War of the Worlds?

Peter Steiner drew a now-famous cartoon for The New Yorker that was published in 1993; a dog types at a computer and tells another dog that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This has interesting implications for the rise in user-posted videos on sites such as YouTube, and it is appropriate that we consider this today, because of something that happened 69 years ago today.

October 30, 1938 was the date of the original broadcast of Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. In spite of repeated announcements that it was a radio drama, thousands of people tried to evacuate from New York City in an effort to flee the Martian attack, resutling in massive traffic jams.

My point is that we are well-trained as consumers of video information, and we have visceral responses to the production values and format of what we see on the screen that help us decide whether the information it contains is objective or biased, factual or fabricated. The current flood of political advertisements demonstrate (some with more skill than others) that directors and producers are able to manipulate those reactions to their advantage. And now that anyone can have access to sophisticated video recording and editing equipment with as little as a laptop computer, they can post video clips on the Internet to make whatever point they desire.

On the plus side, this adds immensely to the power of free speech. On the other hand, it may become increasingly difficult to tell if the creator of a video clip was in fact a dog.