September 21, 2001
   by Mark Fitzsimmons

Am I the only person who feels like a steamroller is about to flatten me like a pancake?
Even my favorite TV anchors, Koppel, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw aren't asking
the probing questions I wish they'd ask. What's going on?

Listening to the president last night, I heard a lot of things I agreed with. Most of it, in fact.
I think W is smarter than we give him credit for. He left a huge amount of leeway for himself
to adopt more peaceful, less barbaric, more civilized, less violent responses. Yet that's not how
the TV news is spinning it, and before the president takes too many clues from the boob tube
indicating that this is the spin "we the people" agree with, I feel obligated to voice my opinion.

Today, echoing the president, Colin Powell said, "We are not going after the Afghan people.
We are very careful in whatever we do, whether it's diplomatically, economically, through the
use of sanctions, through the use of military force. We will be very, very careful to make sure
that people see that in our actions we are not going after the Afghan people, we are not going
after Moslems, we are not going after Arabs, we are going after terrorists."
This, I hope, is the voice of civilized reason that prevails.

Even Defense Secretary Rumsfeld tried to disabuse people of the notion of war as we thought
we knew it, suggesting yesterday morning that we need a new vocabulary. He didn't just suggest it,
he said it explicitly, "...we need a new vocabulary..." During the same Pentagon news conference
he also said, "What we're engaged in is something that is very, very different from World War II,
Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia -- the kinds of things that people think of when
they use the word war, campaign or conflict."

Now, if you listen to the mainstream media, they are spinning Powell's and Rumsfeld's positions as
polar opposites, black and white, war and peace, as if the two are butting heads, Powell seeking
peaceful options and Rumsfeld urging battle.

Rumsfeld may very well be a hawk, but I doubt it. I think he is an intelligent, reasonable man,
and he sees the dangers as well as I do of inciting holy war by killing innocents. Of course he is
also aware that he is wielding W's big stick, and cannot be seen to be weak, and therefore must
choose his words carefully. As clearly as he can, then, he is saying he doesn't want all out war,
but of course he can't say that out loud. What offends me about the reporting is the mindless repetition
of sabre rattling comments as if they are to be taken literally. I'm offended by the sensationalism,
the amplification of the message with no thought to the deeper meaning of it all.

Try to find those quotes in the mainstream media. I had a hard time digging them up, and I heard
most of it live on the radio this week. Our government is giving us leeway to see our response as
something other than slash and burn, kill and bomb, but most of what I hear from my TV is
WAR, WAR, and more WAR.

The notion of collateral damage, supposedly invented by our militaristic ancestors way back in the
second millenium, has been taken to an extreme by these terrorists, killing what is probably close
to 100% innocents, a complete failure to punish the guilty.

Surely Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld know this, have thought about it, and use this knowledge
in forming their opinions. By this I mean that war as it was once waged by "civilized" men also has
unacceptable collateral damage rates. The question then becomes, "What percentage of innocent
lives lost is acceptable collateral damage?" If you listen to what our politicians really say, you'd think
it's a hell of a lot closer to zero than the TV would have you believe.

During the Gulf War, disgusted with the uncritical reporting of bombs which were killing innocents,
I put the TV under my workbench and just stopped listening. Eventually we heard about the vast
numbers of dead and wounded, but it was too little too late, too many lives already up in smoke,
and by the time it was generally accepted knowledge, we had cigars and sharks to worry about.

At least Walter Cronkite had the presence of mind to say this today: "The rights of the American people
were severely violated during the Gulf War. We were denied any historical record. The history of this war
consists almost completely in what the government wanted us to know.  That simply is not good enough.
These are our boys and girls going into combat. We deserve to know what's going on."
But just try to find *that* on

After a while, I have found there are sane, responsible voices in TV land, but they're mostly in the nooks
and crannies of prime time drama. Selectively chosen, there are a handful of excellent morality plays out
there, but for sure it's not coming during the news hour, or the news magazines, or any other form of "reality TV."

Levelheaded news can be found sprinkled around in various media. Rumsfeld's comments I heard live
on NPR. The BBC is reporting on Americans calling for peaceful resolutions. reports,
"One official said the military is a "blunt instrument" and should be kept to a "minimum" in order to maintain
the idea that "this is not a war against Islam." But these stories aren't the primary headline news I'm seeing,
not by a long shot.
I think you see what I'm getting at. The steamroller I feel bearing down on me is coming from the TV set.
I don't know what's causing it, if it's just irresponsible or lazy reporting, if it's hawkish politicians, or if it's
greedy fists in walnut-lined boardrooms, or all of the above. I have no idea why this is, I simply know that
it IS, and the only thing I can do to reduce its impact on my own thinking is to turn off the TV.

Of course their response is, as always, that it's easy to blame the media for badness, for all the stupidity
of the world, but they only respond to the market, it's what people want. I reject this notion. Television is
the primary conduit of feedback in the modern system of public opinion and consent, which leads into my thesis.

Any control systems engineer will tell you a feedback loop can produce an unstable, runaway response.
This is why speakers sometimes squeal when someone steps up to the microphone. It's basic gain loop
electronics, but not only electronics: it applies to *any* system with a feedback mechanism.

As a prime and well documented example, one which you can easily observe if you look, is coverage of
political elections. Ask yourself this the next time we're entering an election: "When is the last time I heard
a news report that talked about the issues that are important to me, and the personal opinions of the candidates,
rather than the number of people that are purported to be on one or the other 'side'?" The talking heads on TV,
as the high gain feedback system of public opinion, blow all ideas and arguments out of proportion. When the TV
chants WAR, and paints a conventional picture of bombs, carnage, and wanton destruction, it's the speaker squealing.

At the same time I say these things, I'm sure some of you are realizing the truth of the first amendment
bellwethers in TV land. For the television to be part of a feedback loop, as it most surely is, we as citizens
have to recognize that the microphone that closes the loop is "me", merely echoing that response in ever
so little ways. Believe me, it's hard to admit honestly that I am part of that ear piercing whine, that
steamrolling blast of WAR coming from all directions. I don't want to be a mindless automaton, I don't want
to merely echo what I hear. The true greatness of our country lies in individuality, enterprise and free thinking.
I think we all see ourselves as "free agents" with opinions, a willfulness and minds of our own, but it's clear
that in some small way, I must carry the feedback to other people in the loop.

It's subtle and insidious, but not invisible. We have to become aware of the kind of feedback we allow into
our lives and our minds, because this feedback occupies more and more of our personal consciousness,
and we are whipped up into a frenzy of polls that increasingly talk about the state of the feedback loop
and talk less and less about the real issues underpinning any debate.

When I hear the question, "What can I do?" this is one of the first things that comes to mind.
Trust your own judgement, exert your free will, have the courage of your convictions. All the moral truths
you believed in a month ago are still true. We are not slaves to the TV set and we don't require self appointed
experts to tell us what's what.

Personally, I wonder how I can reduce the negative impact of my feedback?

For decades it has been clear to me that violence perpetrated on people begets violence. The fact that some
insane fanatics had the wherewithal to plow airplanes into buildings last week doesn't change that fact.
If babies are killed in Afghanistan, I will be just as sad to see Boeing products being used to carry the
bombs to kill children with darker skin than mine as I was to see our airplanes driven into innocents in
office buildings. Neither course of action is civilized.

I think some more about how violence perpetrated on people begets violence, and it occurs to me that
in order to find a more peaceful place in the world, I must provide peace as my feeback to society.
When I react in anger, in jealousy, in hate, in vengeance, I am not giving the world peace, and I am part
of the squeal. When I give of myself, when I do altruistic acts of random kindness, do community service,
volunteer, I am making the world a better place. It is this simple truth that makes us see that the firemen
and policemen who gave their lives in the disaster are the real heroes.

In order to make a more peaceful world, we must, inevitably, learn to walk more softly upon it, or we will inevitably fail.

I like the whining speaker example, because it also illustrates an important human response to unstable
feedback loops. When the speaker whines, we know something is wrong, and we turn some knobs
to make it stop. We find a balance. We know that screaming into the mic doesn't stop the noise.
Doesn't work and never will. We learn to take contrary action.

In the same way, public opinion through the ages swings like a pendulum, first right, then left, up, down,
red, green, whatever. The important fact is simply that it swings. We seek and hopefully find balance
as a people. The world isn't black and white, as we are sometimes told. One of the hardest things for
all people is to find balance in their lives, and we need to see and hear the consequences of our actions
in order to form an idea of what that proper balance looks like.

So in this sense, feedback loops are not all bad. They allow us to reflect, to examine, to make guided,
well thought out decisions. What I fear has happened is that the gain on our TV-culture feedback loop
is so high, we forget what is normal and what is out of the ordinary, and we are carried away in the
swirling wave of "public opinion" like a surfer on a wave far to large, and growing larger.

What else happens after the whine?

People tend to get quiet. Strange, and yet not so strange. The squeal is an alert that something is wrong,
we perk up our ears, aware there's danger, but then a beautiful thing happens: we can hear the calm voice
of reason after the din dies down. This, to me, is the power of introspection, prayer, meditatioin, whatever
one does to find that place of serenity where calmness and sanity prevails.

This is the potential power of the internet too, by the way. It is a feedback loop where we have greater
control over the content and the intake rate than ever before in human history, but it is still in its infancy.
That is, we as a society, cross-linked as we now are, are still becoming a more integral social thing.
In a sense we are the infants, the net is just our infrastructure.

I encourage you to not only think about that for yourself, but guide your loved ones, your friends and family,
to sources of sanity and civilized thought wherever you find it. We the people need to reinforce feedback
loops that we personally are happy with and invested in.

I'm now thinking along those lines for myself as I try to find an appropriate closure to my diatribe.
I'm wondering, "Where do I send this now?" The thought was spurred by a co-worker, here at Boeing,
who asked me what is a good forum for sane discussion in times of crisis.
He is looking for that feedback loop to which I refer.

My simple answer must be, "Wherever you can find it."

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