Creating Space for Reflection

In a recent Daily Show segment, reporter Jason Jones skewered the New York Times for printing ‘aged news’ rather than ‘real news’: when web pages can be updated moments after something happens, a report that is printed the next day is already old.

This digital media-enabled push toward real-time news does seem to sound the death knell for traditional media, at least in its role of news source. I’m not incredibly sentimental about paper newspapers, but what exactly is it that we are heading toward?

One of the most powerful recent examples of digital media being used to report breaking news in real time was the use of Twitter to cover the Iran election and ensuing protests. Reports from people within Iran via Twitter were frequently the best or only source of information regarding what was happening. CNN was, especially at first, criticized (via the #CNNFail hashtag) for not monitoring what was going on through social media sites, particularly Twitter, although they did do this more later on. The Iran election coverage is an example of one of the positive uses of digital speed, allowing the rest of the world to monitor the actions of the Iranian regime in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is also another recent example of real-time ‘news’ that is arguably not as  productive. After his recent death, the news media seemed to be able to talk about nothing besides Michael Jackson. The choice to cover all things Michael Jackson rather than, say, the continuing Iran election protests, police violence against Uighurs in China, or the overthrow of the government in Honduras, is one issue. But what I want to focus on instead – and the example that I found probably the most disturbing – is the focus on real-time updates.

On the morning of Michael Jackson’s memorial service, I turned on CNN foolishly hoping that they might cover some real news, since the memorial wasn’t due to start for several hours. Instead, what I saw was a reporter in front of the arena where it was going to take place, in the dark, reporting that no one was there yet.

In my opinion, this is the perversion of our collective conditioning to want to know what is going on in real-time – even if it is just to be reassured that nothing is going on and therefore we are not missing anything. This was foreshadowed by Marshall McLuhan when he talked about the immediacy of media, and about the world imploding because of electric speed.

I’ve just started a long-overdue reading of McLuhan, and I was struck by several things he said in the introduction to Understanding Media:

In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner.


Electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree. It is this implosive factor that alters the position of the Negro, the teen-ager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media.

And finally:

The aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology.

McLuhan highlights some of the positive possibilities of electric speed, such as the potential for experiencing a greater sense of responsibility and empathic connection to others. (And he wrote this in 1964, before the internet!) So why is it that this potential is so frequently not realized?

I think part of the reason might lie in the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. We can now get information about what is going on in the world – lots of it – in real time. And the currency and immediacy of that information seems to be the accepted indicators of value. But in the constant quest to find out what is going on at any given instant, there is little time to reflect about what it all means.

Reflection is the process that can turn knowledge and experience into wisdom. But how can reflection be encouraged in this era of electric speed?

Maybe one approach would be to extend reflective design research. This line of research has thus far explored ways in which information can be presented in informative but ambiguous ways that encourage reflection. Is there a way to go beyond the typical examples of reflection about personal or office activities to encourage sustained and productive reflection about, say, community dynamics, national political issues, or even things happening in other parts of the world?

The short and fickle attention span that is the norm on the internet is conducive to superficial awareness, but not deep understanding of complex issues that can lead toward productive action. Yet it seems that the ‘electric media’ still has the potential to facilitate a sense of implication in each other’s lives and of the consequences of our actions that McLuhan described. The only (rather large) question is: How can we design to create space for this type of reflection?

3 thoughts on “Creating Space for Reflection

  1. I love McLuhan’s idea that some of the older sensibilities are ironically foregrounded as a result of the electric age: “Paradoxically, automation makes liberal education mandatory. The electric age of servomechanisms suddenly releases men from the mechanical and specialist servitude of the preceding machine age.. This would seem to be a fate that calls men to the role of artist in society.”(p. 471)

    1. That’s a neat idea. But technology can be used to enforce and constrain as well as to liberate. People may not be servants of a mechanical machine, but they may be part of a system in which their actions are closely monitored and controlled through digital means. As a very basic example, service workers may be able to use cell phones to creatively coordinate their work and collaborate, but their management may also be able to use their cell phones to keep them on a very short leash or even potentially to monitor their location through GPS.

      I love McLuhan’s optimism though. He seems to have a pretty technologically deterministic framing that might limit the degree to which his vision is actually realized, but it is good to be reminded of the positive potential technology can have. And maybe if we can identify places where this positive potential can emerge we can work to remove the barriers that could keep it from happening.

  2. IMHO, i would place McLuhan, overall, in the “neutral” camp, rather than in the optimistic one, though the quote above does sounds other. In fact, i would say his determinism keeps him in the “neutral” camp, since he generally treats media as a force which marches on, relatively unchecked by human efforts, affecting all that it touches.

    Keep in mind, too, that he was reacting in 1964 to a generation of media theorists who saw media as a neutral channel through which content was pushed, unchanged. My guess is that he was being intentionally hyperbolic.

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