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10.16.08

Deconstructing the CNN Reaction Meter

The network's squiggly on-screen emotometer beats Joe the Plumber as the most memorable part of last night's debate.

Well, OK—it was a better, more compelling debate, the third one, last night. More intense. The highlight: John McCain’s back-to-the-future reprimand that Barack Obama should have run four years ago, if he wanted to run against George W. Bush. (For that matter, McCain should have, as well.)

But what actually lingers for the many viewers I’ve spoken to, from all three debates, is that surreal CNN emotometer thing running across the bottom of the screen—the two lines that measured uncommitted men and women’s reactions to the candidates repeatedly going after each other with iterations and reiterations of previously repeated material.

If it goes too far, the gadget may, like the machine on which you’re reading this, take over and make us dependent upon it—we may end up needing to tell the emotometer to tell us what we think of our own behavior.

Why do they linger, these lines of approval, a refreshing minty green for men and creamsicle-orange for women? It’s partly because they present such a dreamy, submarine contrast to the two guys having at each other above them. They reduce the tension to the visual equivalent of white noise and encourage musing as much as monitoring. You could see them as two tapeworms dating. You could see them as a double extrusion of that kind of plastic-thread-shooter that kids used to love to fire at each other. You could see them as a very learning-disabled person trying his or her hand at lanyards. You could see them as two kids walking into the woods and laying down strings so that they can find their way out. Good luck with getting out of the woods these days, I say.

Personally, I like to think of them as tapeworms.

It’s my impression that the ladies—the creamsicles—in the selected audience love just about everything. The just-short-of-International-orange worm generally squirmed up to more highs for both candidates than the men’s green line. (The men seemed taciturn, in an Eastwood-esque way. You could almost see them squinting, skeptically.) They are so sweet, the ladies! I cannot figure out why they were orange. Well, clearly, they couldn’t have used red, blue, black, white, pink, vermilion, gray, yellow—all these colors carry too much freight. But, now, doesn’t green? These days? You bet.

So why were the men green and the women orange? That is not a rhetorical question, in part because where I come from, the guys are far more likely than the gals to slip that Coke can and that frijol-encrusted aluminum take-out container into the non-recyclables when no one is looking. The women should have been green.

I think these devices are officially called “reaction meters”—a name that sounds worthy of Edison or Galvani or Ohm or maybe Kinsey, not the 21st century. Shouldn’t they really be called something like “digital feedback interfaces”? In any case, perhaps they could be marketed for people to take into business meetings, so that they can anonymously twist the dials while the boss talks and strands of approval or disapproval appear on a screen that the boss has to monitor.

But if it goes too far, the gadget may, like the machine on which you’re reading this, take over and make us dependent upon it—we may end up needing to tell the emotometer to tell us what we think of our own behavior. Maybe we ought to just restore applause and boos. They worked so well for so long.