© Robert K. Blechman and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Blechman was interviewed by Laureano Ralón on May 24th, 2012
Robert K. Blechman has a Ph.D. in Media Ecology (Communication Theory and Media Studies) and a Finance MBA, both from New York University. An experienced information technology executive, Dr. Blechman was until recently Associate Director in the Office of Information Technology at St. George’s University. As an adjunct professor at Fordham University, he taught courses in communication theory, mass media and society and media industries. An active blogger, he discusses my media ecological musings and speculations on his blog, A Model Media Ecologist. His most recent book is Executive Severance.
You are a senior information technology executive, and until recently, Associate Director in the Office of Information Technology at a major medical school. What attracted you to the university as a work place?
I have worked for a wide variety of private and public institutions from very small “mom and pop” operations to the largest accounting firm in the world. I have participated in a major bankruptcy, a major merger, and several involuntary “downsizings.” I have built up technology support operations from scratch and I have watched my efforts torn down again due to economic forces beyond my control. Through all of these experiences I have come to realize the fundamental truth of something my grandfather told over me fifty years ago. He said that there are two types of wealth in this world: “wealth in time” and “wealth in space. “
Wealth is space consists of the material world: Money, property, physical possessions. All the rewards we pursue through our economic occupations. Wealth in time is knowledge, whether gained in academic pursuits, or through experience at our jobs. Material wealth, my grandfather told me, can always be taken away from you, but once you have gained knowledge, it is yours forever.
It seems to me that the mission of the university is the creation and propagation of true wealth, wealth that can’t be lost, but only augmented. That is what has attracted me to employment in academic settings.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I can’t understate the impact that the Media Ecology program at New York University, led by Neil Postman, Terry Moran and Christine Nystrom had on my intellectual development. I was fortunate to be admitted to the program at its beginning. There was a general sense that the categories and divisions of traditional academia were inadequate to the job of explaining the impact of the mass media on our society. My mentors in the Media Ecology Program encouraged us to go outside boundaries and to redefine what appropriate academic pursuits were. For example, my doctoral dissertation concerning American television advertising was one of the first to use new consumer video recorders to gather data. I was able to present not just transcripts of television commercials, but the actual commercials themselves. This multi-media approach to scholarship anticipated what is now taken for granted via the internet. We were very aware that our Media Ecology program was “pre-paradigmatic” and that we were attempting to redefine what media studies should be.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
Josh was a peer, one year behind me in the Media Ecology doctoral program. His work was among the first to successfully synthesize the content of our Media Ecology studies (Edward Hall, Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, etc.) into a new approach to cultural studies. Besides contributing directly to Neil Postman’s own work, The Disappearance of Childhood, Josh demonstrated to us all that Media Ecology studies could be accepted and even celebrated in mainstream academia.
More generally, the role of the university professor has not changed since I was a graduate student. Teachers provide guidance, synthesize and summarize course material and direct student inquiry into their field of study. In my day the tools used were the body of academic literature, the professorial lecture and discussion group and the ever present chalkboard.
What makes a good teacher today? What would you say is the best way to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Today’s faculty have a much wider array of pedagogic tools at their disposal, requiring discernment on their part as to what is appropriate and what is not. Since most of my generation of teachers are not digital natives we must learn to teach in an atmosphere where the barriers of perceived expertise between student and professor are breaking down.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
It is not an accident or merely a clever pun that Peter Parker (Spiderman)’s role at the Daily Bugle has been transformed from staff photographer to Web Master. Learn to teach online. Become expert in digital tools. The opportunities for tenure within the classic “brick and mortar” university setting will continue to decline, while online academic possibilities expand.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
Like the music industry, an argument could be advanced that the physical university is about to be overwhelmed and transformed by the tools of the digital age. This is also a result of the political decision in the United States to reduce public investment in education and the resulting increase in student debt. Cash-strapped students seeking academic credentials will turn to internet alternatives as the cost of attending a “brick and mortar” college continues to increase.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What are your arguments for or against academic tenure?
I think the reasons for the creation academic tenure in the first place are similar to the reasons unions were formed to protect workers in factories, corporations and public institutions. They were responses to abuses that took place in the academic setting and the workplace respectively. I am reluctant to give up the safeguards they provided without some means of assuring that there will not be a repeat of those abuses.
What are some of the major responsibilities associated to the role of Associate Director of Information Technology, and in what ways would you say the management of universities is or should be similar or different from that of a company or corporation in the private sector?
I have recently left my position at St. George’s University due to a corporate reorganization, but the issues I addressed still remain. My responsibilities reflected the importance technology now plays in the academic environment. During my time at St. George’s we introduced a number of enterprise technologies that changed the way teaching is delivered. We began recording the audio, video and slides of all major lectures and delivered those recordings via streaming over the internet. We wired all dormitories for internet access. We converted our student information system from a “home brew” limited database to an enterprise-wide web-enabled system. We introduced a computerized help desk ticketing system to improve our technology support for these endeavors.
My major contribution was as technology liaison between the academic, the administrative and the technical organizations of St. George’s University. I often compared my role to that of a translator, speaking English to the academic and administrative sides and “technologese” to the technical side. I was involved in understanding the technology requirements of my constituents (not “users”), to searching for solutions and project managing the delivery of those solutions. I also supervised the creation and delivery of the training needed to best utilize the new technologies.
When anticipating the value of adopting a new technology in a corporate setting, it is relatively easy to decide whether that effort is worthwhile. Estimates of “return on investment,” “total lifecycle costs” and other bottom-line related tools facilitate the decision-making process. In an academic setting, where profit-seeking is not the primary goal, it is often more difficult to justify the initial costs of new technology adoption. This is where the “translator” role is crucial. An understanding of how technology can affect academic goals was a fundamental part of my job, while at the same time recognizing that “unanticipated consequences” are always a risk when implementing new technology.
Your book, Executive Severance, just came out. Paul Levinson writes: “A delightful ‘twitstery’ – a mystery written in real time Tweets – that is compelling, entertaining, and shows off what can be done in the 140-character form with style and mastery.” However, Neil Postman once said that it is impossible to do philosophy with smoke signals. Do you think the structure of your novel defies that idea in a way? Was showing that one can write something meaningful in 140-character chunks one of the goals of your book – could your book be viewed as a critique of the Twitter medium?
I would begin by modifying Postman’s approach to smoke signals. It may have been impossible to do philosophy, but that wasn’t the purpose. According to Claude Levi-Strauss, Native Americans did their philosophizing via their mythology and didn’t need to see their ideas go up in smoke. Mythology was the appropriate medium for their philosophy given the level of technological development in pre-Columbian America. The question we should address is: What medium is appropriate for philosophizing in our digital age?
A lot has been written about how Twitter is making us dumber or impairing our ability to write properly. This is rear-view mirror thinking. I like to joke that I was raised in the second half of the twentieth century, under the influence of comic books (now graphic novels), television (now video) and rock and roll (now classical music). And it is only a matter of time before marijuana, that other drag on my generation’s mental development, becomes a legalized recreational drug. In other words, damage already done.
Our notions of proper grammar, syntax and even spelling are conventions of primary literacy, developed through alphabetic writing and enhanced by the printing press. Twitter is a product of the digital age and is teaching us to think in aphorisms, that is, 140 characters at a time. This will be similar to, yet different from the notion of “wisdom” in Primary Orality (that is, before writing or printing), where King Solomon was considered to be wise because he knew over 3000 proverbs by heart. What will be considered “wisdom” in the digital era remains to be seen, but clearly the values fostered by the printing press will be modified. My interest in writing creatively via Twitter was to explore the literary opportunities afforded by this new medium.
Some of your inspirations are Marshall McLuhan and Claude Levi-Strauss. In fact, you have pointed out that there are important points of contact between media ecology and structuralism. What are some of these connections and why are they worth exploring?
I would argue that the approaches of McLuhan and Lévi-Strauss are complementary. If we understand that any new technology contains its own mythic narrative which we introduce into our culture when we adopt that technology, we can develop a better methodology for interpreting and understanding technology effects.
McLuhan’s Tetrad attempts to discern the technological metaphor within enhancements of human capabilities and can itself be viewed itself as a type of mythic narrative. Just as the enhancing impact of a new technology in McLuhan’s Tetrad flips into its opposite when pushed to the extreme, Lévi-Strauss asserted that within the structure of a myth, an initial contradictory relationship is mediated in such a way as to transform the original condition into its opposite, thereby mitigating the contradiction. In a similar fashion, McLuhan’s Tetrad helps us to reconcile inconsistencies that occur when a new medium or technology is introduced into a culture.
The figure-ground structure of a four part approach, merging McLuhan’s “laws of the media” with the Lévi-Strauss’ “Canonical Formula,” allows us to focus our inquiry on the ways a new technology transforms society rather than technology content alone. The hidden biases of a new technology can change our assumptions about what is valuable and what is not, what is true and what is false, and who are the winners and the losers in the new media ecology. Ultimately, as Levi-Strauss suggested in his study of myths, we can go beyond content analysis to understand how technological transformations operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.
What are you currently working on?
I am devoting much of my time to promoting my Twitter-composed novel, Executive Severance.
© Robert K. Blechman and Figure/Ground Communication. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert K. Blechman and Figure/Ground Communication with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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