of Corporation

I'm in Sweden this week, doing my annual lecture series at Högskolan för lärande och kommunikation i Jönköping. I lecture and do playshops with first year students in the school's media and communication program, focusing on the theory and practice of Marshall McLuhan. The ground is, of course, one of developing a critical sensibility to media study and media theory, directing the students to its application to social justice praxis. For those of you who have been asking, here is an exceedingly brief outline of the thinking the underlies my next research project.

Despite the best efforts and intentions of organization development practitioners to create a more humanistic workplace, a credible and critical argument can be made that such practices are intended to yield more productive – perhaps even placid – workers to fill the jobs that have been created according to functional requirements. Contemporary communication technologies enable workplace social network dynamics that lead to seemingly progressive organizational initiatives such as ad-hoc workgroups, “teleworking,” and “virtual organizations” of global scope. However, these dynamics are invariably constrained by the structure, metrics, power dynamics and psychology that defined the so-called modern corporation of the 19th century – its fundamental structure and operating philosophy arguably unchanged since its inception – in an almost quixotic quest for organizational effectiveness in the 21st century.

As Price observes in his 1968 work, Organizational Effectiveness: An Inventory of Propositions, a comprehensive theory of organizational effectiveness is elusive at best – and perhaps even unattainable – since the management literature has not yet discovered a way of aligning critical business issues and measures such as performance, success, survival, recovery, and turnaround with the amorphous notion of effectiveness. Even Quinn’s widely cited “competing values model” of organizational effectiveness merely acknowledges that management must balance the tensions among dichotomous forces that define aspects of an organization’s “culture.” This model as applied, however, does not necessarily address, measure or evaluate the totality of effects that an organization intends to create in the context of its total environment – one that necessarily has global reach and effect because of ubiquitous and instantaneous communication technology. Is it possible to conceive of, and design, new structures, dynamics, and operating philosophies that are both consistent with the extreme acceleration of world-wide contemporary industry, and will align with the effectiveness – that is, the overall desired effects – of an organization relative to its integral environmental context? Further, is there a mechanism whereby the articulation of the overall desired effects of the organization is itself an emergent – one might say, organic and aware – process?

Essentially, I submit that the various management schools of thought that have attempted to mitigate the dehumanizing effects of Frederick Taylor’s 1911 Principles of Scientific Management have each ultimately proven to be ineffective in accomplishing that end. In spite of sometimes lofty goals and idealistic objectives, the organization itself inevitably manages to subvert and co-opt more humanistic practices to serve the nominal aim of organizational efficiency. The consequences are well-known – overwhelming numbers of employees on the brink of burn-out, the subversion of corporate responsibility and governance mechanisms by unscrupulous executives and managers, and the dissonance among corporate and humanistic objectives.

Drawing from the work of Marshall McLuhan, I have observed that accompanying each communication nexus “point” (of approximately 300 years’ duration) throughout the history of Western civilization, there have been fundamental reversals in the effects of society’s major institutions, including those involved in the collective organization of work and enterprise. This, then, suggests a final probe: Is it possible, to conceive of a new theory of organizations that eliminates the Tayloristic ground, and are enabled by modern technologies that create ubiquitous connectivity, pervasive proximity, and their consequential emergent effects?

My Ph.D. research will focus on articulating an integral, emergent model for organizations in the 21st century that radically departs from the fragmentary, mechanization-model of the 19th century. The approach itself will be radical, as I intend to apply principles of feminist theory, critical ethnography and institutional ethnography to discover exemplars of apparently revolutionary and counter-intuitive practices that are, nonetheless effective, organic and aware, in the context of their total environment. My research program seeks to make what I hope will ultimately be considered as a seminal contribution to management praxis for the 21st century.
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23 September 2005

Role* and Career Counselling Tests

I have the proverbial friend-of-a-friend who is contemplating a job change. The person is a long-time airline employee, who apparently worked as a reservations agent. This person knew the old-fashioned airline reservations system, complete with its arcane codes and complex database pathways inside out and backwards, able to work wonders for passengers with complex itineraries, challenging connections and unique needs.

Turns out that the person went to one of those career testing centres – the ones that test for aptitude and skill – with the hope of being given some guidance as to what would be the right career move to make. (Given the turmoil in airlines like Air Canada, and the challenges facing the industry in general, any move might indeed be the right move.) The testing showed that the person had an aptitude for the sort of logic that such a mentally-demanding job of juggling a reservations system would demand. From the testing, a number of possibilities that would capitalize on those learned skills were suggested.

What’s wrong with this rather simplistic, linear and deterministic picture? (Oops! Gave it away…)

Over the many years that the person has been an employee of the airline, the tasks of the job would have undoubtedly had an effect on the person’s cognitive abilities that would give preference to jobs that were analogous to reservations agent, at least with respect to skills. Hence, the “career testing” – usually skills and attributes based – would have given high marks for the sort of instrumental tasks that a job of, say, billing coder, would demand. This means that the person may be skilled for that job; it does not necessarily suggest that the person is suited for that job.

Suppose the person is motivated by such technical intricacies that a coding system demands. A job of billing coder, among many others, might well be a viable, satisfying alternative. If, on the other hand, the person is motivated by a type of “heroics” in response to confused or distraught passengers, the ability to work the magic of the reservation systems via the intricate codes is simply a means to an end, and would not be motivating in and of itself. Remember, by taking a “Role* view” of the employment world, it isn’t what you do that counts as much as the interactions and dynamics you create while doing it.

One of the risks of conventional career (job) counselling is that the client becomes “labelled” with an apparent skill aptitude relative to tasks. And in a sense, jobs are a collection of tasks. But roles and careers are made of much more than mere tasks. I could go so far as to say that the specific tasks of any white-collar worker (and many others, as well) are the least important aspects of one’s involvement in the workplace from the point of view of the person themselves. (The company is another matter altogether; to them, the workers are often no better than interchangeable parts in a corporate machine.) The danger of labelling is captured in McLuhan’s aphoristic warning: Love thy label as thy self. By “putting on” and wearing the assigned label, we run the risk of suppressing personal agency in favour of adopting tacitly-imposed behaviours.
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Motivation, Career Counselling and Life Coaching

This is an category archive index, with a static link on the right side.

Here are recent thoughts on intrinsic motivation, career counselling, life coaching, and finding the passion in your work and your life:

Is a role* discovery conversation for you? Are you facing an important career decision, or concerned about your career progress to date? Are you considering a new career at mid-life? Or, are you seeking a deeper understanding of what motivates and demotivates you, to figure out why you are sometimes totally engaged and passionate about what you do, and at other times, completely turned off and apathetic?

If you are interested in a brand new approach to career and life coaching, you can download a brochure [pdf] that describes the process, as well as its underlying theory, in detail. Afterwards, please contact me. (My email address is federman-at-sympatico-dot-ca. By the way, the discovery process works equally well face-to-face or over the telephone.)

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19 September 2005

Help a Guy with His Thesis

No, not me. Aaron Braaton is doing an MA in economics at the University of Alberta, and collecting data on blogging via an online survey. I can't say that I find the survey questions particularly interesting, or that I expect the results may be all that useful (I'm not from the positivist camp), but I'm not against helping out a researcher.
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18 September 2005


One thing that's nice about having my own (borrowed) piece of unreal estate, compared to being the amplified and extended voice at the McLuhan Program, is that I can be a bit more explicit about my politics. Like this great bit of mashup: You're an Asshole.
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So They Finally Listened to Me (Sort of)

Friday's announcement that Bell Canada and Rogers Communications - Eastern Canada's two major telecommunications providers - have teamed up to provide wireless broadband access across the country is a step in the right direction. They will be 50:50 partners in a venture called Inukshuk Internet Inc. Based on their mutual existing infrastructure,
The network will cover more than 40 cities as well as 50 rural and remote communities, some of which are still waiting for high-speed Internet access. There are two target audiences: underserved rural communities and people who want wireless high-speed Internet access beyond their homes. In addition to high-speed Internet access, Bell and Rogers could offer other voice, video and data applications over the network.

This is monumental for several reasons. First, Bell and Rogers are fierce rivals, viewing each other as direct competitors for service, coming into the home through either the phone line or the cable. Each one had aspirations to "own the customer," a rather perjorative view of their clientelle, given the colloquial meaning of "own" among the technologically... ahem... leet. For the longest time, each one viewed themselves merely as common carrier channels for the same content, and thus viewed the other as a bitter enemy. If ever there was an example of convergence, these two exemplified it, as the phone company and the cable company began to converge on each other with services and offerings: Satellite:Cable, Wireless:Wireless, Broadband:Broadband, Voice:VoIP.

As with many reversals in the contemporary era, the customers are becoming less concerned with the packaging, and more concerned about the products and services, and with the identities that they embody. In music, people are less interested in the plaastic-covered aluminum disks, favouring instead a focus on the music or video itself. In communications, people are less concerned with the specifics of how a signal gets to its final destination (usually a screen of some shape or size) and more about the quality, reliability, coverage and speed of that signal, in addition, of course, to what is coming across that signal, and what it says about them.

Here, Bell and Rogers finally figured it out. They are in very different businesses, and thus, not direct competitors in the identity market at all. They may express it somewhat differently: "We're going to build a common plumbing system, and we're going to fight like mad to sell our own version of the water," said David Robinson, vice-president of business implementation at Rogers. But this is the essence of the "what business are you REALLY in?" argument that I have been talking about for some time now. Good on them!
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16 September 2005

If Corporations are Obsolete, What is Their (Reversal) Successor?

Our so-called modern corporations (and governments, and universities which I consider corporation-equivalents) are artefacts of the mechanical age. They were designed in an environmental ground of factory mechanization, peaked in effectiveness and efficiency during the early part of the 20th century, and then headed towards “extension beyond the limit of their potential” – in other words, towards reversal into a new form, with the current one being obsolesced. The evidence is unmistakeable: rampant corruption and theft of capital for personal benefit rather than concentration of capital for the benefit of the shareholders; gross inefficiencies in production, service and the flow of information; the rational, hierarchical organization of functions resulting in a reduced ability to perform those very functions compared to the prior looser organization; power and control being the overriding objective rather than enhancing shareholder wealth (which in itself is a problematic objective, but I’m being nominal for the time being, not critical).

There may be all sorts of rationalizations for “what went right and what went wrong” (to quote a current corporate leader of a once-great nation) in any given situation, for any given corporation. Fixing the particular dysfunctional circumstances may prevent the same thing from happening again, but this approach is akin to always fighting the last war – something the U.S., for example, is pretty good at. The problem is that adversaries, be they military or hierarchically systemic, never fight the last war, or even the last battle: they invent the next one. Corporate managers are forever playing figure catch-up, because of their inability to perceive the fundamental tectonic changes in the ground. Consequently, all sorts of bizarre things crop up as the now obsolescent corporate structure fights desperately to retain its past glory, its diminished ability to produce wealth (as society’s understanding of sustainable wealth has become more enlightened), and its now-impotent drive for control above all else.

A series of posts on boingboing regarding TiVo and intellectual property highlights a relatively miniscule consequence of what I perceive as the corporate structure’s last hurrah. In the first post, TiVo owners report that their PVR device would not allow them to retain recordings of the animated television programs King of the Hill, and The Simpsons. By transmitting a “protected bit” through the TiVo system, content owners unilaterally restricted viewers from retaining recordings beyond a pre-set period. The owners feel that their intellectual property rights are being violated. However, the content owners, aided and abetted by TiVo are in fact breaking the law in the United States, as the Copyright Act (upheld by the Supreme Court in the famous “Betamax decision”) permits home copying of broadcast material, and sharing for non-commercial purposes. (If I make a recording, I can hand it to you.) In Canada, our Supreme Court actually said that this is a user right (as opposed to a defence). In their apparent zeal to foil the so-called pirates, the content owners technologically defy the law of the land.

On the second front, that international bastion of the content industry’s vested interests, the World Intellectual Property Organization, “is once again considering adding "webcasting" to the upcoming Broadcast Treaty. This would allow a webcaster (anyone who sends you audiovisual material over the Internet) to have a 50 year monopoly over what you do with the material you receive from him -- even if he's sending you Creative Commons-licensed work, GPL'ed Flash animations, or stuff that's in the public domain. It would also make it illegal to break any DRM used in connection with webcasting.” What this means is that an independent content creator, like you or I, could post something to the web under Creative Commons, and a re-webcaster could take it, offer it on a streaming server, and automatically acquire a unique intellectual property right in the work. Now if that sort of hijacking of rights isn’t piracy, I don’t know what is, and it is proposed, supported and will be perpetrated by the same people who are screaming piracy today.

Both of these illustrate the lengths to which vested interests will go to retain control, power, and financial monopoly, now that the mechanistic ground of their business has shifted. It is not only greed that drives them, although my friend Wade Rowland makes a strong case for this perspective. Corporations perceive that a change has happened, and they are fighting and clawing for their survival, even if it means defying the law, common sense, business sense, or threatening the survival for the rest of us.

In response to an outrageous propaganda campaign by an obsolescent government agency, namely the US Patent and Trademark Office, that supports these corporate interests in contravention of their mandate, Wendy Seltzer offers appropriate interpretations and understanding of the USPTO’s distortion of the law. It makes for fun and thought-provoking (not to mention creation-provoking) reading.

The obsolescence of the modern corporation, and its reversal into a new emergent form, is the matter of my current research. Developing theory that “predicts” the future of corporation by anticipating the present is the objective.
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13 September 2005

The Obsolescence of Mass-Media Journalism

If I were teaching a course on mass-media or journalism this semester or next, the entire course would be focused on the events surrounding the tragedy on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as a case study. (As it turns out, I may well be teaching my Applied McLuhanistics course in the winter semester, beginning January, 2006, so there may be a couple of explorations on this theme.) Anyone who is even partially following this story as it evolves cannot help but be caught up in the overwhelming amount of information, coverage, official and first-person accounts, videos, photographs, pleas, denials, accusations and self-congratulation. But recall that Marshall McLuhan said that information overload reverses into pattern recognition. So one question that arises is, what over-arching patterns are emerging relative to the various grounds that comprise the dominant societal and cultural environment of this disaster?

Jeff Rosen’s PressThink entry, From Deference to Outrage: Katrina and the Press is mandatory reading, for a thoughtful appraisal of what is occurring in the mainstream mass-media. The observation from the non-U.S. journalistic corps is that,
“Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina.The “timid and self-censoring journalistic culture” in the U.S. is normally “no match for the masterfully aggressive spin-surgeons of the Bush administration,” [BBC commentator, Matt] Wells wrote. “But last week the complacency stopped, and the moral indignation against inadequate government began to flow, from slick anchors who spend most of their time glued to desks in New York and Washington.”
This observation, from my ground, represents a hope-against-hope that television news (and mainstream journalism itself) has not, in fact, been obsolesced. But I think it’s too late: Not only have the horses bolted, but the barn has burnt to the ground (after the doors were closed).

The figure of the contrast can be characterized in this excerpt from a New Orleans cameraman’s diary.
I’m only writing this because of what I watched on tv last night. It was the first chance I’ve had to see some of the coverage and what I watched was pathetic. I sensed it yesterday when, amongst the chaos of the unfolding disaster, you realized some of the differences between what is happening here compared to major calamities we’ve endured recently.

There are almost no news crews in the field trying to cover the story. Hundreds, if not thousands of media people are in the region - but I have driven back and forth through some of the worst neighborhoods in the city and you don’t see them. You don’t see the National Guard…..you don’t see ANYONE, except for the poor unfortunate souls wandering the streets looking for food or water. Many of them are on their last legs; they are literally not long for this world. It is surreal; it’s like a zombie scene from Dawn of the Dead. It’s disgraceful that in our times, we are seeing the complete disintegration of our ability to care for our own…

…I watched one of these news robots on the air last night standing at Camp and Canal Street - where it is safe - doing a national live shot saying that “everything is in place now” and “food is being distributed”, and “the National Guard is deployed in force….on the street” - it was pure fiction. This guy hasn’t left the safety of his air conditioned trailer complete with Subway sandwiches (from Baton Rouge) and Gatorade. It’s pathetic.
The evolving reportage from New Orleans, Biloxi, and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast demonstrate that the news-media no longer report the news, so much as make the news. Wherever the television camera is pointing, whoever is speaking into the microphone, whatever passes the editor’s oversight (and the editor’s overseer’s oversight) is the news. By definition. As most of America’s (and the rest of the world’s) press is locked out of New Orleans and environs by federally-controlled military and private contractors, the news is effectively made by CNN, Fox News and (to a lesser extent) MSNBC. And, given both the present and future value of Katrina Disaster Reporting in ratings-tied advertising revenues, none of these networks are about to do too many things in defiance of the administration’s power elite. And, if one were to watch any of these networks, the situation, while still desperate, is improving: progress is being made, families are being reunited, people are getting on with life… in short, the American spirit triumphs, and the underclass who have been front and centre throughout this debacle, once again disappear from the camera eye, and the collective consciousness.

Thankfully, the effects of emergent transparency – the ability to see through the hypnotic fog perpetrated by political power thanks to the emergence of patterns from a wide variety of massively-interconnected bits of information – are now dominant. The ‘net is filled with accounts that not only contradict the “serious-but-stable” prognosis fed by the conventional mass-media, but also provide direct evidence of the patrician attitudes that precipitated the disaster in the first place, and continue an ill-conceived response. The not-so-secret dirty-little-secrets of the United States of America are laid bare for all to see – systemic poverty, illiteracy, classism, racism, indifference to the point of negligence are available for the rest of the world to judge the self-appointed arbiter of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The mainstream mass-media is obsolete. This does not mean that it disappears – quite the opposite. But it no longer dominates in the ability to shape the public agenda. The sooner that political factions recognize this fact, and respond by embracing more appropriate forms of engagement, participation, and divesting itself of the mentality of command-and-control, the better off we all will be.
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There seems to be a subtle change in product marketing among some companies. Instead of taking the attitude of "I have a product, therefore you have a need," some companies are instead attempting to position their product relative to some of the cultural and social changes that are occurring as a result of our dramatically changing times.

Such is the case with Lexmark, which yesterday introduced a new photo-printing appliance that allows one to create an archival CD of digital photos while it prints them. This is all accomplished without a computer, working directly from the camera and/or memory card. I was asked by them to offer the benefit of some of the research done at the McLuhan Program concerning the history of memory, archives, and the nature of the ephemeral artefact with which we are now confronted. What follows on the main blog page is an abridged version of my comments. For the full version, please go to the full post page.

I’m afraid my memory isn’t what it used to be. But then again, the memory of our entire culture isn’t what it used to be, nor for that matter what it used to, used to be. Between two and three thousand years or go, give or take a century, the civilization at the heart of Western culture that was centred in ancient Greece, had a great memory. The mythic poems that have come to characterize that time – heroic epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – also characterize a culture founded on memory. Before the introduction of the phonetic alphabet to the ancient Greeks by the Phoenicians, all of human history had to be remembered. The Greeks, and indeed all ancient cultures, developed sophisticated technologies of form, structure and composition, to ensure that the past would be preserved. The very fact that we have such rich, historical records of the battle of Troy is testament to skill and training of the rhapsodes – literally, “sewers of song” – representing a long line of practitioners of the ancient art of memory.

There is a story that Plato relates in the Phaedrus, in which the Egyptian god Toth presents King Thamus with the gift of writing, one of his more creative inventions, and tells him that it is specifically intended for memory and wisdom. Thamus declines the gift, telling Toth that the effect will be the opposite – writing will cause humankind to be forgetful, as the exercise of memory would instead become written remembrances. Wisdom, he said, would be replaced by the appearance of wisdom without learning, as anyone could have ready access to the written knowledge itself. As Plato recounts, “men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, will be a burden to their fellows.”

I suppose Plato was talking about academics. But he was right. The introduction of the phonetic alphabet into an primary oral society literally changed everything. Memory, that had existed only within the mind, was externalized and made explicit, visual, and fixed in time. But paradoxically, even as writing fixed historical experience in time, it allowed that historical experience to travel through time to the future, in a relatively consistent manner.

A primary oral society is necessarily obsessed with preserving its past, as memory tends to be somewhat volatile without continual refreshing. But once a culture’s history can be fixed as with writing, that society can begin to conceive of, and to create, the future. People can begin to conceive of things and places that do not exist, and then set out to discover or create them. Just as oral societies live in their past, literate societies live in their future. As an oral society is dominated by the ear, a literate society is dominated by the eye. And, coming forward through the end of the 19th century, and into the 20th, the addition of electricity and other modern technologies to this visual dominance gives us photography, and cinema as new archival media – ways of preserving our history.

But, electricity has another effect. Electricity accelerates communication in a way that transcends both time and space. For example, the use of sound accelerated and extended by electricity enabled us to “reach out and touch somebody,” regardless of where they were, whether we used telegraph, radio, telephone, television, or something else. Indeed, communication accelerated by electricity has recently made the experience of the instantaneous relatively common in our contemporary world, be it instantly connecting with another person via mobile telephone, instantly connecting with information through the Internet, or instantly connecting with someone else’s immediate experience, vicariously seeing through their eyes and tapping directly into their memory, through digital photography.

We notice the difference between oral cultures and literate/visual cultures in the artefacts that they produce. Oral cultures produce cultural artefacts that tend to stay in place, so that their past will effectively remain throughout all time. Think of Egypt’s pyramids, the Sphinx, or ancient Greek temples. Literate cultures, on the other hand, tend to produce artefacts that travel well – books, works of art, as well as means of transportation – so that they can effectively control their future by the time they get there. But our culture that is beginning to experience instantaneity, seems to be increasingly concerned with the “here and now” – especially because in a world of ubiquitous and instantaneous communication, everywhere is here, and every-when is now. It occurs to me that the defining characteristic of artefacts of our time is ephemerality. An ephemeral artefact exists precisely in the present, and can only be experienced at the moment of its creation. I submit to you that the cultural artefacts of our time are experiential in nature and ephemeral in duration.

Here’s a quick example. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the cliché of the “Kodak moment” – a scene or experience that has to be captured as a snapshot so that the moment is preserved for the future as a remembrance. This sort of “moment” is a characteristic artefact of the literate/visual age. Contrast this with the “Bell moment.” Some of you may have seen the television advertisement that runs every Remembrance Day, in which a teenager, walking along a desolate beach, pulls out his cell phone to call his grandfather. “I’m not in Paris, grandpa,” the young man says. “I’m in Dieppe. I was calling to say, ‘thank you’.” The teenager is connecting and sharing his experience of that beach by “reaching out and touching someone” very close and special to him. The act of sharing that experience is a characteristic artefact of our time that is ephemeral in nature – it exists for the duration of the experience and no longer.

As our society increasingly turns to digital media, recording both our lives and our culture, the “snapshot generation” that captured experiences and created archival remembrances has changed to become a generation that instantaneously shares experiences, no longer paying attention to the archival characteristics of photography. Photographs, clippings, scrapbooks, and even works of art and sculpture as forms of cultural memory give way to ephemeral artefacts that exist for a brief instant in the span of time, as a sharing of experience itself. If they are captured at all, they are as arrangements of electrons buried within ultimately disposable devices.

When a hard drive fails, or the memory card is erased or misplaced, or when a future computer can no longer read today’s media – by then long obsolesced – our culture becomes a little more forgetful, and a little more forgotten. The consequence of our technological advancement is that, centuries from now, historians may well look back on our time as a type of dark age. Compared to earlier generations, very little of our cultural history is being recorded so that it will actually exist into the future. We will literally be a forgotten culture, because those who will come after us will have technologically “forgotten” how to read, or even locate, our ephemeral artefacts. Thus, if we want to be remembered at all, we must additionally create artefacts that will travel through time, as the writings, art, and photographs of our forebears have come to us.
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Tetrads for Managers, and Dysfunctional Teams

Yesterday I did a brief McLuhan for Managers seminar with a group visiting from the Netherlands, all members of the Master Course in Management and Innovation at the University of Rotterdam and Nijmegan. Because the session was limited to one morning, I focused on basic vocabulary – medium, message, figure, ground, and environment – and the Laws of Media tetrads. The set-up for applying the four media laws – extension/enhancement/enablement, reversal, obsolescence and retrieval – were scenarios to which almost anyone in a medium-to-large enterprise can relate:

  • Do you know of anyone in your organization who believes that ideas are mutually exclusive, that for my idea to be right, yours has to be wrong (also known as the “zero-sum gamer”)?

  • Do you know of anyone whose thinking is entirely formed by their beliefs, that if they don’t believe it, they don’t see it (also known as “Believing is seeing”)?

  • Have you ever been in a meeting with The Boss, in which the tacit (or even overt) presence of power limited the open exchange of ideas and alternatives?

  • Have you ever been part of a group that behaved like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, in which there is a total and exclusive focus on what can obviously be seen, without consideration for what is happening at the periphery, or in a contextual ground?

  • Have you ever been in a situation precipitated by what some call “unintended consequences” that are better characterized as unanticipated because of bad planning, lack of foresight, or deliberate acts of ignore-ance?

As you might expect, there wasn’t a single person in the seminar who could not relate to each and every one of these situations. Such failings and dysfunction can happen in both tactical and strategic situations. It is often the case that some of these situations occur routinely in an organization, resulting not only in poor decisions, but even worse morale and motivation.

As a way of mitigating these ill effects, I introduced McLuhan’s Laws of Media tetrad as a combination analytic and facilitation tool. The dynamic of the tool is simple. Because it does not rely on dichotomous thinking (pro/con, advantage/disadvantage, upside/downside, etc.) no one feels the need to take a position and defend it. Moreover, because all ideas and observations can be place in the tetrad, everyone’s contribution is quickly acknowledged. Indeed, even the strongest proponent of a given position is encouraged to find situations in which the opposite position might occur. In short, each of the aforementioned dysfunctions can be easily addressed and constructively managed:

  • Territorial conflicts over ideas are eliminated, and the “need” to defend one’s position is obviated by its inclusion in one of the aspects. The action of the tetrad is to acknowledge apparent paradoxes in figure as a way of revealing multiple, concurrent grounds.

  • The dominance of preconception is also eliminated in favour of perception and observation.

  • Hidden grounds are revealed so that attention and focus is shifted away from what is already known.

  • The range of considered possibilities is significantly expanded, reducing the number of unanticipated outcomes. In fact, the tetrads are specifically designed to call out possibilities that no one had previously considered.

Using the Laws of Media tetrads as an analytic thinking frame is tremendously valuable for strategic planning, organization realignment, dealing with controversial issues, and tactical planning in almost any kind of organization. And, of course, you know who you can turn to should you need training or facilitation assistance!
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12 September 2005

I Like the Bush Administration

I really do. There have been few other exemplars that provide me with so many teaching points! It's like one-stop-shopping for examples of lack of awareness, the effects of television as a hot medium relative to political manipulation, how figure without ground is devoid of meaning (and therefore you can say almost anything so long as you preclude context), and much else. But, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and soon everyone - even the heretofore clueless ones - will realize that President George W Bush has been, shall we say, less than truthful (say it isn't so!) and that the ground is clearly evident... or it will be, once all the water gets pumped out.

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11 September 2005

Trusted Computing

Here is a great little video about Trusted Computing, a topic that all of us will (unfortunately) hear a lot more about in the coming years. The idea of trusted computing is a good one: only permit software to run on a computer that the user explicitly trusts (as opposed to software that installs itself, sometimes surreptitiously). The (industry) idea of Trusted Computing is less good: only permit software to run on a computer that the manufacturers explicitly trust. If, for example, Microsoft doesn't trust that Firefox browser you're running, they you won't be able to run Firefox on the same computer as your version of Office/TC. If, for example, that independently created music video isn't "trusted," then don't try to run it in the media player that came with your computer. And that one you downloaded to play the indy music? It probably isn't "trusted," either.

Makes you wonder who YOU trust...

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09 September 2005

Fascism Anyone?

A little over two years ago, Dr. Lawrence Britt published a widely quoted article called, "Fascism Anyone?" in which he extracted fourteen characteristcs common to fascist regimes. His exemplars included Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’s Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia. I noticed a small poster on another professor's office door this morning, and could not help but make the now obvious connections to the current state of the United States.

Over the past few years, I have commented on what I call "the reversal of America," as the behaviours of its government seemed to acquire totalitarian overtones. But given the emotion around the 2004 election, and the circumstances surrounding the war in Iraq, opposing sides are easily polarized, and such observations easily dismissed as partisanship.

But now, in the wake of the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Katrina, exacerbated by an ineffective governmental response, and made obscene by official denial, obfuscation and shifting of blame, more of Britt's fascist characteristics are clearly coming to light in non-partisan (or bi-partisan) forums and venues. I will quote liberally (no pun intended) from Dr. Britt's article:
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.

2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. The regimes themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.

3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. Active opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.

4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. Ruling elites always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite.

5. Rampant sexism. Beyond the simple fact that the political elite and the national culture were male-dominated, these regimes inevitably viewed women as second-class citizens. They were adamantly anti-abortion and also homophobic. These attitudes were usually codified in Draconian laws that enjoyed strong support by the orthodox religion of the country, thus lending the regime cover for its abuses.

6. A controlled mass media. Under some of the regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line. Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media orthodoxy. The result was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’ excesses.

7. Obsession with national security. Inevitably, a national security apparatus was under direct control of the ruling elite. Its actions were justified under the rubric of protecting “national security,” and questioning its activities was portrayed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.

8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. Most of the regimes attached themselves to the predominant religion of the country and chose to portray themselves as militant defenders of that religion. The fact that the ruling elite’s behavior was incompatible with the precepts of the religion was generally swept under the rug. A perception was manufactured that opposing the power elite was tantamount to an attack on religion.

9. Power of corporations protected. Although the personal life of ordinary citizens was under strict control, the ability of large corporations to operate in relative freedom was not compromised.

10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. Since organized labor was seen as the one power center that could challenge the political hegemony of the ruling elite and its corporate allies, it was inevitably crushed or made powerless. Under some regimes, being poor was considered akin to a vice.

11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Intellectuals and the inherent freedom of ideas and expression associated with them were anathema to these regimes.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment. Most of these regimes maintained Draconian systems of criminal justice with huge prison populations. Fear, and hatred, of criminals or “traitors” was often promoted among the population as an excuse for more police power.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Those in business circles and close to the power elite often used their position to enrich themselves. This corruption worked both ways; the power elite would receive financial gifts and property from the economic elite, who in turn would gain the benefit of government favoritism. Members of the power elite were in a position to obtain vast wealth from other sources as well: for example, by stealing national resources.

14. Fraudulent elections. Elections in the form of plebiscites or public opinion polls were usually bogus. When actual elections with candidates were held, they would usually be perverted by the power elite to get the desired result. Common methods included maintaining control of the election machinery, intimidating and disenfranchising opposition voters, destroying or disallowing legal votes, and, as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to the power elite.

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08 September 2005

Sharia and the Ground

The controversy over whether to allow Islamic sharia law to govern Muslim civil and domestic affairs in Ontario is yet another lesson in figure and ground. Today’s Globe and Mail has a horrific tale of sharia-law-gone-wrong (at least according to my non-Islamic sensibilities). Essentially, a devout Muslim woman was coerced into giving up her right to spousal support so that her ex-husband would consent to a divorce under sharia law. The alternative was that the husband – who himself had re-married in an Islamic ceremony – could be able to seize their child and remove him from Canada (his birthplace) under sharia law, in defiance of Canadian law. Of course, giving up spousal support was a “compromise” for the woman:
The imam told her that her spouse wanted $100,000 and all her gold jewellery, she said, asking that her identity not be disclosed because she fears retribution from her ex-husband, the imam and her community. She managed to bargain him down to $5,000, money she had to borrow. She also agreed to give up all child-support payments and alimony, and not to take legal action against him in the future.
Before one responds that this is not the intent of sharia law, and its application in the Province of Ontario, the proponents of this addition to civil procedure in the province are quite clear in their intent. The Globe’s Margaret Wente reports:
"The sharia or divine law of Islam prevails over all man-made laws," wrote Abdul Malik Quraoshi in a letter to The Hamilton Spectator. "It is crystal clear in the Holy Book of Islam. No human institution can have the audacity and the cheek to interpret sharia." But don't worry. As he goes on: "Islam is a positive religion and emphasizes total loyalty and absolute obedience to its fundamental doctrines."
So where do figure and ground come in? Those who are pushing the McGuinty government to include the application of sharia to the 1991 Arbitration Act that “provides for voluntary faith-based arbitration to resolve civil and family-law disputes,” point to the fact that both Jews and Catholics have set up religious-based tribunals to preside over family law matters. They claim it is discriminatory to disallow Muslims the same right. That is the figure view. The ground, however, can be taken as a context of social justice and fundamental human rights. My admittedly limited knowledge of the actual proceedings of existing religious tribunals suggests that women have been well-protected and represented in these matters. (My sister, for example, was granted a Jewish divorce through the Bet Din, and it was her ex-husband who was given the difficult time for abandoning her, but that’s a different story.) Most certainly, I have never heard of an incident in which rabbis or priests forced the woman to give up her rights, and pay an ex-husband in contravention of Canadian rulings, in order to obtain a divorce.

Although the McGuinty government should be lauded for considering the multi-cultural fabric of this province, it should not lose sight of the underlying contextual ground that has enabled the province to attain its rich character in the first place. From all reports (except the one that the government commissioned in order to “justify” including sharia) – including reports from Muslim scholars around the world – permitting sharia law to govern in this province may well prove to be a mistake that shakes its foundation to the ground.
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07 September 2005


FEMA has "requested" that no news footage be taken of bodies being recovered from the disaster in New Orleans (and presumably elsewhere, as well). Reporters are apparently being actively blocked from filing stories or broadcasting from inside the Houston Astrodome, a major shelter for evacuees. TV broadcast trucks are being turned around by the National Guard at Jefferson Parish, on the way towards New Orleans. And those listening in on emergency radio frequencies for updates are finding those signals suddenly jammed. All of this suggests an Iraq-like clampdown on information and news getting out, now that the White House - and President W himself - has taken an interest in the disaster. (I will leave aside my cynical and bitter editorial comment - you can fill in the blank, if you wish.)

My non-cynical and distressing comment has to do with the role that television news plays in creating news, that is, creating that which a society believes is important. Marshall McLuhan would say that there cannot be more than one active war in the world, since the television camera can only point in one direction at a time. Think about it in today's context - does Iraq "still exist" (in the consciousness of the average American)?

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of the levees, major television news outlets were there with their cameras and microphones, recording the tragedy and people's responses to it. This became the news of the country, and it was only through the outcry of both local officials and residents that federal relief efforts effectively began. But because of the disaster that was the initial (i.e. for the full first week) federal response, the Bush administration had a (political) crisis on its hands of unprecedented magnitude. As the Army Corps of Engineers stemmed the flow of water into the flooded city, so too did the White House Corps of Engineers, led by Gen. Karl Rove himself no doubt, begin to stem the flow of information out of the flooded city - and all cities flooded with evacuees and stories of their plight.

"If we show what's actually going on in there, the terro... err... hurricanists will win!"

The Bush administration is a television administration - possibly the last of a long line of television administrations that began with Kennedy. It has never been able to deal with the phenomenon of emergent transparency enabled by ubiquitous communication and pervasive proximity, even from an area that has been effectively knocked off the grid. Thanks to those who need only to get out a snippet of information each, a large and comprehensive picture can be constructed, and that picture is even more revealing about the distressing failure of a government, in so many more dimensions than television could ever begin to reveal.
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06 September 2005

The “Terrorist” Incident at Tunney’s Pasture

This could be a sketch on Saturday Night Live, if it weren’t so pitifully tragic. According to a front page article in today’s Globe and Mail, Ahmad El Maati was arrested while attending his own wedding in Damascus, Syria, then tortured in an attempt to make him reveal information about an alleged terrorist map of Ottawa, and finally sent to Egypt to undergo further torture. He “confessed” to a fabricated plot that made absolutely no sense, especially relative to the supposed terrorist map, in order to alleviate his suffering.

The only problem is that this so-called terrorist map is actually an out-of-date, government-issued tourist map of offices in Ottawa. In fact, it is so out-of-date that many of the presumably sensitive locations on the map are now parking lots!
The Globe and Mail has learned that the map -- scrawled numbers and all -- was in fact produced and distributed by the Canadian federal government. It is simply a site map, given out to help visitors to Tunney's Pasture, a sprawling complex of government buildings in Ottawa, find their way around…There is nothing secret about the map. The existence of the nuclear facilities and the virus labs at Tunney's Pasture was never a secret. Moreover, they were gone from Tunney's Pasture long before the map aroused the suspicions of U.S. customs agents when they stopped Mr. El Maati's truck at the border at Buffalo in August of 2001. Yet in the past four years, the "terrorist map" has taken on almost mythic qualities. It has figured in various leaked accounts describing thwarted al-Qaeda plots to blow up targets in Ottawa, including the Parliament Buildings and the U.S. embassy.
Mr. El Maati was a transport driver for a trucking company, and had entered the U.S. dozens of times previously, with no problems in crossing the border. On one run south, he was driving a truck that had been used by another driver, one who regularly made deliveries to government buildings in Ottawa. That was the source of the map that U.S. Customs officials found so suspicious. All it would have taken was one call to a Canadian official to verify the origin of the map, and the innocence of both the document and Mr. El Maati. (For those who aren’t familiar with Ottawa’s geography – like Mr. El Maati himself – neither the Parliament Buildings nor the U.S. Embassy are anywhere near Tunney’s Pasture.)

While an embarrassment to U.S. Homeland (In)Security officials, and a disgrace for Canadian officials – who had several opportunities to rescue Mr. El Maati rather than feed information to his torturers, this revelation points up a more fundamental problem that is at the heart of the vast risks to security that have been created by the two governments over the past several years.

North America is primarily a visually-dominant culture, with an almost entire focus on figure – what is obviously seen. Ground, or context, is usually ignored, if it is noticed at all. But it is only via an awareness of ground that meaning is created. Without an appreciation of the context, (as opposed to the application of a figure-induced assumptive context) true meaning is lost. Instead, the matching of what is obviously seen with conceptions born in nothing but a(n often erroneous) belief allows one to create whatever meaning one wants. Ahmad El Maati, not to mention Maher Arar and Abdullah Almalki, have learned this the very hard way – through rendition to American and Canadian torture chambers, operated under license by the Syrians and Egyptians.

By focusing so obviously on what is obvious – figure – North American security officials miss the all important signs and signals of nefarious intent that occur in ground. This provides a decided advantage to the would-be terrorist, who invariably comes from a culture of ground. The practical example of this is the difference between the handling of airline passenger security by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, and security officials of Israel’s El Al Airlines. The former relies on what can be seen through intrusive snooping in luggage sans passenger; the latter on what is out of context in the passenger’s behaviours and reactions when luggage is searched in his or her presence. As the cliché goes, the Americans are always fighting the previous war.

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Role* and Creativity

A friend of my son is a film major at one of our universities here in Toronto, and was trying to deal with a creative block leading up to the beginning of school this year. He had come up with a half-dozen potential themes for his senior year project, and with a week to go before class starts, in his words, they all “sucked.”

From where I sit, only a couple of them actually sucked. But the problem was not that of the suckitude of the themes, but rather his inability to engage the aspects that particularly motivate him. And this isn’t particularly surprising, since he was not explicitly aware of the connection between what he thought motivated him, and what actually motivated him. In other words, he was unaware of his Role* motivating aspects.

Because I’ve known him for quite a few years, the Role* Discovery Conversation was probably a little quicker than most (most lasting between ninety minutes and two hours). Within a remarkably short time, we were able to identify not only the source of his dominant motivating aspects, but also the source of his creative block. In addition, he saw how to actualize his motivating aspects to create what might turn out to be a compelling documentary examining an important issue at the boundary between public policy and the struggles of ordinary families.

So it seems as if unblocking creativity is yet another application of Role*!
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02 September 2005

Disaster Quiz

A city laid waste by an attack of unprecedented scale. Infrastructure completely destroyed. Armed looters, murderers, rapists taking what they want, with little, if any consequences. Snipers, that one might call "extremists," are taking pot-shots at civilians, rescuers, and the military presence that has moved into the city. People are desperately short of water, food, medicine, safe shelter. A state of lawlessness has replaced productive enterprise as the manifestation of personal initiative, and authorities are effectively helpless to stop it, save a "shoot-to-kill" order having gone out to the ground troops. Prior warnings of the consequences of the initial attack went unheeded by an adminstration bent on its right-wing, neo-liberal agenda, its putative leader now left to mouthing platitudes, and espousing an optimism for the future that is as much steeped in hubris as it is in naivety, ignorance and a blind patriotism for a now long lost ideal.

Here's the quiz: Am I referring to Bagdhad or New Orleans?

If you can't tell, consider what has happened throughout Iraq, and imagine the nightmare possibilities for the United States under the current "leadership," such as it is.
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Update: This post at boingboing contrasts civil defense in Cuba with civil reaction in the U.S. with regard to hurricanes: "It's not throwing money at the problem. It's not financial capital, it's social capital. The U.S. in this sense has zero social capital. Dealing with hurricanes in cuba, as compared with how it's done in the U.S., is similar to the differences in how they deal with medicine. It's not reactive; it's proactive. They act as early as possible."