Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Up For Debate

I watched tonight's presidential debate. I'm not going to talk much about it, for fear of violating the Geneva Convention's prohibitions on torture; surely the deliberate infliction of a painful-yet-soporific state qualifies as torture, doesn't it?

Technology is sometimes a wonderful thing, but I'm starting to think that the various "liveblogging" efforts that go on when something like tonight's event happens are doing to television what television did to radio, and what radio did to newspapers. This is especially noticeable when you are talking about a political event, like a campaign speech or a debate.

Once, in order to hear a politician speak, you had to go where he was speaking. Only then could you see any hesitation, hear any oddities about his voice, see whether he was perspiring, judge his image as well as his words. If you couldn't go in person to such an event, you had to learn about the candidate in the newspapers; you had to read the speeches in crisp black and white, and you wouldn't hear them at all. The politicians knew that, and they spoke with eloquent flourishes that would sound good to the listener but also to the ones who only read the words.

When the radio was invented and became popular you could actually hear these speeches. If I had to guess, I'd say that the biggest change was that speeches, or debates, became somewhat shorter. When a crowd gathered to hear a politician in the old days, the length of the speech and the stamina of the one making it were part of the entertainment. Even at Gettysburg the principle event of the day was not Lincoln's now famous Gettysburg Address, but the two hour speech given by Edward Everett just before, which, according to various historical accounts, was very well-received by the crowd.

But on the radio, a two-hour speech meant that the listener had approximately one hour, fifty-nine minutes and thirty-eight seconds to change the channel; if the speech wasn't shorter than that, if it wasn't interesting, if it wasn't delivered in a crisp, attention-getting way, if there wasn't some likelihood of amusement, then nobody would listen, with the possible exception of the most fiercely partisan of each candidate's supporters.

Even then, though, the words were still important. When you are hearing a speech you only have the words to focus on, and you can pay close attention to what is being said. The words still need substance.

Television changed the game yet again, and that, too, made a difference. Now we could see, from the comfort of our own homes, whether "our" candidate looked and spoke like a confident man of the people, or like an arrogant buffoon who shouldn't be trusted to run a used car lot, let alone a nation. Suddenly the words didn't matter as much; smooth phrases delivered with a strong gesture and a bright smile would get more political credit than hesitant sentences delivered with a furtive glance and a frown--even if the hesitant sentences ended up being right about the policy or issue in question, and the confident ones just dead wrong.

And the trend toward liveblogging or Twittering or texting or otherwise commenting in, or near, real-time on these television debates has the potential to make changes, as well. Now, instead of worrying about how they look or what they say, what image they project or what soundbite will be played in an endless loop on CNN, the candidates have to come up with such things as "YouTube shots" or "combox fodder" for the bloggers and typing heads of the new media. Which means that watching the debates will seem increasingly like a foolish and painful waste of time--why put yourself through the agony of viewing ninety minutes of meaningless posturing and sentences which express no particular thought except to cram as many talking points as possible into Jim Lehrer's idea of two minutes, when you can painlessly scan a couple of your favorite blogs later to see what your favorite writers thought of it all, and maybe read a transcript?

Hmm. Reading the speech or debate transcript, along with a journalist's comments. Perhaps we've come full circle.

Sadly, though, we haven't, because the new technology will probably make people's attention spans even shorter, so that before long debates will be conducted on wireless keyboards, and will consist of exchanges like this:




Dude, dude, dude.


Then again, maybe that would be an improvement over the current reality of campaign events like speeches and debates. At least the torture would end well before the ninety-minute mark.


Bekah said...

Or they could communicate in macros. "I r serius candid8. This r serius deb8."

Alexandra said...

Dudette, I kinda' like the laconic approach. ;)