Neo-Luddism, TMZ, and Me


LudditeAt what point does technology’s “tail wag the dog?” If these past few weeks are any indication across mainstream media, we may be there.

Now, before I go further, I’m actually NOT a “Luddite,” nor do I practice Neo-Luddism. (Go ahead and hyperlink to that term.)  Yes, I am frequently teased for my reliance on a 2009 Samsung Axle flip phone, but guess what? It works. That device is for phone calls and texts, and I have no interest in the converged technologies or apps of other smart phones just yet, or the application licensing agreements that go with them (read yours?). I’m also not keen on my being “followed” via embedded GPS-tracking technologies. If you want me, call me. If I’m lost, leave me. Will I need to convert to another mobile technology eventually? Sure. But UNTIL then, I keep things simple and use a number of ancillary tech devices.

No, what has fascinated me more these past few weeks is how technologies have been used to drive mainstream media content — and our societal and cultural discourse — and, perhaps, even judicial process around such stories. You would have to be a hermit to have not at least heard something about the NFL’s Ray Rice being arrested for assaulting his now-wife, Janay Palmer, only to have surveillance video of the incident leaked to TMZ, the celebrity news website in February. TMZ, which ironically is managed by lawyer-turned-journalist, Harvey Levin, also played a key role in the more recent Adrian Peterson domestic corporal punishment/child abuse case. Police photographs — actual evidence in the criminal investigation — were allegedly leaked to TMZ, then released to the public online.  That, in turn, drew the NFL back into the limelight yet again and into a public relations firestorm, deservedly so, where it will take months, if not years, for trust to be restored to their brands.


The NFL and its players, including the Baltimore Ravens organization, have their own issues; that’s not the point of this post either.  The players who are party to our water-cooler conversations these days are not just in the NFL. They are “tech-players” like 24/7 surveillance video of everyone, nearly everywhere, making shows like CBS’s Person of Interest not too far-fetched anymore. Would it surprise you to learn that the original video of Rice in that elevator was edited by TMZ before it was released online? Among true journalists, that alone is a no-no. Then, with the Peterson charges out of Texas, TMZ somehow secured digital images of Peterson’s son’s wounds for distribution from the Houston Police Department – during an active investigation.

The Internet, surveillance video, digital photographs, social media, and TMZ – most everything surrounding these two high-profile cases stems from the pervasive effects of media technology being used in sometimes borderline ways, either ethically or legally.

There is a part of me that says, “Well, how else will light be cast on such important matters unless an online celebrity news site intercedes on everyone’s behalf and pays someone to give the content to them for distribution over the Internet, thereby MAKING it “news”?  After all, October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and timing’s everything, right?

The other side of me wonders if we’re not gradually wandering away from reasonable, well-vetted journalism, media content and appropriate use of technologies, all used in legal, ethical and appropriate ways. As Marshall McLuhan suggested in his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, a book I used to assign my students years ago, some media “content” simply serves as a juicy morsel of meat being carried by a burglar to distract the guard dog.

Think about that metaphor — The medium should NOT be the message, TMZ.

And, too, those who produce news have become lazy, just like we information consumers, unwilling or not wanting to do much digging or fact-checking, nor wanting perspectives balanced.  Since when are social media posts referred to in newscasts?  [“But Bill, it MUST be true, it was on the Internet!”] On the agenda-setting front, why do so few know about soccer’s Hope Solo and the charges against her for allegedly assaulting her sister and 17-year-old nephew? Why wasn’t this “page-one news” when it occurred and, more importantly, why isn’t the mainstream media, or TMZ, for that matter, giving it much attention now, juxtaposed to more recent events with other athletes?

No, this isn’t George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m not overly concerned about “big brother” watching me, nor am I an old curmudgeon … yet.  Would a curmudgeon maintain three social media channels and a blog, using no less than five different technology devices? (Geez, maybe I SHOULD get a smart phone, huh? Ouch.)

I simply want to caution us against ascribing too much credibility to all we see and hear online via some channels, and that balanced, fair and objective journalism coverage is out there if you look hard enough, though we shouldn’t have to. Technologies, like the famous line from Star Wars, should also be “forces used for good, not evil.” And, yes, the issues now front-and-center around domestic violence and corporal punishment, whether among professional athletes or not, SHOULD be a part of our nation’s discourse.

On a slightly different-but-related topic, how we safely and securely use all this digitized binary computer information floating out there in “a cloud” somewhere is also a concern to me, but that is a topic we’ll save for another day.

Right now, I must sign off to go shopping and, no, Ned Ludd is not joining me. I’m going to test my new identity protection and credit monitoring protocols set up by Home Depot for my credit card!  Yes, just me and 56 million of my OTHER violated friends who were hacked using digital technology (chuckle)!  Call me if you need me.  I have my trusty Axle flip phone right here.




2 thoughts on “Neo-Luddism, TMZ, and Me”

  1. Love the pic, Bill. Thinking about apps…they say “if it’s free, you are the product.” (think Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote, etc)

    I think we’ll see more and more startups and services that position themselves as “safe” and “we don’t track you.”

    Needless to say, it’s an interesting time in the websphere.


  2. Eric Stover says:

    Very interesting post. The worlds of mobile tech and mainstream media have been merging for quite some time now, and it has given journalism something it’s never dealt with. And, the media has been wandering away from reasonable well vetted journalism for a while now. Everything from ISIS (who release their videos online) to the various NFL scandals, to the celebrity photos on iCloud being leaked all over the place, to Anthony Weiner, to the fog of inaccurate reports following the Boston Marathon bombings. A cellphone even captured the execution of Saddam Hussein and was released to the world. It is a phenomenon that isn’t new. The reason? These hand-held devices have turned ordinary citizens into amateur reporters. Editors and networks hungry for ratings, and needing to fill the news cycle often times use these reports and videos and I’m not convinced it’s in the best public interest. The challenge, in my opinion, is in separating what is news to what isn’t news. I think it must be challenging to be an editor today. The question I have is can we ever go back to where we were? The irony is that in this era of immediate communication, it could lead us to communicating with each other less and being less informed.

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