On the effects of New Technologies

Mark Kingwell, Clive Thompson
What follows here is a complete transcript (edited slightly for clarity) of the live WebChat that took place at the McLuhan Program Coachhouse on the University of Toronto. The Chat was moderated by journalist and U. of T. alumnus Clive Thompson, who joined in from Brooklyn, NY.
[Mark Kingwell is the author of several book including In Pursuit of Happiness. His essays have appeared in Harper's, Utne Reader, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Observer, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. The following was presented at the Couchiching Conference, a forum on Science, Ethics and Human Destiny.]

QUESTION: Concerning your alumni day speech on storage/retrieval and the new technologies of information. Don't you run the risk of a kind of nostalgia for the book?

MARK KINGWELL: I think nostalgia is always a danger when one talks about a particular technology of communication. Nostalgia is, in a sense, a function of technology: we only have feelings of things lost when we look at (or read, or hear) things from other times and places. My point about books is not precisely a defense, since I don't think they need defending -- and nothing I could say would change that if they did. Information ‘is’ now too plentiful to be considered valuable in itself, or in general. But of course particular bits of information are as valuable as ever. The trick lies entirely in finding them, and finding out what purposes we are trying to serve with them.

CLIVE THOMPSON: It's interesting, in that context, the current rage for ‘intelligent agents’ to filter out the info-glut. The idea seems to be that only a new technology can help keep in check the forces that technology has released.

MARK KINGWELL: I think that the metaphor of the filter is significant. It implies that, if we can just calibrate the filter properly (i.e., educate the writers or critics in the appropriate way), we can make the glut of information serve our chosen ends.

QUESTION: Doesn’t the merit and value of information really depend on context. Doesn’t some information have intrinsically more value? For example, scientific information?

MARK KINGWELL: My main point was that an increase in volume of information -- which we are undoubtedly experiencing right now -- has to be met with some hard thought about how to organize and use it. The inner logic of information itself, at least in some forms, is relentless and continuous consumption, often with rising velocity. That inner logic does nothing for us, except perhaps make us feel inadequate because we can never ‘master’ the volume.

QUESTION: Isn't storage/retrieval an externalized memory? Isn't one of our main species’ goals to find ever better ways for storage and retrieval -- maybe the real point, as Eliot had it, is that we have lost the power to recognize significance.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Interesting point. I gather the issue Mark's raising is whether we are simply storing and retrieving too frequently, too often, or too indiscriminately?

MARK KINGWELL: I think that's true. The deep issue here is about making sense -- of ourselves, of our world. We tend to get seduced by the technology itself, especially when it's new, and lose sight of the very human (and by definition limited) goals it must serve.

QUESTION: But doesn’t technology, such as computers, help us organize information? For example: a genomic database can be used to select only the information you want.

COMMENT: I don't think we have stopped making sense -- nor that the media are the problem -- rather that with every powerful new media form we develop new methods of adaptation, new senses, literacies and sensibilities. Isn't this another way of looking at all of this?

CLIVE THOMPSON: In that context, Mark, I was intrigued by your critique of the idea that the younger generation's ability to parse more and more stimuli is not necessarily a good thing.

QUESTION: McLuhan had a point in his comment that the point is not to ask is this a good or bad thing, but rather how do we understand it? After all, in their day most new media forms are viewed as corruptions of the past. I do not mean to evade the very real anxieties about information overflow and data smog, but I think we should be slower to judge and quicker to encourage the search for the right questions. Mark, as a philosopher, you would agree?

COMMENT: The access to more information can also be a good thing, allowing people to collaborate and build knowledge, the only ability that is needed is to discriminate information.

MARK KINGWELL: I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, either. Speaking personally, I'm a happy multi-tasker, and the little etiquette point I raised in the talk -- the need for silent keyboards, because telephones pick up the low-frequency sound of current ones – is derived from personal experience. There is no question that we are being changed, in sensibility and sense-extension. I agree with McLuhan that value judgments are usually unhelpful.

COMMENT: In fact, the dangers of a digital divide where some have no access (and thus are knowledge poor) and others have overload access, are quite real. I think context is now much more important than content, and ‘navigation’ is the key to our survival strategies.

CLIVE THOMPSON: I don't know if I agree with the idea that we shouldn't be judging the effects of media. Anyone can see that media have bad and good effects.

QUESTION: How does one differentiate ‘navigation’ from ‘filtering’ if it all comes back to teaching either the writer or the reader 1984-inspired ‘right-think’?

MARK KINGWELL: We shouldn't judge them as a whole, in big-swath ways: "Computers are evil." We have to examine particular effects very carefully, and hold judgment in reserve until we have understanding.

COMMENT: Take TV: when it first came in, like movies or any pervasive media, the first reaction is this is a terrible thing, rather than let's consider this new environment of helpful/skilful etc. and unhelpful/unskillful effects? But in an aesthetic and in a cultural sense, we also need to pay attention to other effects that may get lost in a rush to judgment of the good bad opinion order.

COMMENT: Navigation is something you learn how to do as an autonomous citizen, filtering is something in my view like net nanny or something that prevents you or bans or censors you from seeing things.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Isn't it naive to argue that, while we sit around playfully engaging the polysemous nature of media's effects it is having a significant effect on society?

COMMENT: We can ban because we think things are bad, or we can help citizens become autonomous and thus help them navigate. I would opt for the latter.

CLIVE THOMPSON: No citizen who is not recklessly naive can abstain from taking moral and ethical stances on it.

MARK KINGWELL: But Clive, look at what ‘taking stances’ actually means, in the wake of something like the Littleton shootings. THE MEDIA made them do it, like they were possessed. Infantile rhetoric, totally unhelpful.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Oh, I totally agree. I was horrified by all that stuff. I'm just saying that I can understand why people are terrified by media. They're affected very directly by it.

COMMENT: This does not mean that opinions your or mine should form last word and should lead to hasty judgments. The ethical imperative is to pay attention -- and to make decisions so that media effects are not invisible and inevitable.

MARK KINGWELL: So where does genuine media criticism begin? With people like you, who are immersed in it, make their livings in it, and have the insight to contribute to a real dialogue about its effects.

COMMENT: I think observers of media (like the ordinary public) might be able to give a more objective opinion than those directly related to producing it.

MARK KINGWELL: Do you mean because they don't have a personal, financial stake in creating it? Or because viewers and consumers are always the real experts? Doesn't that imply a potentially dangerous form of populism?

CLIVE THOMPSON: No, I don't believe in that weird, badly misunderstood populism that, for example, constitutes the new trend for ‘public journalism.’ I just mean that many regular readers can see through much of what the media does.

COMMENT: People who watch the media, who soak it up daily in all of its forms have an insight that is very valuable and shouldn't be discounted. The new media permit more access, that's one reason why it does seem to threaten some governments, and empower some citizens. It does not solve all the problems of monopoly media, sure, but there are now channels we simply did not have before digital media. I prefer having all that information from my internet news sites to make sense of my world, even if it does take lots of navigation.

MARK KINGWELL: I agree entirely with that. My students are the best media critics I know, and most of them don't know anything about TV production, and haven't (until they get to me) read a word of Hebdige or Jameson or McLuhan.

QUESTION: But not everyone can afford access to the new media. So what do they do?

COMMENT: The same issues surrounding the current evolution of traditional ‘news’ media is flowing into the ‘new media’. I am referring to knowledge transmittal by committee, or rather information that is pre-digested by moderators, rather than giving the user the chance to freely navigate information, investigate its merits, and form their own individual perceptions through critical thinking.

CLIVE THOMPSON: To me, the most dangerous effect of the info-glut is not that any individual piece of information becomes less meaningful (though it does that too), but that many people – myself sometimes included -- simply respond by tuning out. When I surf on the web, sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I forget the last site I visited, but that doesn't matter because all that counts is where you're going, not where you've been. And the directions to go are endless.

COMMENT: I am concerned that there is not enough focus on putting resources towards teaching individuals how to critically analyze information. Particularly in our media swamped environment.

MARK KINGWELL: Yes, like the Ontario Tories axing the media literacy programs in high schools.

COMMENT: It’s as though the education system has abandoned teaching analytical skills for teaching how to use technology tools at the very time we need intelligence more than ever to survive as a civil society.

CLIVE THOMPSON: The solution to a technologically-created information glut is always posed as more technology.

COMMENT: I think that's why there's been this great push to have the computer in the classroom at the expense of other valuable educational programs.

COMMENT: I agree. There may be improved news on that front of Ontario government. But the point is we cannot simply put computers into schools without helping to train teachers to become co-learners, and to help citizens gain their own navigational skills.

MARK KINGWELL: That's part of the inner logic I was talking about before. It's as if we don't even know what to do except consume more bits, like potato chips after the first one. Put the bag away!

COMMENT: The Ontario government heard an overwhelming message from us and others in university community that pulling out the media literacy credit was senseless. For the libraries, educators, community centers, it's a major task to focus not on lament over the technologies, but on constructive strategies that will empower citizens.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Mark, I'm intrigued still to hear more about your critique of youth info-parsing techniques. Do you disagree with the now-traditional idea that kids these days handle info overload better than their parents?

MARK KINGWELL: I don't really know if it's true that kids today are better at handling information. I know that it's the received wisdom, but I wonder. Still, even if true, we have always to ask -- what is the point? What sort of society is being created, and what are its effects in, say, distributing material and non-material goods. Those are the pressing questions.


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