Josh Goodman

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“The Medium is the Message.” – Marshall McLuhan

Localive.org Project

Project Explanation:

Initially, I wanted to use my CyberOne project to raise awareness of the human rights and environmental concerns raised by the Camisea Natural Gas Project, a major energy infrastructure project being built in Peru. I found this to be a compelling project for a law school class particularly since so many of us will soon be working at corporate law firms that are intimately involved in financing similar projects on a daily basis. Multimedia arguments regarding this project are readily available online, both from the Peruvian government, which supports the project, and from rights organizations that criticize it. Perhaps ironically, the material available on the Peruvian government’s website uses empathic argumentation much more effectively than anything the rights organizations have released. I originally thought it might be effective to provide a more empathic approach to this issue from the perspective of challenging the project on environmental and human rights grounds, while still acknowledging the reasons the government supports the project, but as the course continued and we delved more and more into new technologies, I felt drawn to exploring these technologies in greater depth, rather than making a website or video that would apply the empathic rhetorical approach we studied at length in class to this particular set of facts.

My project – which I am calling “Localive” – aims to create a framework for university students to document and report on the human rights, environmental, and political climates of places that they visit and study. The intention of the project is to create a permanent record of the international projects that many university students engage in and a resource that may be tapped for information and can serve to stimulate further action, study, or debate. The site comprises a wiki and user-rated message boards, although only the wiki technology has been implemented thus far. Another CyberOne class member contributed the suggestion to limit edit access to the project only to university students during my presentation, and I have adopted it because I believe it will build trust and accountability into the system, and prevent abuse. I have created some sample pages – for the country of Peru and for the Camisea Project itself. The Camisea Project page utilizes some empathic techniques in its content. The site, including the (mostly) functional wiki, can be accessed at www.localive.org. I have not yet had sufficient time to create functional versions of the message board pages.

I decided to use my project in this course to conceptualize an online information distribution and creation medium after our reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media. In his chapter “the medium is the message,” McLuhan analyzes how new media themselves transform social and cultural relations and perceptions, independently of particular content. McLuhan contends that by focusing on the content of the “message” transmitted via media, we may miss the bigger picture of how that new medium per se affects our perception—or, in his more vivid turn of phrase: “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

Reflecting on CyberOne from the perspective McLuhan that advocates, it occurred to me that the concept of “empathic argument,” which dominated discussion in CyberOne during the second half of the semester, inherently pertains to message content rather than media itself. Empathic argument is an exceedingly effective approach to persuasion, but it is, at its core, a timeless method of speech or rhetoric that does not seem to bear a particular bond to the novel cybermedia technologies that we have surveyed in class. The CyberOne course itself, however, notably capitalizes on the understanding of medium as message, advocating a philosophy of openness and cyber-cosmopolitanism much more so through its concentration of student attention on media that embody those principles, than through traditional modes of rhetorical argument.

So, rather than focusing my project on developing the rhetorical content of a particular message, I have attempted to envision a particular medium for online communication that would take advantage of some of the novel aspects of new technologies we have studied. I chose wiki for this project because the technology embodies a philosophy of openness and skepticism. Because it is open for editing by all users, its contents do not inspire the (misplaced) respect for authority that many more traditional textual publications do. Rather, it demands that the reader carefully consider the provenance of the information being presented, and provides the opportunity to collaborate on, extend, or correct the source material immediately. Given that the topics involved in my project have a political dimension and will likely exhibit the biases of the authors, I felt that the openness and skepticism of the wiki, rather than the false objectivity engendered by more traditional media, would be ideally suited to the task. Similarly, the message boards for filing incident reports and discussion should encourage reflection, feedback, dialogue, and commentary, which will hopefully increase the quality of the content. I envision all Internet users—not just the university users who can post reports and edit the wiki—being able to rank posts for neutrality and quality, contribute comments, and participate in the discussion forums.

The two most common critiques I received in feedback memos from other CyberOne students following my project presentation were that: (1) the site may be difficult to publicize; and (2) false or abusive posts may be a problem. The second critique is definitely a concern, although it applies not just to this project, but to wikis in general, and to Wikipedia especially. I believe limiting article edit access to university communities (based on email address registration) as well as perhaps to other approved groups, like relevant NGOs, will go a long way toward preventing this problem, and, of course, wikis contain a built-in edit history, so all changes and deletions will be available for public viewing and discussion. As for publicity, I believe reaching out to extant student groups that focus on relevant issues like human rights, the environment, and international affairs – using empathic arguments to convince them that this project would help them publicize the issues that they care most about – would be the most effective strategy in developing a core base of interested participants.