God’s Echo Chamber – July 10, 2011

This past week we’ve seen the jury acquit Casey Anthony, the Florida woman accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter because, apparently, the little girl was inconvenient to her lifestyle. The case had become a media sensation in the way that monstrous mothers, sociopathic serial killers, and other unnatural creatures often do. They strike a nerve with the public and arouse moral feelings that the more commonly explicable murders and rampages don’t quite touch.

Such unnatural crimes and the media attention they draw are not new. The London papers delighted to tell of Jack the Ripper’s latest murder, and U.S. newspapers and later television followed the cases of the Lindbergh baby and Nicole Brown Simpson with the same energy that the online news media and cable channels have reported on Casey Anthony. What’s new in this instance, however, is the presence of the internet and social media—tweets, blogs, Facebook postings, and comments on blogs and postings—through which the public has an opportunity to respond and share its outrage.1

Imagine for a moment that you possessed the all-hearing ear of God in the age before our current electronic communion. A people unable to tweet and post their outrage, their hopes and fears, their desires and discontents, would turn a private voice to God, sometimes prompted by the sermons of their priests and pastors. Aside from the background patter of grant me grace … please cure Mother’s cancer … help me get that promotion … make her love me … get me into medical school, which is the carrier wave of particular pleadings, the ear of God must routinely hear community-wide surges of anger, fear, and protest: burn the witches … death to the Corsican tyrant … protect us from the Hun … justice for little Caylee …

The united voices that once only God could hear—except for occasional grumbles and murmurs traded across the back fence or in line at the supermarket—are now ringing across the public webpages of the internet and in the comment spaces of social media. Suddenly public opinion is a real, instantaneous, and measurable force.

Once the editorial offices of local newspapers could only weigh the bags of mail that arrived for and against a proposition or public position, and then publish a scant two or three letters that seemed most fervent or articulate. Now every letter, every opinion, every murmur and howl is available for examination somewhere on line. Once people sent chain letters by paper mail asking for blessings and dollars to be sent to the top-listed originators. Now they circulate heart-felt messages by email and ask the recipients to forward the text to all their friends.

This is a new thing, and it raises some questions about where our society is headed.

One question involves the reputed wisdom of crowds. Science fiction author John Brunner, in his semi-prophetic Shockwave Rider from 1975, showed his main character, among other things, running a Delphi Poll. This is an artifact of Brunner’s vision of future electronic media, in which a person or organization might offer a general proposition on line and allow the public at large to comment and vote on it. The majority opinion would supposedly approximate the truth. Or, as Brunner put it, “while nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody does …”2

For a while, the venerable Popular Science magazine was running similar back-page polls on popular questions like when we would go back to the Moon and when fusion power would become feasible. This was a sort of Delphi poll testing public feelings about the future.3

Nonfiction authors John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene originally published Megatrends in 1982. Their book discussed trends in society based on the number of column inches of newspaper and magazine stories assigned to particular topics. It made for entertaining reading. And it did capture a snapshot of what was on the minds of newspaper and magazine editors—and presumably, through their collective instincts, of concern to the reading public.

The question is, how reliable is all this? If we could combine and interpret all the tweets and postings, reading them like the hanging chad of a Florida poll, would the aggregate tell us anything useful? It would certainly tell us when we wanted to return to the Moon, or how strongly we felt about mothers who supposedly murder their daughters. But absent the mechanics of appropriations and taxation, engineering effort and public contracting, would it pinpoint the date of an actual Moon launch? Hardly. And if you were accused of a heinous crime, would you accept the average ruling of a million bloggers and tweeters over the deliberations of twelve identified, interviewed, and selected citizens? Personally, I’d prefer trial by combat.

A second question is whether all this outpouring of feeling is good or bad for society. Certainly it’s therapeutic. Everyone now gets his or her say. And the tweets, postings, and blogs are totally uncensored. No government or party organization controls them.4 The enthusiasms and prejudices of newspaper editors and journalists and television executives are not leading them. The parties and the popular media may feed and stir some of this sentiment with a stick, as with the coverage of the Anthony case. But individual human feeling outruns the wisdom of party leaders and media moguls. Indeed, the consensus political positions drawn up by the two national parties are becoming fragmented as websites and blog collections focus on every position across the spectrum.

For every opinion you might have, you can find a focus of a thousand or a million other people who agree with you. And for the rest … you can tune it out, just not go there. Once your town or city newspaper brought together a variety of opinions, and a few of the leading papers in New York and Washington purported to speak for the country. Once the three major networks sampled the news of the world. Now you can log onto one or another site to get the news you like, or click to a cable channel that agrees exactly with your views.

Under Gutenberg economics, when it was a serious investment to put out a daily newspaper or run a TV news department or print and distribute a paper book, just a few voices would actually be heard. They would represent public opinion only because a plurality, if not a majority, of the public supported them by purchasing the paper or book or tuning into the station and supporting its advertisers. Now, while it still costs something to run a cable TV channel, that cost is less than organizing a nationwide affiliation of broadcasters. And creating a website or an ebook costs only your time and attention. With the internet, the act of publication is virtually free.

I’m not the first to notice this, of course. As little as ten years ago you still heard about the “global village.”5 Electronic media and popular news and television were supposed to bring us together and create a single forum for conversation. Certainly the outcry over the Casey Anthony verdict has had this effect. But the potential for isolation and parochialism is also there. While many voices condemn the murder of inconvenient children, and some even look for vigilante action to correct the jury’s “mistake,”6 there may be quiet corners of the internet, reachable only through the right search words, that offer advice and instruction on the guilt-free elimination of unwanted toddlers. For every opinion and taste, there will be a magnetic pole to draw and align it.

In the last twenty years we’ve entered a new age. It offers exciting possibilities for human creativity and freedom. I certainly wouldn’t give up the technology that makes it possible. But we’re now also able to hear in detail all the cries and curses and squeals and pleadings and promises that once were reserved for God’s ears alone. I wonder if we’re ready for it.

1. I haven’t made any kind of survey, but the fragments I see floating through my little window on the internet suggest the tweeting public rejects the jury’s verdict on Casey Anthony.

2. The principle is taken from the old carnival and charity scheme of collecting money for letting people guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. Presumably, if you average all the guesses—from the village idiot who hazards “Two?” to the wide-eyed child who says “A billion!” and all the people in between who squint at the jar and guess 1,000 or 1,300 or 1,200 or 1,150—you get a number that’s correct to the last bean. But this only works, supposedly, if you get enough people to guess.

3. A Popular Science poll in 2000 also showed that 45 percent of respondents believe Earth has been visited by intelligent aliens. Opinion is not provable fact.

4. Although the Chinese are trying, at least within their own borders.

5. The term appears to have originated with Marshall McLuhan and his views of the media. Of course, McLuhan still lived in the Gutenberg age.

6. Apparently, right after the verdict people were tweeting for the TV-fictional vigilante Dexter to visit the mother.