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Year of the Blockhead 

We're dumbing down and it's the new media's fault

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
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As I look back happily on 2006, the year Bay Area residents were taken for fools, I notice changes that sort of crept up on me.

Early last week I was up until 11 p.m. browsing for grainy videos of college drum-and-bugle performances on YouTube. I don't know why; I know nothing of drum-and-bugle corps. I just know that I had to.

This summer my last newspaper subscription expired. My reading has narrowed to random browsing of the aforementioned sort and European bike racing news. My intellectual panorama seems to narrow by the month, something I hadn't noticed until now, in the waning days of the year of the blockhead.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Back during the last dot-com boom, the smart money took ordinary schlubs like myself for geniuses, with time and initiative to read reams of news, appreciate risky, elegant writing, view cutting-edge graphics and experimental animation, and absorb mountains of other material at least aspiring to the aforementioned qualities. Web sites like the brilliant Wired magazine-owned satire magazine Suck.com or Derek Powazek's Fray.com, a sort of personal-storytelling version of Ira Glass' This American Life, begat myriad Web-based literary efforts, some backed with real money.

By 1999, San Francisco became a modern version of the 1920s Paris Left Bank, where writers and artists and designers, and animators and musicians, flocked to the city for well-paying media jobs. Locals became furious at the influx, and did what they could to chase them away with the "dot-com backlash."

That's all ended in 2000.

But dot-com offices are filling up again with tech workers. I saw two through a SOMA office-loft window playing foosball just a couple weeks ago. Their firm, like the others, is not staffed by creatives; it's involved in ironing out the technical details of making money on the Web, in this case streamlining the collection of Internet-based sales leads.

The smart money won't be fooled again. Instead, it's taking us for fools. And we seem perfectly happy about it.

As newspaper advertising slides to Craigslist.org, Bay Area news operations are gutted with waves of incremental layoffs, until daily newspapers are barely interesting enough to read anymore. Powazek stopped updating Fray.com last year. Google just paid $1.65 billion for grainy-video-purveying YouTube.

In the latest such slight to our collective life of the mind, in January, local Spanish language station KSTS plans on gutting its local news operations. The move comes a few months after KSTS' corporate parent NBC/Telemundo announced it would fortify its ability to show soap operas on the Internet by allying with Yahoo.com.

A couple of weeks ago a local politician held a press conference denouncing KSTS' move. The S.F. Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution complaining about it. Neither events showed up in our local English-language daily newspapers or Web sites; there were no 1999 dot-com-backlash-style protests.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd check in with the sponsor of this fizzled anti-dumbing-down protest movement, Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval.


Many evenings after his children go to bed, Sandoval clicks on local Spanish-language news broadcasts recorded on his TiVo machine.

This practice has nothing to do with the language of the broadcast; Sandoval's English comprehension is perfect. Nor is he trying to brush up on his Spanish. Rather, he's adopted the habit of watching local news directed at Latinos, because local news teams for KSTS and KDTV have typically uncovered vital stories English-language stations overlook.

"You'll see a story about violence in the city of Richmond, California. They have a completely different take on that. The violence that affects the Bayview is often thought of as solely African-American, but there's a very, very large and growing Hispanic population in the Bayview, and that's covered more by local Spanish-language TV," Sandoval says.

Sandoval's habit is about to become somewhat less rewarding.

KSTS, the Bay Area's Telemundo station, owned by NBC, a subsidiary of General Electric, plans on gutting its local news operation, shifting news production to a central news desk in Fort Worth, Texas, according to reports. A five-person Bay Area bureau will replace Telemundo's local news operation.

An assistant to KSTS General Manager Alberto Martinez told me that he would not be in the office until after my weekly deadline. But she sent me a statement in which Martinez did not specifically contradict reports in papers such as the Mercury News, and San Francisco's El Tecolote describing local news cutbacks. Instead, he suggested such a move would be all for the best.

"Digital science is transforming our industry enabling us to operate more efficiently while rendering current ways obsolete," Martinez explained. "We are, in fact, implementing a forward-thinking way to deliver local news in a rapidly changing media environment, without sacrificing quality content."

NBC-Telemundo is indeed forward-thinking in the sense that the company appears in tune with the zeitgeist of 2006, in which the sophistication and attention-grabbing quality of news has declined with repeated rounds of cost-cutting and layoffs, while the quantity and sophisticated delivery of garbage entertainment has raced ahead.

Sandoval, along with other California Latino politicians, plan on petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to pressure NBC/Telemundo, based on the idea that the company is forgoing the civic responsibilities that accompany public use of airwaves.

Local news "may not be as profitable as providing reruns of Ugly Betty over and over. But they're supposed to provide it in exchange for these public assets they use, which are the airwaves," Sandoval says. "If we let market forces be the only consideration within the media and communications industry, we're going to end up in a situation where TV has reached the last stage [in distancing itself] from what its pioneers envisioned in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. They thought it would be an educational tool that would inform the masses."

It's easy to forget that just a few years ago trainloads of smart money suffered under a similar conceit, and invested fortunes in the notion of a sophisticated, intellectually eager media consumer.

Now our media moguls' sensibilities seem to have turned 180 degrees. For my own sake, my New Year's wish for 2007 is that they're as misguided as they ever were.


Tom Ritchey is puttering in his Woodside garage, adding finishing touches to a 16-spoke Protocol Limited featherweight road-racing wheel he'll use on one of his newer inventions, a titanium and carbon fiber bicycle that comes apart for packing in a smallish suitcase.

Despite the project at hand, he's not much interested in talking about high-tech bike doodads on this morning the week before Christmas. He'd rather discuss primitive bike doodads.

"Every one of them is a handmade creation," Ritchey says, referring to 100 traditional African wooden push-bicycles he's having shipped this January from Rwanda to serve as coffee kiosk advertisements for beans grown by African peasant farmers. "They use wooden forks and braking systems. They're scooters, but there are some real thoughts in them. For the most part they're all wood, except for a chunk of steel they use as an axle, and a truck tire that they cut and nail onto the outside of the wooden wheel."

Ritchey is the legendary tinkerer who in the 1970s transformed the mountain bike from a clunky, heavy plaything shared among his eccentric Marin County pals into a lightweight engineering marvel that transformed the bicycle industry worldwide. Ritchey was the original brain behind the hundreds of thousands of sturdy, lightweight frames, handlebars, wheels, and other mountain-bike components that during the 1980s spawned a new American pastime.

He's grown that early invention into a San Carlos company, Ritchey Design Inc., that is a leading maker of top-end bike parts featured on the pro mountain-biking circuit and at the Tour de France.

From his Peninsula workshop Ritchey is again attempting to spawn a global technology revolution, this time in Africa. He'd like to help pay for it by selling peasant-grown Rwandan coffee, with the wooden bikes as a marketing tool.

The Flintstonelike hewn-beam African bikes are used in Rwanda to haul everything from pigs to wood to coffee bales. They will be redeployed as coffee-kiosk prop advertisements for Wooden Bike Coffee, a brand Ritchey created to help finance an ambitious nonprofit venture aimed at delivering Rwanda further from the devastation of the 1990s genocide. A shipping container will leave Rwanda Jan. 6 filled with the wood bikes and 30,000 pounds of Rwandan coffee, which is currently for sale on Ritchey's Rwanda-relief Web site.

Eventually, Ritchey hopes to use his own money and revenue from the coffee sales to help finance efforts to revolutionize rural African transport, foment tourism, and introduce bicycle racing to a nation still recovering from the 1990s genocide. He's also hooked up with a microcredit lender, and with bicycle and component manufacturers, in hopes of eventually providing Rwandan coffee farmers with Ritchey-designed coffee-transport bikes.

Despite the ingenuity apparent in the traditional Rwandan wooden bicycles, they lack the speed of a modern bike. During two trips to Rwanda during the past year, Ritchey learned that getting from one place to another faster than walking speed — which is about as fast as the wooden bikes will go when loaded with cargo — is that war-torn country's greatest unfilled need. Ritchey hopes to make it easier for Rwandan farmers to bring crops from field to store by adapting principles from the traditional wooden bikes using modern materials and design, then providing as many Rwandans as possible with a specially made modern bike.

Soon after he receives his shipment of coffee and wooden African scooters, Ritchey will ship another cargo container of bicycles, this one containing 1,000 versions of a more durable and efficient coffee-transport bicycle of his own design. The new machine resembles a long-wheelbase, ultradurable version of a single-speed mountain bike, with a coffee-bale-length cargo rack integrated into the frame.

Eventually he'd like to ship 100,000 of these new bikes to Africa, a project he believes will bring mobility to thousands of peasant farmers, and in turn help solve that country's problems of hunger, poverty, and disease.

"The issues of starvation are not what they appear to be. Rwanda, for example, grows two to three times the amount of food they can actually eat. The problem is, they can't transport it before it spoils," says Ritchey, who got back from a second trip to Rwanda in September. Currently one Rwandan in 40 has a bicycle, and many of those are the rough-hewn, relatively slow wooden scooters.

"Going from one out of 40 to a situation where everyone owns a bike, you're going to solve hunger, AIDS, a whole lot of things."

Ritchey sees his Rwanda coffee-bike project as a reprise of his experience helping bring the mountain bike into the world.

If you'd like to see your holiday gift spending extend beyond the person opening the package (and if your gift-giving extends through the 12 days of Christmas, when this issue will reach your hands), it might be worth buying a few gift bags of coffee at http://www.projectrwanda.org/.

The mountain bike "wasn't something we concocted, designed, and put through marketing research. It was a gift of enjoyment that we all gave out freely," Ritchey says, adding that he hopes to achieve something similar in Rwanda. "This is the same. It's a love letter. It's a gift. It's meant to bless people and put them into a different place and direct them to their own personal destiny."

About The Author

Matt Smith

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