Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Principle of Maximization of Drama

I take my text this Sunday from a rant by Susan Jacoby, whining about the lack of intellectualism in the United States and a tirade by Jules Crittendon, who thinks that Jacoby is an elitist snob and that things are just ducky, due to the rise of the blogosphere. Well, they're both right; it's a dessert topping and a floor wax.

But I think I may be more with Jacoby than Crittendon on this one. Her main point is that electronic media are busy supplanting traditional print media, resulting in dramatically reduced attention spans:
I cannot prove that reading for hours in a treehouse (which is what I was doing when I was 13) creates more informed citizens than hammering away at a Microsoft Xbox or obsessing about Facebook profiles. But the inability to concentrate for long periods of time -- as distinct from brief reading hits for information on the Web -- seems to me intimately related to the inability of the public to remember even recent news events. It is not surprising, for example, that less has been heard from the presidential candidates about the Iraq war in the later stages of the primary campaign than in the earlier ones, simply because there have been fewer video reports of violence in Iraq. Candidates, like voters, emphasize the latest news, not necessarily the most important news.

No wonder negative political ads work. "With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information," the cultural critic Caleb Crain noted recently in the New Yorker. "A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching."

As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be. Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.
Given that sustained concentration is the underpinning of all difficult, productive work, it's easy to argue that the type of media we're consuming will lead to a reduction in overall intellectual productivity. (Some day, I'll put together a coherent argument that this is merely a long-term trend away from temporal reasoning to a more intuitive visual reasoning, which will result in massive upheaval as we develop the cultural tools necesary to sustain productive work.)

In rebuttal, Crittendon notes that the content available on in the blogosphere is staggeringly diverse, leading to a vastly better informed public:
… and while decrying the dropoff in reading of paper products in the computer age, neglects to note that reading of material from around the world, previously unseen except in the immediate vicinity of distant publishing plants, has skyrocketed. Jerusalem Post, Pakistan’s Dawn, any number of Arabic publications, all manner of deep think, science and erudite satire, all reach hundreds of thousands through sites like these, amplified considerably by the likes of Instapundit, Pajamas, Drudge, Memorandum, Malkin, Little Green Footballs. Voices from around the world, in love with the written word. Frogs, dissident; Brits, upper lips decidely unstiffened; Canadians, small, dead and furry. From Barcelona to Belmont. Who ever knew you could find such worldly insight in the great flyover, sophistication in LA and other unlikely places, wisdom in West By God Virginia or anywhere outside the Beltway? Every man’s a Solomon. Blonde sagacity? Toldjah. Reports direct from the battlefield, and grizzled veterans and practitioners of the art of war to tell you what it all means. Not only that, but you’ll find various wiseacres slicing fillets off various sacred cows and grilling them up for your consumption, instead of being forcefed information as you might have been in the past. And that’s only the tiniest portion of what is read by millions of people each day, brought together and sahring [sic] ideas as never before. Yeah, a lot of it is inane, child-like in its wide-eyed simplicity, or like she says, just dumb. And the dunces have all the infotainment and mindless screen time they want. But the vastly democratized and expanded intellectual classes have never had it so good.
(Note that I'll make no attempt to replicate the zillion links in this passage. Go read it for yourself if you're interested. If you're a blog geek--or at least a conservative blog geek--you've probably got most of them bookmarked anyway.)

But Jules is assuming that a significant chunk of the internet-using population is actually reading current-events blogs, as opposed to consuming pushed video content. Furthermore, he's assuming that what the rightosphere likes to call the "MSM" is moribund.

I suspect the blogosphere has indeed sensitized maybe 20% of the electorate and made them much more interested, much better informed, and much more active in political life. That amount of activity rubs off on American culture; the entire US is paying attention to this election.

The conventional wisdom in the blogosphere is that the share of mind between the internet and the MSM is a zero-sum game: If blog interest is up, MSM interest (and power) must be down. But, for the 80% of the public that isn't reading blogs, they're interested but getting their news from the same old source: TV. So the new divisions of the broadcast and cable networks are actually reaping the rewards of this new interest.

This power is having an unhealthy effect on the election. For the first time in history, enough people are paying attention that the MSM can construct a narrative of the election that the vast majority of voters will bug into. And that narrative can be manipulated to maximize ratings.

Is it possible for a primary season to be this dramatic? What is causing these wild miscalculations, these abrput lead-changes? How is it that the entire nation can be gripped by the loftiness of Obama's oratory? Is it possible that the stars have aligned to produce this singular Year of Drama for the American people?

Well, I suppose so. But it's much more likely that we're being sold the most compelling reality TV show ever. (By the way, I must fess up that I was wrong in predicting that Giuliani would come back in very dramatic, ratings-maximizing fashion. Instead, McCain came back in very dramatic, ratings-maximizing fashion.)

Note that the most compelling theme of the last few days has been to question how the Obama "cult of personality" has gotten so far out of hand. Add to that the careful descriptions of exactly what Clinton has to do to pull back even with Obama and you have the next act of our little drama.

The final act is, of course, a brokered convention, complete with a rip-roaring fight over the Michigan and Florida delegates. If the Democratic Party rips itself to shreds, that will be proof of the MSM's power. That outcome only favors the media. If the Democrats can't avoid it, we know where the real power is.

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