The age of YouTube, iPod, blogs, Technorati and Digg -- combined with 24/7 insta-everything -- has created both a wondrous and horrifying world.
Wondrous belongs to the spectators, who are free to google, oogle and giggle. Horrifying is the realm of actors. Not actors of the Tom Cruise variety, though Maverick's meltdown surely is as much a function of the relentless Eye as of his odd behavior.
I'm talking more about real people who mount life's stage in good faith and try to do something that matters. To shape events, to mold policy, to advance civilization. Not everyone is qualified for the job, clearly, but neither is every critic a worthy adversary.
What passes for acceptable criticism today was unimaginable a generation ago. So, too, are the mechanisms for capturing and distributing our every public -- or private -- moment.
Where once you made a gaffe in front of 100 people, today you do it in front of millions. Not once, but forevermore. YouTube, the Web site where anyone can post a video, has become a favorite hitching post for riders of the blogosphere.
Count me in. I love it. I watch TV segments I missed. Today, I watched a wrenching homage to the Lebanese people. Yesterday it was the amazing wardrobe-changing act from an episode of ``America's Got Talent." Not long ago, I watched a tape of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead singing the national anthem in 1993 at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. Spectacular.
And then there was Sen. George Allen. Will he ever survive the Macaca tape? Probably not, because no one will ever forget. It's there, captured for all time, rewound and replayed a thousand times, archived in the ethers of the World Wide Web, forever and beyond.
Likewise, if you give a speech to, say, 500 people in Ashland, Ohio, you're talking to them, those people, those faces, those eyes. You direct your remarks, your jokes, your expressions to them.
But then you're on the Web, podcasted, excerpted, spliced, inserted, critiqued by strangers and reviled by ... whom? Anonymous. They -- the googlers, ooglers and gigglers -- are Everyone and No One In Particular.
I've been on the receiving end of Anonymous enough times to glimpse what higher-profile actors get to enjoy. Imagine being president of the United States. No thanks.
It's not about having thick-enough skin to withstand the pressure and constant scrutiny. You can grow it over time. It's whether you want to. Is anything worth that kind of self-sacrifice? Who will run for public office in such an environment? Only the exhibitionist? Only the hardest-nosed, thickest-skinned among us? What kind of people will they be? What kind of nation will we become?
Something about our new anonymous world has brought out the worst in all of us. We neither impose nor honor limits. The raunchy fare of late-night TV is now commonplace at prime time. The scatological has become pathological.
Wednesday night I caught Keith Olbermann on MSNBC talking about President George W. Bush's reported fondness for bathroom jokes. I'm no prude when it comes to jokes, but I'm way past potty humor. Olbermann apologized to viewers who might be offended, saying that he was merely repeating what already had been reported by U.S. News and World Report.
Two thoughts: one, he didn't have to relay it; two, he didn't have to then expand the report to show Bush wearing expressions in photographs that could be suggestive of a potty joke's punch line. Olbermann and a comedic sidekick provided captions and commentary.
It's hard to describe how bad it was. There's a time and place for irreverent humor, but coming up with clever new ways to describe flatulence and relating it to the president isn't, as my mother used to say, cute or funny.
I don't mean that fools shouldn't be exposed, or that corrupt politicians or racists or what have you should be protected. The vast array of media options also allows citizens greater access to useful information. That goes in the ``wondrous" column. But somewhere in this increasingly unprivate world, we have to develop a personal ethics that respects the privacy of others and, above all, their humanity.
If not, our choices for future leaders will be either Mr. Narcissist or Ms. Perfect. One knows only what he wants; the other knows nothing at all.