Lies the Jumbotron Told Me
Interactivity, the Mets, and the death of feedback

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 16 August 2018

What used to make me valuable as a technology theorist was my access to new and weird stuff and my ability to make it seem less strange and foreign. Email? It’s just like writing letters. Hypertext? It’s like “choose your own adventure.” Chaos math? Like a weather system.

But now it feels like my value is to tell highly technologized people what life was like before the net and smartphones. To reveal the digital values embedded in what has now become the ordinary and help us retrieve the values that may be left behind.

The trick is knowing where and how to look. Give me enough time and I can see the changing relationship between people and technology pretty much anywhere. The easiest way to see this dynamic is to go to a traditional place, somewhere you got really familiar with as a kid, so you can more easily identify what has changed.

That happened last week — I went to a Mets game with my daughter and saw the latest iteration of that moment when they use a big meter on the Jumbotron to gauge the noise of the crowd.

Now, I don’t know if that meter was ever a real thing. Back in the 1970s, they’d put a meter up on the scoreboard and tell the crowd to scream. And the louder we’d scream, the higher the meter would go until we pegged the needle. It was the same sort of thing they used at the end of a talent show when the audience voted for the winner by a show of applause.

By the time I was going to games in the 1990s, the scoreboard had become a Jumbotron, capable of super-rich graphics. And they created a new, hi-res, full-color version of the once-simple meter, intercut with the words Make Some Noise! And the crowd would dutifully scream to try to peg the meter. When they did, the whole animation would explode, as if we’d broken the meter.

But the more games I went to, the more similar the animation seemed to be — until I came to realize they used the very same animation each time. The volume of the audience had nothing to do with the meter. It was fake interactivity. I don’t know if they resorted to the fixed animation because real interactivity was hard to do or because real interactivity just wasn’t as effective as convincing the crowd they had succeeded, no matter what.

Well, at the Mets game last week, they played the Make Some Noise animation, but it didn’t even pretend to respond to our noise level. They just flashed the image on the screen — not even long enough for us to see the impact of our volume. It was more of a nod to meters of the past, or an icon. Like the paint bucket in Adobe Photoshop or the garbage bin on a computer desktop. The picture of meter signified “make some noise” even though it wasn’t a real meter.

And the crowd just as dutifully responded to the cue. The audience loudness meter went from a thing that measured us, to a thing that pretended to be measuring us, to a picture of a thing that may as well be a dead metaphor to the youngest person in the stadium. Like when we say “time is running out,” almost no one realizes it’s a reference to the sand in an hourglass running out. Or “let the cat out of the bag” — I’ll let you look that one up.

It’s a weird place to have arrived with our technology. But I have to admit, I prefer a wink like this than the outright lie of a fake meter. The sight of people trying to influence a faux interactive meter is way more pathetic than people responding to simple visual cue — even if they’re not fully conscious of what the picture represents from back in the history of the analog and interactive worlds.

Our interactive technologies are becoming decidedly less interactive. They are being replaced by simulations of participation or mere symbols. Maybe everyone knew all along that their votes on American Idol don’t really count. Or that their consumer feedback has way less to do with product development than the marketing of products companies were going to make anyway.

But feedback—real feedback—is a primary means of perceiving, evolving, and differentiating the living from the dead, the actual from the virtual, and, at least in politics, reality from “reality.”

Whether or not there’s a meter anywhere to measure it, make some noise and see if anyone hears you.