Einstein's Corner: The Buck Starts Here

One of the reasons why we often don't know where the buck stops anymore is because we often don't know where the buck starts. Can you account for the spam in your e-mail in-box? Me neither. Where do all these pop-ups come from? Who knows?

The problem with accountable media (now there's an oxymoron for you) is that it leaves a trail behind us whenever we use it, wherever we go. Video On Demand, DVRs, telephones, the Internet, and e-mail all create virtual paper trails. By now, however, the trails are far too extensive and convoluted to track for the average consumer, and far too voluminous to erase as well. Only the largest corporations and government agencies have the wherewithal to make sense of it all; our worst nightmare come true.

Privacy in such a world is a cruel joke, just a matter of time before someone somewhere betrays our individual trust -- probably by accident despite all the presumed safeguards, kind of like a personal fail-safe scenario. You would think that the sheer uncertainty of when and where our most sensitive information might pop up unannounced with disastrous personal consequences would be enough to mitigate our behavior. But this is not so.



A great existential dilemma confronts professional marketers nowadays, especially those who work in interactive media. Enthusiasm for the industry is almost always tempered by the demise in and constant threat to the user experience, and -- by proxy -- to the industry itself. Consumers and corporations alike are investing billions of dollars to turn off advertising. Industry professionals are constantly berated by family, friends, and a hostile press for spam, pop-ups, and a whole litany of infractions committed by the less-than-savory denizens of a bottomless digital deep.

Legitimate marketers are vilified for one very good reason: We can't find the real offenders; we don't know where the buck starts. So the legitimate marketers pay for the sins of others by sheer virtue of their visibility, for a paid listing in the Yellow Pages. Ultimately, the price we pay is more emotional and spiritual than financial; we wind up perpetually looking back over our shoulders, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Legitimate marketers -- paralyzed from the neck up -- are where the buck starts.

Thus has emerged a kind of us-versus-them mentality. We just don't know who the hell "them" is most of the time, not unlike our battle against al Qaeda. The fact that we don't know where the buck starts (forget where it stops) translates into inaction, distrust, and paranoia. How can we redress a grievance if there's no contact name, address, or phone number? Who will hit me and run at the next intersection? What's the point of even trying?

Inaction, however, can be deadly. "The greatest menace to freedom," said former chief justice Earl Warren, "is an inert people." Like all addictions, our addictions to technology and the media paralyze us, and point us in the wrong direction at all times. In an age when convenience is the primary objective, nuisance looms large, and the real threats go unnoticed. Spam is a sideshow to the real event, a mere distraction from the real problem: our addiction to the media.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our quadrennial obsession with another sideshow, campaign finance reform. Of course a billion dollars -- much of it public funding -- is a lot of money to spend to elect a bunch of rich white guys who sit around and do nothing but campaign for re-election. But the focus on who can donate that money and on what terms, is ill-conceived at best, and reflects the fact that the media -- our addiction -- now control the debate. Far more important than where the money comes from is where that money goes: not -- as one might have suspected a few generations ago -- into the pockets of crooked politicians, but into the much deeper pockets of legitimate media interests. We are always feeding the addiction beast, and the beast is always insatiable.

Big media, of course, treats democracy with the exact same sensitivity and respect it reserves for beer, casinos, fast-food, and just about any other paying commercial interest. Not surprisingly, everything winds up in the exact same prime time commercial clutter, where the freedom to vote now must compete with the freedom to get high. It's a competition only the drug dealers -- the media franchises -- can win. They get paid either way. The rest of us lose big time.

We lose because the more we invest in the media as the primary tool to exercise our democratic traditions, the less interest the media have in promoting the truth -- just like any other addiction -- and the more inertia we must overcome. But there's another catch: Just as democracy relies on an informed citizenry, passion for the truth assumes an innate ability to distinguish fact from fiction, an ability that always erodes as addiction escalates. And it always escalates.

We lose because true freedom of choice cannot co-exist with pervasive addiction. Indeed, freedom of choice is the first casualty of all addiction. The first freedom we relinquish is the freedom to say 'no' to our addiction, the freedom to opt out.

We lost when the media -- an industry comprised of perhaps the biggest addicts on the planet -- understandably failed to promote or cover the debate leading up to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, arguably one of the most important regulatory acts of modern times.

The beast controls the debate. The beast tells us the user experience is paramount just as the beast tells us that campaign finance reform is paramount. The beast will have us overturn every rock and look under every bed for the offenders. The beast will have us turn the spotlight everywhere but inward.

Methinks the digital marketing industry -- one of the beast's favorite playgrounds for now -- doth protest too much. The buck starts here for a reason, per the admonition of Edward Burke almost three centuries ago: "The only thing needed for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing."

Many thanks as always for your gracious time, dear reader. Best to you and yours...

Please note: The Einstein's Corner discussion group at is dedicated to exploring the adverse effects of our addictions to technology and media on the quality of our lives, both at work and at home. Please feel free to drop by and join the discussion.

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