The Information Highway: More Like a Roller Coaster

On March 20, 2009, the AFP reported that President Obama initiated a new type of diplomacy -- "YouTube diplomacy" -- to usher in better relations between Iran and the United States. Although TechPresident.com's Andrew Rasiej boasted that the publicly viewable foreign policy communiqué "allowed Obama to deliver his words directly and unfiltered to the Iranian people," it's safer to see this as a harbinger of the dangers attending the openness of post-modern technology.

In this day of embedded war reporters, live footage of car chases, airplane crashes, hostage situations, and ubiquitous cell devices that allow us to take our phones, our email, and our television wherever we go, we appear lost when it comes to ascertaining which advances are a curse and which are a blessing. For events of the day and political messages don't simply come to us quicker than they once did -- they actually come to us with an unchecked immediacy.

Therefore, if Obama's "YouTube diplomacy" teaches us anything, it's that our ever-evolving technologies may be driving us more than we are driving them.

Today's news has been transformed into an image-laden medium delivered with a totality that overwhelms our senses. In his 1985 book  Amusing Ourselves To Death, social critic Neil Postman foresaw the capacity to disperse such a deluge of information and predicted "that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism." And if apathy and self-centeredness aren't two of our most prominent traits in the 21st century, what are?

Others, more recent than Postman, have also indicated the impact that  imminent news reporting has on people and culture. For example, in 2001, Cindy Petterson described how former President George H.W. Bush once "ended a presidential press conference [by] saying he had to leave to call the President of Turkey.  In Ankara, [the President of Turkey] turned off CNN, walked into his office, picked up the ringing phone and said 'Hello, Mr. President.'"

This "CNNization of the world," which Postman saw as "television [presenting] itself as a carrier of important cultural conversation," presses down on us with an almost irresistible force. It's an encroaching technology that crosses borders, as the episode between Bush and the president of Turkey so aptly demonstrated.

But physical borders aren't the only lines disregarded by this immediacy;  it has no respect for ethical parameters either. For example, how many times have news choppers filming high-speed car chases unintentionally broadcast the suicide of the pursued? Whether the suicide is the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a purposeful head-on collision with oncoming traffic, or death by policeman, these images are seared into our minds as "unfiltered" news is thrown at us with great rapidity.

When a DC-10 crashed at Sioux City's airport in July 1989, Americans were riveted yet pained by the video of the plane flipping end over end on the runway in a ball of fire. But if that same incident took place today there's a good chance it would barely be newsworthy. Who wants to watch a plane flipping like that if the video doesn't also involve close-ups of blood and bodily carnage?

Live broadcasts that may contain a suicide have so conditioned us that there has to be a human element in the news presentation or we've no time for it. But ironically, the inclusion of the human element in this particular way is dehumanizing  for it shows our fellow man not simply at a point of pain, but often at a point of disembodiment; it actually makes our fellow man part of the sideshow that serves to distract us from the mundane.

There has been a great perversion and we, as a consequence, are in sensory overload. Thus to keep our attention, both the news and Obama's foreign policy positions are delivered via a scripted blitz from which we can hardly turn away.  Postman described this well when he wrote: "The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event."

In praising Obama's "YouTube diplomacy," Rasiej missed the profundity of his own words when he said: "[This] has the opportunity to reinvent diplomacy by not only having diplomats talk to each other but by engaging citizens talking to each other, debating common issues and goals." In other words, this type of foreign policy delivery makes everyone a diplomat.

Perhaps this is good news unless you're a real diplomat, because real diplomats understand that if everyone is a diplomat then being one is overrated at best, unnecessary at worst. To put it plainly -- there is no need for such a specialty when there's nothing special about diplomacy.

Another frightening aspect of "unfiltered" technology is the speed by which it catapults us through life. In 1967, when Ronald Reagan said, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction," the generations to which he spoke moved much slower than we do. Unchecked immediacy almost guarantees that when the freedom-squashing generation Reagan feared arises, it will diminish freedom with a quickness that even the Great Communicator did not foresee.

But what else can we expect? This is where too much immediacy, and certainly unchecked immediacy, brings us as it carries us from media event to media event or news report to news report.

We see our fellow man killed or killing in real time. We see plane crashes as they happen and listen to cockpit recordings of terror. We watch as hostage crises unfold. We even become diplomats. Yet through it all we remain numb, waiting for the next level of reporting to be developed in the same way those who frequent amusement parks wait for a faster roller coaster to be unveiled.