Friday, February 19, 2010


Communication is the process by which we bring the inside out.  It is the process through which we interpret the nature of the external.  Communication is the palette with which we paint the nature of our reality.  That composition is ancient and modern and made uniquely complex by the pervasiveness of contemporary media.  That complexity was much in evidence in Tiger Woods' address this morning.

The over-riding dialectic placed the personal and the private in tension with the professional and the public.  Here is a man who can, because of his public and professional persona, walk nowhere unnoticed.  Yet, here too is a man who seems to desire a life at least as private as yours or mine.  The chasm appears impossible to span.

Adding to the complexity is the extent to which communication acts enabled the crisis.  It was the immense wealth and celebrity made possible by the media that deafened Woods to the inner voice of the better man, that convinced him that the rules that bind our lives did not constrain his behavior.  A life without boundaries seemed to propel Woods into a surreal existence in which both his blessings and his banes bloomed to absurd proportions.

The protagonists in ancient Greek drama needed only to play out their hubris before the gods.  Tiger has had the public, via the media, with which to contend.  The same media that had sung him to heights of glory, now sought to Tweet him down; to judge the man according to the god-ling they had created.

Tiger’s own behavior, personal and professional – in the clear light of hindsight – gave evidence that the public god and the private man were coming unglued.  Excess is most often the blustering trapping of raging uncertainty.  And then came the night in November when tragedy and comedy conspired to shatter the dualistic illusion – leaving both the public and the man with no clear notion of who this character, this Tiger, was.

The media abhor a vacuum, and so turned their attention elsewhere. That is until today, when the savaged Prince returned, perhaps to reclaim the tarnished throne of Denmark.  The drums rolled, the trumpets blared; and in walked a very ordinary man.  He seemed a man who had awakened from a dream – a dream both wonderful and terrible.  He seemed a man resolved to seek a path to balance, normalcy and reality.  That he is not yet there was evidenced in his futile plea for privacy, for the media to leave his family alone: if you choose to swim with sharks, they must be fed.  Still, I am encouraged by his intention to return to the Buddhist teachings of his youth.  Of all the world’s great faiths, that is the one most firmly committed to the principles of harmony and balance.  I wish him well on his journey.

Friday, February 12, 2010

There’s A Buzz in the Bucket

OK, there is now a little “buzz” icon on my gmail page – looks like a chat balloon in red, yellow, blue and green.  The page looks a bit like my Google Wave page; little thumbnail images of people I know, other little images of people I might want to know.  Both pages bear a bit of a resemblance to my Facebook page, but I don’t go there very often so I would have to check.  Same with my Linkedin page, which I visit even more infrequently, and the Ning Community I created a couple of years ago.

I guess I keep hoping that one of these cool new tools will actually increase the quality of the information being communicated.  I should know better.  Garbage in, garbage out; that little bon mot has been with us since the dawn of the computer age.  Certainly, the bucket containing the information will have its inevitable impact.  But the essential nature of the information is dependent upon the care and effort that went into its creation. Buzz will not improve the quality of the images formerly posted on Picasa or Flickr.  Placing fragmented observations on Twitter make them no more profound than when they were posted on Facebook.  The current thinking seems to be that we all wish to be heavily invested in the surface of hundreds of lives, and each company wants to deliver the environment that best facilitates such emotional dilettantism.  Less considered is the reality that if we spend our energy maintaining hundreds of tangential relationships, we must necessarily reduce the effort we expend on those true friendships that actually sustain us.

I sense, in the current introductory flurry of online and in-the-hand devices, an unusually disjointed cycle in the perennial negotiation between the communicative exigencies of a culture and the technological responses to those pressures.  Perhaps the issue is not, as it has often been, that we lack the tools to address our communicative needs.  Perhaps the current situation reflects a glut of tools to handle increasingly myopic perceptions and expressions.  I can show people around the globe pictures of my puppy a dozen different ways, but representatives from two different political parties cannot see common ground across a narrow aisle in a single room.  I can listen to my favorite pop star on four different devices secreted about my person, but theologians are deaf to any voice save their own; governments seek to constrain the flow of digital information to “protect” their people from “inappropriate” messages.

The paradox is almost amusing; the power of our communication technology seems, at the moment, to far outstrip the uses to which we put it – a wonderful paring knife for skinless grapes.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Watching for Bears

Early photographers could make the entire population of a city disappear.  They would set up their tripods in Times Square at high noon, point the lens at the milling throngs and trip the shutter.  Hours later they would pull the finished image out of its various chemical baths and there, free of the hurly-burly mobs, would stand the lonely buildings in eerie isolation. No people, no carriages, not even a stray dog or fluttering pigeon. 

No, it wasn’t some sci-fi representation of the rapture.  It was an artifact of the technology of the times.  To capture any image you had to leave the shutter of the camera open for upwards of a minute.  Hence only things that remained stationary for that length of time showed up in the image – everything else just disappeared!

I thought of that when I passed two signs on the highway today.  One said “Red Wolf Crossing,” the other “Watch for Bears: Next 9 Miles.” Meandering wildlife, disappearing people – makes you wonder about varying perspectives.  The common conceit is to think of cities as places of hustle and bustle while the wilderness reeks of peaceful tranquility.  It could be that that perception is as illusory as the photographer emptying Times Square.

Try this: Go sit in an empty building.  It may take a little effort to find an entire empty building.  A part of one will do – an empty classroom, a waiting room, close your office door if you have one, perhaps go rest in your car on the top of a parking garage, stand in an empty stairwell, sit in a handball court.  Turn off the radio, shut down the computer.  Set your cell phone to dead.  Now watch what happens around you.  Nothing.  Total sterility.  Nothing can still happen in much of what humanity has constructed.  24/7 isn’t really.  There is still a lot of “down time” in human existence. Isolation remains an option in the constructions of man.  It dwindles with satellites and security cameras and the like – but it is still possible.

Then walk out into the natural world – park, forest, field, beach or backyard - it doesn’t really matter.  Observe what happens in this environment; and, yes, there is always something happening.  Birds flutter and chirp, bugs creep and scurry, clouds drift by, trees sway in the breeze, squirrels holler at you.  Red wolves may cross; bears may watch you back.  You are never alone.  You may not understand the languages echoing around you, but echo they will.

What occurs to me is that even the ballyhooed complexity of 21st century contemporary digital society is, most likely, a pale imitation of the ceaseless activity of the natural world.  Chances are, there is a time when there is nobody looking your Facebook page, you can often find areas where your cell phone doesn’t work.  You can still, actually, momentarily, isolate yourself in the confines of human society.  That remains impossible in the natural world. 

So, if you seek isolation, get thee to the city; for society, venture into the wild.