Where are you leading us, Lee Abrams?

Lee Abrams, the newly-appointed "cheif innovation officer" for the Tribune company will no doubt be leading the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and all of the rest of the Tribune Company's holdings into the age of new media, but the question is, where will he be leading us?

Abrams gained his innovator fame in the radio business. He transformed that medium from a strictly top-down format with savvy DJs spinning rock 'n' roll with sass, to an album-oriented, celebrity-provoking medium of the 1970s and 80s, to the user-oriented, hyper-specialized, hear-what-you-want format of satellite radio. Will he also turn the traditional print newspaper model on its head?

Abrams was profiled in the Columbia Journalism Review and Wired earlier this month. I guess now all we have to do is follow obediently and see where he leads us. I will definitly be keeping me eyes open.

The Accessible Intellectual

It was long before Machiavelli wrote the Prince or Plato the Republic that intellectuals began playing the role of advisor to those who govern. It seems inevitable that no single person is aptly equipped to rule, but needs a corps of intellectuals for direction.

Intellectuals have always held a soft power over government, a power of influence. But over time, the direction and shape of their influence has had to change in accordance with changes in systems of government. Today, public intellectuals face the problem of influencing the public, the theoretical power holders in our democracy, amidst competition from the most prolific of mass media. In order to maintain their influence, the public intellectual must retain the intellectual nature of his work while making it – and himself – entirely accessible to the masses.

Yes, the role of public intellectual, one who advises more than just the heads of state, was necessitated only by the advent of democracy. Democracy changed the entire dynamics of government. Now, the “masses” (a word Stephen Mack calls "crude and ugly," but we will assume to mean those who vote and those who have any influence over others who vote) are, in theory, the ruling bodies. In some ways democracy requires a faith in the aptitude of those masses, but in others it reveals a loss of faith in any single individual. In some cases (like the case of Ferdinand of Hapsburg, for example, who was mentally retarded but ruled the Hapsburg Empire at the height of its power) the average competence of “the masses” will be greater than that of an individual who came to power solely by political maneuvering.

Democracy, however, makes the intellectual’s job much more difficult. Rather than advising a single ruler through open and established communication channels, it’s now necessary that the intellectual advise millions of people, who each have only a very small piece of the power of government. Democracy then, is not necessarily a “rule by the people,” but rather, a rule by those who can most effectively influence the people.

The question for the public intellectually is how to exercise their influence.

Today, in our media-saturated world, many players fight for the attention of those all-too-powerful “masses.” From former presidential candidates to concerned citizens and academics to celebrities; influence is exerted across nearly all mediums and nearly every hour of the day. But with people screaming from all sides, it’s hard not to get lost in the deafening cacophony.

Thus, in order for a public intellectual to be effective, he or she must chose an effective means of communicating with “the masses.” A public intellectual must step down from the city-on-the-hill that is academia and reach out to the public on a lower level. A real public intellectual must be an accessible intellectual.

Intellectuals have used the printed word as a means of public communication since Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type. They have used word-of-mouth and public speeches even longer. The accessible intellectual can also be heard on news radio or seen as talking heads on any number of news and commentary shows. Most recently, many public intellectuals, including the one writing this post, have taken to the ultimate democratic medium, the internet, to further widen the public discourse. There are a huge number of mass communications by which an intellectual can speak to the people. The key is finding the one to which they will listen.

At this point, many intellectuals retreat back to academia or politics under the guise of credibility and professionalism. But the accessible intellectual understands the importance of his role in a democracy. He or she uses all means necessary to divert the public’s attention from celebrities and gossip toward a public discourse on the area of his or her expertise.

And once the intellectual has effectively entered the public sphere, once he or she becomes truly accessible, it is paramount, and perhaps most difficult, to maintain an intellectual demeanor.

A true intellectual’s aim is not to provide a one-way stream of information, regardless of how informative and necessary that information might be. A true intellectual’s aim is also not to effect policy changes directly, though he or she might be well equipped to do so. The accessible intellectual’s aim is to open a lively and engaging public discourse.

Thus, an intellectual’s focus is not on providing absolute answers. Rather, an intellectual is more concerned with asking the right questions: questions that are provocative, questions that facilitate an exploration of a subject, rather than a lesson on it. An intellectual provides the public with the format and reason to understand a subject for itself.

Also, an accessible intellectual is not adversarial toward dissenting opinions. Rather, he or she is willing to consider counterarguments for the sake of gaining a more complete understanding of an issue.

Thus, an accessible intellectual is not the gatekeeper of a finite knowledge pool, but rather the guide who leads the way for a public who attention is too divided for self-government. The accessible intellectual not only equips the masses with the information needed for effective self-government, but also plays a role in socializing the masses as responsible citizens and individual leaders. To do this effectively is not difficult. In addition to being personally well-informed, a public intellectual must be only two things: accessible and intellectual.

Profile: Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan was an academic intellectual before he was an accessible one, but by the end of his career he was considered by some to be too radical for the academic world, while he maintained a great deal of influence over the “masses.” His famous phrase, “the medium is the message” is still well-known today, more than 40 years after his book The Medium is the Massage first brought the phrase into the public consciousness.

McLuhan was a student of English at the University of Manitoba and the University of Cambridge; he earned a bachelor’s degree and participated in graduate work at both schools before teaching at various universities in the United States and finally settling in at the University of Toronto, where he taught for 33 years. During this time, McLuhan wrote seven books (The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride, Understanding Media, The Medium is the Message, and War and Peace in the Global Village are among the most popular), began the interdisciplinary journal Explorations and a monthly, multi-disciplinary newsletter called the McLuhan Dew-Line, and served as head of the Centre for Culture and Technology.

But he also became a popular phenomenon. His style was perfectly suited to mass media; his eccentric personality and love of wordplay and one-liners made him pop icon-worthy. McLuhan was featured in a New York Magazine story by Tom Wolfe, a cover story in Newsweek, articles in Life Magazine, New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Fortune and Esquire, a cartoon in the New Yorker, and an Interview in Playboy. He was guest of honor at a “McLuhan Festival” in San Francisco and spoke to corporations such as AT&T, General Motors and IBM. He was friendly with Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He was interviewed on nearly every major radio and television station in America and Canada. He was a sensation among the masses.

His popularity with the public is somewhat ironic because he was proposing that everything around them, the new electronic age of television and radio and vacuum cleaners, was fundamentally misunderstood.

McLuhan contended that media, especially electronic media, were not an addition to our lives but an extension of our own senses. This extension gives dominance to one or he other sense, an effect with throws off the natural balance of our senses and has serious effects on human society. Thus, the invention of the phonetic alphabet and, later, the printing press, serve as extensions of our own eyes. And the implications for society are great: with the transition from an oral society to a literary society comes the transition from a collective society to a highly individualistic one. But McLuhan’s focus was on the re-tribalizing of society that began with the electronic age. He asserted that the radio and television serve as extensions of our auditory sense and are pushing us back toward an oral society. Thus, he told the public they were unconsciously devolving toward a “global village.”

But he approached the people on a level that was very much their own. He appeared in television interviews many times, including this clip from the Today show in which he talks about the Carter-Ford presidential debate in 1976 (a subject particularly relevant as we are in the middle of debate season in this year’s presidential race). And he illustrated his points using the mediums about which he was speaking. For example, in 1967 he produced The Medium is the Massage audio recording, a medley of discordant sounds and music and the speech of McLuhan himself. The nonsense of this recording was meant to show McLuhan’s point of the difficulties in translating between the spoken word and electronic media.

Some believe that McLuhan stepped too far out of the box to retain the title of intellectual. But in fact, he kept an intellectual attitude in his arguments throughout his lifetime. He maintained an attitude of curiosity and inquisitiveness. He said, “I've never presented such explorations as revealed truth. As an investigator, I have no fixed point of view, no commitment to any theory -- my own or anyone else's. As a matter of fact, I'm completely ready to junk any statement I've ever made about any subject if events don't bear me out, or if I discover it isn't contributing to an understanding of the problem. The better part of my work on media is actually somewhat like a safe-cracker's. I don't know what's inside; maybe it's nothing. I just sit down and start to work. I grope, I listen, I test, I accept and discard; I try out different sequences -- until the tumblers fall and the doors spring open.”

This flexibility on the issue is partly what gained him a reputation as such an erratic individual, but it’s also what allowed him to push forward and make such gigantic leaps in the study of electronic media.

Today, more than a quarter century since his death, McLuhan is still regarded a founding father of media theory. In fact, his work is even being reconsidered for its advice on the internet and new media (though he did not actually live to witness the internet or speak directly on it). McLuhan is considered the “patron saint” of Wired Magazine, and is paid homage to in an article every three or four years. And huge amounts of new scholarship on “revisiting” the theories of McLuhan are being written. The willingness with which people are returning to his age-old theories proves his lasting importance in the public discourse.

Thus, McLuhan established himself as an accessible intellectual by being just that – accessible AND intellectual.