Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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I’ve rather considered myself a fervent traditionalist, for somebody who was born into the computer age, despite the glow of electronic devices pretty much dominating my time: I work IT. I’m a consummate forum troll. I’m rarely more than two hours away from a computer if I’m awake.

But I only just now got a cell phone, eschew the 3G network, maintain a personal library of more than two thousand books – as in the physical objects, not the digital feeds – and hate Web 2.0 with every fiber of my being. I’m friends with people who prefer personal contact and live performances to networking and recordings, and who keep LPs not just for the fidelity but for the social protocol as well.

The reason for this is as simple as it is distressing: I feel that we’re replacing a medium with new one that does not offer everything the former one did. We’re losing something. And not just the displaced jobs – else I’d be a neo-luddite – but something far more intrinsic; fundamental: We’re losing intellectualism.

I mean, sure, there’s already a lot written out there about how, with the decline of newspapers being able to afford foreign offices and investigative reporters, we’re deluged in a wave of amateurs, but that was always the case with the internet. This is a blog. This isn’t my first blog. I know the score. But perhaps I’m a skylarking idealist whose hope that the original precepts of the internet – a frank and open exchange of ideas – would be born out.

I remember in college lauding the internet for being what is essentially a printing press in every living room. The flip side to that is, when printing presses came out, what kept the presses running were not peer-reviewed periodicals and papers of record, but handbills and tawdry literature: The equivalent of “Obama is a Secret Radical Muslim” and Dan Brown potboilers.

How the concept of journalistic integrity came out of this cauldron, I don’t know, but we appear to be, with this shift in dynamics, losing it. It was inevitable, to be sure: What was the wild west of the electronic frontier would be tamed and, eventually, monetized, but short of that right now what we get is not exactly WalMart and not exactly anarchy but instead Abu Dhabi: Two or three big players with their own spurious agendas and a lotta unpaid laborers.

And in the fray we’re reading less (yet owning more “books”), not paying attention to what we read, and care not for the truth but the domination of the message. What matters is not what happened but who’s shouting loudest – in school we denigrate the Soviet Union for their reliance on propaganda to opiate the masses, but our current system of dueling propaganda isn’t exactly better.

Fox excuses itself by saying the NYTimes is a liberal rag and thus we need “balance.” Democrats lament that Republicans are pulling the debate to the right by catering to their extreme, and then turn around and suggest the solution to that is to do the same, reversed. The news is only too happy to “report” on both, which is to say they’ll take quotes ad verbatim and play on the salacious and scandalous attention rather than the veracity of the claims.

What matters is not whether a statistic quoted is correct, but how soon that statistic will become a meme before it is corrected. The Islamic Cultural Center on Park Place lost the media battle the moment Sarah Palin called it a “Ground Zero Mosque,” which it is of course neither, and only in the op ed pages do columnists report on the “error.”

Stephen Colbert reported on the “truthiness” of the current cultural zeitgeist: Nobody reads into anything, so everybody is duped by any ruse that plays to their pre- and mis-conceptions. I think the internet must take its fair share of blame, here. Rather than being the great egalitarian library – the forum (in the original sense of the term) of a new age – it’s instead done the exact opposite: Reinforced ignorance, hyperbolized public sentiment, and self-served prophecy.

We’re looking at ourselves through a funhouse mirror and calling it the world. We’ve become lumpen-sophists, in the ugliest form of the word. Perhaps we should take a step back and figure out what parts of this new electronic age really work and what clearly do not.

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