Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The End of Broadcast TV?

According to this MSNBC article, networks are considering doing away with free over the air broadcasting in favor of exclusive cable deals. An excerpt:
For more than 60 years, TV stations have broadcast news, sports and entertainment for free and made their money by showing commercials. That might not work much longer.

The business model is unraveling at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox and the local stations that carry the networks' programming. Cable TV and the Web have fractured the audience for free TV and siphoned its ad dollars. The recession has squeezed advertising further, forcing broadcasters to accelerate their push for new revenue to pay for programming.
This has some implications for television that are both frightening and filled with opportunity. First, this means that the public broadcasting, either from the CPB or from local public access channels, would be more important than ever. As of 2007, forty-two percent of American households do not subscribe to a cable service (and that number is prone to rise in poor economic conditions) and the proposed change to local channels would effectively force viewers to either get service or abandon television altogether.

This has further implications because the news is still largely broadcast and consumed via television, especially in an emergency event. Should something happen, we depend on television and local news to inform the public, possibly dispersing critical information. Without that a large segment of the population is at risk, especially vulnerable populations like the poor and the elderly.

There may also be an opportunity here. If local network affiliates end up committing themselves to cable, there may be a void in the local marketplace for local independent television stations to sprout, the kinds of stations that have become all but extinct. Someone innovative and with a few dollars in their pocket could feasibly take over a local station, broadcast over the air (and since their product is free they could call their organization a nonprofit) and use it as a platform for local issues.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our Father, Who Art in Springfield . . .

This is unexpected. According to this MSNBC article, L'Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, ran an editorial praising The Simpsons for its philosophical themes.
Religion, from the snore-evoking sermons of the Rev. Lovejoy to Homer's face-to-face talks with God, appears so frequently on the show that it could be possible to come up with a "Simpsonian theology," it said.

Homer's religious confusion and ignorance are "a mirror of the indifference and the need that modern man feels toward faith," the paper said.

It commented on several religion-themed episodes, including one in which Homer calls for divine intervention by crying: "I'm not normally a religious man, but if you're up there, save me, Superman!"

"Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong," L'Osservatore said. "But these are just minor mistakes, after all, the two know each other well."
I'm not sure about the paper's conclusions. This reminds me of the study that found conservative viewers of The Colbert Report did not see it as anti-conservative satire.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Google Making Us Dumber?

The Daily Beast features an article by Douglas Rushkoff titled "The Decade Google Made You Stupid." The piece suggests that the fragmented nature of the web has in turned fragmented our own thinking:
Like most early enthusiasts, I always thought the way the Internet encouraged multitasking made users less vulnerable to manipulation, while simultaneously exploiting even more of our brain's capacity than before.

Apparently not. Cliff Nass, director of Stanford University's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab (known as CHIMe Lab), has been studying the best multitaskers on the face of the earth: college students. "How do they do it? Do their brains work differently?" He, too, was shocked by his own research. "It turns out, multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information. They're terrible at keeping information in their heads nice and neatly organized, and they're terrible at switching from one task to the other. This shocks us."

Nass split his subjects into two groups—those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking, and those who don't. When they took simple tests comparing assortments of shapes, the multitaskers were more easily distracted by random images, and incapable of determining which data was relevant to the task at hand. And just because the multitaskers couldn't ignore irrelevant data didn't mean they were better at storing and organizing information. They scored worse on both sorting and memorizing information.

So what does it mean if we multitaskers are actually fooling ourselves into believing we're competent when we're not? "If multitasking is hurting their ability to do these fundamental tasks," Nass explained matter-of-factly, "life becomes difficult. Some of studies show they are worse at analytic reasoning. We are mostly shocked. They think they are great at it." We're not just stupid and vulnerable online—we simultaneously think we're invincible. And that attitude, new brain research shows, has massive carryover into real life.
The dumbing effects of the web have been very apparent to me because of the specific time in which I began and ended my time as a student in higher education. I began my undergraduate degree program in 1998 and at that time the web was around and functioning but it was a foreign thing, a tool that we hadn't used before. Laptops were available but were very expensive, cell phones could only call other phones, and watching video online required a lot of bandwidth. Writing research papers for my freshman composition class still required me to use actual books and look up articles in actual physical journals. I don't write this to be nostalgic. Looking up information that way could be a pain in the ass.

By the time I finished my graduate degree in 2006 everything had changed. Students expect to be able to use Google or other search engines to find anything about everything and there is an unwillingness to dig beyond the first page of search results. The act of looking up a journal in a library's periodical collection is seen as tedious and reading a book requires a level of commitment and concentration that is asynchronous with new media where everything is split into sound bites.

Again, I don't think of myself as a Luddite. But the fact is that the Internet has changed the way we think about the world and how we regard one another. Our senses, particularly aural and visual, have been digitized and expanded through technology like cellphones and social networking sites have changed our interpersonal relationships; we are "friends" with someone but may never talk to them.

When MTV premiered in the early 1980s, a lot of filmmakers and musicians bemoaned its effect on the culture as images and artifacts were consumed and discarded with greater speed. The culture eventually caught up to that speed and in the past decade Youtube and Google have taken this a step further. My hope is that we learn to organize the information we are being bombarded with but my fear is that as speed and variety increase, our attention span and our ability to think will decrease.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Worst (Literary) Sex of the Year

I thought "bad sex" was some kind of a contradiction, but in London the yearly "Bad Sex" literary awards were just given out and Olivia Cole of The Daily Beast was there to cover it.

From her article:

It’s a fine line between what’s sexy and what makes jaded literary hacks cackle. The body as territory to be mapped can be very sexy: think of all the cartography in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. And oceanic emblems are almost a trope. From Shakespeare (“Like as waves make towards the pebbled shore…”) to Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night,” where the consummation of his marriage is all told in the lapping of the waves.

Sadly nothing can save [Amoz] Oz from not waving but drowning: “as though he has been transformed into a delicate seismograph that intercepts and instantly deciphers her body's reactions translating what he has discovered into skilful, precise navigation, anticipating and cautiously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef.”

* * *

Like any circus, what’s done in jest plays on deeper fears. Pity the writers who spend their lives offering up their private thoughts. Even when there’s no sex to be found, writing requires a kind of nakedness. For novelists with their fragile egos, to be called a bad writer is perhaps almost as bad as being a called a bad lover.