Truth and Beauty

Medical Visuals

Medical Visuals

Over the past decade I have become a most reluctant television star. The camera, as they say, is drawn to me. I only wish I could say that I’ve enjoyed the attention. If you’ve seen my work, you may be surprised to know that I’m actually extremely shy, and still uncomfortable in front of a camera. In fact, judging by the latest round of auditions for American Idol, I’ve come to think that I may be the last surviving American who can imagine living a full life without once appearing on television. And yet it seems to be my destiny to be hounded by people who will go to any lengths — sparing no expense — to see me appear on their TV screens.

Perhaps you’ve seen my work. I don’t like to boast, but I’ve appeared on TV screens from coast to coast, and I’ve been responsible for some truly memorable on-screen moments. It all began with the MRI scan of my lower abdomen in the mid-’90s — an immature work, I’ll admit, but it was early in my career. In fact, I hadn’t really pursued a career at all; like Lana Turner, I was plucked from obscurity by an eagle-eyed talent scout who spotted me slumped on a plastic chair in a San Francisco emergency room. How was I to guess that one day I would be recognized as the most accomplished medical imaging performer of my generation?

I gained confidence slowly — a CT scan of my skull, a couple chest X-rays, a few more casual MRIs. Sure, I was flattered when doctors and technicians praised these early efforts — who wouldn’t be? But I was something of a dilettante, a dabbler in the world of medical imaging. I didn’t really begin to sense my gift until my first encounter with nuclear medical imaging, when I was asked to swallow a “contrast media.” I enjoyed the vaguely Videodrome-esque possibilities in being allowed to eat the media, but quickly learned that barium and radioactive isotopes are not my medium. Still, it wasn’t long until the cameras were inside my body, instead of hovering around me, and I had discovered my calling. In the past ten years my internal organs have logged more screen time than Dr. Phil.

I don’t know what the object of television studies is these days, but my experience with the profession of medical imaging has brought me into contact with an entire world of digital video technology and imagery that is barely mentioned in the literature of television and media studies. Of course, this apparently invisible screen culture hides in plain sight, where it is taken for granted by millions upon millions of people who encounter it every day. Perhaps it’s time to focus a bit more of our attention on the technology, industry, and visualization strategies of medical imaging.

The NBC television network is the most visible face of General Electric, and, like all television networks, its principal task is to create wealth for the company by making and circulating images to a public with an apparently insatiable appetite for images. But NBC is not the only business in the GE corporate empire that trades in images, nor is it even the most valuable. The GE Healthcare division generates twice the annual revenue of NBC, largely by facilitating the production of images that circulate only within the halls and computer networks of the health care industry, where GE is the industry leader in diagnostic medical imaging.

Inside the body, on your TV

Inside the body, on your TV

Medical imaging doesn’t hold the glamour of network TV, but its images are vastly more profitable. Since many of these technologies employ proprietary high-tech hardware and software under exclusive patent to GE, the images carry a hefty price tag even though they have no value in an economy of images recognized by the general public. Instead, images made by scanning and fluoroscopic technologies have a singular, functional value for medical practitioners. When interpreted by a trained specialist, they serve as evidence in an investigation; their value increases along with their proven accuracy. The expense of creating and interpreting these images, while contributing to the skyrocketing cost of health care, makes this a lucrative business for GE, which hopes to maintain its dominance in an industry that appears to be poised for limitless growth, particularly considering the future health care needs of aging, relatively affluent populations.

A recent television commercial in GE’s “imagination at work” campaign portrays GE medical imaging technology not only as one of the company’s many innovative products, but also as an essential contribution to the history of western civilization. The commercial takes just thirty seconds to present a sweeping history of human techniques for making images. The rapidly-edited sequence mixes images of instantly recognizable icons with the technologies used to record them: paintings from a prehistoric cave and an ancient Egyptian tomb, a Renaissance portrait, an image produced by a camera obscura, galloping horses frozen in stride by Edweard Muybridge, an early motion picture camera and the Edison company’s famous filmed “Kiss,” an x-ray of a human hand, a shot of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s surface, ultra-slow-motion footage of a hummingbird in flight, time-lapse footage of a flower in bloom, and a distant galaxy revealed by the Hubble space telescope.

As the images cascade, a narrator makes the case for GE: “To the list of the most extraordinary images ever captured, GE humbly submits … the beating human heart.” The screen fills with a startling, lovely image: a living human heart isolated against a black background, rendered in real-time as a three-dimensional image. Unlike an x-ray or a conventional MRI, this scanned image doesn’t require a leap of imagination or a consultation with a specialist to be legible to the untrained eye; it has the precision and clarity of a motion picture, but also an undeniable beauty – a hint of poetic hyperrealism in the emotionally and symbolically resonant image of a beating heart.

Science fiction has promised a chance to peer inside the human body without the need to penetrate flesh, and in this advertisement GE fulfils the promise. In the commercial for GE imaging technology, the physical characteristics of the body — the flesh and bone that are seen as obstacles to diagnosis and treatment — disappear before the penetrating gaze of GE technology. By transforming the body into an image, technology facilitates treatment. What’s striking about the GE commercial, however, is not the instrumental argument in favor of imaging technologies, but that fact that GE makes an essentially aesthetic claim for its new technology: GE has transformed a real human heart into a beautiful image. The question is: why? Why promote diagnostic medical technology by insisting that beauty is truth?

Image Credits:

1. Medical Visuals

2. Inside the body, on your TV

Please feel free to comment.




Little Green Men

by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University

Ecomagination

Ecomagination

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about rapacious corporations that lay waste to the land and foul the waters. Those were corporations of the twentieth century, an unfortunate age of extraction and exploitation when the febrile embrace of industry despoiled vast swaths of the natural world so that the planet’s privileged few might know the blessings of the discount superstore.

Here in the twenty-first century, a new age has dawned; a new world beckons. Industries are being transformed before our eyes, not by the action of governments or the pressure of political activists, but by the enlightened self-interest of companies that have committed themselves to restoring the ecological balance of an exhausted planet. Saving the world has become the blueprint for the twenty-first century business plan.

This new corporate philosophy is so radical, so fundamentally innovative and inspirational, that the English language has proven sadly insufficient to the task of describing it. Fortunately for those of us who use the language without making any contributions of our own, General Electric has accepted the responsibility for coining a word to describe the corporate philosophy that will transform our world. GE calls it ecomaginationTM.

The invention of this word is a tale of corporate conviction. This isn’t a word scribbled in haste on a cocktail napkin by a corporate vice-president. GE spent tons of money — $90 million by some estimates — to create the word, ecomaginationTM, and to launch it on its journey into the English language. In fact, GE hired BBDO Worldwide, a subsidiary of the Omnicom Group, the world’s largest advertising company, to create and test market the ord before introducing it in May with advertising campaigns in magazines, television, and the Internet.

Perhaps you’ve seen the magazine ad with a tree growing out of a smokestack. Or you may have seen ads in which the coils of a jet engine or a power turbine evoke the elegant whorls of a seashell?

GE Advertisement

GE Advertisement

If you watched television this spring, you may have seen the commercial [click for commercial] in which a digital elephant in a rain forest signals his endorsement of General Electric by dancing to “Singin’ In the Rain.” Each in its own way is an example of comaginationTM — “a GE commitment,” “addressing the problems of tomorrow, today.”

Skeptics among you may point to the trademark symbol and complain that ecomaginationTM is nothing but a corporate slogan, or that the accompanying advertising campaign is merely corporate propaganda. With its Epcot Center vibe, ecomaginationTM is a grotesque word, hardly a contribution to the English language, and nothing like a coherent philosophy for environmental change. If that’s what you think, then shame on you! Your cynicism betrays an unhealthy attachment to twentieth-century habits of mind. How can we hope to solve the problems of the world if you refuse to believe that a corporation can be trusted? Why won’t you believe that a company can change? Have you learned nothing from Oprah and Dr. Phil?

Somewhere in the back of your mind, you may have trace memories of General Electric from the twentieth century. Perhaps you recall one of the world’s largest companies, with a reputation for ruthless cost-cutting and spectacular earnings; owner of the NBC television network and the dominant manufacturer in such traditional smokestack industries as locomotives, jet engines, and electrical turbines; a champion of the nuclear power industry, military contractor, and the subject of numerous lawsuits over the dumping of PCBs and other environmental wastes. If that’s your image of GE, then you need to watch the dancing elephant dancing elephant again.

Forget the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century the Earth has no greater friends than CEO Jeff Immelt and the little green men and women of GE. But why should I tell you this, when you can click here and see Jeff himself explain ecomaginationTM? How can you doubt a man who is so sincere, who speaks to you from a website so overwhelmingly green? As he introduces himself to you as Jeff (not the more formal, Jeffrey), his posture is casual, and he’s not wearing a jacket; his hands are folded modestly at his waist, his delivery unstudied — a bit awkward and repetitive. This is not a corporate flack. This is a man so genuine in his commitment to environmentalism that his silhouette turns green when he finishes speaking!

For anyone who understands the scope of the GE corporate empire or who has an awareness of its long history of destructive environmental practices, the ecomaginationTM campaign is risible. Its ambitions are so naked and its rhetorical appeals so flagrant that it makes critical analysis seem ridiculous. Is it really necessary to perform a detailed ideological critique of the dancing elephant in order to understand its persuasive intent? At least one goal of the campaign, therefore, is to erase those memories that stand in the way of one’s innocent enjoyment of a dancing elephant.

If anything is striking about the GE campaign, it is the absence of historical awareness in a PR campaign aimed at revising conceptions of a corporation inherited largely from the past. Who cares how we came to inhabit a world so befouled that environmental cleanup has become a growth industry? Who knows whether GE is one of those companies that polluted the environment? GE wants to be our green knight in shining armor, but it will not issue public apologies, nor seek absolution for its sins. The past simply does not exist when one has ecomaginationTM.

Specialists in branding and public relations believe that a company as large and diversified as GE is essentially incomprehensible except as a series of images. With the ecomaginationTM campaign, GE is conducting a social experiment to test this theory. Can a corporation rewrite its history and transform its identity by wiping clean the slate of cultural memory? If you remember the twentieth century, GE will have failed.

Postscript
Once you’ve viewed the dancing elephant, scroll down the page to see GE’s delirious commercial for coal gasification technology. It’s the one with the hard-bodied male and female supermodels working in a coal mine to the accompaniment of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing “Sixteen Tons.”

I don’t have space enough to write about this commercial, but it would be a shame for you to miss what has to be one of the most demented commercials ever made. This is probably as close as we’ll ever come to seeing one of Dick Cheney’s erotic fantasies. And even this may be too close.

Image Credits:
1. Ecomagination
2. GE Advertisement

Links
Daniel Marcus on Citibank’s “Live Richly” campaign
Seth Stevenson —Ad Report Card

Please feel free to comment.




Flotsam

by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University

Flotsam

Flotsam

Suppose you’re starting a new electronic publication devoted to smart writing about television and emerging media. You might call this publication, Flow. A brilliant choice: succinct and evocative, familiar yet still fresh. It’s an ideal word for its purpose and yet it hasn’t exhausted the possibilities. Let’s imagine another publication about television. Let’s call this one, Flotsam.

While Flotsam is an alliterative title plucked from the same realm of watery metaphors as Flow, we must consider the differences: waters flow smoothly. Waters flow in the here and now (the flow is called a current, after all); because no human observer can perceive more than an instant of the waters’ swift passage, the flow’s past and future are at best dimly imagined when one gazes upon a current. Waters flow in a single direction-relentlessly forward. As a metaphor for the human experience of time, flow reminds us-as an ancient talk show host once observed-that we can’t step into the same river twice.

As a metaphor, flotsam — the pieces of a ship’s wreckage found floating on the water’s surface — suggests a different relationship to the passage of time. Flotsam disrupts the smooth surface of the present, hinting at calamities that occurred sometime in the past. Flotsam lies hidden in water’s depths, indifferent to its flow. It breaks loose and bobs unexpectedly and unpredictably to the surface as ruined fragments of something that once moved forward and once was whole. Flotsam is a testament to misfortune, a haunting reminder of the past in the here and now.

For those initiated into the cult of academic television studies, flow conjures up the pioneering work of Raymond Williams. His use of the term to describe American television in the 1970s survives as a fundamental concept in television studies. Even a casual reader can appreciate the richness of the metaphor: it invokes the physical flow of electrons that makes television possible; the calculated flow of television content from one program or commercial to another, and a distinctive way of experiencing a broadcast medium over which a viewer may exert little control.

As metaphor and critical concept, flow encourages us to see television from a perspective influenced by the meanings embedded in the word. Television is an abundant, steady stream that emanates from a source, occurs in the unfolding present, and moves, smoothly and readily, forward. In much of our critical writing, we construct precisely this image of television. Oddly, the television industry — which wants nothing more than for viewers and policymakers to focus on the Next Big Thing — also encourages this image of television in countless ways. Thinking of television in terms of flow may have descriptive value, but does it have any value as a critical concept if it simply recapitulates the strategies of self-promotion employed by the TV industry?

Television might look different in a publication titled Flotsam, where writers seek peculiar fragments of the past that bob unexpectedly to the surface of awareness, indifferent to television’s flow and contrary to the designs of the television industry.

Last Thursday evening a television viewer in Bloomington, Indiana may have floated comfortably along the flow of the top-rated CBS schedule, from Survivor to C.S.I. and every commercial in-between. But Friday morning’s newspaper brought a jolt from the past and an unexpected encounter with CBS. A judge in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the environmental group, Protect Our Woods, could move forward with a lawsuit originally filed against the Environmental Protection Agency and CBS in 2000 — five years and three appeals ago. The suit charges that the EPA and CBS have failed to clean up three hazardous-waste sites in Bloomington that have existed for decades.

Hold on a second! CBS is responsible for hazardous-waste sites in Bloomington? Could this be the fabled site where the network buried the remaining episodes of The Will (recently cancelled after a single episode!)? No, these are three of six landfills where the electrical manufacturer, Westinghouse, dumped electrical capacitors containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the 1950s through the 1970s. These chemicals, which are suspected of causing cancer and other chronic diseases, have leached into the soil, the groundwater, and nearby streams. The developers of a new Bloomington subdivision have complained that PCBs continue to leak from unexcavated limestone deposits, where they have been carried in the groundwater.

Westinghouse is long gone from Bloomington, but the PCBs linger — even after two decades of remediation. CBS inherited the legal liability for this toxic mess following its merger with Westinghouse in 1997. The liability was then passed along to Viacom with the merger of 1999. It’s a scenario out of science fiction, but a reality of the conglomerate era: the #1 television network in America is responsible for a legacy of deadly hazardous waste in a lovely Midwestern community, where the title Survivor strikes a little close to home.

You’d have to be a real killjoy to remind people that someone has manufactured all of those HDTV sets and digital video recorders at Best Buy, that some people and some communities bear the real costs of technological progress. But in the communities where this technology has been manufactured — if not the landfills where you dispose of your obsolete equipment — the past can bubble to the surface after a good hard rain causes groundwater levels to rise.

Color TV Set

RCA’s first color TV set

The first mass-produced color television set in America was manufactured at the RCA plant in Bloomington in March 1954; and the community still wears the accomplishment with pride (although the abandoned RCA factory was demolished and carted away in dump trucks several years ago). Soon Bloomington became a small, but significant, manufacturing center for the electrical and electronics industries, as General Electric and Westinghouse constructed plants of their own. The postwar economic boom in America — not to mention the television revolution — would not have happened without the electrical capacitors manufactured at Westinghouse. By the late 1970s, however, some long-time employees at the Westinghouse plant had registered the highest PCB levels ever measured in human beings.

All of this sounds like the premise for a promising crossover episode of the CBS series, C.S.I. and Cold Case. A man died of mysterious ailments in 1979, but only the crafty and dogged investigators at present-day CBS, armed with sophisticated modern technologies, can bring his children some comfort by determining what caused his death. The only problem with this scenario is that, in the real world of corporate law, a company like Viacom ensures that the legal process drags along at a pace that can’t possibly be condensed to suit the time-scale or narrative structure of a procedural drama. This most recent lawsuit was filed in 2000 and the plaintiffs, exhibiting remarkable endurance, have only just received approval to take the case to court. The experience of time encouraged by television’s flow cannot prepare us for the glacial crawl of a corporate liability case. These cases disappear from public awareness and they reappear unexpectedly years later, reminding us, if only briefly, that television is more than the flow of programming.

General Electric, the parent company of NBC, did not use PCBs in its Bloomington plant; but it has dumped thousands of tons of the toxic chemicals into the Hudson River north of New York City. In its most recent appeal, GE has challenged the EPA’s legitimacy in designating Superfund cleanup sites (and was represented in court by the stalwart liberal attorney, Laurence Tribe). Thanks to procedural delays, it will be years before the case is finally decided and the cleanup begins in earnest (even as GE advertises its new water purification technologies in television commercials!). Meanwhile the Hudson River flows, and NBC programming flows, but the PCBs remain, still lining the riverbanks, inert and deadly, indifferent to the flow, a threat to return one day as flotsam.

Image Credits:
1. Flotsam
2. RCA’s first color TV set

Links
Article on Federal appeals court ruling from Indianapolis Star
Protect Our Woods homepage
CBS homepage
Columbia Journalism Review’s corporate timeline of Viacom
ATDSR FAQs regarding PCBs

Please feel free to comment.




At Last, TV for People Just Like Me

by: Christopher Anderson / Indiana University

I hate your favorite television show. Honestly. I loathe it. You love it, I know. But it’s a stinking pile of shit. I’m sorry to be coarse, but I can’t watch it for two minutes without feeling sick to my stomach.

My favorite show is not like yours. Mine isn’t just good TV. It’s poetry. It’s timeless. It will last as long as Shakespeare, as long as human beings walk this planet. Of course, you can’t stand it.

Who could have imagined that television would give us so much to hate?

Consensus is a lovely idea, of course; but it’s just so twentieth-century. There’s still something to be said for respect and tolerance, but this is an age for preaching to the choir. If you aren’t like me, you don’t think like me.

It isn’t a tautology, or even bad faith; it’s demography — reinforced by the massless media of a new century. My tastes, as Amazon.com constantly reminds me, are remarkably similar to those of people like me.

The true savants of the age are the actuaries — those slide rule-wielding, cigar-chomping, hard-boiled avatars of Enlightenment. Think Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity: the sort of guy who can take one glance at your census form then look you in the eye without blinking and tell you what brand of toothpaste you use, which programs you TiVo, how long you’ll live, and which malady will put you in the grave.

Demography is destiny.

It wasn’t so long ago that we spoke of television as the campfire around which our culture gathers to tell its communal stories. Now it’s the doctor’s office waiting room where we idly flip through back issues of Cat Fancy while awaiting our lab results; or the bedside table where we stashed our precious, dog-eared issues of Tiger Beat, the ones with David Soul on the cover.

It’s a cold-eyed glimpse of someone else’s passion, or the white-hot detonation of our own. But it’s no communal campfire — unless it’s the campfire of a Survivor tribal council where we gather in seething resentment to cement temporary, self-serving alliances.

There are times when the TV industry tries to convince us that nothing has changed, that we still live in a Ptolemaic television universe with the networks at the center — or that we have a collective investment in the beating of a butterfly’s wings in some remote corner of the galaxy where network news anchors are still being built.

Even at their best, these moments come off as crude and desperate – as when NBC recently sent Brian Williams, the shiny new anchorbot in Tom Brokaw’s chair, to report on the Asian tsunami. Presumably, an anchor’s grave conviction is the one skill that can’t be outsourced.

At their worst, these moments are so comically self-delusional that you’d hardly be surprised to see network executives being chased down Fifth Avenue by fellows with butterfly nets.

Perhaps you’ve heard that, after twelve (or so) seasons of pulse-pounding drama, NYPD Blue has come down to its FINAL TWO EPISODES! Ah, nothing lasts forever. The passage of time is indeed bittersweet. NYPD Blue is a landmark, one of the three or four greatest dramas in the history of television, and — hey, wait a second — NYPD Blue is still on the air?

So much has happened in my hectic life–The Osbournes, The Sopranos, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Scott Peterson trial, Ken Jennings on Jeopardy, a DVD box set of Baretta — that, well, um, I guess I just forgot about my old friend NYPD Blue.

Motivated by the potent blend of curiosity and shame that is the emotional cocktail of choice for discerning television viewers, I returned chastened to pay my final respects. What I found was more sordid than anything I’d ever seen on television, and I’ve seen the local news during sweeps months.

In that familiar squad room stood Dennis Franz surrounded by people who looked like models from a Land’s End catalogue, a scruffy Gulliver in a land of well-scrubbed Lilliputians. Who are these people and what have they done with the real actors?

I’m sure that someone has been watching NYPD Blue since Bobby Simone died about 140 episodes ago; but I felt like I had stumbled upon the last remaining Japanese soldier in a Philippines jungle circa 1958. Did someone forget to tell ABC that the war is over?

Don’t get me wrong. I was once a dedicated fan of NYPD Blue. I made it through several cycles of tragedy and redemption, a few dozen manly embraces, and a couple jittery glimpses of Franz’s furry ass. And I appreciate the slow simmer of long-term storytelling, the leisurely revelation of character, the measured epiphany that arrives as a reward for a viewer’s commitment. As far as I’m concerned, there has been no TV drama with the storytelling depth of NYPD Blue, nor a character as rich or complicated as Andy Sipowicz.

But I reached the point of diminishing returns several manly embraces ago and by the time of Jimmy Smits’s much-hyped reappearance as one of Andy’s hallucinations during the November sweeps, I had scuttled off long ago to one of the programming niches designed for people just like me.

ABC’s ad campaign for the series finale would like us to think that there is a television-viewing public with a collective investment in NYPD Blue. But it’s an ad campaign uncorked from a time capsule buried sometime around the final episode of M*A*S*H — from a television universe that still existed when NYPD Blue first appeared, but not the one that bears witness to its demise.

I don’t doubt the passion for NYPD Blue that beats in the heart of true believers. After all, these are the days when fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have marshaled forces to create a fully searchable database for each and every episode. If NASA could channel the energy of the committed pop culture fan, we would have a colony on Uranus by now.

What seems delusional to me is the belief that the NYPD Blue finale actually matters. This may be the culminating event in the lives of some NYPD Blue fans, but there are also people who get dressed up in military costumes on the weekend and re-enact the Battle of Bull Run. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The true signpost for this moment in television history is not the final episode of NYPD Blue, as ABC would have us believe, but the second-season premiere of Deadwood, the new series by NYPD Blue creator David Milch, which returns to HBO in early March. At the nearly the same moment, HBO’s competitor, Showtime, is bringing back the second season of its drama, The L Word.

A couple of million people watch the scabrous Western, Deadwood, each week. Another, and presumably different, million watch The L Word, a contemporary drama set among a circle of lesbian friends in Los Angeles.

Each series is groundbreaking in its own way. Each charts its own course with virtually no concessions to a general audience. Each is viewed on a premium cable channel by the tiniest sliver of the national population. One is brilliant and stunningly original; the other is tedious and wildly overrated. If you’re like me, you’ll agree.

Links
NYPD Blue
The Sopranos
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
Double Indemnity
More on Double Indemnity

Please feel free to comment.




Undecided Voter

by: Chris Anderson / Indiana University

Squirrel hunting once was a lovely way for a man to pass an autumn afternoon. Solitude discovered in a lonely glen. Falling leaves gently cradled by golden sunlight. The stillness of a warm breeze broken only by the report of a gun, echoed and reechoed through the valley. On such a day a man could get lost, gloriously lost, in nature’s autumnal embrace, the travails of daily life forgotten for a few enchanted hours. It was on such a day long ago that a man, his thirst quenched by more than one draught of ale, his senses overpowered by the beauty of his surroundings, fell into a deep sleep … and slumbered peacefully for twenty-odd years.

Upon awakening, that man, Rip Van Winkle, had become America’s first undecided voter.

Yes, the legend of Rip Van Winkle — a tale told to generations of American children over the past two hundred years — is a story about the making of the latest American archetype: the undecided voter. Or at least that’s how I’ve come to read the legend in the unsettled autumn of ’04, as I struggle to comprehend the mystifying breed of American who hasn’t yet decided between John Kerry and George Bush.

When Rip Van Winkle roused himself from slumber and walked back into town, he discovered that a revolution had taken place without his notice. The townspeople had been royal subjects when he entered the woods with his squirrel gun, but they now were in the midst of an election, and he found himself engulfed by an unfamiliar, roiling crowd. In author Washington Irving’s description of the town, “the very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.”

As Paul Starr notes in his recent book, The Creation of Media, poor Rip had stumbled into a second revolution — a revolution in communication — that accompanied the political revolution of 1776. Printing presses unleashed a flood of pamphlets, handbills, sermons, sheet music, books, and, most importantly, newspapers into American society, helping to circulate information, to democratize knowledge, to produce a new type of American, a democratic citizen. The democratization of knowledge was essential to the project of making citizens who were capable of participating in a democracy and governing themselves.

But the tale of Rip Van Winkle reminds us just how difficult it can be to stay afloat in the flood of information that pours forth in a democratic society — even in the current produced by the first of the republic’s “new media.” Plunged unwittingly into the 18th-century media revolution, Citizen Rip listened in amazement as “a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens — election — members of Congress — liberty — Bunker’s Hill — heroes of ’76 — and other words, that were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.” And then the crowd’s attention turned to Rip, the disheveled newcomer in their midst. “They crowded around him, eying him from head to foot, with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and drawing him partly aside, inquired ‘on which side he voted?’ Rip stared in vacant stupidity.”

With that, Washington Irving introduced the first -– and quintessential — undecided voter. A man who had fallen off the path of history. A man uncontaminated by the media of his day. A man for whom all political discourse was gibberish. Of course, he had an excuse. He’d been in a drunken coma for twenty years.

It’s a sign of my own shortcomings, I suppose, but in this particular autumn, when the choices are stark and the tone disputatious, I’ve had very uncharitable thoughts about undecided voters. If these people haven’t been asleep in the woods for twenty years, why must the media offer them to us as paragons of civic virtue?

Why are they given security clearance, allowed to attend a presidential debate and to question the candidates? Why must I watch as they, gathered together by reporters, view the debates on television so that we, ignored by those same reporters, have the privilege of witnessing their excruciating indecision? And why must I listen as they struggle mightily, under the reporter’s reassuring gaze, to explain why they — after watching three debates, hundreds of news reports, thousands of commercials, and HAVING LIVED IN THIS COUNTRY FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS! -– are still seeking some elusive piece of the puzzle before discharging their solemn duty as citizens. I’ve had a nervous breakdown just trying to decide between American Idol contestants, but these people are hopeless. They don’t need a public forum; they need medical care.

And yet….

There are times when I feel like Rip Van Winkle. In place of Irving’s “lean and bilious-looking” fellows, we have our plump and -– come to think of it — bilious-looking pundits. Their pockets may not be full of handbills, but their blogs are loaded with hyperlinks. Their jargon, if not Babylonish, is still bewildering. The flood of information may be greater than in Rip Van Winkle’s day, but the effect is still the same: the consequential tangled in the trivial, the truth entwined with lies, and the torrent never ceases. I’ve made my own decision, but I’m certainly not wise. I have my beliefs — essentially moral sentiments about social equality or the use of military force or whether a man of presidential bearing ought to snigger like Beavis and Butthead during debates (“heh…heh…heh”) — but I can’t begin to explain how one might set about fixing the health care system or Social Security. I could live a thousand years, and I’d get no closer to understanding these issues by watching television. More often than I’d like to admit, I stare at the screen, like Citizen Rip, in vacant stupidity.

And there are times when I wish that I were as fortunate as Rip Van Winkle. Not even my friends at PETA could stop me from shooting at squirrels if I had the faintest hope of falling asleep and missing this benighted political season. The fantasy of being lost, well and truly lost — cut off from all communication, fallen off the path of history — is more powerful in our hyper-networked age than it was in the days of Dafoe, or Golding, or Gilligan. But that’s a topic for another day. Today looks like the perfect autumn afternoon for a ramble in the woods. And I’ll get to it in a minute. But a guy on CNN just said something about the Bill O’Reilly sex scandal. Could this be another of Karl Rove’s devious schemes to distract voters? I wonder what Fox News has to say…. Now where did I leave the remote control?

Links of interest:

1. Rip Van Winkle

2. American Research Group: Political Polls

3. “Undecided Voter? Try This Quiz”

4. This Modern World: The Undecided Voter

Please feel free to comment.