As I See It: Expanding Reach And Shrinking Intelligence
February 27, 2017 Victor Rozek
For those of us accustomed to ingesting information in scraps, the Lincoln-Douglas debates would have been a month’s worth of forced-feeding. Lincoln, the challenger, and Douglas, the Senate incumbent from Illinois, jousted seven times in seven cities adhering to a format that would shrivel today’s sound bite-spouting politicians, and overwhelm voters with truncated attention spans.
The first candidate would speak for a solid hour, followed by a 90-minute rebuttal, topped-off by a 30-minute rejoinder from the first speaker. Three hours of political debate; three hours of issues and remedies, analysis and inspiration, with speakers erudite enough to keep audiences engaged and entertained.
The communication technology of the day was the printing press and newspapers reported the debates with as much fervor as the candidates.
Move the clock ahead 75 years, and modern technology begins to exert its inexorable influence on political discourse. FDR turns to radio for his “fireside chats.” There were 30 of them spanning the Depression and war years, each averaging slightly less than a half hour in length. There was less talk but greater reach, and the illusion of personal connection. Quantity was sacrificed in favor of intimacy. And, from a speaker’s perspective, radio’s near-universal saturation was enhanced by its promise of accuracy. Unlike newspaper transcriptions, which in Lincoln’s day could be notoriously partisan, radio, remarked FDR, “cannot misrepresent or misquote.”
Just 16 years later, the Kennedy/Nixon debates cemented the role of television in determining political fortunes. For the first time, appearance played a major part in electability, as a sweating Nixon looked decidedly less presidential than the urbane and drier Kennedy.
Over the last several election cycles social media has played an increasingly pivotal role, both in raising record amounts of cash and getting a candidate’s personalized message to the voters. Barak Obama was the first to understand the power of social media to do more than troll for money. His campaign was able to compile a database of millions of supporters who could be engaged and mobilized on demand.
“By bolting together social networking applications under the banner of a movement, they created an unforeseen force to raise money, organize locally, fight smear campaigns, and get out the vote that helped them topple the Clinton machine and then John McCain and the Republicans,” wrote David Carr for The New York Times.
But perhaps the most volatile aspect of social media was its ability to create what Carr calls “an online movement that begot offline behavior.”
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump is the first to use social media, particularly Twitter, not only as a campaign tool but as an instrument of governance. Metaphorically, in Trump’s hands, Twitter has become the electronic adaptation of a ruler’s sword used to smite his enemies.
Kevin Quealy and Jasmine Lee of The New York Times studied over 14,000 tweets made by Trump during the past two years. That’s about 19 each day, and one in every nine was an insult. As they studied the targets and duration of the tweets, certain patterns emerged.
“First, Mr. Trump likes to identify a couple of chief enemies and attack them until they are no longer threatening enough to interest him. He hurls insults at these foils relentlessly, for sustained periods – weeks or months. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton have all held Mr. Trump’s attention in this way; nearly one in every three insults in the last two years has been directed at them.”
They also saw a free-floating vindictiveness aimed at convenient targets du jour. “There’s a nearly constant stream of insults in the background directed at a wider range of subjects,” writes Quealy. “These insults can be a response to a news event, unfavorable media coverage, or criticism…”
Thus, Trump’s flaming sword descends upon judges, reporters, news organizations, intelligence agencies, and such notable threats to the Republic as Alec Baldwin, Rosie O’Donnell, and Nordstrom.
Carr notes that the founders of America wanted a government that reflected its citizens but that was also removed “from the baser impulses of the mob.” Trump, however, has found the perfect instrument to legitimize and unleash those baser impulses. The limitations of social media are better suited to inflammatory pronouncement rather than nuanced discussion.
One of the unintended consequences of technology – social media in particular – is that it traded narrow exposure with deep content (as was the case in Lincoln’s time) for wide exposure with shallow content. Politicians can engage on their own terms, without being challenged by pesky reporters. Frustrations not only find instant outlets, but instant sympathizers.
Albert Camus, who never envisioned Twitter, nonetheless captured its appeal: “How intoxicating to feel like God the Father and to hand out definitive testimonials of bad character and habits.” But the disadvantage in exacting Twitter vengeance is that targets tend to remember and become potent antibodies to the governing agenda.
Anthropologists have long noted that a distinguishing characteristic of Humankind is the ability to make tools. Although not exclusively a human trait, toolmaking requires not only the intelligence to create tools, but also the skills to use them. And as tools grew in complexity and morphed into machines, the intelligence required to build, maintain, and operate them grew exponentially.
But one essential element changed with the advent of computer technology: for the first time intelligence was built into the product. And the more intelligent the product became, the less intelligent users could afford to be. And so it is with political messaging that once relied on high oratory but has now devolved into vindictive impulse gratification.
Winston Churchill once remarked that: “A man is about as big as the things that make him angry.”
You can draw your own conclusions.