Category Archives: Right and wrong

NPR’s Tin Ear for Net Neutrality

Last night I had a moment of clarity regarding old media and new media.  I was listening to Terry Gross on fresh air, who was interviewing retiring NPR commentator Robert Siegel1.  I had listened to his voice since childhood and as an adult I had come to trust and rely heavily on reporting from NPR.  That feeling of long held trust was quite a contrast to my response to a piece of reporting I has heard on All Things Considered earlier in the evening.  In that story a reporter was attributing the huge number of bonus checks being distributed by Comcast and AT&T to the recently passed tax changes2.  While the tax plan may have been a factor, these two companies mentioned are the beneficiaries of an even more lucrative handout from the government as a result of the recent repeal of net neutrality rules.  The fact that NPR omitted mention of net neutrality in a story that highlights the celebrations of two central figures in that fight was alarming.  One might hope that NPR  would have been leading the charge on informing the public of the net neutrality debate.  While the typical NPR format of presenting two sides of an issue has been tweaked a bit recently to remind listeners that lies regularly emanate from the White House, the format still has reporters  parrot talking points such as “sweeping regulations3”, that do little to shed light on complicated issues.  The use of satire found in new media outlets is a more effective tool in exposing fraud when the political discourse goes off the rails.  In his interview Robert Siegel mentioned comedian John Oliver by name as someone who really did well researched reporting breaking open the issue of net neutrality4.

The takeaway for me is that learning the whole story cannot be as easy as turning on the radio and listening to a trusted voice.  As much as I have loyalty and warm feelings tied to Public Radio, I will definitely need to reflect on what is being said and probably need to dig to see other useful perspectives.   The kicker is that loss of net neutrality could make finding other perspectives more difficult.  The simplification of a narrative for the sake of fitting it into a news time slot has made me deeply skeptical.   I wonder what other stories have or will be distorted by skimming over the facts.

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Artists’ Information Superhighway Soon to be a Dirt Road

UPDATE: On 12/14/17 the FCC voted to eliminate net neutrality.

In the near future, the internet could experience a fundamental shift away from the free flow of information, towards a system that requires payment to participate.   While not an overt form of censorship, it has the potential to push many valuable artistic ideas out of the mainstream.  For many talented artists who have undergone the torments of wallowing in obscurity, the deficits of such a system are self evident.

Under the current system, the humble website of a regional artist will load just as fast as any other page on the web. However, if net neutrality rules are suspended, the web will become skewed towards large content providers.  Up until now, regulations have ensured that internet service providers (ISPs) provide the same speed of service to every website.  Thus, net neutrality created a level playing field for large and small content providers.    The rewritten rules will permit priority service for some websites and slow the performance of other sites with artificial bottlenecks.  

Artists add content to the web.

It is expected that ISPs will reformulate their business model to take advantage of the lax regulation.   The first change would likely be to pressure video streaming services such as Netflix or Youtube to pay for speedy content delivery.  This will result in higher fees and more advertisements as well as less bandwidth for small websites.   

 

In a best case scenario this proposal will be rejected.   If that fails and the ISPs gain the ability to throttle speeds at will, one could hope that this becomes a battle of titans where little folks would remain unaffected.  Perhaps even at reduced speeds the slim files that compose an artist’s website will load in a time reasonable to impatient visitors.  

In the worst case scenario, a plethora of ills could spill from this pandora’s box.  ISPs could approach artists to request fees to deliver content at high speeds.  Artists already encounters shakedowns on platforms such as Facebook which solicit money to “promote this post.”   In addition, shady operators might cash in on the public’s uncertainty to promise solutions while delivering only snake oil.   Lack of net neutrality could also accelerate an existing trend towards an aesthetic shaped by what is most likely to draw a click.  While not really a unified artistic school of thought, the web seems to celebrate art that is bizarrely fascinating as well as reward artists creating work linked to a popular figure or rising trend.  In a tiered system, the click-worthy art would likely be put in the fast lane of the internet, while works of more subtle beauty would populate the back alleys.  Artists who have long chafed at the power of artistic elites, may find themselves facing a whole new set of decision makers passing judgement on what gets seen and what is neglected.

A number of factors have lead to this proposal.  The internet’s value as a place to share ideas has been under appreciated and is being overrun by the desires of commerce.  Opponents of net neutrality frame the issue as removing excess government regulation.  This idea is really just legislation catering to companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon who stand to profit enormously and whose push to make this happen make them the second largest lobby in congress.   The current FCC chair, Adjit Pai, is a former Verizon lawyer who has the interests of ISPs close to heart.  When the FCC collected comments online, the process was marred by a flood of millions of comments automatically submitted by bots in opposition to net neutrality.1

On the other side there has been a strong push to preserve net neutrality.  Analysis of online comments collected by the FCC show that of those comments, ones posted by actual humans showcased an overwhelming support for net neutrality.2   Supporters of preserving a level playing field on the internet have framed the issue in a variety of ways.  Some tech giants such as Amazon, Netflix, and Google see it as bad for business or a distortion of their vision of the internet.  Other social justice-oriented groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Greenpeace take principled stances based on free speech.  Late night comedian John Oliver takes jabs at the underhanded moves of companies that can’t even be trusted to keep their promise to show up and install cable.3  While these diverse perspectives are all valid, a critical population has remained largely silent: artists.  

A decision is expected at the mid-December meeting of the FCC.  Some groups circulate petitions and others advocate contacting your representative in congress.  For those who wish to have their voice heard in this matter, contact members of the FCC board4as well as members of congress5 with a brief polite letter or email.

An internet dominated by those who have the money to spread their content is likely to become uniform and stale.  There is no guarantee that creativity or bright ideas will flourish if they are consigned to a slow speed internet ghetto.

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The thing that I have is probably what I need

index_cardThis morning I reached in my pocket and pulled out a tattered index card.   I give these cards to my students so they can write down and remember vocabulary words.  Without thinking, I took it to the trash and tossed it in.   I then began my next task which was writing my ‘to do’ list for the day.   As I wandered off to find a suitable sheet, it occurred to me that the paper I had just tossed was exactly what was needed.   This unremarkable event is representative of how my mind works these days.   I wandered back to the trash and fished out my tattered index card.   On it, I wrote out my list of things to do, writing this blog entry at top of the list.

Lately I challenge myself to look at things for what they might become rather than what they are.   I take a lot of joy in visiting our local thrift store “Dig and Save” to wander through the aisles and wonder how this or that item might be repurposed.

Consumer society wants us to covet the latest product.  The unique and extremely desirable qualities of such products are meant to lure us into stores, and dig deep into our pockets.   Sadly, products are the object of someone else’s imagination and we get none of the fun creative part that draws us in.   Instead, our role is limited to covet and savor it at least until it’s appeal has faded and it is time to buy another one.

Yesterday I went off to the stores right after Thanksgiving.   Yes, I had barely said goodbye to my guests when my family and I decided to venture out into the dangerous world of Black Friday shopping.   Needless to say I gave my daughter a guilt trip about running out to the stores on Thanksgiving.   When we got home, I told her that my receipt contained a request to evaluate my experience at the store.   She dismissed it saying “You’re not really going to fill it out are you?”   To her surprise I sat her down and gave her a two minute lecture the essence of which was “The old testament says that when we have a day of rest, even slaves and animals are included in that rest.   The least we can do for the cashier who took time out of his holiday to help us would be to sit down and write a glowing review for his personnel file.”

My thought in lecturing my daughter or in writing this blog for that matter is not to ruin everybody’s day with guilt, but to transform thinking.    If this challenge I give to myself is going to be transformative, I really need to look, not only at things for what they might become, but also to look at people for who they may become rather than what they are.

 

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An Old Problem with the Church

Paul_preaches

Recently I stumbled on a passage from Acts that I had not read before.   Acts 20:7-12 tells of a time Paul is preaching a lengthy sermon in a crowded upper room.   As the sermon drones on and on one of the congregation who was perched precariously in a in a window falls asleep and tumbles to apparent death in the street below.

I was struck by this story in a “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming kind of way.”   I decided to sketch an image of it.  I have been sketching biblical passages for about five years and find it useful to explore a text visually.      As I sketched I thought about being sleepy in church and wondered how the author or subsequent church leaders wanted this passage to be read(*see footnote below).  Was it a cautionary tale?    Regardless of how others wanted this to be read, to me what I took from it was that boring preaching was deadly.  I began to think about how the church might learn to move beyond overreliance on the spoken word.   There are multiple ways to connect with God.   However more often than not the church is still stuck in this mode of preaching long winded sermons.    One can see evidence in church payrolls where the preacher takes the lion’s share and the roles of youth minister, music director and organist follow far behind.   To the extent that they exist at all, roles such as liturgical dance director or visual art coordinator tend to be volunteer positions.

So how can the church move beyond being a church where spoken word is the primary means of encountering God?    I wish I had an easy answer. Things have not changed too much since Paul.   The image of a preacher putting his congregation to sleep is sadly familiar.  It is probably not a coincidence that I have not encountered this passage over the years.   Who can expect a pastor to share such an unflattering passage.  However I do remember an artist who was willing to broach this topic.  When I was growing up the artwork of Robert O. Hodgell was widely collected by churches and faithful in our region.    Hodgell depicts this theme in his print “Words, Words Words.”

sermon_hodgell

This site has more information on the life and work of Hodgell

Before you damn me all to hell,  I should clarify my stance.  I would not go so far as to advocate a ban preaching or anything like that.   The bible is an amazing text that is worth reading and preaching about.    And of course I have read the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.“  My point is that the church has some very old and unproductive habits that bear scrutiny.

Even as I outline my concerns, I hope that the arts might be a way for Christianity to find a new vitality in the future. A church that empowers sculptors, singers, filmmakers, dancers, painters and poets could bring out the best of us.   It might be possible that a new paradigm could be forged to awaken people, but so far the most interesting developments in this area seem to be happening at the fringes.   One might point to contemporary music services as a push to shake things up, but in my view contemporary music services are not the answer.    The contemporary formats I have encountered embraced rather old fashioned theology and did not have a lot to offer musically. In other settings I have seen church art committees make an effort to make art a part of the church.   These committees often seem to encounter brick walls and are encouraged only to the extent that they do not get in the way of what has always been done.

The story of the congregant that Paul put to sleep concludes on a happy note as miraculously the sleeper is resurrected.   I would hope the health of the arts in the church could come alive in a similarly miraculous manner.  I fear that I will take a lot of effort, but in God all things are possible.  Lets pray for the best.

*In researching this blog entry, I came upon another interesting interpretation of the origin of this story, which predicates that Luke used a literary strategy called hypertextual transvaluation to base this on an episode from Homer.    The full essay by Dennis R. MacDonald is posted here: http://www.depts.drew.edu/jhc/mcdonald.html

Doug Haynes is a painter, writer and the spouse of a pastor.

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