The Thing About Vin

This month I suspect the nation is accidentally divided into two unsuspecting camps: Those hearing the beloved name Vin Scully for the first time, and those who feel the world has lost a soul whose voice permeated their imagination for what seems like forever. I probably don’t have to tell you, but my tent is in Camp Two.

I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to the touching tributes to Vin all month now, waiting for the words to come to me that might add something different to the mix. Like so many fans of baseball, I am finding it impossible to quantify the impact Vin has had on the game and my life. Let me try to get there by focusing on what Vin brought into our lives that exceeds anything to do with a child’s game played by adults for well over a century on our pastoral fields of dreams.

Vin was decent in a way that defines decency. Try to think of anyone in the public eye where you never hear a single bad word uttered about him. People like this about someone but not that, people argue about the talents and abilities of professionals, people offer pointed critiques of someone’s shortfalls despite their success. I’ve never heard anyone utter a cross comment about Vin. Never. It’s uncanny. I can’t think of anyone else who fits that bill.

Vin was a storyteller of the highest order. We frequently overuse the word storytelling to describe the sequencing of events that constitute an unfolding narrative, but Vin turned broadcasting into art and baseball into a series of real-time epics built from a foundation of plot and character. You never had to love the Dodgers to love the resonance of Vin’s unmistakable voice. You listened to the anecdotes excerpted from the lives of MLB players told gracefully between balls, strikes, hits, and runs. You never missed a play, and every chapter of the story added up to a portrait of an era.

Vin brought us together. Whether you were sitting in Dodger Stadium with a transistor radio earplug hanging below your ballcap, watching a big screen with rowdy strangers in a sports bar, or sitting at home texting friends and family while Vin did the play-by-play alone in the booth, everyone choosing to participate in the day’s game came together as part of the event. Vin was inclusive, and he made us inclusive. Our differences didn’t matter on game day when he had the mic. His friendship was our friendship. Vin made sure everyone felt welcome to be part of his 67 years of telling campfire stories while athletes performed them in stadiums linked to historic moments.

“Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you.”

“If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky.”

“A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

“I know in my heart that I’ve always needed you more than you’ve needed me.”

Vin turned simple words into profound statements, moments into musical notes, radio and television commentary into sound bites for the ages. Today that might seem corny, impossible to pull off without sounding dated or forced. I guess when you have the perspective of almost seven decades to evolve your act, whatever you say is instantly perfect. It’s jazz. You’ve rehearsed as much as anyone alive, so you can improvise without a worry. You also instinctively know when quiet beats loud.

The stories of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Don Larsen, Fernando Valenzuela, Don Drysdale, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente — they are each 100% their own, and Vin knew that more than anyone. Vin was forever the reporter, never the story, that was his inviolable commitment. Yet the stories were better because he told them. Everyone knew that. If you had a story in the game, you wanted Vin to tell it, to record it for the ages, to make it vital, enchanting, and historic. Doing the outlandish in a game that has never seen a moment like yours is one thing. Having Vin lock down the tale for all of time is quite another.

As I think about all the kind words I’ve read and heard about how deeply this one humble man touched so many lives, I am repeatedly left breathless by the stories the fans themselves have shared. Fathers and sons who couldn’t find the right words to say to each other turned on the radio and had a catch while Vin called the game. Families who couldn’t afford the price of tickets parked their cars in open spaces, opened the tailgate of an old station wagon, spread a picnic blanket and grilled hot dogs as Vin made them feel like they were at Chavez Ravine. Brooklyn loyalists who never forgave Walter O’Malley for moving the team west generations later got satellite TV and fell in love again with their Dodgers bridged by the same voice who loved the team as much as they always had.

So here’s the thing about Vin, where the legend of simpler times and radio days brings us to the less innocent evolution we’re all trying to navigate with fragments of heart and hope. Some of us are getting older, losing the icons that carried us from youth to adulthood while poignantly keeping us young at heart. Every April baseball season begins with enormous hope, and every October it ends with one World Series champion. We all know the beginning and end of that cycle come with a change in the cast. Some of our favorite players will be gone. Some of the most important people in our lives may be gone. That is the sad and precious reality of our time together. Our memories are both powerful and fragile. When we remember a common voice that triggers the goodness in those memories, biological age for an instant is no longer a thing.

Vin was there for so many of those memories. He had the seat of honor at so many of our tables. He will stay tied to those memories as long as we stay tied to those memories. The gift of his life was to enrich the lives of all those who carry forward those memories. He wanted that even more than to call a perfect game. For Vin, every game was a perfect game.

I’ll give the wind-up to Vin, because I cannot imagine any other way to set up the close and get off the air:

“When I was eight years old, I fell in love with the roar of the crowd coming out of the speaker of a four-legged radio. When you roar, when you cheer, when you are thrilled, for a brief moment I am eight years old again.”

Yep, so am I. Thank you, dear Vin Scully. Your gift of optimism and connection is once in a lifetime, once in a century, once in sports history. Your gift forever keeps us eight years old.

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Photo: Library of Congress

Don’t Look Up

I don’t often write about movies. The last few times were out of concern and offense.

That’s not the case this time. Don’t Look Up is an honorable accomplishment, brilliant in aspiration if not execution.

Bob Lefsetz may have summarized it best:

“Don’t judge the movie as a movie. Judge it as a cultural exposé.”

It’s not a great movie. It is an important movie.

It’s not a laugh-out-loud funny movie. It is a twisted, masterful mirror making it a profound movie.

It’s leafy green vegetables dipped lightly in ranch dressing, not a snack without compromise, but still good for you.

Most of the movies we see released these days are either popcorn tentpoles with superheroes meant to fill actual theaters, or esoteric art pieces that win awards but stream largely in obscurity.

What happened to issue-based, mainstream entertainment movies like The China Syndrome, Erin Brockovich, or Midnight Express? The bottom line finance culture running the studios couldn’t possibly come to terms with those kinds of bets today. Throw in a platform of satire, dark humor, or caustic irony like Dr. Strangelove or Network and the chance those movies get backed today approaches nil.

Today we would call greenlighting medium to high budget films like those a bad business decision, and we would probably be right. Yet there was a time not long ago when many of us experienced these releases as popular culture events. Perhaps the most important thing these flicks accomplished was to inspire conversation.

We might like or dislike the stories. We might accept or reject the message hurled at our psyches. We might enjoy or be bored to tears by the characters. We could agree or disagree with the premise. It was the very act of talking about them that made them worthwhile as events even when art and science failed.

I miss those discussions and debates a lot. They made me think about things differently, They opened my mind to different points of view. They helped me get to know people better, both interacting with strangers and close colleagues.

It doesn’t happen much anymore. Show business has changed too dramatically. The distribution landscape is too fragile. The stakes are too high to take these kinds of chances and wildly big swings. The entire approach seems of a bygone era.

Don’t Look Up took me back to that bygone era.

It’s a gutsy picture. It steps up to the plate and takes some bold, big swings,

What’s my idea of a bold, big swing?

How about a world-ending comet headed for the earth as a metaphor for apocalyptic climate change? That’s hardly a whiff.

How about Ariana Grande satirizing herself as an indictment of vacuous celebrity influencers? That’s a power at-bat.

How about the collective sensory assault of TikTok diluting an otherwise complex idea down to its own reductionist dismissal of gravitas? That’s taking a crack at a tough pitch.

Most of all, how about giving away the punchline in the title? How do we make something go away if we don’t want to believe it? Just don’t acknowledge it.

It’s that simple, and pardon the spoiler but it’s coming in this sentence… If you don’t believe a fiery killer projectile is headed for our planet and about to wipe out all life as we know it, just don’t look at it.

If you can’t see it, it’s not there.

If you wish to deny the imminence of a crisis, all you have to do is deny the possibility that it is coming.

Journalists certainly don’t matter, they are subjective. Scientists might matter even less, they are products of their bias. What you find on the internet that supports your point of view is all that matters. Belief is not empirical. All belief sets are valid points of view.

To put all that in a mainstream movie, think somehow it will be funny over two hours, pay a bunch of expensive movie stars to show up, and think this makes good business sense—there’s something wacky in that logic.

I wish I had laughed more throughout the movie. I wish some of it had been more subtle. I wonder how it will age when people watch it three or four decades from now. I am skeptical it will have the same dire resonance that I am attempting to express here regardless of its flaws.

Then I think back to the unforgettable dialogue of Peter Finch as Howard Beale that has been ringing in my head since my youth: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I think about the decades of conversations I’ve had with people about those words and how much they’ve done to impact my interpretation of the weight of social issues still tearing at the fabric of modern living.

I think about how blessed we are that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky crafted those words and director Sidney Lumet got this movie to the screen for generations to ingest, discuss and debate.

I think about how long it’s been since I’ve had a satisfying conversation about an unequaled topic of global consequence triggered by a work of fiction.

The recent words ring solidly in mind: Don’t Look Up.

It’s anything but a perfect movie. It could be a lot more polished and funnier. Still, I think more people need to see it. And ingest it. And talk about it both with those who agree and disagree with its premise.

Thank you, Adam McKay. I think you’ve done something brave, needed, and important.

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Image: Pixabay

I’m Out On Meta

“Someone has to tell me why we keep allowing social media and our very lives as social creatures to be dictated by the most socially awkward person in history.” — Bill Maher

I have the same nagging question. The self-celebrating visionary Mark Zuckerberg continues to express that he knows something about building human ties that the rest of us can learn from his business mission. I see scant evidence that Zuck can guide us anywhere better than where we are at the moment or have been. There is near zero chance that he is going to stop talking because his determined point of view is driven by a conflicted agenda where he benefits most. I am done listening.

I recently learned a new acronym: IRL. You’re probably ahead of me, but it means In Real Life. That would be the opposite of what we bucket today under the category of virtual. Virtual would be something other than sharing the same physical space. Zoom is virtual. Social media is virtual. Running around in a 3D online game space is virtual. Meta is virtual.

If you already know this, forgive me for catching up late. Here’s something that might irritate you even more: I don’t like Meta. Agreed, I don’t like the company now known as Meta, but I really don’t like the idea of meta.

Said better, if I have a choice to interact with you in person—In Real Life—unless we’ve already established an unrepairable dislike for each other, I would prefer to interact with you in shared physical space over shared electronic space. I believe we get more done in person more quickly. I believe there are fewer errors in interpretation when we are together in person. I believe our relationship has a better chance to improve in person. I believe our manners are better in person.

That doesn’t mean I don’t see a role for virtual, I just prefer IRL. Virtual has proven more accessible, often more practical, certainly more economic. The compromise is that virtual leans toward purely transactional exchange, algorithmic efficiency often at the expense of building emotional intelligence. There’s the rub—a lot can get lost when we eliminate nuance from contact.

Zuck probably doesn’t agree. I don’t think the renaming of Facebook to Meta is simply a PR stunt to get us to see past the failings of the platform called Facebook. I think he saw the early experiment called Second Life as an end, not a means. He lives better in the virtual. He belongs in the virtual. He wants us to join him in the virtual. He can be King of All Data in the virtual.

Count me out.

My sense is much of the unbearable divisiveness we are experiencing results from too many of us coming to the conclusion that virtual, or meta, is a substitute for IRL. I’ll accept virtual as an adjunct to IRL—an extension, enhancement, or convenience to supplement IRL. I also think we need to relearn IRL, and quickly, because human contact is a big part of what makes us human. Creating a machine interface between us does not always extract our best selves.

Regretfully, I am a hypocrite on this. I worked with an innovative team at Disney over a decade ago that created ToonTown Online, the first massively multiplayer universe for kids and families, complete with third-party vetted built-in safety. We never intended this virtual playground to be a substitute for recess or a replacement for after-school outdoor activity. It was meant as an alternative for when that playground wasn’t available, particularly for children dependent on parents for logistics.

I don’t think alternative or supplement is what Zuck has in mind. I think primary platform is what he has in mind, as addictive as Facebook, but even more isolating. We will have less agency in Meta. We will have less freedom. We will behave less well.

Zuck will have more authority. Zuck will have more control over directing our actions. Zuck will revel in even less oversight. Zuck will make more money.

Dystopian fiction usually takes us on a gradual journey into descent. In well-told stories, it doesn’t happen in an instant. We are drawn in slowly. Then we realize we have been had and are trapped. Kind of like Facebook.

I see a revolt on the horizon. It won’t look like January 6. It will be the alternative to getting “Zucked” in. Slowly we will grow tired of Facebook. Meta will fail, because IRL is better.

Several years ago during another public flare-up, I posed this question: Is Facebook the Next AOL? Then as now, I wondered if the voracious beast would devolve into oblivion. Why does that destiny today seem even more possible? Because Meta is fundamentally flawed. It advances a business agenda over a human objective. It presumes addiction is a higher-order force than graciously serving customer needs.

Zuck early on said the purpose of Facebook was to make the world more open and connected. He lied. How do I know that? Because he walked away from that proclamation the same way that Google walked away from don’t be evil. It was too hard to be consistent and authentic. Eliminating the binding pretension made it way easier to generate exponentially more cash.

The purpose of Facebook is to collect vast amounts of personal data and leverage it for advertising value. I’m actually okay with that. It’s a true and understandable business objective. We can resist it. We will resist it.

The purpose of Meta is to head-fake us from the world we need to improve to an alternate reality we can never make better than the one we can experience IRL. Even John Carmack, the technical genius behind Oculus, knows the vast details behind building a metaverse are well beyond the hype of advocating for its imminent commercial deployment.

Here’s a thought, Mr. Meta: Fix some of the nasty problems you’ve already created moving fast and breaking things before you dump another pile of poorly considered conflict on us.

Lest you be readying to drop the Luddite card on me, please know that I remain wildly optimistic about the application of virtual reality and augmented reality to medical and other scientific research. I also bear no grudge toward the gaming community, which gave birth to my career, as long as it approaches immersive gaming in a healthy balance with healthy living.

My gripe is with Zuck and anyone else advocating isolating technologies. Escape is not a viable substitute for learning to develop coping mechanisms that lead to mastery of the highly demanding but uniquely rewarding anything-but-meta real world.

Let’s hear a cheer for evolving our delicate mastery of IRL.

Avoidance of human beings in person is not a strategy for learning how to navigate the human landscape, which is created in a natural state to be physical first, virtual as an adjunct and counterpoint. A little social media now and again probably won’t ruin our lives, everything in moderation. Digital sharing can have its place when it defies obsession. I suggested a better rebranding of Facebook might have been Happy Birthday Central. That would celebrate its finest function.

Focus on the basics as we revisit each other IRL: being polite, making eye contact, actually laughing when something is funny rather than typing LOL. Go outside for walks, and when it’s safe to be maskless, smile at passersby. Feel the sun and the rain on your biological skin and be thankful for the gift of our senses.

We truly are a unique blend of the physical, psychological, and dare I say, spiritual. Productive communities are established in tangible places before they become replicated models. There remains evidence to suggest we can be better together than separate. It takes work to keep producing this evidence, but my experience is that removing an LED screen between us offers a dimension of clarity that is otherwise less satisfying and cannot be replicated.

When we let Zuck know we are out on Meta and all-in on true human connections, the real agenda of living with advanced technology can continue. As I have written so many times, technology is advancing much more quickly than our ability to make sense of it. This is not a secret. It’s why we feel anxiety. It’s why we don’t like Mark Zuckerberg when his answers to the hardest questions are unsatisfactory. His vision will not be our vision.

Bill Maher summarized his point of view in his recent ‘New Rules’ segment on Real Time succinctly: “The more time you spend in the virtual world, the more you suck at engaging in the real world.”

Given too many of my own interactions in the pandemic recovering world, I find that awfully and unfortunately compelling.

We won’t get fooled again.

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Photo: Pixabay

My Take On 230

A good friend on social media asked for my opinion on why Donald Trump would be so adamantly opposed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. For years it is precisely Section 230 that has allowed him to expand his unedited voice and create his vast following. Now he’s banned on most of these platforms including Twitter and Facebook, which some would argue are at long last exerting a form of editorial oversight. Rather than hide behind their legal ability to allow him to rant, they have essentially silenced him.

Ironic, huh? Not exactly what he wanted in limiting this broad permission.

Has something good or bad happened? I think the answer is neither, but something evolutionary is unfolding, and depending on where that takes us, we can decide later like most history if it was good or bad.

Confusing stuff, no question. Let me try to unpack some of it as someone who has been working in this space almost since day one of the commercial internet.

While personally I would say my life has improved without the constant noise of Trump tweets, I’m afraid the world is not that simple. The resolution of this exercise may have frightening connotations in the abstract. Many are worried about free speech and arbitrary limits on the power of a single individual to curtail the public expression of another, which is something that matters dearly to all of us.

I’m not a legal professional by any stretch, but I don’t think a specific defense of ex-President Trump is what matters here. Trump no more understands Section 230 than he understands global trade and tariffs. He wants his speech free and speech against him controlled, like any dangerous autocrat. Let’s set him aside (doesn’t that feel great?) and think about the real risks and privileges waltzing into the arena of public discourse.

For reference, the historic 26 words that constitute Section 230 read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As simply stated as possible, that means the technology platforms are not liable for what they publish. They don’t want to be considered authors, publishers, or broadcasters. If the Wall Street Journal prints something that bothers you and you think is unfair or sloppy, you can sue it. Same with legacy brand survivors like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Us Weekly, or your local talk radio station. You can sue the person who said it or wrote it, too. If you think you have been libeled, you can sue everyone. You are way more likely to lose than win, but your case can be heard in court.

These kinds of traditional media companies have accepted the responsibility to abide by legal standards of accuracy and honesty of some sort, and they must stand by the messages they share. Mostly they print retractions when they find themselves wrong, but that doesn’t stop you from seeking damages. It’s an imperfect system dependent on evolving standards, and whether we like it or not we have learned to live with it.

If you don’t like what I say about you on Facebook or Twitter, you can sue me. You can’t sue Facebook or Twitter.

What’s the difference? Section 230.

Why is there a difference? That’s what’s about to be debated heavily.

Why was the exception created? That will also widely be debated in the months and years ahead, but having been there at the outset, my sense is that it was because federal lawmakers wanted the internet to grow. They wanted to increase free speech, so we all could bring our voices to the marketplace of ideas. They probably had an inkling some of us were wacky and would make up lunatic fringe falsehoods like QAnon, but they also knew if they held the platforms liable for everything published, very little would get published. The internet would have the same filters on it as traditional media, a funnel and a gatekeeper on opinions that limited expression with editorial oversight. They hoped for something more accessible.

Remember, this was a quarter-century ago. Better angels were optimistically anticipated.

The problem here is the division is not clean when all of our voices are collected. If the technology platforms exert no control, we have the chaos we have experienced. If they exert traditional editorial control to manage or reduce liability, all internet dialogue becomes gated, and as a practical matter, the scale of the task makes it impossible to be done by humans. That would put the editorial control at the mercy of algorithms, which at this point in their evolution given the nuance of language will be even less successful than humans.

That brings us to the present conundrum. If a platform now and again edits a comment to conform to its terms and conditions, has it crossed over to becoming an editor liable for everything else on the platform? According to current law, as private companies, these platforms have a right to state terms and conditions and assert the right to enforce them.

The real question becomes whether multiple infringements of terms and conditions can justly lead to the banning of an individual, like Trump. This is the heart of the matter: Do we want an individual company or CEO deciding who gets to have a public voice and who doesn’t?

I think the banning of Trump is going to open a huge can of worms to the platform companies because they just made policy on the fly and that can’t be extrapolated fairly.

Free speech is an interesting corollary, but only because we largely understand it must have limits to work in practice. Today we know there are legal restraints on free speech because it has been tested and adjudicated. While we now understand that a Nazi group had the right to march in Skokie, we also know that is not the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater. We didn’t always know that. It took a lot of time and argument to unfold and reveal itself to multiple courts. It’s been messy, and yet free speech survives.

I think we’re there with Section 230. It’s the right big idea, but 25 years later with wildly consolidated corporate power and big new media money at play, it requires a great deal of interpretation, nuance, and finesse. It’s no more an absolute than free speech. Yes, we really can disallow direct, personally threatening hate speech without fully destroying the First Amendment. The reasoning is not straightforward except in hindsight, when we consider the more pernicious alternatives.

Regulation here is our friend, not our enemy. My sense is the dialogue we need to have is not about throwing out Section 230, but reasonably debating the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms without making them liable for every post crossing their servers. Here is where it gets even more tricky, because the law clearly allows a private business to ban an individual for violation of its stated terms and conditions, yet provides very little in the way of enforcing those standards evenly beyond obvious discrimination.

One person gets banned, another does not. How does one challenge or appeal the equal application of silencing rules? In the final analysis, what ensures us or at least gives us confidence that authority is anything but arbitrary? There is no such thing as goodwill or trust when the profit motive of the platform benefits enormously from throwing kerosene on the fire of controversy—fueling viral engagement equates to generating revenue—yet it can eliminate its critics at will under the guise of decency. That is a mega problem we aren’t even close to solving!

We don’t want to make the economic consequences of our discourse addressable only at a practical level by silence. Likewise, we don’t want any business individual with a profit motive to have the power of doling out silence for convenience. Hearst had that kind of power. Zuckerberg can’t.

The Trump legacy may be the bookends that form around Section 230, which clearly are necessary because the platforms are neither fish nor fowl. This is new ground. Internet platforms are not voices per se, but the application of needed editorial standards around facts and lies does not make them voiceless. As I write often, technology advances much faster than our ability to understand its ethical consequences.

Sadly, this morass is likely to be argued largely on economic grounds, because the remedies surrounding liability are compensated in our system through cash settlement of lawsuits. The key problem with lawsuits is they favor the well-funded, and while legal, that will never approximate the ideal of fairness. I think there is a lot more at stake than whether a company might be brought to bankruptcy paying fines and settlements, which might cause it to be overly cautious, or bold and flagrant if it has deep pockets to defend itself. Financial penalties can’t be the point, be they absorbable or game-ending. There is a public-interest necessity in our ability to express ourselves. Our government has to protect that and let the business of the internet expand.

Yes, we can.

As for Trump’s point of view, he has demonstrated repeatedly that he only cares about what serves his agenda, not nuance or principle. He has succeeded in blasting open this door, but his own point of view remains self-serving. He is purposefully ignorant, a blunt object in a fragile ecosystem that requires reflection.

We are once again facing the question of whether we do truly relish the marketplace of ideas, or if this only matters when it is safe, convenient, and nominally polite. We don’t need to open the door to criminal insurrections that put our democratic nation at risk; the off switch just worked well in that regard and I’d comfortably welcome it again, if for nothing more than a badly needed time-out.

We have addressed this before, however imperfectly, and I have great faith that given the breadth of legal minds in our nation we will begin to solve it again. Trying to make it an either/or decision is a fool’s errand. We need to retain the big idea of Section 230 and add some guard rails. Once they are tested, we can adjust them. This is likely to be a combination of legislation and judicial resolution. It will be slow and complicated and evolving. It’s worth the ambiguity to sort it out carefully.

Let the real debate begin.

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Photo: Pixabay