When the Message Matters

On the Importance of Communicating Importance

365.016, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licence‘Speak truth to power’ is an often cited phrase, a catch-cry for change in a world that flaunts stability. But even if we have a message, and it’s a message that matters, how do we speak its truth? What methods should we use to argue for social justice when every government, every authority, has heard it all before? Unfortunate as it sounds, the direct approach isn’t always the most successful. So for this week’s microreviews, now in the sidebar at the right, I’ve drawn together three volumes that describe unusual ways of delivering important messages. And it’s fitting that they do so to varying degrees of success.

Over 40 years ago Marshall McLuhan pronounced that “the medium is the message”, that how we communicate shapes what we say. He was particularly keen to show that each medium, whether it be the alphabet itself or a television programme, has limits and possibilities that affect both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the actor and the audience. Take a message, shift it from a movie theatre to the radio, and the message changes in the process.

But what if we take one message out of its original medium, maybe not even legally, shove it into another, and mix in a few more ways of tailoring it to a new audience? We can now control messages in new ways because they are not so tightly strapped to any particular method of communicating. Yet we have to become a little unlawful, we have to be prepared to share information in uncertain conditions – no-one really owns the message any more. That’s what Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”, and he wants to unleash the buccaneer in us all.

Mason’s Pirate’s Dilemma, the subject of my first microreview this week, focuses on what you might call ‘remix culture’. It captures the ways in which ideas can shift between youth culture – in movements such as punk, hip-hop, graffiti tagging and file sharing – and commercial culture, changing in outline, skipping across media, but retaining and even strengthening their messages.

New, by karroozi, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, he writes, is a world in change, where – to give an intriguing example – disco’s original message of tolerance and the open society, born in the Loft with David Mancuso, has delivered us the open source movement. In computer operating systems such as Linux, Internet browsers like Firefox, and many other forms of software, the exchange of once proprietary information is now leading towards greater possibilities for collaboration in education, library work, and even the concept of intellectual property itself.

Bill Gates, you would image, never learned to boogie.

So the message remains, but it’s changing the media, reworking them in its own image. New, more collaborative media have changed the ways in which we communicate – the World Wide Web, for instance, is a quintessential open source medium. And within that graphical environment have come opportunities for saying new things in virtual worlds.

Tim Guest’s Second Lives, the subject of my least complimentary microreview this week, traces the growth of online games such as World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies and their apogee – the non-gamer’s game, Second Life. What these virtual worlds offer, claims Guest, is an environment in which limitations are removed and participants can express themselves as they want to be. To varying degrees, virtual worlds allow players to construct not only characters, not merely dwellings and allegiances to groups and other individuals, but extraordinary ways of doing mundane things. In Second Life, for instance, all players can speak otherwise.

Early in the book Guest describes the emancipation of cerebral palsy sufferers who use a Second Life character, Wilde Cunningham, to free themselves from their physical limitations. Those with cerebral palsy, Guest mentions, often have active minds trapped within uncooperative bodies. But with the help of a resourceful day-care manager they express themselves clearly in the chunky, customisable world of Second Life, inhabiting their own island, living another life, speaking to virtual friends.

The Wilde group becomes a touchstone for Guest’s own journeys through virtual worlds, but as he moves away from them his narrative becomes less compelling. Sure, he covers significant aspects of online ‘life’ such as creativity, cooperation and the possibilities and limitations of new business models, but his message begins to meander and it returns more often than not to what he feels, what he has experienced, what he was doing in his first life as he wrote the book.

Tim Guest himself really isn’t that interesting.

The Medium is the Message, by Naccarato, with Creative Commons licenceBut there is another way of discussing yourself and still getting a message across, even when using a medium that wouldn’t usually be seen as the most effective. Harvey Pekar is currently publishing the second volume of his autobiographical comic American Splendor with the DC imprint Vertigo. For those of you unfamiliar with the format, in each issue Pekar presents numerous vignettes of his life and anxieties, his concerns and his small victories, with a different artist drawing the action in black and white for each discrete episode.

Towards the end of the first issue published recently – my microreview is in the sidebar – Pekar tells of a critic’s reaction to a hardcover graphic novel about the geo-politics of Macedonia he and Heather Roberson wrote, with illustrations by Ed Piskor. He describes the effort as an explanation of “why when the Balkans were inflamed by nationality-based civil wars, Macedonians and Albanians in the nation of Macedonia were able to avoid armed conflicts”.

In a fractious world, that’s a message to which we should all be listening. The book’s subtitle is the evocative “what does it take to stop a war?” But the critic, from Kirkus Reviews, claimed that Macedonia was “only occasionally engaging” and seemed more like a lecture than a graphic novel. Pekar’s response? He spoke truth to power.

From American Splendor 2,1 Copyright Harvey Pekar

Stripped of their pretensions, all messages are just words and pictures. Important messages are most certainly shaped by the media in which they’re expressed, but they can also skip to a new medium, or resonate across media. They can force change not only in the world, but also how we speak about the world.

You can do anything with words and pictures. And that’s something we should be talking more about.

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