In the latter half of the twentieth century, a new technology came to dominate public communications in a way few could have envisioned. Television actually had its advent as a broadcast medium in the German Third Reich, with the beaming of the 1936 Olympics from Munich. Much has been made of this being TV's point of origin, but in the postwar United States it took on its own unique form, and generations grew to adulthood with three corporate (and one "public") networks telling us most of what we thought we knew about the world.
A trendy quote about TV was Marshall McLuhan stating that the "medium is the message." Though much pondered, I never heard any clear interpretation of what this actually meant. But, seen through 21st-century eyes, it is safe to say that one thing television certainly was not was interactive. We were presented for decades with carefully selected pictures and words from a fairly small minority of the society, and even if we accepted that what we saw was not representative of us, the fact that we all saw it was as universal as anything we could all claim to have in common. Opportunities to actually participate in this medium were so limited that to "get on TV" was for most a lifetime, and even life-changing, event.
The term "interactive" emerged, like so many existing words in our vocabulary, with its own new meaning late in the past century. The idea was that we could not only witness, but participate, in mass communication technology. Prior to the growth of the Internet into a universal tool, interacting with media was a rare possibility.
In the 80s and 90s I lived in and around a big university town. A standard activity was to sit in groovy coffee houses and read the school's daily newspaper. Its op-ed page was probably the first interactive medium (besides the telephone, I suppose) I ever witnessed. The hunger to participate was prophetic of a new era just around the corner, but the actual content was anything but sophisticated. The paper clearly had a loose standard for what they would print as commentary, and the page was full of, layers deep, pieces submitted in answer to other pieces about other pieces, to the extent that it was usually impossible to recognize the original topic. The similarity now to today's blogging was striking, except in the sense that bloggers can expect near-instant responses, while the old print way required all submitters to wait for days or even weeks to see their own contributions appear.
The net result in this op-ed model was that much of the content was obscure, bombastic, reactive, and ultimately meaningless.
When I began blogging recently I was stunned with this new opportunity to participate in something both universal and timely, and my hopes were high that the actual content would be as relevant and purposeful as the tools making it possible. I have been thus far sorely disappointed. Chest-pounding self-justification, personal attacks and even threats, and a semi-informed style of armchair intellectualism (mostly cut-and-paste passages from wikipedia) dominate the conversations. There seems to be some stylistic commitment to not communicating anything at all, or if jumping up and down waving clubs at The Others across a water hole was communication, it doesn't seem to have improved much from Neanderthal times to the Internet era.
Why is this? Do we want to be listened and responded to, or just seen and heard? This is the most powerful tool for communication ever devised, so why is the content so often little more than grunting pre-formed, non-flexible opinion? I decided to write this after abandoning a major news outlet's blog and coming on board here with Newsvine, in response to that exact letdown, and my inability to provoke any rational exchange from the other players. One of the first columns I read was on the topic of outrageous and fanatical comments made not just by presidential candidates, but by audience members as well.
A question I will leave you all with in the blogosphere is, will this change? Are we a Model T generation to a technological capability we have not yet grown into? Or will it just get worse? Let me know, where is the art of dialogue headed?