Opinions at the Speed of Light

Last week I wrote about the implications of the FCC vote to overturn decades-old limitations of media outlet ownership. I wondered whether it would lead to homogeneous cultural output and if the Internet could play a role as an alternative voice to the media monoliths that will undoubtedly consolidate as a result of the FCC rule changes.

John Gaffney, editor of MediaPost's vehicles covering traditional media, was grousing early and often about the FCC vote and its anticipated outcome, wondering why the rest of the press was so silent. But once the votes were cast, 3-2 in favor of overturning the restrictions on media ownership, the media community suddenly responded as if a bee flew up the leg of its pants. Even the New York Times has published editorials against the decision (in spite of the fact that the hallowed publication lobbied FOR the changes that were made). Bipartisan initiatives were launched on Capital Hill within 24 hours of the vote to examine whether or not some of the restrictions should be reinstated.



What was interesting to watch in the aftermath of the vote, however, was just what role the Internet ALREADY plays as part of the media landscape and what that tells us about the future of how the medium will respond as a source of information, opinion, and culture.

Blogs everywhere that have anything to do with the Internet itself, law, and/or media carried words about the decision and what it might mean for the business of media and society at large. Much of the bits and bytes have all conveyed a point of view soundly against the rule changes. They have also espoused ample opinions about the reaction to the vote for changes. One blog equates the reaction to the FCC vote with "closing the barn door after the cows have left."

More traditional news sources have also been anxious to stake a claim in the op-ed field on the topic.

Whatever the case might be, there is no dearth of opinions.

The web has always been a place for individuals without access to a larger microphone to speak their peace. But something we should take notice of is the rate at which opinions are being made and established as though they are fully baked, concluded positions.

In the days when the population only had text and paper from which to get information and make decisions about it, the process for forming opinion was slow and deliberative. There was something stately about the information that was carried in text on paper, and something solid and dependable about those advocating a position as communicated therein. Facts were given a chance to ferment, information allowed to rise, and opinion baked and set on the cupboard to cool.

Radio sped up the process of opinion-making, and television carried the import of moving images which, incidentally, imbued these opinions with the kinds of reactive emotions which text alone or tones of voice alone could not (Herb Morrison's "oh, the humanity!," now sounds kind of tinny and almost insincere). When Walter Cronkite, wrapping up his reporting on the Tet Offensive on 27 February 1968, took off his glasses and concluded with the words, "It seems increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could," who could deny the power of images and words in shaping opinion? Secretary of Defense Robert Macnamara resigned 2 days later. If there was any doubt before that, this act should have summarily dismissed it.

Now we have the Internet, possessing the speed of broadcast media and the text of print media. There is still something in the minds of a reader that makes text seem more intellectually substantive than images, while images seem to make what is being conveyed more real. As the rate of the communicative exchange increases, however, the substance and the "realness" of the information or the opinions being relayed can't always be trusted to be entirely genuine. It isn't even like ordering up a tray of fast-food; it is something like from a sci-fi movie when one puts a pellet in a dish, the dish in a machine, pushes a button, and out comes a Thanksgiving dinner. The material from which this meal is made is highly questionable.

In an age when information moves at the speed of light and society expects itself to digest it, understand it, and shape an opinion on it just shy of that speed, most people find themselves fatigued and dizzy and end up approaching their sources of information with either resigned apathy or blind trust. This leaves us without any sense of deliberation at all, a constituency sitting at their desks surfing the web hoping someone can tell us what everything means so that we don't have to do the hard work of figuring it out for ourselves.

The trouble is that those we turn to have the same disadvantages as we all do in developing an informed opinion about what is going on in our world. Sure, some of them are better trained in a particular field of interest, but that training most likely took place in an environment where the opportunity for deliberation was readily available. The rate of information coming at us now does not slow down for the learned versus the unlearned.

Some of us turn to the Internet for information that might come to us unblemished, letting us decide for ourselves what is or is not going on in the world, to form our own opinion about it. But when we go elsewhere looking for opinions, let's not forget that they are just that, and that in today's world, even on the Internet, those opinions are more microwave popcorn than simmered demi-glace.

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