Clinton-era America already has its fair share of high-profile cultural
antagonists. You can see them shouting themselves hoarse on Crossfire or
flaming wildly in USENET newsgroups. Burly militia members berate hapless
New Deal democrats with stories of black helicopters and Federal
encroachment. Out on the lawless internet, the silicon libertarians man the
barricades against would-be censors, while multiculturalists duke it out
with Canon apologists in university lecture halls. In Washington, Bob Dole
launches his schizophrenic campaign against Time-Warner, with one eye on
the looming New Hampshire primary.

These cultural skirmishes share this common trait: they are ethical
disputes, fought over values, both religious and secular. Ethical conflicts
have an incendiary, button-pushing quality that makes them ideal for
political sloganeering and ringside journalism. But there are other
disputes in the Culture Wars, disputes that focus not on individually-held
values, but on the shape of the cultural system itself. Despite the mass
media fixation with figureheads like Murphy Brown, Ice-T, or Senator Exon,
one of the most significant conflicts of nineties American culture may very
well lie elsewhere, in the ongoing war between the simulation theorists and
the interactive utopians. It’s a battle both sides deserve to lose.

For the last two decades, the nightmare of simulation has weighed heavily
on the brains of media theorists everywhere. In graduate seminars and
downtown salons, in Francophile coffee houses and postmodern literary
journals, critics of mass communication have thundered against a social
order where the Image has replaced the Real Thing, where media-concocted
spectacles substitute for old-fashioned events, where fool’s gold is the
visual currency of the age. Our collective descent into Disneyfied
hyperreality or unchecked simulation is an article of faith among
contemporary cultural theorists. Deploring the “society of the spectacle”
now constitutes a full-blown orthodoxy in its own right, sustained by
tenured positions in media studies and NEA grants for artwork exploring the
culture of fakery.

The simulation rage (or the rage against simulation) has legitimate
historical roots, of course. Largely developed by Parisian intellectuals as
a response to the student uprisings of May 68, simulation theory migrated
to the States in the early eighties, where it found rapt audiences eager to
dress up their academic missives in the latest from France. Undergrads
quickly chucked their faded copies of On The Road for Guy Debord‘s radical
pamphlets, and Jean Baudrillard was crowned campus philosopher king in the
pages of Rolling Stone.

But the dominance of the simulation model should make us a little
nervous–not because it has become so fashionable, but because the rise of
the interactive age has undermined most of its founding premises. The
threat posed by the society of the spectacle is the threat of abject
passivity. When events are transformed into images, we’re less likely to
participate in them, and more likely to idle the hours away in the safety
of our own homes, as what used to be world-history unfolds across our
television screens. It’s a world populated exclusively by couch potatoes
and channel surfers, floating effortlessly from one live feed to another.
In the simulation model, CNN takes up where old-time religion left off,
giving new life to the old “opiate of the masses” slogan.

Interactivity changes all of this, though not necessarily for the better.
Shifting from a one-to-many to a many-to-many system eliminates the old
demons of passive consumption. Once televised events are hard-wired for
audience participation, the simulation-as-sedation hypothesis no longer
holds water. The tyranny of image doesn’t seem quite so tyrannical when the
“commoners” are granted a role in the construction of that image. In the
many-to-many model, based loosely on the distributed networking of Internet
newsgroups, the populist uprising of collective participation will do away
with passive spectatorship, leading us into a new, enlightened age where
media spectacles are replaced by electronic town halls, and where
channel-surfing gives way to direct access and viewer-response.

Interactive utopianism makes for a compelling story, but it’s a story that
overlooks the real problems posed by the many-to-many model. These problems
are radically unlike anything experienced under the draught of simulation.
Instead of stupefaction, the interactive age threatens to establish a new
culture defined by excessive volatility and wild, erratic shifts in public
opinion. To a certain extent, this volatility has already become a part of
the American political landscape. Increased levels of interactivity in the
popular media will only exacerbate this social turbulence.

One productive way to approach this phenomenon is by thinking about it in
the mathematical terms of Chaos theory. The simulation model functions like
a linear equation, of the old 2x=y sort. You plug a number into the
equation, and you get a clear, unequivocal result. In the case of network
news, an event happens in the real world and is promptly filtered through
the equation of “coverage.” The result emerges in the form of Peter
Jennings telling us how to interpret the event that has taken place. Case
closed. Linearity leads directly to passive reception and the widespread
torpor of the simulation model.

The interactive model, on the other hand, looks much more like a non-linear
equation, based on iterations or feedback loops. Instead of honing in on a
stable result, a non-linear equation tracks the long-term behavior of a
system, by feeding each result back into the equation itself. If plugging
“2” into the equation produces a result of “4”, you then plug “4” into the
equation, producing a new result that is once again entered into the
equation, and the process repeats itself indefinitely. Non-linear equations
are “solved” by following the pattern formed by these iterations. Some
equations settle quickly into stable, predictable patterns, while others
generate dramatically unpredictable–or chaotic–behavior.

The parallels with interactive media are strong ones. Take as an example
the increasingly common technique of “instantaneous polling.” Most
political campaigns now rely heavily on daily polls, and each major news
event (a State of the Union speech, or a military invasion) is immediately
accompanied by public approval surveys. CNN has already explored the
possibilities of touch-tone viewer feedback, where armchair politicos are
encouraged to “vote” on Clinton’s latest Oval Office address the second he
stops emoting before the cameras. In these interactive experiments, the
individual experience of an event is contemporaneous with the event’s
popular reception. Viewer feedback becomes a part of the event itself.

The consequence of this is media coverage that is increasingly non-linear
in nature. A State of the Union address produces an instantaneous “public
opinion” result which is promptly digested by the viewing public, and then
channeled back into the following day’s polls, shaping the next day’s
polls, and so on. As the feedback becomes increasingly rapid-fire and
incessant, the results become more and more chaotic, subject to dramatic
and volatile shifts in intensity. The stable, linear “common ground” of
conventional wisdom becomes a Mandelbrot set of sorts, fluctuating
violently between opposing extremes.

At first glance, this feedback loop looks something like what Robert Wright
called “hyperdemocracy” in a Time Magazine cover story a few months ago.
But there are significant differences between the two. The perils of
hyperdemocracy, according to Wright, stem from a federal government that is
— ironically enough — too attentive to the whims of the electorate. The
ceaseless polling of the general public undermines the steady, deliberative
governing bodies envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Wright’s case-study is
the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” movement, which groundswelled from the
high-voltage rhetoric of talk radio to the Rose Garden in a matter of
months. In Wright’s account of things, the new communication technologies
effectively short-circuit the legislative process; in a hyperdemocracy,
policy decisions are fashioned overnight, responding directly to the
quicksilver passions of the general public.

Wright’s analysis is accurate enough, as far as it goes. There’s no
question that contemporary politicians are more tethered to the
vicissitudes of public opinion than they were twenty years ago. (You can
see this as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your adherence to the
“original intent” of Jefferson, et al.) But the more important issue here
is not the relationship between the general public and the politicians —
the real issue the relationship of the general public to itself. As the
practice of instantaneous polling becomes increasingly prevalent, public
opinion becomes a kind of high-tech hall of mirrors. The much-analyzed
turbulence of the past two elections, oscillating wildly between Democratic
and Republican landslides, is partially a product of the feedback loops of
modern media coverage. The “angry electorate” is a creature of its own
public opinions surveys, each expression of popular outrage fueling more
outrage, as each poll digests and amplifies the results of the preceding
poll.

From Wright’s perspective, the new communications technologies create a
troubling direct line between a volatile public and its representatives on
Capitol Hill. But Wright ignores the more important fact that this
volatility is itself a creation of the feedback loops of the interactive
age. A polity governed by its own opinions sounds like a good idea in
theory, but in the accelerated practice of contemporary mass media, the
reign of “common sense” turns out to be more anarchic then participatory,
more chaotic than rational. Whatever the long-term results of this chaotic
model may prove to be, the simulation theorists and the champions of
interactivity should be seriously rethinking their initial hypotheses. The
interactive age may in fact constitute an escape route from the threat of
pure simulation and passive consumption, but it’s a route swarming with
threats of its own–of perpetual turbulence, non-linear unpredictability,
chaos. If feedback begets volatility, then we might as well face that fact
directly, and leave the pipe-dreams of a stable, common-sense-driven
“electronic town hall” to Ross Perot and his ilk. The powers — and the
perils — of interactive media deserve at least this much respect.


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