Did video kill more than the radio star?

Calgary Herald, Feb 4, 2017: I sang along to Tom Petty’s Refugee on my phone the other day. I hauled up the video on You Tube and just belted it out. The rock legend wrote the lyrics in about ten minutes back in 1979. He and the Heartbreakers played it on their first Saturday Night Live appearance that same year. But they didn’t want to perform on the Merv Griffin Show so they shot the video in a dodgy-looking alley and sent it to Merv to play instead.

Apparently the lads thought that would be the last time anyone saw it. But in 1981, MTV came along and changed the music business forever. A decade or so later, the Internet started changing our lives forever.

Back in those more innocent times Petty sneered, “You believe what you want to believe,” and no one could have imagined that it would become official White House policy.

But here we are. Post Truth. With the proclamation/confirmation that the President’s communications staff happily peddle in ‘alternative facts,’ the good old fashioned ones are hanging off a window ledge, feet dangling and fingers slipping.

There will be decades of analysis of how we got here and the damage done. Much of that will be communicated through writing, which according to Hossein Derakhshan means it won’t have as much effect as if we made a video. Perhaps in a dodgy-looking alley.

“Era of text – and reason—is over,” the Iranian-Canadian blogger and media analyst tweeted in the early days of President Trump. After the White House banned people from seven largely Muslim countries, causing chaos around the world and massive protests at home, Derakhshan tweeted: “From land of golden dreams to nation of apology. It took only two weeks. Dear Americans, this is what television did to you.”

Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Samantha Bee may well object, but Derakhshan presents an interesting argument. Referencing Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I plan to read as soon as I get through The Crown on Netflix) Derakhshan reiterates Postman’s case that there is “an essential difference between typography and photography in their capacity to convey complex messaging.”

When you read, you think. “There is actually nothing else to do when you read,” Derakhshan said on CBC Radio’s Ideas recently (a non-print source of info that nonetheless encourages an awful lot of thinking). When you crack a book or a newspaper you are actively using your intelligence. But when you watch images, you are experiencing emotion.

Now that we carry “the new television”— the Internet—in our pockets everywhere we go, all that emotion is changing how we communicate with each other, learn about the world and, as we’re seeing every day live on Twitter, how we play at politics.

“This proliferation of emotions is actually one reason why demagogues around the world are becoming successful in twisting the facts and creating this environment which is now called post-truth,” says Derakhshan. “(It’s) completely related to feelings and emotions rather than fact and thinking.”

He counsels that we should read more and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. I doubt that will happen and I think he does too. At the very least, he suggests, we should ‘Like’ posts we don’t like and not like pages we do, all to confuse the all-powerful algorithms that tend to tell us only what we want to hear.

Facebook gives us a range of options to express our feelings—the thumbs up Like button plus more recently emoticons for Love, Haha, Wow, Sad and Angry. But instead of hearts and sad face emoticons, we need buttons for Trust and Suspect, Agree and Disagree. We need the ability to: “react to posts with our minds rather than hearts.”

And we should have the power to adjust social media algorithms to our liking, Derakhshan writes in MIT Technology Review. Imagine if you could turn the knob from echo chamber to a full and robust discourse with different, informed views. (And send all the trolls to soil their own corner of the cyber-sandbox).

“We need to stop thinking that any evolution of technology is natural and inevitable and therefore good,” writes the man who was jailed for six years in Iran for writing a blog. “We need more text than videos in order to remain rational animals.”

The word ‘refugee’ derives from the French refugie, which was a specific term referring to 400,000 Protestants who fled France in 1685 after their rights were revoked. But that’s not what Tom Petty was on about. When he tossed off the lyrics to the song, he was mad at his record company and in a defiant mood. “Everybody’s had to fight to be free,” he sang back in 1979. Here in 2017, we are getting a reminder.

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