Monthly Archives: March 2009

Free Obama and America from the Grip of the Punditocracy!

March 22. My friend Sam is a true radical old style  New York lefty whom I respect because he’s sharp and, while an atheist, he actually tithes by giving 10% of what he makes each year to causes he believes in – and his causes are well chosen. Recently, he’s been on a tear against President Obama.  He writes:

Read Michael Wolff’s “Barack Obama is a terrible bore” on today’s Huffington Post (or his website Newser). He’s [Wolff] a schmuck but I’m afraid he’s right. Obama’s blowing every chance,  And I don’t think he’s the communicator you need or the nation wants.  I doubt he’ll do the job next Tuesday. Too much a vapid neo-lib, beholden to all the usual suspects. The responses to Wolff are even more disheartening.

I’ve been trying to interest him in civic media, where it’s not Obama but ordinary Americans who are the great communicators, but no luck. Sam reads the pundits. And he moans and groans. Brilliantly. All day long.  I had sent him my latest civic media pitch, suggesting that Obama might support it or at least not get in the way of it. All he could say in response was what he says above. So I answered him as follows:

OK  Sam here we go. Tell me: what can you or anyone have against the idea of using modern interactive communications technologies to put all 300 million Americans on the same page in defining and solving the problems that confront us now – the financial crisis for one – and maximizing the opportunities as well?

Is it that the average American is too dumb or ill-informed to have a direct voice in the political decisions that affect his/her life?

Obama said again and again that America’s future depends on citizens having such a voice. For citizens to have it, the President need not be a Great Communicator or a Brilliant Inventor, he needs to be a Good Listener and a Sensible Leader. He needs to be intelligent and open-minded, which after reading “Dreams of My Father” I think he probably is, at least more than other President in memory including JFK and LBJ. The chapters on Hawaii, New York, South Side Chicago and Africa are impressive.

Granted, none of this speaks to Obama’s failure, as you note, to listen to Krugman and Stiglitz – or for that matter to Jack Bogle, Nouriel Roubini, Bill Gross, Martin Wolf or Meredith Whitney. However civic media dialogs will enable him to do so because these people are simply and clearly more in touch with the American people than the Wall Streeters who populate his inner financial circle. Even Alan Greenspan wants to shut down the big banks that Obama is propping up today.

When citizens have a direct voice – a channel to the president – Obama needs simply to listen, to respond and then to lead appropriately. America’s prime-time problem-solving dialogs will present to him, on an advisory basis, the informed will of the American people as determined in politically and financial themed reality TV game shows modeled on American Idol, which is actually an amazingly powerful vehicle for the dissemination and processing of complex information. Highbrows will object, but should bear mind that voter-driven American Idol mimics the great game of voter driven democracy, garnering 540 million votes in its sixth season. While admittedly used for purposes of mere mass entertainment, reality TV remains the most powerful large-audience decision-making process ever developed, not excepting even that of the voting booth.

Any of this make sense? If not why not? The best objection I can think of is that American ship of state is already too far on a disaster course for any changes to take affect. But that end-time scenario is irrational: we are not the Titanic heading for a fatal ice-berg. Something will arise from the ashes of whatever happens to us in the near-term future. Another objection is Noam Chomsky’s argument that the powers that be will never let it happen – yet he’s endorsed this concept, saying, as I communicated to you earlier, that it’s the only hope for the future. It is also the future that not only Obama but McCain advanced during the 2008 campaign.

I await his response – and that of anyone who wants to weigh in!

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On George Gilder’s 1988 Book, “Life After Television”

Revisiting a 1988 book that’s been seminal for me  – George Gilder’s Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life – I wound up posting a review at Amazon.com and Good Reads. Here I flesh it out a bit: gilder1

5.0 out of 5 stars Time to set the record straight . . .

I read all the good media books I can find. I find few. Most can be boiled down to 10 page magazine articles, and even then they won’t amount to much. Nowhere in the past 20 years have I found anything as good as this. It’s a joy to read, the work of an angry, hopeful, creative guy with compelling insights about the corrupted state of American culture and politics in the age of network TV.

Gilder wrote it as a polemic against American plans to ape the Japanese in developing HDTV, a dead-end technology in his view, sexy yet mindless, a sop to the TV networks, especially in light of emerging, intellectually liberating digital technologies.

This book grounded me in the crucial difference between ANALOG and DIGITAL technologies. I won’t even try to summarize its rich account of this difference, but it makes for good reading.  What most interested me then, and stays with me today, is Gilder‘s politicization of this difference: his condemnation of the top-down, “tyrannical” medium of analog radio and TV and his bold prediction of the overthrow of autocratic analog media by the liberating medium of the digital PC, or “teleputer”, as he quaintly called it way back in 1988.

OK, so we have HDTV today and it looks like we’re hooked on it. But we also have the digital PC. And which technology is doing more to open up the minds of a nation dumbed down by network TV?  Look at American politics today – at the election of Barack Obama, for instance  – and tell me if Gilder was right or wrong about the liberating potential of digital media.

Life After Televison is the first book I recommend to aspiring journalists. Second is Marshall McLuhan’s denser and even more rewarding “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” (1964). Third is Shelley Palmer’s “Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV, 2nd Edition: The Transformation form Network TV to Networked TV” which, while silent on politics, is invaluable for its technical expertise.

Hope this sells a few copies of all three books.