Month: January 2016

In Front Of A Microphone With Nothing To Say


Thanks to the Internet, most people today enjoy unprecedented access to an audience. If you can write and imagine that have something to say, somebody will read it. If you want to make videos of yourself, somebody will see them. If you enjoy taking pictures, somebody will look at them. Facebook gives the impression to its users that their audience is vast, but in all probability is about the size of a normal classroom. Still, that’s something.


So access is free, but the process of coming up with something to say or show still requires effort. To have an original idea, or to synthesize the ideas of others into something worth sharing, requires both time and effort. I have found that I can only write when I’m offline. If I’m online, someone will demand my attention and distract me. It may just be an annoying alert telling me that someone “liked” a picture I posted three days ago, but it’s often enough to completely derail me. Many people are online every waking hour. Only modern day ascetics dare to temporarily step out of the wi-fi bath. If Simon the Stylite were alive today, he would be living on a pole far from the nearest cellphone tower.


Most of what we do in our online community is not much different than what people have done continuously since the invention of the printing press. We share around campfires, on in a longhouse, in the presence of our tribe. It was never a solitary activity. Since the invention of radio, motion pictures and television, most of us played audience to a few celebrities who had access to the microphone, transmitter and camera, but today the Internet has made us more democratic. Everyone has an equal voice. Most people are clearing their throats and warming up for the moment they will express themselves, but this is mostly a solitary activity, despite the promise of an immense audience.


Yet we all profess to want to honor the rare soul who breaks new ground, who wrestles with an idea or problem long enough to come up with something worth studying and sharing.


Even if this rare soul exists, he or she would have a hard time getting noticed later when it came time to step back into the wi-fi pool. If Isaac Newton were alive today, I’m not sure he could find anyone receptive to his complicated mathematical or philosophical proofs, because one would need to spend time studying them.


Some content creators seemed to produce their works under great pressure and quickly.  Handel and Bach wrote amazing amounts of music while making a living. Handel was single while Bach had a large family, but each man was literally on fire creatively. Mozart complained during his short life that he had so many musical ideas his main problem was writing them down as quickly as he heard them. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pushkin…all made content creation seem relatively light work.


There are thousands with YouTube channels who produce hours of videos every week, but most of them seem to simply be stuck stalling for time. They all promise to deliver vital and surprising content, but if you watch the video you will see that despite the fancy wrapping, the package is empty.


Maybe the reason there seems to be less and less quality to be consumed is simply because there isn’t much of quality being produced nowadays. There is lots of sharing going on, but nothing much is being shared. Everyone has a microphone, but the net result isn’t a concert, it’s karaoke. Everyone has a camera, but it’s pointed at a hall of mirrors. Online Democracy has not liberated us. It’s a hundred million people with nothing to say all saying “um..ah…um” at the same time.


Born in a Cage

Born in a Cage

Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness

In 1954 Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes, breaking a record that had stood for as long as people had timed such a race. Within a decade, high school athletes were able to do the same and now a four-minute mile is standard fare for middle-distance runners. Once someone had shown it was possible, it became almost common.

Many Africans routinely spoke over five languages. I had a student from Ghana who spoke Asante Twi, Swahili, French, English and two other tribal languages. He didn’t seem to think his ability was uncommon. Most Americans only speak their native language. They can be dragged kicking and screaming to study Spanish or French in high school, but most make a point to never practice and forget what they have learned as soon as they can after graduation.

When I was twenty-one, my friend Marty and I drove from Missouri to Mexico. He was a Spanish major at the University of Missouri. At the El Paso Woolworths the high school girl behind the cash register spoke perfect Spanish and English. She was probably making seventy-five cents an hour. We talked for a while how absurd it was that he would receive a college degree for doing something less well than this girl working at a dime store.

Sometimes it seems that educational institutions are more concerned about granting certifications than about inspiring or instructing. It’s a turf war. If people know something is possible, then they can find their own path to it. But those who are in charge of licensing get to the state legislature early to make sure their certifications are in place before any freedom of thought or practice can take hold.

I once asked a Chinese lady who was studying English with me while she vacationed in Thailand if she and her friends (Chinese tend to travel in groups) went out at night to go dancing. She said no, she hadn’t taken any courses in dancing at the University, yet. Her society had conditioned her to follow instructions.