Tag Archives: media

Television’s Last Stand

I nearly cut the cord last week. I wanted to do it earlier, when the hockey and basketball playoffs ended, but some members of my household wanted to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup, then it was the Pan Am Games…

Which is to say that, in our home at least, live sports is the last remaining reason to pay for cable TV.

It’s a good one, mind you. A hard-fought elite-level sports contest is simply the best entertainment around, involving strong characters, intense pressure, great achievements, profound loss, and far less predictability than 98% of the dramatic storytelling currently out there.

It’s also an incredibly lucrative business, especially for the pro players (not that I don’t think the money should go to those who play the game, as opposed to those who own the teams). Our appetite for professional sports continues to grow—the industry in the aggregate is now said to be worth more than $500 billion globally—and so the scope of the salaries earned by [mostly] men to play games has become patently absurd. The average salary of a Major League Baseball player, for instance, will exceed $4 million this year (That’s the average salary mind you; ‘A Rod,’ the New York Yankees star third baseman, may earn as much as $50 million this year, including marketing bonuses). If Joe Average Baseball Player were to play every minute of every game this summer (and he won’t), he will earn $8230 per hour of playing time. Patently absurd, given the utter lack of intrinsic social value attached to the work he does. Incidentally, Joe is also allotted $100 a day in meal money when he is on the road. Wouldn’t want him to feel the pinch in those expensive hotel restaurants.

But we fans have only ourselves to blame. We’re the ones who fill the stadiums, tune into the games, and yes, pay those cable TV fees, regardless of the cost. We’re the ones who seem to think that our team winning or losing somehow reflects well or poorly on us as individuals. In fact we use terms like “WE won” when a team of players whom we will never meet, and who are only rarely from our home town, never mind our home country, outscores another team that we don’t label ours. It’s more than a little odd.

What’s interesting though, is where the video marketing of big league sports is going. Surely with broadband expanding steadily, and video streaming gaining popularity by the day, it is only a matter of time before these sports franchises begin to control and market their games online, in high quality imagery. Forget ESPN or Rogers Sportsnet. These teams will find ways to make even more money by charging you directly to watch their games via their own internet channels, say in packages featuring certain opposing teams, maybe all home games, or of course with ‘tickets’ for individual games. How can it possibly not go this way?

Well, one possible way is for government agencies to prevent this sort of ‘vertical integration’ of the marketplace, akin to the 1948 antitrust case which prevented Hollywood studios from owning and operating their own theatres, to which they would grant exclusive rights to their movies. Like that case, will we see governments move to forestall undivided control of the production and distribution of sports entertainment?

It remains to be seen; the conventional TV networks have proven to be more resilient than many believed they would be in finding new revenue models (like money from Netflix), but the trends are there. TV viewing declined roughly 10% in the last year, and it’s not like the major sports franchises have to go out and build their brand. It’s there now for them, bigger and better than ever, primed for exploitation via a new medium.

5805107962_48e85060aa_zI’ll likely simply try, at some point, to renegotiate my deal with my cable TV provider. I’ll do my damndest to cherry pick just those channels which carry the games of the teams I like to follow, and my cable provider will do their damndest to ensure that I’m obliged to pick up as many channels as possible in order to do that. Shaw Cable, my provider, for instance and in most obnoxious fashion, spreads the Vancouver Canucks games over four or five of their various channels, then places those various channels in different packages, each of which costs more.

My desire for big league sports entertainment may be a passion which adds meaning to my life, or it may be a pathetic identification with a bunch of rich strangers. Either way, and even if the medium changes, one thing is certain: meeting that desire is not likely to get any cheaper.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.

Change

Dick Cavett Nick Step photo
Dick Cavett
Nick Step photo

Dick Cavett, the former [brilliant] talk show host, tells the story of working as a writer on the Jack Paar Show when he learned that Peter Ustinov was to be a guest on the show, and that his segment would last all of nine minutes. Ustinov was legendary as a talk show guest, “the best ever” in Cavett’s words, and Cavett proceeded to throw something of a hissy fit with the show’s producers, arguing that Ustinov should be given the entire show, that the other three utterly forgettable guests should be punted. “Oh no,” replied the producers, “People like change.”

What’s interesting about this episode, from the perspective of our advanced ADD age, is that the Jack Paar Show ended its run in March of 1962 (Johnny Carson would take over). In other words, the media emphasis on fast paced change has been with us for quite some time.

Despite the “idiocy” Cavett describes in his story, it’s undeniably true that many people do in fact enjoy change. My wife likes to periodically rearrange the furniture in our home. It gives her a sense of renewal, a small but unquestionably positive energy bump. Me, I’m more prone to leaving things where they seem to work best. Sure, move the furniture around a few times when the configuration is new, but once the optimum arrangement is discovered, that’s how it should stay.

My wife is the daughter of a Dutch diplomat. Growing up, she lived a life of continual change, as the family moved every few years to a new foreign locale, often exotic and stimulating, places like Kobe, Japan or Capetown, South Africa. I, on the other hand, grew up in one home, one town for the entirety of my young life. In wondering why my wife prefers change, and I don’t, my initial theory was that, having grown up with this usually enjoyable and invigorating level of change, she preferred to maintain it wherever she could, if only on a micro level. I, having grown up in an unchanging environment, not so much.

But then one day I was talking with my brother, and he described the regular incidents where, returning home from a long day at work, he would encounter his teenage daughter excitedly hopping about on the front step, keenly eager to have him help rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. My niece too has grown up in an entirely stable situation, one house, one town. To this day she lives just a few blocks from her parents.

So much for that theory.

The mystery persists. Is it then a gender thing? Certainly it is quite a fundamental rift, this gulf between those who embrace and those who avoid change. All I can suggest at this point is that, like the inclination to be on time or late, the desire for change is both learned and somehow genetic. Lasting too. In any given individual, the need for change, or not, is not likely to change.

Which is not to say that Dick Cavett was wrong, and his producers right. Far from it. We live in a time of unprecedented change, within a veritable vortex of technological transformation, and so, for us, change is anything but a scarce commodity. It’s the long-form article, or uninterrupted period of quiet which has become today’s uncommon resource, and therefore the thing of value.

But more than that, what we’re losing, as we feel the obligation to welcome change, and so throw our arms of awareness wide, is the simple distinction of quality. Which is of course what Cavett was pointing out to his producers. Peter Ustinov was indeed dazzling at what he did as talk show guest, funny, trenchant, witty and articulate. (Watch him here in a compilation of interview clips with Michael Parkinson of the BBC.) He was the best at what he did, and Cavett’s producers couldn’t have cared.

Today the best is often lost among all the electronic noise. Our attention is fleeting, the audience fractured. The news cycle completes its turn in just one day. It may have been going on since 1962 and before, but the embrace of change will always come at a cost, and so today’s accelerating change comes at an accelerating cost. No one should lament the loss of exclusive access to the media, or decry the democratic power of the internet. What we should do is remember to celebrate excellence, and to give it our sustained attention.

Words

My own view on the ‘proper’ use of language is radical, though not so radical as some. I am told of a UBC professor who believes that, “If you used it, it’s a word.” I would amend that statement to read, “If you used it—and it was understood by the listener in the way you intended it to be understood—it’s a word.”

Rafel Miro photo
Rafel Miro photo

I’m employing the classic communication model here, where sender, message and receiver must all be present in order for communication to take place, and I do believe that clarity is the prime consideration when attempting to communicate with the written or spoken word. Honesty might be my second consideration, and all the niceties of language—the elements of style—would follow, a distant third.

Words are meant to communicate, and communication is meant to move you somehow, either intellectually or emotionally, depending upon the kind of writing or speaking being done. But nowhere should it be maintained that there is a proper way to communicate with words, that there is one and only one correct way to string words together.

And yet of course there is. We have the rules of grammar, and we have the dictionary. The dictionary tells us that there is one and only one correct way to spell a word, and the rules of grammar tell us that there is only one way to correctly construct sentences.

Well, to not put too fine a word upon it, hogwash. Shakespeare never had a dictionary or grammar text to refer to, and most of us would agree that no fellow has ever strung English words together better than he, and he invented some dillys (How about “fell swoop?”). It makes no more sense to say that there are rules to govern writing than it does to say there are rules to govern painting, or sculpture, or theatre. Writing is an artform like any other, and to impose rules upon it is an act of stultification.

I’m with Bill Bissett, subversive poet of deserved renown whose work can be found on his “offishul web site,” work like this pithy gem (from scars on th seehors):

IT USD 2 B

yu cud get sum toilet papr

nd a newspapr both 4

a dollr fiftee

 

now yu cant  

yu gotta make a chois 

Bissett points out in his essay why I write like ths that it was the invention of the printing press that precipitated the standardization of language:

previous to that era peopul wud spell th same words diffrentlee  evn in th same correspondens  chek th lettrs btween qween elizabeth first n sir waltr raleigh  different spellings  different tones  different emphasis  sound  all part uv th changing meenings  

Once again it seems it was technology determining change, change which in this case undoubtedly impoverished words as a creative tool.

It was the Victorians who truly imposed a final set of rules upon the English language—the first Oxford Dictionary appeared in 1884—and generically speaking, there has rarely been a more noxious bunch populating the earth.

The French have the Académie française, “official moderator of the French language,” there “to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give our language definite rules.” The Academy of course admits a few new words to the French language each year, mostly to replace odious English words that have crept into use in French, but again, it is hard to imagine a more officious and objectionable pomp of bureaucrats than these self-appointed jury members. (Did you catch me inventing “pomp,” and, more importantly, did you grasp my meaning?)

Language evolves, daily, as must any art if it is to remain an art. It must constantly be in search of the novel, for there is precious little else remaining when it comes to the recognition of art than that it be new. Those who would stand in opposition to this evolution stand with those charming Victorians who offered up as their sole necessary justification, “It’s not done.”

Yes, the too-indulgent use of words can be tedious and problematic (Has anyone actually read Finnegan’s Wake?), but even more problematically tendentious are the language police manning the checkpoints in defense of a hopeless, conservative cause. If you want to say, “There is data to support my argument,” as opposed to “There are data…”, go ahead. Those who would condemn you for it are snobs, snobs with a fascist bent, and not the least deserving of the respect they seek. If you consider it a word, and you think it likely to be understood in the way you intend, go ahead, fire away, use it. Feel free.

Marx Was Right

Those politicos who chant the competition-as-salvation mantra, especially those in America, may find it hard to believe, but not so long ago many prominent U.S. businessmen and politicians were singing the praises of corporate monopoly.  Incredibly, given America’s current climate of opinion—where the word government, never mind socialism, seems a dirty word—just 100 years ago, it was widely believed that there were four basic industries with “public callings”—telecommunications, transportation, banking and energy—that were best instituted as government sanctioned monopolies.  The most successful of the corporate entities to occupy this place of economic privilege was the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), and here’s what its then President, Theodore Vail, had to say about the social value of competition, “In the long run… the public as a whole has never benefited by destructive competition.”

Groucho's older brother Karl (kidding)
Groucho’s older brother Karl (kidding)

Karl Marx may have been wrong about many things, including what best motivates the average human being, but he was certainly not wrong when he suggested that capitalism tends directly toward monopoly.  How could it not, when the most durable means of defeating the competition will always be to simply eliminate it?  In 1913, AT&T had been remarkably successful in doing just that, and its monopoly would survive undiminished until 1982, when the Reagan administration oversaw the breakup of AT&T into the seven so-called ‘Baby Bells.’

(Before you conclude that it’s only right-thinking, right-leaning governments, like Reagan’s, that can properly control corporate America, know that it was also a Republican administration, under President Taft, that condoned the ascendency to monopoly by AT&T in 1913.)

Tim Wu, in his book The Master Switch (cited last week in this blog), has postulated “the cycle” as continuously operative in the communications industries (all the way from telegraph to TV), whereby technical innovation gives birth to an initially wide-open trade, but where soon enough corporate consolidation leads to singular business empires.  It’s worth noting that by 2006, AT&T had, via some truly brutal business practices, essentially reunited its pre-breakup empire, leaving only two of the Baby Bells, Verizon and Qwest, still intact and independent.

The latest example of the tendency toward monopoly in Canada can be seen readily at play in the federal government’s efforts to boost competition among the oligopoly of this country’s big three telephone providers, Telus, Bell and Rogers.  Evidence suggests that, prior to the government’s most recent intervention—in 2008 reserving wireless spectrum for new companies like Mobilicity, Wind and Public Mobile—Canadians paid some of the highest mobile phone charges in the world.  Since their entry into the marketplace, these three rookie players, have—what a surprise—struggled to prosper, even survive in the face of fierce competition from the triad of telecom veterans.  All three ‘Canadian babies’ are now said to be up for sale, and the feds, to their credit, stepped in earlier this year to block a takeover of Wind Mobile by Telus Corp.

Former Baby Bell Verizon—now referred to in comparison to Canadian telecoms as “giant” or “huge”—is reported to be circling Canada’s wireless market, rumoured to be considering a bid on either of Wind Mobile or Mobilicity.  Facilitating this move—and setting off alarm bells (no pun intended) near the Canadian cultural core—is a recent legislative relaxation of formerly stringent foreign ownership rules to allow foreign takeovers of telecoms with less than 10 per cent of the market.

Wu’s book asks if the internet will succumb to the same cycle of amalgamation that so many other electronic media have.  His answer: too soon to tell, but history teaches us to keep a wary eye.  And if you consider Apple’s cozy relationship with AT&T over the iPhone, or the fact that Google and Verizon have courted, you’d have to agree with his concern.  Wu concludes his book with an advocacy of what he terms “The Separations Principle,” an enforced separation of “those who develop information, those who control the network infrastructure on which it travels, and those who control the tools or venues of access” to that information.

The internet, given its decentralized construction, is not easy to consolidate, but no one should feel confident that today’s corporate titans won’t try.  Nor should we underestimate their ability to succeed in that effort.

 

Suicide Watch: the CBC in Crisis

121px-CBC_logo_1940–1958The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was effectively born a mixed-blood child back in 1929, taking over a series of radio stations first set up by the Canadian National Railway.  Early CBC radio broadcasts included American programming, and, even in my day, as a kid growing up the late 50s, early 60s, CBC was ‘affiliated’ with many privately owned radio stations across Canada, replete with ads.

The breakthrough came in 1974, when the radio network stopped running commercial advertising.  What followed was an unprecedented flowering of creativity and quality that saw CBC Radio become as good as any broadcast service that’s ever been offered, anywhere.  In the wake of that 1974 decision, CBC went on to undoubtedly become the most important cultural institution in the country.

I have to stress that these accolades belong rightly to CBC Radio, as opposed to CBC television, which began in 1958 with an impossible blend of commercial and public mandates, and has never been allowed to try flying without the debilitating weight of advertisers (and therefore the abiding incentive to seek higher ratings).

Last week the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC) granted the CBC up to four minutes of advertising per hour on Radio 2, the music arm of the network, beginning what will surely be the death throes of CBC radio as we have known it.  This coup de grâce comes after decades of brutal cutbacks to the Corporation, all while overall federal spending climbed steadily.  The most recent will see a further 10% cut from CBC’s annual budget by 2014.

Thus you might lay the blame for its demise at the feet of CBC’s hostile patron in Ottawa, which has, over the years and despite it all, born the critical brunt of mostly exceptional CBC news services.  But this latest blow has of course come at the behest of CBC management, desperate to maintain its own viability.  It’s CBC staffers who have initiated their own suicide watch, in a mad attempt to stay alive by imitating the very private stations which threaten them.

CBC has one and only one viable future—as a distinct alternative to the private broadcasters.  What possible justification for its taxpayer outlay can the CBC find in providing what the private stations are already providing?  It should be but somehow isn’t dreadfully apparent to CBC executives that every inch closer to their commercial counterparts they step is an inch closer to their own oblivion.

It’s likely too late for CBC TV.  For a nation as small as Canada, in today’s media marketplace, it’s likely just too expensive to produce quality television with taxpayer dollars.  What’s more, CBC television was simply too cruelly compromised from the outset, never able to assume the robust communal role that might have won it unambiguous public approval.  CBC TV’s only hope for survival now is as a PBS-style broadcaster focusing upon news, public affairs and other serious, not schlocky (i.e. Battle of the Blades) factual programming.  That means no sports, and, like PBS, no original production of dramatic shows.  (In anticipation of all those who would cry ‘elitist’ in the face of the reduced audience that such a content shift would entail, let me say that I and many others like me would gladly, immediately contribute their own personal monies to such a service, were it to be commercial free.)

As to CBC radio, it certainly isn’t as good as it used to be when bigger budgets meant a more international focus.  But from AM’s The Sunday Edition, hosted by Michael Enright—who himself should be considered something of a national treasure—to Rich Terfry’s Radio 2 Drive, which, for my money, provides the best music programming anywhere on the dial, CBC Radio has, amazingly, been able to pretty much get it right.  This formerly brilliant and still great national lead character must not be allowed to hang itself.  Canadians everywhere should stand up and shout, as loudly as they possibly can, at both their MPs and at the frightened, misguided CBC managers, calling for the preservation of a genuinely public radio broadcaster, 100% government and listener-supported.

Otherwise we should just pull the plug right now, before it gets too painful to behold.

 

 

Rich and Famous

Back in 1968, Andy Warhol notably said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”  Back then, the gates to fame were securely guarded by the sober keepers of what was referred to as ‘mass media.’  Few had access to any form of media beyond a ‘photocopier,’ and so it took great skill or achievement, or spectacularly bad luck or choices to gain a remote audience of more than a handful.

images-6

I think of Michael James Brody Jr., who in 1970 announced he would be giving away one million dollars, and who was then of course immediately engulfed in media attention, including an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he prophetically sang a less than distinguished version of Bob Dylan’s, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”  (Proving that opportunistic might be a more accurate descriptor for the mass media of the day than discriminating.)  Indeed, Brody quickly faded from the public eye, committing suicide in 1973; his life a sad comment on Warhol’s original pronouncement.

These days anyone who can turn on a computer has access to an international medium, and the average teenager on Facebook has more than 500 ‘friends’ providing an instant audience.  The average 22-year-old in Britain has more than 1000 Facebook friends.  Certainly it amounts to a ‘network’ of sorts, encompassing plenty of people who can’t be considered friends in any genuine sense, but who nevertheless, as the YouTube slogan formerly suggested, allow the individual to resemble a minor-league ‘broadcaster.’

Numbers still count of course.  Google Adsense does not come sniffing around any blog without a serious number of daily clicks.  (Google makes searching for an accurate take on this number remarkably unproductive.)  So when it comes to money, big dogs still rule the kennel, and in that sense not much has changed.  But in other important ways nearly everything has changed.  Now any ordinary mortal can ‘share’ everything from the breakup of her most recent relationship to, famously, unwisely, his participation in last night’s riot.  And with these changes, the very conception of privacy seems to have morphed for current 20somethings.  (The average 50something has roughly 50 times fewer Facebook friends than the 20something.)  Any smart phone now knows precisely where we are at all times, and, if we wish, it will happily notify all our friends of as much whenever they happen to be in the neighbourhood.  More ominously, if Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble is right, facial recognition technology will soon advance to the point where whomever—the government, your employer, your husband—will be able to search for you wherever security cameras may have observed you, which is just about everywhere, isn’t it?  The prospect represents a virtual paradigm shift in our public/private lives.  As Pariser, writes, “The ability to search by face will shatter many of our illusions about privacy and anonymity.”

Personally, I’ve never quite grasped the attraction of fame, at any scale, whether it be via The New York Times or Facebook.  Money, sure; it’s highly convenient.  Power, again sure, if you’re able to contend with its corrupting capacity.  Fame can obviously facilitate these other, more ostensibly desirable ends, but fame in the sense that you won’t be able to go out in public without being recognized, that strangers might approach you, looking for some sort of buzz of interaction—the very idea that anonymity will be gone for you—I just don’t see the payoff in that.

In June of 1968, Valerie Solanas, a marginal figure in Andy Warhol’s notorious ‘Factory’ scene, tried to kill him.  She very nearly did, and Warhol had to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life.  Maybe it’s just my perverse take on things, but the attempt seems to be the apogee of the dark side of fame.  A murder attempt is obviously not the sort of attention anyone needs, but then, the need for widespread attention seems to me to be something all of us should regard with suspicion.  As David Bowie has suggested, “Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.”

 

Referendum Politics

13716821-vote

An old friend once said to me that she thought voting should be a privilege, rather than a right.  She felt citizens should be educated on the issues before they would qualify to vote.  With that, presumably, would come the government requirement to take a course, complete a quiz, or somehow prove that you as potential voter were sufficiently informed to be eligible to step into the ballot box.

It’s a bit much for me, involving a bit too much faith in the benevolence of government, but, on the other hand, it’s not hard to empathize with the sentiment.  Anyone who has made any sort of sustained investigation into the illegality of soft drugs, for instance, will soon come to the conclusion that the U.S. ‘war on drugs’ is a colossal waste of police and legal resources, a policy which pitchforks money to organized crime, fills up jails with non-violent offenders, and delivers scant results in terms of decreased drug use.

And yet, until very recently—maybe—a majority of American voters favored retaining laws prohibiting marijuana use.  Why?  Well, two reasons I think.  First of all emotion, the historical residue of the hysteria generated by ridiculous government campaigns from out of the past touting the dangers of “reefer madness!”  Secondly, the simple fact that these people aren’t well informed about the issue.  They haven’t studied the facts.  They haven’t seen how much money is spent eradicating marijuana fields, taking down grow ops, busting teenagers, jailing small-time dealers.  They haven’t considered how much money flows to gangs, when it could be flowing in taxes to depleted government coffers.  They may be vaguely aware that the prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s didn’t work out that well, giving rise to the American Mafia, but they haven’t really had to examine the parallels between those events and the prohibition against marijuana.  Why have the majority of Americans viewed marijuana prohibition as a good thing?  They don’t know any better.

It’s just one example which raises the question of whether ‘direct democracy’ is a good thing.  The digital revolution is fast delivering us the means to hold a referendum on every issue, voting from our smart phones, tablets and laptops.  Should we go there?  If we do we could probably eliminate the need for those noxious politicians squabbling in cantankerous legislatures.  Then we could institute, just as my friend suggested, online courses which a prospective voter would be obligated to complete, before casting her vote on any particular proposed law.  Tempted?

The question can be more germanely asked, here and now, as whether an elected official is compelled to vote ‘the will of the people.’   Setting aside for a second the reality of a ‘party whip’ dictating to said official how he will vote, should our rep be free to vote according to his own personal assessment of the proposition, or should he be obliged to vote in line with what polls show is the view of the majority of his constituents?

Personally, I’m a believer in representative democracy, where we send our best and brightest to debate, study and confer on the issues of the day, and then vote according to their soundest judgment.  Referendums are a mug’s game.  If we are to see progressive change in our society, we’re better off avoiding them.  Why?  For one specific reason: voting ‘no’ empowers; voting yes does not.  We can frame the referendum question as carefully as we like, crafting it like obsessed ad men, but the fact is that the number of voters out there who feel at least mild resentment toward politicians dwarfs the number who may be uninformed about any particular issue.  These folks are generally not terribly happy with their lives, and the easiest place to direct the blame is toward the government.

Thus, when the opportunity arises to ‘stick one’ to the government, they’re going to take it; they’re going to vote no to change.  Voting no means that the power still resides with you—maybe I’ll vote yes next time, if you’re nicer to me in the meantime—but voting yes means you no longer hold any leverage.  The power has been passed on to people who may never care to seek your input again.

As I keep saying, change is constant; new problems will always arise, so we need change to contend with those problems—new solutions for new problems.  And referendums will always make that difficult.  They’re a political cop-out.  They amount to politicians dodging their responsibility.