Posts Tagged ‘Communications’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.


In my ‘Comparative Worldviews’ class, I enjoy asking my students if they think the story of humanity is one of progression, or decline.  A simple, but incredibly broad question to be sure.  Usually students will reply with some excellent nuanced answers, pointing out that such a simple dualistic question glosses over the complexities of our modern world.  Most point out that humanity has progressed, and continues to progress in areas such as medicine, science and technology.  Though surrounded by it their whole lives, my students appreciate how quickly technology is advancing. However, some rightly point out that progression in one area of life, can lead to decline in another.  It may be surprising to those who don’t interact with ‘millennials’ on a daily basis, but I find that most students feel that the progression of information and communication technology they have lived through has had radically negative social repercussions.

The above staged photo encapsulates the problem my students have with information technology.  I have heard the majority of young adults I teach argue that, though modern, handheld computers provide us a deluge of instantaneous information, they are ‘also killing human interaction’.  In this belief, they are by no means alone.  It is almost becoming a cliche to state that cell-phones, texting, social media and constant internet access drives a wedge between humans, causing all sorts of existential threats. Texting causes a loss of spelling and grammar rules! Cellphones destroy interpersonal communication! Social media increases the opportunities for lying and narcissism! Cell phones destroy human empathy!   Humanity is evidently doomed if we keep going down the road we are travelling.

And yet….let’s look at a couple more pictures.


Two elderly couples reading newspapers

Now, what do you think of when you look at these two photographs?  I am going to make an assumption about your conclusions.  These pictures provide generally positive emotions, correct?  The photo of the young couple enjoying a leisurely read outdoors  seems relaxing, and romantic.  The picture on the right, with the two elderly couples, has a timelessly quaint aura.   Perhaps these husbands and wives have had this ritual of sitting on a park bench, reading the daily newspaper for years, if not decades.  What could be more traditional; what could be more human?

These two photos are the antithesis of the top photo, right?

Not at all. These three pictures are more similar than different. Two people sitting at a table on their separate smartphones is wholly similar to the old couples sitting on a the bench reading their respective papers. All of these people are socially isolated with an individually hand-held communication tool. What difference is there if the loving pair in the grass have a couple novels, or a couple iPhones?  The quality of their reading material may be the only thing; and even then, with e-readers, this may not even be the case.  Both are lost in another world, one digital, the other paper-based.

And, yet, we do see a difference; on an emotional, visceral level, it just seems different.  But, why? Why is the first photo seen as dangerous and distasteful for the future health of all humanity, while the second is sweet, charming and heartwarming?  When I asked my students this question, one young woman stated that texting requires technology, and hence, the top picture is different.

But, wait!  Books are a technology as well.   The written word itself, is a technology.  Neither are natural; they are both human cultural inventions. Mass produced, hand- held books are only 500 or so years old.  The written word is about 10 times older. Over the centuries, these technologies have changed, but usually quite slowly; this change has seemed organic, and glacial to someone living in our times of radical technological advancements.   But, go back to any year before Gutenberg’s press, and you will discover a world of communication that is almost unrecognizable. After the radical invention made books a mass-produced commodity, you will find ‘Chicken Littles’ predicting doom as a result.  Such warnings were even applied to the written word. Plato tells us that Socrates, who never wrote anything down, warned that the written word was dangerous since it,

will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

I assume that in 50 years, if cellphones are still with us, pictures such as the one found at the top of this post will be seen as quaint and charming. There will undoubtedly be a new communication technology invented that will be blamed for the inevitable fall of all human interaction, or Western Civilization….or something. I kind of can’t wait to see wait to see that new technology.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Just take three minutes, and watch this wonderful video.  Underneath will be the rest of this entry.

I absolutely love this song; catchy, warm, touching.  I bet many of you feel the same way.  But I see something else. This Mr. Rogers dub will be a teaching tool for me.  I am going to utilize this video for two disparate classes.  First, Intro to Communications and second, Western Civilization.  Now you may be saying, “What? I can see Communications, maybe, but Western Civ?  Surely you jest MSJ?”  Nope, I am completely serious.

This video is a wonderful example of the rhythm and musicality of speech.  Our society usually identifies a clear demarcation between speech and song, viewing the two as related but separate categories of communication.  Of course lyrics are a central part of song, but we usually don’t find much other commonality between song and our everyday speech, seeing an air-tight delineation between the two categories. Au contraire!  This video proves that this delineation is overstated.  The speech of Mr. Rogers turns to song when simply put to music. We can see that even in our everyday language usage we have a lyrical, rhythmic delivery that is unconscious and inherent.  Another example, and strangely the complete opposite of the Mr. Rogers video, proves this point just as well.  When language is arrhythmic  it sounds inhuman because it loses its evocative, emotional power.  See this video as example:

Now, onto Western Civilization.  In his ‘chorus’, Mr. Rogers informs us that “It’s good to be curious, about many things.  You can think about things, and make believe; all you have to do is think, and they’ll grow.”  This seems like an innocuous statement. But is it really?  The fact that Mr. Rogers is providing this message to children, and doing so with a vast majority of parental approval, provides an insight into our modern mentalities.  Today, his statement about curiosity is almost banal. Five hundred years ago, Mr. Rogers’ song would have been one of cultural revolution.  He could have found himself in trouble with authorities if he had been telling children that “it’s good to be curious”, since curiosity during much of Western history has been understood not as a virtue, but as a vice.

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St. Augustine

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher viewed curiosity antithetically from Fred Rogers.  During the mid-17th century, he wrote that “curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it.”  Pascal was not some Negative Nelly, and though he was an original thinker in many ways, he was not saying anything new with this claim.  He was speaking for a long held belief in Christian Europe that curiosity led to nothing but pain, sin, and ultimately, death.  St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the fathers of Western European Christianity put the matter in a straightforward manner a millennium before Pascal. In his Confessions, the great Bishop of Hippo stated,  “From the same motive (curiosity) men proceed to investigate the workings of nature, which is beyond our ken—things which it does no good to know and which men only want to know for the sake of knowing.”

You would be hard pressed to find a more influential individual than Saint Augustine in Western Civilization between the years 500-1500, and like many of his notions, his take on curiosity became standard throughout the so-called “Middle Ages”.  For those influenced by Pascal and Augustine, curiosity was dangerous since it led to  the weakening of two major pillars of the Western heritage:  Tradition and authority.   Perhaps nothing seems as odd to us 21st century Americans than the belief that the authority of tradition should trump any sort of curiosity. The oddity can turn to disdain when we hear this belief travel down the road to absolute dogma.  In anti-Mr. Rogers-ian tone,  Saint Ignatius of Loyola zealously declared that “To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it.”  For Loyola, Mr. Rogers’ little song would have been heretical; dare we say a stake-burning offense?


Mr Rogers: Enlightenment Philosopher

So, why are Loyola and Pascal outliers nowadays, and Mr. Rogers the accepted norm?  There is little doubt that the Enlightenment of the 18th century changed everything, and Mr. Rogers is a child of that intellectual movement. The Enlightenment was crucial in transforming our modern, Western mentalities in regards to curiosity. Curiosity slowly became a virtue, not a vice.  We could argue all day if this has been a positive or a negative outcome of modernity, but there is no doubt that Enlightenment thinkers have won the day.  Hence, we hear the forerunners of Fred Rogers in the beliefs of many Enlightenment thinkers and personages, such as Joseph Addison, the 18th century English ‘journalist’.  Using more complex language than Mr. Rogers, Addison relayed the same message when he stated that “Everything that is new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills the soul with an agreeable surprise, gratifies its curiosity, and gives it an idea of which it was not before possessed.”  Today, we expect teachers to live by this credo. In Addison’s time, it still had the ring of revolution.

Mr. Rogers’ chorus is the simplified embodiment of Enlightenment discourse.  By the time of my childhood, curiosity had become a virtue to be extolled and encouraged.  Of course, there are still many out there who believe that Augustine’s and Pascal’s argument is correct, but come on, how are you going to disagree with Mr. Rogers?