Domo arigato, Ms. Roboto

I’m a few days behind on this news piece, apparently, but it certainly jumped out at me when I saw it yesterday:

These days, it’s sometimes hard to separate the technology from the message when we talk about communication; they certainly go hand in hand. We have even come up with our own verbs to link the two: “I Facebooked her” or “I tweeted him.” These are verbs of communication specific to the media platform and application; just think of the verbs they replaced: “to say” or “to write.” “Saying” or “writing” something – these are human activities. They point to the vox humana, the “human voice,” which is replete with tones and volume, or to the human hand, which can pick up a pencil or pen to share experiences. But these other verbs direct us to the application; the human-ness is left out of the equation.

So here’s this Henn-na Hotel [Strange Hotel] at Japan’s Huis Ten Bosch theme park, where three (eerily) human-looking robots will be the receptionists with whom visitors will interact when they check in. According to the CNN article, the park’s president, Hideo Sawada, says he hopes “robots will eventually run 90% of the property.” How do we talk with our students about this type of (human?) communication? I see several levels to the story about this conceptual hotel, and I think it’s important to acknowledge them to help students learn to think about such nowadays fairly mundane actualities in order to understand communication concepts more fully.

The first, of course, is the fun part – how people have applied human know-how to a pile of electronics to create a never-before-experienced venue. It’s about pushing boundaries, testing inventions and innovations, allowing visitors to try something so new, so interesting, that they’ll provide the best advertising any company could hope for: word of mouth. By asking our students how they think people will talk about their experiences at this hotel, we have entrée into the ideas of two famous communication researchers: Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld. Their 1957 volume Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications (2nd ed. 2005; New York: Free Press) brought to light the two-step flow of communication theory (see for a quick review). As we talk about this theme park, we can tell students about how the people who love cutting-edge technology and firsts of all kinds will, assuming they had a great experience, serve as opinion leaders for this incredible experiment. As we discuss the fact that CNN notes that Sawada hopes to build “1,000 similar hotels around the world,” we can then move to communication researcher Everett Rogers, his diffusion of innovation theory, and the four elements of that diffusion: innovations, communication channels, time, and social system (see for a quick review). These are a few ways to get students to understand how human communication helps new ideas spread and become accepted, often by using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

But more than this, we can talk about what the “communication” between humans and robots tells us about our culture on a mass scale. We can probably point to any number of ways to do this, but as I read the online articles, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1965; N.Y.: McGraw-Hill) came immediately to mind. McLuhan told us that it is the medium itself, not the message carried by the medium, that affects our society. I’m planning to throw this one at my students tomorrow and ask them what message is being sent when we go to a vacation resort and 90 percent of the staff we interact with is mechanical. What affects our society more – the fact that someone could build a mechanically run hotel, or that we have reached a point in our evolution where we don’t need actual humans to communicate with, but rather figures created to look like us, made from plastic and wires and microchips? How important are humans in this equation, then? If “the medium is the message,” is the message that we are now replaceable? And from a cultural aspect, what are the long-term implications of this message not only on the human psyche but on the job market as well?

Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, in his 1965 paper “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits,”1 noted that “The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. . . . Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase.” This prediction, now known as Moore’s Law, is one that our students need to keep in mind as they engage not only with the present advancement of technological growth but with the implications for communication in the future of our society; here’s a story that allows us to easily show them both.

I love finding articles like this through social media; they are goldmines for teaching theory.

  1. Electronics, April 19, 1965: 114–117; available at

A Bad Week for Journalism

News media has taken several more hits this week, and they’re fairly serious ones. We’ve seen discussions of FOX News’ decision to post the ISIS tape of 26-year-old Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive, and NBC’s Brian Williams’ problems with some mis-rememberings / fabrications of his participation in events past.

I used the first story to broach ethics with my students, and considerations of communication studies and mass comm issues: Are those who share the link to the gruesome murder being complicit in the criminal activities of the Islamic State, or does that link in fact educate the people in our country about how incredibly cruel those fighters are and perhaps spur people to push their Congressional representatives to try to end the reign of terror that ISIS is forcing on the people of the Middle East? I’m teaching two classes of mostly freshmen right now, so they’re not talking a lot, but I think they’re taking in what I’m pointing out. I was also able to use the idea of educating citizens, who then put pressure on their legislators, to show them that this was a current, real-time example of agenda setting in action (conceptual model from McQuail & Windahl (1993) found at Agenda setting is a concept they struggle with, but by linking it to a current event, I think it makes the theory more understandable.

I also asked them whether they thought that being repeatedly shown images or videos of such cruelty desensitized us as a nation. After all, just a few short months ago, we were reeling from the idea of ISIS militiamen beheading their victims. We were gasping and saying, “Oh my God, they’re chopping people’s heads off,” whereas now, though we still find the act reprehensible, we’re saying, “They cut some more people’s heads off.” That initial shock is already leaving us; now we know what those people are capable of and we’re slightly better “prepared,” if that’s possible, to hear it again; we’re expecting it. By showing these videos, do news sources help further that desensitization? Or is just the act of hearing about it and creating the images and horror in our own minds media enough? And by advertising the cruelty – does this encourage ISIS to move to the next step of videotaping prolonged torture before putting the victims out of their misery?

The second story, about Brian Williams, I’ll have to admit troubles me on a personal level. I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for what I perceived as his professionalism, and I’m again faced with the lesson that we should put no one on pedestals; we’ll always be disappointed. Nevertheless, I talked with my classes about this (“Did he really not remember the event, or was he purposely lying to us?”), and we ended up going off on a short discussion of “false memory syndrome.” I asked them to think about this in their own lives – pictures from our early childhoods and the stories our families tell along with them; do we truly remember these instances, or have other people told us the stories, and because we know we were players, we believe with all our hearts that we remember? What if those storytellers remember the stories incorrectly? And how do we embellish our own stories over time? I hope this was a way for my students to consider that, just as some among us create our own stories that match our egos, other people can hijack our stories and recreate them to a point that we no longer recognize them but still have a desire to claim or reclaim them as our own; media has a way of helping the public take over other people’s stories (just think about the movie stars in entertainment magazines). We need to remain media literate; we have to keep these falsifications and hijackings in mind. Unfortunately, in the end, any of these situations involving such falsehoods, whether intended or not, will be another black mark on the field of journalism that is already suffering a crisis of honesty and accusations of bias. That discussion, however, is for another day.

By the way, I did not and will not offer an opinion about whether Williams was purposely trying to make himself look better with these stories. The fact is, no one will ever know for sure – maybe not even Williams himself. Sometimes just one weak moment, just one little lie, is all it takes to start down that slippery slope. We all select the past events we choose to remember, and the stories about our parts in those events, that allow us to move forward with our egos intact; we can spin our participation into something more than it actually was, telling and retelling it until we truly believe it, or we can underplay it, and others can do the same to us. Truth can be elusive, but for journalists it’s still absolutely necessary to be vigilant about remaining as close to the facts as they can; the public is depending on them.

Welcome to Mass Media Pedagogy

Hi, fellow media instructors and those of you who are just interested in the subject! I am Sue Novak, an assistant professor of journalism and PR at the State University of New York at Potsdam (North Country — about a half hour from Canada). I arrived at Potsdam in August 2012 after earning my Ph.D. in Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. Media and journalism are my mains interests, and I’ve been learning about and experimenting with ways to help undergrads learn about communication and mass media. History, current events, predictions for the future — it’s all fair game, as are ethics, law, discussions about objectivity and subjectivity, advocacy and bias, and of course theory and research methods for both communication studies and mass comm.

I’ve seen so many interesting (and strange!) stories and happenings on social media sites, ads on TV, PR successes and failures, troubling stories in the news — all of these can help us help our students understand the way media affects us. I’d like to use this blog to take some current stories or events in the news and talk about them in terms of teaching, offering suggestions, maybe stirring up some discussion, and sharing what I know.

I don’t presume to know all the ways to teach, but ideas are more fun when they’re passed along and expanded upon. If you like what you read here, please share and invite others to read!