Think, Pig

In Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the wealthy Pozzo enters, with his servant Lucky at the end of a halter. After promising the two tramps, Didi and Gogo, that Lucky will entertain them, Pozzo roars at Lucky: "Think, pig!" Lucky opens his mouth, and out comes an outpouring of strange fragments, half-wistful, half-intellectual.

Recently, I saw the play performed, and exited thinking about the plight of the thinker for pay, believing that Beckett may have had himself in mind when he created Lucky. Today's thinker is lucky to be able to think for pay, lucky to have an audience, but, exactly in the sense in which McLuhan intended the words, once again the medium is the message.

When you think for pay--exactly what I have spent most of my life doing, as have most of the thinkers in this world-- the coin debases the idea, if not at once, then sooner or later. Thinking for pay is thinking in a frame. Depending on your profession, a borderline sits close or far, beyond which a thought will not earn a dollar. Lawyers must worry about this, and so do tenured University professors; members of each profession know that their thoughts, like lawns, must be manicured a certain way to earn their daily re-admittance to the closed world of the profession.

Just one year ago, Mark Mangan and I began writing our book, Sex, Laws and Cyberspace, which begins with an introduction arguing that the reason that people find the Internet dangerous is because it represents an instantaneous-- and what is far more important, unmediated-- mass medium. Every medium has its gatekeepers; to communicate an idea, you must persuade an editor, a publisher, or a producer, that it has value. It is for this reason, of course, that the only ideas which can win presentation by the mass media must first be able to pass through the neck of a Coke bottle.

Ironically, we won the right to present our ideas about the Net and free speech to the world by persuading a Henry Holt editor to pay us for them. In the draft of one chapter of the book, I took a somewhat gratuitous sideswipe at Newt Gingrich; in another chapter, I speculated that a Senator was really representing the NRA, not the mining companies of his home state, when he opposed taggants in black powder. Our editor made me remove both references, in one case writing a petulant comment in the margin--"Come on! You know better!"

On the Internet, by contrast, I have published eighteen monthly issues of The Ethical Spectacle. No-one pays me to do it, and I say whatever I want, posting it on the Net without anyone else's permission. I cannot make a living on the Net--I have not tried--and I am happy to say I do not need to. No-one mediates my speech. The comments that were excluded from the book live on happily in my Web pages (see Newt Gingrich's Divided Brain). For all the pious lip service we pay in this country to the First Amendment, one thing I have learned in the last two years is that most people think it means that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of mediated speech--because there is no need for government to intervene so long as you have an editor, publisher or producer telling you how far you can go.

It is remarkable how few of us feel entitled to speak our minds. If not the government, there is always the neighbor, the school your child must continue to attend, or the boss who may react to the expression of a candid opinion. As long as our thought runs along the publicly delineated rails we are all fine. An English student I knew in Paris commented that he knew enough French to understand a politician speaking on TV, but not enough to actually formulate an opinion. That is how much English most of us know in America.

I learned more about the perils of thinking for pay when I started doing media for the book. I made four appearances on TV and was on five radio shows. The following is a progression of a sentence from a technical-legal article, to the book, to radio:

Writing for a legal or scholarly audience, trying to persuade them that broadcast was not the right metaphor for the regulation of the Internet, I would say something like, "As Judge Cardozo observed, judges and legislatures trying to determine the correct rules to apply to a new medium must look to the past. The decision to treat the Internet as if it were a broadcast medium represents a significant loss for the freedom of speech."

In the book, in capitals, we stated the "moral" of our story as follows:


We were proud to think we had crystallized a meme in some rather catchy language. The phrase has since been quoted approvingly in a New York Times review of our book, and elsewhere. But when I opened my mouth to try to say it on the radio, here's what came out instead:

"The Internet is a giant library, and the Communications Decency Act is a book-burning law."

Not necessarily bad--just that I was thinking on someone else's dollar, and was obediently trying to follow the rules, as I had when I deleted the criticism of Mr. Gingrich from my manuscript. In this case, I was engaged in a four-way trade with the producer of a radio show. He was trading exposure for the book for my thoughts, and he was using my thoughts to keep his audience interested, and then trading the audience to his sponsor for dollars. If all worked out well, his sponsors would keep giving him dollars, the audience would keep listening, and I would sell copies of my book.

Now, the typical story of a media embarassment or disaster involves a complete mismatch of expectations or even a dire manipulation of the citizen appearing on the show. When Jerry Mander, author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, was invited to appear on a TV talk show, he declined, saying that he didn't think he could communicate his ideas effectively on the very medium they attacked. My experiences, actually rather enjoyable, never involved a head-on collision with the commercial goals of my interlocutors; I could tell you a few stories about interviewers who obviously hadn't read the book (most hadn't) or didn't understand the Net. But what I am most interested in is a little different: how difficult it is to express an idea on the air even when you are talking to an intelligent host and have an hour to get your thoughts out.

My first radio appearance was on the Bob Levey show on WMAL-FM in Washington. Bob is a very nice and smart guy, whose politics I mostly share. And he sketched out the rules of the road for me as follows: "No five minute disquisitions on the rainforest." Now, in polite society I might label as a bore someone who talks to me about an unwelcome topic for an hour; but on radio, five minutes is an eternity, enough time for the entire audience to switch to a competing station. So, as soon as you understand what your interviewers want, you start recasting your entire thesis as-- a series of telegrams. "Freedom of speech on Net under dire attack stop. Loony religious rightwingers trying to impose views on us all stop." Neil Postman has made the point that the telegraph ruined what the printing press created; it flooded the world, and the newspapers, with little slivers of irrelevant information (like Lucky's sentence fragments.) McLuhan points up the difference between the newspaper as a collection of essays and as a collection of telegrams. Certainly, if I had been asked to write my book in the form of a collection of telegrams, I would not have wanted to; so trying to translate it to that format, for broadcast media, was edifying.

Of course, one could be telegrammatic and boring; in order for your particular telegram to stand out from the page--or the montage--you want to make it as spicy as possible. And that is what happened, unconsciously, when I called the Communications Decency Act a book-burning law. It sounded great, but it was overkill. In a more serious debate, I would have said something like, "The Act doesn't promote parental responsibility-- it doesn't promote your ability to decide what comes into your house. Instead, it chills people from placing information on that giant server, the Internet." These words, to me, seem lucid enough, and not overly technical. But I was afraid that to Bob Levey, they would have been equivalent to a five minute disquisition on the rainforest. But calling the CDA a "book-burning law" said more than I wanted to say. In a debate with a proponent of the CDA, it would have been construed as more attack than communication.

Which would have been exactly what the doctor ordered on a TV talk show I did on the America's Talking network. Here, the host put me on for forty-five minutes opposite Patrick Trueman, legislative affairs director of the Reverend Donald Wildmon's American Family Association. Trueman accused me of "wanting to let the perverts go"; the host signalled me with covert hand gestures when he wanted me to interrupt Trueman. Again, I had fun, and felt I gave as good as I got--but what the audience got was ideas recast as blunt instruments cast in a spectacle; a viewer would have had to gum his way through two or three layers to get to an idea.

When we design a database, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the metadata, the data about the data; and, if we are good designers, at the end of the day we leave the metadata exposed, as a schema or diagram that future designers can use when they wish to continue our work. It is perhaps a sign of the extreme arteriosclerotal clogging of our media that the metadata are so thoroughly hidden. Talking on radio about the limits of radio is almost, by definition, impossible; the rules regarding what you can and cannot say, prevent you, of course, from talking about what you cannot say, unless you merely hint at it in veiled mysterious terms. And if you tried to educate an audience that it is listening to a censored medium, the audience would probably become anxious, and the sponsors wouldn't much like it either. I got a little flash of this twice on radio, when I referred to the seven dirty words you can't say on the air.

What I learned from doing media can be summed up as follows: You can't really discuss ideas, because they are either too explicit, or too boring; there is no middle ground. But the media have an insatiable appetitite, and along with everything else available as food, consume the thinkers. One morning, I went on a business news show on CNBC; I spent half an hour in the "green room", waiting to be called, chatting idly with three other victims, all of whom were scheduled to go on the air before me. One was a stockbroker, another a woman who knew about pension plans, and the third was going to predict what the actresses would wear to the Oscars the next day. It occurred to me that all over America, other people were sitting in other green rooms, all grist for the mill, waiting for their five minutes of exposure, and "Lucky" to get it.

The thinkers, as they are being consumed, are encouraged to recast their ideas as little clubs or spears, to whack someone with, because this is what gets an audience which can be sold to the sponsors. But when you comply, you have done your little part to assist in the destruction of democratic discourse in America. Between Patrick Trueman and myself, once he has called me a sympathizer with perverts and I have called him a book-burner, there can be no understanding. Maybe there couldn't have been anyway. But when people write email to me about something they read in the Spectacle they greatly disagreed with--about God, guns or Gingrich-- most of the time a respectful conversation occurs, and we go away understanding each other a little better. Broadcast is not about conversation or understanding.

Neil Postman also makes the point that radio is a wasted opportunity. You can blame television's ills on the graphics, on the fact that it needs to be visual. But radio seemed, at the outset, like an opportunity for conversation. Instead, it has become what McLuhan called "the tribal drum." He wrote the words thirty years before Radio Milles Collines hurled the Hutus on the Tutsis in Rwanda, resulting in the slaughter of a half million people. It was a job radio is apparently much better suited to do than to promote cooperation and the solution to our mutual problems.