Friday, March 29, 2013

Web Journalism and How a Democratic Media at once Confounds and Saves Us

I confess: looking at Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model for Wednesday’s post depressed me. The attached video, which inspired me to dedicate this week to media issues, cinched my melancholy. While I had been familiar with the Herman and Chomsky model since taking media studies in community college, and indeed recognized the role it played in our society, seeing the Fox journalists tell their story drove the point home. For the first time, the propaganda model was completely real to me. I had seen the evidence with my own eyes. It was a sobering experience.

Of course, as I have said many times and as others have said, the Internet is changing the world. Independent, citizen journalists can shift the balance of power away from traditional outlets, and so there may be reason to hope. However, the old powers-that-be have the same ability to participate that we do, and grassroots journalism has its own hurdles to overcome.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Taste of Propaganda in America

Have you seen this video?

Shocking, isn’t it? Disturbing, no? Is it not an outrage that Fox would cave to Monsanto in such a fashion? Yet another reason not to watch Fox News.

Except it isn’t just Fox. Welcome to the American propaganda machine, my friends.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Internet vs Television: How They Affect Us, How We Affect Them

Literature on the deleterious effects of television on our minds has a long history. From garden-variety paranoia, to studies indicating an increase in passivity after viewing, to scathing social critiques like Neil Postman’s in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and literary condemnation through Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” and Fahrenheit 451—the Box will forever live in infamy. With the sudden blossoming of the Internet in the past two decades, one might expect a similar literature to sprout with respect to this new technology.

In many respects, it has. But to my surprise, I discovered several critiques of sweeping, popular complaints of “internet addiction” as I researched this article. Moreover, many of these critiques themselves are from the mainstream media.

“Worrying about the internet,” writes Tom Stafford in a 2012 article on BBC Future, “is just the latest in a long line of fears society has had about the changes technology might bring.” Later that year, Monica Hesse took a bite out of Web-hypochondria herself, asking: “Are we doomed to become hysterical doomsayers with every technological advance, to cower in front of fire before realizing that we could use it to cook our bison?” (Article here.) A New York times editorial from 2010 questions the very foundation of Internet-related health concerns. Its title? “The Attention-Span Myth.”

The consensus amongst these and other critics of the Internet’s detractors is that although there is such a thing as compulsive or maladaptive Internet use, said detractors grossly overstate its magnitude and severity. In response to accusations that the Internet rewires our brains, they respond—rightly—that everything we do rewires our brains. The Web is hardly special in that respect, and while some of us may have difficulty controlling our behavior, even then we are far from helpless.

Though my small sample size may be a factor, I have not found anyone riding to the defense of television. Indeed, my observations have shown the opposite. In October of 2012—around the time of Halloween, I might add—Slate ran an article (originally from AlterNet) titled: “Does TV actuallybrainwash Americans?

Sensationalist title aside, the article raises some valid concerns about the medium. The most relevant issues come from a 2002 ScientificAmerican article by Robert Kubey and psychologist Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi. According to the Scientific American piece, the television set commands our attention on a basic neurological level. The illusion of motion it presents, as well as the convention of quick edits, activates our “orienting response” — the neurological mechanism that calls our attention to change in our physical environment. On a deeper level, watching television relaxes viewers and instills a feeling of passivity. The relaxation ends with the viewing, which reinforces the habit, but the sense of passivity does not. This effect stands in contrast with hobbies, which tend to keep participants’ stress levels lower and does not instill the same passiveness. (Kubey and Csikszenmihalyi, 2002)

The author of the AlterNet/Slate article, Bruce Levine, claims that this lingering passivity which results from watching television renders the medium “a staple of American pacification.” It does stand to reason that lasting exposure to this effect could mollify a population. While “brainwashing” may be too strong a word, individuals primed for passivity may be less likely to act in the face of injustice, or speak out against falsehoods, or care about the consequences of events they have come to believe are outside of their control.

Certainly, the content of television holds great sway over us. Levine asserts that “Fear-based TV programming makes people more afraid and distrustful of one another, which is good for an authoritarian society[.]” Research indicates this to be true. The cultivation theory of mass media indicates that what we see on television, as with other media, cultivates a particular worldview based upon what we see and hear in said media. Violent media makes people believe the world is more violent than it may actually be, and thus may tend to seek out and trust authorities who promise to protect them.

Nonetheless, Levine’s article comes across as a bit yellow in its journalism. He opens the piece with the proclamation: “Historically, television viewing has been used by various authorities to quiet potentially disruptive people[…]” And who are these people? Rebels? Political dissidents? Not quite. They range “from kids, to psychiatric inpatients, to prison inmates.”

While prisons and psychiatric wards are frightening in their application and abuse of authority, using TV to shut up grumpy children or inmates is not what comes to mind when pondering the propaganda potential of mass media. This particular use of television is about as menacing as giving a pacifier to a baby. Furthermore, Levine embellishes Kubey’s and Csikszenmihalyi’s article by omission. He uses its title, “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor,” to indicate that its authors believe TV to be a devastatingly addictive drug when, in fact, they take a more nuanced approach in the article itself. “The term ‘TV addiction’ is imprecise and laden with value judgments,” they write, “but it captures the essence of a very real phenomenon.”

As the authors continue to expound upon television’s addictive effects, they temper their discourse with a reminder that “little evidence suggests that adults or children should stop watching TV altogether. The problems come from heavy or prolonged viewing.” Though Levine’s comparison of television to beer early in the article echoes the Scientific American article’s statement, the remainder of his article does not read as temperate. His citing the works of Jerry Mander, whom he describes as a “‘reformed sinner’ of sorts” and who published a 1978 book titled “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” does not suggest a moderate perspective.

This sort of sensational reporting is what characterizes television as a propaganda machine, and yet we see traces of it in a written article. Such things are not new: the phrase “yellow journalism” describes the hyperbolic rhetoric and loose reporting of newspapers in the 19th century. In an era where the papers were one’s only link to news outside of the hometown, cultivation theory no doubt applied to these tabloid rags as well. Television is the more recent king of an old throne.

Ultimately, what distinguishes television from older media is the fact that you cannot talk back to a TV set. Because it is so passive an activity, it is easy to refrain from questioning what flashes before one’s eyes. Moreover, few of us learn to regard video as critically as we do writing. Clever documentarians and reporters alike can exploit our lack of film literacy and recast the truth as an actor in a convincing lie.

But questioning the screen is exactly what the doctor ordered. The pioneer of cultivation theory, George Gerbner, once said that when it came to ameliorating the negative effects of violent television on children, that “Just having a notion of alternatives is already a kind of immunizing factor.” (Transcript here.) Indeed, I suspect that sentiment is related to why I found at least three articles critical of those who decried the Internet for its deleterious effects on health. You might not be able to talk back to the TV, but you can talk back to the Web. You can talk back in the comments. You can talk back on your blog. You can make your own video in response. You can look up opposing viewpoints in an instant. The freedom and interactivity which the Internet grants can be addicting, but it appears to be more truly fulfilling than passively watching the tube on your couch.

By and large, Levine’s article is correct about how television can be an instrument of indoctrination. Indeed, my forthcoming Wednesday post explores how television news and mass media lies and equivocates to us on a regular basis. But it is not the final word on television, or any other medium. In the end, a medium is only as bad as the uses to which we put it. Television may make us feel passive, but we are not helpless. As the Internet cannibalizes TV, I suspect that sense of passivity will also diminish. To raise the cloud of mass-media propaganda and Internet addiction without also mentioning the silver lining—how we may overcome these problems and use these media to our benefit—is to cultivate a sense of hopelessness in your readers. A sense of hopelessness which is also useful to those who wish to usurp power.

This Week On Runicfire: March 25 – March 31

Monday sees two posts: a Space Edition of the usual links, and the piece on the effects of the Internet versus television as a medium originally scheduled for last Friday.

Wednesday continues the media focus as I delve into the unusual face of propaganda in the United States. Dinner is served with a side of Noam Chomsky with a dash of Fox News censorship.

On Friday, I take a brief look at the non-mainstream media and ponder the future, as I am wont to do.

Please stay tuned!

Monday Links: Space Edition

If someone tells you to get your head of out of the clouds, you have two options: plant your feet on the ground, or fly into space.

This last Thursday, Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, posted a summary of the Planck mission data. Planck is a space telescope operated by the European Space Agency. Its purpose is to scan the Microwave Background Radiation, the highly red-shifted afterglow fo the Big Bang. So far, its readings are the most precise on record, and have several implications for our understanding of the universe. Among them is the fact that the universe is slightly older than expected, and that it is somewhat lopsided. Read Phil's article for the full story.

The Economist surprised me by using the term "Space Archaeology," which is apparently now an actual field. At least, it is for the wealthy founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. He has put his millions to good use, and now trawls the oceans for spent boosters from the Apollo mission's lower stages. Mr. Bezos intends to put them on public display. Let's hope so: perhaps it will convince people that exploring space is a nobler pursuit than war.

I really should just post a feed to Phil Plait's blog on my site, now that I think of it, since it's a constant stream of interesting stuff. I checked back there today, and he has a new article up on citizen science: the practice of using laypeople to aid in real scientific research. This usually works via a form of crowdsourcing, where a website will present bits of data for public analysis. I used to participate on one such site, called Galaxy Zoo, which allows you to help catalogue galaxies.

Go ahead: get your head out of the clouds and into someplace useful. Like space.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Moving Today's Post

Dear Readers,

I have been fighting a cold all week, and while I'm feeling better, I have not had the opportunity to complete today's post. I will be moving the subject I was going to discuss today to Monday. I will post new material on Wednesday and Friday as usual, as well as Monday's links.

Thank you for your patience. Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Renaissance Man Versus the Industrial Machine

In my continuing research for my novel, Rosaria of Venice, and its sequels, I came across an interesting book. It is titled, simply and appropriately, The Italian Renaissance, and is authored by J.H. Plumb. So far, it is at once the most concise and comprehensive resource I have found on the time period.

I find its description of the forces behind the Renaissance’s flowering of art especially interesting. Several factors, apparently, contributed to the rise of the artist in Renaissance Italy. The rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman works, and the technique behind them, is an obvious one. Likewise, the spread of education played a role. But one of the most important factors was wealth, including that of newly successful merchants.

Monday, March 18, 2013

This Week on Runicfire: March 18 – 24

This Monday's links cover store mannequins, the Higgs boson, meteorites and water on Mars.

Wednesday's post examines the Renaissance and its role at the root of modern Western civilization, and how today's industrialization contrasts with the values of that period.

And on Friday, a look at the effects of the Internet versus television as the new mass medium.

Please stay tuned!

Monday Links: Mannequins, Higgs, Meteors and Martian Water

A clothing store in Sweden now features mannequins which represent the curvier (and more common) spectrum of the female figure. The reception of their decision is overwhelmingly positive. While I must comment on how the picture in the article appears to obscure the largest of the three mannequins in its photograph, I do believe this news, in itself, is a positive development. Representing the full range of human form can only be a good thing. However, I doubt the underlying issue of idealizing the female figure will vanish until we stop giving a damn about whether a woman is attractive or not.

On the science front, researchers have confirmed that the particle discovered last July 4th is indeed the Higgs boson, or a version thereof. Since it is cagey and rare beast, many more experiments are necessary to determine which theoretical conception of the Higgs this particle matches, if any. However, the article notes that the mass of this Higgs—about 126 times the mass of the proton—is enough to indicate instability in our universe on the billions-of-years scale. They do not specify whether or not this means the Big Crunch is in vogue again.

A post on Magpie and Whiskeyjack features the art of meteorites throughout the ages. It is a lovely record of our fascination with the heavens and their behavior.

Finally, Curiosity's examination of rocks on Mars leaves scientists optimistic that its ancient environment was friendly to life, and thus may have been home to some life forms. Apparently, the evidence indicates that any water that would have existed on Mars billions of years ago would have been potable. Of course, fans of Doctor Who know this to be a trap.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fullmetal Alchemist: An Example of the Possibilities of Animation

I cannot say, as I did years ago, that animation is a maligned art form in America. The success of Pixar, Dreamworks and the rebirth of Disney have proven me wrong. Avatar: The Last Airbender spawned The Legend of Korra—both being beloved series which address contentious and mature topics.

Still, it remains true that an animated work must be—or pretend to be—a family affair to succeed in the American market. Avatar and Korra aired on Nickelodeon and almost never show deaths on-screen. Pixar’s themes may be mature, but rarely does it show blood. Overt sexuality is unheard of.

Foreign animation, Japanese in particular, can be a treat in that it lacks these domestic limitations. I recently took the chance to watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a series which aired in 2009-2010. Though it is “old news,” per se, it remains an example of the power of animation as a medium.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Japanese Culture is Collectivist, American Culture is Individualist... or is it?

            “Japan has a crappy culture,” my college roommate once said. The statement never sat well with me. The man watched animé and listened to J-pop, as did I. Such a sweeping criticism seemed disrespectful of the people who created the shows and music we enjoyed. All cultures have their downsides, in any case. Certainly the culture had some kind of appeal if we enjoyed their entertainment.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday Links: WiFi Paranoia, Positive Pessimism, and Ebert's Social Catholicism

Tinfoil hats, long life and prosperity, and cardinal contemplations feature on this Monday's links.

Wi-Fi signals are harmless to the human body, so far as we know. But they can make you ill—if you think they can make you ill. The whole story is on Neuroskeptic's blog at Discover Magazine.

A National Post article features research indicating that pessimism is good for your long-term health. That is to say, pessimism of a sort. Having lower expectations of your future wellbeing prepares you for the bad and leaves you happier when things go better than you expected. For the elderly, this means less stress, better health and longer life. On the other hand, obsessive catastrophizing still does nobody any good.

Earlier in the month, Roger Ebert posted this essay in the wake of Pope Benedict's retirement. It's a thoughtful examination of the development of one man's beliefs. I encourage everyone to read Roger Ebert's blog. I do not always agree with the man, but he expresses himself with clarity, consideration and poise. I respect that quality in anyone. Many of us could emulate Mr. Ebert more in that respect.

Enjoy the reads, and stay tuned for new posts on Wednesday and Friday!

This Week On Runicfire: March 11 - 17

This Monday's round of links talk about how thinking harmless things are harmful makes you sick, the upside of pessimism and one man's experience of growing up Catholic.

Wednesday's post will be partly about how culture affects sense of time, but mostly about how any one culture's understanding of being human is woefully incomplete.

And Friday I unleash my inner fanboy and tell you why you should watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Hint: it is the greatest television animé ever made. Yes, even greater than that one.

Stay tuned. I'll see you in the week!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Telling Time in the Renaissance, Part II: From Water Clocks to the Pendulum

Last week, in Part I on my series on Renaissance time keeping, we discussed the Julian calendar’s Roman roots and its Gregorian revision the 16th century. This week, we explore the evolution of the clock in Renaissance Italy and its implications.

There is no clock like the Present. It is a colored steel circle with a single hand. Instead of counting the hours, minutes or seconds, it turns a tiny bit each day. A full year later, it will make a complete revolution of the clock face.

The Kickstarter Handbook, which references the Kickstarter campaign which funded the Present’s creation, credits its creator, Scott Thrift, with saying: “I’m at war with seconds. The second hand is a recent invention. I think it’s only 120 years old or so. It damages the way that life actually is. There’s a larger scale at work.”

Value judgments aside, Thrift is completely mistaken about the second hand. Second hands measuring 1/60ths of a minute have been in use since 1670 or earlier. Their introduction in the last century of the Renaissance represented advancements in the design and accuracy of clocks. The roots of these breakthroughs stem from the centuries prior to the Renaissance, and their attainment made the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions possible. Few things have changed the world like the reckoning of time.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Cost of Making Movies: Why Film is So Expensive

As I wrote in my guest post at Cogswell College’s blog, I had the privilege of hearing a Hollywood producer discuss the process of converting a story from book to screen at this year’s San Francisco Writer’s Conference. There’s quite the demand for adaptations, apparently. As our guest said at the panel, “Everyone is looking for a built-in audience.”

And so they are. While original screenplays accounted for over 50% of motion picture market share in the years 1995 through 2000, since then they have undergone a bumpy decline. In 2012, just under 40% of the market comprised films produced from original screenplays. (See for yourself at The Numbers.) A 10% decline may not seem like much, but a downward trend is apparent. Gross ticket sales paint grim picture: original movies sold over 500,000 tickets in 1995. In 2012, they sold less than 200,000.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Cogswell Guest Post About SFWC

I've recently had the privilege of writing a guest post on my college's blog page about my trip to the San Francisco Writer's Conference. Please check it out!

Monday Links: The Prison Problem, VFX Industry in the Red, and the Keystone Pipeline

This Monday's collection of notable links covers two subjects of general importance, with one less far-reaching topic that still hits close to my heart.

I recently found a thought-provoking article in Harvard Magazine, aptly titled "The Prison Problem." The article discusses research sociologist Bruce Western which brings America's criminal justice system into question. We imprison over 2.2 million of our citizens, and half of those who finish their terms go back to prison. Is it because they're born-and-bred criminals? No... they want to go back. Read the article: it explains the situation in full.

Though it's from a week ago, you may find this bit on Greg Laden's blog interesting. Within, Greg discusses the environmental ramifications of the proposed Keystone oil pipeline, the problems surrounding our continued use of fossil fuels, and the moral implications of whatever decision the Obama administration makes on the issue.

You may or may not of heard of Rhythm & Hues. They are a VFX company who created the visual effects which earned The Life of Pi an Oscar. But the company hasn't fared as well as the Academy Award-winning film. They recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They're not the first in the VFX industry, nor will they be the last, and The Wall Street Journal explains why.

As a student at Cogswell College, many of my friends are studying to enter the animation and effect industries, and I have acquaintances who have worked at Rhythm & Hues. My thoughts still go out to anyone who may have lost their jobs in this debacle.

VFX houses have little choice but to accept a pittance for their services because of domestic and international competition, and the stinginess of some filmmakers. This is unfair. Most films today would be nothing but a few actors making silly gestures in front of a green screen were it not for VFX work.

Some of us have turned our Facebook profile pictures green to spread the word and protest these conditions. If you love films or have friends who have turned their profiles green, please consider following suit.

This Week on Runicfire: March 4 – 10

This Monday we open with a set of links to articles on prison reform, the plight of the VFX industry, and the potential ramifications Obama's pending decision on the Keystone oil pipeline may have on the environment.

On Wednesday I'll be putting up a brief piece on filmmaking.

And Friday shall feature Part II on "Telling Time in the Renaissance:" my series on how the people of the Italian Renaissance kept track of time. You can find Part I here.

Enjoy the week, and stay tuned!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Telling Time in the Renaissance, Part I: A Change in Calendars

Time is a slippery beast. You may believe otherwise, if you live in today’s West. Here, the moments march lockstep in time with the news ticker, Twitter feeds and the stock market bell—every event branded with a number. The precision of industry disguises the artifice that is our experience of time.

In the world of our ancient forbears, however, we had less evidence of time’s passage. The seasons flowed one into another with each year’s refrain, and the phases of the moon signaled the strength of the tides. When those cultures saw fit to measure these intervals, they faced a panoply of decisions in the face of the elements. As civilizations grew, they sometimes saw fit to change those decisions and alter their measure of time. The Renaissance saw at least one such change to fruition.