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George Carlin, Google, and Community Values

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More often than not, commentary on the recent death of comedian George Carlin centers on his famous "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" routine and his confrontation with the FCC. If you haven't heard it yet, gather your children to your side and check it out on YouTube.

Carlin's "seven words," which he correctly identified as taboo in the 1970s, have become less so in the 21st century. Cable denizens, including South Park cartoon children, Sopranos Mafiosi, and Comedy Central fake newsmen use any and all of Carlin's words with impunity, while their broadcast counterparts must still watch their mouths. Even so, some proprieties are preserved on cable. Cartman on South Park can say “shit” and Tony Soprano can say “fuck”, but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert still get bleeped. Meanwhile, if Oprah or Barbara Walters drop the F-bomb, network executives tremble. One gets the impression that the FCC cracks down on broadcaster language slips just to show they can.

All societies have their taboos. More often than not, forbidden words or places or things define acceptable and non-acceptable public behaviors and tend to support and reinforce the status quo and the existing power structure. Sexual taboos, which are included in Carlin’s "seven words", try to define both adult and child boundaries as well as a society’s sexual preoccupations.

As Joshua Meyrowitz documented in his ground-breaking book No Sense of Self, modern media have blurred the boundaries that existed in the print era between public and private and between adult and child. Meyrowitz discusses how literacy requirements created learning hurdles that allowed adults to limit the spread of some types of information to prying young minds. With no necessary education required to watch TV, view a movie, or access the World Wide Web, the former taboos are now brought under scrutiny.

Case in point. An article in today's New York Times discusses how the attorney in a Florida obscenity case is using Google search data to defend his client:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

To those of us who came of age under the tutelage of George Carlin, the hypocrisy of so-called obscenity standards has long been evident. Dick Cheney can say "fuck you" to a United States Senator in the United States Senate, but Janet Jackson can't show a bare breast. Richard Nixon surreptitiously records political, sexual, and scatological epithets spoken in the Oval Office while George Carlin and WBAI lose their right to free speech before the Supreme Court.

That cable programming allows Carlin's “seven words” without hesitation and that Internet giant Google's usage data can be used to challenge attitudes about community values is further evidence of the transformational powers of new communications media.

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