Thursday, August 27, 2009

An American Redemption Story: Michael Vick

Michael Vick (en), of the Atlanta Falcons (en)...Image via Wikipedia
About seven months ago (1/27/09) I blogged about Michael Vick who was once again being maligned for his participation in a vicious dog fighting ring. The Vick case struck me as especially interesting in two ways: the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric used to describe his actions (many animal rights' activists and sports fans called Vick "another Hitler" -- a bizarre equation by any rational analysis), and the way in which Vick's journey seemed to imitate what psychologist Dan McAdams calls the "redemptive myth."

According to McAdams, the most powerful life stories are narratives of personal redemption, through which people transform pain and suffering into a life designed to benefit the self and others. Listen to the strains of this redemptive story in Vick's press conference announcing his new job with (that most American of birds!) the Eagles.

At the press conference Vick is accompanied by his (Christian) spiritual advisor -- and former NFL Super Bowl winning coach, Tony Dungy -- and quickly they mention Christian forgiveness and the importance of atoning for a "horrible mistake" and the fact that "everyone deserves a second chance." Check it out here:

Is Vick's story redemptive? Does his redemption depend on his success on the field or is it enough that he has "learned his lesson"? Is the redemptive story an especially American story?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Top Two News Words (by hour)

Back in my college days at U of I, I became familiar with the loud sounds of a band called Poster Children. They were relentless in their dedication to DIY ("do-it-yourself") touring, DIY music -- and, for our purposes, DIY thinking.

In that spirit, Rick Valentin, one of the founding members of the Poster Kids, created a piece of art which is deceptively simple. On the surface, the art piece appears to be completely functional in its purpose. According to Rick, "Top news sources are parsed by a computer every hour and the two most frequently used words are determined and printed out on a continuous sheet of paper."

But as critical thinkers, we might ask the question: what are the sources of "top news"? Scroll down to the bottom of the online version and take a good look. Our blog, An American Studies, will feature the "Top Two News Words" all year long in the blue field above the blog banner. What, if anything, does this automated tool say about the state of our media in the USA?

Curious about this seminal band who once worked with the inimitable Steve Albini? Listen here:

Poster Children - "Get a Life" from Junior Citizen.
Poster Children - "6x6" from New World Record.
Poster Children - "If You See Kay" from Daisychain Reaction.
Poster Children - "Machines (Take Good Care of)" from the Single of the Moment.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Are Computers Making Us Direct Objects?

Our computersImage by aranarth via Flickr

Last summer, The Atlantic Monthly featured a cover story titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article, written by Nicholas Karr, suggests that we have become jittery and superficial readers. Karr cites recent scholarship from University College London suggesting that visitors to their research site skim rather than read, hopping from one source to another rarely returning to any source they’ve already visited. Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts warns that the style of reading promoted by the Net may be weakening our capacity for deep reading, turning us into “mere decoders of information.”

Rather predictably, this summer featured a reaction piece called "Get Smarter" that wonders "if Google is making us smarter"! The author Jamais Cascio, citing contradictory studies, concludes that computers aid our "fluid intelligence" and that computers help us with "the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections under way simultaneously." One theorist even calls our current life style "a [self-] induced form of ADD."

So, who is right? In my opinion, neither of these schools. Both make the mistake of seeing computers as the principal actors and the human beings who use them hapless and passive victims of the cyber-revolution. There seems to be a trend these days to capitulate to technology as if it is the answer to our problems rather than the means to achieve the answers we seek.

On a more local level, I attended a conference last year in which a "computer expert" expressed the desire to equip every student with technological literacy upon graduation. A noble goal, to be sure, but, when I asked how this would be achieved he said, by putting a computer into every student's hands. Vigorous head-shaking and self-congratulation ensued, which ended when I asked if a computer was really the same thing as technology. Suddenly I felt quite alone, a kill-joy, a virtual party pooper, by pulling the plug on the enthusiasm that had been brewing.

But a computer is not the same thing as technology, just as certainly as flint is not the same thing as fire. (If you don't believe me, ask my scout master!). How are computers affecting your life -- or more to the point, how are you using computers to affect your life?

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