The future of communications is interpersonal

I began teaching communication studies in 2001, when I was hired out of my post-doctoral fellowship to be the first professor in the new communication studies program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My first week was marked by the first great tragedy of the 21st Century, when the World Trade Centre was bombed and everything changed. Suddenly, the world seemed smaller and more interconnected. Cable news network, cellphones and email gave us a sense of being there and participating in the events as they unfolded in New York City – a feeling that was only intensified by the advent of social media and ubiquitous mobile computing.

The technologies of communication have always had a big impact on our society, culture and business. The printing press ushered in a new age of knowledge sharing and standardization that culminated in the industrial revolution. Now social media, smartphones and tablet technologies are binding us into a tightly knit network that doesn’t so much resemble an orderly grid, as it does the heaving surges and flows of communication in a town square packed with people, awaiting an event. If anything, social media have turned daily life into an unmissable event which captures the poetry of the everyday. We have all heard the complaint that “no one wants to know what you had for lunch” and yet we share this information on Twitter and Facebook and we are inspired by it, wanting to meet the challenge posed by knowledge of what another has done. Indeed, social media have begun to transform our culture, politics and economics.

Our world is no longer as it was. Our world is no longer as even I – with my 39 short years on this Earth – remember it to be. My father often speaks wistfully of a rural Northern Ontario world that is long gone and mostly forgotten. I always thought that I would not be in his position, that the world I lived in was always vital and real and true – that it would persist and exist forever. It has not. The world I grew up in during the 1970s and 1980s is as remote to the digital natives of today as the world of my father’s youth in the Northern bush camps was to me.

Truthfully, we are in the beginnings of a move from the print and broadcast model of newspapers, book publishers, terrestrial radios stations and broadcast television networks to an age of self-publishing and interpersonal sharing via social media. This change is a shift from a culture of gatekeepers, editors and experts to a culture of storytellers, rhetoric and persuasion. This means a move from understanding culture and business through the lens of mass communication theory toward thinking of mediated communication as a primarily interpersonal phenomenon.

While this might seem to many to be a largely academic distinction, having little bearing on the world of motion and action outside the university, in fact it is a phenomenally important distinction to begin to fathom. Mass communication privileged experts and gate keepers. It had very high production values that demanded significant investment on the part of media companies to create content that was fit to print or broadcast. It was a world of hierarchy, rules and constraint. That world is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by a place where the human voice, the story and the village are of primary importance.

We are morphing into a society shaped and organized by the tenets of oral culture – fluid, chatty, playful, emotional and mistrustful of expertise and authority. Its rhythms are in tune with the flow of conversation, rather than segregated by the categories and boxes of print and broadcast. The operative skills, identified half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan, are pattern matching and fit. Statistics and probability reign in this world, while rigid logic fades. It is a world of relative and local understanding, not universalism. It is world where people are motivated by principles rather than constrained by unenforceable rules.

It’s a whole new world and I will be back at regularly writing this blog to explore it with you.


How I did with my 2011 new year’s resolutions: a journey of growth towards principled living

Last year, I had an ambitious list of new year’s resolutions. Here’s a recap and a report on how I did:

1. Get fit and lose weight. Partial success – I got fit for a part of the year, but then a stressful term and many preoccupations caught up to me and I gained it back again! So I am at 172 now, exactly where I was at this time last year.

2. Organise my time to get two books written. Half-Success. Well, I got one done! Understanding Human Communication, 2nd Edition came out. I am still working on the other one: Understanding Public Relations in Canada, and thinking about yet another on the topic of social media philosophy and strategy.

3. Keep a clean driving record. Yay! Success! I kept this one!

4. Take an advanced driving course. I just didn’t have time. Life caught up to me. I do have plans to eventually acquire a sports car, so this one will eventually come true, I guess. I learned this year, that this is really a back-burner issue.

5. Take at least one real vacation. Again, life caught up to me. I have never been busier or more stressed than I was in the last six months. Well, at least since my tenure year – that was pretty stressful.

6. Enjoy nature. Yay! Success! I got out for a quite a good number of walks, particularly in the first six months of 2011.

7. Pray and meditate more. A mixed result. I have definitely prayed and meditated more. But I have also had moments of complete self-absorption and dark anxiety, which weren’t in the spirit of this resolution.

8. Make more time for art and culture. Again, a mixed result. I have been to symphony more than ever before, but haven’t really been to the opera or the ballet, both of which I love.

9. Play the piano more. This wasn’t successful. I haven’t played much at all. Feel a little sad about this one.

10. Take life a little less seriously. Well, I think that while I haven’t really succeeded in doing this, in trying to, I learned something about myself. That is that I think taking life less seriously is heavily tied to prayer and meditation.

All in all, this year of resolutions was mixed. I think it was mixed because many of the resolutions I made would have been completely life-changing had I been successful. I have discovered that it takes time and dedication to change your life. It also means a fundamental and basic change in perspective. What this requires is not a change in the rules that you impose on yourself in your life, but rather a change in the principles that guide you.

What I have discovered is that one of of the most difficult things to do is to find the first principles which are at the root of your behaviour and your perceptions. Are you motivated by love? Do you want to build a good life filled with good things? Do you want to be a constructive and supportive force for good in the lives of others?

We can quibble over definitions of the Good, but the fact is that the Good is something we understand in context, given the people we are dealing with and the situations that they are in. That is where wisdom comes in – you have to understand and empathize with others, as well as have a connection with the history of human experience, feelings and stories to really be able to establish what is Good in a given circumstance.

What is most important is to make sure that your principles are always point you away from nihilism, selfishness, insecurity, cynicism and destructive thinking. Your principles should push you – stubbornly and relentlessly – toward the Good.

If you calibrate your principles this way, you will find the Good Life. Even if it takes you a long time and some errors along the way.

I will post a new set of resolutions for 2012 on New Year’s Day.

Merry Christmas everyone.


Life-Love 47: On the ties that bind

We spend an incredible amount of our time trying to make our mark in the world. We fight to define our role in an organization, to make other people recognize our contributions to a creative art project, or to mention us when they recount how a successful deal was made.

It’s interesting to note that very little of this matters.

As we age, and move forward in life, we realize how little this sort of recognition matters. In fact, it is vanity, really. We try to fit into social groups, to make them like us. We compromise our values and then we we have to live with those compromises. Compromises that may become shadows that populate our lives far into the future, negatively affecting our relationships, making others doubt us.

There is a simple answer to this.

The ties that bind are based in values and principles. The ties that bind are based in caring and love. The ties that bind are based in brotherhood and sisterhood. The rest is vanity.

The caring love is the only love to pursue, isn’t it? Lust, desire, control – all of these things are based in power. And, quite frankly, my friends, power is base – it is the expression of immaturity and a desire to gain control over one’s self by controlling others.

Seek the caring love and you will quickly find the ties that bind. Make all of your interactions count in a caring way. Make everything you do constructive. Live in the present – certainly – but always with an eye focused on a better, more caring future.

I firmly believe that if you do follow this path, you will build the ties that bind with people who count. Caring, principled people.

Good luck – it is a tough journey.

Back to Hamilton Tales

Now that I have finished the 100 Life-Loves series, I am going to go back to writing the Hamilton Stories. I hope these are just little tales meant to bring out parts of Hamilton that I have known and seen, and to try to tell stories about everyday characters that everyone can relate to. I hope you enjoy them. Certainly don’t hesitate to send me constructive criticism if you don’t like them!

You can find the first six instalments here.

Life-Love 100 (Final One): The Good Life

There is nothing more precious than life. We often lose sight of this, burying life behind the darkness of our anxieties, our plans, our ambitions.

Life is all around us, but so easily missed. It is in the sparkling eyes of children who are enjoying the playground for the first time on a watery spring morning. It is in the expectant eyes of a person who feels another’s love, but awaits confirmation that it is true. Life is a dim but present sparkle in the eyes of someone who has been hard done by, and has opened a door of hope through the kindness and caring of another.

We only see these things if we are looking for them, and only understand them if we are at peace with ourselves and the world. Otherwise, they are glimmers and shards which we glimpse, but never see in their whole splendour.

Gentle caring love. Life. Second chances. Life. Sweet, simple moments of shared bliss. Life.

The trouble is that we forget life is something that must be nurtured and cared for. It must be treasured and protected, but also allowed to be free and grow, unstifled. Indeed, life is a delicate balance between structure and freedom, between inspiration and stability, between action and quietude. Finding this balance is the single most important journey that many of us will take.

We find great traces of the path in the feelings of others. We know when we’ve had a positive impact on the life of another person, and we also know when we’ve had a negative one. Strangely, this doesn’t necessarily come naturally. The good life has to be built, and just as we need to learn the craft of building house and master the use of tools to do it, so too must we learn the craft of living. For living is a conscious practice.

Living is a practice which requires examination. Examination of ourselves, our actions and their results, and observation of others, how their actions, attitudes and words impact our life and what we observe to be the effects they have on the other people they touch. These are the signposts on the path of life. However, when we observe, it is important that we observe with a loving eye. For to observe judgmentally without love, is to never be able to truly understand another. There is a big difference between having a critical but loving gaze when we observe others, and judging them. Loving critique is human, but judgment is mechanical. This way, even our mistakes and falls become but forks on a sunlit path, rather than pitfalls which lead us into darkness.

In the end, as we sit on patios and porches, sipping drinks and chatting, playing games or reading, surrounded by nature and the artifice of human construction, we can, if we take a moment to breathe and feel our world, feel at peace with its rhythms, its heartbeat, and thereby begin to intuitively feel that we have a special place in its arms. A place that we define by ourselves but which is also defined by others for us. In the end it is a place built of negotiation, examination and observation.

We are on the path to the good life when we find the flow of the world around us and sync ourselves to that flow. Then life becomes a harmonious whole, rather than a series of challenging episodes. Life also then becomes something that we no longer seek to control, but rather something that we seamlessly feel we belong to and belongs to us.

The good life is worth seeking. In fact, the journey is probably just as good as the destination, since it is a journey that must be guided by love, empathy, caring and forgiveness of ourselves and of others. In fact, the journey is the destination. The good life is an evolving thing, a state of being, the set of all of our actions, attitudes, words, feelings and thoughts.

In fact, you are living right now. Why not seek to make your life a good life? The journey is the destination.

Really, there is no better occupation of our time.

Life-Love 99: Retelling the past through the eyes of the present

We love to run forward, but how often do we take the time to think back. To allow ourselves to be overcome by a desire to journey into our past, explore it, relive it.

We have all experienced what it feels like to suddenly feel awash in memory. To momentarily leave the present and be transported, through the swirling stream of consciousness back to moments we have already lived. Some of them good, some of them sad – many of them times we wish to be able to take back or at least revisit. Remembering the past allows us to retell our old stories to ourselves through the eyes of the present.

It is important to relive the past, but it is also important to retell it in the words of the present. It is easy to allow the past to fester in the feelings attached to the moment of our experience of it. A terrible break-up, the loss of a loved one, a moment when we were rude or dismissive of someone – all of these are events in our lives which live on in our memories. The trouble is that we often let them sit like a great big anchor keeping us fixed to a place that should be left behind us.

To retell the past in the words of the present is to allow ourselves to grow and move forward. This is not revisionist history. No one can change the facts of the past. We can, however, change our understanding of them, put them in context. Often this means finally judging one of our past actions as bad, and then moving on from it, having made our peace with it, accepted that we did something uncaring, or stupid, or reckless or selfish, and then rejected it. That is a liberating thing. It means we can clear that blemish from our hearts, and walk with a spring in our step again. To simply accept regrets as “part of me” without being critical of them, evaluating them or rejecting them make prison-houses of our memories.

To retell the story of the past through the lens of the present is profoundly human. It fits into the idea that “time heals all wounds.” It is liberating. It makes us understand that we are limited by context, and we should be aware of this limitation.

Really, this way, the pain then can become part of the happiness now, as was famously said by C.S. Lewis. If we don’t re-evaluate past regrets in light of present-day achievement or happiness, then what happens is that we accumulate regrets, and they become like a thousand anchors, forever keeping us paddling just to stay in place. They pull us back and forth, and we are never master of our own lives.

No, to look at things from our past that we regret and retelling that story in the context of who we are today, who we surround ourselves with today is a first step toward forgiving ourselves. That makes us more likely to forgive others.

Life-Love 98 – The rustle of leaves

We may live very busy lives, full of places to go, people to see, and anxieties that weigh upon our minds, nature is constant and reassuring. A walk in the woods is a salve for the soul, and the most beautiful music in the world is that composed by rustle of leaves in the trees, stirred by a breeze. Soothing and mysterious, it calms us and reminds us that the whispering melody, subtle and changeable, is a quiet anthem, giving us information and reminding us that we are alive.

The rustle of leave is a constant in our lives. We have heard it as we walked home from school as children, and when we went for a run to burn off some calories in middle age. We have heard it during quiet moments on park benches, when we contemplated something in our lives – a break-up, a success, or simply the joy of a quiet moment in the park with a coffee or a sandwich at lunch. We have heard the whispering rustle of the leaves in our travels – on any continent, a stroll or a moment of idle reflection was always accompanied by the flow of the air, made real and symphonic by the trees around us.

And so the rustle of the leaves is constant for us – a whispered reminder of our humanity, our connection to nature. It is a sound of portent, for we only really hear it when we are listening to ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings, and the story of our memories.

My father put it best once, as we were walking through the woods, north of Toronto in the Hockley Valley. We sat down on a stump and ate our BLT sandwiches, sipping coffees from little steel cups. We were quiet for a while, then he asked me: “Do you hear that?” I replied yes, of course. He said that it was his favourite sound in the world, and eager to understand a piece of the puzzle of my father’s life, I asked why. His answer was simple:

“Because it was the song of my childhood.”