Wednesday, March 5, 2008

93; Opening a Can of Worms

"So what is the problem here? In a nutshell: too many people writing about politics. Everybody's got to do a piece, and everybody's got to have an angle, and the angle is either viewing with alarm or noting with approval, and noting with approval isn't very interesting, so there's just a whole lot of viewing with alarm." -Jon Carroll, from the SF Chronicle

Number of bloggers in 1995: 0. Number in 2008: roughly the population of the United States.

I have a friend who is into worms. Earthworms, particularly, are fascinating. One may be tempted to inquire why, and one may receive answers, very enthusiastic answers, about how most earthworms in New England are actually invasive European worms and their effect on the ecosystem is monumental and the west was really won by the great deeds of worms and not men. When you walk away, blinking, you'll also have a nifty fact to parse out at cocktail parties. Or in your column.

But, my oh my, what a change I have witnessed. The poor fellow, this sympathetic creature, was subjected to earthworm study without stop for too long. To compare his portrait before and after:

Then: *Bounding with glee* I get to study earthworms! All the time! I'm going to know so much about them! *Kisses baby, does cartwheels, and breaks out in soft shoe*

Now: *Slouched over the bar, barely coherent* Wroms@! Motha...GraAaH. They...They... ...They. Wormies. Gimme 'Nother?

One can only hold out hope that some emotional duct tape will be found for him.

These topics were related in my mind when this article began and I think it had something to do with how I needed to write a column. But more than that there was the element that overexposure is a Bad Thing. Too much of a Good Thing is a Bad Thing isn't particularly newsworthy, I realize - Ah! Now I remember where I was going - and that's part of the reason for my relief in completing this writing exercise soon. Everyone is out there gabbing, but all that overexposure to gabbing has lead to an overwhelming experience.

If, as Jon Carroll points out, everyone is writing on politics, and trying for different angles and viewing with alarm, then what's the point? You only need a few people to do it. The number of people watching a tenement burn down doesn't affect the horror or the consequences. You might argue that a broader audience allows you to spread it around more. And this is useful why?

Well, the main argument is that if more people are made aware then they are better informed. And if you accept that notion then you can get good results like an informed citizenry who makes democracy work. Taking issue with the initial assumption, however, is what I'm getting at. Just because more people view the fire doesn't mean that they'll be any better informed. They still won't know the cause of the fire, or perhaps who is involved, or what's being done inside the building. See where this metaphor is going?

When it comes to politics, if you see the politician's face on the television more it doesn't mean you have a better understanding of who they are. You only get a better idea of what they look like. And if millions of people see that face it's no more likely that they as a group will have a better understanding than you did. It would be more likely that, collectively, they have a worse understanding. Rumour, gossip, misinformation: all of these are present and inflamed by the numbers of people involved.

Now, what I'm saying may be kinda dangerous. Advocating a position of limited informed citizenry is definitely a peculiar stance, I'll admit. The concern regards "just a whole lot of viewing in alarm". Sure, some people viewing with alarm can be a good thing. Alarm is often necessary. I am reminded of the fellow who came to speak a few years ago at Bennington through the Social Science Colloquium who was trying to raise awareness about Darfur. Without people like him getting the word out awareness wouldn't have been easily possible. But it is important to stress that he was a very well-informed person, who had spent time and energy on cultivating an understanding of the situation. Had we, during the Colloquium, been subjected to a presenter who wasn't very well-informed, our understanding would not have been as valuable. Or if we had heard thirteen presenters on Darfur we'd not have had exposure to all the other wonderful topics that were brought up in that series.

To wrap up: If all the bloggers are writing politics then you lose out on their value, and you lose out on all the other topics to explore. Being presented with this volume of angles and opinions and alarm can leave one overwhelmed, much like my friend who dug earthworms, but is now sick of them. Had he spiced up his investigations by occasionally dissecting butterflies instead he may have been a happier scientist.

Oh no! It''s...another column taking an angle on how people write too much about politics! The hypocrisy! The horror!

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