Friday, June 27, 2008

citizen vs. nomad

I was particularly enthralled by the comparison of descriptor words for the "citizen" versus the "nomad" as described in the introduction to McLuhan's chapters. The author of the introduction describes McLuhan as one who "noticed thirty years ago, the accelerated technologies of the electronic future carry us backward into the firelight flickering in the caves of a neolithic past." This reference to Plato's Caves is pertinent to our current discussion. The idea that our media formats today effectively restrict the proper advancement of society is a controversial one, but an important accusation to examine nonetheless. McLuhan describes the current media atmosphere as prohibiting linear progression and instead sponsoring an endless series of sequences, the end result being that "nothing necessarily follows from anything else." This would explain how advancements in technology can actually take us backwards in time as a society.

According to the comparison, an emphasis on things like pleasure, celebrity, power, war, certainty, and banditry is representative of a nomad-like existence. I was immediately shocked to discover how much our current society fit the descriptions of the nomad instead of those of the citizen. When I read the Collapse of Big Media articles it became more clear to me why it is so easy to distinguish today's media atmosphere from that of 30 or 40 years ago. The journalists of those days were no saints, and as the articles pointed at, many of them made no bones about the biases they possessed or the direction they leaned on the political scale--but they were professional in the way they approached their craft. I say "craft" with no hesitance because to those journalists it was indeed an art form in which dealing with biases and making them known to the audience was merely part of the process. I can't help but think of the movie Good Night and Good Luck, the familiar sign-off from television news prophet Edward R. Murrow. For someone who did not take part in that generation, a lousy movie analogy is all I can come up with. But that movie was done tastefully (and quite cheaply for that matter) and with respect to Mr. Murrow. I have to believe it gave me a good impression of a man and a craft I might otherwise not have a proper conception of.

Though there are semblances of this, seemingly lost, ethical and professional approach to journalism still prevalent today (Keith Olberman who uses the same sign-off as a tribute to Mr. Murrow is one example while the late Tim Russert was another) --they are without a doubt in the minority. Unfortunately, the business of news has become a consumer business in which all the usual rules of the market apply. Regard for ethical pursuit of truth through effective journalism often finds no place on company finance sheets. And so we end up with a routine in which the news becomes smaller in proportion to programming timeframes while advertisements grow larger. Likewise, we see the news take on a depressing tone representative of what is supposed to be "bad" news so that we can look evermore fondly upon the ads being hurled at us. In such an emerging environment, the Rupert Murdochs of the world are bound to one day exercise near complete control over information systems as we know them today. If the idea of our society as "nomadic" does catch on as valid now--it certainly will in the future.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Since the Habermas readings are dealt with specifically in the discussion board question, I am going to focus mostly on the Preston readings here. I was particularly intrigued by the Preston articles on bioweapons. I read his book, Hot Zone when I was a young teenager and was blown away even then by how fragile the entire system of preventative actions and concentrated responses was. However, that outbreak of Ebola ended up being the result of natural causes emanating from poor practices by certain officials. Mostly, it was a disaster that was bound to happen given the large probability of our modern society coming into contact with a foreign killer by way of our vast systems of interconnected commerce.

Unfortunately, these readings did far more to frighten me than his previous works have. The chapter on the anthrax attack was written largely in the same manner as his other books (fastpaced edge of your seat, but yet factually accurate) but it dealt with the impact (both psychological and physical) that a biological terrorist attack can and would have on society, particularly at the highest levels of government. However, what I found even more frightening is the relative ignorance of our highest officials when it comes to preventing or dealing with a biological attack.

I thought Preston's article about the Bioweaponeers was fascinating because of the human face it puts on such inventions of pure evil. As he says in that article, an early 1970s treaty signed by the U.S. (and a host of other nations) banned the production or research of offensive biological weapons. Yet the Soviets (who also signed the treaty) continued their programs because they assumed the U.S. must have been doing the same. It turns out that for all intents and purposes, the U.S. had all but stopped its programs and began focusing on vaccines, etc. instead. The effect of this was to largely remove many of the high level military personnel in the U.S. armed forces from the arena of biological warfare. This places us in a perilous situation today because as Preston notes, we must be knowledgable of the offensive weapons in order to best determine how to combat them and/or deal with their outcomes should they be used in armed conflict.

The fall of the Soviet Union only enhanced the frightening nature of this dirty process because it left thousands of scientists without jobs and immediately created a high-paying black market for biological research and actual weapons creations for states seeking them. Many of these Soviet scientists, after working against the Americans for so long, were likely more than willing to give their knowledge and support to rogue states who sought and still seek to do us harm. Perhaps most frightening was the lethality of many of these weapons. They are genetically designed to kill large amounts of people and are then loaded onto apparatuses that allow them to spread over vast distances and come into contact with the greatest amount of people. These are nasty viruses with brutal methods of killing people. The fact that they were and are created, and that so many scientists and politicians boast of this fact, is representative of the pure evil which resides in the heart of man.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

the power of human empathy

The stories told in Loeb's article are a moving testament to the power of human empathy. The story about the former drug addict and convict in Palo Alto was particularly moving for the simple fact that the power of the movement he started resulted in such drastic reductions in the rates of serious crime. The idea that real change can only come about through the telling of firsthand accounts is not a new one to me, but than manner in which Loeb described the power of human empathy gave renewed vigor to my previous opinion. In his narrative he depicts a universal emotional complex that is unique to humans (simply due to our gift of reason), but not unnoticeable in nature. The analogy of an organism in which what is good for one part is not good for others, is a poignant example of how a society must function together in order to achieve progress. Furthermore, his belief that a society can only properly function when its members are able to empathize with one another is an accurate prescription for overcoming the pitfalls which we as members of a modern society so often find ourselves falling into. The story of the Korean storekeeper who took it upon himself to take on a productive and interactive role in the life of the young African American is a pertinent example of what can happen when we are able to breakdown our problems to an individual level. It is only by seeing things on this level that we can begin to overcome widespread problems involving issues such as racial discrimination, economic disparity, or religious intolerance. Loeb's article had an overtly religious tone, which I thought in some instances took away from the legitimacy of his arguments. However, religion and human compassion are two concepts closely related to one another. Additionally, the idea of human interactions being able to overcome the woes of society when viewed through the unbiased eyes of enlightened individuals capable of seeing the bigger picture--is a motivational force to unlike that of religion.

The reading on the attacks of 9/11 was very intriguing. I had never heard a complete rundown of the exact manner in which the attacks occurred and the government (and aviation officials) responded, or failed to respond. By telling the story of what happened in a factual manner, the 9/11 Commission allowed not only the victims families, but the nation as a whole to better understand how something so disastrous could occur and how no individual group or authority was to blame. Telling these individual stories (as the other 9/11 reading did as well) allows us to see the events on a human level. This is not only crucial to the healing process, but to the process of rebuilding faith in our government leaders and in our national infrastructure as well.

The Loeb article lays out an argument for why the storytelling process is important to our interactions as a species, while the 9/11 readings show how such processes are vital to our everyday lives. This applies not only to our understanding of this particular national tragedy, but it is also true of other tragedies around the world. For instance, the usage of amnesty tribunals in which both perpetrators and victims of ethnic violence are able to come forward and tell their stories without fear of retribution--is an essential part of healing and moving forward. The ability of human beings to relate to one another and breakdown artificial walls is a truly marvelous example of the unique nature of our species. It is shows the potential we have for overcoming the problems that we face today and in the future as individual societies and as a global community.