SoapBox

January 19,2021

A friend has started a podcast. A former police officer, he now interviews “people”. It’s available at any time at a push of a button or two.

The soap box was invented to transport bars of soap. The rendering of animal fats and ashes goes back thousands of years and resulted in a waxy substance that we call soap. It became more popular when easier methods were found to produce it. Eventually everyone on the planet wanted a bar of soap. Hence, placing many of them in a box that could be carried at once became an important by-product of soap.

While the soap went on to clean humanity of the dirt and grime accumulated through the ages, the box – the soap box – had a different history. I suppose it started when people gathered to hear a good story or maybe the latest news. Way before podcasts, video blogs, zoom, smartphones, TV, radio, telegraphy, books, parchment printing and cave line drawings, speaking to another human being was the only way one could actually convey information. This, of course, is a rather inefficient method, especially when more than a few people gather. Woe to that short guy in a group. How would he ever deliver his information to others staring at the navel of his compatriots?

The required height to see out, and to draw attention was an obvious solution. Standing on a rock or a tree stump seemed like an ideal way. Standing on a hilltop, or better yet, a mountain top seemed to solve that problem. It worked for Moses. The downside was that those places were immovable. The desired audience had to be induced to gather around. Paradoxically that would be hard without that height adjustment in the first place. This must have hindered or tempered the desire of everyone to be heard and therefore were content to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Along comes that soap box. All of a sudden a simple device, quite apart from its intended utility, fulfills  the human desire to be heard. Standing on a soap box, easily moved to any location desired, must have been like a gift from heaven. At once, any one of average or below average stature could address the crowd and communicate knowing that their pronouncement would be received far and wide as their feeble voice carried. The man or woman on the Soap Box became the voice of authority.

The soap box, set the standard and led the way for all the other platforms one can use to project and communicate with others. I can skip the intervening methods but generally say that the soap box has been constantly evolving to expand, amplify and hone whatever message its user desires to convey. Since day one, the message was independent of the soap box.

But this last statement is questionable. Marshall McLuhan proclaimed that “the medium is the message”: that the medium, the soap box itself, affects the content of the message by conveying its own meaning. He went further and considered the effects of new media (this was in the 1960’s, before the wide- spread internet). Standing on the soap box implies a heightened viewpoint and perhaps the aura of authority. The New York Times may report the same events as a 19-year-old with an i-phone but recipients may have two different “takes” on the same information based solely on the different mediums. This is more subtle than the veracity of the content. Our assumptions, and the actual physical method (newsprint, TV, internet etc.) of the medium has effects which apply whether the content is from the leader of the nation or an automated bot.

The original soapbox was an inexpensive universal device. Today’s soapboxes are equally inexpensive and universally accessible to everyone. They are, however, much more efficient and effective in their operation and much more insidious in our lives. This evolution made the whole operation of communicating much easier and eliminated many restraints, not the least of which was/is accountability. In addition, the soapbox itself has a wrinkle in its operation that makes it very prolific. Regardless of content, today’s soapbox medium, is a profitability generator. This supercharges its implementation and growth. In this regard what is said on Facebook, twitter, and other electronic methods is immaterial to its operators. What is important is its operation. As more people use the medium and provide its free content, the more profitable it is (with relatively little money flowing back to the users). When it becomes that ubiquitous, easy to use, “free” to the user, profitability is almost limitless. A perfect business-plan! That profitability was ingeniously invented.  Gone are the hindrances that tempered the human desire to communicate to everyone. And that makes all the difference. The message that this new medium sends is: demand instant gratification.

Today’s soapbox has become our entertainment center that never fails to entertain. As such, it mixes news, facts, opinions, satire, conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and outright lies into a seamless flow of instant information from soapbox preachers. The instant gratification of this is like feeding candy to a baby. McLuhan asked what happens when the medium is pushed to extremes. Are we there yet? Woe to the consumer to make any rational sense of it all. How much candy can we absorb before it affects our health?

The soapbox is an empty shell that is stood upon. The original content of that box, a substance that cleans the dirt and grime off humanity, seems like something we need more than ever for those who stand upon it. The irony, that this essay is a part of that soapbox, is not lost to the writer.

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