Archive for August, 2012

This week my TCU Honor’s College Colloquium class which is studying media revolutions attended a lecture by Nicholas Carr, the author of the best-selling book, The Shallows. In his book, Carr reviews neuroscience research and concludes that our intense use of digital media and the Internet is changing the way our brains function.  We are becoming less patient, less likely to read complex material, and less able to concentrate for long periods of time.

Listening to Carr brought to mind a conclusion I had reached as a young professor in the mid 1960’s. I was clearly influenced by a media scholar and critic at the University of Toronto named Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was championing a set of ideas around a central concept that “the medium itself is really the message.”  I understood  this to mean that the primary message of any medium that becomes the one we use most is that it’s mere introduction  changes the way everything around it works. And the ultimate psychic and social consequences of these changes make the medium itself more powerful and influential than its content. 

I was never sure I fully understood all of what McLuhan was saying, but I remember saying to my students: “If this is not what he meant, then this is what he should have meant!” I was confident from my studies that people growing up in the earlier print dominated world had become  more rational and structured in their thinking as a result of using it. The essay style of  “beginning, body and conclusion,” with the body containing a list of key points and examples, became the communication norm. And as a result, the way people thought and behaved eventually reflected it.   

But after World War II television was to become the dominant medium. It was much more simplistic, emotional, and mesmerizing. It would now make us more emotional, less rational, less patient, and more fragmented. It showered us with bits and pieces of data, and tended to overwhelm and confuse us. It became more difficult to be certain that we knew the whole story about anything. Indeed, television was changing everything still again… the way our  brain functioned, our families interacted, how we perceived the world, and even what characteristics our leaders would need to possess in order to be successful.

Now, today,  new digital media and the Internet are changing everything all over again. But this time it’s a bit more complicated to analyze. Many of the consequences that worry Carr are indeed a concern.  But in addition, websites, blog sites, and social media sites incorporate many different media.  While we search for information we trust, we also encounter short video pieces, photos, graphs, links, and lots of print.

So once again, we encounter print and television, but this time they are being re-shaped by new digital driven forces. Video becomes unpolished YouTube-short clips, photos are candid, graphs are simple, links go everywhere, and print becomes much more abbreviated.  And so once again a media revolution is changing everything.

But could we choose to control the shape of what we become by taking firm control of what media we use most?  Or must we accept what has been the course of media history simply because we can’t help ourselves?

Back in the 1960’s I had parents tell me they were taking their children off television for fear of its corrupting tendencies.  But I had to admit that if no one else was doing that they would be taking their children out of the world in which everyone else was now living!  So just what is the answer? Maybe its simply knowing when to turn it on, and when to turn if off!

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“How Media Revolutions Change Everything”  is the title of a TCU Honors College colloquium I will be leading this fall.  These honor students come from all academic disciplines, and enrollment is limited to 18. This will truly be an adventure in ideas for all of us, as we will be pausing to think about the consequences of media more than we will be consuming it. 

Our goal will be to consider how the ways people think and act change, and how various segments of society change,  when a new communication medium becomes dominant. For example, does family interaction and behavior change when a new medium is introduced in the home?  And do political campaigns, schools, churches, and even governments, change as a consequence new media as well? We will consider all of this, and more.

Most agree that significant change in all these areas is observable, and that there are compelling questions about how it impacts each of us. In thinking about our adventure, however, I quickly realized that we must first determine  just “how to go about thinking about” these issues. Otherwise our initial opinions are likely to be mere personal biases based on previous selective perception. So to inoculate this danger we will first discuss, and possibly revise, these  four preliminary assertions:

1. Every issue has a framework or context that should be outlined before forming any opinion. Otherwise, it is not likely to be an educated opinion. For example, should we not clarify the basic background factors that made each topic an issue in the first place, and also identify all the key questions that should be answered?

2. Next, we should not clarify the arguments that form the various opinions that are currently held about each issue?  This analysis is really an individual “imaginary debate” exercise, and should lead us to a clear understanding of how different opinions get formed.  

3. Now should we not differentiate “taking sides” from “possessing the truth?”  And will this not generally lead each of us to a conscious awareness of the dangers of ongoing polarization?

4. Finally, is it not wise to articulate that a final way forward for any issue is rarely known at the outset, and that usually ultimate solutions evolve only after initial compromises and later revisions based on implementation and  experience?  

My students and I are about to embark on an exciting exercise in constructive thinking about media. This should lead to a better awareness of how our lives are changed, sometimes dramatically, by the media we choose to use most. Stay tuned… more weekly posts are sure to follow!

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Today’s increasing stress between the various levels of American society deeply concerns me. We often seem to be blind to the dependence we all have on each other. It seems so obvious to me that we must all work more constructively together in order to fulfill the idea of America. Endless demonizing and polarizing just has to be counterproductive to our own “equal opportunity for everyone” ideal.

The announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate could signal a desperately needed new day in an otherwise destructively negative presidential campaign. Now both sides have a renewed opportunity to offer a clear choice, and with it an opportunity to stay focused on the positives of both ideologies. Up to now the political rhetoric on both sides has been dangerously widening the gap between Wall Street and Main Street, thereby reinforcing growing divisions between the wealthy, middle class, labor, and the poor. 

What makes this even more disturbing is that extreme polarizing tendencies also seem to be infecting some of our organizations and institutions. Even inside many businesses (i.e. the airlines), intense conflicts seem to be solidifying between executive management, middle management, and those that deliver customer services. And even in many universities, gaps have significantly widened between administrations, faculties, and their trustees. Each situation has its own characteristics, but what has become all too common is this tendency for groups to become more consistently polarized.

Conflict between groups such as these gets worse when constant debating and ranting only strengthens self-centered positions, when each group isolates itself professionally and socially from the other for extended periods of time, and when the news media finds that theses conflicts can be the kind of news that makes attention-getting headlines every day.  Relentless and consistent attack-driven communication can dangerously split our society, our businesses, and our institutions, and can over time threaten our way of life.

The very idea of America is predicated on a different kind of democratic principle, and a more constructive approach to debating differences… or so it seems to me. It is true that everybody is free to express strong opinions and positions anytime and anywhere they wish. But it also seems obvious to me that everyone must also ultimately share the responsibility for constructive citizenship, and determined conflict resolution. 

I have found through working with institutions and universities that every part of every organization and every society is ultimately dependent on the other parts for genuine progress. One area cannot function well without all the others functioning well too.  Orchestrating progress therefore means planning ways to move all units ahead collaboratively. They are mutually interdependent, and it’s just too destructive to allow bitter infighting to continue beyond a reasonable period of aggressive, but also mutually respectful, debate.

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I have encountered “group think” in executive teams in many institution over the years. In each case it was a very dangerous situation. The eventual consequence is that leaders lose their abilities to effectively guide their institutions through rapidly changing conditions.

Group think happens this way:  An executive team first finds success managing in a certain set of market circumstances. They may have followed their instincts and got lucky. Or they may have followed market research. Whatever the explanation they were able to find a successful model and manage the institution effectively over a period of time by following it.  However, in doing so they gradually stopped receiving external information. They no longer welcomed input. They began to reject criticism, and silently felt threatened by new ideas. Simply put, they became isolated while the world outside was changing.

On the other hand, some executive teams manage to avoid destructive “group think.”  And in my experience these teams tend to have a common set of  behavior characteristics:

1. They understand they must out-learn their competition. They must stay on top of  industry trends, continue to study their market, and stay current on new technology. And to do this they put specific mechanisms and programs in place which ensure that constant team learning takes place.

2. They operate in a culture where they do not compete for resources.  Rather they challenge each other to come up with the best possible proposals to advance each area of operation. Then, they collaborate on setting priorities and making budget allocation decisions.  Everyone is heard, and everyone buys into the compromises essential to moving forward together.

3. In addition, every member of the team celebrates colleagues when they achieve something significant…an award recognition in their field or a success in the institution. Everyone puts aside any tendency for professional jealously by frequently articulating the positive outcomes of these team celebrations.

4. Outside input is invited on a regular basis. Research is conducted. Consultants are invited in to share ideas. People inside the organization with thoughts or criticisms are invited to the table to express them. Everyone understands that the tendency for executive isolation is natural and universal, and that overcoming it is the only road to continued success.

In the final analysis, “group think” as a result of executive isolation is the primary reason institutions fail, aristocracies decline, civilizations fall, and entire societies disappear. It is the lesson of history. Every public or private executive  team in every society must therefore learn this lesson. Otherwise, they will falter for a while, and  then very likely fail.

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