Monday, June 15, 2009

Use What's Been Given

I wanted to take a moment to talk about a wonderful phenomenon from the past week which you may or may not have heard of. On the day of the Iranian elections,CNN's main stories dealt mostly with a) Sarah Palin and David Letterman and b) things that Dick Cheney, the world's loudest unemployed man, had said recently (oops. I'm getting dangerously close to breaking my "don't get political" rule in this post. Isn't it exciting?!!?) The news of the Iran election was scant, next to nil, really only to state that some election had taken place.
My own two cents on what happened next is that this is one of Gladwell's Tipping Points where the absurdity hit critical mass so much that regular folk, not just cranks like me, were also outraged at the ridiculousness of the major mainstream news sources in America. People took to the tweets. Twitter's #1 topics were 1) #IranElection (which actually remains the top trending topic at the time of my writing) and 2) #CNNFail. The latter should be self-explanatory. In light of how CNN so recently wrapped its self up in Twitter (back to the world of the ridiculous, of course you remember the contest between CNN and Ashton Kutcher to be the first Twitter user with a million followers) CNN monumentally backpedalled, has spent the past few days almost entirely on Iran and, in a further act of journalistic (or perhaps Stalinistic) cowardice or at the very least being grossly misguided, they stated on air that we are all wrong and that never happened and that they had been reporting mainly on the Iran election all along (the "What are you talking about, Billy? You never had a puppy! Quit lying!" tactic of public apology.) In fairness and balance, they then followed with a series on "The Power of Social Media." In short, CNN has behaved a bit like someone who never apologizes when caught publicly in a lie.

There is a current trend as well of changing one's location on Twitter to Tehran so that the couple dozen people actually reporting from Tehran will be lost in the flood of Tweeters claiming to be in Tehran to the Iranian government spooks who are monitoring Twitter. Journalists and citizens of Tehran are using the ease and relative anonymity, the easily concealed tool of a camera phone and texting, to give detailed reports from the middle of the action. It is kind of breathtaking.

All of which sounds a little unlikely in light of how Twitter has traditionally been reviled as vapid (as I pointed out before, it is only as vapid as those who wield it... although I have been struck with the cognitive dissonance in the past few days of Tweets about beatings, riots and corruption mixed with "I can't decided if I want tacos or sushi for lunch.LOL ." It's a bit like a Hotel Rwanda/Spice World double feature. Or trying to jump from a speeding train onto a tricycle) although I would point out to you that a story broke a few minutes ago about how the United States State Department asked Twitter to postpone routine maintenance of their site (which would pull Twitter off line for about an hour) because of Twitter's role in the coverage of the Iranian Elections. I am not making that up and I did not get it from some Art Bell crank. I got it from an MSNBC reporter, a NY Times reporter, a gay man in Houston, an online underground magazine reporter with (surprise!) a goatee, a musician from Brooklyn, some guy in Tehran, and a cyborg anthropologist from Portland. In a lot of ways, I love this age in which we live.

When I was driving for the produce company (apropos of nothing, today marks 2 months of unemployment for me by the way, but it also marks 2 years of marriage to Laurie which eclipses the former) I would listen to podcasts in my truck. One of my favorites was "Great Speeches of History" (again and not to be self-congratulatory, but the technology is only as good, evil, rich, poor, or vapid as those who wield it. Podcasts can be a wonderful free educational and/or artistic tool. They can also be a place for the audio version of The Man Show. We choose if we want to step up to our "responsibility", an unpopular word that I will probably be raked across the coals for using) and I recall the week, even the turns of the road as I listened to Newton Minnow's "Television is a Vast Wasteland" speech. It was weird listening to a man 40 years ago pretty much lay out exactly what happened to television to date.
One of his main points in the speech was that television had such potential to elevate a culture, to educate, empower and evolve a society. Instead... Well, I mentioned to Laurie the other day that I have probably spent over a day's worth of my life watching Gilligan's Island and I hate that show. This is why I don't watch television especially since ours does not pick up PBS. He implored the heads of television stations to rise to the great opportunity at hand and not be muscled down by advertisers and greed. Not to pander to the easy, the quick, the lowest, the basest. Not to fill children's heads with fast cut technicolor dross and adults with sex and violence, avarice, self-indulgence and discontent.

Guess what happened next.

So, along comes the internet and everyone has a voice. It is truly a democratic tool. Unfortunately a lot of people have been trained over the past three generations to act in certain ways, a certain etiquette and sense of humor has been carefully taught and has evolved from The Honeymooners through, say, Family Guy and South Park (or am I dating myself? There are probably even more modern examples but, as I say, I would not know of them.) And a lot of what we see with the internet is the people spitting back out behavior and humor that they have been taught by television (which means advertisers) for a few generations. We have obsessive branding disorder. We have trolls. We have macros.
We also have phenomenon that did not exist when I was a child. There are flash mobs and improv everywhere. There are blog celebrities and podcast celebrities. And then there are viral things. I am thinking specifically of Snakes on a Plane, Never Going To Give You Up and the three wolves howling t-shirt. All of which are ancient history by contemporary standards, but I bring them up for a reason, one of which is that we shall see their like again. I get that they all have elements of throwing popular culture back in the face of the greedheads constantly slopping the trough with your entertainment allowance. I get the joke of mockishly elevating utter crap to the level of masterpiece as social commentary. In one sense I can applaud such things for everyone standing up to the moneyholders and throwing their crap on a gilded plate right back in their face. Of course there is the problem that if you were one who camped out opening night for Snakes on a Plane, they got your money no matter if you were being ironic or not. And there is also the problem of isn't there a lot more important aspects of life than what's on at the Megaplex? I don't know. Maybe the Depression will sort out some of our priorities for us.
I don't want to come off as humorless either. I doubt those closest to me on a daily basis, my family: Laurie, Gina and Tony would ever make that accusation toward me. And I am certainly guilty of posting the occasional stupid video to share with everyone and there is without a doubt plenty of room online for everything. In short, the wasteland has the potential to be far more vast (and I am about 15 years late with that observation.)

I'm not sure we've reached the point where public outrage online could potentially bring down a major news source, at least not over this and in this manner and at least not yet. But this past week was an indicator of how forces have shifted. All would do well to take note.

Faced with great power (with which, thank you Uncle Ben, comes great responsibility) I am left facing a question. What exactly ought I do with all of this? Because like so many others (virtually) around me, I guess I find myself staggered with potential.


  1. You do with this exactly what you do with your own ability to speak, although your mind is flooded with a vocabulary that contains many words, both positive, negative, and ambiguous. The medium doesn't matter, as long as you realize that the tongue is a double edged sword (and hopelessly wicked?) and take care to control and shape what comes out of your mouth (or keyboard, or internet data stream) with good intent and wisdom. We use our words (and other forms of communication) for a myriad of purposes, and the potential has always been staggering. We could be calling for a public stoning, or ordering a hot dog. Weeding through this is where your wisdom shines, and where your convictions and self control become both your opportunity and your censor.

    Many have seen trouble as the result of posting garbage to the internet that was either noted by the wrong party, or taken for ill by the intended recipient. Most of these situations could have been avoided had people not forgotten that the internet is extremely public, and that being either duplicitous or unkind and unsympathetic are negative traits in our society, and are likely to be answered with negative, if not punitive, responses.

  2. Laurie, that was so a wife thing to say! LOL

    Paul, dude, you have been given a brilliant mind.

    My answer to the question, for you, is find the one thing in which you are most passionate about, light the candle, and burn that puppy for all to see.

    I learned something well in the busines world. People are silently begging to be lead.

    You have been gifted with the mind of a great leader, for whatever reason, your belief system hasn't caught up with that fact.

    Trust me, trust your wife, trust your family, trust your dogs, find your thing, and charge the hill.

    Perhaps, rather than Disjecta Membra, you are really Paulus Torchus, bringing light and truth to 30 somethings, the world 'round.

    I believe in you dude! Jump off the cliff.

    I hope that made sense, and brought you honor. That was my intent.

  3. oops. I need spelling lessons.

    People are silently begging to be led!

  4. Brilliant. Thanks, Dave. I'm even borrowing your title idea.

  5. I think some are silently begging to be lead, too. They usually sink to the bottom. Sorry, couldn't help it.

  6. I'm very proud of the voting populace in Iran for taking such a strong and powerful stance in the democracy they want so badly. Each one of them are taking their lives in their own hands to stand up and fight publicly for what they believe in.
    I don't know anything about twitter but if I understand what you said, people can move their site randomly so as not to get caught at one location? If that's true, power to those who are using it for the video streams from Iran.
    All of those people over there really need our prayers. Once marshall law is re-established there will be many, many executions.
    I more than likely have strayed from your main thought. I'm sorry for this.
    It does tie-in a bit with what I saw on FOX New this a.m. . . . Some companies (I missed the part where the name was mentioned - if it was mentioned) are asking potential employees to disclose their passwords to their private Facebook accounts!!!