James Katz

Communication Unlimited … Blessing or Curse?, Part II

VTR Date: January 17, 2008

Dr. James E. Katz discusses the reality of constant multitasking.


GUEST: James E. Katz
VTR: 01/17/08

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And this is the second of what I trust will in time become many programs with James E. Katz, my distinguished colleague at Rutgers University, where we both teach communications … though, as I noted last time, Dr. Katz relates himself with genuine enthusiasm and real sociological insight to where our students, our nation, people everywhere are … and increasingly will be as communications technology becomes ever more unlimited … while I, Luddite that I am in essence, tend to view with alarm, rather than point with pride.

Of course, many important themes and questions surfaced in my first Open Mind with Dr. Katz … for instance, about the so-called “multi-tasking” that increasingly unlimited communications seems to make more and more possible, indeed encourage, and whether essentially it does increase our capacities, or actually dilutes them.

One wonders, indeed, whether ever newer communications devices aren’t helping us extend ourselves beyond what is humanly possible…or is that simply a contradiction in terms employed by those of us with too little faith in humans’ adaptability? You know, “If God had meant men to fly, he would have given us wings”…that sort of thing.

Anyway, we started talking last time about the ubiquitous cell phone and its impact, and I also want to talk about it, but I also want to ask Professor Katz first about the “Social Consequences of Internet Use”, the title of his book with Ronald Rice.

And yet since we record this program at the beginning of the 2008 Presidential race, I guess first I ought to ask my guest about he considers the impact of unlimited communications upon America politics. That’s a broad subject, but I wondered what your thinking was about what’s going to happen now?

KATZ: I think one of the important consequences of all these new technologies, including the Internet is that it allows lots of other voices to enter the discussion. When we had only a few major channels of communication, only a few people could flow through those channels.

Also it took a lot of money, as well as control to get through to the voter, to try to influence people’s thinking about the election. Now with things like the Internet, blogs and mobile phone texting about candidates, lots of “little people” as it were can enter the fray.

And sometimes these “little people’s” voices get to be very loud. So I would say that it’s really in some ways increased democracy and also cacophony, the amount of noise and confusion that the voters face.

HEFFNER: Well, we’re talking, speaking together now mid-January. Have you seen the impact of these new devices thus far in the primary season?

KATZ: Well, certainly the Internet’s been used to raise lots of money for major candidates and also minor candidates.

One of the interesting things is the way the mainstream, major media has now given more attention to these alternative medias. So not only is the contest for winning the newspaper’s endorsement, but also for having a lively Internet campaign that will then be covered by major networks and major newspapers that thus shows the candidate to be a real “grass roots” as it were, candidate.

HEFFNER: Well, should I … not in terms of my Luddite qualities … but as a citizen and as someone interested in American politics … be cheering? Or “ay de me’ing” about these new devices and their use?

KATZ: I think it has a double edged effect. Namely, it allows new voices to enter the discussion. And that means that there’s more democratic influence, with a small “d”, more voice of the people can be heard.

But it has a reverse effect also which is that rumors and speculations and false testimony can be propagated much more widely and thus you have a whole new theater of warfare, you might say, in politics that the candidates need to contend with.

So, false allegations can spread like wildfire and once the allegation’s made, it takes a lot of effort to, to reverse that.

HEFFNER: Is that literally true? I, I … well you know, I don’t resort to these devices particularly much. My information comes from reading The New York Times.

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: But is it true? Does the more salacious material spread like wildfire?

KATZ: Yes, because it’s very easy for people to pass it along. You can have an email list with a thousand or ten thousand or many more, and you just press a few buttons and the rumor is sent to those people’s mailboxes. In addition there are these blogs that have extended discussions and even lead to small conventions themselves, so there’s, there’s something called the Kos … k-o-s blog and he’s a, a … he comments and what he says is picked up by the mainstream candidates and is responded to.

Likewise, Kos is a, a left leaning blog … there’s something called “Powerline” blog on the Right leaning direction. And the candidates interact with the writers there.

These writers are not editorialists of major newspapers, including The New York Times, these are, in some cases, lawyers or activists who follow issues and, and get engaged and thus become a whole new set of voices that can be profoundly influential in this year’s election and certainly in coming election cycles.

What it means is that the politicians have to have more perfect records about their past. Because people can use the Internet to dig, dig, dig far more deeply than they were ever able to in earlier days.

Of course, the other forms of digging, going through old files, interviewing people and so forth to look for flaws and records continues.

But now you have this whole other arena. And I would say that this is part of a larger social change, not only in politics, but in business and every other domain. Which there’s just a lot more voices contending for attention. A lot more criticism from every corner.

And so companies, candidates, business leaders, civic leaders have to be very careful about their past and they have to consider interacting with whole new groups of people … elites and non-elites as well.

HEFFNER: What concerns me about what you say, though … you say candidates or potential candidates are going to have to be more concerned about their past.

KATZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: Don’t they equally have to be concerned and what in the world they do about it, I don’t know … about those who would falsely construct their past?

KATZ: Yes, they certainly do. And you get lots of people coming out of the woodwork, as well, making allegations and since there may not have been any tape running at the time, it’s hard to say who did what.

But mentioning tapes, there’s something called YouTube … youtube … one word. And with that, for example …

HEFFNER: Even I’ve heard of YouTube … (laugh)

KATZ: Okay …(Laugh)

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

KATZ: The idea there is that people can make short tapes … videotapes … cell phone tapes, whatever … old programs, new programs … and, and so, for example, if a candidate says something, this little sound bite can be reproduced and seen hundreds of thousands or millions of times … where the candidate says something very inappropriate.

And I would say, looking at the last Congressional cycle of elections, two years ago, the Senatorial candidate from Virginia, then Senator … made a comment about somebody who had been following him around with a video camera in an attempt to get him to mess up. And that apparently irritated the candidate so much that he said something to that person while the videotape was running, which probably affected the Senatorial election in Virginia because the tape was picked up by the networks and shown thousands of times all over the country, but especially in Virginia. That probably affected the election outcome in Virginia, which affected which party controlled the Senate, which is affecting the destiny of our country.

HEFFNER: Of course, what you’re pointing out there is that the candidate was damn fool enough to have said what he said and I’m really addressing myself to something else now.

The … actually, I’m picking it up out of this morning’s New York Times … the false charges that are being made …

KATZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: The salacious …

KATZ: Against John McCain, for example.


KATZ: HmmMmm. Yes. That’s …

HEFFNER: Now you are enthusiastic about all of these new devices. I’m the one who isn’t. Have you thought about what the consequences are going to be? And what we, as a society, might do to correct the sins of electronics?

KATZ: I have to say that even though I followed the area as closely as possible, people are always coming up with new horrible ways to abuse the technology that I would have never considered. So … you mentioned at the beginning of the program about wings and flying … so if, if God had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings. And you can look at the airplane as an example which was used as an instrument of terror against the United States, crashing three aircraft on September 11th. And so here’s something … a wonderful tool that many people use. It’s given lots of pleasure, but also has led to really disastrous consequences in a few areas.

Likewise this technology has a great deal of … a great deal to offer people in terms of their understanding of the world, getting multiple viewpoints, being able to challenge authorities to get the facts out. And yet also it’s used to be abusive. That’s true of the telephone.

After all, as I understand these most recent campaigns against Senator McCain, accusing him of bad behavior in the past, these are driven largely by telephone. I could be wrong. But, but … so the telephone is used this way. And … so these technologies certainly do have lots of potential downsides.

I would say what’s quite clear is that it gives lots of new explanations to people about the way the world works. Challenging explanations. Even the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon … alternative explanations as to who was behind it are propagated very effectively by these technologies. And that leads to confusion on the part of a lot of people because they hear many different explanations that they get confused as to which explanation is the correct one.

HEFFNER: Well, we’re not going to turn the hands of the clock back. If only for one reason … we can’t.

Have you and your colleagues, however, given any thought to what we do with the, with these new modalities of communications to make them … to make the downside less intense?

KATZ: Well, let me ask you, in turn, a question, which is … what is the purpose of communication? For example, is it to ponder important ideas? Is it to challenge our understanding of the world so that we can become morally better people? And I would say you would probably agree that’s one of the purposes of communication.


KATZ: I certainly agree that’s one of the purposes. But you also look at … and it’s an important and a very crucial aspect of communication. But a lot of what people like doing with communication is just chit-chatting, just letting each other know that they’re there. Sharing gossip. And, and these are important sorts of activities. And in a sense they’re much less challenging. More entertaining perhaps, and less challenging. So what, I think, over time you’ll see is a lot of gravitation towards lots of, what we would consider meaningless chit-chat little messages of “Hi, how’re doing? Not doing anything. How about you? Naw, not doing anything either.” Sorts of communication. Put those in brackets.

But it also gives us the opportunity to get new ideas. So when it comes to looking at the, at the downside and the negative side, I think by trying to understand how these multi-tasking distractions, how these rumors and, and hurtful comments flow around on the Internet and on text messaging … by understanding that, people can be better prepared to deal with the downside. They’re psychologically inoculated for these sorts of problems and can try to strive for the best parts of what these technologies have to offer.

HEFFNER: That’s a very interesting thought. Have you, in your researches, seen this as a reality? This hope? The inoculation approach.

KATZ: I can’t say how widespread it is, but certainly in … by anecdotes there are people who say, “Well, I would have reacted this way, but now that I understand it’s this … I’m prepared for that.”

But what I’ve also found is education is not a one dose and you’re solved, or one lecture, and people are educated. It’s an on-going process, that lifelong learning takes place … not only learning in a classroom sense, or gaining new materials, but learning how to interact, dealing with the problems of life.

At every stage in life people have to face new and, and special problems that they, themselves, haven’t encountered before on the life course, and these communication technologies can help them understand and learn a lot better.

What it really comes down to is that we have the power to use these tools in ways that make our lives better. And we also have the power to use these tools to hurt ourselves and to hurt other people. And the choice comes down to us.

At the same time I have to say that the game designers, video game designers, for example, spend lots of time and energy trying to create the most addicting … and I use the term loosely … most compulsion driving sorts of games that they possibly can and the young people really respond accordingly.

They love these games like “Guitar Hero” for example. They love playing those and, and they’re deeply engaged in it. So I think if the next step could be taken to build learning into these games, a lot of virtue would be derived. So with “Guitar Hero”, as I understand it, you don’t really learn to play the guitar with this video game, but you could actually learn to play the guitar, so it could teach you a useful skill.

There are this virtual worlds, like “Second Life” where professors now are beginning to offer courses in a virtual world with little animated characters representing themselves, representing the students and they can look at experiments, done virtually on the computer … the little animated characters can do that, they can interact, ask questions, have discussion. So, while I will say in the physical classroom many of these technologies, like the cell phone, distract and detract from the actually learning that goes on right there.

Taken to the next step they can actually be used to foster learning and education.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that these next steps are being taken even as we speak?

KATZ: There are lots of scholars and researchers trying to find ways to make this connection between the games, between the mobile phones and ways that could be used to advance learning.

And, in fact, I’m involved in a project with the Liberty Science Center, here in New Jersey to try and see ways that mobile phones can be used to foster interest in science. And especially in urban communities where the children don’t have lots of opportunities to learn about science so that their experiences to see how science can help them understand the world can be very appropriately directed towards increasing their understanding of science and technology to make their lives better.

HEFFNER: Of course, I, I think of Joan Ganz Cooney and the Children’s Television Workshop. And that wonderful idea of taking the disruptive machine … television …

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and using it positively.

KATZ: Yes. And, and that’s a great example, because not only do we have Sesame Street and all the other good things that have come from that, but we …but it also shows us how difficult it is because Sesame Street is restricted and other educational programs are restricted to certain hours and other things, like American Idol, for example, just dominate prime time evening with millions of viewers.

So I think, in a sense, even our … comparing children’s educational programming with popular evening entertainment you see how one gives us the opportunity and has been very useful and important, but doesn’t command a dominating position in people’s lives and people’s use of the technology as entertainment television does in the evening.

HEFFNER: Going back a moment to the political consequences of our expanded communications abilities. I, I was thinking … as you were talking before … I was thinking … as one who was trained as an American historian originally … I was thinking of the Jackson era …

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and I was thinking of the … what was considered the dire consequences of democracy …

KATZ: Yes.

HEFFNER: … of spreading the franchise to all these backwoodsmen and others.

KATZ: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And that’s in a sense what these devices are doing now. Giving voice to people who otherwise would have no voice.

KATZ: Yes. And I … since you refer to the early years of our Republic, the newspaper was very important. To have low cost information moved around by newspaper. And that’s why the postal service has always subsidized newspapers because it felt that by getting information to the people, our democracy can work much better.

But also, of course, is another … impulse has sprung from that, which is the desire for what’s in the newspapers to be controlled. And who would do the controlling. Who would be the decision maker? And, of course, we have our very important fundamental protections of free speech and free press in this country. Which are vital to our democracy. And yet that contest about what should be in newspapers or what should be distributed in political campaigns of Andrew Jackson and what should be available on the Internet and through text messaging continue to bedevil us, continue to be issues we wrestle with. Where can we set proper limits? How can we get all the good things that free information flow provide to us while avoiding some of the bad things that we’ve discussed? Mainly the character assassination and the inappropriate materials that flow through these systems.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that our former Ombuds-agency, the FCC is addressing itself to these questions. Or are we agency-less at this point?

KATZ: Well, I think we’re really creatures of each era. So the question is when the FCC tries to do something … the Federal Communications Commission tries to pass some restriction on say nudity or language, immediately it runs into a hornet’s nest of opposition from medical groups that say “Well, we want to be able to discuss issues of human sexuality: from artistic groups that say “Well look at the great Renaissance paintings, they’re … these can’t be shown on, on television you’re telling us?” And so forth.

So, it … it’s a serious conundrum how to, how to decide who should be the custodians of the public interest. Who should be the ones who decide what consenting adults are allowed to see. Who should decide what children should be able to see? How can we make decisions that have potential consequences for everybody about information that’s important for health and safety and also content so that parents can raise their children in a, in a free environment, where people can avoid seeing disturbing material if they wish to avoid seeing it?

HEFFNER: Do … would, would it be unfair for me to say, if I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is that, in a sense only the teaching element of our society is going to be able to deal with this. Our governmental apparatus can’t.

KATZ: Well, I would … I have serious questions about the effectiveness of the government trying to make decisions about people’s private lives. I, I have often said that if people could … that if everyone thought like I did and did like me …the world would be a great place.

But nobody agrees with me, they all think the world should be like they want it to be and that I should act according to the way they think should be done.

And so I think … if you sort of … if you look at a continuum about social control … those societies where there’s the greatest control by external bodies of people in that society, we generally judge those as being the least desirable societies to move in. Whereas those with high amounts of freedom, but where there’s a commitment to a community … those we generally judge to be very nice places to live. But then it can go too far to the other extreme where there’s no sense of community, no standards that people can adhere to, in which case then we think that’s gone too far.

HEFFNER: Of course, in your book, The Social Consequences of Internet Use and in our discussion of the cell phone you see the potential for moving in both directions. If you had to make your bet … what would it be?

KATZ: Ah …

HEFFNER: And I ask that when we have a minute and a half left.

KATZ: Okay. Freedom is on the march. Everywhere around the world, people are gaining through these tools of technology greater control over their life. New access to information. Greater understanding of economic forces and greater opportunity to participate in the economy. And so even though there will be planes crashing into World Trade Centers and even though people will have long delays waiting to get on planes and even though the air might not be so great in the planes and the planes contribute to air pollution … physical mobility is great and communications mobility … communication while you’re mobile and new access to information resources is, in total, great.

HEFFNER: I guess the real answer is that you have to have an optimist at the table here. A “possibilist” and that’s what you clearly are. And why we’re going to have to come back again, and again and again to this table, Jim, truly to discuss further all these issues.

But at least you set the ground rules. Optimism is important. Thanks so much for joining me again today.

KATZ: Absolutely my pleasure, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.