Paul Levinson, Ph.D., said he doesn’t like to make predictions about what the media and communications landscape may look like in the future.
But that didn’t stop him from making a bold declaration in his doctoral dissertation, “Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media,” in 1978.
“I worked out a theory about how media are ‘anthropotropic,’ growing more like humans in everything they do. I said, ‘Someday, each of us will have in our pockets a little device we can use to access any type of information anywhere in the world,’” Levinson said with a smile.
That prediction proved prescient, as smartphones and tablet computers have become as common in the United States as landline telephones once were.
Levinson, professor of communication and media studies, is considered Fordham’s resident “new media” expert. He is working on the second edition of his book, New New Media (Allyn & Bacon, 2009), as the first edition is already in its fourth printing.
The book, which he described as a “snapshot of something that’s very fast and in motion at all times,” examines the effects of contemporary computer-based communication forms, which are entirely different than traditional media.
The book’s topic obviously lends itself to frequent updates.
“Lots of things are happening,” he said. “When the book came out a year and a half ago, Twitter wasn’t as important. I got in a couple of paragraphs about what was going on in Iran with social media, but obviously now we have Egypt and Tunisia, so social media are now playing a major political role.”
For the first time, anyone can speak or write to the world, Levinson said.
“Before this, you could write to each other, but there was no way that message could get to the world at large,” he said. “Now, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Wikipedia—to name four new, new media titans—what they have in common is that they are written by their consumers.
“New, new media are produced by the people who view the videos and those who read the status updates and then write their own, which differentiates them from Amazon and iTunes. Those sites—although popular—have content that is selected by editors. That’s the old-fashioned way,” Levinson said.
Had new, new media not been so open, user-generated and available to anyone with an Internet connection, a music album Levinson recorded in the late 1960s might not have been rediscovered.
“It wouldn’t have happened had I not been able to talk about it online, so that everyone who follows me on Twitter and my blog could learn about it, or if I hadn’t been able to put it on iTunes. It wouldn’t have even happened 10 years ago,” he said.
The speed with which media and communications advance is why MySpace has greatly declined while Facebook reigns supreme, and why high-profile politicians and celebrities are using Twitter.
“We get bored with our miracles very quickly and we want something more than what yesterday’s miracles gave us,” he said.
Levinson counts Thomas Jefferson as one of his heroes, not just because he was a great believer in free speech and communication, but because he was a renaissance man.
“I think there’s too much specialization in our society,” he said. “I try to do a lot of different things.
“Being a media theorist, I always get lessons from what happens in my own life. If you have something you want to create, be it a novel, short story, scholarly book or song, what makes a world of difference is whether it gets from your head or your small circle of friends and family to a form that is permanent,” Levinson said.
Although Columbia and Atlantic Records showed interest in his album, Twice Upon a Rhyme, Levinson released it in 1972 under his own label, Happy/Sad Records, because he was impatient.
“We must have printed up about 1,000 copies, but as I often say, we sold a negative number of copies,” he said. “That’s one of the things that led me to writing about music rather than writing music. I eventually got published in the Village Voice writing about Paul McCartney and Murray the K.”
All these years, the album sat in Levinson’s attic and had only been heard by his wife and children. Then, in 2002, a Japanese magazine that found the recording on the Internet reviewed the album as part of a special feature on lost cult classics from the 1960s and 1970s.
“Twice Upon a Rhyme was lost, that was sure, but whether it was a classic is debatable. Yet they gave it a rave review and so we started selling original vinyl, sealed copies,” said Levinson, who still sells and ships a few of the records from time to time.
But the power of new, new media didn’t stop there.
In 2009, a South Korean company paid Levinson for the rights to put out a CD of the album. Levinson subsequently put it on iTunes and Amazon, and later, a British company bought the rights to remaster the record.
Since then, songs from Twice Upon a Rhyme have been played on WFUV, the music station at New York University and other radio outlets—traditional as well as online—all over the world.
“A woman by the name of Jha Voice, a hip-hop artist, has recorded a couple of covers of songs of the album and they’re on YouTube,” Levinson said. “This is all about how the Web has changed things.”