Way back in ancient times, a decade ago, I wrote a piece for Salon that mentioned the widely circulated anecdote about President George H.W. Bush (the elder) casting a wondering gaze at a supermarket scanner. The tale had legs during the 1992 election cycle because it echoed a sense in the electorate that Bush was out of touch with the common people who were then suffering through a miserable recession.
I believe Bush was indeed out of touch. But my reference to the tale evoked several outraged emails from readers who accused me of perpetrating an urban myth. Bush had been treated unfairly by this news meme (Snopes.com has the details), and I had repeated the injustice.
I learned a couple lessons from the experience. One was to redouble my efforts as a journalist to question received wisdom. The other, more important lesson was that the knowledge my readers were going to send (and sometimes hurl) my way was invaluable. (Or, in Dan Gillmor’s famous phrase: “My readers know more than I do.”)
I thought of all this recently as I encountered the latest transmutation of the Bush/scanner meme. Yesterday The Huffington Post picked up a report on a law blog that made out Chief Justice Roberts to be a technological naif who had to ask, in the middle of an argument, “what’s the difference between email and a pager?”
I read the original blog post. Then I read the comments. Then I read the link to the original transcript of the argument that a commenter had helpfully provided. And I concluded for myself (you might feel otherwise, but I doubt it) that — however much Roberts may be more radical a conservative than I would wish — he’s not an idiot, and he had a reasonable basis to ask the question.
The self-correcting online feedback loop works a lot faster today than it did 10 years ago, and a lot more openly (we didn’t have comments on Salon back then). The “Roberts doesn’t know what a pager is” meme ought, by rights, to have been stopped in its tracks. It will be very interesting to follow its course in coming weeks and months. Past experience suggests that, despite having been arrested early on on the web, it will now be amplified on cable and in print and have a long half-life in our collective psyche.
No reasonable person could have concluded otherwise. All you need to do is read the four sentences before and after the quote to know that he’s not unaware that email and pagers are different things. As always, it’s crucial to evaluate the actual transcript because often people leave out a little word here or there that makes all the difference.
According to the transcript, what Roberts actually said was “what is the difference between the pager and the e-mail?” and it was clear from the context that he meant in the context of the computer use policy being discussed at the moment. And the attorney arguing at the time goes into a discussion about how email is processed on the city’s servers but text messages are processed by the provider and not through any city equipment other than the pager itself.
Not to defend those who published knowing better, but the self-correcting feedback loop only works if the source document is accessible. When this moved, I tried to follow it upstream, and ended up at the (pay)walled garden of the law blog. For robust error correction, stuff needs to be open sourced.
What I take away from this post is that nothing has changed, if something can be construed to reflect poorly on the latest persona non-grata, it will be.
Whether it is presenting Bush the elder as a technofobe, or Chief Justice Roberts as a technoignoramus people will still try to coin these easy points and memes regardless of evidence of the contrary, just because it is possible. Readers will want to believe it, even though any rational person can figure out that there might be more to the story.
In any case, the Roberts case is actually the sign of the opposite, that he has a fairly good command of technology. He recognises the fact that two different technologies can serve the same purpose from a user perspective.
The ignoramus is the one that wilfully creates these stories.