Friday, April 30, 2010

Cable Clutter

I happened to pull open the fourth drawer last night.  It was not a pretty sight, which is why I don’t often do it.  The fourth drawer, you see, is the 21st century equivalent of that 20th century corner of the attic where you stacked all the old National Geographic magazines.  Huge dusty stacks in fading yellow; probably doing significant structural damage to the house.  I don’t know why we all saved them; I suppose one could argue that they kept a significant amount of carbon safely locked away.

The fourth drawer is where we keep all the old cables, connectors, AC adapters, chargers for long lost cell phones, and other unidentifiable electronic doodads: The obligatory detritus of the digital age.  But while staring down at all that techno-pasta it struck me that those wires carried electronic impulses only secondarily, their primary function was to transport experiences.

Hang with me for a moment on this one.  Communication as an academic discipline is the often awkward child of a mixed marriage.  Dad was this Greek guy of ancient and respected lineage, Plato, Aristotle [the philosopher, not the shipping tycoon], all those thoughtful guys in togas.  Mom – well, the lady was a bit of a flapper.  Flashy woman out of Bell labs, a lot of sparks, switches, transistors – saw the world as very binary. All about those 1s and 0s.  As a result the contemporary field can be viewed as two large tribes, one descended from the Greeks, the other descended from the Geeks.  Some kids carry genes from both tribes – sort of rhetorical geeks – we call that “cultural studies” for want of a better term. 

As I stared at the drawer I decided that the Greeks had given us a transformative model of communication in that their ruminations, despite twists and turns through form, style and intent, was in the end primarily concerned with how human communication transformed human behavior, how symbols recreated and affected the human experience.

The Geeks on the other hand, were – well – geeks.  They want to move 1s and 0s around the universe as efficiently as possible.  Make HDTV, and satellite radio. They are awestruck by the fact that Voyager spacecraft continues to beam 1s and 0s back to us despite being more than 10 billion miles out in space.

How do you know which gene pool you represent?  Consider this possibility:

You are visiting the Louvre; heading off with a few thousand of your closest friends to see the Mona Lisa because, well, it’s here you always liked the song.  Suddenly just as you enter the hallway across from the Mona Lisa, all the power goes out in the building.  Everything. [I know, it couldn’t happen – but this is a teaching story, give me a break.]  You grope your way into the room where you think the Mona Lisa should be, and encounter one of those “velvet ropes and poles” constructions that keep visitors away from the art.  As you feel your way around the rest of the room you touch another plaque on the wall.  Finally, you back into the middle of the room and find a bench.  You sit down facing, you hope, the Mona Lisa, and stare into the darkness imagining da Vinci’s masterpiece.  After a few minutes there is a whoosh and the lights come back on and you find yourself staring at a poster in five languages, describing evacuation procedures during an emergency.  Turning around you see the Mona Lisa hanging on the wall behind you.

If you find yourself thinking that, without the transformative power of light, we are powerless to discern between the symbolic power of great art and the pragmatic function of a poster, then you are a Greek.

If you look up and wonder how the lights failed and what sensing system cued them to cycle back on you are a Geek.

If you find yourself feeling a little guilty about sitting on a velvet couch looking at the Mona Lisa when millions of others cannot, and you surreptitiously shoot a little video of her to post on YouTube, then you will feel right at home in cultural studies.