Friday, September 26, 2008


After I graduated from college, I existed for several years with no TV. Of course there was no internet and no cell phones. When I had my first apartment in Minneapolis, I existed for some time with no phone. I didn't know anyone--- who would I call? I just used the phone at work, and there was a pay phone across the street. Eventually I had a phone, and a friend gave me a broken TV which worked fine with a half-working VCR so I could rent movies. My window to the world was the Pioneer Press at work. In 1991 I watched one of the presidential debates in a laundromat.

Eventually, the hand-me-down TV broke down and I purchased a new one. I quickly learned that modern TVs are completely ill-equipped to receive broadcasts, so I started up with cable, and have not been able to live without it since--- but that isn't really the point of the story. In the mid-90s I purchased a PC and of course had to have internet. With dial-up, things were rather slow, and in those days, the online community was mostly comprised of "early adopters." I don't recall much of the political process when Clinton was re-elected in 1996, other than he was rather uncontested. Of course, the economy was riding on the bubble fueled by the same technology that I had just bought into-- the internet.

I didn't take much of an interest in politics in 2000. I voted of course, but I never dreamed Bush would win the election. Even in 2000, my news window to the world was largely TV--- generally CNN. By the time 2004 rolled around, I was much more plugged-in to the online news world, and I watched almost no network TV. In many ways, I was out of touch with reality, as I saw very few political ads, and I tended to gravitate toward political views that closely reflected my own.

What is unique about 2008 is that not only is the internet something almost universally used, but youtube, political blogs, and news aggregation sites like fark and digg are very widely read. If you compare politics today to politics 10 or 20 years ago, in the past, there were gatekeepers to the media. A story wasn't really news unless it bore the stamp of one of the major networks. CNN broke ground during the first Gulf War to legitimize cable news, and of course Fox came along with their mostly editorial propaganda network to wild success--- while lowering the bar and blurring the lines between news and opinion. In the background, more and more political blogs emerged, resulting in the situation we have today. We have access to far more information than any other point in history. If I miss watching Sarah Palin's interview with Couric, I can watch it whenever I want on youtube. Every word McCain utters can be scrutinized for accuracy--- since every word is somehow recorded and magically shows up on the internet. Countless amateur "journalists" in their pajamas create a grassroots network that examines every angle of politics. No longer are we dependent on the arbiters of good taste and journalistic decorum. We have all become journalists. Anyone can leave a comment on their favorite right or left wing blog and "be heard."

This is not without its dark side. Despite all of the information at our disposal, nasty untruths are easily passed off as fact. A startlingly high percentage of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, for example. It involves nearly zero effort to fact-check this types of rumor. This leads me to believe that despite all the information out there--- or maybe because there is too much information--- people tend to believe what they want to believe. It is easy enough to find a source or community that supports any sort of belief.

Another dark side to technology is how we have access to all news everywhere in the world, and once information is in the wild, it cannot be reigned back in. Back in the early 90s there were all sorts of sci-fi writings about cyberwarfare. It seemed like a very abstract concept at the time. Now we have arrived. When Russia "invaded" Georgia, there was a cyberpropaganda war in place. Russia, accustomed to decades of existence in an insular "iron curtain" lost the battle. Some of the continental media coverage was at least partially open in reporting that Russia claimed a legal foundation for their actions, and that they were acting defensively. The US and UK media portrayed Russia as far more aggressive. But if there is one thing that past ten years have taught us, it is to be skeptical of the media. Left or right, nobody really seems to trust it, but rather filter it according to one's own beliefs.

We have more information than ever at our disposal, and yet have even less of a clue what to believe and what the truth is. Could a "group" like 9/11 "truthers" even exist without the internet? In the good old days, it seemed the three broadcast networks all led off with the same two or three stories in the national evening news. There was nothing to question.

The silver lining in all of this is that I have access to everything I need back home in the US. I have an 800 number where friends and family can call me--- on an IP phone (over the internet). We have email, and video calls with my parents--- again, over the internet. It isn't like 100 years ago--- leaving on a steam boat, crossing the Atlantic, and maybe sending a few letters, but otherwise never seeing family again. We are connected more than ever--- yet politically, I fear the US is more divided than it has ever been.

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