Telephones and the End of Intimacy by Ron Steinman

Telephones and the End of Intimacy — Ring! Ring!

There is something special about holding a real telephone, at least there once was. Cradling the phone with one hand, its hard plastic often cold to the touch pressed against your ear as you often struggle to hear the voice coming through from the other end. That experience is almost gone.

Go back in time with me for a minute. I once lived in a building with only one wall phone for all. Calls cost a nickel and sometimes lines formed for the users. The length of the line often limited how long a conversation lasted. Recall the party line, a phone system I grew up with because my family could not afford to own its telephone. In the small apartment house where I lived as a child, each apartment had a rotary phone, one that you dialed with your finger or a pencil. Each apartment’s phone had a separate ring to signal the call was for them. The curious picked up the phone despite the ring not for them, and listened in on the call for gossip, making the phone a source of free entertainment. Congestion ruled the party line, making it difficult to make a simple call. In case of emergency, the person with a problem would sometimes shout to everyone to clear the line so the call could go out to a doctor, the police, a hospital. In some rare instances, party lines still exist in rural parts of the country.

In this, the middle digital age, whatever there was of intimacy is dead. Well, almost dead. People use their smart phones to see an image, to get a burst of information, to hear music, to take a picture, get directions, check a rating, play games, find a restaurant, locate their friends, tell time because they no longer wear a watch, send messages and whatever else an app may provide.

Talking is passé. People now seem to communicate only in bursts of dots and dashes, pixels in uneven lines, in words on a screen in text messages, and even photos pinned to an anonymous wall rather than speaking directly to another human. Even email, as we know it is in trouble. Some say that email is dying and for them, it is not soon enough. Talking on the telephone presumes a familiarity with the person at the other end of the line. That is an almost dead social art. Mostly the closest we get to intimacy over the phone is when we receive a robot call from some distant location. I always hang up. Yes, we have Skype and Face Time, reasonable substitutes for the old fashioned hand-held device that still, for a few, serves as a mouthpiece to talk into, to see and a listening tool for hearing the other person. But make sure every hair is in place, and that you are not in pajamas. Make sure your background is neat, that your eyes are not too baggy and you do not become distorted at the other end of the call. If all things, and more I am sure, are in place, talk away until Skype and Facetime lose their cache and disappear, as did the old hand-held phone.

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News Anchors and the Abuse of Power by Ron Steinman

Because an anchor in television news may make ten million dollars a year – an obscene amount in journalism by any standard – it does not mean that person is smarter, a better journalist, or someone with superior skills in broadcasting. When the network he or she works for designates that person Managing Editor, red flags fly. Yes, managing editor started with Walter Cronkite as probably a sweetener during his contract negotiations. It continues to this day seamlessly and recklessly for anchors on every network newscast. Despite its presence, it doesn’t means it is a good idea. By now we should accept that network executives do not always know what they are doing. Even in news, they are star-struck and kowtow to the celebrity anchor. Managing editor says the anchor has power that far exceeds ability, experience and knowledge. The managing editor — how good that sounds — invariably takes the title seriously, believing he or she is really in charge. It is a distraction in the newsroom and it gets in the way of the professionals who are trying to run the broadcast. Going forward, the networks should abolish the title for the betterment of journalism.

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A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Connectivity, Part 3 by Ron Steinman

Because context is important, if you have not done so, I suggest you read parts 1 and 2 of this rumination.

Before the Web, the goal of most young people was to be popular. Then face-to-face contact determined a person’s popularity. Society said that personal interaction, almost skin to skin if you will by looking into another person’s eyes made a difference to where you stood on the social ladder. Because the Internet has no personality, despite technological advances, it is as if many people are still in middle school, a serious issue.

It is time to grow-up. But maturity seems to be impossible for most people. Instead, for the young but not exclusively to them, “like” has become their operative goal. Accumulating “likes” makes a site or post on a site look better than it really is. Why is it necessary to list or have as many as 800 friends on Facebook? Does it define for the user self-confidence, or is it at its base, a deep insecurity? To me this obvious sign of immaturity is something that permeates society as a whole. The Internet is conducive to lying. It is a stealth breeder of untruth. Will constant sociological investigations into what defines people in the digital age, an odd academic wave that creates jobs, reveal that what takes place on these sites is not real or typical of society but only reflection of a turbulent moment in time experienced by our young? Or is it? How can anyone, I wonder, have 800 friends, or even want that many? Maybe Facebook works for these users because it allows a person to easily keep track of his or her life without much thought of what that life really is. Or what life can be? Should I go so far to say, what life should be? But that is for the individual to decide.

I assume that the maker of a Website believes that connectivity is a metaphor for survival. Forget about the vast sums of money that might accrue to the creator of a social media site. It is the unwritten assumption that connectivity rules now and will forever that I find frightening. If it is not as I assume it is, than we are dealing with the worst in crass cynicism. Fascism of the mind is at work here. It denies the power of the individual in favor the power of a determined mob. There is, however, an unexpected wrinkle. According to news reports, some people on social media sites are contending that their online behavior should not be open for all to see. Oh? If not public, what is it? As soon as someone posts something, anything, on the Internet it is automatically public. Even if the posting lasts no more than a few seconds, it is still public. Once posted, the post lives forever, somewhere, someplace. Anyone who complains about being under the microscope because he or she posts parts of his or her life on a public site has little to support a contention of privacy. Privacy is important to me. It is less important to the current generation who live on the Internet. The lack of privacy is another reason for my not joining or participating openly in any of these sites where my life and thoughts are there for everyone to see.

As a writer, I control what I want published. I tell you only what I want you to know about me without you knowing how many friends I have or even those who want to befriend me. Just because it is on the Internet does not mean access to who I am is yours for the taking.

If I am more self sufficient, and more in touch with myself, it means that I trust my instincts. I do not always require the approval of anyone else in my orbit or outside it, as long as what I do brings no one harm to anyone. It is worth repeating that I do not fear being alone with myself, especially in my mind. I actually enjoy being there. Usually, I find myself infinitely more interesting than most, and importantly, I like to think I am never boring. Visceral, the ability to feel, to touch, to experience the sensation of something outside myself is more important to me than life in cyber space.

Next up is a meditation on intimacy. Did I hear you say, “selfie?” Don’t get me started. Wait for my attack on the “selfie.” It is coming soon.

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A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Connectivity, Part 2 by Ron Steinman

A Curmudgeon’s Guide, Part 2

We pay a price, often higher than we imagine for being overly connected. I am on Facebook for professional reasons, meaning for creative projects and nothing else. Do not look for me on any other social network, except LinkedIn. I do not know why I am there because I believe is useless and a waste of time. Don’t think for a minute that any social site exists for anything but to make money. These sites are not for your amusement on a dark and rainy night when you might stare at your computer seeking comfort or validation for living in an increasingly tough world. Social networks do not exist to help the desperate, the lonely, the curious and the seekers of community, though that is who they attract. They exist to take advantage of people who are easy marks. Meaning those willing to pay for friends, yes, pay, rather than earn the trust of someone you know. Meaning, I say cynically, most people.

It should be apparent that I do not represent most of society as it marches hastily toward uniformity, both real and virtual. Some will say I am showing my generational stripes. You may think me backward because I seem to defy the advance toward modernity. I object to following the crowd. I am not a joiner now. Never was in the past. I do not need the masses to justify my existence. I have been around too long to care. I have no problem if others want to move in lockstep and sacrifice his or her individuality. Just don’t try to impose your will on me. It will not get you anywhere.

I do not mind what I experience when I am alone with my thoughts. And, get this – I refuse to multi-task. I will not write or read with music in my head brought to me by an iPod. Nor I will not balance my checkbook while listening to Mozart or Bach, both of whom I adore, or the Rolling Stones, my favorite rock band. There are commercials on TV that extol the virtues of multitasking. These say that you must use a handheld device because by doing so, the action itself becomes more important than anything else you do with your time does. What is good for the carrier is not necessarily good for America, and certainly not for me. Clogging one’s brain with assorted, extraneous “stuff” is not my idea of achieving clear thought. I am not a BlackBerry addict and I do not subscribe to any of the endless variety of similar machines. Accuse me of sacrilege. I don’t care.

I believe that the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Tim Cook, the Google “Twins,” Yahoo, hundreds of other software and app developers, and those still on the horizon might be winning the war to defeat the individual. I admit I want a crystalline purity of unimpeded thought but I know that is impossible. Most in the digital world must, I think, assume it is dangerous if people have the power to think for themselves. But they should know if they care to know, that they have lost the battle to win my mind. I am enough of a romantic to believe that when one mind is free, other minds will surely follow. Those who do not understand the need for privacy now, what much of this is really about, will suffer later. Hunger for privacy arises only when privacy disappears or a dictator takes it from you. Beware of the future.

Stories in the press abound about academic studies into the growing number of new social networks. These hoodwink the masses in believing they are part of a new society. Truth is I cannot keep up with all the smart-boy changes in the digital world. I fear, if I tried to, I might find myself spending all my time face down in a smart phone, thus becoming another junkie in digital paradise. Not for me.

Free flowing money support many of these inquiries that foster research into relationships, identity, and self-esteem. More social sites, including those playing to religious, ethnic and other special interests are coming online every day. I do not need them. Good luck to anyone who does. (Part 3 to soon follow.)

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A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Connectivity, Part 1 by Ron Steinman

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Connectivity, Part 1
Ron Steinman

These are my thoughts about the journalists who pander to everything that is new only because it is new. These are writers who devote their lives to selingl the latest digital device and app as an important experience. They should know better, but they do not. Their goal is to perpetuate a hunger for what is new rather than what is meaningful. If that is not pandering, I do not know what is. Keep your eyes wide-open people, the end might not be near but it is closer than you think.

In the age of The Walkman, I was a runner. I did not carry that small machine because I feared that the sound coming through the earplugs would drown out the noises of the street, its oncoming cars, trucks bicycles, women wheeling baby carriages, dogs barking. Reality. Having my ears plugged could have put me at unnecessary risk when I ran my daily three miles through Rockville Centre, N.Y. where I lived.
I no longer run. Instead I walk everywhere in Manhattan where I now live. I do not own an iPod. I keep myself free of ear buds. The sounds of the street are still very important to me. I actually enjoy hearing sirens, cars honking, people talking. My cellphone is so simple that my adult children chide me for not moving into the modern age with a smart phone. My mobile phone can take pictures, but I prefer a real camera. My phone has no access to the Internet. I do not text.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, “nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smart phone.” And, Pew continues, usage and ownership is ” highest among younger Americans and those with relatively high income and education.” These are those advertisers want for mobile connections and the Internet. Advertisers are doing everything they can to make these devices better to sell products that probably most people don’t want, anyhow.
Here is something else to ponder. By all estimates there are now more than a billion personal computers in the world. According to eMarketer, it expects that “4.55 billion people worldwide will use a cellphone in 2014.” At the end of the first quarter of 2015, the number is surely even bigger. In the next few years we are likely to see another two billion or more people with mobile, pocket computers.
Unlike so many today, I do not download my favorite music onto an iPod. Of that, I am proud. I would rather listen to recorded music full bore on speakers in the privacy of my home. Think, too, that listening to music and voice through ear buds or headphones to give what you believe is the full range of music and sound will in time ruin your hearing, if not fry your brain. Listening to most pop music today is a waste of time, but that is a subject for another day. For now, social networks and the snare they create to capture what remains of the human imagination is the enemy. More to come in Part 2.


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To Codify or Not. Thoughts on the Documentary Film

To Codify or Not> Thoughts on the Documentary Film by Ron Steinman

Lately I have been thinking about filmmaking based on fact. By that, I mean any use of a sequence of moving pictures strung together to make a story that communicates ideas and, yes, emotion though fact based journalists and filmmakers will deny emotion has a role. However, the filmmaker’s vision, even if suspect, always comes into play. As we know, making a film about something real is more a craft than art. It is infinite in its variety but not nearly so much as is the narrative film.

The films that concern me are independent documentaries usually made for theatrical distribution that often only play on the festival circuit. These, if the filmmaker is fortunate, sometimes find a home on television. We must also consider the quasi-fact documentary often replete with re-enactments produced for cable and sometimes even, sadly for PBS. I include, too, the more intimate or classic TV news story as well as the slightly longer magazine piece that has elements of the documentary but falls short because of length. We would not have had the TV news story had not the classic documentary film previously existed. I will also add that it is impossible to create a documentary, a fact film with depth if there is not enough time on the screen. More about that later.

Today, with newspapers in freefall, the migration of video to the Web is proliferating rapidly. Video by itself is everywhere on the Web, along with multi-media presentations that include stills, video, interviews and natural sound. We find these on those sites that produce news where once only still photographs dominated. As an aside, however, I believe the still photograph is the single most powerful way to tell a story, even stronger than words alone. That instantaneous capture of a moment is unmatched by any medium. I know this sounds like heresy for all those who believe video will replace the still, but video should never replace the still. We should not relegate it to the trash heap of creativity because video seems so exciting. There must always be room for the still photograph. In this respect, I think, too, of the new legion of gurus who believe they are re-reinventing the wheel for telling a story with video. Alas, they and we are not so fortunate to have a single template that fits all. In spite of everything, a wheel is a wheel is a wheel.

Contrary to the way some think, video stories for the Web should not have a language or grammar different from visual stories as they once appeared in newsreels and now appear on television. There are really no new techniques in telling a story with moving pictures and sound if clear communication is the goal. Though we can massage technique with quick cuts, slow dissolves, out-of-focus shots, heavy contrast, extra movement with the camera, nothing replaces the story. Classic elements of all story telling, whatever the medium, must remain. That is not a conservative viewpoint. I speak of broadcast TV, the medium in which I grew up where the unspoken mantra was to communicate, communicate. I learned early that if the reporter and producer had to explain their story twice it meant it did not work. Basically, any approach to storytelling fails if it does not communicate its idea. If the idea or message – and by message I do not mean propaganda — is murky or weak, Web video will be a waste of the valuable and shortened time we have in a world increasingly overloaded with more information than any fertile brain can handle.

It is impossible to codify filmmaking, even for the novice, say, in the manner of grammar and how it affects writing. However, there is a grammar of film that is unavoidable but it is unlike the written word. When you think of writing, you must take into consideration, among others, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, “Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” The Associated Press writers and editors guide, The New York Times stylebook and other disquisitions on writing. Discussions about language used to appear with regularity in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and, today, in other publications, mostly online. Language evolves through time. Though there are many stylebooks, none exist as the last word. It comes from the individual who puts pen to paper. But certain elements of language should never change. As much as some writers and critics may want language to change, and as much as they might want to throw any stylebook out the window, if the writer expects to communicate with his or her audience they had better stick to some tried and true rules.

James Joyce survives because, among other things, he is a brilliant curiosity. Except for his early work, “Ulysses” remains difficult. With patience it is a great read. In much of Joyce’s later work he is impossible to understand. This is evident in “Finnegan’s Wake,” a book that hardly anyone comprehends. Samuel Beckett uses words simply to make us think hard about meaning that is often mysterious. But Beckett does not play with the rudimentary language of writing. He plays instead with the mystery behind the language he uses in his plays and novels. W.G Seabald, genius that he was, used language and images like no one who is writing today. Despite the way he mixed media, he never strayed from his goal, which was to tell a story using written and visual prompts to make his points. Rules for style and the use of language evolve over time depending on the era, the culture, the subject, and obviously, the audience. Yet, in some instances correct grammar varies little, especially if the writer wishes his sentences to make sense.

Filmmakers sometimes do whatever they want in a documentary because of the infinite plasticity of the medium. However, plasticity does not always make for clarity. There are always attempts to systemize how and why of the documentary film. It is here where I return to whether or not we should codifying art. When one tries to write a set of rules, even for a craft such as film — sometimes credited as an art — and as diverse as is film, the result is often the lose of creativity. Filmmakers have history on their side rather than laws to live by. This history is anecdotal and part of the oral tradition. It exists in every film ever made, or at least those films of quality and, again, good story telling. This is not a set of laws, as we know them. Filmmakers have other films to guide them either as a way to remain on the reservation or to find a path that is uniquely their own. We learned early in the 20th Century how to use images, meaning how to mix them and move them around for effect, from the great Russian directors V.I Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein and their individual but often similar theories about montage in the first heady days of film. Simply put, depending on how the director selects his shots, he changes the emotion in any way he wants despite how he originally composed his scenes.

In all my years in TV as a writer, a producer and also a director and writer of independent documentary films no one I know has ever proscribed a list of what to do and what not to do in the making of a news spot, a magazine piece, a feature, or a documentary film. As men and women in TV, call us broadcast journalists, we learned by doing. We had mentors who had done in the past what we were doing in the present and what we hoped to do in the future. Most of what we did was hands on backed by the time-tested oral tradition as old as mankind. We never tried to rewrite how the creative process works. We felt that was for the avant-garde and after all, we were in the business of communicating ideas based on facts, and the experience of others, those whose stories we were telling.

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Several of My Recent Books by Ron Steinman

Here are two recent books of mine that I hope will interest readers. One is, “Survival Manual: A Memoir of Near death, Illness and Survival.” It is available as an e-book on all platforms. The other is “The Soldiers’ Story: The Illustrated Edition,” a new version of the original with many new chapters and more than 200 photographs, maps and illustrations. It is available in hard cover online at Amazon and Barnes&Noble among other venues. Thanks for reading.

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