Audiobooks, Music, and My Phone

I travel a lot. I’m not a global jet-setter or a frequent-flyer million miles, but I take trips throughout the US. I drive. I train. I bus. I cajole my friends to go to places I want to see by offering to pay for gas. I prefer to see where I’m going instead of flying.

Somewhere in Illinois

While the American countryside provides a range of lovely vistas and perfect sunsets, sometimes it’s really kinda… well… boring. I mean, how many exits with Shell stations, McDonalds, and a car wash does one need to see? So, when the road gets monotonous and the radio stations are few and far between – I download audiobooks and listen to my vast music collection on the cloud. In fact, I’m so lazy that I use Amazon Prime for everything.

Full disclosure – As an educator, I get a pretty sweet discount on Amazon Prime, which makes the service totally worth it.

MP3s and audibooks aren’t new, but doing everything through the phone is. Not too long ago, you had to order CDs to listen to books and music (you still can). Today, all iPhone and Android users can access all of their media anywhere they can get a network connection. Just the fact that every interstate in the US has regular cell towers that helps drivers remain connected is a relatively recent phenomenon. This progression of connectivity astounds me. Millions of drivers can access vast libraries of media: music, podcasts, books, videos, and film. Our consumption of media is no longer bound by physical medium.

This revelation came to me over Labor Day weekend as I drove through the Midwest. On Monday as I headed south to Memphis, I streamed Paul Simon’s She Moves On and his lyrics struck me, “When the road bends / And the song ends / She moves on.” There I was, in the bend of a road, the sun set over the low rolling hills of Missouri and Arkansas, and I was moving on.  In that moment, I realized that a miraculous collection of technologies came together so that I could enjoy my long drive home.

Skin as Medium

Last semester, my students had a really cool conversation about whether tattoos are a medium and/or rhetorical.As I teach a new semester of digital rhetoric, I’m contemplating the nature of media and new media. Of course, I always return to Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.” If we accept McLuhan’s premise that how a message is communicated is as important as its content, then tattoos may be the ultimate form of self expression.

For people who get tattoos, the content can be extremely personal. For example, many people get a memorial tattoo after someone close to them dies. In “‘So That They Never Forget the Holocaust:’ Memorial Tattoos and Embodied Holocaust Remembrance,” Verena Hutter (2016) argues that some of these tattoos are “embodied memory and/or performed trauma” (269). Hutter examines a New York Times piece “A Tattoo to Remember” in which the grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors remember their family’s struggle by purposefully tattooing the numbers Nazis assigned their ancestors. The tattoo represents an intersection of faith, heritage, and history.  The symbol content of the brief serial number would be empty without the medium, a tattoo.

Photo Credit: New York Times photographer Uriel Sinai

While not every tattoo has the same depth, the pain and permanence make them a deliberate statement about the self. What does that Tinkerbell tattoo on your foot say about you?  Does it say you want to be a walking billboard for Disney?  Not really. But it might say that to 18 year-old you, Tinkerbell connected to your childhood and fond memories of watching Peter Pan with your friends.

Tattoos no longer have the counter-cultural cachet they once had. Thirty years ago, tattoos usually signified drug use,enlisted military service, or carnival work. However, in the mid-90s, everyone started getting tattoos. As “alternative” music became mainstream, so did other alternative styles – tattoos, piercings, and  purple hair. More recently, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 40% of people between 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo. In other words, tattoos have different rhetorical value now.

Nevertheless, when skin is the medium and hours of pain and days of discomfort are required for communication, it seems that a tattoo is no less rhetorical than an essay. And like most writing, it’s done collaboratively, takes practice, and you usually start small before embarking on a full sleeve.

Still Reading the News

I still read the news. I currently get most of my news via the news aggregator, Feedly. The app collects news stories from a variety of sources and puts them all in one place. On a daily basis, I get stories from The Atlantic, The New York Times, NPR, Jezebel, and The Commercial Appeal. I used to get updates from Gawker, but it was sued out of existence.

Now, do I read every story posted in Feedly? Heck no. I have a life. feedly However, I love that I quickly scan the headlines, save things to read for later, email, and share stories.  The app keeps me informed (and entertained). Notice this screen shot my news feed juxtaposes a story about Justin Bieber and the Zika virus. This is the news.

In a lot of ways, I think this is the future of journalism.  My feed is blissfully low on advertisements. If I want to read a full story from the New York Times, I have to click through and see their ads. However, most of the time, I can scan and flip through the stories. I read the stories I want without paying a cent.

So, when I saw this report on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, I felt a little guilty. As he talked about the fall in ad revenue and the downsizing of mid-market newspapers, I realized that I am part of problem. I don’t want to pay for my news, but I still want high quality, expert reporting. I want to learn about Netflix’s plans to revitalize Anne of Green Gables (I know! I know! I can’t wait!) and the restoration of felon voting rights. I want news and entertainment, but not always infotainment.

That being said, the other reason this report really struck me was his examples of TV news outlets relying on the hard work of small-town, local journalists. Digital media have had a radical affect on how we source, report, and distribute the news.

Writing by Hand and Memory, Part 2

This series began because I was going through my keepsakes and photos the other day. As I dug through a waterproof bin that holds some of my most mundane but meaningful treasures, I was struck by the power of writing to evoke memory.

Top row: My Grandma and my Mom Bottom row: My Great Grandma and me

My mother and grandmother are both deceased. As I dug through photos, postcards, greeting cards, letters, and other bits of paper, I realized that I inherited my love of reading and writing from them; they were both prolific writers. What’s more is I could glance at a card and know who wrote it. Their handwriting pushed memories at me – practicing handwriting at the kitchen table, writing notes to my grandma, and collecting poems and little stories to share.

Both women had lovely penmanship. My mother’s letters were clear and easy to read. Lovely, but not particularly ornamental either. I’m not sure I buy into graphology as a legitimate field, but in my mother’s case, her handwriting mirrored who she was. My grandmother’s handwriting was pure art. Every letter ended in a perfectly proportioned curl. Even on blank paper, her handwriting was level and evenly spaced. It was lovely to read and look at.

So, I wasn’t surprised when I found a certificate in her name for the Palmer Method of penmanship. She was an expert and her correspondence reflected her abilities. In fact, I remember toward the end of her life, she lamented the shakiness of her hand. She hated that she couldn’t write as beautifully has she once had.

As a someone who studies digital writing and tools, I can’t help but wonder what we lose when we stop teaching handwriting. Will future generations explore their digital files and have memories of the moment someone posted something to Facebook or the moment they were retweeted? Or, is there something about the materiality of handwriting that has a special power?

Writing by Hand and Memory, Part 1

I saw a post on Facebook that said, “For teachers, August is like a month-long Sunday night before work.” This resonated with me because I am in the process of trying to wrap up a bunch of crap from the summer (weekend) and prepare for the fall semester (Monday). In other words, my plate is full.

My view from Starbucks in Fort Worth, Tx!

But, as I work on my syllabus for my Rhetorical Theory course, I realized that I use a lot of technologies for my work. I use my laptop and Starbucks’s free wifi to research readings, resource for my students, and foreign terms I don’t recognize. I listen to music through headphones to block out conversations nearby. I have photocopied or scanned articles and book chapters in front of me. The wood pulp based paper I use is pretty recent invention. I’m using a sophisticated technology called a ballpoint pen too.

However, I started to think about why I still print articles and take notes with a pen. I realized that I remember things better when I write them by hand. I can recall the way the letters looked on the page, where my annotations rest on the page, and what marks I made next to important passages. I can see my notes in my head and make connections easily.

I began to wonder if I’m a weirdo, but then I remembered reading this article that basically affirms my experience. In their study of student who took notes by laptop and those who took notes by hand, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that student who write out their notes, “had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.” So, while laptops may allow for more notes that doesn’t mean the notes are better or more effective.

So, as I take this little break, I realize that I take notes for teaching by hand because I like the ability to recall information quickly and easily in the classroom. If I’m honest, it may be because I like the ethos of just “knowing” stuff in front of students. At the same time, I hate derailing good class discussions to look something up on Google. But more than that, Theuth was wrong in Plato’s Pheadrus. Hand writing doesn’t necessarily externalize memory, but maybe typing does.

Greetings from the Panopticon

A few days ago, the news blew up with a story about a chapter of ΣAE at the University of Oklahoma. The fraternity members were recorded singing an obviously racist song about not admitting African Americans.

What strikes me most about this story is the power of an individual with a cellphone. The individual must have been “in” with the fraternity enough to gain access and yet shared the video. Surely, the sharer knew the potential consequences of sharing such a provocative material. Was the point to showcase the racism of the members?  Shut down the chapter?

Or, do the motives really matter?

The reason the video has power is because we’ve started surveilling ourselves. The government doesn’t need to tap our phones. We hand over our privacy willingly.  For a free app or access to a music library we allow corporations access to our locations, purchasing habits, and emails.  The government doesn’t need to monitor all of us – we monitor one another.

Of course, this is not an original idea.  In the 18th century, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy PanopticonBentham developed the idea of the panopticon. The panopticon allowed a single guard to monitor all prisoners. Today, our cellphones share our data the guards. We move about our self-created cells and report our activities to the monitors.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1975) used the panoptic metaphor to describe the ways in which society normalizes our behavior. Be smart, but not too smart. Be pretty, but not too pretty.  Be sexual, but not too sexual.  Get married. Get a job. (I’m beginning to sound like Trainspotting.) The hegemony of the norm suppresses deviance.

A perfect example of this may be found in universities. Many of my students who were home schooled express shock at how disciplined education is in this country. Free exploration of ideas or just learning for the sake of learning are replaced by quantifiable exams and assignments. Even the technique of raising one’s hand to answer a question demonstrates the ways in which we are disciplined by the system. The guards are always watching.

For Foucault and other post-modern thinkers, this isn’t a hopeless system. Like weeds, counter culture can take root in the cracks of our self-made prisons. They exist together.

However, the closer we monitor ourselves, the easier it is to find the weeds and spray them with Roundup. Counter cultural ideas (even stupid racist ones) are stomped by the normalizing power of the interwebs.


I’m currently rereading Jürgen Habermas‘s (1991) The Structural Transformation of the Public Space and thought about writing a post about that.  However, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle German philosophy in this space … yet.

Instead, I want to talk about photocopiers.  This boingboing article by Mark Frauenfelder highlights how Xerox did not anticipate the power of the first Xerox photocopier.  For example, Frauenfelder points out that, “before the [Xerox] 914 machine, Americans made 20 million copies a year, but by 1966 Xerox had boosted the total to 14 billion.” That’s million versus billion folks! The photocopier radically altered how people shared materials.

Before the photocopier, scores of secretaries typed and retyped secretary pooldocuments. Sometimes, they could use carbon paper, but mostly, they rekeyed every letter. Every contract.  Every business letter. Every promotion form. Every document. Typed and retyped by women. They could use a mimeograph machine, but the were messy, sometimes more difficult to set up, and usually only used for many copies at a time.

However, the photocopier changed all that. Suddenly, one machine could quickly, easily, and neatly make a copy. Although, watching the scene in the movie 9 to 5 in which Jane Fonda’s character fights with the copy machine suggests that the machines were pretty complex. Could “any moron” operate that copier?

This change seems analogues to the invention of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg probably had no idea how important his press would be to the dissemination of Martin Luther’s treatises and the Protestant Reformation. In fact, even Luther claimed he did not anticipate such a widespread reaction. In a letter to one of his friends, Luther writes about his Ninety-Five Theses that “my purpose was not to publish them, but first to consult a few of my neighbors about them, that thus I might either destroy them if condemned or edit them with the approbation of others. But now they are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation, I feel anxious about what they may bring forth.”

The technologies allowed for relatively fast dispersal of information. Luther’s quote suggests that the speed of copying prevented him from retracting or revising his Theses. The technology decreased the time between composition and publication – the time in which contemplation. revision, and redaction may occur. The Church couldn’t stop the spread.

Similarly, the leaders at Xerox feared their new machine would make it easier to spread dumb ideas: “’Have we really made a contribution by making it easier to reproduce junk and nonsense?’ as Sol Linowitz, CEO of Xerox International, fretted in Life magazine.”  To answer Linowtiz’s question, “Yes.”