Award Winning Blog

Friday, August 28, 2020

Timely Insights From Conversation with a Nautical Buoy Tender Nearly Forty Years Ago

             Once upon a time, when many of us regularly traveled by air, I took pleasure in striking up conversations with amenable, fellow passengers.  I have fond memories of insightful chats, one of which has particular resonance just now.

            Enroute to or from Florida, I learned about the life of a buoy tender based on a remote Bahamian island.  While I suspect, such facilities no longer require an on-site manager, my travel buddy hinted that the defense and intelligence community—and not just the Coast Guard—needed someone able to keep certain radio links up and running 24/7.

            The logistics of maritime telecommunications interested the techno geek in me, but what matter more triggered my academic training in communications theory, such as agenda setting, persuasion and manipulation.  Living for weeks alone in a remote part of the surprisingly large expanse of Bahamian islands, the buoy tender offered a one person study in the effects of frequent consumption of one—and seemingly only one—type of media.  Forty years ago, satellite radio did not exist and the buoy tender did not know about, or cared to pursue the plentiful options via shortwave radio.  Television and FM radio signals from Florida or Bahamian towns did not reach him and he had only a few video tapes in possession.

            Only one technology provided reliable access: AM radio.  Curiously, only one program format satisfied him: conservative, talk radio.  With lots of time on his hands, the buoy tender listened to one right wing pundit after another.  The hours of consumption had a profound effect.  This guy lived and breathed conservative doctrine, with a plentiful blend of conspiracy theories, including how the so-called Trilateral Commission was nearing success in achieving global domination.

            I’m thinking about this conversation now, because I see how people with far more diverse content options nevertheless can and do gravitate to a narrow sliver.  My communications scholar friends talk and write about “selective perception and retention.”  Now, media consumers have to perform less work to search for, and receive their preferred content. Social networks do the work for them.  While my travel buddy, over time, gravitated to a particular sliver of content, algorithms and machine learning serve it up without any search costs, or effort.

            The buoy tender could have pursued sports talk radio, oldies music and a variety of alternatives to political talk radio.  Forty years ago, he had to make daily actions to tune a particular AM channel at a specific time, so-called appointment radio.  Now, Facebook and other social networks make the appointments for us, anytime, anywhere, via many devices and with no limitations on availability.

            I am growing increasingly concerned that we have “improved worse.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Learned Helplessness: How The Wall Street Journal Could Not Find a Way to Make Timely Delivery of Its Product

Much to the chagrin of my liberal wife, I have subscribed to The Wall Street Journal for over thirty years.  Today I canceled my subscription, because the Journal could not find a way to restor on time deliveries.  Of course, it blamed the U.S. Postal Service, but the problem preceded the most recent cutbacks.

On repeated calls to off-shore customer service representatives, I received assurance after assurance that the problem was temporary and fixable. Absolute fabrications.  As best I can understand it, this “Diary of the American Dream” cannot reach lots of people in the hinterland (six miles from Penn State University) on the same day of publication.  The Journal wants me to migrate to a screen, just like Verizon wants its copper wire holdouts to embrace wireless.

Call me old fashioned, but I so prefer the feel, serendipity and reliability of papered news and wired telephony.  I accept no substitutes, because they are inferior, not matter what one hears.  Yes, a broadband delivered edition provides hyperlinks and wireless can integrate fixed and mobile applications.  But there are far more downsides.  Consider 

         The experience of reading the Sunday New York Times as a newspaper versus maneuvering on a screen.

The Journal appears quite willing to risk the occasional subscription cancelation as a small cost relative to the upside savings in not having to spend sleepless afternoons trying to get their product delivered on time.  Apparently, Down Jones is powerless—simply unable—to secure timely delivery of a product that quickly rots.

I am unworthy of their fresh news.