Thanksgiving in a time of fear and uncertainty

The first ThanksgivingTomorrow is Turkey Day and the beginning of the “most wonderful time of the year.” But this year, the economy’s in the tank; media company stocks (and company valuations) are bumping the bottom; and layoffs, buy-outs, and early retirements are everywhere. Uncertainty is the word of the day, which is actually a four-syllable word for fear.

The day after the holiday, many believe, will be telling. We’ll “learn” how consumers really feel based on what they spend. That news will propel us forward or cause us to slide deeper into the funk of 2008. That’s the way we are, or so the experts say. This is the “group think” of modernity. Study it. Categorize it. Label it. Shift it. Drive it. Manipulate it. And so it goes. Logic and reason can do no better, for they live within the world of the known. “If it exists, it can be measured,” is the first rule of science.

The brilliant mind of Kevin Kelly wrote about the origins of science a few weeks ago (The Origins of Progress, Anachronistic Science). If you want to expand your mind, read Kevin Kelly, for his is one of the most significant voices of contemporary culture. But Kelly uses science to try and answer a question about science that perplexes him: Why was science “discovered” in Western Civilization and not before? It’s a fascinating question, and one that is terribly important for us today, because we’re at the beginning of the post-modern, post-colonial era in the West.

I’ve been studying and writing about postmodernism for over ten years, and I see the conflicts of a culture in change everywhere. I actually prefer the term “postcolonial,” because, from a practical perspective, it fits better. Colonialism is a top-down, “teach a man to fish” philosophy ideally suited to the application of logic, reason and science. Where it runs into problems is when the top wants to maintain its position on top, but I digress.

The thing that Kelly refuses to acknowledge — as do most people of science — is the role of faith in the origins of science, and that brings me back to Thanksgiving 2008.

We’re in the midst of a second Gutenberg moment, in which knowledge (The Jewel of the Elites) is spreading throughout the globe like a giant mushroom cloud, and I would argue that this significantly will alter any future projections, just as the first Gutenberg moment did centuries ago.

As to why science came from Europe rather than China, I think it’s fair to point again to that first Gutenberg moment. Movable type was invented in both cultures at about the same time, but the difference is in what the printing press was used to create. The fundamentals of logic and science demand a degree of faith and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, and that came from the source of Western knowledge of the time: the Bible.

The only downside to science, is its tragic dismissal of that book and its place in history, for I believe it contains the source code for Western Civilization. When Wycliffe completed his common English language translation, he made this remarkable statement: “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people and for the people.” (Aside: Lincoln lifted that from Wycliffe, so the American Civics Literacy quiz got it wrong.) Wycliffe’s claim is as true today as it was back then, for democracy requires an internal governor, which the faith of the people provided. It may seem like it’s missing in our culture today, but I don’t believe it.

Finally, man wants to be God, and it’s always been that way. This quest is what fuels all progress. We want immortality. We want to overcome time and distance. We want omniscience and power. Nothing wrong with any of that, but I would love to see science actually acknowledge it some day.

So as we stare uncertainty in the face this Thanksgiving holiday, let’s ask ourselves this: Is our faith in ourselves, our government and our institutions to figure all this out, or do we believe, as our forefathers did, in something bigger moving us forward? For me, Life is in charge, and while I certainly believe our gifts and talents play a big cultural role, I’m most thankful that something bigger than me influences everything else.

Besides, gas is now $1.69 a gallon here in Dallas. That alone ought to give each of us pause, for who could’ve imagined it just six months ago?

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

It’s going to be a rough holiday season

Quote of the day: With an escalating consumer-credit crisis, five fewer shopping days, looming retail bankruptcies and the lowest projected sales growth in years, it’s going to be a cutthroat Christmas. Natalie Zmuda, AdAge.

Don’t believe anything you read today

I won’t be blogging today, because I can’t trust any of the headlines. April Fool’s Day brings out the best worst in the tech community.

Arrington sues Facebook
Microsoft and Yahoo reach agreement
Google and Virgin Air to create settlement on Mars

And so forth.

Me and my Christian symbol

Me and my Santa hatI was at a local Starbucks this morning on my Christmas Eve shopping spree. One of the girls was wearing a Santa hat, so I asked the guy who was waiting on me where his was.

I’m not a Christian,” he replied, and that was that.

And so I wonder how he made that association — how so many people make the connection that anything associated with the holiday is automatically Christian. Is this the way it is to be? Forever?

So let’s do a brief review of history.

The early “church” in Europe (the Catholic church) ran into the celebrations of those with roots in the earth and the heavens, people they called pagans. These people celebrated the Winter Solstice (as I do), when the sun begins its return to the north to signify a new beginning. These same people celebrated the Vernal Equinox, when the sun crossed the equator, bringing new life to the earth and its creatures. Feeling these celebrations served as a threat, the response of the church was to co-opt them by tying them to the life of Christ, and so was born the “Christ Mass” for the birth of Jesus and “Easter” to celebrate the resurrection.

In reality, however, the two are separate. Just because a dominant religion says they aren’t doesn’t make it so. Christmas is, therefore, only a religious holiday in the minds of those who observe the faith, but that doesn’t make the mixture real.

Follow the centuries now to modern times, where we have “the reason for the season” crowd. Decking the halls with boughs of holly and jingling our bells along fields of snow bring thoughts of warmth and family not reserved only for Christians. Santa Claus doesn’t discriminate by coming down only the chimneys of those who bear the sign of the cross. Chestnuts roast in fireplaces of all kinds and Jack Frost? Well, he’s not a discriminator of toes upon which to nip.

I am lifted by Handel’s “Messiah” as I am by “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World.” But those are more about nostalgia, the power of music and how my soul is satisfied with the connection to my roots. But Christmas? That is so very much more.

The giving of gifts and sharing the spirit of joy aren’t reserved for those who go to church on Sunday, and the Christmas Tree is simply NOT a symbol of Christianity, regardless of what you put on its highest branch.

So if we all celebrate Christmas, are we all really de facto celebrating Christ? I don’t think so, and this is the fault I find with the young man who cannot bring himself to wear a Santa hat. This is sad to me, and I don’t think our culture — or the human race — is better with such divisiveness.

My human journey has taken me down many spiritual paths, only to discover that, yes, there is only one God, but all human beings live and breathe in Him and He in them. God is life, and this is what we celebrate at this time of year. This business of who has THE path to God is an archaic notion that has served Western Civilization well but is fading fast in a world that doesn’t need a special priesthood to guide it.

And here’s the real nut of it for me. Am I a Christian? Absolutely. Am I a member of any faith? Absolutely not. Am I a threat to any religion? Only Christianity.

Go figure.

A Broadcaster’s Christmas Carol

I first published this as an essay three years ago. I had a little help from Charles Dickens, and the message is as appropriate today (sadly) as it was in 2004. Enjoy and Merry Christmas.

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A gust of wind swirled around the trees in front of old Ebenezer Broadcaster’s hilltop house this cold December night, scattering snow from the branches like an invisible broom sweeping dust from the attic. The large evergreen at the corner bent in the gale and rerouted the gust over the valley and its inhabitants. It was Christmas Eve.

It was a peaceful and starlit night throughout the land, and the little ones dreamt of the next morning with its joy and gifts — all except the little ones at the cottage of Bob Gadget. Gadget had worked as an engineer for Ebenezer for 30 years, but this Christmas, he feared for his job and, along with it, his ability to care for his crippled son, Tiny New. Rather than buy gifts, he was saving what little money he had for the inevitability of Broadcaster’s axe.

Ebenezer was a second generation Broadcaster, having built his empire from a small A.M. radio station his father owned in the 50s. With a penchant for squeezing every last penny from a dollar, Ebenezer Broadcaster had a reputation as a hostile and difficult employer. He boasted that many celebrities had come through his television stations on their way up the ladder, but the truth is he never paid anybody enough money to want to stick around.

Humbug,” he would say on the matter. “I just did my part in helping their careers move along.”

Earlier in the evening, Ebenezer had been enjoying his holiday brandy, when a vision appeared to him warning of visits by three Ghosts during the night. Dismissing the apparition as too much booze, he went to bed as usual. However, his fitful sleep was interrupted when the clock struck midnight, and he bolted upright in bed as a strange presence rattled chains while emitting a comfortable but frightening warmth. The Ghost was small in stature, and a broad smile never left its face.

Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me.” asked Ebenezer.

I am.”

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

Who, and what are you.” Ebenezer demanded.

I am the Ghost of Broadcasting Past.”

Long Past?” inquired Ebenezer, observant of its dwarfish stature.

No. Your past. Now, come. Let us look and observe.”

Suddenly, Ebenezer Broadcaster was pulled into a vortex of sight and sound — familiar yet unfamiliar. The tunnel was lined with all sorts of money — floating cash, loose change, profit, credit scores, check books, and an endless sea of balanced budgets. He reached for a $100 bill, but it slipped through his fingers. Laughter and merriment echoed from every direction, and he was aware of a profound sense of power as they flew along on their journey.

A journey to where?” he wondered.

The Ghost turned to the left and suddenly they were aboard a cruise ship with hundreds of old associates and clients.

I never thought the Broadcasters would ever spend their money on something like this,” said a stout fellow holding a martini.

Their money?” replied his companion. “Hell, it’s OUR money they’re spending. They’ve got us by the balls, they do. If we want to reach our customers, we’re a slave to their outrageous rates.”

With a sudden yank, the Ghost pulled Ebenezer heavenward, and they were soon floating over the city. Tucked in an envelope of warmth, it seemed they were immune to the cold night air. Every home had an antenna attached to the chimney, and inside smiling faces were everywhere as families gathered around their television sets to enjoy the programming Ebenezer’s station provided. It was good and all was well, but in an instant Ebenezer was back in his bed. With its toothy smile, the Ghost stood before him and announced that another Spirit would soon knock.

Then, Ebenezer Broadcaster was alone.

In mid-snore, he was again awakened as the clock struck one. A stream of light from the next room beckoned, and Ebenezer reluctantly investigated, discovering a giant Phantom surrounded by a floating field of electronic gadgetry and wires that filled the room. The Ghost of Broadcasting Present was pleasant and young, and she carried a torch shaped like a computer screen. When the Ghost turned to the left, the floating field turned with her. When she turned to the right, the floating field followed. It was most strange indeed.

First the Ghost of Broadcasting Present showed Ebenezer the people of the town in all their merriment on Christmas morning. As they watched the townspeople, the Ghost sprinkled good cheer on them from her computer and the people rejoiced. As Ebenezer looked around each home, he noticed that no one was watching television. The set still stood in the corner of the living room, but youngsters played video games and DVDs, while older people watched cable niche channels like HGTV and The Food Channel, each in their own room. How awful, he thought.

Computers were evident in other rooms of the homes, and people sat typing and drawing and reading and watching. There was only a scattering of antennas on the chimneys of the homes.

A bone shivering chill swept over Ebenezer’s body as he considered the scene before him, and he felt a want that was unfamiliar.

What’s happened to my business?” he inquired of the Spirit. “You cannot represent the present, Ghost. Where are the people watching television? What about Nielsen? What about my clients?”

You seek the past in what is now,” the Ghost replied.

Humbug,” Broadcaster muttered. “This is nonsense! My spreadsheet still shows profit.”

Off they flew to the northeast corner of the valley and entered the home of Ebenezer’s most loyal employee, Bob Gadget. Electronic machines sizzled and swirled in every corner of the cold house, and Bob himself was busy in front of a computer. As he pecked at the keyboard, the Ghost led Broadcaster to read the screen. Gadget was making an entry to his blog — forecasting doom for the industry he’d served for 30 years and gathering links from like-minded bloggers who were searching for ways to calm their unemployment fears.

Rebellion,” Ebenezer cried. “My own trusted employee is rebelling against me.”

You’ve given him no choice,” answered the Spirit. “He must protect his family, including Tiny New Gadget.”

In the living room, the Gadget family was gathered around the TV watching a Seinfeld rerun between the commercials.

At least these are loyal to me,” Ebenezer thought, but the Spirit directed his attention to the empty floor beneath the Christmas tree.

Suddenly, Ebenezer Broadcaster was alone once again, and he trembled for perhaps the first time in his life.

The clock struck two, and he awoke to a room filled with a terrible sense of foreboding and dread. Before him stood a third Spirit — this one ghastly and misshapen.

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Ebenezer bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved, it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

I am in the presence of the Ghost of Broadcasting Yet To Come,” said Ebenezer.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Broadcaster pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

The city appeared before Broadcaster as if it sprang up around him, and the Ghost’s hand directed Ebenezer to listen to the conversation of several groups of men in the streets. They spoke of the death of a man and a funeral that no one planned to attend.

He died a fool,” said a fellow with a moustache and glasses. “The old coot just couldn’t accept change.”

He also died broke,” added another. “He never knew what hit him, because he wouldn’t listen to anybody.”

Ebenezer stared into the black emptiness of the Phantom’s hooded face and said, “They’re talking about me. Is it not so?”

Suddenly, they were above Broadcaster’s old television station. It was a shadow of its former self, its windows broken and its walls covered with the utterings of vandals armed with spray paint. Equipment racks had been ransacked and anything of value removed. The parking lot stood empty. The tower was broken in half, and its transmitter was covered in overgrowth and wires. The cold wind whistled through the buildings of Broadcaster’s once proud station.

This, this cannot be,” Ebenezer cried.

Over the city they flew, and joy and merriment was all the Ghost could reveal. Life went on. The people were entertained. The people were informed. Gone was any trace of a TV antenna. Inside the homes, the people entertained themselves with a variety of gadgetry. Elaborate menus of content drifted before his eyes, along with acronyms he didn’t recognize. VOD, DVR, iPod and PSP. There were no television sets, only flat screens, laptops and handheld units — some connected by wires,others not.

Broadcaster’s thoughts turned to his own sense of worthlessness. All this time, he had believed the people of the town couldn’t live without him. Yet, here they were doing just fine despite the loss of the TV station.

Once again, he found himself inside the dwelling of Bob Gadget. The family home had been transformed into a sprawling mansion, the splendor of which overwhelmed Ebenezer. Laughter and joy filled the house, and prosperity flowed from every room. Bob’s son, Tiny New, was the center of attention, and cash fell from his pocket as Bob lifted him into the air and set him in a special chair.

It’s all been worth it, my family,” Bob announced as he raised his glass in a toast. “While that old bastard Ebenezer Broadcaster wasted away the hours counting on the immortality of his spreadsheets, we’ve explored the many new ways of doing what he used to do. Mass marketing died when the Internet was born, and media is now all about consumer choice.

Our company has gone public, and thanks to our Tiny New Gadget here, we’ve come to a place where we can enjoy the fruits of life’s many blessings.”

And Ebenezer found himself in a graveyard, alone with the Phantom. Before him stood a tombstone that read:

Here lies the body of Ebenezer Broadcaster.
He dug the hole in which he is now buried.

The scales fell from his eyes and he realized what the Ghost of Broadcasting Yet to Come was telling him, so he asked, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?”

He begged the Spirit to assure him that if he changed his ways, this would not be his end, but the Ghost did not answer. He threw himself at the Spirit’s feet and pleaded saying, “I will honor New Media in my heart, and try to keep up with changes. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me, and I will spend what the Future requires.”

Ebenezer watched frightfully as the Ghost began to shrink until it melted away into nothing more than a bedpost.

As the sun broke through the window, Ebenezer Broadcaster awoke with a stretch and a smile. He was also on a mission, and there was no time like the present to get started. He made his way to the mall and burst into the door buster sales to buy this gift and that. He turned his car northeastward to the home of Bob Gadget and his family.

When Gadget opened the door, old Ebenezer smiled and announced, “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas to you and your family.”

He handed out gifts to one and all, put his arm around Bob, and said, “Let’s you and I sit down and talk on Monday about what’s going on in the business and what we can do together to prepare for the Future.”

And Tiny New raced to Ebenezer and squeezed his leg.

God bless us all,” he proclaimed, “each and every one of us.”

Tis the season

As the holidays approach, it’s time to bring “A Broadcaster’s Christmas Carol” back for new readers or those who just want a little entertainment for a December morning. File this under the category “time flies when you’re having fun,” for I wrote this (along with Charles Dickens) two years ago. 2006 has been a year when many broadcasters have had the awakening produced in old Ebenezer, but the lesson is still just as valid today as it was when I wrote it.

Last year, podcaster Hugh Brackett made an audio version of the story, and I will always be grateful for that. I think the story reads better than it plays, but if listening is your thing, Hugh’s made that possible.