Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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I returned from another long sojourn at the place where the Mississippi flows from east to west. It is in the midst of a drought. This area is nature's greenhouse. It is humid, often hot (103 Sunday and Monday), and things grow with a vengeance. Not this year, however. This is also the place where I was a working journalist and public information editor and college professor for 25 or so years. My education from kindergarten through bachelor's degree was acquired here. (My other degrees were obtained fifty miles to the west along another river.)
I have spent much time there recently helping a brother who just underwent his third major surgery this year at a time when he was moving from a house high on a terrace with too many staircases to a condo that sits right across the ravine from the last place I lived in Illinois. I returned to my family in South Dakota with some reluctance because this is the weekend of the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival, with its prinicipal venue being the LeClaire Park band shell on the river in Davenport, Iowa. I will miss the music and the ruminations with old musicians about when we still had embouchures and diaphragms that could force a trumpet up above high C above the staff. I will really miss the music.
In recent weeks, I was able to do join some old colleagues in analyzing matters of the media, including web logs. People have noted that when we took down our more public version of the Northern Valley Beacon, we immediately converted to this site which looks much like a paper newsletter with few electronic bells and whistles to add to the titillation. Our discussions involved my explanations of why.
To boil it down: Marshall McLuhan was right when he stated that "the medium is the message." Electronic-based media create their own environment with all sorts of currents eddying around. The essential message that one might shape gets lost in the sensory turmoil. My colleagues and I have noted over the decades that the resources of the media often leave people more befuddled than informed. In the mid-1990s, I undertook a hypetext book with two other authors. It was a piece of laboriously documented work that went through six editions as we tried to solve the problems and keep up with the constant advances of computer-based texts. We found that the advantages of being able to click on a word and call up the documents that supported and verified the facts presented in the book often turned into distractions and misdirections for readers. People tended to create their own incoherence and obfuscation. The book also challenged the computers on which most people read the book, and their memories of the book are more vivid about the crashes it caused in their machines and the frustration of trying to keep its lines of thought in mind while trying to retrieve the text. After six editions, we were admittedly a bit dismayed when we found that the people who successfully read and enjoyed the book were the ones who printed it out and read it from paper without all the electronic referencing. When they did want to check on a source, they called it up and printed it out. Our publisher found that this was NOT because we as a culture are print-oriented and have difficulty adjusting to electronic forms. It is because of matters of physiology and the way the human mind is structured to process information.
The incoherence implicit in computer-based texts makes it particularly vulnerable to contextual distortion and fabrication. The contributors to the old Northern Valley Beacon found this time after time when some of the troll blogs purported to quote from it and tell others what it said. A graduate student undertook a class project to catalog the occasions when this was done and to show how deliberate misquotations were formed. This student's work provided much material for our analysis of media in recent weeks. We were looking at it at a time when web logs are being brought to a new level of electronic sophistication with the addition of sound and video.
We enjoy some of the new blog sites. And we find they make it easy and convenient to review what is going on in the world of blogging, but we still are grappling with issues about the integrity of the word. We note that blog writing has picked up its own style, a style that is borrowed heavily from celebrity gossip magazines. We note that precision of diction and control of semantics is not much of a concern in web logs. But the major matter of concern for writers and journalists is that there is no editorial process in web logs that lets the reader know that someone has checked the facts and fine-tuned the language so that it can be trusted. The age of the media has produced the Rohrschach concept of text as an ink blot onto which readers can impose whatever they have a notion to impose.
We would like to fool around with electronic snaz and see what we can do to enhance texts. However, that takes time. Meanwhile, we will still fuss and worry about whether the words are conveying what we want them to when we write and read. And that is why we aren't going fancy. There are too many facts to be checked and too many ideas that need thought and care in the discussion. And there are too many stories out there that are not being told by either the media or the web logs. We will worry about that. With black words on a white background.