Sunday, June 30, 2013

The internet's lost opportunity


By Bill Kraus

At a symposium in California the participants were asked what was the most significant invention in their lifetimes. The vote for the internet was almost unanimous. One deviant suggested “the pill.” I offered “TV” and was immediately labeled an old fogey by an audience that has no recollection of a TV-free existence.

I’m sticking to my answer. The reason goes back to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum--the medium is the message--which baffled me when I first heard it. No longer.

The effects of TV on politics and governing and participation in both connects directly to McLuhan. Politics is particularly affected. Before TV, political conventions were a social event and people were the main communication medium. A picture in my office of a group that gathered on a cold October Saturday morning in the middle of the last century says it all. Men, women, kids from all walks of life [from the chairman of the largest company in town down to working stiffs and housewives] were picking up the literature that promoted the candidacies of their favored candidates which they would deliver door to door throughout their city.

This is still done, of course, and there are a lot of campaigns where for reasons of money or demographic density TV is simply inefficient. But over the years TV has become the medium.

The people delivered literature and asked those they called on to “consider” not to vote for the candidates the literature talked about. That was the first lesson people-as-the-medium of politics learned. The second was to go to the friendliest precincts first in case you run out of time and can’t do the whole town. The third is that when you do go to areas that are politically hostile to your candidates or party it is wise to be pushing a stroller occupied by a two year old.

The TV takeover has been characterized by speed and slogans. Person-to-person politics was not beanbag, but it wasn’t smashmouth and simplistic either.

TV made money, which was never inconsequential, increasingly and excessively essential to campaign success.

The people with their hands on the levers of power were slow to realize that the system had changed enough to make the rules by which the person-to-person medium era had conducted needed to be readjusted to deal with this new reality.

By the time the defects of oversimplification and big money became evident it was so firmly established that even the courts couldn’t take off their constitutional blinders and see that the world had changed to the point that the people were not merely no longer the medium, they were less important than TV ads and the high price of feeding that beast.

What the internet seemed to offer was a return to person-to-person communications. The social networks were messy but extensive. If they could be harnessed, it seemed possible that the system could rise above soundbites and bring the kind of slow thinking to the way we govern ourselves and attend to our complex problems than TV’s slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am style can ever do.

That has not come to pass. Instead big data and algorithms and the experts who use both have actually made the TV medium more effective and less expensive.

TV messages can be targeted almost as precisely as those 20th century armies of supporters who went to the politically friendlier parts of town did.

The campaigns we all hate, the fundraising that is the bane of candidates' and incumbents' existences, the gerrymandering which is the antidote to too many expensive competitive contests, are here to stay until and unless the voters decide they want their votes back and a real role in the only game for adults: politics.

Until then TV is the medium that is the message.

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