March 2-8, 2001
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Panel considers fate of the individual in the face of technological media

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Next event: March 30
Sherrie Rollins Westin, ABC Network Communications

Leadership Luncheon/
Jill T. Rinehart Distinguished Lecture

12:30 p.m., Carr's Hill
Sherrie Rollins Westin, ABC Network Communications Leadership Luncheon/ Jill T. Rinehart Distinguished Lecture 12:30 p.m., Carr's Hill Sherrie Rollins Westin, a 1980 College of Arts & Sciences alumna, is currently executive vice president for Network Communications at ABC, and was the highest-ranking woman advisor in the White House in 1992. Westin will discuss risk-taking and leadership in the media, as well as the ways in which new technologies are transforming network television. This event is open to the public free of charge, but interested participants are asked to R.S.V.P. by calling 982-2259 by March 23.

Panel considers fate of the individual in the face of technological media

By Jessica Tyree

How the media has become increasingly pervasive with its use of technology and how that affects our individuality were some of the issues discussed at a Feb. 20 panel on "The Interaction of Technology, Media and Culture in the 21st Century."

The event was part of the "Changing Face of Technology" series, co-sponsored by the U.Va. Women's Center, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Hereford College and the Media Studies Program. Johanna Drucker, the Robertson Professor in Media Studies, moderated the talk, which was held at Hereford.

Kay Neeley, associate professor of technology, culture and communication in the Engineering School, called for reframing the question at hand. Rather than asking how modern gadgets and the omnipresent media are shaping our lives, she said, "the right question would be, ŒWhat kind of culture do we want? What can the media [and technology] do to help us achieve that culture?'"

John Unsworth, director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, offered an opposite view that "most, if not all, of technology's effects are other than what was intended when the technology was employed." From the U.S.' post-WWII research into artificial intelligence came the advent of the Internet and LSD, both of which played highly unanticipated roles in American life that "put huge rifts in the social fabric," he noted.

Neeley also acknowledged technology's tendency to drift away from and sometimes frustrate expectations. As domestic tasks have become increasingly mechanized, "there have been many points where technology was said to be about to liberate women [from the home] but it hasn't happened," she said.

The media has used technology to create a world where nearly every area of life is considered public domain, the panelists said. The Internet, 24-hour news channels and "reality television" bombard the public with information and voyeur delights. Advertisements seep into every empty space.

The situation "pushes us towards a feeling of confrontation, of ŒHow do we grapple with this?'" said Drucker, who directs the media studies program.

The imagination will never be a complete prisoner to what a person sees or hears.


Johanna Drucker Director of the Media Studies Program

She earned laughs from the crowd by referring to humans as mere "sentient pond scum" suffering from sensory overload, and jokingly theorized that the career of the future will be that of a personal information filterer.

The role of one familiar "information filter" that has existed for centuries was also discussed.

The library "is an institution that has been charged with the preservation of our cultural memory," said Judy Thomas, director of the Robertson Media Center digital media lab. She predicted that collecting "images and sound — not texts will be primary" in the future.

"Libraries have been the traditional charge of women, because we're the caretakers," Thomas noted. However, men may begin entering the field in increasing numbers, she observed, as libraries move from simply storing information to determining how it will be recorded and used.

During the question-and-answer session, one audience member voiced his fear that the media could have a stifling effect on individual imagination, effectively killing mental images that are "fluid and creative and all mine."

While the media, television and film do tend to create "cultural lines of conformity" in our minds, Drucker said, "we still mediate that stimulus." Pointing out that everyone looks at a film differently, she expressed confidence that the imagination will never be a complete prisoner to what one sees or hears.

Neeley observed that the successes of the feminist movement came in spite of what studies show to have been negative media coverage. "People chose a point of view other than the media's," she said.

Unsworth, who is also an associate professor of English, mentioned a recent book by Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, which predicts an age of computerized personalities where human melds with machine. "[The book's] presentation leads you to think this is the only way things can go," he said.

Another, more immediate concern the panelists discussed is the so-called "digital divide," the gap between those who have access to increasingly essential technology and those who do not.

"It's a reflection of who society considers to be a viable consumer," Unsworth said.

Drucker added that the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the shrinking middle class can't be blamed on technology, but [technology] does increase our awareness of it.

"In a perverse way, it's in the interest of technology markets to close the digital divide," she said.


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