Monday, January 14, 2013

Eating My Words

“I’ve had to eat many of my own words and I’ve found it a nourishing diet.” –Winston Churchill

I owe the Internet an apology. Years back, when the first enthusiasts treated it like the arrival of the Messiah, I was convinced it would spell the further decline and fall of Western Civilization, that the removal of the “expert’s” editorial filters would wreak havoc with reliable information and that people’s already over-mediated lives would move yet further away from a wholesome walk in the woods. I wasn’t wholly wrong about my various fears. But there have been many perks none of us could have anticipated and in Daniel Pink’s talk tonight about his new book To Sell Is Human, he revealed one of those unexpected shifts.

Lots to say about the talk, which was entertaining, informative and intriguing. He began with acknowledging our aversion to sales, our negative view of the salesman as pushy, overbearing, slick, smarmy and host of other unflattering adjectives. All of which came from the previous paradigm of sales, where the salesman held all the cards in the deck of information and the buyer was at his mercy. Now the tables have turned and in no small part because of the instant access to information on the Internet that puts the information in the buyer’s hands. Not only the kind of ongoing consumer’s reports reviewing everything from Air B n B’s to professor’s college classes, but the opportunity to instantly expose scams. Today’s Music Man can fool one town with his “Think Method” but after that, the word will get out.

I had just given a talk on how the printing press helped defuse the power of the priests some six hundred years ago. With literacy limited to the church officials, they held the power as the interpreters of God to man. When books were printed rapidly rather than handscribed by monks, the Bible became more easily accessible. It was a short step from there to the creation of schools to teach reading— still mostly for the elite— and another long step to arrive at the idea of public schooling for all. Mass literacy  allowed for a more equitable distribution of information and fit the democratic ideal of the informed citizen ready and able to participate in the political decision-making process.

In short, power rests in the hands of those who control the information and the rise of mass literacy, of schools and bookstores and libraries, allowed for a redistribution of power. Those who could decipher the word and had access to the word and the means to print and market the word held the power. Remember that it used to be a crime to teach an enslaved person to read and with good reason— once someone like Frederick Douglass had access to the power of the written word, look how eloquent he became in the cause of freedom.

Information control then shifted first to radio and then to films, T.V. videos. No one needed to go to school to learn how to listen to the spoken word or watch images. But someone was in charge of choosing the images, particularly on the nightly news and network T.V. and that power could shape and control people's thinking. (John McChesney’s book “RICH MEDIA, POOR DEMOCRACY” is a fascinating look at the struggle for control of the airwaves.) Of course, that story is not done, as Fox News continues to give the illusion of showing the world as it is rather than the pieces of the world they choose to select. As indeed, all news channels must (but few with such a narrow lens).

But the Internet has truly blown that all open. Now all the various technologies— the written word, the spoken word, the still image, the moving image— all deliver an avalanche of information at mere button clicks, uncensored by a presiding agency with its own particular agenda. And that changes the whole dynamic. We're too close to it to understand completely how, but from selling cars to political campaigns to how we get the news, it's a whole new world out there. And at least part of it gives the average person both the responsibility to be more roundly informed and the possibility of more personal power. 

Much more to say, but I have to finish eating my own words. Truth be told, they don’t taste so bad.

PS I didn’t buy Daniel Pink’s book at the talk.

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