What Happens When We All Become Oliver Stones?

I'm a big fan of citizen journalism. I've been thinking a lot about the evolution of Web journalism from aggregation to what I'm calling amalgamation. In mining, amalgamation is the process of separating precious metals from ore. In business, amalgamation means the blending of different  entities. I think both meanings fit the evolving model of blending of the raw witness of citizen journalists with the editing capabilities of professional journalists to form a richer experience than citizens or journalists can produce on their own.

Why do we need trained journalists at all? I don't know. Why do we need psychoanalysts (or priests and rabbis and ministers) when we've got a good friend's shoulder to lean upon? Why do we need lawyers, or doctors or professors who certainly aren't without their flaws and often disagree with one another's positions? 

But beyond the professional journalist's craft -- the ability to pull together relevant information into a timely and honed package -- is the question of ethics. 

I don't think that journalism necessarily has to be objective, unless it claims that it is striving to be objective. But it should be truthful --  both about its intent (see previous sentence) and in the way it represents the views of those it covers. Professional journalists don't have a lock on the truth, or course, but there's something that gnaws at the back of most trained reporters' minds that says, "are you sure you're being fair here?" In many cases, it's the specter of a gnarled editor from one's youth. Those guys and gals are gone. We are the gnarled ones now. 

In that spirit, I reprint something I just came across that I wrote in 1991 that ends with a question — "what happens when we all become Oliver Stones" -- that was much more academic at the time but in the four years since the birth of YouTube (yes, just four years) has become very relevant. On the other hand, I am much more excited by the prospect of a bazillion burgeoning videos than I seemed to be back then, and I'm not sure what I meant by the last sentence. I don't think I submitted the piece anywhere (call it a proto blog), so it didn't have a gnarled editor asking, "What the #%&@ does 'That is the promise of interactive multimedia' mean." Except me. Anyway, here's the piece, unedited and unamended: 

My son is 32 months old. He cannot yet sting together a complete sentence, although he seems to understand everything that is spoken to him. He communicates through hand and facial expressions, tone of voice, and a few basic words like “out,” (when he wants fresh air) and “yellow” (when he wants a banana). He knows his first name -- Duncan -- but rarely will repeat it when asked. He recognizes several letters of the alphabet, such as “N” and “A.”

My father-in-law is 73 years old. He is a lawyer and a former judge and politician. He is extemely verbal. He reads several newspapers a day, and is still of the school of thought that newspaper editorials are worth railing about. He reads histories of the Irish and American republics, and has written several sketches for his own amusement. He grew up as a politician in the days when “the stump” was a busy streetcorner in his election district, not wherever where a TV camera happened to be.

My father-in-law is a complete nincompoop when it comes to things electronic. He wasn't able to figure out how to change the channels on our TV in the ten years that it was been connected to a cable box. My son, on the other hand, can deftly switch back and forth between Mr. Rogers, his VCR tape of Bambi and the Nintendo game controller. He has already progressed further than I ever expect to venture in the adventures of Nintendo’s Super Mario 3.

The generation of that’s in between these two generations grew up with a television in the den and encyclopedias and hard-bound, but unread, American Heritage magazines in the living room bookcase. We are travelers in both the world of print and the world of video, the world of verbal argument and visual appeal, but we are really at home in neither. Though we may take a daily newspaper and spends few hours with the Sunday edition, we probably park ourselves in front of the TV more often than we read for information and entertainment. Our cultural reference points are more apt to be a TV show like "Bonanza" or "The Brady Bunch" than the classics or the Bible. We grew up in the age of the transistor, a transitory technology between the power of  the printing press and the power of the microchip.

I think we are the poorer for it. I think my father-in-law’s generation, for all its foibles in execution, was better equipped to make sense out of our increasingly complex society because they were most comfortable with describing, articulating and defining their experience and positions through a language that, over the centuries, has at least attempted to end ambiguity. 

The visual message, on the other hand, is nothing but ambiguous. It is, simply, in the eye of the beholder. The image of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, or of the spacecraft Challenger expoding, or of bombs bursting in the air in Tehran are strictly visceral messages. They tell us nothing about the events that preceded or followed from them. They are isolated in time; out of context. 

Yet they are far more powerful than, say, the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the millions of words that have been written to defend or condemn our involvement  in the Persian Gulf War. We soak in the images, and incorporate them into our own psyches. But images do not help us to understand why certain things happen. They are descriptive, not analytical.

What happens, then, when everyone becomes capable of blending the image, or even changing the image, to fit our imagination. When rather than sharing the same emotive snapshot that everyone else sees, we are capable of manipulating those images to make a statement, rather than present a documentary picture? What happens when we all become Oliver Stones, able to weave in and out of "real" images captured by the camera and "fake" images manufactured for the camera. Will our world be any different than it is now? That is the promise of interactive multimedia.


I don't have to tell you that Duncan, who will be 20 in a month, now communicates mostly by IM, right? More than 3,000 messages sent and received on his cell phone alone last month. Ah, but that's another story.

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