Cho seung-hui, the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, the students and Virginia Tech all form a tangled thicket nourished by the American media, overgrown with too many words, too many pictures and too many answers to too many bad questions. We, the American people struggle to navigate this thicket, for during the last few weeks we have only become more confused as if we have lost our sense of direction.
You can enter any of these words in a search engine and lose all hope of finding any rationality, any thread that will lead you out. Technorati lists 152,000 blog selections for Virginia Tech, 23,000 for Cho and 4,788 for the Rutgers’ team. With new posts on all of these each day, there are enough words that it would take a person probably a year to read them all. And yet we all seek a way out of this thicket of information, a clear path, a why that puts the last few weeks all in perspective.
That the media have become such a tangled thicket rather than a clear voice represents perhaps the only generalization we can draw from these events and an indication of what has happened to America’s sources and ideas about information. During past tragedies–the Kennedy assassination, Jonestown, the space shuttle explosion–somehow the media brought us together and enabled us to not only have a common source of information but also a shared sense of perspective.
Just the opposite has occurred over the last few weeks. Instead of coming together we have thousands of information sources; instead of a shared sense of perspective we have something resembling a cubist painting crafted by a random group each with their own paints, brushes and sense of reality. Trying to come together has become an exercise in frustration, disappointment and even anger.
The equilibrium many have found may even be misleading, for it comes from linking with a group of like-minded people who share their own prejudices and views of the world. So instead of finding a way out of the thicket they only wander in circles, going round and round in the same place, but thinking they have found the true path. The gun control people, the gun nuts, the racists, each have their own sources, each of which views the events through a different set of glasses. It is as if one saw green where another saw red.
It is ironic that as the mainstream media have become more concentrated, the rest of our information sources have fragmented becoming the equivalent of those drug store magazine racks with titles and content that remain a mystery to those who are not part of whatever group to which that publication caters. We have an information system that in a metaphorical way reminds me of our increasing income gap, with a small amount at one end who have a lot and a lot at the other end who have only a small amount.
The concentration of the American media has had what systems people would call an unintended consequence, for with that concentration has come increasing distrust produced by that very concentration. When you are so concentrated and so big it is very hard to hear disparate opinions, harder to evaluate them, and all but impossible to find a insightful analysis.
That distrust in turn fuels the alternative media, for when people feel they are not listened to they turn to other sources. Those sources are most likely to be those whose web pages reflect their own minds. And because of our natural diversity, those alternative sources continue to multiply.
Other factors also are at work. One I term the American Idol myth. That show exists in part because of the first premise–that the media are so concentrated they can no longer truly connect with people and so they neglect natural talents that in another time would have been stars. But it also exists because more and more people hunger for their thirty minutes of fame in a society that gives people little personal reinforcement. Then there is the most troubling part of it all: egos that drive many to think they ARE good. You can find all these themes in Cho’s video and writings.
Now transfer the previous paragraph to the world of information rather than entertainment. Our information sources no longer connect with people. People in turn think their information or research is as good as the experts. Pretty soon information and misinformation, truth and rumor become quickly entangled. You can find these themes in coverage of the shootings.
In a society without any common definitions of what is good and what is trash, what is valid and what is fantasy, it is not surprising that people should often wander over the line between them. And it should also not be a surprise that when they wander over that line they should also wander over the line between what is moral and what is hellish, what are values and what are prejudices. Don Imus, Cho, certain blogs and YouTube videos all have that in common, for their minds were in themselves tangles of their own egos, a false reality, and ultimately a lack of values.
Another factor is that the line between public and private no longer exists any more than the line between talent and trash, information and garbage. One of the most fascinating parts of both the Rutgers and Virginia Tech stories is that for the victims the media became almost as serious a problem as the perpetrators. In a story in this week’s Sports Illustrated, the Rutgers women speak of being harassed by so many microphones and cameras that they were unable to lead normal lives. They talk about having to find ways to sneak to class so the media would not catch them or trying to escape the media in various way only to find the microphones have again invaded their privacy. One picture that sticks in my mind from Virginia Tech is of a banner hanging from a dorm saying “Media Stay Away,” for those students, especially anyone with even the remotest connection to the shootings or the killer was hounded unmercifully.
Think of each of these as maps that could help lead us out of the tangle. The lines between expertise and trash, information and misinformation, public and private have blurred as if someone spilled water on the map so everything ran together. That is what we have to guide us out of that thicket.
The good news is that history tells us this information chaos is characteristic of changing times, especially times of large changes in how we understand and organize information. Marshall McLuhan saw this as driven by changes in media, so as we move from print to Internet just as we moved from oral sources to print, there is a period of unrest. Such periods, though, by their vary nature produce a flowering of creativity, some of which is not recognized until long after.
So in that thicket lie geniuses. The message, then, of chaotic times is paradoxical for it asks that instead of closing our minds and walling off alternative realities we need to remain open to them. As anyone who has been in the woods can tell you, the way out of a confusing thicket is not to keep walking circles, but to carefully mark where you are and then explore various alternatives. It would be tragic if after the last two weeks America was to become more suspicious, more rigid, more judgmental.
Credits: Original drawing by Jill Swarbrick-BanksPrint
Posted by: publius novus