October 13, 2015
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Summer 2002 Vol. 11 No. 2
Personal Media and the Human Community
By Shigeru Miyagawa
We made a big mistake three hundred years ago when we separated
technology and humanism. It's time to put the two back together.
Michael Dertouzos, former director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
We are in the midst of a transition from the industrial age to the information age, a change that will touch every aspect of our lives, and even more of our children. But what, exactly, will change? I want to focus this question on something I am particularly interested inthe nature of media.
How will the information age alter forms and uses of media? A good place to start is with the paramount symbol of the industrial age, Henry Ford's manufacturing assembly line. The one-size-fits-all business philosophy created mass markets for automobiles, washing machines, and other industrial-age goods. Media, in the form of printed publications and later radio and ultimately television, were exploited for the mass-marketing of these goods. In one way or another, mass media served to attract the public to the goods through advertisement. Just as market share was the standard by which goods were measured, mass media that appealed to the largest number of peopleone size fits really allwas deemed most successful. Mass media was a product of the industrial age, and vice versa; so, what will become of media in the information age?
We're starting to see hints of what to expect. Business executives are bemoaning the fragmentation of mass markets, which they and their predecessors created with mass media. Not coincidentally, advertising revenue of network TV is plummeting by billions of dollars. People are flocking more and more to forms of media that are not amenable to the mass-market conception of broadcast media. These are media forms that have some sort of interactivity built into them. What is striking about them is that these forms of media are exactly the opposite of mass media. Instead of broadcasting carefully crafted content for mass consumption, the interactive forms of media are making it possible for users not only to consume media but also to create it. This is what Robert Metcalfe calls community mediamedia created by individuals for their own personal community of people.1 I will call it personal media, to contrast it with mass media.
To understand personal media, a good place to start is with an observation by the late Michael Dertouzos, who was the director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT: We made a big mistake three hundred years ago when we separated technology and humanism. It's time to put the two back together.
The obsession with video games, and with other forms of media, finds an explanation in the works of humanists. Interactivity means that the user has some control over the content. In speaking of literary work, Roland Barthes argued that the ultimate goal is to make the reader be no longer a consumer, but a producer of the content. He points out that this is exactly the opposite of classical literature, which draws a clear line between the producer of the text and its user.2 The idea is simple: Break down the distinction between the producer and the consumer of the media.
As a point of illustration, let me begin with something that happened at home last summer. I have a young daughter who is not quite speaking yet, but she has acquired numerous tools for communication. One such tool that she uses often is this: Whenever I do something that she likes, such as singing one of her favorite songs, and she wants me to do it again, she'll point her two index fingers up and say, ah, ah, ah. She learned this from my wife and I saying one more time while making the gesture of one with our index finger; she learned to amplify the message by using both index fingers. Over the summer, she had been allowed to watch some TV. One day, she was watching Sesame Street, and Big Bird sang a song and did a dance to go along with the song. She liked it, and at the end of the song and the dance, she turned to Big Bird on the screen, and did her thing with the index fingers and said, ah, ah, ah. Big Bird, of course, did not respond, but instead went on to whatever was next in the script. My daughter turned to me with a puzzled look, as if to say, What happened? What happened was that she had had her first encounter with mass media.
In mass media, there is a clear line of demarcation between those who produce the media and those who consume it. My daughter wanted a hand in the production of Sesame Street, without realizing that the whole point of mass media is that you sit back and consume it. My daughter didn't know this, because up to that point, her entire world had been a personal one, where she could manipulate things and people to her needs.
Compare this example of mass media to a form of media that has spread throughout the youth culture, video games. Video games give a sense that you can control the contentin fact, the more that you are able to do so, the more successful you are. You get more points and get bumped up to a more challenging level. Video games are an example of personal media; the user has a say in what happens.
Personal media, in a variety of forms, will increasingly encroach on mass media. We find many examples of this today. In the United States, young people are watching less TV than young people of 10 years ago, as much as 100 hours less per year. Don Tapscott, who notes this in his book, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill, 1999), tells us that the kids interviewed for the survey are spending more time on the computer, playing video games and using the Internet. This survey was done several years ago, before broadband began to spread in earnest. Therefore, I suspect that since the survey, TV viewership among the young has deteriorated further.
In Japan, the use of cell phones, and particularly the use of i-mode, has grown at an explosive rate. I-mode is the use of the Internet over a cell phone, and it is used to send and download information for personal use, such as favorite music, photos, and weather reports. Japanese teenagers commonly spend $50 to as much as $200 each month on i-mode, and this has led to a significant reduction in the purchase of mass media products such as comic books. Comic books in Japan constitute a huge industry, but with the young people spending so much of their disposal income on i-mode and other forms of personal media, it is likely that the revenue will continue to decline.
I will now turn to my own work with interactive media, and with working with teachers and young people in schools. I created a multimedia program called StarFestival (www.starfestival.com) with a team of media and curriculum specialists from MIT and from other institutions in the Boston area. StarFestival is very much a personal mediumit's about my own life as a Japanese who also grew up in the United States. Just about every experience I've had with using StarFestival in schools has surprised me, and was, more often than not, exactly the opposite of what I expected. These observations led me to my own view of personal media.3
StarFestival is a multimedia program: it has video, graphics, original music, texts, and more than 300 photographs from my family collection. These photographs are black and white, and they cover my lifeas the Professorfrom the time I was born until the age of 15. These are all captured in a high-tech PDA that the user plays back.
Point of View: Photographs
The photographs gave me the first clue that the young people are using StarFestival in a way I did not expect. While I was observing a kindergarten class at one of the Boston public schools that was using StarFestival, the teacher let the kids play with it on their own. After the kids clicked around randomly for a while, very much in the manner of a video game, there arose spontaneously among them a consensus to look for all photographs of the main character (the Professor) when he was their age. There are several such photos, and when they had collected these photographs, the kids were satisfied, and they went on to explore the rest of the multimedia space. This was intriguing, but at the time, I didn't understand the significance of it. Then I went to the fifth-grade class in the same building, and, to my surprise, the same thing was happening! The fifth-grade students were finding photos of the Professor when the Professor was their age, around 10 years old. This collection of photographs became their beginning to the program.
What did this mean? For me, what it signified is a fundamental notion to any medium, the notion of point of view. From whose perspective are the media being presented? The students found a point of view that represented them, and, importantly, they found it on their ownit was not presented to them. This is fundamental to personal media. In personal media, you must be able to decide on the point of view. As we saw from StarFestival, it is often your own point of view, or someone very much like you. The photographs that the kindergarten kids found became a window into their StarFestival. They were able to go inside the program through identification with the main character who was their age and explore the entire multimedia space from this perspective.
In personal media, you are always inside the media, by virtue of being able to control the point of view. In contrast, in mass media, as my daughter found out, you are never inside the media, and you have no control over the point of view, which means that you have no way to manipulate the media to conform to your own point of view. The Boston kindergarten and fifth-grade kids were using exactly the same StarFestival program. Yet, because of the difference in point of view, what the kindergartners saw was fundamentally different from what the fifth-grade students saw.
The second point about personal media is the idea of appropriation. To create your own personal media, you need materialstuff to build it withand, if necessary, you take things from other sources. With more and more media going digital, this act of appropriation becomes easier and easier, and the difference between what originated with you, and what didn't, becomes blurred. You take what you need to build the best possible personal media.
This is clearly different from mass media. The content of any mass-media product is supposed to be sacrosanct. It is even legally protected from appropriation by others by copyright. Recently, we saw what happens when sacrosanct digital mass media suddenly becomes available for personal appropriation. Napster let people appropriate music for their own libraries without limitation. Setting aside the legal issues, and there are many, what the Napster experience shows is the power of personal media. People are going to appropriate others' content for their own use if it is possible, and technically, at least, it is becoming easier and easier.
Let me turn to something I saw in a StarFestival classroom that illustrates this notion of appropriation. This was in a seventh-grade art class. While using StarFestival, the students did an art project. They had to create an art object, a tangible, physical object. The artistic model the teacher assigned was kokeshi, a Japanese wooden doll. A kokeshi has a cylindrical body and a circular head, and all traditional kokeshi have the skin color of the Japanese, of course. Often it is pure white, to symbolize the cosmetic taste of traditional Japanese women. But, what I saw produced in the seventh-grade class was very different. I saw kokeshi of every skin color. There was even a kokeshi that was interracial, black and white, and it represented the interracial parents of the student who created it. What this girl did was to appropriate the model of kokeshi and make it into an image that was her own. These kokeshi that the students produced were physical objects, but they could have been made in digital media as well, as personal media.
The point here is this: In personal media, you don't just accept and consume someone else's media, as is the case with mass media. You appropriate bits and pieces of media produced by others, and by you, and you make it into your own.
The third and final point about personal media is an old point. We all like to tell our own story. A good example is from the StarFestival site about World War II. On this site, my mother talks about her own experience during the war.
This StarFestival site has triggered stories by young people about their parents' and grandparents' suffering in Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world. What amazes me about it is that, as soon as the young people study the site, they discover their own voice and create a narrative arising from the stories posted there.
One particularly startling narrative that was generated is the following, in which a Chinese-American girl spoke of her grandparents' suffering at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. This moving narrative had an even more powerful impact on all of us because of the deep irony that this girl's personal story was triggered by a story by a Japanese suffering in war.
I know that Japan had a war with China. . . . My grandmother suffered during the war. I also feel bad for the Chinese people in the war, because they are Chinese and I am Chinese too. . . . Sometimes I have dreams about the war. The war made me more angry. Every time I dream about this war, I see thousands of people, men, women, and children dying. Even though Japanese are almost the same as Chinese, I would never, ever forgive them. Only if my grandmother will. But, I think she won't. Even though she would, her country and her ancestors wouldn't. Neither would I.
The teacher had no idea that this story was in her, and I suspect that her parents and grandparents have no idea of the intensity with which she embraces these feelings. Note, very crucially, that she identifies herself as Chinese. This runs contrary to what we have found in working with schoolsthat, despite the increasing diversity, students don't want to talk about their own ethnic background, which is understandable because that would label them as different at an age when there's a premium put on being able to blend in. To be honest, I don't understand fully why young people open up in this way when working with StarFestival. I think that, being given a model (the Professor) helpsand he appropriated materials from all sources, including his family photo collectionand having everyone create personal media of their own life also helps. It shows that it is okay to share differences.
I should note that the narrative above appeared in the student's journal, so the other students didn't see it in its original form, but the teacher was able to work with the student, and with others' personal reflections, to bring a sense of community to the diversity of experiences. This girl went on to read more than 30 books about Japan, and although I suspect that she still holds some strong feelings, she learned to balance them with knowledge. A truly profound learning experience took place, in other words.
A Human Community
I began this article with a quote from Michael Dertouzos, who called for bringing technology and humanism back together after a 300-year separation. Personal media could very well be a humanistic side of the information age, given that it nurtures a basic human instinct. Human infants have the instinct to suck on nipples, walk as a biped, and learn the language spoken around us, and they have the instinct to find a community they can belong to. Without such a community, humans perish, almost as if we lacked food. An ideal community is one that allows each individual perspective to be expresssed; furnishes sustenance that we can appropriate for growth; and allows us to get connected through sharing of narratives. Personal media, in their most powerful forms, fulfill these qualities of an ideal community. At the same time, personal media is, by nature, anti-mass market. Could it really thrive and help to fulfill Dertouzos's vision? I'm not certain. But then, who would have guessed that Linux, another anti-mass market, individual/community-driven system, would thrive in the face of aggressively mass-marketed products?
Shigeru Miyagawa is professor of linguistics and holds the Chair, Kochi-Manjiro Professorship in Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. He is executive producer of StarFestival (www.starfestival.com), a multimedia CD-ROM about Japan, and executive director of JP Net, an Internet-based information service for Japanese language and culture.