Monday, June 16, 2008

A Virtual Vast Wasteland

The next week and a half will wind up the class I'm taking that involves Second Life. The last project: A paper that explores how Second Life could address (or, I suppose, compound) a technical communication problem/situation I've encountered in real life. At this point, I'm not sure where my paper will go (a draft is due Thursday, help). But I keep thinking back to this Dutch Kit-Kat commercial, and former FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow's "vast wasteland" speech concerning television in 1961:

When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

The same, I'm afraid, can be said for Second Life, except that the programming is more varied -- extremely good or extremely poor -- and it never shuts off. So if I don't know the direction the paper will go, at least I know the tone. Which, in retrospect, won't be as grim as this sounds. When Mr. Minow gave his speech, people (likely with the help of journalists) latched on to the "vast wasteland" sound bite, rather than focusing on the "public interest" he hoped to convey in his speech. He was vilified in the industry for making fun of the quality of television -- Sherwood Schwartz, producer of Gilligan's Island, named the S.S. Minnow after Minow as a comment on his perceived elitist trash talking. But Minow really did want people to remember the public interst portion of his speech more than anything else:

The television industry then, Minow said, “possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make your people aware of the world.”

He wanted television to take that power and use a portion of it to claim the high ground. That, in some ways, has happened. In many ways, it has not.

The same can be said now of the Internet, which wields the same kind of power television once weilded, as Minow outlines. On the Net, we see both the highbrow and the lowbrow. I think he'd agree today that the public interest versus the vast wasteland of the Internet is being ignored, much as it was in television's era.

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