October 31st, 2008


The medium is the message: Relationships

This isn't so much about politics as it is about what a political backdrop seems to be revealing (to me) about people, mediated communication, and relationships. Nothing earth-shaking; just new applications to stuff I've been thinking about. I'll post the stuff that's more directly political in a separate entry.

Probably 80% or more of the political craziness I've been exposed to (and part of) this year has been on the internet. That's a nice, grounding realization—my face-to-face interactions with people are far less tense and more civil. The spectrum of opinion is no different; the behaviors are exceedingly better without exception. Also, all things political tend to shrink to more appropriate sizes in person, while online they often balloon to gargantuan proportions (with results from silly to monstrous).

There's a difference between broadcast and conversation (I originally wrote "dialogue," but that's so overused as a buzzword that it threatens to become meaningless—better to let it lie fallow for a while), and much of internet communication is the former. Even the more conversational elements are more like quick broadcast bursts in their nature and content. And of course, as many have observed, the lack of responding faces tends to remove such guardrails as compassion, accountability, and social norms, making our careening off of one relational cliff or another all the more likely.

There are no internet people. All of us have bodies and faces and lives. When I get frustrated online, perhaps the best medicine is to turn away from the screen and engage people face-to-face. Everything that bugs me online is much more a function of the medium than of the real people behind it. Sure, some of us may even have neuroses and pathologies in the mix, but that's only as much my problem as I let it be (even neuroses and pathologies are often easier to cope and deal with in person, and they don't get caricatured as they do online).

I owe it to real people to spend more of my energy in relationship with them than I do responding to broadcasts from them. The people initiating the broadcasts are real, but the broadcasts aren't the people, and most of us haven't really thought much about ourselves and our responsibilities as broadcasters at all.

The medium is the message: Politics

Related to my prior post, there are also a few specifically political applications to what I've been learning. More and more, I'm persuaded that all mediated political messages are false, whether delivered to me by "the media" (that's a weird noun, especially in current usage) or the internet. Face to face, we still have disagreements and arguments, but most of them don't begin to approach the level of train-wreck volatility they reach in mediated form.

The mediated version of reality, however, is (and arguably must be) the stock in trade of political campaigns, so they spend millions of dollars dousing flames in gasoline. It's all carefully crafted and quite effective—it just doesn't quite match my experience as a real person with other real people in a real world. The saddest thing is that I forget this (and that's why the campaigns work as they do, and why results never quite manifest in any satisfactory manner in reality).

As with relationships, I also have to unplug my political decisions from the mediated messages. Mudslinging and pep rallies are designed to get me to act in a desired fashion. The "news" is a business, so it wants importance and controversy to get viewers and readers (in addition to any other biases which may be present). Journalism isn't dead by any stretch, but there's a lot of goop through which to sift.

What's universal across candidates and media creators is an exaggeration of the election's importance—it's an event now, rather than a civic duty. Not hard to see why all of the players would have a stake in cranking things up to eleven, but a deep breath, a glance at the Constitution, and a look around anywhere without a screen are really all it takes for me to realize that I am simply casting a vote—in the case of the presidency, a vote for a specific, intentionally limited office. Getting caught up in the emotions of it all is totally OK until that distracts from and distorts the true nature of the task at hand.

Regrettably, it seems like the desire to motivate people toward that task (and toward executing it in a specific way) often does just that. Thankfully, I still get to cast my vote, and that's the part that's really my responsibility. Much of the rest is just hype.