"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 December 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

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"Dead trees love the fire," wrote

Henry David Thoreau. He should

know, since he managed to

accidentally set fire to a

Concord forest back in 1844 - an

act of negligence that has

undermined his authority as a

naturalist ever since.



He may have pulled a few boners

in his time, but Thoreau is

still remembered and celebrated

as a model of Emersonian

self-sufficiency. His myth has

less to do with what he did than

what he said. It's no

coincidence that Thoreau was a

better writer of books than

conservator of nature. To

paraphrase an American truism,

if you can't do it, write about




Even excepting the moronic

yammering of Tom Clancy and

Robert Fulghum, what are books

but self-help guides, no matter

what the genre? And in America,

the land of kinetic

self-improvement, everyone loves

a good self-help guide. Why else

would Oprah's loyal viewers,

grown fat on the sweet sense of

superiority they've cultivated

toward her loathsome guests,

agree to underwrite a buyout of

a 20-year-old title by Toni




Thoreau, frequently suspected of

being a freeloader and a

do-nothing, was often on the go.

He could appreciate the

convenience of books. It's an

easy observation, a favorite

icebreaker among neo-Luddites at

office parties everywhere: the

portability of print. Of course,

this tiresome harangue grows

increasingly irrelevant. Not

only are wireless technologies

reproducing like rabbits, but

traditional print media are

unmistakably and undeniably

influenced by electric words and

the mechanisms that produce

them. Indeed, if not for the

monopoly Mac still enjoys in the

publishing industry, both Apple

and your favorite low-rent zine

might have gone the way of the

illuminated manuscript some time

ago. Electricity - from

WordPerfect to the 60-watt bulb

in your reading lamp - is the

loom on which text is spun




We read words on screens

everywhere every day: From ATMs

to movie credits, subtitles to

closed captioning, the Home

Shopping Network to Etch A

Sketch. And where would

community TV be without screen

after colorful screen of local

weather, bake sale

announcements, and

advertisements for licensed

mediators - all in plain old

electronic text? We shudder to

think how fast this country

would devolve into grunts and

frantic hand signals if not for

public access TV.


The nostalgic conceit that words

look better on paper than on

screen resembles the marketing

ploy enshrined in MTV's

"Unplugged" series. Nearly every

artist in this dubious series

has fudged on the plugs; either

that or unseen - and unplugged -

gremlins must see to the music's

amplification, mixing, and

recording. Listeners unwilling

to believe that's just fairy

dust in the studio must conclude

that "unplugged" just means

"sedated" or perhaps "stoned."


[Bass Tone]

It's a provocative comparison:

Music pervades our culture to

the same extent as text, yet few

complain that the morass of

plugs, cords, circuit boards,

and speakers that mediate

recorded music render it

unworthwhile. In point of fact,

Walkman and Discman are the foot

soldiers of electric

portability, and you can bet

your surge protector that

"Netman" has already been

trademarked nine ways from

Sunday. From AirMedia to

PocketNet, it's clear that

wireless technologies verge on

major market share. Can it be

long before the Internet itself

surfs the airwaves, dwarfing the

bandwidth of present-day network

TV? It's a sure bet, too, that

text will dogpaddle beside it,

glowing in all its

phosphorescent glory, for

decades to come.


Is our compulsion to purchase

freedom from the outlet and the

phone jack just a delusion, our

preference for paper over screen

a misguided vote for Thoreauvian

self-reliance? Probably.

Still, the delusion of

self-sufficiency is a valuable

commodity, even if it burns down

a few forests by accident. Like

our man Henry David, who was

supposed to run into town to

summon the fire department, you

can expect some of us to find a

nice hill from which to view the

beautiful conflagration.

courtesy of E.L. Skinner