Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Chatter

"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate." 
Noam Chomsky, from The Common Good, 1998 [43]

"I'm a little vaklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I'll give you a topic." Linda Richman.

There was a time when the voice of a dissident was met with a gunshot or rolled over with a tank. People were simply not given a choice. The day the people were given a choice was the day democracy was born and we all lived happily ever after. What a lovely story. But who's telling the story? If you're thinking that you don't see that question in your day-to-day life, you have started on a path and I refuse to take the blame for it. Perhaps, however, I will offer a small measure of guidance. Your view of your world has a Zoom option like any camera. You may experience a wide angle and speak of world issues or you may be stuck in a tight shot with the bills and Charlie Sheen. The enlightened conversationalists among us may be able to swoop gallantly from one pole to the other. Who is pressing that button? Who made the camera? Where did it come from? Again, these may be questions that are not turning up on your Wall. Even if you've had the notion that there's more to things than meets the eye, there is plenty of programming and merchandise for you. Individuality is an ad campaign. The illusion of choice is key to controlling a free people. Just keep talking. Keep participating. There's something for everyone. This is The Chatter.

If you're familiar with Noam Chomsky, you won't be surprised to learn that the quote I opened this blog with is the shortest and most to the point I could find. Chomsky is boring, long-winded and not pleasing to look at. His talks are most often experienced without any graphics, side scrolling bars or background music. Oddly enough, he does seem to want to control any discourse he might generate. In fact, throughout a Chomsky lecture, you will hear him repeatedly cite his sources and encourage you to check info out for yourself. When he sets his parameters, he tells you he is setting them and attempts to do so in the most transparent fashion. There is a lot of room to breathe. Am I saying that Chomsky is exempt from The Chatter? Not at all. In fact, I am always certain that there is a protocol for anything or anyone I could possibly bring to the table. Still, there is a reason why I opened with his words, as there is a reason I involved Linda Richman.

Speaking of protocol, I believe it is still more than safe to say that any political discussion is immediately drawn and quartered by certain well-conditioned responses from Chatter participants. Don't discuss politics and religion. Sound familiar? If a citizen is aware of anything, it most likely comes from skimming the muck at the surface of the water. An earthquake in Japan is just as likely to be there as the current popular reality televison series. So, they're all good. If you fancy yourself more sophisticated, the media is waiting with open arms. What does the billboard say? Come and play. Actually, it is more likely to invite you to rage against the machine. Does it take above average intelligence to get this far? No, I believe it takes common sense and a firm commitment to it at that. Sooner or later, someone is going to feel like they're listening to one person talking about one thing rather than feel like they live among millions of people. What is to be gained from this effect of reducing the voice of millions to the voice of one? Who or what would it take to pull off such a trick? I believe the 'correct answer' in common discourse will lead you to good old conspiracy theories and other charming eccentricities. Like I said, there's something for everyone. However, if you're still committed to a common sense, we can reasonable accept the possibility that it takes more than one person in a white house to run a country. In fact, we can even assume that any instituion based on so much rhetoric couldn't possibly be responsible for getting what gets done every day in America. That covers our political system. At the same time, there are no boogeymen despite their very obvious appeal to our imagination. There is no Big Brother, no Man or any other tidy patriarchal catch-all for the disillusioned. There is money and there is power. Those that have them run the show. Yet he who makes the gold does NOT make the rules, not necessarily. He who makes the gold does not care about us but he cannot ignore us nor can he shoot us or run us over with a tank. What's the poor tyrant to do?

Chomsky speaks of a "specialized class". He borrows the idea from Walter Lippman, whose writing I studied as a Communication major. We're talking about management, those whose job it is to think and plan and mind the common interest. Who do they manage? A more colorful term used would be the "bewildered herd" but I feel the more accurate one would be "spectators". Just keep watching. Just keep talking. There you have The Chatter. I'm afraid so. Like all games, it comes down to winners and losers. Or does it?

What could be better than minding the sheep? Imagine if the sheep could mind themselves! Enter the internet. I bet this specialized class thought it was pretty good at establishing ground rules to shape a culture without actually telling the participants. Have you been on Facebook? We have created our own Chatter, our own rules and haven't told each other anything! Think about it. Social media is not only the elephant in the room but it's been years and NO ONE SPEAKS ABOUT IT! It has made it to the very PALM OF YOUR HANDS! Still, can anyone tell me where I can find the handbook for etiquette? What's happened?

The work of the specialized class is now in the hands of the bewildered herd. The line is severely blurred. Whatever made the specialized class specialized clearly does not apply to the spectators. The Chatter has become The Twitter. So is this overly disturbing thought the reality? Let us take a moment. I am fairly certain the potential of the internet was written off the moment porn became its biggest source of activity. However, there is one very important feature that separates the Net from all other outlets. It is virtually infinite and the means of production are in our hands, literally. Don't count the ole TV out but it enjoyed quite a run of piping The Chatter directly into our living rooms without any opposition. It remains at the center of The Chatter. However, it is apparent that our input became far more required than ever before at some point.  No one is showing up for Neilsen ratings that I know of but I don't really know that anyone ever did. Does anyone know where those things came from? Anyway, who needs them? Everyone wants to know what we think!! Isn't the 21st century exciting? The people's voice has its place next to porn after all! Of course, it is about as articulate as porn but you can't count it out.

In David Fincher's The Social Network, I would say our current situation is represented quite well in the scene where Eduardo Saverin, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, comes home to his psycho Asian girlfriend, played appropriately enough by former Disney starlet, Brenda Song. After bombarding a befuddled Saverin with accusatory questions about unanswered texts and his Facebook relationship status, Song starts a fire in his trash can with the scarf he bought her as a present. Meanwhile, Saverin is realizing that his world has become unrecognizable to him. A little over the top, but I maintain that it brilliantly captures our general mental state at this time while also reminding us that this seemingly apocalyptic era has been dropped in our hands, again, literally. It may also be in the hands of the experts who have quite obviously mastered it and put it to use like they always have but they had to concede to us to do it. It wasn't too long ago that the forces of marketing and advertising had to at least acknkowledge the media savvy of their audience with a wink that still implied who was boss. We are well past that point.

You may note that I seem to have smuggled a silver lining into this essay. I hope so. Every one us has gone from being part of a sleeping giant to being a giant our self. Are we awake? How could we not be? There are countless reasons to close our eyes, That much has never changed. The noise around us has grown bigger and scarier. Yet I say again that our minders, our managers, cannot maintain this Chatter without us. While most would forfeit this responsibility, it apparently is not ours to forfeit. Our voice belongs in this Chatter whether we like it or not. Talk amongst yourselves.