Archive for April, 2006

Phone Etiquette

Posted: April 29, 2006 in Manners

Phone etiquette has transformed in the past few years. I remember when exchanges used to be given as two letters and one number. (My childhood exchange is ST1, for instance). Now it’s 10-digit dialing almost everywhere. That’s not about etiquette, really, but a curiosity.

One change in etiquette came from caller ID. I find myself sometimes answering the phone by saying the name of the caller, as in “Hi, John,” rather than using the conventional “Hello.” Of course, the first time someone did that to me, I found it rather jarring.

What has really surprised me, though, is when I’ve called someone, not left a message, and had them immediately call back, asking “Who is this? You just called me.” Since cell phones keep incoming/outgoing call logs, the person called can now call up an unidentified number and ask “Why did you call me?” That’s a rather challenging approach.

Another oddity for me is passing someone on the sidewalk who is apparently talking to themselves. Then I realize he/she has a Bluetooth earpiece and is on the phone. Worse, it’s disheartening to be in the bathroom and hear someone in the next stall carrying on a phone conversation while, um, taking care of business. The privacy of the phone call, to say nothing of bathroom behavior, where one would step into a booth to close themselves off from the world, is nearly gone. It’s also surprising the number and types of things a person will yell into a cell phone (to get over ambient noise) within the earshot of anyone around them. Goes without saying that a lot of phone talk is littered with profanity, as cursing has lost its offensiveness and many people can’t communicate without dropping F-bombs everywhere.

So things change; I get that and expect them to. I’m curiously ambivalent about the things I note above. Disapproval comes easily to an armchair cultural critic, but in this case, either I don’t care enough or I’ve already adapted like others.

Street-Level Advertising

Posted: April 19, 2006 in Advertising

I’ve noticed a few new developments in street-level advertising in Chicago. They’re not innovative so much as intrusive.

Those that struck me the most are screens built into bus stop shelters by the French company JC Decaux. I saw one today running an endless video loop of the Mission Impossible 3 movie trailer (in the center of the 3′ x 5′ poster).

I’ve also noticed the return of graffiti to Chicago. (I noticed its absence a couple years ago. Well, it’s changed.) I don’t know that that’s a good or bad thing, but I find it curious that it isn’t erased or covered up instantly. A few of the places I routinely travel past on the Red Line have been graffiti strewn for a few months now.

The local ABC affiliate recently put in a new studio at street level, behind a couple layers of glass, where mouth breathers can line up on the sidewalk and watch the evening news broadcast (as though there were something to see — there’s no audio). This isn’t a new thing, of course. Following examples in NYC, the NBC affiliate in Chicago did the same thing a year or more ago, though the proximity to the street isn’t so immediate. The NBC affiliate has a large, exterior news crawl that grates on me, whereas the ABC affiliate has a huge, 3D, BRIGHT, multicolor display that doesn’t provide news but merely attracts attention with those silly kaleidoscopic news graphics that ooze excitement without actually having any. Plus, there are two long, multicolor displays for news crawls, but the ABC affiliate apparently hasn’t programmed them with anything yet but its own identifiers.

I generally feel the need to retreat from the media. For example, I instinctively move to the corner opposite the Captivate screens in elevators. I don’t want to be someone’s sales mark all day long, nor a captive audience. But it’s getting harder and harder to turn away. I learned recently that Phillips has applied for a patent for technology to defeat various ways to bypass advertising. It’s really getting ugly out there. Soon, I suspect there will be a computer chip with an optical interface implanted in the skull at birth to force feed us the stuff I’m desperately trying to ignore.

Pragmatism is the New Idealism

Posted: April 19, 2006 in Idealism

Prior to last month, I hadn’t been an avid reader of weblogs. Now that I’ve taken the plunge and gotten my own and joined a group blog, I’ve become more familiar with the style of writing, the arguments, and such as I’m able, some of the underlying attitudes. I specifically wanted to put myself in harm’s way and confront fairly actively some ideas different from my own. It’s been an eye opener.

My earlier post on the Ascent of the Blog is a modest appraisal of the blog as a new and formidable instrument of democratic political and cultural activity. It’s democratic precisely because it lacks the imprimatur of tradition media, with their increasing spurious claims to authority. I’m convinced that blogging will eventually come to be seen as grass roots activism, though it could be all over the map as to focus and agenda.

What concerns me now is what I perceive as a heavy reliance on pragmatism in both poorly- and well-reasoned argument. I don’t intend to provide an exhaustive definition of the term or a survey of the various forms of the philosophical school of pragmatism as, for instance, pioneered by John Dewey and William James. That would take me too far afield and I frankly lack the expertise. Rather, the pragmatism I witness is the same seat-of-the-pants problem solving and enlightened self-interest that’s been remarked upon by Tocqueville as a fundamental — even cliché — element of American character.

As my ideas began to take shape, I had intended to contrast pragmatism with idealism as opposites of a spectrum: pragmatism being the manifest reality of attitudes held and actions taken, idealism being the guiding dogma and theoretical philosophizing motivating us to recognize the directions we wish to go and restraining us from adopting solutions to problems that might lack conscience or balance. It occurred to me, though, that pragmatism has itself become an ideal, and that when applied as an ideal good, it tends to sweep aside judicious approaches to issues and seek only emphatically efficient answers.

For instance, the Bush administration has been remarkable unrepentant after being called on the carpet for its disinformation campaigns and repeated lies designed to sway public opinion in favor of preemptive war and now preemptive nuclear war. Rather, for the administration, it’s been full steam ahead, no looking back, and who cares what got us here, we’re here now and we’ve got a job to do. (Not that it’s getting done, but that’s a different post). Similarly, arguments that the quality of life we now enjoy in the first world absolves the nastiness knowingly committed to get us here are perfect (and bankrupt) ends-justify-means arguments. It’s also endemic in the blogosphere that any proposition, however preliminary, must be weighed in terms of potential application (pragmatism), but there is frequently diminished or simply no concern over whether a proposition is truly a thoughtful, responsible direction to go (idealism). If we identify something we want, the problem solving that gets us there is primary. Consideration of the possible ramifications, especially the difficult to foresee kind, no longer function as reasonable restraints over our appetites and desires.

Perhaps the worst result of pragmatism’s primacy is the defeatism that sets in among thinkers straining to find a better way when it’s argued not that an idea is not ideal (as in a good idea) but simply that it won’t work for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t matter that feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, educating the public (not merely children, but everyone), providing medical care to the disenfranchised, etc. are righteous ideas. If a trial balloon is sent up advocating some way those worthy goals might be accomplished, it’s quickly shot down in disputes over implementation. A few traverses across that ground and even the most well-meaning sort (funny how well-meaning has morphed into a slur) learns to not even bother, to join the dominant flow. Resistance is futile. See this case in point.

My concern is not to offer a solution (pragmatism) but to identify the problem. I’m still straining to get my head around it, but I feel certain that it’s about how we think about our place in the world (idealism).

Jazz Radio Erodes Further

Posted: April 12, 2006 in Taste

The Chicago public radio station WBEZ announced recently that it will drop its jazz programming next year, which currently airs from 8 PM to 4 AM, and go to an “all public affairs and culture” format. Jazz aficionados are dismayed, and the format change has created a few ripples around the nation as those in other markets note the further disappearance of jazz programming, a process that has been underway for more than two decades. A similar erosion of classical music programming has taken place alongside the disappearance of jazz.

Free marketers view the disappearance of classical and jazz music on free radio outlets, which are often but not always replaced but subscription services, as evidence of a shift in public taste and a concomitant redefined emphasis on the part of radio station owners and operators. There is little to argue with in that assessment. However, cultural critics feel that this market shift represents a dumbing down of the radio audience and bemoan the diminished demand and therefore public support of anything but mainstream musics. Yet others recognize that as media outlets mature, sophisticated listeners find that free radio no longer serves their tastes and concentrate exclusively on direct media such as CDs to satisfy their interests.

I believe that all three are probably true and are not mutually exclusive. Commercial and publicly supported radio is littered with ads and fundraising, which quickly become tiresome to even the most dedicated listener. Further, the fidelity of radio, mp3s, and streaming media (such as Internet radio or podcasts) are noticeably inferior to vinyl, CDs, DVDs, and DVD-audio, which is a criticism mass audiences don’t have as they rush to embrace a variety of portable, computer-driven formats. And the inability to tailor one’s listening lists can be frustrating when standards receive repeated airplay to the nearly total exclusion of less well-known fare. Make no mistake, jazz and classical musics have made no particular inroads into gaining market share in the past two or three generations, unlike pop, rock, metal, country western, dance, techno, rave, rap, hip-hop, and other populist musics. All of these latter genres function within one demographic or another as a sort of vernacular, whereas jazz and classical could never make that claim.

Despite the inevitability of change, it is worth resisting the so-called “rush to the bottom,” a culture characterized by the extinction of sophisticated, traditional art forms and replacement by populist, wide-market forms. Consumers of easily digestible, quickly replaced music often find that their ability to relate in even the most rudimentary way to sophisticated music is extinguished by a pervasive diet populated by the equivalents of French fries and soda pop. While that diet may be enjoyable in and of itself, it frequently precludes the sensitivity needed to appreciate, say, a fine wine. A healthy range ought to include something more sophisticated from time to time, though that argument, too, mostly falls on deaf ears in a mass culture brought up to believe the individual is the final arbiter in matters of taste.

The Ascent of the Blog

Posted: April 9, 2006 in Blogosphere

Our information environment had been monopolized in the last fifty years or so by large, corporate interests. Whether it be newspapers, book and magazine publishers, politicians, educators and textbook publishers, television, radio, advertisers, etc., the focus and flow of information has been from those with organized, bureaucratic, commercial, and political agendas to the masses. It's probably conspiratorial to believe that an orchestrated attempt to control the cultural mindspace has been underway, but because of the way information is structured and consumed, a high level of control has nonetheless been effected.

When information is collected and disseminated by any clearinghouse, an inevitable filtering process alters meaning to some degree. News reporting, for example, is hardly characterized by an objective, just-the-facts perspective one might wish for. The simple decision what to include and/or exclude creates a context that channels the perception of the reader/viewer. Anyone who has witnessed an event later reported by the media knows that the story is shaped and massaged, often in an egregiously distorted manner. Some may recognize when they are being served propaganda, but not always. (You can fool some of the people all of the time; you can fool all of the people some of the time.) Advertisers are the most obvious propagandizers but not the only ones.

One of the surprising developments the latest communications innovations (following the printing press, the telegraph, the photograph, the telephone, the moving picture, the television) have given us is the blog. The blogosphere is characterized by individuals publishing their personal observations and opinions. Nothing could be more democratic. Although there are a few corporate-sponsored blogs, that's not yet the nature of the beast. If there is cause for hope in the culture, and I believe there is, perhaps it's that some have broken the information monopoly and are collecting and disseminating their own views, filtered through one's individual experience rather than a corporate agenda. Political agendas persist, but they are relatively simple to recognize and diffuse.

Perhaps the best collateral effect of the blog is a return to language. "What? We never abandoned language," one might say. In the nominal sense, no. But today is the time of the image. "A picture speaks a thousand words," it used to be said. We've forgotten how significant that is. Prior to the photograph, images were stylized and nonliteral depictions of reality and weren't the dominant means of transmitting information — language was. Although historical literacy rates were nothing like those of the 20th or 21st century, the cultural mind was synonymous to the typographical mind. Information was processed first and foremost through language. The sequential, syntactical, propositional nature of language necessarily shapes information and knowledge, leading to a reasoned, logical way of thinking, which in turn has obvious implications for cultural and political discourse. The robust practice of publishing pamphlets and broadsides in the Revolutionary Era and the development of formidable writers, thinkers, and philosophes such as Thomases Paine and Jefferson is instructive.

Photographic images lack those characteristics and instead rely on intuitive and emotional processing, requiring little context as they are mostly self-contained. Video is essentially an extension of the photograph, giving the still image an aspect of time. Captions and dialogue embedded in pictures and video are not the dominant element, and in fact, the processing of the purely visual aspects of video interferes with language processing, not the other way around.

Most blogs, in contrast, are primarily text. Habits of mind necessary to craft effective messages are learnt through imitating worthy models and through trial and error. Clearly, though, more lay people (not professional writers) are learning to deploy language with greater facility and effectiveness, mostly free from the corrupting influence of commerce (though it is probably infused with the corrupting influence of sef-aggrandizement and celebrity). No copy editor tells a blogger to punch up this or that aspect of a post or to avoid embarrassing the sponsors.

The Spiral Staircase Explained

Posted: April 9, 2006 in Culture

The Spiral Staircase is a metaphor for the ascent and descent of cultural values. There are many possible golden rules, or categorical imperatives. In interpersonal relationships, the classic is "Do unto others …." In the classroom or athletics, my favorite is "Try hard." In debate, it's "Be generous (and patient)." With respect to culture, it's "Contribute." (By "culture," I don't mean specifically the fine arts, though they are included. I think in terms of the armchair social critic, surveying the wider culture with a somewhat more comprehensive if disdainful view.)

The idea of contribution is to add something to the culture that enhances its value and stimulates ascent. We should want to improve — not in comparison to others especially but in comparison to the selves of our own past. While improvement and progress are worthy goals, they're not guaranteed results. Culture can evolve, or it can devolve.

Many analyses point to the devolution of American culture, not unlike the downward spiral into decadence and decay suffered by the Roman Empire before its fall. Like the Romans, we mostly can't help ourselves. Our desires and lack of self-restraint trump any sober planning we might make to avoid failure or extricate ourselves from the problems we create. Consider, just as a few examples, ecology, energy policy, population, urban sprawl, personal and government debt, the obesity epidemic, education, political apathy, smoking, racism, ageism, etc. With the application of a little wisdom and self-control, we could undoubtedly do better with these issues than we currently do. Basically, as a culture, we want what we want and are willing to sell out the future to get it.

We lack a magic bullet to fix the culture. It's too big, too broad, too varied in the U.S. to obey any sort of program, even if we could agree on one. However, we can choose as individuals to contribute what we may to make things better, to sacrifice some unneeded personal comforts in favor of conservation, and to develop a more refined, more circumspect appreciation of things. Our cultural fate is probably already sealed, and no wellspring of individual responsibility is likely to change that. However, fiddling through the fire is evidence of collapsed integrity. I prefer to hold my head high and resist the impulse to accept the inevitable without some struggle.

United Flight 93

Posted: April 6, 2006 in Tacky

Universal Studios is coming out later this month (April 28) with its movie dramatization of events on United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.

United 93

I can't speak for anyone else, but I find this a wholly improper approach to both entertainment and the historical event. There is probably a fair amount of information known only to the Dept. of Homeland Security about whatever happened on that flight. Can the moviemakers possibly know what really happened or it is an Oliver Stone type of revisionist history?

As if the trauma of events that day weren't enough to be etched in our minds, the last thing we need is a glossy, Hollywood movie version with predictable character drama, poignant loss, and depictions of American courage. I suspect that lots of folks will want to see it "out of respect," much like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ drew many folks into the theater who hadn't seen a film in years.

Naturally, if there is some money to be made, some studio is going to exploit the opportunity. I don't think such a tacky approach to entertainment should be supressed, nor do I think it worthwhile to call for a boycott, but you certainly won't find my butt in the movie theater watching.