Media, messages and the dangers of teledemocracy

Jon Margolis

March 26, 1993|By Jon Margolis

SUCH are the wonders of modern technology that here is what you can do with its next development, interactive television: You can play quarterback.

It works like this. You sit in front of the TV, tuned in to your favorite National Football League game, holding in your lap a . . . a . . . well, a gizmo.

Needless the say, the folks at Interactive Network don't call it a gizmo. It's hard to charge $199 for a gizmo, plus $15 a month minimum to use it. They call it a Control Unit. It's 5 1/2 inches by 12 inches by 2 inches, and it has a little screen and a keyboard.

Before each play, you tell the keyboard whether the quarterback will call a pass or a run, to the right or the left or up the middle, long or short. The righter you are, the more points you get. The wronger, the more points you lose.

All of which leads inexorably to this question: Why bother?

Well, it does keep you from drinking quite as much beer. Though drinking beer is a lot more fun than pushing buttons, too much of it can be harmful. Then there is the possible answer that is best suppressed. The creation of this game could reveal the awful truth that professional football on television is actually a frightful bore, a recognition that might doom American civilization as we know it.

OK, no Ludditeism here. Nothing is more boring than griping about the reality that the world will change. And with several exceptions (artificial turf, for example), most technological advance does more good than harm.

You'll note that the anti-technology crowd does not volunteer to live without vaccines or stereo sets.

Besides, it's pointless. What will come will come, and two-way telecommunicating in the home will come. Whether via television or one of those computer services, such as Prodigy, the average American will be able to sit at home and exchange information of one kind or another with just about anyone.

Still, it's important to remember that the technology is just the medium and that the medium is not the message. It's the medium. The message is the message. If the information being exchanged is silly, wrong or watered down for fear of giving offense, we'd all be better off without it.

So if we are going to be able to get and give millions of messages at home each day, somebody ought to pay attention to their content.

Well, somebody is. According to a recent article in the New Yorker, new software might enable doctors to "swap X-rays instantly for a second opinion." Children, "instead of sitting passively before TV sets, would take part in customized tutorials and quizzes, or play chess."

Not bad. In addition to fun and games, interactive technology can bring real research and education into the home, important services to schools and offices.

Furthermore, "using the same built-in codes that identify shoppers, citizens would be able to vote from home."

Whoops! Hold the phone. Or the Control Unit. Very bad idea. First, unless everyone was given the technology for free, it would then be easier for wealthier people to vote. There is no doubt a name for a system in which voting is easier for some classes of people than for others, but that name is not democracy.

More basic is that the whole notion of "teledemocracy" is dangerous. Once the people at large can vote on the spot on whether they want to install a new sewer system, fire a controversial teacher or go to war, the horror of government by plebiscite looms.

This isn't democracy, either. Gerald Ford had it right. "Here the people rule," he said as he became president. They rule; they don't make the day-to-day decisions of government. Elected or appointed officials do that, after immersing themselves in all the minutiae. If the sovereign people don't approve, they elect different officials. Government by plebiscite is just another kind of tyranny.

To illustrate just how tyrannical it might become, it will be necessary to mention three people whose names ought to be un-mentioned by all who value civilization. Not long ago Geraldo Rivera (one) conducted a televised "trial" of Joseph Buttafuoco (two), the Long Island man whose wife was shot by teen-ager Amy Fisher (three).

Forget for a minute that Buttafuoco has never been charged with a crime. Had Rivera been armed with Interactive TV (and he will be), the viewing public could have rendered the verdict.

Then it's only a matter of time before the viewing public decides the fate of real defendants in real trials. No doubt the control unit will be equipped with thumbs pointing up or down, the better for each of the several million jurors to imagine himself a Caesar.

Well, it would be more interesting than predicting whether the next play will be a pass into the flat or a slant off-tackle.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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