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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stuart Heady Guest Blog: Stupefying Ray Aimed At Earth

StuartHeady This is a guest blog by Stuart Heady, a freelance writer and political activist who lives in Albuquerque.

The title of this post is a wisecrack that I think of whenever someone in public life says or does something so stupid that nothing else seems to really explain it. Doesn't it seem like there has been a lot of this lately?

What better explanation can there be for the rise of purely emotional folks who seem to have unplugged their brains? What explains the Tea Party and the anger that fuels it? People like Glenn Beck? Evidence abounds! Call the National Enquirer! We have a story!

When you think about it seriously, it is easier for those who simply respond to things emotionally to get worked up than it is to figure out how an intelligent, complex and persistent approach to the future can be agreed on. That is way hard. Most people who are engaged in efforts that will ultimately be taken for granted as forming the walls, the floor and ceiling of our 22nd century lives, are not nearly as likely to be heard from or to become sensations in the media.

But, are we in danger of turning into a society that is dominated and run by the yahoos that Jonathan Swift described centuries ago? What are the more deliberate and competent among us to do?

Given the present media environment, that is a deadly serious question.

Sound Bites and Databases
Now should be the time, after the legislative session is past and when the next election is the farthest away that it can be, to step back and think about why things are the way they are and what could be done to more effectively address this condition that we are in, looking ahead into the second decade of the 21st century and beyond.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about how to deliver messages through direct mail or grassroots handouts of various kinds. After thinking about this situation for a long time, some thoughts and insight into this have begun to form.

It all boils down to sound bites and databases.

Broadcast media has set up a circumstance, combined with a huge population, in which what is valued the most is quick, on-your-feet immediate thinking, encapsulated in the sound bite. Everyone in communication, on way or another, finds themselves addressing this constraint.

Databases have a powerful, but much less obvious influence on our thinking. When we learn how to use databases, we master the art of thinking in categories in a mechanical way. Things have to be reduced to their simplest terms, actually a math equation, in order for their to be "power" in a database. It is a useuful way to think, as it disciplines a tendency to be satisfied with speculation and vagueness into a sharp focus.

These twin gods have banished the ability to think more deeply and to value long and persistent contemplationg about the larger picture.

We get trapped in the short term without a perspective. We cannot analyze our situation truly, but instead are driven to do better, to work harder to make what we already have been given as a given work. However, in the long run, say over a twenty-year period, one can observe that the advantage in a system that is based on sound bites and short-term thinking goes to the manipulators of emotional mobs. That is what we are seeing now.

As usual, seeing a problem is way easier than figuring out how to address it, especially if it is a condition of the landscape.

Looking at all the various communication methods for manipulation that the large-scale corporate special interests have instituted over the past 40 years or so, it is a pretty daunting picture. Tens of millions of dollars are spent every year on shaping every aspect of public information and education. Many of the best college graduates with majors in advertising, public relations, journalism or English are attracted into the world of corporate PR, where a good number of people are employed by the tens of millions a year that the right wing is being advantaged by.

This goes way beyond the question of framing, and way beyond the tried and true GOTV campaign strategy that has become crucial over the past thirty five years.

An even larger factor that constrains the way the environment treats political communication is that no one has time -- the suburban swing voter, least of all. Whatever information gets processed into votes has to be taken at a glance in passing most of the time by people on the run. Long meetings with very informative, fact-based, deliberative substance are mostly out of the question. That is why the short sound bite synopsis has become so dominant. That is why database-driven systems, with their tendency to reinforce as well as serve the short attention span, always provide the practical backstop.

Untapped Potential
There has to be a way out of this conundrum.

The place to start is with this computer screen and this keyboard. The potential of it has barely been tapped. A lot of the time it is seen in terms of the experience of the past, not in terms of needs that could be served and how innovation towards meeting those needs might be accomplished.

The difference is precisely in the way it is viewed. Our participation in the medium is presently limited in various ways. Especially in rural areas, the connectivity is sparse. A lot of people don't like sharing their thoughts with strangers, especially when there is a prospect for disagreement which can seem insulting. The logic of the medium represents a waste of time to quite a few people.

Yet, here it is -- the product of trillions of dollars and over a century and a half of innovation by people anywhere and everywhere. Moore's law (that computer chip capacity doubles every eighteen months) has yet to reach its limit and, as long as it has not, the internet will continue to increase in capacity over the coming years, offering new avenues and expanded options.

To actualize the potential for better deliberation at large and thus, a better chance that stupidity won't rule the future, thinking has to be taken to a new level, by each person with a computer who might be inspired to see value a future in this. Networking could become more of an active verb. All that is really required is the imagination and persistence of intellect to keep trying to figure it out.

A simple thing to contemplate, but perhaps a pretty tough challenge.

If the purpose is not really just to exhibit one's ego, but to find a way to reach others and create some sort of cooperation in an effort to use the medium as a basis for organizing, for furthering the reach of the work that we are all trying to engage in, then it begins to move forward incrementally. One could look at it as an undeveloped distributed think tank that awaits any engagement that might have any energy at all.

Selling anything, whether it be a book or a policy approach requiring voter approval, requires the same thing: The assumption that a skeptical but open buyer can be persuaded with the right approach.

If the skeptical buyer is the swing voter, the problem is to develop a dialogue that creates either a sale or an acceptable compromise. That is a process that requires more than a lot of thought and communication. This becomes a permanent effort and the definition of citizenship over a lifetime.

If a real dialogue about what is real can supercede the soundbite oversimplification and sensational manipulation that now dominate, then it could do a lot more than just win an election. It could revitalize the American political system and renew its capacity for addressing what really needs to be addressed in the 21st century, looking ahead to the 22nd.

This is a guest blog by Stuart Heady. If you'd like to submit a piece for consideration as a guest blog, contact me by clicking on the Email Me link at the upper left-hand corner of the page.

March 23, 2011 at 01:58 PM in Guest Blogger, Journalism, Media, Progressivism, Right Wing, Weblogs | Permalink


More on Democratic messaging.


When will we ever learn?

Posted by: qofdisks | Mar 24, 2011 2:22:59 PM

Citizenship should be defined as a responsibility to awaken, to open our eyes, to comprehend, to think critically and to continue to deeply reflect on the truth about reality in terms of the past, the present and the future - thus to break through to a new level in our own abilities.

But the effort is not good without engaging with others so as to contribute to the betterment of our communities.

If there is such a thing as political literacy, it is this participation in the attempt to reach clarity.

All too many people will reject this because it requires too much real work. That makes it all the more important for anyone who wishes to take up the effort, to try.

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Mar 25, 2011 9:33:09 AM