Tinotopia (Logo)
TinotopiaLog → Argument and Media (17 Mar 2005)
Thursday 17 March 2005

Argument and Media

It’s interesting that thirteen-year-old girls have not hit on the rhetorical tactic of claiming that someone they’re arguing with is being ‘defensive’. Or maybe they have; my contact with thirteen-year-old girls these days is mercifully nonexistent. Thirteen-year-old girls, you see, are horrible creatures. Most of them have been told, recently, that they are ‘maturing’, and that girls ‘mature’ earlier than boys.

This is true, of course, but most of these girls tend to confuse puberty with intellectual maturity, and they take to haughtily complaining that anyone or anything that annoys them is ‘so immature’. ‘You’re so immature, Kevin.’ Whereupon they retreat with their friends to giggle and trade stickers. Or whatever it is kids do these days: exchange heroin needles or swap morning-after-pill stories, no doubt.

But anyway, I was talking about ‘defensiveness’. It’s really a remarkable approach, but unlikely to produce any great wisdom. An argument where it’s used goes something like this:

A: Assertion!

B: Counter-assertion, or refinement of assertion for the purposes of greater accuracy in my opinion!

A: You’re just being defensive!

B: No I’m not!

A: See?

Accusations that someone is contradictory can be used in much the same way (‘You’re just being contradictory!’ — there’s no real response to this when you’re arguing with an idiot, except to walk away), but as there are more syllables there it it outside the scope of this particular discussion.

Anyway, I bring this up because someone has linked to my complaint about Anne Taintor’s strange art, and said:

why are us wasps so damn defensive? make fun of me; i know i haven’t solved all of my prejudices when i can’t respond.

Which is nice, because I’d been looking for an excuse to mention some things that the discussion that followed my initial post. To begin with, though, I’d like to point out that I am neither particularly Anglo-Saxon nor Protestant. And it distresses me to think that my ability to respond to people ‘making fun’ of ‘me’ might be seen as an indication that I have ‘solved’ all of my prejudices. I’m now in my third decade, and I have, over time and at great personal cost, built up my ability to form prejudicial opinions based on generalizations and incomplete information. Sometimes those prejudicial opinions, like any other, might be incorrect; but none of us have the time or energy to spare to form perfectly-reasoned opinions about everything we’re confronted with every day. To suggest that one has ‘solved’ (i.e. eliminated) one’s prejudices is to suggest that one approaches every situation like a newborn. ‘Prejudice’ is parhaps an over-broad term. If you regularly make decisions about people’s nature based mainly on the
color of their skin or on their sex, you’re almost certainly making a lot of bad decisions; but to suggest that this is the whole of ‘prejudice’ is silly. In any case that’s not what I want to talk about today.

One of the interesting things about discussions carried out in installments on websites is that they seem to focus the participants’ opinions in strange ways. I was offended by the Anne Taintor images in the same way that I was offended by Janet Jackson’s Superbowl performance. That is, these things were and are offensive because they are
in bad taste. A lot of people seem to have a hard time understanding that, which I suppose is telling. Shortly after the Janet Jackson debacle, complaining about her antics would cause a lot of people to call you a Puritan. I’m nothing of the sort; I like boobies as much as the next man (though maybe not, judging certain kinds of magazines’ seeming obsession with them), but I can still be offended when someone who’s allegedly an entertainer of the public does something so appallingly self-indulgent and unentertaining.

And similarly I can be offended by lowbrow claptrap like some of Ms. Taintor’s art. For the record, I also find Hooters offensive. I probably wouldn’t if I found the Hooters girls particularly attractive, but there you are. To each his own: I think Hooters is offensively lowbrow, but I cannot help but notice that there are enough people who apparently disagree with me to make the place profitable. Jeff Foxworthy also makes money with his ‘comedy’, but in a world of Tinos he would have to find other work.

Anyway, that was my point: the ‘and then I ripped his lungs out’ products are offensively lowbrow. That they are stocked at Barnes & Noble — the place with the giant faux-engravings of people like Willa Cather on the walls — indicates that there’s something about the culture that I don’t really understand. That’s it, my entire point: beyond that, I don’t think that this is particularly important.

Before long, though, the conversation gets drawn out in ways that distort the message: there are over three thousand words on
that page now. While I believe every word I wrote there, the level of detail suggests a depth of feeling and of thought on the subject that isn’t really there. (And yes, I fully realize that by writing this I am just making things worse.)

This is particularly interesting — and destined to become more important, I think — as the ‘blogosphere’ grows. (People like to behave as if there’s something special about ‘blogs’ but the reality is that they just represent the first approach to website management that works for a lot of non-technical people: hence the scare quotes. It’s really just about the availability of very-low-cost mass publishing to nearly everyone. Eventually, the newspaper will stop printing the increasingly vituperative letters to the editor about the wrong-headedness of last week’s column and of half of the preceding letters to the editor about it. Generally, no such thing happens on low-rent websites like this one, and so fertile enough arguments on the web will tend to eventually come to the Truth, namely that it’s all the doing of the RAND Corporation in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires.)

Most newspaper columnists write about three 750-word articles a week. Even mildly-prolific weblogs have quite a bit more content than that. I certainly don’t often write anything three times a week, but the things I
do write tend to be quite a bit longer than the average newspaper column (this is the 1,067th word in this particular post). With so much output from people who essentially have nothing to say, you’re inevitably going to get things like discussions of the proper response to satirical postcards, and whether the sale of same at Barnes & Noble should be taken as a sign of the impending collapse of society.

Marshall McLuhan is, to put it mildly,
overrated. However, he did popularize the idea that the medium in which a message is conveyed affects the message itself (i.e. ‘The medium is the message’, though I think this is overstating it). McLuhan further talked about ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media: the difference being that information conveyed through a ‘hot’ medium was more or less passively absorbed, while information over a ‘cool’ medium required more interpretation on the part of the recipient.

He then went on to classify various media as ‘hot’ or ‘cool’ in
ways that I’ve never really understood; many of his classifications seem diametrically wrong to me. In particular, he and a lot of other TV philosophers of the 1960s made a lot of hay out of the fact that the picture on a TV screen is never actually complete. While a projected film relies on the persistence of vision to fake the appearance of motion from complete but still images, the picture on a TV screen is actually constantly being redrawn.

They were taking a lot of drugs in the 1960s, so this seemed profound (or at least not meaningless) at the time. The reality is that communications media are only important inasmuch as they’re perceived by humans, and as far as human sight is concerned, the TV image is like a movie image: a succession of still frames that the eye and the brain interpret as motion. (And, as it happens, new LCD and plasma-screen TVs actually
do show a succession of still images just as at the movies. Does this mean that TV is a fundamentally different medium from TV in the days of CRTs? No, Q.E.D.)

I think I’ve probably said this before somewhere here, but a quick Google search suggests that I haven’t. So I’ll say it now: in the mid-1990s, there were people (many of them writing for
Wired magazine back when it was just bad instead of incredibly bad, who compared the invention of the Internet to that of movable type. At the time I thought that they were showing a bit too much enthusiasm, but over the past ten years my opinion has shifted to the point where I think that those people were too conservative: the Internet — which is to say, the ability to cheaply and nearly instantly move all kinds of information around the world — is a much bigger deal than movable type. A thousand years in the future, I fully expect kids in history class to be taught about Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn and Len Kleinrock and all the others, just as they learn about Gutenberg now.

Just as movable type in Europe revolutionized an existing medium — information on paper — a different thing entirely by reducing its cost, cheap packet-switched networks have changed and will change
all existing communications media by making the cost of moving information around cheap as free, and, perhaps more importantly, by largely eliminating the distinction between disseminators and consumers of information.

We have yet to see most of these changes. Right now, there’s an intellectual battle going on over whether and how Hollywood movies should or can be transmitted over the Internet. This is a question worth answering, but ultimately it’s a stupid debate because the
real question is: how much longer can Hollywood continue to make money with its business model? The copyright industry has long existed only due to the fact that the mass-production and -distribution of information has been a fairly capital-intensive process.


Today, not only do you not need those giant (and expensive) green machines to duplicate music, but you can buy what amounts to an entire recording studio down at the Apple Store or CompUSA for a few thousand dollars. You don’t need a printing press, or a movie studio, either. It’s a kind of Marxist dream, really: the Means of Production are well within the reach of nearly anyone living in a developed country. (Not that the Marxists necessarily like this, of course: Marxism has been struggling for adoption for so long now that it’s become incapable of anything
but struggle. But that’s another story.)

There’s still a matter of ability and talent, of course. Without ability, all you can hope to produce are disjointed, 1,840-word (at this point, anyway) rants about lowbrow art, Gutenberg, and the Internet. But
public-access TV produced some real gems along with a whole lot of crap, and that under conditions that made production a real pain.

Which brings me nicely back around to my point (back?! to the point, you say). Even public-access TV — which by definition was about letting anyone and anything on — there were significant barriers. Not only was even consumer video equipment a lot more expensive back in the 1980s, but
editing video required quite expensive and cumbersome equipment, and took quite a bit of time. To even produce a bad public-access TV show actually required quite a commitment. Today, you can do the whole thing on a computer that you can buy for a few hundred dollars, and with better results than in the old days. The commitment required has dropped significantly, but the image of obsession remains.

A lot of people — people who work for traditional, big communications-media operations, mainly — complain that there’s no
responsibility on the Internet; and they are right. I don’t think that this is a problem in the way they seem to think it is. I am not responsible to anyone else for the stuff that appears on Tinotopia. Not to advertisers, not to a boss, not to a board of directors, not to an editor, and not even really to you, the reader. If you’re interested, you’ll read it. If you’re not, you won’t. If I consciously tried to write things that would attract readers, I’d probably wind up actually repelling people.

But this lack of responsibility to anyone — and the lack of a necessarily significant commitment to the act of publishing — affects the message profoundly.

Someone has gone to the trouble to disseminate this information, potentially to everyone in the world! They must think this information is terribly important!

Well, no. If you spend a lot of time online, you probably know that. But if you try to explain
All Your Base Are Belong To Us to someone whose understanding of mass communications is based around traditional, centralized, profit-making media, they’re going to think you’re nuts. To people who are thinking in terms of traditional media, much of the online world looks like alt.nerd.obsessive. It’s perfectly ‘normal’ to spend large amounts of money, read magazines, go on trips, and discuss wine; in fact, to a lot of people, knowing a lot of obscure trivia about fermented fruit juice is considered a mark of refinement and culture. But put up a Potsie Fan Page and you’re a weirdo.

The lives of (most) wine people (as opposed to the lives of
winos) don’t revolve entirely around drinking wine, though, and the lives of Potsie fans are not mainly about Potsie. In traditional media, doing almost anything means a serious investment of time, money, and effort. On the Internet, this isn’t necessarily the case. With cheaper and easier communications, communication about Potsie is possible: this doesn’t mean that Potsie is particularly important to anyone but Anson Williams (who played Potsie on TV).

I have seldom seen this acknowledged, though. People who are familiar with the online world know it through osmosis, and ‘outsiders’ just dismiss the Potsie fans (etc.) as people with ‘too much time on their hands’. We’ve all got time on our hands, and we’ve all got interests that are some people might consider strange. The cheap communications and broad net means that you can aggregate enough interest in just about
any subject — not just Potsie — to make it worth talking about. Writing about open-source software development, Eric S. Raymond said that, given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. Similarly, given cheap enough communications and a broad enough audience, all subjects are interesting: just because they’re not interesting to you isn’t important.

Posted by tino at 12:42 17.03.05
This entry's TrackBack URL::

Links to weblogs that reference 'Argument and Media' from Tinotopia.