September 10, 2002
Strangeness-Squared

I just got home from a Berkeley administrative meeting that seemed very strange to me. And I have just realized why it seemed strange.

Let me back up. The Berkeley administration has asked for a proposal to hire six new faculty and create a teaching-and-research program-center-committee-group engaged in the study of "New Media." And they asked me--along with a bunch of other people--to go to an organizational meeting to try to decide what sort of proposal to write.

I talked about how a huge honking new-media studio would have allowed my cousin Philip to try out alternative ways of creating and then distributing animation. A music professor talked about how new media interacted with old media--about "Switched-on Bach" and how often one of the first things you did with new instruments was to try to make them sound like old instruments. One of the Information Management School people talked about how new media would flourish only if it could be built on top of viable revenue models.

And those were--in fifty minutes of conversation--I swear I am not making this up--the only points made in the discussion that even touched on actual new-media concepts or examples. People talked about how the word media had been already captured by perhaps inappropriate referents, and instead of "new media" we should speak of "mediation." People talked about how "digitization" should not be a defining concept for "new media." People talked about how "new media" could mean any of a number of different things--but somehow never managed to give a definition or even an example of even one of them. People talked about how studio work in architecture was not the end product--that the architecture school wasn't in the business of teaching people the skills they needed to build models and make drawings--but that the end product was a higher mode of understanding of built form, or how there were already too many new media studios staffed by people who were too much technologists and too much male.

But the one thing people did not talk about was "new media": no discussion of video-on-demand, or interactive educational programs, or computer games, or the use of the Director's Cut as an addition to sell DVDs, or mp3 files, or new internet-based modes of distribution that bypass conglomerates, or how a CRT or LCD-based palette of light is different from the reflective palette of pigments, or any of the host of other things--from weblogs to societal-scale information systems to pop-up advertisements on your computer--that occupy the "new media" space today.

And then I understood why the conversation had seemed so strange. It was simply that it was totally flat.

When I talk about "new media" I get excited. I tend to talk about how they have come close to transforming how we experience the world. I ask my audience to drop back into the last decade of the nineteenth century to one of the best-selling--and worst-written--books of that decade, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. The narrator of the book is thrown forward in time from 1895 to the Utopia of 2000, where he examines Utopia and reflects on the civilization of his own time that he has left. One of Bellamy’s set pieces in the book is his description of the technological marvels of the start of the twenty-first century. The set piece begins with his hostess in 2000 asking him: "Would you like to hear some music?" Bellamy’s protagonist expects his hostess to play the piano. Instead, Bellamy’s protagonist is stupefied to find his host "merely touched one or two screws," and immediately the room was "filled with music; filled, not flooded, for, by some means, the volume of melody had been perfectly graduated to the size of the apartment. 'Grand!' I cried. 'Bach must be at the keys of that organ; but where is the organ?'" He learns that his hostess has called the orchestra on the telephone: the prime technological marvel of Bellamy's utopia you can dial up a live orchestra, and then put it on the speakerphone. You even have a choice of orchestras.

Bellamy's protagonist then says that: "if we [in the nineteenth century] could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained..."

The limit of human felicity. That's what our new media do for us, or, rather, what past generations thought they would do for us. Yet we today do not think of our recorded-entertainment industry as an especially remarkable or even an exceptionally notable part of our economy. We do not genuflect daily in front of our CD collections–or most of us don’t, anyway. We do not reflect that they have brought us to the limit of human felicity. We just take them very much for granted. As far as material prosperity is concerned, we are well enough off to be blissfully unaware of portions of our life that would have struck previous centuries as trans-Utopian. We don't think of how magical are the wearable CD player and the CD with Placido Domingo singing the part of Il Principe Ignoto in "Turandot" that fits into it.

Yet there were no sparks of excitement was visible at the meeting this afternoon. If the people there--most of them, at least--thought new media were magical or wonderful or transformative or beautiful, they seemed to hide it very well.

How do people get so ground down?...

Posted by DeLong at September 10, 2002 08:52 PM | Trackback

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I understand your frustration, Professor DeLong. This type of perception gap is what's behind the most dangerous and absurd misunderstandings fueling in anti-globablisation movement. That brings about three types of thoughs in me:

* We economists have done a very poor job so far at explaining in a convincing manner these things. Growth 100 / Econ History 100 (a la DeLong) should perhaps become part of an increasing number of curricula.

* These types of cognitive dissonance are very well document by psychologists, yet they are understudied in our field. There maybe something important to be dug up there in terms of helping us understand and help with the dynamics of our society. (as in "economic psychology")

* These technologies won't solve people's metaphisical angst :) nor necessarily more pragmatic economic problems that usual folks deal with on a daily basis. The failure of material progress to bring about the subtle forms of personal freedom J.M. Keynes envisioned cast in some people's mind deep doubts about the validity of our way of thinking in general. (as in "happiness economics")

But to me, the puzzle remains... And, indeed, other disciplines don't always think analytically :) (at least according to our definition of this term.)

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on September 10, 2002 11:16 PM

Post-thoughs:

One thing that discredits our profession is our comparative readiness to systematically stand up for free trade (as I do) vs. our usual relative silence on things like the importance of public education for economic success of the underpriviledged, or quality social programs in support of single mothers to prevent criminality.

We have pretty much identical amounts of caveats to serve on both types of issues, but we somehow feel more confortable casting ourselves as the defendant of laissez-faire than as advocate of social programs, even when those have clearly positive net benefits to society.

All of this makes our ideas sound oh-so uncool to anyone who cares instinctively more for the second set of issues (obviously a large crowd here at Berkeley.) Also, our tabous regarding distributive issues makes us look like fools to these people. Let's assume out all that's at stake and...

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on September 10, 2002 11:32 PM

Of course the RIAA and MPAA are doing their damndest to make sure that no-one will ever get to see most of these possibilities.

Does this matter? Well yes.
I for one am very soon leaving my job as an engineer in the space of new media (working on video and audio compression). When I started in this space ten years ago, it was not as a job but as a hobby. I was filled with excitement and enthusiasm about how computers would allow me and other users to manipulate video. After ten years of of having the enthusiasm beaten out of me as one idea after another has not been allowed to make it to a product, I no longer care. I'm moving to a part of computing that doesn't seem to be limited more by what lawyers allow than by technology.
Now I'm not arrogant enough to claim that my leaving alone is going to kill the field.
But how many others are there like me? So dispirited by the endless procession of losses (UCITA, DMCA, killing of Napster), with narry a win for the good guys, that we just conclude life is too short to have to deal with this?

Posted by: Maynard Handley on September 11, 2002 12:59 AM

Another reason for the 'ground down' is the canard that all voices are equally relevant and therefore deserve equal time.

What would have happened if you had interrupted this meeting to declare: 'Folks, we are wasting precious time. Most of the comments being made have nothing to do with new media. So, if you don't have anything relevant to say, please shut up'? You would have been branded an 'arrogant elitist'.

Our public discourse (and meetings) will continue to be inane and unproductive as long as Brad DeLong's opinion on unemployment and its impact gets equal time (or less time) as Maria Bartiromo's or the waitress at a bar or the guy who is picking up garbage.

The biggest con job pepetrated on us is the assertion 'all men are created equal' the corollary to which is 'thoughts of all people matter equally'

Posted by: Suresh Krishnamoorthy on September 11, 2002 07:20 AM

Professor DeLong,

Interesting note. As a Cal alumnus (MBA/JD), I have sat through numerous similar experiences.

No doubt, part of the problem in your new media meeting was simply a function of intelligent people surrendering to the urge to be heard. Few bright people, when amused or energized with an idea, will remain silent when given an opportunity to speak. Berkeley (among other places) is full of such people, who confuse a clever or complex analysis with perception, wisdom, and relevance. It's nearly impossible to restrain such people entirely, but an effective chair or facilitator should be able to get things back on track. Perhaps your work group needs a new chair.

Your experience raises a larger issue, which is a real problem at Berkeley and (I think) in American academia in general. That is the tendency to make everything such an ideological or political battleground, that one becomes unable to accept that others legitimately can see things differently. Over the years, I saw more than a few students and some faculty contort themselves into intellectual charicatures by trying to force every issue into the same ideological/political formula and distorting both facts and others' arguments to fit their own world views.

There is a strong illiberal streak in many of these fanatics. (I was at Cal when protestors prevented Jeanne Kirkpatrick from speaking.) While you did not indicate whether it was present at your new media meeting, this refusal to respect honest differences of opinion is far too common, and it should be of great concern that it appears to be growing more common.

Disagreement is a wonderful thing. It makes us grow better and stronger, individually and as a society.

You, as a neo-liberal (or however you'd describe yourself), and I, as a moderate conservative, not infrequently disagree. Mostly, those disagreements seem to arise from such issues as different predictions of the relative efficiency of government vs. private action, or different evaluations of the indirect costs on freedom from more government intervention vs. the desire to do something to address a problem. The point is that we could sit down and discuss them.

With the illiberal fanatics (left, right, Marxist, religious, athiest, racist, PC, whatever), real discussion is a threat, and everything possible must (and some seem to believe) may, be done to stifle dissent. That's what the Islamist terrorists are really about -- imposing their radical Wahhabi world-view on others.

While we may disagree about specific actions and priorities, those of us in the broad, non-fanatical middle have a duty to fight for free thought, discussion, and respect for individuals: for liberalism. Sometimes, that may mean war. For most of us, more often, it means resisting the bullying tactics of the fanatics and continuing to stand up for our ideas and values, not just for ourselves, but for everyone's freedom.

That's a bit long, and no doubt strayed from your intent in raising the new media discussion. But it's 9/11, and one has to think about the meaning of freedom and the values of a liberal society at a time like this.

Russ Wood

Posted by: on September 11, 2002 09:56 AM

Wonderful comment. Architecture is for thinking of form, never for setting form down as drawing or transforming the drawing to structure. Why Bilbao the structure is as nothing to the thinking of Bilbao. Well. We must be ever about learning to see.

Posted by: on September 11, 2002 11:25 AM

My own (admittedly half-baked) theory on this:

Too many in academia have taken the concept of "dispassionate analysis" too much to heart. Yes, it is important in the sciences (or subjects that aspire to be sciences) to approach a subject objectively and open-mindedly while you gather information about it. But I believe that many in the academy have lost the ability to turn this mindset off.

I believe this is a major factor, for example, in the cultural relativism so prevalent at universities -- people who believe that to make a judgment about another culture is unscientific and unsophisticated, even outside the realm of actually making academic inquiry into the culture.

Similarly, I think you are seeing the same dynamic at work here: people who believe that to get excited about the possibilities of a new technology would be exhibiting behavior inappropriate to the academic exercise.

Posted by: Curt on September 11, 2002 11:37 AM

Often, at Harvard, I am reminded that Yo-Yo Ma was already a wonderful cellist before he began college. At Harvard, you study music theory not and refrain from making music.

A mix between theory and application ought to be well respected and encouraged at all levels.

Posted by: on September 11, 2002 12:15 PM

This paints a very discouraging picture of your colleagues at Stanford.

Regards,

Posted by: Tom on September 11, 2002 02:07 PM

What this really does is paint a picture of how magical is the market, and how it outclasses articulated rationality as a means of delivering meaningful information. I.e. we don't have the "new media" (or much else) because of meetings of professors (Berkeley or elsewhere), we have it because of entrepreneurs who worked it out through trial and error in the cold cruel world.

Also, I can't avoid mentioning this whopping non-sequitur from Jean-Philippe Stijns:

"...the importance of public education for economic success of the underpriviledged, or quality social programs in support of single mothers to prevent criminality".

In the U.S. "public education" is responsible for the poor quality of education available to the underprivileged. We've had local experiments (Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York, and a few other places) recently, of making private education available to said "underprivileged" with some success. See the work of Caroline Minter Hoxby if you're interested.

Further, prior to the advent of "public education" (about 1840) privately educated America was the most literate country in the world. Toqueville noted this in his famous Democracy in America.

Similarly, we had an explosion of crime at just the time we expanded social programs.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on September 11, 2002 04:06 PM

Professir Sullivan:

What if you recomputed your implicit assessment of America's litteracy prior to 1840 by averaging in the approximately zero value of education of those who were simply not given an education back then?

>>we had an explosion of crime at just the time we expanded social programs.<<

When I go to sleep, the sun sets down, and when I wake up, it rises. And when I think of the good old far west, it jumps at me like the most civilized period of American history. And no single mothers were prostituting themselves here along the Savage Coast, or at least there are no official statistics about that, so it must be so...


Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on September 12, 2002 12:25 PM

"You can fool some people some time, but you can't fool all the people all the time."

-- Bob Marley

Posted by: on September 12, 2002 12:43 PM

"You can fool some people some time, but you can't fool all the people all the time."

-- Bob Marley

16th President of the U.S.?

Jean-Philippe asks:

"What if you recomputed your implicit assessment of America's litteracy prior to 1840 by averaging in the approximately zero value of education of those who were simply not given an education back then?"

Odd. A literacy rate already includes that, by definition. Also, how would that change, say, the zero value of education for Europe's less fortunate at the same time?

E.G. West from period in question:

<<-------quote---------------
An item in the Journal of Education of January 1828 gave this account:

"Our population is 12,000,000, for the education of which, we have 50
colleges, besides several times the number of well endowed and flourishing
academies leaving primary schools out of the account. For meeting the
intellectual wants of this 12,000,000, we have about 600 newspapers and
periodical journals. There is no country, (it is often said), where the
means of intelligence are so generally enjoyed by all ranks and where
knowledge is so generally diffused among the lower orders of the community,
as in our own. The population of those portions of Poland which have
successively fallen under the dominion of Russia, is about 20,000,000. To
meet the wants of which there are but 15 newspapers, eight of which are
printed in Warsaw. But with us a newspaper is the daily fare of almost every
meal in almost every family."
-------endquote-------->>

So, I'm still curious why Jean-Philippe believes that "public education" is the best way to educate "the underprivileged", in light of such as the following:

http://overlawyered.com/archives/01/jan2.html#0117a

<<--------quote-------------
January 17 -- "Coming soon to a school near you".

In Washington's alt-weekly City Paper (Jan. 12-18), "Loose Lips" columnist
Jonetta Rose Barras reprints the following letter, which "leaves even [her]
speechless":

District of Columbia Public Schools
Office of the General Counsel
Labor Management and Employee Relations

November 16, 2000

Dear Ms. [name withheld]:

On June 23, 2000, you were informed by letter that you would not receive an
offer of employment with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) based
on the results of your criminal background check. Based on your subsequent
presentation of documentation that your 1984 charge for Uniformed Controlled
Substance Act, Cannabis was no papered; that your 1984 charge for shoplifting
was nolle prosequi; that your 1984 charge for assault with a dangerous weapon,
razor was no papered; that your 1984 charge for destruction of government
property was nolle prosequi; that your 1986 charge for assault with a deadly
weapon was dismissed; that your 1987 charge for soliciting for prostitution was
nolle prosequi; that your 1989 charge for assault with a dangerous weapon,
razor was no papered; and that your 1992 Uniform Controlled Substance Act,
possession with intent to distribute cocaine was dismissed. You are eligible
for employment with DCPS.

If you have any questions or concerns, kindly contact Labor Management and
Employee Relations at (202) 442-5373.

Sincerely,
Delores Hamilton
Acting Director of Human Resources
--------endquote------>>

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on September 13, 2002 09:04 AM
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