Beliefnet
How does one look askance at the mega-merger of America Online and Time Warner without sounding like a Luddite?

Well, let me try.

Observation: Commercial television didn't lose its audience because of lagging technology but because it treated viewers like mindless sheep who were too lazy to change channels. Enter knockoff sitcoms, loud laugh tracks, 30-second ads, and shock schlock. Exit the audience.

Observation: The first "Internet Christmas" produced record sales via the web, record delays in order fulfillment, record credit-card fraud, and a last-minute flood to low-tech malls.

Observation: College kids download music to their hard drives, develop play lists, burn CDs to sell for peanuts. Record companies are frantic. How can they charge for a product that savvy consumers now realize they can get for free?

Observation: Even as the second wave of web-related initial public stock offerings comes to shore, the first wave is hitting the rocks. Lots of noise, lots of spray, not many survivors.

Observation: AOL customers are one click away from being former customers. Juno is just as annoying as AOL, but it's free. Why will anyone pay for a product that others give away--albeit with endless push-technology ads?

Investors love this deal. It's proof, they think, that even the wildest technology horses can be harnessed and turned to profit. They talk of old media and new media finding romance, and make millennial comparisons between Henry Luce and Steve Case. Who's next? they ask. Disney and Yahoo?

Wall Street suits love to see Silicon Valley geeks putting on Armanis and joining the money chasers. Greed they understand. Trim his hair just a quarter-inch, and the president of AOL will fit nicely into the Manhattan mogul role. What the suits and bean-counters don't understand is that technology moves faster than they do. They'll still be huddled with Pricewaterhousecooperslybrandandersen consultants developing a business model when geeks from MIT are off on a new tangent. How do they think the Internet came about, anyway? The Internet is an exercise in chaos theory, not controllable market forces.

And they still don't get it, audience-wise. You can talk down to your audience only for a while. People aren't sheep. Sure, we behave like it now and again. But if the Clinton impeachment taught us nothing else, it was that the American people have an impressive grip on common sense. Flinty New Hampshire voters aren't the only citizens who shun image fabricators.

Pet Rocks and Pokemon only last a while. IBM couldn't sell its dumbed-down PC Jr. Microsoft couldn't sell its dumbed-down operating system called Bob. Kids are seeing through Abercrombie's hype.

Maybe AOL can remain nimble. But customer retention, on which this entire deal is based--those magical 20 million subscribers who will now be expected to buy Time Warner products--isn't automatic.

People used their channel selectors to drive commercial television networks onto the merger block. People used their steering wheels to drive stale old-time religion onto the merger block. What's to prevent them from using their computer-mouse buttons to exercise comparable discernment and freedom on the web?

Throwing money at Silicon Valley's new suits might bid up the price of California real estate. But regular folks--those fickle mouse-clickers who know the value of $21.95 a month--shouldn't be expected to fall obediently in line.

My hunch is the entertainment age is ending, or at least changing direction. I see people searching for joy and meaning, not escape. People seem to be savvier than they are given credit for being.

My hunch is that the AOL-Time Warner merger represents one pig-in-a-poke thinking it fooled another pig-in-a-poke.

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