Full disclosure: where once people paid to read my work in books, newspapers and magazines, I now pay for the privilege of showing you some of my writing on the wordpress platform.
Imagine my surprise when a friend wrote to me about a blog he must pay to read. The blog belongs to an educator who, for a fee, promises to educate.
For most of his life my friend has enjoyed learning and he gladly pays for instruction that furthers his interests. But he’s troubled by what he feels is the instructor’s deliberate attempt to keep the cash flowing, such as ending one post with a promise to reveal an important fact or previously unexamined truth that will make all the other stuff you’ve paid for comprehensible.
He has grown weary of such manipulation. He likes the instructor and is interested in what is being taught but…should he continue to support the blog?
As soon as I heard of this, I was reminded of the slot machine, a device I encountered when I visited the Bahamas and went into a gambling casino for the first time.
The psychology of the machine is simple and precise: you, the gambler, want to win, which, before you approach the machine, is defined as acquiring more money than you currently have. The machine promises that this is possible if you put a little money in. So you put money in, pull a handle or tap a button, and things happen (turning reels that were soon replaced by a video screen, with sound effects). The result? Most of the time, you lose your money, but at the end of a round of “play,” the machine doesn’t make you feel that way.
What you feel is that you almost won. You were so close! If only that reel would have turned one more notch… So you put a little more money in and, you were even closer to winning!
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “and so it goes.” Sometimes you’re not close at all and you get mad. You feel the machine is insulting you. Or you ask if you, yourself, are the cause of your misfortune? Would prayer help? A promise to God that, if you win this one time, you’ll be the person you think you should be.
What happens? You win! But it isn’t enough. A few coins trickle out into a tray that is designed to make those coins rattle as loudly as possible. You scoop up the coins and realize you haven’t truly won–you’ve put more money into the machine than has come out. But you won something. Winning is possible. And if winning is possible–suddenly you hear sirens and alarm bells go off and you see a few rows away someone has hit a huge jackpot–winning big is possible, too!
What is most insidious about slot machines is that they really don’t appeal to your greed, or your hope that you will be among the few to acquire wealth by luck alone, but to that tense, anxious “almost” feeling that makes you feed the machine with everything you have until, win or lose, win and lose, you have nothing, except the rationalization that all addicted gamblers have when they confront the wreckage their habit brought: they know, deep down, that one of these days, they’ll win so big that everything they’ve lost will come back to them, and more.
Is it possible, then, that if my friend kept paying for this instructor’s blog, he would end with the understanding that all he has done is pay for the long, drawn out experience of being “almost” wise, but that if he continues to pay, one of these days he’ll be really, really smart?
The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick mocked this with Mr. Psychiatrist. You carry around a small briefcase (what we would call a laptop today). Open the case, put some money in a slot and a digitized image on a screen asks you to talk about your problems. The computer behind the image listens. The image begins to describe your situation and, just as you’re about to reach a break-through, Mr. Psychiatrist asks for more money.
To be fair, unless they are tenured at a prestigious university (or if they do private-sector research, or they have consulting gigs), most educators do not earn a decent wage. Some may not have enough cash to pay for a blog.
The history of pedagogy is rife with flatterers, fabricators, fortune-tellers, and dubious viziers who did just about anything to win the favor of the rich and powerful. Socrates–the most famous educator of all–hired himself out as after-dinner entertainment (in Athens, a symposium used to mean “drinking together”).
Having knowledge (or what the profession now calls “content”) rarely puts one on the path to wealth, fame and influence, though Woodrow Wilson, former professor of political science and president of Princeton University, was elected President of the United States.
Can we forgive a blatantly manipulative attempt to make money with products whose only purpose is to leave you hungry for more (James Bond, Star Trek, Terminator, Star Wars, the entire Marvel Comic Universe, the far too numerous Batman and Superman “reboots,” daytime and nighttime soaps, not to mention sit-coms, Upstairs Downstairs, East Enders and Downton Abbey) in an era where similarly manipulative attempts have become a respectable way of doing business?
I won’t. I don’t put anything on this blog that I don’t feel is worth writing, and worth reading. I don’t create controversies, blow dogwhistles or scheme to increase visits. I don’t mention products to attract sponsors.
In short, the only thing I “make” from this blog is the satisfaction of writing what I feel is worthwhile and sharing it with you.
My advice to my friend: walk away from the machine for a little while.