Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Pythons & Media Generated Paranoia

My partner and I have been talking much about the horribly tragic death of two boys in New Brunswick a couple of days ago. KP is snake-o-phobic and this just confirmed her worst fears, especially with a reptile shop around the corner that sells large snakes.

For me, while it horrified me as a father of two young children to think of losing my kids so senselessly, what was also striking was how utterly random and titillating it was meant to be as a news item. I was reminded of one time when I was standing on a subway platform, waiting for the train and reading the newsfeed screen. There was a "breaking story" that kept scrolling again and again across the bottom of the screen: 12 people had died when their boat capsized in Lake Victoria. In case you don't know, Lake Victoria is the world's second largest freshwater lake, next to Lake Superior. It also happens to be in Africa, providing an interior coastline to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Now what, you might ask, is the purpose of telling me (and a couple of hundred thousand other commuters) about the tragic deaths of 12 people in a boating accident on the other side of the world? Probably the same thing as telling us about the tragic deaths of two young boys in New Brunswick, more or less. I won't be the first to say this but the widespread publicizing of events like this reminded me that these items are publicized for a reason. It's not that the individual stories, in and of themselves, provide us with any sort of useful information. (Well, I suppose it might be useful to wear a lifejacket when on a boat or to ban predatory, wild animals that are large enough to kill children. But I don't think that's why these stories are in the paper.)

I mean, look at the follow-up on the python story. A quick glance at and I can see a video on the eating and hunting habits of the African Rock Python. There's an accompanying story that suggest the python might have been attracted to the boys because they had been petting farm animals earlier in the day and they smelled like prey as a result. And, finally, there's a story about how the python has been killed in punishment for the crime of being a large, deadly predator. There will be more in the days to come but that's four stories on one news site in two days. Millions of people are talking about this story, forming opinions on it, arguing about it over coffee and drinks, at the water cooler at work, etc. etc.

It's my opinion that the reason stories like this are considered news in this way is the fundamental acceptance of the political and economic system under which we live. Sure, there are pushes by newspapers to win support for their particular reformist bent - the Star wants less austerity, the National Post wants to cook and eat the poor to save money so the rich can buy bigger yachts. But they both fundamentally accept the dynamics of a system based upon profit and competing nation states. Thus the problems in the world aren't fundamental to the system itself. They are of the nature of accidents, individual acts of cruelty, or stupidity. It becomes difficult to differentiate in importance between a boat capsizing in Lake Victoria and a drone attack in Yemen or a war in the Congo, sponsored by different major powers jockeying for control of important resources.

In other words, the media through its undifferentiated focus on tragedy as a series of disconnected accidents, tells us that the world is incomprehensible and that accidents, personal foibles and, especially, crime and criminals are as much a threat (or more) than political and economic decisions. The latter are seen in isolation from their impact. The poverty in Africa that leads to mechanically faulty boats still sailing Lake Victoria, crammed with people to save money, isn't connected to the competition to keep the price of smartphones low, using key minerals from Africa, etc. etc. The relationship between keeping enormous pythons that kill children and immediate political and economic policy is rather less straightforward (and we should allow for some people to be the kind of idiots who think that such dangerous predators are charming pets). But I do believe that the craving for the exotic - usually defined in relationship to colonialist narratives of the dark continent and places like the Amazon - and for adventure is related, on the one hand to the mundane and monotonous existence that most people have to endure (go to work, repeat tasks endlessly & without purpose, come home to repeat tasks endlessly, go to bed, go to work...on the weekend get drunk to forget about the week, repeat). On the other hand the definition of what is exotic and exciting is shaped by historical and continuing policies in relationship to the developing world.

Nonetheless, the larger point here is that the media obfuscates the truth not just in terms of misrepresenting actual events, through the use of language that shapes meaning (is someone called a "Jamaican immigrant" or a "bank CEO", for instance) but also through the repetition of meta-themes (eg. tragedy is the result of accident, etc), the placement of articles in relationship to each other, etc. This has the impact of making the world more difficult to comprehend and generating a kind of paranoia of everything amongst the population. Death and injury could be lurking anywhere at any moment, when the truth is that most premature deaths and serious injuries in the world are the result of being features of the system and the policy choices that flow from it.

It also means the media shamelessly exploits the unfortunate tragedies suffered by ordinary people in order to sell newspapers. A good story is defined by how much gory detail a particular newspaper can uncover. It is not defined as something that allows us to better understand the world in order to change it and make it less tragedy prone. Given that almost all media is dominated by major corporations, this shouldn't surprise us. It should, however, disgust us.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Blogging, Democracy and Revolution

I came across this well-written piece on the role of social media in social change, written by Jesse McLaren. I've often thought that the role of new media, social media etc etc has been under-theorized by Marxists. You tend to see stuff that goes in one of two directions: either an uncritical boosterism about social media as the motor of revolutions or completely dismissive and contemptuous. Jesse has a nice balance, pointing to the contradictions - the corporate dominance of the internet, on the one hand combined with the internet's ability to spread information rapidly; the fact that social media is nothing without the mobilization of actual people combined with the equally relevant fact that social media can provide a powerful mobilization tool, broadening and deepening activist networks, etc. As he concludes:
To make the most of social media we need to see it in context: as a communication tool that can magnify resistance movements, and whose online potential is related to its connections offline.
In all those senses it is a welcome tonic to the one-sidedness that has dominated most discussions I've come across. On the other hand I did feel like it missed some key points that were worth exploring. For instance, Jesse says the following about the mixed nature of ideas:
Social media doesn’t inherently “erode normal human relations” any more than it has magical powers. It simply reflects the ruling ideas, and as the German socialist Karl Marx argued: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” These ruling class ideas don’t completely dominate: most people have contradictory consciousness—and the experience of collective struggle can expose the contradiction and through the process people’s ideas can change.
But this isn't just that people accept living under capitalist relations and therefore the online ideas reflect that. It's like the film industry. It's not just that people like right wing action movies or celebrity-worshipping superhero blockbusters because they reinforce the experience that workers have every day. It is a much more active process: Hollywood will spend upwards of $100 million on marketing alone to get that $100 million superhero movie on the lips of everyone in North America, Europe and, increasingly, China. The same thing applies to the internet. Perform a search for any particular product or service you might want, or for an artist whose work you love. You will be met first and foremost by a series of "sponsored search results" courtesy of Google's adwords program. Those who pay more are more likely to end up at the top of search results.

Secondly, the internet fits into the web of media that provides global advertising and ideological coverage to reinforce the dominant players. Some of that $100 million blockbuster marketing budget goes into banner ads, sponsored twitter campaigns, Facebook campaigns, cross-platform marketing campaigns (including complementary video games, youtube videos with sponsored ranking and banner ads), pinterest campaigns. You name it, the big players have that social media covered.

Thirdly, the dominance of the big players also applies to news and the message that gets out about domestic and international events of any importance. I may write this blog on what happened in the Middle East this week or last but when you check the news in your Google search it won't be my blog that provides the top hit. Not to mention that while it's great to get news instantaneously, most news content is now written by a few large newswire services like Reuters. Newspapers from the New York Times to the Globe & Mail use the newswires for their stories, ensuring a nearly homogenous worldview is conveyed by the big media players.

Fourth, the internet seems to exist in the ether: I just type an e-mail and it ends up in your inbox, like magic. But it doesn't. It requires a lot of physical infrastructure to make it work and that infrastructure is easily monitored - as we've seen with Snowdon's revelations about the NSA's global data-mining of innocent people - and easily disrupted. During the Arab Spring governments regularly shut down the internet in their own countries. In Egypt, of course, they discovered that the revolution wasn't really on Twitter after all because even shutting down the internet didn't stop Egyptians from overthrowing Mubarak. Here in Canada, effectively all of the internet infrastructure to homes is owned by a few companies like Rogers and Bell. Even the smaller, "independent" ISPs rely upon renting infrastructure belonging to one of the big players.

All that said - and the above discussion could be deepened and expanded much further - the internet is overall a positive thing. Just like the printing press allowed capitalists to more efficiently produce propaganda to win support for, say, an unjust war - so too did the printing press allow the workers movement to organize and share ideas and experiences. The internet takes the printing press, makes it instantaneous and international. It allows us to perform research into, for instance, the historical economic data on the USA going back to the 19th century - without having to pay the outrageous sums demanded by university libraries if you aren't faculty or a student there. In Toronto recently, the internet met smartphone tech to demonstrate brilliantly that while there is increased surveillance (watching from above) there is also increased sousveillance (watching from below). When the cops shot and killed 18-year old Sammy Yatim, the sheer brutality of the response was known by tens of thousands within a few hours because people nearby filmed it on their cellphones and then uploaded it to YouTube. That helped to generate the response that brought thousands of protestors on the streets within 24-hours and put the police on the back foot.

But these points really only expand upon what Jesse wrote in his piece. The bigger absence, the elephant in the room if I may, is the lack of discussion of blogs and the blogosphere. Blogs basically fit into the overall discussion about the relationship of social media to progress, social change, freedom, etc. However, there is a significant debate in some socialist organizations - in particular, in the socialist Tendency of which Jesse is a part, the International Socialist Tendency - about the role that blogs can play in relationship to debates in the party, in the movements, etc. The general view has been that individual blogs are OK, if unimportant, when they comment on the broader world. But they are to be shunned as tools to further debate and clarity inside of socialist organizations. They are deemed "unaccountable", "elitist", "undemocratic", et al. because they are the preserve of unaccountable individuals, not to mention being subjected to the same sorts of selection pressures as discussed above (though a discussion about how items and blogs and videos go viral is in order, as it provides an exception to the rule of big money dominating the internet).

However, the flip side of this is that the internet can provide a means to encourage and spur spontaneous and horizontal engagement and activism. It may be chaotic and inconvenient but surely we want our members and activists debating with each other in each and every forum possible. This can lead to problems - like substituting internalized debate that isn't tested in practice in the outside world for the kinds of activism that can help clarify ideas. It can lead to expanding small differences into large ones. And, of course, anybody can write anything - a lie, etc. and might not have to fear suffering the consequences. But all these things apply to all forms or media and all forms of organization. Even without social media socialist and activist organizations were quite able to end up in unproductive infighting, with people making defamatory claims and counter-claims against each other. In the 1980s ACT-UP, an AIDS activist group that had some explosive growth as the AIDS crisis radicalized tens of thousands of LGBTQs, imploded a few years later as it turned inward. Similar things have happened to other movements in the last 30+ years. It happens. Avoiding debate is not the way to deal with it. Better is to build an organization of outward looking cadre with strong and clear politics, unafraid to grapple with debate and challenges because they are confident in their politics.

What's more blogs and other forms of social engagement - Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, et al - offer the opportunity for people who never get published to have their say. They don't have to have perfect grammar or a university degree. There is much less pressure to be perfect because the stakes are lower - there's no printing bill to pay, no need to organize distribution via physical shipping, etc. It allows for spontaneous and ad hoc groupings of radicals and activists to unite around a virtual publication, engage in debate and then, once the struggle has passed or the moment of crisis that generated the flurry, the publication can shut down. It can re-emerge later in a new form, with a new collective, etc. Counterposing formal structures of accountability to this kind of dynamic and fluid method for engagement is conservative and bureaucratic in its impetus. Of course our movements need structures but debates, crises, and upsurges don't wait for approved structures to emerge and take account of them. They emerge already in motion and our structures must adjust to meet them and engage with them. Structures and structural traditions can help to shape such insurgencies into accountable forums. And insurgencies are the lifeblood that make structures relevant and renewed.
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