TCS Daily


Yakkety-Yak (Everybody Talk Back)

By Robert McHenry - March 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Let me sketch out a picture of a society in rapid transition and see if it seems familiar to you. As a consequence of a certain development in communication technology, many new commercial enterprises are organized, great quantities of shares of stock are bought and sold, and immense fortunes are made. The technology evolves rapidly; a whole new national infrastructure is built; and entirely new ways of conducting both business and private life emerge. News of important events is distributed faster and more widely than ever before in human history. Pundits speak of a brave new age, unlike anything known in the past, with an unlimited potential for growth and development. Recognize it? It's what happened with the invention of the telegraph.

In a scene that was once a part of every American child's history lessons, a group gathered in the chamber of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in May of 1844 and listened as a message was tapped out to Baltimore. The message was "What hath God wrought!" and note, please, that it doesn't end with a question mark but with an exclamation point.

It must have seemed miraculous, this nearly instantaneous sending of messages over great distances through little strands of metal. It was certainly the talk of the nation and of the world. It is said that one presidential candidate in the 1852 election claimed credit for having invented it, though this is disputed. Inevitably, there were skeptics. In 1854 one professional gadfly by the name of Henry David Thoreau expressed his doubts thus:

        We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to 
        Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to 
        communicate.

The key word being, of course, "important." As the taciturn Thoreau could not have imagined, there was much to talk about anyway. The historical record is silent on the matter of when the first truly stupid message was sent by wire, though no one will doubt that it was early on, or that innumerable similar ones soon followed.

History would repeat itself with Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and, later still and in spades, with the cell phone and instant messaging. But flash forward now to 1991 and the last time Al Franken was actually funny. On "Saturday Night Live" he began appearing dressed in a bush jacket and wearing a satellite dish on his pith helmet. The objects of his satire were the media correspondents in the first Gulf War, who seemed to us at home sometimes to outnumber the troops and who struggled mightily with their new real-time direct-uplink technology. The struggle wasn't to make the technology work properly. The struggle was to fill the vastness of new air time that had opened up to them. After they had interviewed everyone within reach who seemed even distantly related to the action they could not see, they stood atop their hotels and speculated on what was happening over the horizon. Then they interviewed each other on the matter of their various speculations. They did this because, with the new technology, they could, which somehow very quickly came to mean that they should. The possibilities of remaining silent or of confessing their ignorance seem never to have occurred to them or to their producers back in New York.

The collective embarrassment of the media, if they felt any, was short-lived, owing to a purely non-technological discovery: Whereas the talking head had long been the very definition of boring, turn-the-channel-quick TV, it turned out that shouting heads was something altogether different. O brave new world, that has such programming in't!

Our sundry modes of both private and mass communication possess a channel capacity that was unimaginable just a few short decades ago and for most of us still is. Where there were three, sometimes four, television channels there are now five hundred, many with "Gilligan's Island" reruns. The world's leading newspapers and opinion journals are on my computer screen. Radio, which has been given up for dead three times in my lifetime, comes to me now via satellite, in a range of carefully designed flavors. On a whim I can call any telephone on Earth from my pocket, and send a picture to boot, though email, delivered in minutes and for free, is my normal mode of correspondence. Whatever it was that we were unable to say before, owing to the thinness of our wires, we are now able to transmit freely as often as and to whomever we like.

That, at least, is the glass half full. The empty half is this: Where there were three, sometimes four television channels, one of them bringing us "Omnibus" and another "Playhouse 90," now there are five hundred, most of which might as well be showing "Gilligan's Island" reruns. In order to balance out the slanted news in the newspapers I am obliged to consult ten or a dozen blogs, not counting the links they provide to still others. I can hardly hear the radio, or concentrate on my newspaper, or hear myself think, for all the cell phone conversations going on around me, not to mention those &#*$!%@! beeps from the Nextel users. And my email inbox is full of spam.

You know that guy who has opinions on everything? You know the one I mean, because we all know at least one such person and usually many. The less they know about a given topic the more they talk. Vast volumes of verbiage are evidently drawn forth by the very vacuum of knowledge. Nature abhors too blindly, or is perhaps blessedly deaf. And then there is his cousin, the fellow who treats any silence, awkward or not, as an invitation to chatter. Technically speaking, what these guys are saying consists of "information." That is, it can be distinguished from random noise, though usually only by an expert with sensitive equipment. And now these people have technology. "My God," you want to cry, "what have we done?"

In light of this, I propose what I modestly call McHenry's Second Law*:

        The flow of "information" expands to fill any available channel, while actual
        knowledge remains scarce and available only to those willing to work at it.

The most obvious corollary of this law is that knowledge, meaning the body of useful facts and judgments about the real world, constitutes an ever-diminishing proportion of the total flow of information and, indeed, tends increasingly to be drowned out by nonsense. To illustrate my last remark: the Michael Jackson trial, or Susan Estrich.

I'm sorry, but I can offer no solution and no solace.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004). He has written for TCS about "The Faith-Based Encyclopedia" as well as about human happiness.

* McHenry's First Law states that 88% percent of all human behavior amounts to shouting "Hey! Look at me!" including, a fortiori, writing commentary columns and propounding so-called "laws."

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