Among the many ways to tell a story, what makes books/novels still one of the most effective and useful mediums for delivering a story?
For whatever reason, this question came to me and lingered in my head as I recently read the novel Barometer Rising. The historical nature of the story had me comparing the events of the novel to a news report, documentary, and even to more modern movies that I’ve seen. I can’t imagine any of these, or even other forms of digital story telling would be as effective as communicating this particular story as the technology of a book.
Book stories are slow, they simmer, even the fast paced ones release an aroma that permeates the minds of characters and objects in the novel. BR is filled with the city of Halifax’s presence, until the final explosion. This is significant to the story itself. Messages have rich weight in novels. Many modern digital story telling platforms are fragmented.
Despite this permeation, books are a medium that requires readers to complete the connection between information sender and receiver. Unlike more visual media, the black and white pages force the reader to be active in creating the story in their minds. This activity, this closure, engages readers with the same lure of a black and white photo, enticing a reader into it signal, to fill in the color.
Language alone is a limited technology. However, words strung together can form metaphors that reveal what descriptions cannot. More words combined in paragraphs and scenes, act like cells that form organs and organisms, creating bodies and worlds. In BR each chapter uniquely covers one day in the span of the story – readers are drawn into a world filled with time and duration.
Understanding the people and the place in BR was key to confronting complex messages about the war and the impact it had on North American soil. The character Geoffery Wain made me see that the bored generation of wealthy new world aristocrats, born at the top with nowhere to go, backed and extended the war because it provided them with a hierarchy to climb. Their impact on North American society was as devastating as a bomb on Canadian soil, not only for fanning the flames of war but also for neglecting the promise of a new world, and for neglecting the new type of man and woman born of this continent.
The experience of the Halifax explosion, the significance of the events would be lost on me, were it not sent via book, sliced out of time.
The Ghomeshi sexual harassment case of this past year was one where a high profile public figure in Canada was able to walk the line of legality and get away with sexual harassment.
The hinging factor of the legal case, as I gathered from just finishing reading Secret Life, is that of consent. This became clear to me towards the end of the book when the author describes his research into BDSM. In these communities, people are upfront about what they want to do and who they want to do it with, something Ghomeshi usually wasn’t. He used false pretense, surprise, and the threat of guilt to engage with women he desired, in the aggressive manner that suited him. Without consent, he utilized his power and ambiguity of action to get what he wanted.
What stands out to me was that after he jumped and attacked a woman, he would often text them something to the effect of “Oh, if you’re going to be cold now, you are going to make this awkward.” This is manipulation, shifting the responsibility of action onto the victim. He forced people to confront his sexual tastes, rather than the other way around. Manipulative people do this, they find ways to put the ball in your court and then, with clear conscience, claim that you could have acted as you please.
I can’t help notice the role of technology here (texting), that enabled Ghomeshi to maintain a presence and a dialog that ultimately signified consent (in a legal and public opinion sense), without actually getting consent. Technology provides an easy way to maintain presence, yet also provides a way to remain ambiguous – this isn’t good nor bad in itself, except that courts and legal matters need to take such new forms of communication and relationship status into account. As does public opinion.
As a side note, Secret Life is as much an exploration into journalism in Canada in 2016, as it is an account of the JG scandals. I also recently read No News is Bad News, also about journalism in Canada and published in 2016. Both books were well worth the short time it took to read them – I am on the lookout for similar reads.
I just finished reading The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel by Ursula La Guin. If you’re worried about spoilers for a 40 year old book, you might not want to read this post. I don’t normally do book reviews here, but hopefully the reasons why I’m writing this will be apparent.
The Dispossessed is a story about a settlement of people on a moon that orbits a ‘mother’ planet that is pretty much Earth-like. The unique thing about this settlement is that they are a society of anarchists – they have no government, no rules, and no laws. We find out later that public opinion and ‘sway’ fill in this absence of rule. As time moves ahead, this settlement starts to develop an influential structure of public opinion that begins to cramp their freedom.
There are many themes in the book, here are a few:
- women’s role in society, sexism
- the different ways to run a society
Walls are prisons, and when you build a wall to protect your freedom it keeps you locked in just as much as it keeps others out. Walls are also inescapable in the book, each human is self contained by their own wall, in the grand metaphorical way but also in a practical temporal way.
The settlement is a woman’s society, one character says at some point in the middle. It took me a while to pick up on this, but then it becomes obvious, the themes of motherly love, and the possession that women and men feel for each other either as lovers or as parent and child. But, these are relationships that anyone can choose to maintain or not. The Earth-like ‘mother’ planet is run by men. There are wars and inequality there, and nobody can do much about it.
There’s a lot of ideological discussion about society in the book, much of it involves concepts of freedom and time. You’d have to read the book to get it, and to take from it what you feel is worthwhile. Much of this discussion I found reassuring, and looked back on, and reread yesterday, the day after the American election, when I finished it. Some excerpts:
“What we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone.”
“Fulfillment is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal.”
“So looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.”
I’ve been thinking about that Loury and McWhorter video again – it’s difficult not to think about racism these past few days. Stars and stripes are in the news.
The term ‘structural racism’ comes up at one point in the video, a term that McWhorter takes issue with because of it’s lack on involvement with people, the human. Perhaps the concept is better stated as ‘cultural racism’. Culture does involve people and humans and their learned behavior. Racism is certainly a part of American culture, as it is in many countries around the world. For various reasons, America’s racism is more extreme, more tragic.
Cultures don’t change quickly, they go through centuries of evolution – extended debate, civil wars, policy and law reform, budgets, and elections. The process of cultural change is a process that a culture or society usually undergoes, rather than actively decides. But does this need to be the case? Are we at a point that masses of people, through the help of certain technology, can start to make conscious decisions about the evolution of their culture?
This next election is turning out to be a critical point America’s long struggle with cultural racism. For one political party, it’s still an advantage to avoid openly condemning racism. Until it becomes a disadvantage for that party, until they lose more at the polls than they gain (the only thing political parties care about), they won’t condemn racism.
Technology has been a magnifying glass on society in the social media age – the good, the bad, the lingering behaviors that have been slow to mature. Perhaps technology can also be used as a reactive instrument in confronting exposed cultural flaws. It may be a lot to hope for, but as someone watching America from the outside, I hope the many, many people in America who detest their cultural racism decide to make this next election about racism and racism only.
Technology can help spread the message that if a political party won’t openly condemn racism, then they will never stand a chance at winning an election, regardless of any of their other beliefs. Democracy is meant to be representational, but it can also be representation full of aspiration.
Aspiring towards a conscious shift in culture is a massive outcome to hope for. America itself is also a massive place, with an amazing, still developing, culture.
I just watched a short talk by Melinda French Gates, too a few quick notes, and added a short commentary at the end. Here’s a link to the video.
What Non-Profits can Learn from Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola is everywhere
Real-Time Data is Immediately Fed Back into the Product
minimal gaps in feedback loops
evaluation is ongoing, not at the end
general idea: constantly analyze traffic & content; set up a network where this is transparent and comes to you.
Tap Into Local Entrepreneur Talent
worked with (not against) local distributors
local people know local conditions
general idea: people’s own space often overlaps with intermediary space (ie: in blogs, on social media), and this can serve dual purposes.
aspirational – associated with the life people want to live (localized)
need and want are not the same motivation
understand what students/users want, not what you want
general idea: be humble and try to not know what you know when you observe.
I worked my way through undergraduate school working for Coca-cola, and they were a fantastic company to work for. There was something different about coke compared to any other company I’ve known or been a part of. They worked well with smaller companies and independent distributors, as Melinda mentions, and this one one of the things that surprised me, and could also be observed daily. They also were always so clear, and even downright fair, in their policies – even though they were completely focused on profit, they never tried to hide it. This was the most important thing, I always felt, they knew what they were doing. They never hesitated about small set-backs, either, I think because they always had that firm grasp on the bigger picture. I learned so much working there.
I’ll probably be posting several thoughts on McLuhan’s Understanding Media over the next while, as the McLuhan reading group I’ve joined is just getting underway. I don’t think there’s any forum set up for discussion, and anyway I prefer to post here since I can feed out to platforms like Twitter and FB, allowing for people outside the group to interact.
One of the themes I’m tagging in the margins of my paper copy of the book is Scale. After reading the first two chapters, this seems to me as part of his main thesis – that there’s a higher scale of human psyche that is emerging from an autonomous reaction to an increase of extensions of ourselves through media/technology. (He’s writing 50 years ago, before the digital boom – and even hints at his context being a transition age – so perhaps I should scratch the ‘is emerging’ and write ‘has emerged’?)
Related to this Scaling, is the division between “individual and society”. His narrative, even this early on in the book, certainly presents an unbalance between these two degrees of considering ‘man’, nearly always neglecting the idea that to live as an individual and in a society aren’t mutually exclusive. In his slower, less dramatic moments, it doesn’t seem like he fully believes this need be the case. However, perhaps his point is to warn of the unbalanced power of the emerging, technology induced, collective scale. After all, one of the drawbacks of long popular capitalism is its tendency to alienate the individual. What could be more powerful than a remedy to that?
It was the capitalist inspired line in chapter 1 (titled The Medium is the Message) that jumped out at me:
In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one and other and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out Cornflakes or Cadillacs.
I’ve often actually felt something wrong about the famous line The Medium the Message, and have preferred to think that the Medium has the potential to be the Message. But, here I began to see what he’s trying to say. Translating between scales uses one level’s medium as the destination level’s message. The individual wants breakfast cereal or a car; the society cares not which exact person buys what food or major appliance, but sees the production numbers that have been tallied up for decision making purposes. And, the latter consideration wasn’t nearly as easy to enact 200 years ago as it is today…to state it undramatically.