Thursday, May 20, 2010
Tesla's Resonator and The Web
Watching a program on Nicola Tesla a few nights ago, I am reminded of conversations I had with friends in the pre-web days of hypermedia. At the time, I was describing Tesla's experiments with resonant frequencies and observing that global hypermedia would act as a feedback system. I speculated that cultures may have communication equivalents to resonant frequencies just as material structures do and that if you could discover what these are, given the right symbol/signals pumped at the right amplitude with a feedback mechanism in place, you could literally cause a culture to fall apart or dissolve. TV never achieved that because it has built-in damping mechanisms called advertisers. Advertisers will, as Chayefsky observed in Network, drive you to become the Dream, but they usually don't turn you against each other.
They turn you against yourself.
The web on the other hand, has no constraints. It is all positive feedback. Global hypermedia worried me precisely because it enabled the formation of virtual co-located conversations with no time or space constraints that previously had slowed and damped signal propagation and feedback effects. This is one of it's much lauded characteristics. It may also be why it is toxic. Before the web, many ideas tended to stay local. Word of mouth isn't sufficient to push an idea very far without a means to amplify it and if the web is anything, it is an amplifier.
Pundits say the Blue/Red state phenomenon and the rise of the tea party is a media driven phenomenon and point to TV (eg, CNN/Fox/MSNBC). Some blame the web as well but tend to talk about blogs and punditry there.
Are we now seeing this speculation emerge in real politics? Are the formations of Blue and Red States in a time of cause du jour, of addiction to the information stimuli a direct result of the web? I am not worried about the web making us shallow. A culture that embraced pet rocks and now Sarah Palin is past worrying about that.
I am worried that it is keeping us permanently angry. And we like it. Just as the Huffington Post gets riled because of a Facebook page who's members pray for Obama to die, they conveniently forget that song a noted folk icon was singing, "I Wish George Bush Would Die" and similar ditties about Palin. Putting our political preferences down for a moment, how many people are noticining the yin/yang, back and forth, Spy Vs Spy.... frequent resonating effect at work here. Perfect mirror images of tact and tactic, call and response, angry emotion piled on angry emotion at increasing intensity and frequency?
Let's rock this house down!
What then are the resonant frequencies of our culture? For this to work, a structure has to be connected, that is, have a sharable property and a means to propagate and feedback the signal and stimulate it at some rate. What are the topics that if repeatedly fedback and stimulated will cause our culture to dissolve?
Well... race. That's one. What are the others? Anger. Natch. Love? Only occasionally. Sex? Definitely but only some topics cause dissolution because.. you can't make enough people react with enough intensity. IOW, we seldom go to war over haircuts or bad breath despite the ubiquity.
So what are the topics that if repeated at the right intensity and rate (amplitude and frequency) cause a culture to shake itself to pieces?
The web, that great jurisdiction spanning free for all because it is never censored is making it possible. Anonymity is not the cause. Anonymous posting is injurious particularly to individuals or organizations that become the targets, but in the big picture, that just ups the gain. People are perfectly willing to put their real names on hatefilled diatribes and always have been. No, the important piece that the web added to our uncivil discourse is resonant amplification. And voila! It becomes the cultural equivalent of Tesla's thumper.
Don't blame the music industry for the faults of the Internet. :)