by Scott Olson, Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of Speech Communication - Minnesota State University, Mankato
The following speech was delivered by Dr. Scott R. Olson, Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of Speech Communication at Minnesota State University, Mankato on November 9, 2007 at the 5th annual International Digital Media and Arts Association conference in Philadelphia, PA.
Well, it’s been a quiet week in Gull Lake Minnesota, my hometown, out on the edge of the prairie. It was just beautiful last weekend, which was the deer hunting opener, and this year was also the end of daylight savings time. It’s the day when the last vestiges of Autumn finally go across the water for good and Winter begins to get its long grip on us. Then, the waves on 10,000 lakes freeze up.
It can sometimes snow at the opener, but this year the weather was positively summer-like, warm, with blue skies, so we were reminded one last time to wave goodbye to that shortest season up north.
So now it’s finally really time for the families at their lake places to yield, first to the hunters, and soon enough to the snowmobilers – to surrender this territory from kids building sandcastles and teen-agers water skiing those with darker, colder, more aggressive pursuits. This leads to the annual ritual of putting the boats away. Now, some do this at Labor Day, expecting the snows the second week of September, but it hasn’t snowed like that since when I was a kid, so more and more folks are clinging to summer on into September and even into October.
But when the hunters come out, let there be no doubt. Summer has slipped away. Fall is fading fast.
Seasons are born with so much promise, like all of us, and seasons die too soon, like all of us, too. This ritual of putting the boats away is a wake for summer: summer’s wake. Just about everybody who’s from Minnesota has a lake place, or visits somebody’s lake place, or rents somebody’s lake place, which isn’t as fancy as it might sound because … well … there are a whole lot of lakes.
And on one of those lakes, Ray Lundquist was at the end of his dock, loosening the side stays on the sailboat, while his granddaughter Liz Ann held the mast in place. His wife of sixty-five years, Anna, told him just that morning that at 86 he was way too old for this. She had a point. Maybe next time, he’d hold the mast and Liz could loosen the side stays. But then, Liz Ann wasn’t around as much as she used to be. A few years ago she had gone off to college in Muncie, Indiana – “the deep south” as Anna would say. Anna just couldn’t trust a place where they preferred a game played with an orange ball on wood instead of a game played with a black disc on ice. Liz Ann was back for the weekend to help, and was spending time at the place that had been there when she was born, and been there when her mother was born, too, and nearly when Ray was born. While they were taking the 10 horse outboard off the back of the Alumicraft, this small black box in her pocket started to sing and Ray watched as Liz pulled it out and started talking to it. When she put it away, Ray asked: “So, what you got there then?”
“Oh, it’s called an iPhone, Bapa,” Liz said. Like ‘eye-phone.’ It’s like a cell phone, but you can also store all your music and movies in there, and photos too.”
“All my music and movies? Well, that’s a heckuva deal.” Ray didn’t actually have any music or movies. And just a few decades ago, these cabins were unplugged. At first, no electricity or plumbing – just kerosene and an outhouse. And as those things started getting hooked up, there was still no phone, no TV, and nothing to listen to on the AM radio if you had one. Little by little the waves of time washed these things up on the shore. Back before the cabin was built, this land was connected only by water, by waves, that the Ojibwe would assay in their canoes. When the cabin was first built, it was connected by those waves, and by a single road. But then it became connected by pipe, by wire, and by waves not just on the water but in the air.
The big change came with the party line phone, but their neighbor Miriam Frush would answer the thing no matter whose ring it was, so Miriam, or Mim as the old-timers called her, was always on the line when you were talking. Back in those days it would go like this:
RAY: Hello this is Ray Lundquist.
JOE: Hi Dr. Lundquist, this is Joe dare down at duh Marina and we --
MIM: Hello? Hello?
RAY: Miriam, this call is for me.
MIM: Hello? Who’s there?
JOE: Dr. Lundquist, are you dare den?
RAY: Look, Mim, your ring is: “Ring …. Ring.” That was our ring: “Ring-Ring, Ring-Ring.” You know?
MIM: Ray, is that you?
RAY: Yes, Miriam. I’m on the phone with --
MIM: Ray, did you call me?
JOE: Dr. Lundquist, are you dare den?
This would go on for about 45 minutes like that.
Miriam’s been gone now oh about 30 years, but back in her prime she was the very first hacker. Of course, these were analog systems she was hacking. Actually, it’s just the one analog system that she was hacking, namely Ray’s phone. That party line was a kind of proto-chat-room, though. It allowed for unexpected interactions in a world of expected interactions. This was their social networking: phone book rather than Facebook. It was a world where spontaneous human connection was still possible. Nowadays at the cabin, they have a TV, and the lodge nearby has even put in an “unsecured Wi-Fi hub,” whatever the heck that was, so they were all magically on the Internet now.
Liz Ann had studied communication at that university in Muncie, and she had come back with some interesting ideas.
“Sure is different from when I was a kid,” Ray said.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of technology out there now. But it’s sort of like a boat, Bapa – it just carries things, but what it carries and where it’s going is the really interesting part.”
“Well, when I was a kid, we got by without even a phone up here. I guess we had nothing to say that we couldn’t just say face-to-face.”
That school in Muncie had put a lot of ideas in Liz Ann’s head, a lot of them having to do with the future, and how people will communicate.
During Ray’s life, the waves of change had gone from no phones at all to iPhones. What would it be like for Liz Ann when she was Ray’s age? Or when her grandchildren were?
Liz would finish her degree soon enough, and then she planned to get a Ph.D. in something or other and become a college professor, teaching about communication and all that. She’d be teaching some students who wanted to go into work in the communication arts and sciences and businesses, and others who’d be studying something else, but who needed to know about communication more than folks ever had a calling to know in the past. She had some ideas about this that she had shared over the dinner table the last few days. Ray wasn’t sure about all of it. Liz said she was convinced that the future of communication was about content, not technology. This was something every student, every person, needed to understand.
Folks needed to be literate in the languages of media, and needed some appreciation of the aesthetics of each medium. She also thought that media convergence wasn’t going away, and that all students needed to know something about this. She said that convergence meant four different things:
- The convergence of media technology into small, multi-purpose, digital devices;
- The convergence of content, so that individual ideas could purposefully cut across different media;
- The convergence of ownership, so that fewer owners controlled more media, even as new channels were opening up; and
- The convergence of communication education, whereby it was becoming clear that students couldn’t stay in traditional vertical education silos.
And she said that every student, regardless of his or her major, needs to understand how to think critically and ask questions. Even professional journalists had fallen down on this, and risked letting the 4th Estate become second rate. Well! This is what they talked about at the dinner table these days!
They used to talk about how the Walleyes were biting but now they were talking about digital convergence!
But now Ray noticed Liz wasn’t saying anything at all.
“Sad to pack up, hon?” he asked.
“A little, Bapa, but tomorrow I’ll be back to school, so it will be fine.”
Hmmm. Tomorrow would be fine? Ray wasn’t so sure. So many things he cared about had faded away, things Liz had scarcely known or would never know. Local radio was fading away, local television was almost gone, and even local newspapers seemed to be bourn back by the current, so to speak.
He had asked Liz about this the night before. Liz said that future communicators needed to know more than ever about how the industry really worked – who owned it and how they used what they owned, and how one person can still make a difference despite it if they understand the context.
Maybe the death of the local is inevitable when everyone everywhere gets to create and disseminate content. Or maybe content never really dies. Oh, its body dies, maybe, but then maybe it just changes its medium. The future of communication education needed to explain this – not how things are new, but how old things are made new in new ways.
Everyone is making content, everyone is telling stories. The content will be good or bad, engaging or off-putting, moral or immoral, in proportion to the learning to back them up. It wasn’t so much the death of the local, as the propagation of the individual – from thousands of localities to billions of individualities.
Ray started packing up some of the plastic beach toys that belonged to Kelley’s kids and asked “You wouldn’t remember that lady on Romper Room, Miss Betty, who used to tell those stories on TV, do you?”
“I don’t think so,” Liz said.
“She used to have a place up here. I knew her dad. He sold lumber out of Brainerd. I’m surprised you don’t remember that show.”
“Oh,” she said.
“But you remember those stories we used to tell at the bonfire when you were little?” he asked.
“Of course, Bapa.”
“Okay then. Hand me that pail, will you?”
Stories. Like the time her brother fell off the dock after he’d untied the inboard and Ray ran in, clothes and all, and fished him out. Or the time Ray, already 80 years old, was crunching loudly on hard candy while Liz and her mom were working on a jigsaw puzzle until Anna shouted, “Suck on it, Ray!” Or the time Scott sunk the Century on Kelley’s first visit here.
Stories. Once upon a time, and they lived happily ever after. Circles that keep circling. Circles that make it hard to say where the future starts and the past ends, exactly.
The future of communication has to be rooted in its past – in stories.
Stories were the things that made us human, that brought us down from the trees, that most precious thing we share, and that we alone seem to share in this world.
They could teach that chimpanzee Washoe to sign for bananas but she couldn’t tell a story, no she couldn’t.
Stories were what made Hearst and Eisenstein and Murrow, and they are what make the arts and media, digital or analog or printed or papyrus or cuneiform, once, and now, and forever. Stories like how Marconi imagined radio but not broadcasting, or how Kuleshov tested his montage theory of cinema by splicing different unrelated shots together and generating emotions out of nowhere, or how folks only panicked over “The War of the Worlds” when they tuned in late to the Mercury Theater on account of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy got replaced by music part-way into “The Chase and Sanborn Hour.”
This was true then, and it is no less true now. Stories are what make for great journalists, great writers, great directors, great speakers, great business leaders, great national organizations, and great professors.
Liz wanted to be one of those great professors one day. She explained how she was globally connected: how she could be sharing Youtube content with a friend in China, while reviewing a Brazilian online journal, and texting her professor on sabbatical in Ghana. Sure he was getting on in years, but Ray thought he would gladly wave goodbye to all that connectivity, gladly go back to that disconnected world, just to be with Liz here one more summer, one more week, one more day, to hug her one more time. He didn’t want to email his granddaughter. He didn’t want to text her. He didn’t want to IM her. He didn’t want to voice message her. He didn’t want to Second Life her. He wanted to be with her.
So, he thought, the global hadn’t killed off the local just yet, at least not for him. He’d take the local any day. Ray and Liz stowed the old Alumicraft row boat, the last piece to go into the boathouse, then pulled down the metal door and locked it for the season. Anna rang the lunch bell back up on the cabin porch.
“We done, Bapa?” Liz asked. “Yeah. Go ahead.” Liz gave a wave, just a little goodbye wave. Waves. A wave can bring it and a wave can take it. A wave can mean hello or can mean goodbye.
And Liz gave a wave.
She ran up to the cabin, but Ray didn’t follow. He turned and walked back out on the dock instead. He knew that after lunch things would move pretty fast. They would load the cars, drain the pipes, shut off the power, and leave for the season, not to return until next Memorial Day. Another summer and fall, come and gone, one season closer to the last season an old man would spend there. There were waves of change all around. There were waves lapping on their beach, changing the shape of the sand every day. But there were also waves flying through the air, waves that first carried Marconi’s radio but then carried television and now carried cell phone signals and Wi-Fi signals and God knows what all else. Waves of change. A time for every matter under heaven.
Summer was over, and now Fall was over, too, and just this past Monday sure enough it snowed. It was snowing this morning general across Minnesota, with two inches in Duluth. Winter comes. But last Saturday there was still some life left in Summer, and as the morning mist had lifted off the lake you could see clearly right across the water, and make out all the little cabins over there on the far side, each no doubt with its own folks putting their own boats away, each saying goodbye to one more season. People that must be there, but people that he could not see. Like those friends and coworkers from his past, folks he cared for deeply, but who lived for him mostly as stories now, folks he had not seen in a long time. He could not say when, where, or if, he would ever see them again.
Soon enough, Ray would sail across that other lake, a lake some of his friends had sailed already, that lake where the other shore is the beyond from which you don’t come back. Soon enough, the waves of change would carry him off for good, like they carried off Miss Betty and her Romper Room. But even when he would go over that last lake, he knew those waves would not wash all this away. This place had been here for him, and would be here for his great grandchildren. They would spend the beginning of deer season just like this, taking down the sail, taking off the rudder, draining the outboard, and stowing the boats before the lake freezes over. And they would share stories about this place, and about him, long after he had gone. Who knows? Maybe his grandchildren would tell these stories on Internets and iPhones and Wi-Fis and concerned journalism websites and whatnots. The stories were always there, and the stories would always be there, and descendents and strangers who had never known him in person would know him well through these stories.
The bell rang again. Anna called out, “Get up here now, Ray!” Ray looked again across the lake, then turned his back on it one more time, and walked up the path to the cabin, where sandwiches and soup and his family and Winter were waiting.
And that’s the news from Gull Lake Minnesota, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children – even the ones who watch television – are above average.