by John Gehl

Educom Review, Volume 33, Number 1, January/February 1998

The deed is done. Our glorious Age of Information has produced the Age of Celebrity, in which the supreme role of our heroes and heroines is to pitch merchandise (Nike, Pepsi, themselves, whatever). So

mehow, our glorious dream has been trivialized. Somehow, we botched it.

Botched it? But wait . . . we had no choice! We're innocent. It wasn't our fault, Judge! The technology made us do it!

Yes. Seriously. The technology did it. Celebrity is a natural and inevitable consequence of amplified or highly distributed information. How? Simple. You take actors, authors, musicians, politicians or athletes . . . add a liberal dose of radio, movies, television or Internet . . . and mix well. That's all there is to it.

Of course, it's clear (if not to everyone, at least to the readers of this magazine) that information technology is an enormous blessing - a wish-granting genie that has been, to use the phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan, an "extension of Man," a tool for amplifying human knowledge and power. And yet, as all the children's stories correctly warn us, one needs to be careful with genies, because they are notorious for refusing to return to the bottles from which they were freed. And because, once freed, genies tend to take charge.

The genie we know as information technology has often allowed the extension of Man to become the glorification of some particular man or woman. From the megaphone to the telegraph to radio, movies, TV and the Net, - the Word and the Vision go forth, magnifying the image and recreating our psychic universe, re-populating it with all the world's celebrities of any given moment in time.

The only problem with this kind of amplification (harmless in most ways, beneficial in many) is that it is simply and exhaustively overpowering. It overpowers in the same way that highly amplified noise makes it impossible to speak or listen or think. The issue is one of psychic "shelf space." A person (or, to use a more precise word, a consumer) can only pay attention to so many things and so many people. The ones who don't get attention don't exist.

Once technology exists to amplify the presence of some "star" (who is a star because he or she is enormously talented; or superbly marketed; or exquisitely degenerate; or, if a superstar, perhaps all three), our new celebrity will occupy a huge amount of shelf space in our minds. We will know more about this star than we had ever wished to know, more than we ever thought possible.
Publication: Educom Review
TV or Not TV?
That is the Question
By John Gehl
Sequence: Volume 33, Number 1
Release Date: January/February 1998

The Information Age has not changed the size of the world - the world is still finite (in fact, it is a down-sized world, sometimes even called a global "village"). And so the more of the world's psychic space occupied by, let's say, a Brando, a Madonna or a Paul Reisser (names chosen arbitrarily), the less space available to all the rest of this world's fine actors - many of whom are waiting tables at your neighborhood bistro. The "megaphone" (radio, movies, TV and Internet) has made star-quality more important than quality itself. And that's just the way it happens to be, like it or not. Ask the manager of any grocery store. Shelf space is everything. And in the Information Age, shelf space means attention space. Attention is everything, celebrity is everything. Case closed. Next case.

The next case is the Net. Various pundits insist that the Net is quite different from the shelf-space model, and claim that the Net is pure democracy - with everyone his own publisher, everyone the star of his own home page. Oh, come on. Publishing is more than printing, and more than posting on the Web. Like the tree falling "soundlessly" in an uninhabited forest, an author has published nothing until the work has reached a public. Everyone knows this, even the pundits. Certainly the Webmasters know it - and when they seek your attention they do what pitchmen have always done, they raise their voices, to amplify their presence.

The result? Steadily increasing cacaphony, along with ever worsening visual pollution.

Noise on the Net - noise of all kinds - is getting worse every day. More and more Web pages that you're trying to read bombard you with little dancing figures, ticker tapes, floating icons, squalling cartoon characters, animated people, and so forth. Your morning newspaper has come alive! Isn't that great!

No, it is not great. It is an outrage.

This all-too-frequent bombardment comes completely unsolicited. You didn't click on something to get this little operatic performance. It was dropped on you. It's the moral equivalent of spamming - the moral equivalent of unsolicited calls planned to interrupt you at dinner time.

The Web is being dumbed down to the level of television, and there's hardly a voice raised in protest. In fact, a great many sites developed by responsible institutions go along with the whole inane strategy of assaulting their visitors with flashing lights and bursts of noise, because they think it's cute . . . or think it's "cutting edge technology" that they have to prove themselves capable of using.

It's sad, really. Here's how one technology executive described what's going on: "Where we see this going is bringing more TV-like experiences to the Web. There'll be more sound, more graphics and more animation being employed. It's what advertisers and agencies have been waiting for to express themselves better."

So the future lies before us. The future of the Net is . . . Television!

And Barbara Walters can become Queen of the Chat Groups, helping us use the Net to become "one" with our favorite celebrities.

And maybe that's what we really want to do; maybe that's the real meaning of the sarcastic phrase: "Get a life!" (Somebody else's life.) But New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd may be closer to the mark when she says: "All that the celebrity culture teaches is a counterfeit empathy, which mistakes prurience for interest and voyeurism for a genuine human identification. Living vicariously is not the same thing as living imaginatively." The real goal - at least the real goal of educators - should be to live imaginatively, and not use TV as a life-support system to help dead minds simulate the appearance of actual thought.

Can the genie be returned to the bottle? No. The Net will indeed become more TV-like with every passing month and every passing year. But there's one thing we can do: We can establish as a principle of etiquette (or Netiquette, if you prefer that word) that our own Web sites be cleansed of all distracting and polluting sounds and images. It's a small step. But you have to start somewhere.

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