Monday, August 10, 2020

Just Say No to Podcasts!

The printed word is slowly dying.

I mentioned before in a 1951 edition of Galaxy magazine, Ray Bradbury published the short story called The Fireman. This later on became the novel Fahrenheit 451 which was later made into a movie.

In that dystopian future, books would be outlawed, and since houses were all fireproof, fireman would have the job of burning books if they were found in someone's home.

Printed words were deemed seditious and dangerous. People absorbed information through audio and visual means only. The only printed documents were basically comic books, or as they call them today, graphic novels.

By the way, those early editions of Galaxy magazine were pretty fantastic. Authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and others contributed to the magazine, as they only requested first publication rights and allowed the authors to retain subsequent publication rights for their works. You can read and download these documents for free at the links I have provided above. Classic science fiction - for free on your phone - itself science fiction, when I was a kid.  Handheld computers - amazing!

But getting back to our topic, it seems frightening to me that the predictions made by Mr Bradbury in 1951 seem to be coming true today. Newspapers and magazines are going out of business one after the other. The book business is struggling as bookstore after bookstore goes under. The few books that are published are sensational tones by celebrities or someone who landed a plane in the water.  Or there are books written by  people willing to do an exposé on political figures. Or the political figures themselves writing a book which is a thinly-veiled grab for money. Conservative think-tanks buy 500,000 copies of some politician's book and liberal think-tanks do likewise for their people. It's just a way of legitimately(!) transferring money from one person to another.  No one actually reads this crap, anymore than they read Healthy Holly.

Most people get their news from CNN or MSNBC or Fox News via cable television or online.  Few people read newspapers anymore, and more and more newspapers are resorting to video features on their online feeds.  They know from what we click on, what we like, and what we like is simple narratives, even if false, fed to us by spoon.

The few books that are left are sold as audio books to listen to while driving your car. People no longer blog, but rather v-log, where they stare into the camera on their laptop and drone on for hours about topics.  If they become successful enough, they can do a podcast, where you download some audio feed where the person again drones on and you listen to him.

What's wrong with this, and why is it different than print media? The thing about the printed word is so you can stop and analyze things, one idea at a time. You can re-read a sentence to see what the meaning of it is. And if you don't understand something, you can stop reading and do research either through the encyclopedia, the dictionary, or online.  It is much easier to critically evaluate things as you read them, and a lot easier to spot bullshit.

If you try to push a one-sided story, for example on Dateline NBC, it is a lot easier to do.  You can snooker people by doing long-winded introductions to induce sympathy for a murderer or other criminal, before they drop the bomb on you.   In a printed story, you can spot the bullshit much more easily - because the basic facts of the story are buried.   Well, at least astute people can spot it more easily.

I don't know how many people I've met who've told me they think some murderer is "innocent" because they saw some show on the Internet or Cable TV.  He had fetal alcohol syndrome!  His Father beat him!  He had a rough life!  Lost in the shuffle is the victims of these gruesome crimes, who are tried in absentia and found guilty of their own deaths.  These stories have great ratings and sell eyeballs, so producers keep producing them.  They are little more than propaganda pieces.

With a printed story, you can just stop and digest what you read, and think about whether it makes any sense. But when you listen to something or watch it on the television, it's jammed down your throat at the speed dictated by the author.  You have no time for reflection or analysis of what was being said. Moreover, you can't fast-forward through the boring parts and skim over what you don't want to read or what you think is superficial.  You have to accept what they say at the rate they say it.

The audio word and the video word are much better suited to propaganda and indoctrination. The printed word is far less so. I mentioned before that after the invention of radio, or more specifically broad-casting as envisioned by David Sarnoff, the world became enthralled with various dictators and strong-men.

It was not by accident. Benito Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo came to power around the same time.  They could reach a mass audience through radio.  Even President Roosevelt, who was elected four  times to office, knew that his fireside chats could reach a mass audience more effectively than the printed word.

Today, we see the same sort of pattern - people are abandoning the printed word for video and audio and coincidentally, we are seeing a rise of a new generation of petty dictators, worldwide, who use these new video and audio media to project their crazy ideas.

The only time they stoop to communicating by the written word, is to send out slogan-like phrases via Twitter. Twitter, while technically the printed word, doesn't allow for any analysis or in-depth parsing. Instead, cheap phrases and cheap shots are flowing out at lightning speed to be digested instantly without any critique.  Tweets are little more than T-shirt slogans, bumper stickers, or sound-bites, and such slogans were also the favorite of dictators in the past, from Fascists to Communists.  Workers of the world, unite!

Long-form articles are falling from favor, simply because people refuse to read them.  The most popular phrase on Reddit is "TL;DR" - itself a shorthand for "Too Long, Didn't Read".  Since everything is online today, publishers know exactly what people are reading and not reading, and long-form articles don't get read, which means they don't get click-through revenue. Thus, long-format is slowly disappearing.

More and more, I see news articles that are only available as videos which I have to download on my phone. And often these videos won't download on my phone if my connection is kind of iffy. So there becomes this digital divide between those who have high-speed internet and those who do not.  The most well-connected in our society are often the least well-informed.  500 Channels of cable, the latest smartphones, the best data plan, and high-speed internet, and yet they are voting for Trump.  The worst sort of hovels and trailer homes have three or four satellite dishes screwed into the sides of them.

As I have noted before, we've been cutting cords one by one.  Cable TV was the first to go.   Internet service - via cable, fiber, or phone line, was next.   We still have service through our phones, but increasingly, we are downloading less and less.  It seems just last month, YouTube decided to up their advertising content by a factor of five.  It is painful to watch YouTube anymore, which is why I stopped watching it.   Others have a higher threshold of pain.

On the whole, I don't think I'm missing much. Most of these news videos are very superficial, along the lines of a nightly news story. As I noted before in The Nightly Nooze, the 22 minute format of your typical news program provides for a little information. The news anchor reads the entire story and then cuts away to a local reporter who is maybe three countries away from the incident. They basically repeat everything the anchor said, and then says, "Back to you!"

Again, there's very little time for reflection or analysis. The information is flowing at you at the speed of light - you either have to accept it or reject it. And there's very little room for embellishment or nuance either.

Some readers have sent me articles that they thought might be of interest to me . And it's interesting to read some of these articles. But some of these articles are V-logs or podcasts or YouTube videos which are tedious and take a long time to watch - some a half-hour or more!  I can read a lot faster than that!  Oftentimes, the producer of these videos spends 20 minutes saying something that could be said in five. And it gets very frustrating, waiting for someone to get to the point. It's sort of like listening to a Rush Limbaugh broadcast, where he keeps saying he's going to come up with all this devastating information about Hillary, but first he has to cut to a commercial to sell some of his neckties. By the time he comes back, he's forgotten all about Hillary and moved on to something else. All you're left with is a feeling that Hillary is somehow a bad person but you're not exactly sure why because Rush never told you.  Perhaps this is by design.

A lot of these video bloggers and podcasters are the same way. For example with regard to our little home island, people drone on and on in long videos about how the Federal Reserve was founded at Jekyll Island and this is a horrible thing. But they never say explicitly why it is such a bad thing only imply it over and over again.

It's the old Hitler technique of, if I say it three times it is true.  Create a background Greek chorus of voices saying things are bad or people are bad, and pretty soon, folks believe it - it is a baseline belief.   Jews are causing all the trouble in the world!   How, exactly?   Well, I can't explain it, you have to listen to Hitler's podcasts, though!  He makes it very clear!

To be sure, there are still a few print periodicals out there - although most people read them online.  But the few that remain have become far more slanted in their coverage - propaganda pieces for the Left or Right.  And although I have no scientific data, it seems that the length of the articles is shrinking over time - while advertising space is increasing.  And as I noted before, even staid old-line newspapers have videos on their websites these days.

Video, one would think, would be compelling. After all, it provides eyewitness views of an incident. The Vietnam War was the first really televised war, and yet, most Americans had polarized views about that war.  If you watched Walter Cronkite every evening, and saw the videos from the war zone - as well as the nightly "body counts" - you would think we were winning that war.  Yet a whole generation was convinced otherwise, and of course, we weren't in fact winning, and it doesn't look like we would have - failing extreme measures.  And the side we were fighting for (the Catholic Church, essentially) wasn't even popular with their own citizens.

Video can be incomplete or hard to figure out.  The Ahmaud Aubery video, for example, goes out of frame at critical moments, and starts at a time long after the men involved started chasing him around the development in pickup trucks. Depending upon your preconceived notions, you can read whatever you want into the video - that Aubery struggled to take the gun away (as the initial encounter occurs out-of-frame) or a lynch mob set out to murder a black man.   The video doesn't solve much, although without it, perhaps no one would be charged.

But video can be edited and modified to suit the ends of the publisher.   These "deep fake" videos are a more modern example, and very concerning.  What is concerning is that people believe them, even after they are exposed as fake.  But even before this sort of electronic trickery was invented, there were simpler ways of manipulating video - by editing start and stop times, camera angles, and what is and isn't viewed. Or, as with the "Collateral Murder" video put up by the Russian-backed Wikileaks organization, you can edit the video into segments, combine it with audio from other segments, and then put captions on each scene to tell people what they are seeing so as to frame a narrative.

Video, as it turns out, doesn't solve much.  In some cases, it is no better than "eyewitness" testimony.  I think that if there was security camera video of OJ Simpson murdering his wife, he still would not have been convicted.   People see what they want to see.  I watch (or used to watch, before all the ads) dash-cam videos on YouTube.   Some young kid races along through city streets doing 50 mph in a 30 zone, and when someone pulls out in front of him, he laments that it was "the other guy's fault" for the inevitable accident and the video "proves" it - after all, causation!

In short, video will show you want you are predisposed to want to see - and can be easily manipulated to make you see what they want you to see.

The other problem with audio and video versus print is that it takes time and money to make compelling video and audio presentations.  A professionally produced video takes about 10-50 minutes of time, in shooting, editing, and post-production, for every minute of resulting video.  And that's being conservative.   Unless you just point-and-shoot with your cell phone and upload "raw" video to YouTube, it can take hours to create just one five-minute video and do it well.

So video and audio channels favor deep pockets.  The more money you have to spend on a video or audio production, the better and more compelling you can make it (and the better it is for propaganda). The written word, on the other hand, is far more egalitarian.  It is a lot harder to respond to a piece on the "evening news" - particularly after the FCC got rid of "equal time".    But anyone can write a "Letter to the Editor" and in fact, newspapers encourage this, as it is cheaper than hiring their own staff to write.

Of course, I am ranting against what undoubtedly is the future.  We will become a more and more video and audio society as time goes on.  Already many products you buy don't come with instruction manuals, but rather a bar code that links you to an unboxing video (what the ever-loving..?).  Pretty soon, documentation may be entirely obsolete.   Perhaps.

In the meantime, I will fight the trend, if only because I don't have a half-hour of my time to waste, waiting for some podcaster to get to the ever-loving point.  It is like listening to these "Zoo" guys on "morning drive time" - they talk an awful lot, but never seem to say anything - of merit, anyway.

TL;DR - Podcasts suck!