Saturday, August 6, 2011

Twelfth MEA Convention, University of Alberta, Edmonton, June 23-26, 2011

Text and photos © Robert Francos
Click on links for many additional photos

One of the highlights of every summer for is getting to go to the Media Ecology Association Convention. While the organization is based in New York, the conferences have brought me to Mexico City, Boston, Saint Louis, Long Island, and Santa Clara (California), for example.

Last year, for the first time, I missed my first one, held in Maine, because I had immigrated to Canada, and had not yet received permission to crisscross the border. This year, however, it was held just a six hour drive away, at the University of Alberta, from June 23 to 26, 2011.

I have been involved with Media Ecology since starting the graduate program at New York University’s School of Education, in 1991, under the direction of Dr. Neil Postman. Quite quickly, I became both the department’s - and now the Association’s - unofficial official photographer (but not the only one; over the last few years, Octavio Islas, of Technologico de Monterrey, has also done an outstanding job).

The Media Ecology Association group of cross-disciplinary academics and like-minded people gather literally from all over the world, and when we all get together, it’s sort of like Thanksgiving. Yes, there are occasionally squabbles here and there, but it really is one big, ever-growing family.

As in St. Louis where we honored Fr. Walter Ong, who had taught there, this year we were in the birthplace of Herbert Marshall McLuhan for the centennial of his birth (a few days past the convention). For that reason, the name and theme of the convention was Space, Place, and the McLuhan Legacy.

Usually there are two choices for accommodations: the local hotel a bit further away, and the Spartan dorm rooms on-campus. I always go for the dorms, because, well, the price difference is a deal-breaker. This time, the hotel was directly across the street from the campus’ TELUS Centre where the convention was being held, and the dorms were a few blocks away. But it’s summer, so who cares. I had arrived with a friend and neighbor, soundscape artist Ellen Moffat (she presented on Saturday) on Wednesday evening, the night before the conference. We checked in and dropped off our stuff in our respective rooms and we headed over to Earls Restaurant, across from the where conference would be held (always good to learn the way there before, so you don’t get lost and miss any sessions). There we ran into a few MEA conventioneers that I knew, including James Morrison and one of the organizers, Catherine Adams. Their table was full, so we had dinner on our own. Scattered around were others I figured may be kindred spirits, but was unsure.

Below are some links to many photos of each day’s conference. Preceding each link are very brief thoughts and descriptions of the event. If there are any photos of which you would like hi-rez versions, please let me know at; likewise, if there is an image of yourself here that you want taken off, also inform me.

Day 1: Thursday, June 23, 2011

The day started off sluggish. As always, I arrived bright and early (seems about a half hour too early; I mis-remembered the time, probably in anticipation). They were still getting the registration table organized, and breakfast (muffins, pastry, coffee and tea) was only just arriving, ready to be set up.

Sometimes one of the joys of arriving early, especially the first day, is to see who are among the first comers. In this case, it was Robert Logan, of the University of Toronto (he worked with McLuhan). When he saw breakfast wasn’t ready, off he went to the Mac’s (the Canadian equivalent of 7-11) across the street and bought a container of OJ. He sat outside on the curb drinking it, while waiting for everything to open. I do admire him for that.

Slowly, people started to wander in as the time approached, including many people I was happy to see again. Thursday tends to be the second less-attended day, but this year even that day had a nice presence.

Some of the sessions I attended were titled “Gaming, Storytelling and Environments,” “Media Literacy,” one panel titled “Illusionary Freedom: False promises of cyberspace,” and another called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: Reflections on digital technology and cognition.”

A highlight of the day took place in the afternoon where a group of us rode the subway and bus to the Highland area of Edmonton, and had a too-short walking tour (necessarily, though) of the neighborhood, including the homes of the original designers of the vicinity.

Of course, the whole point of this was that we visited the childhood home of Marshall McLuhan (where he lived in his pre-teen years). The woman who now owns the modest home did not know its historical significance when she purchased it, but over the years, she has become a wonderful tour guide, explaining what small parts of the house are still like it was when the McLuhan’s inhabited the space (such as a living room glass light fixture). What was his bedroom is now a bathroom. We later learned that the city is going to buy the house and restore it to as it was when he lived there. I’m sure the neighbors are delighted.

The woman who led the neighborhood tour is a volunteer, and is quite enthused (and knowledgeable). She was perky and a joy to listen to as she told tales, holding up a British-flag umbrella for us to follow.

We all rushed off to find out we had just missed the bus to the university’s downtown campus at Enterprise Square, and had a 20-minute wait. It was hot and we were all soaking from the walk and standing in the sun; of course, the bus was also a bit late. Finally, the bus came and met the rest of the group in a classroom. There we heard a talk by the same Robert Logan on “McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the record straight.” There was a nice debate going for a while about McLuhan’s importance in the present.

By the end of the session, everyone was hungry, so we headed to the next event, which was a gallery opening for a show called Spaces&Places:VisioningMcLuhan@100. It was a public opening, and the place was packed. The hors d’ouevres were gone to the crowd by the time I got to the table, and I wasn’t interested in the cash bar.

Ellen Moffat was a like-minded soul in search of food, so we decided to find some place to sit down and have an actual meal in relative quiet. We hooked up with two students from Wheaton College named Ruth and Ben, and we searched high and low for an affordable restaurant. We ended up at a Boston Pizza; we chowed down and had some nice conversations. After, we took the train back to the campus, and got there just before a big rainfall, ready for sleep and the next day.

Day 1 Photos:

Day 2: Friday, June 24, 2011

As the day started, it was pretty obvious I was having problems with my camera. It kept turning itself off and then on again. So I would turn it on (whirrrr) and couple of second it went off (whirrrr), then on (whirrrr), then off (whirrrr). Sometimes it would do this a dozen times or more, or it would wait until I lifted the camera to my eye, and then turn itself off and on. Very annoying to me, and I’m pretty sure many around me as they had to listen to that distracting noise in a relatively quiet classroom. And I can imagine what the speakers thought of it, especially since I was sitting close to get an unobstructed view (also helps to get a full view of the room the end when I turn around during questions).

The booths that were set up in the lobby were full of interesting books (we were all given a copy of an odd and fascinating 2011 biography of McLuhan by Douglas Coupland, a $26.00 value. Also there was a representative of – and samples by – Intellect Publishing House, who will now be printing the MEA Journal Explorations in Media Ecology (aka EME). Another table was for a kindred organization with close ties, the Institute of General Semantics, including Jackie Rudig and Martin Levinson, two machers of the organization whom I like dearly.

The second day was mostly filled with plenary presentations, such as Douglas Barbour, Elena Lambert and Robert Shields discussing “McLuhan and Artistic Vision in the Wireless City,” Josh Meyrowitz (who wrote the seminal book No Sense of Place on “Media Ecology and the Future of Theory,” and my ex-professor from Queens College, Gary Gumpert, on “Repetitio ad infinitum: From print to sprawl.” The two non-plenary sessions I attended was a panel on “Mobilizing the City as a Classroom: Locative and mobile media for community engagement,” and a talk by ex-MEA president Lance Strate, who discussed “On the Binding Biases of Time.”

Once again, we all gathered en masse and took the subway downtown to the Westin Hotel on 100 Street, as it was there an MEA banquet was held. The food was incredible (I had the salmon), and the company at our round table (among many) of about 10 was interesting. During the meal, Janet Sternberg gave her humorous yet touching MEA President’s Address, “Space, Place and the Media Ecology Association.” Janet was the first person I met when I approached NYU to query about going for my graduate degree. She became my advisor, then my professor for one of my more enjoyable classes, and then my friend. For those who don’t know, her voice is on the satellites Voyager 1 and 2 that were sent out into the universe, saying hello in Portuguese:

After the speech, there was the presentation of the MEA Awards for 2011. A full list can be found on the MEA Website, noted at the end of this blog. This year, a new award was named for NYU professor and co-founder of the Media Ecology Department (along with Neil Postman and Terence Moran), Christine L. Nystrom, who passed away earlier this year. She was both a fierce professor who always spoke her mind, and a dear person. This award was for Career Achievement in Service to the Field of Media Ecology. And its first recipient was, well, me, for all the years of being both a photographer for the group, and a friend to MEA. More details and images of the award can be seen on my blog in late June. I am still touched by this, and am proud to be in the company of the other winners as well.

By the time of the banquet, my camera was acting loony more consistently, and I missed a lot of shots, unfortunately. I couldn’t even give the camera to someone else to get a picture of me getting the award. Luckily, Octavio took one. (

After the banquet, there was a screening at the Art Gallery of Alberta of the film Being in the World, followed by a Q&A by its director, Mark Wrathall. As it was yet another train ride away, a few of us decided we were done for the evening, so we took the subway to the University instead. It was drizzling during the walk home from the station, and later began to rain.

Day 2 Photos:

Day 3: Saturday, June 25, 2011

It was still drizzly on the walk to where the conference was being held. Thankfully, I thought ahead to pack a small umbrella. After yet another solid albeit carbo-heavy breakfast and coffee that I was very grateful for, the convention was on its way, once again. While my camera was still acting up in turning itself on and off, perhaps less frequently than the night before, I realized very quickly that the built-in flash was dead. The photos I would take from this point would definitely be iffy and especially filled with motion echoes. But at least the flash wouldn’t be invasive (I’ve often joked that my second name is He Who Blinds).

I attended two sessions, one a panel called “McLuhan in the Digital Age,” and the other “Sound and Space,” in which my friend Ellen Moffat was a presenter. There were two plenary sessions as well: Richard Cavell, who was interesting but seemed a bit high-strung, posited “Marshall McLuhan as Ec(h)o-Critic.” The second, “Theorizing Culture & Media: McLuhan & Foucault,” was by Mark Poster, which was actually given via Skype projected onto a big screen. Later, I heard a few people talking, saying that they were not impressed by Poster’s comments, which were derivative. I wouldn’t know; however, I have to say that going far away to a conference, with all the time and fees, and then having to just watch the person from their living room, feels like a being cheated. If you can’t be there to present, be listed as absent in fairness to the others who did take the time and expense. There, I said it.

A touching moment is when a bunch of us gathered for an free-flowing, sentimental session called “Reflection on the life and work of Christine Nystrom.” A number of people shared their stories of her personally and professionally, including me. One thing I learned was that she was a salt addict, and would put soy sauce on popcorn.

The evening was left open to explore Edmonton, including an open invitation for dinner at La Boehme in the Highlands district. Instead, a relatively large group of us decided to walk down to Whyte Avenue, sort of the Greenwich Village of the city. The Jazz Festival was going on later that evening, but we were just looking for some food. James Morrison, a Prof I’ve happily known for a number of years now (who will sometimes say, as he is departing, “Jim Morrison has left the building!”), said he knew of a great Thai restaurant, but wasn’t sure how far along the street it was (it goes for miles). We walked and walked, and finally found the King and I Restaurant. They certainly were not expecting to be serving well over a dozen people, and yet they were hospitable, and the food was excellent without being ridiculously priced. One of our group commented that it was the best Thai he’s ever eaten. And for that: .

Along the way, some of our crowd of technology scholars were amazed that there were actual functioning full-size public telephone booths along Whyte Ave. Perhaps Superman was a media ecologist?

Afterwards, a smaller group of us headed over to the bar across the street from the TELUS Centre, Hudsons Canadian Tap House. Many people were heading home early the next day, so for some it meant goodbye until next year’s convention. I had the chance to have a long and enjoyable catch-up talk with Janet Sternberg, between the goings on in the bar, such as a bridal party scavenger hunt. I didn’t take any pictures of the dinner or at the bar, because with the camera acting up, who needed the stress? It was time to relax and enjoy, even without a drink (beyond not being a drinker, I was on a very strict budget).

Day 3 Photos:

Day 4: Sunday, June 26, 2011

This is the final, and least attended day of the conference, but there also tends to be something interesting going on. The session I chose was “Old News, New News,” which dealt with paper and/or newsprint. The session was lively, and nearly everyone who was there was not anxious to run away so fast. However, as I was traveling by car back to Saskatoon with Ellen, we had both agreed to miss the MEA AGM (the annual business meeting and closing remarks). After the session and some lively adieus, we headed back to the dorms, packed the car, returned the keys (just making the check-out time), and an hour later after a small hitch, we were on our way back to our city. It was a drive full of good conversations.

Day 4 Photos:

If you have any questions about the conference, what is Media Ecology or General Semantics, or anything else, contact me at the email given at the beginning of this blog. For those interested in either joining the MEA, connecting up with the ListServ (free), or seeing Octavio’s photos, here is the Media Ecology Association Website:

Next year’s convention will be at Manhattan College in Riversdale, NY (aka Da Bronx), and its theme is The Crossroads of the World. Hope to see you all there.


  1. Thanks for posting this Robert! It was great meeting you, and hope to see you next year!


  2. Hey Ben:
    Yes, it was lovely meeting you, and having dinner with you and Ruth (and Ellen Moffat, of course). I look forward to seeing you two again at the next convention in 2012.