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Are we the butt of technology's cruel joke?

Don't get me wrong. I love the speed with which Google, the Internet, and other forms of new technology enable me to find information, and how blogging offers a faster way to break news than through being just in traditional print.

Yet all is not well and good, particularly in the political realm. A number of observers have been weighing in with the viewpoint that, well, things just aren't as good as they used to be.

For example, Steven Stark, writing in the Phoenix, used the mistaken forecasts of the New Hampshire primary to contend that Internet pundits are worsening the quality of political coverage.

With a deficit of real news, the result, as Daniel Boorstin astutely wrote in The Image almost a half-century ago, is that pundits and opiners start making it up, so they have something to write about. This year, we have been blessed, for example, with constant candidate debates that, in real terms, have been watched by virtually no one but those directly involved with the process. Of course, performance in a debate has absolutely no correlation with performance in office, anyway (an idea that has seemingly been lost). But the smaller point is that, this year, it has also had little to do with how candidates do at the ballot box, either.

That still hasn’t stopped the Internet and cable-TV pundits (myself included!) from compulsively grading each one. The process has gotten so out of hand that, after most debates, Fox News now features a focus group of potential voters — each of whom is “wired up” to a machine that looks suspiciously like something out of shock therapy so that he or she can watch the debate and grade it with others. It’s no surprise that these “scientifically chosen” groups have managed to do everything but identify the eventual primary or caucus winner down the road. Yet the pundits are still treating the results of these ludicrous exercises as something worthy of serious reflection.

Even before that, Matt Bai had noted the death of the old-style campaign books, by the likes of Teddy White, Timothy Crouse, and Richard Ben Crameer:

Cramer himself may have been partly to blame. Though “What It Takes” met with unimpressive sales and skeptical reviews (The Boston Globe called it “What It Weighs,” while the Book Review complained about the “grandiose” verbal effects “that would make the early Tom Wolfe blush”), Cramer’s style spawned legions of imitators, all of whom wanted to do their own fly-on-the-wall reporting and italicized riffs, but most of whom weren’t nearly as scrupulously accurate or as keenly attuned to the human psyche. Often, their pieces left their subjects feeling exploited, to the point where candidates and their handlers quickly became wary of being psychoanalyzed by amateurs or having their ugliest private moments played up for maximum effect.

This breakdown of trust between politicians and reporters, however, probably had less to do with Cramer’s influence than with the moment in American politics he just happened to capture. The cold war was ending, the age of the satellite truck and the 24-hour news cycle was just beginning, and politics, like everything else in the society at large, was becoming more trivialized and more celebrity-driven. A new generation of political journalists was taking over, one reared in the era after Watergate, when taking down a politician, any politician, was considered the pinnacle of a career.

And then there are those, like Andrew Keen, who contend, as argues the subtitle of his book, The Cult of the Amateur, that today's Internet is killing our culture:

Mr. Keen argues that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens, he suggests, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”

Let's face it: there's no turning back technology. Yet it's also worth considering the consequence of so-called "progress."

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