Category: Book

Media theory hip hop video

Global Youth Media by appl juic – YouTube.

Last year I had the honor to contribute “Practicing Sustainable Youth Media” to an essay collection edited by JoEllen FisherKeller, International Perspectives on Youth Media (Mediated Youth). One of her graduate students put together this fun video based on the book, which combines hip hop and media theory. It may be the first of its kind! Enjoy!

Glenn Beck’s illiterate vision of environmentalism

[video link]

The above “Remove Your Footprint” video is from the fictional world depicted in Glenn Beck’s new dystopian novel, Agenda 21. The book’s title refers to an existing non-binding guideline created by the UN that outlines planning methods for sustainable development. This imaginary propaganda video is made by a future UN-controlled one-world government that looks uncannily like Soviet Russia. This hints at Beck’s demographic–try to guess the age of people who remember the bad-old days of the USSR. Unfortunately, Beck’s fear-mongering–which I’d like to believe is ineffectual and irrelevant–impacts something I care deeply about: climate change mitigation. Anyone monitoring the state of our global climate knows that without collective action and planned decoupling from the fossil fuel economy, civilization as we know it will cease to exist within a century. Under such a scenario Beck’s dystopia won’t even be possible.

This hypothetical propaganda video from the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development associates “healing the planet” with eradicating humans as if they are a planetary disease. It depicts a particular fear and misperception at the heart of Beck’ anthropocentric worldview. He equates concern for the environment as anti-human. This is the opposite of what most ecologists believe. While it is true that some environmentalists are anti-human/anti-civilization (I know this from direct experience), most care deeply about humanity. As an ecocentric parent, my empathy extends to ecosystems, animals, plants and fellow humans. It’s not one or the other.

As for Beck’s vision, however, it is certainly one or the other, which makes no sense on a practical level. Since humans are organisms that depend on fresh air, water and food to survive, I’m not sure how Beck’s vision of freedom ensures healthy ecosystems so that our liberties may be enjoyed. But if you spend anytime peering beyond Beck’s carefully cultivated media empire, you quickly see that he is no more than an irrational conspiranoid that has somehow amplified his worldview beyond that of a ranting psychitzophrenic on skid row. Without media literacy, many will fall for the trappings of serious journalism that Beck dresses his hallucinations with (again, I know from direct experience that it works on some people). Even worse, some will likely believe the “Remove Your Footprint” video is actually real.

Beck is no Orwell or Huxley, both of whom were deeply empathetic authors that cared more about humanity than for corporations. Their visions were based on empirical observations of the world and were by no means hawking conspiracy theories as political agendas. Heck, Beck didn’t even write the book. He just bought the rights to put his name on it. Which just about says everything about the literary qualifications of his anti-environmental stance.

A Hologram for the King: Outsourcing dreams and the yawning of the 21st century

[video link] An unsustainable petrol-utopia. Peak oil anyone?

If Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” was the 19th century’s zeitgeist moment, what would it look like in the 21st century? Rather than a wretched soul who knows his life has been fracked, it would look more like Bill Murray’s Prozac gaze at the end of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Or any lead character in a Sofia Coppola film. Which is to say, pop culture’s 21st century scream is more or less a yawn.

Along these lines, in A Hologram for the King we have Dave Egger‘s deflated corporate man. The novel zooms in on globalization’s spiritual vagabonds, focusing on a troubled fifty-something Reliant salesman, Alan Clay, whose path to redemption is pitching a holographic communications system to the Saudi King. Like an updated version of Waiting for Godot, while anticipating the King’s audience Clay and his team are stuck in the liminal zone of the yet-to-be-developed King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, the Middle East’s future Plastic Valley, see above video). The King and his associates have little interest in keeping appointments with the Reliant team, so Clay and his Gen Y staff spend their days in the speculative economy’s version of a bardo state, camped out in the middle of the unbuilt city’s grid in an inhospitable desert where the map has no territory.

To kill boredom, Clay journeys through the surreal landscape of Saudi Arabia that is simultaneously tribal and caught-up in a hightech realm where a loss of wi-fi can bring on a catastrophic crisis in consciousness (“This is the peculiar problem of constant connectivity: any silence of more than a few hours provokes apocalyptic thoughts”). Throughout the novel Clay teeters on personal disaster, a walking emotional implosion that is more likely to disintegrate than blow-up. Drifting in the Kafkaesque KAEC, Clay’s current role of hawking holograms is contrasted by reminiscences of his glory days as a Schwin bicycle salesman. In the world of global trade, holograms–illusions–trump hand-made American bicycles–freedom. The old ways are made extinct by overseas manufacturing and the information economy.

China is an implicated villain in the story, but Clay is not innocent. He was complicit in the demise of his beloved Schwin by his own participation in offshoring American jobs. Ultimately, Clay’s whole crisis is about outsourcing life to economic abastractions. The hologram becomes yet another entry point into the disembodied world economy.

The book’s uber-consciousness speaks through a skyscraper architect who decries the lack of American ambition and imagination in favor of globalization’s pop-up cities: “in the U.S. now there’s not that kind of dreaming happening. It’s on hold. The dreaming’s being done elsewhere for now.” Though Clay’s existential crisis is brought on by the sugar rush of the petrol economy, his story can also be read as an update of earlier 20th century French writers who were grappling with the bureaucratization of humanity. As if lifted from the pages of Camus’ The Stranger, Eggers’ Clay “wanted the simplicity of being who he was: no one.”

If anything, this wonderful book offers a humanistic counterpoint to a world in which the technological singularity would reign supreme. In such a world, like space, no one can hear you scream. Instead, what drives the book is the tension Clay feels between the yawn of the 21st century and his caterpillar-like state awaiting transformation. You’ll have to read it to see if he becomes a butterfly.

Help support The Media Ecosystem

Dear friends,

I’m really bad at marketing and self-promotion. In fact, it’s embarrassing to write this post. Unfortunately, it largely falls upon me to get the word out for my new book, The Media Ecosystem. I’m hoping that you can help promote it through your own personal networks, but most importantly the publisher tells me that one of the key things people can do is to rate it and write a short review on Amazon.

If you’re not too busy and have a few minutes, could you please go over to Amazon and write up a short review? It has to be at least 20 words. Here is the link to the book’s Amazon page.

Thanks in advance for your moral support and kind words. Hard to believe, but promotion is actually harder than actually writing a book.

Revolutionary toolbox: Practical guide for making trouble

[video link]

OR Book’s Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution looks like a fantastic resource. A quick scan of the book’s contents reveals an excellent mix of theory, case studies and practical tips from a variety of innovators and pranksters. Many of the ideas in the book resonate with those discussed in The Media Ecosystem. I think they will compliment each other nicely.

Mind bomb drops: The Media Ecosystem out today!


Dear friends,

Just a quick note to let everyone know that today my new book, The Media Ecosystem, is officially released and available. For more information on how to obtain it, go here.

Other links:

The Media Ecosystem web site.

The Media Ecosystem Facebook page.

Thanks for all your support and to all who contributed to making the book possible. I look forward to your feedback!


The Media Ecosystem updates

Dear friends and brain trust,

In anticipation of the July 10 release of my new book, The Media Ecosystem, I have a few favors to ask. First of all, if you haven’t done so already, please visit the book’s Facebook fan page and “like” it:

Next, I created a resources page with links to the various sources I mention throughout the book. It will give you a sense of how eclectic the book is. If you have a spare few minutes, please visit the page and give me some feedback. I’m looking for suggestions for copy edits and sources. Your input will be greatly appreciated:

Finally, I created an Amazon store with all the references from the book. Give it a look, I think you will find that it is a pretty cool mix of authors and ideas:

Amazon aStore

Recent chapters from my literary life

I’m a little behind with the following announcements, but I wanted to let you know about a few recent books that feature chapters I’ve written.


From the folks at Reality Sandwich and Evolver Editions, What Comes After Money?: Essays from Reality Sandwich on Transforming Currency and Community is a great compendium of essays about envisioning a world running under a different monetary paradigm. My chapter, “Poverty (UnConsciousness),” actually started as a blog post here, but evolved into a longer piece about the spiritual dimension of money making and happiness. FYI, you will notice a link in the righthand column for my upcoming book (due July 10), The Media Ecosystem, also published as part of Evolver Editions. If you want to pre-order it now, you can click on this Amazon link.


International Perspectives on Youth Media: Cultures of Production and Education (Peter Lang), compiles a number of leading-edge essays related to media education and youth media. My particular chapter, “Practicing Sustainable Youth Media,” is probably the first essay to link student media making with sustainability issues. Many of the ideas I grapple with are at the core of my PhD research. Publisher link.

Help me promote my new book

Deer peeps, in May 2012 my new book, Decolonize the Media, will be published by North Atlantic Books as part of the Evolver Editions manifestos series (these are the same folks behind Reality Sandwich). Here is a short blurb (this is a draft):

Decolonize the Media argues that in the 21st Century, the global economic system’s most precious resource is human consciousness. From social networks to popular culture, corporations use media to exploit and colonize our attention. But with insights drawn from grassroots activism, sustainability, ancient wisdom traditions and media literacy, we can create sacred media that defies the parasitic strategies shaping planetary communications.”

If you are interested in reviewing the book or interviewing me as part of the launch, I’m compiling a media list to be submitted to the publisher. They will send you a preview copy when it is ready (after x-mas, probably). Please send me an email:

Thanks in advance for your support and interest.

My current reading list

Between teaching five classes, writing a book proposal, working on my PhD, being a parent and Twittering, my poor blog has become an orphan. I intend to correct that in the near future. Meanwhile, to reignite the blogging habit I thought I’d share my current reading list.

The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World

Hands down this is the most practical book on sustainability education available. It consists of 32 short five page chapters with concise concepts and activities. Topics include (but not limited to) media literacy, culture, systems thinking, technology, ecocriticism, economics, commons, permaculture design, community gardening, ecological intelligence, materials awareness, complexity theory, and so-on. The book’s Website has additional downloadable chapters. If you were to get one book on sustainability literacy, I would get this one.


A very practical book for any media practitioner. It combines both useful advice for promoting alternative and independent journalism, and is an excellent primer for “crap detection,” or media literacy. You can download a PDF for free from the book’s Website. This is an accessible book that can be assigned to undergrads.

Greening through IT: Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability

I assigned chapters from this to my digital media culture class. It is clearly written and looks at IT from various perspectives. It is both critical and pro-active, with excellent conceptual tools for thinking about how to convert power-hungry IT to a greener future.

Making is Connecting

I admit that I haven’t read too much of this book yet, but based on blurbs and some of the videos from the book’s Website, this is very promising. In particular David Gauntlett connects DIY crafts activities with the Internet, featuring a lengthy chapter on Ivan Illich. I like the approach. As an old punk who got into media and online publishing from my experience of DIY, connecting the online and off-line worlds through the discussion of appropriate technology tools is a good way to connect the dots.

Language and Learning in the Digital Age

A new offering from James Paul Gee (co-authored with Elisabeth R. Hayes), this book is a very accessible discussion of the debates around language and digital literacy. In particular it argues that digital media are indeed examples of oral cultural expression. It also takes the perspective that literacy is a technology. I would recommend this as an excellent and accessible introduction to the highly contested debate about the impact of digital media on learning.

Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing

Although old in terms of Internet years (it was published in 2004), Digital Ground remains a truly prescient book. Written from the perspective of architecture and design, the book approaches the emergence of pervasive computing from outside the tech bubble. It has the best explanation for why humans ultimately rejected virtual reality, and challenges some naive assumptions about interactivity. I got the book on a tip from my friend and mentor Kathleen Tyner, who is one of the top media literacy scholars in the world. If she says this is her favorite book, then I take that as a five-star recommendation,

Design Literacies: Learning and Innovation in the Digital Age

Recommended by blog reader Davey, this has turned out to be a wonderful find. For me design is where it’s at in terms of really understanding why things are made to do the things they do. This book focuses largely on interactivity, and comprises interviews with some of the key innovators of Internet Web design (here we are not talking about the aesthetics of design, but rather the usability of it). The authors interview business people, artists, educators and techies. An excellent example of ethnographic research.



I stumbled upon this while looking for a documentary about computer design for my digital media class. Though the film focuses mostly on industrial design, it does features interviews with people from the computer industry, including Apple. Made by the folks who brought us Helvetica, this film was a big hit with my students. It does a good job of going into the minds of designers and describing the kinds of decisions they make as they develop their projects. It even nods to sustainability.

Manufactured Landscapes (US Edition)

Based on the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, this documentary takes a troubling look at how our demand for consumer goods has transformed the Chinese landscape. The film impacted my students greatly, giving them a deeper sense of how our media gadgets directly impact the environment. Bonus: here is a link to a short video about Burtynsky’s latest project on oil.

Social media: Plastic bags of the Internet?

Can American Beauty‘s famous plastic bag scene generate as much introspection about beauty as the social Web?

Are social media fragments like plastic bags, which at first seem perfectly convenient and useful until you start seeing them blowing everywhere like wind through the hive mind? Obviously it’s a false analogy, because bags don’t network with each other (at least not for now). But ephemeral little posts float past our lives and at times can feel just as polluting as plastic waste.

I often wonder if the social media world is a solipsistic self-referential bubble that is only relevant to itself. Though I’m still not settled on how I feel about it (I continue to participate), there seems to be a some indications emanating from the bubble’s membrane that many people are not convinced of the hype. Douglas Rushkoff, whose book Program or Be Programmed I just blogged about, is a known skeptic. But there’s also now rumbling’s from some unexpected places. I just picked up Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, which is a wonderful polemic against the dangers of the social Web reducing humans into binary bits (if you are old enough to remember, Lanier was an early proponent and designer of virtual reality). And then there’s Sherry Turkle, who has always been ambivalent about life on screen. Her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, steps up the criticism.

This Fast Company interview with Turkle starts out with the statement, “I didn’t realize MIT hired Luddites.” Such usage is pejorative. It is part of the flak that keeps people from honestly confronting that which we take for granted, namely the ubiquitous presence of the net in our lives. To its credit, Fast Company is airing these views, albeit in guarded, qualified terms (also, it would appear that one must be from MIT, home of Nicholas Being Digital Negropante, to be authoritative enough to say something).

The trouble is that whenever anyone critiques the Web or technology, they are immediately attacked as Luddites. This is an abuse of history, and people should not use the term without fully understanding its implications. Luddites were not anti-technology. What they were against was the dismantling of their livelihood by automation. They destroyed factory machines because of how they disrupted the social fabric of their communities. Luddites did not accept uncritically the notion that they had to pay a price for so-called progress. Unfortunately we live in a day and age when “progress” and “growth” are dogma that can’t be criticized. They are sacred in the same way that once we were not allowed to say the world was round. I suggest that if people want to really understand the Luddites, they should read Kirkpatrick Sale’s excellent historical account, Rebels Against The Future: The Luddites And Their War On The Industrial Revolution: Lessons For The Computer Age (great title, isn’t it?).

Lanier is right to point out that technology criticism should not just come from the so-called Luddites. It should be coming from programmers and users alike. Otherwise how can we argue for a more humane and sustainable system?

I’m in the weird zone of being between the blind media progressives (not liberals but those who celebrate progress at any cost) and the anti-technology polemicists from the ecology movement. I’m trying to find a middle way, but like the noise generated between the left and right, it’s hard to find compromise. I think part of the problem is that for those of us who like technology and use the tools, we take it personally when critics like Nicholas Carr come out and say that Google is making us stupid.

However, I think it is our responsibility as cultural citizens to not just be consumers, but to critically engage our reality. Because most of us are not engineers or programmers, we often feel like we have no choice. And given the political and economic climate where Comcast, Verizon and ATT can have their way, it often feels like we users are pretty small in the greater scheme of things. I don’t have the solution, but I think it is important to at least understand what is at stake. We can start from an empowered position that we are cultural citizens, or more importantly, green cultural citizens. To quote Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell from Climate Change and the Media:

“Economic citizenship predicated on limitless media growth diminishes potentially egalitarian and sustainable production, consumption, and participation, because it omits the impact on climate change of media technology and uptake…. Green citizenship looks centuries ahead, refusing to discount the health and value of future generations as it opposes elemental risks created by capitalist growth in the present. This necessitates an eco-ethical orientation toward the media.”

As I have stated at other points, I’m a Net agnostic. There is much I like, but at the same time I want to caution against blind Utopianism. Let’s just say that for now in term’s of the Net’s longterm impact on society, the jury is out having a picnic with their friends. I think it is fair to heed Lanier’s advice to be cautious of the social Web’s promiscuity, and to not just clutter the world with plastic bags of the mind.

Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed

I’m in the process of deciding whether or not I should use Rushkoff’s latest book, Program or Be Programmed, in my course. I agree in sentiment with his basic argument: use or be used, program or be programmed. But without having read the book and the scant info on its Website, it’s unclear what he means by “programmer.” I think a diverse society with different skill sets is necessary, and I wouldn’t agree that everyone should be a programmer. For example, back in the day when I was co-owner of an alternative magazine distributor, I found it necessary to rely on accountants, lawyers and warehouse managers. I couldn’t possibly function if I was an expert in each field. However, what did enable me to survive and thrive to some extent was the capacity to design and understand the company’s system.

Moreover, being in the field of alternative media at the time of the zine explosion in the early ’90s I had access to hundreds of new publishing ventures inspired by the ethos that anyone could publish. This fulfilled my punk rock/DIY dream of everyone learning to become mediamakers. Unfortunately, quantity did not result in quality. I was pretty disillusioned by the amount of crap that was coming out of so-called alternative publishing circles, which led me to conclude that maybe some people should just stick to accounting.

What I think Rushkoff is alluding to here is really about design, and not necessarily a programming issue. A systems design literate person will know which tools are better, such as those that promote the cultural commons versus enclosure, or the benefits of open versus closed design approaches. From a sustainability perspective this would enable people to make better choices about how to invest their energy, because they would know the difference between shallow and deep systems change.

In spirit I think Rushkoff is on the right track, and hope to have more clarity after I read the book. I’ll let you know how it goes.

PS This is a great watch: Rushkoff’s rants at a brand manager’s conference about the infinite regress of brands using social networks and blasts the oxymoron of social marketing. (H/T DK)

Which begs the question, who in the social media world is talking about ethics and not just hype?

Patti Smith: Portrait of an artist as a young woman

Note: I’ve been on an Internet holiday, and now am getting caught up with writing deadlines, so blogging will be scattered and light. Meanwhile, here’s what’s on my mind.

Thank the Great Whatever that I picked up Patti Smith’s Just Kids at the Rome’s Fiumicino airport on my way to the US. Not only did it get me through the 12 hour flight to the states, but it inspired great thoughts and insights about one of my favorite artists.

As you probably have heard, Just Kids won the National Book Award. One has to wonder why there hasn’t been any right-wing chest thumping about this choice, given their perception that American artists promote communism, homosexuality and drugs. There is little in this book that would dispel this myth.

It takes place from the late-sixties to mid-seventies, covering a formable period of New York artistic life. This book is perfectly bookended by Warhol’s POPism: The Warhol Sixties and Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s biography of early punk. This would certainly be a solid trilogy for American Studies, and would provide welcome relief from the false myth of the wholesome and “morally pure” American. In fact, among these artists you will find more honesty and moral backbone than anyone on the Christian Right.

Just Kids revolves around the relationship between Smith and her long-time companion and collaborator, Robert Mapplethorpe. Some of you may remember that Mapplethorpe was a target of the late Jesse Helms, a far-right art critic and nemesis of the National Endowment for the Arts. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS and was known for his erotic gay photos, but that wasn’t his only subject. Aside from being a great love story, the book is also an honest look at a life of art, and the sacrifices it entails. Though Smith and Mapplethorpe dreamed of fame and better lives through out their youth, they struggled through homelessness, illness, starvation and an ascetic, if not Bohemian, kind of life.

I enjoyed reading about New York before it became a corporatized Disneyland. I remember the City in the ’80s when it was still a gritty and raw place. Though I don’t want to romanticize poverty, I liked the old, decomposing NYC when artists lived to push the boundaries of what society offered, living in the margins of capitalist decay. The book’s depiction of Chelsea Hotel (where Smith and Mapplethorpe lived for many years) and its mix of vagrants, eccentrics and rock stars brought back memories of what life was like in downtown LA during the early ’80s when punks mingled with Bukowski and various fringe artists. Not to be nostalgic, but I really miss those days.

This is a beautifully written book full of passion for life, art and love. It offers lots of insight into how a young woman from Jersey who worked in factories as a teen followed her love of Rimbaud down the rabbit hole to a life-changing odyssey of poetry and music. I think Smith would be the first to say we don’t need any more heroes, but she definitely ranks as one for me.

The Unidentified vs. Share This!


I just jammed through two fast reads that simplify big debates about the the world of media and where we’re going. The Unidentified is a Young Adult novel that depicts a dystopic vision of education and Share This!: How You Will Change the World with Social Networking is a pragmatic but optimistic manifesto for the power of social media to further progressive activism. Both offer strikingly different Web 2.0 scenarios.

Like its YA counterpart Feed, The Unidentified is not a hifalutin text about digital media’s impact on youth culture. Rather, Feed and The Unidentified are novels written for young readers that offer literate, critical takes on the downside of corporatized social media. Feed, in case you haven’t read it, is about a future world with a dead ocean and kids who are wired from birth into an augmented reality that is always trying to sell them something (via the “feed”). Their speech and vocabulary have been reduced to a kind of text-messaging slang. It’s pretty depressing and not too far from some of the ideas in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (a must see). I only mention Feed in passing because it bookends well with The Unidentified, which is more up to date with current media fads.

In The Unidentified, school has been entirely privatized and branded by a hybrid of technology, gaming, fashion and security companies. School is now The Game, and takes place in a repurposed shopping mall. Kids graze experiences, all branded of course. The administrators have cleverly appropriated many of the cool cultural practices many of us libertines celebrate, such as crafting, remixing, gaming and so on. Surveillance is everywhere and welcomed by the students because it enables them to be seen and observed by cool hunters. The goal of The Game is to get branded. Yes, a sickening reality, but also a logical consequence of our current neoliberal push to privatize education. This is a cautionary tale not only for adolescents but for us adults who are designing future education strategies that are potentially complicit with the corporate agenda. In particular, as we move into models of open education we have to be vigilant and ethical in how these tools and environments are shaped and informed.

The Unidentified grapples with rebellion, identity, anti-marketing and co-optation. Given that many young people today don’t think critically about these issues (I’m basing this on my observation of lots of the undergrad students I work with), I think the book is provocative, albeit a bit cliched in terms of rehashing the typical Hollywood high school narrative of geeks and freaks versus the snob clicks. The characters are also stereotypically suburban American (i.e. not too culturally diverse), but they are cartoony in order for younger readers to think more critically about their media habits. It’s a call for an ethical response to the consumptive habits we take for granted.

Share This! is a different kind of book. It is a feel-good, optimistically toned manifesto for sharing and utilizing social network tools. Deanna Zandt, who writes and edits for Alternet, is also cautious and critical of the utopian assumptions we have about the Net. Through a careful application of stats, we get an interesting picture of Net usage and demographics that will likely surprise you. This is not an academic book, so for those steeped in theory it might seem a little pedantic. However, sometimes it takes simplification to ground and remind us of the central ideas behind Net activism and social Web tools. It draws on a best-of list of contemporary Net theory (i.e. Shirky, boyd, Rheingold and the like) and also business thinking about new media (which also can be useful).

As an old school netizin, I can’t say that I learned anything particularly new, however the book does distill strategies for using the Web that are obvious once you see them laid out, but are somewhat hidden in the muck of day-to-day practice. I would recommend this book to a newbie because it will provide a coherent and contemporary framework that is practical for promoting any worthy cause. As Zandt reminds us, authenticity rules the net and our authentic presence is required. Likewise, the central characters of The Unidentified are searching for authenticity as well, but get caught up in faux-interactivity that gives the illusion of democracy and choice. I suppose I have a position somewhere between the two books, my pendulum shifting day to day from celebration to despair.

I read both books with my students in mind. I’ve been throwing a lot of theory their way the past few years and was looking for some alternative resources that they will actually read. If time permits, I would assign The Unidentified because it offers an entertaining entry into some very critical territory. I would also use Share This! in a situation in which I was assigning students an activist project. I don’t consider either book particularly rigorous in terms of academic norms, but on the other hand, what is normal doesn’t seem to work anymore, so I’m open to trying something different. We’ll see what happens.

Unevenly distributed future


Sci-fi great William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here– it’s just not very evenly distributed.” That could also be said of sci-fi protagonists: the depiction of non-whites is unevenly distributed. In fact, Gibson–who I admire and respect greatly– has been critiqued for focusing on characters who solely work within the networks of elite power. They are technically literate and savvy, and though may on the surface appear to be on the fringes of society, more often than not their lives spin centrifugally towards money and global corporate power brokers.

This is why I have found Octavia E. Butler‘s work so refreshing. In Parable of the Sower (and its sequel Parable of the Talents) it is easy to imagine the novels’ characters inhabiting the same world as Gibson’s cyberpunk sprawls. The difference is that Butler’s characters don’t have access to technology, money or power. Most are barely literate and live in a semi-medieval reality that rims the Emerald City of Cyberspace and sexy hi-tech. They forge and self-organize to defend themselves against an indifferent political disorder that re-legalizes slavery and privatizes the public good. Police, education, water and the fire department are privatized entities beyond the access of poor people, in particular blacks and Latinos. Even television is rare for this population, let alone the ability to read and write.

So while we can imagine cyberpunk cowboys trolling virtual reality and jet-setting at the behest of multinational corporate bosses, in the desert exburbs encircling Butler’s near-future Los Angeles, the planetary underclass struggles to survive amidst the walled communities and ruins of capital’s primitive accumulation. It is in this realm that a New Age religion emerges–founded by a young black woman– which is non-hierarchical and serves the poor. This is a far more hopeful post-collapse vision than one offered by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You’ll have to read the series to see how the Christian Right captures the flimsy threads of democracy and predictably use that power against the anti-slavers and self-empowered “minorities” who threaten white supremacy.

I think Gibson and Butler are complimentary: they offer parallel visions of a world characterized by the neoliberal logic of social disintegration. These are “alternate” realities, yet also offer stark scenarios that we can hope and pray never transpire. Yet for billions of people, this is a world that also exists today. As any aficionado of sci-fi knows, these books are always about the future present. In an age in which science and rationality have disorganized the world, sci-fi authors are natural prophets. Reluctantly, me thinks.

Book as environment

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

I hate to borrow books. To my detriment I have to own them. It’s a weird psychosis, but there you have it. Even for one reference I buy the book. Too bad they don’t pay rent for the space they take up, but I guess it’s better to have books as squatters than relative or friends!

Are e-readers the answer?

I have yet to be sold on e-readers–I’m still old school enough to like holding books in my hands. I can see using an e-reader for page-turning novels, but not for deep-reading and cross-referencing (my thumb still remains the best reading technology available). I constantly check footnotes and the bibliography, and also write notes and underline all my books.

Nonetheless, the concepts presented in the above video by IDEO–a very innovative design studio– has gotten my attention. One of the “battles” of ecologically designed media literacy is to convey the intertextuality of any media–the relationships that help shape the text, such as genre codes, “paratexts” (related texts that contribute to our understanding, such as reviews, interviews, Wikipedia, past interpretations, etc.). (For a more in-depth expanation, Jonathan Gray’s Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, And Intertextuality has one of the best discussion of intertextuality in print.) If there were an app that helped people discover a text’s ecology–that is, its vast relations with other contexts (readers, writers, commentators, other texts, etc.), we can start to view media more systemically and not just as a series of self-contained, atomized things.

Which brings me to its application for sustainability education. As Mary Catherine Bateson argues,

“The tools that will be needed to communicate about the process of climate change have the potential for further broad changes in habits of thought, leading the individual child or adult into a sense of being a part of the biosphere. Such tools include systems metaphors, narratives of connection, cross-overs between disciplines, and cross-overs with ways of knowing such as participant observation. The ultimate goal is an education for global responsibility that unfolds in a pattern of lifelong learning.” (p. 282*)

Such techniques, she suggests, entail incorporating the following approaches:

1) working with environmental metaphors and systems analogies;
2) using narrative;
3) making connections across contexts; and
4) participant observation.

Based on what I’ve seen in the video, the EIDO prototypes could incorporate the above functions and bridge media literacy with systems/ecological understandings of texts. The prospect is quite exciting.

Bateson, M. C. (2007). Education for global responsibility. In S. C. Moser, & L. Dilling (Eds.), Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change (pp. 281-91). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Of aliens and ancient Greece


I was so eager for my summer holiday that I forgot to post a note that I had gone fishing for a good part of August. In reality I ate other people’s fishing, in particular in Crete– I wonderful place to catch rays and fish. I made a point of taking “non-academic” reading with me, but in my world no such thing exists. Even reading for “pleasure” entails a desire to learn something. For recreational reading I prefer sci-fi, and for many years cyberpunk has done the trick. In fact, I first read Neuromancer in 1985 while visiting my parents in Hawaii (who lived there during those years). It was a strange contrast between the cyberpunk cowboys of Gibson’s cyberspace and the bamboo forests and snorkeling that accompanied the read. Nonetheless, Gibson’s vision of multinational corporations, sprawl and Japanese technology somehow offered an interesting context for viewing the complex global interconnections of Hawaii with its Asian neighbors.

While in Crete I finally dove into the work of Octavia E. Butler, an African American sci-fi writer who I’d heard a lot about, but had not found the space or time to read since I started my PhD work. To get acquainted, I chose a collection of three novellas, Lilith’s Brood (originally published as the Xenogenesis trilogy). The collection proved to be absolutely perfect for both my bonding with the primordial waters of the Mediterranean and my current interests in ecology. I won’t spend too much time summarizing the story (you can get a good one at this wiki page), but I’d like to just to give a flavor for why this is such an important book.

The story begins 250 years after a global war has destroyed most of Earth’s civilization. An alien race of DNA traders, the Oankali, has salvaged surviving humans with the hope of blending with them in order to evolve their species. The Oankali are truly alien to human eyes and sensibilities– they violate most human taboos about race, gender and sexuality. They are also a purely ecologically-driven race whose guiding ethic is “life,” but they lack a morality that respects the rights of other races. That is, they will do anything to blend and mesh with a new race, even if it means destroying it. They do so through a genderless class called the Ooloi, who are masters of DNA manipulation and sexual seduction. The Ooloi are a mix of shaman and midwives who enable mating and propagation to occur. They are gentle but merciless manipulators. They will do anything to make sure the Oankali can ravish Earth, essentially eating and digesting it with their organic, living spaceship entities that are self-contained “planets” and are self-sustaining in outer space.

There are human resisters who refuse to mate with Oankali, but they do so on grounds that reveal how irrational and superstitious people can be. Butler uses the human resisters as a foil to criticize our “hierarchical” flaw that allow males to dominate through violence. Nonetheless, Butler is nuanced in that the Oankali are not depicted as morally pure either. The “constructs,” who are human-Oankali hybrids, seem to possess the middle ground between the ecological sensibilities of the aliens and human heart. This dynamic provides an interesting discussion point for Haraway’s cyborg theory. Butler also achieves something where other science fiction fails: her protagonists are not white males, but multiracial females, “feminist” males and are sometimes genderless. Through the ooloi she is able to show how gender and sexuality are in fact constructed, not normally the province of white, heterosexual sci-fi.

‘Nuff said. I’m wondering if any of you have also read Lilith’s Brood and what you thought about it.

Making a difference: knowing you are on the right path


I’m a fan of David Korten, who has an uncanny ability to model economic worldviews very clearly. He has updated Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, which includes the following sign-posts of difference making behaviors.

5 Ways to Know if You’re Making a Difference :: Excerpt from the 2nd Edition of Agenda for a New Economy by David Korten:

To bring down the institutions of Empire, we must begin to build the rules, relationships, and institutions of a New Economy. These must be lived into being from the bottom up.

So how do you know whether your work is contributing to a big-picture outcome? If you can answer yes to any one of the following five questions, then be assured that it is.

1. Does it help discredit a false cultural story fabricated to legitimize relationships of domination and exploitation and to replace it with a true story describing unrealized possibilities for growing the real wealth of healthy communities?

2. Is it connecting others of the movement’s millions of leaders who didn’t previously know one another, helping them find common cause and build relationships of mutual trust that allow them to speak honestly from their hearts and to know that they can call on one another for support when needed?

3. Is it creating and expanding liberated social spaces in which people experience the freedom and support to experiment with living the creative, cooperative, self-organizing relationships of the new story they seek to bring into the larger culture?

4. Is it providing a public demonstration of the possibilities of a real-wealth economy?

5. Is it mobilizing support for a rule change that will shift the balance of power from the people and institutions of the Wall Street phantom-wealth economy to the people and institutions of living-wealth Main Street economies?