It’s nice to highlight a positive role for media. Here a virtual choir was created through Youtube demonstrating how communications technology can bring people together and amplify empathy. In a world that is often shown to be about divisiveness and hatred, people still find and connect with each other. It’s important to highlight these positive aspects of media so that we can move towards constructive social change.
And if this isn’t feel-good enough, here’s a bonus video:
[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.
Interesting ad from Facebook to commemorate its 1 billionth user (how is that possible?). Here there are many deep truths, and also some deep untruths. I believe the need to connect with others is the primary reason why we use media. We don’t like feeling alone. This sentiment is capture beautifully by the ad. However, Facebook’s suggestion that it’s like a doorbell, chair or bridge is completely disingenuous. Those are objects that lack a systemic, corporate agenda that tracks its users interests and then sells them as commodities. Imagine the chair you sit in monitors all the activities of the room you’re in and the conversations your having with your friends. The chair then compiles that information and sells it to other chairs so that when you enter into other spaces, the chair forces you to sit in a particular position so that you see ads or through a window that you had no intention of looking through. What if the chairs re-arranged themselves to encourage you to sit with particular people that you didn’t intend to sit with? I imagine that we wouldn’t like these chairs very much.
By now you’ve probably heard about the NYC subway ad sponsored by the hypocritically named, American Freedom Defense Initiative, which reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat jihad.”* Aside from the neocolonial rhetoric of the poster’s language (notice that civilized people get the status of “man,” whereas “savages” are not even humans), it should be obvious that the way to defend freedom is not to insult other people with hate speech. The blogger behind the ad campaign, Pamela Geller, called one protestor who opposed the poster a “savage anti-Semite” and “Islamic supremacist.”
The vitriol was directed at writer and pundit Mona Eltahawy, who recently defaced the controversial subway ad as an act of civil disobedience. In a level-headed analysis of the incident, dana boyd believes that since Eltahawy was damaging property, the incident did not constitute civil disobedience. I disagree. Civil disobedience happens when you violate a law that is immoral. In this case, free speech is certainly a moral prerogative, but hate speech is not. While I would not ultimately ban Geller’s speech act, the MTA (which runs NYC’s metros) does have a responsibility to respect the public good. To its credit, the MTA opposed running the ad, but were forced to by a court ruling. As a steward of public space, I would not permit the ad to run. If they want to post it on a blog somewhere, by all means they can be as offensive as they want in their little reality bubble.
Here’s the thing, why is legal advertising not vandalism of public space? The legal protection of advertising obscures the fact that those with financing have greater speech rights than those who can’t afford to have their views represented. Moreover, when its advertising revenue that pays for our “free” media system, those media organizations that should be beholden to the public good are not. The public is not there client. The public’s concerns are important to the extant that media organizations don’t violate social norms that can spurn boycotts and outrage. Beyond that, advertisers have far too much power to position their views in the public sphere.
I believe Eltahawy’s response was appropriate on other grounds. One way to approach the ethics of speech acts is to clarify the distinction between communication as property and communication as a disturbance. Geller views her speech as a kind of truth that once it’s codified in writing or visual media it no longer belongs to the ethers of discussion and debate. It is a tautological statement claiming fact. But like national monuments in city plazas, public displays become “boundary objects” that function within ecosystems of cultures and social practices. As a globalized city, NYC is not the kind of place where such media exist in a vacuum. It immediately enters into the city’s raw feedback system. In ecological terms, the poster becomes a “disturbance” that reverberates through the system of ideas.
It’s disingenuous of Geller to call this ad an act of defense. It is a provocation, in the same way the cartoon of Mohammed depicting his head as a bomb in a Danish newspaper in 2005 was designed to spark outrage. The rationale of the Danish paper at the time was to defend the “Western” principle of free speech against the perceived threat of Islamists in Europe. But in an environment of ethical communication practices, people can’t launch blaspheme grenades and hope to walk away without getting hit by shrapnel. If people are so afraid of an impending invasion of intolerance, why fight fire with fire? Try water for once. Instead of drone strikes, drop water balloons. It confuses the so-called enemy.
Both the creation of the ad and the response are media stunts. As result, I’m afraid that Pamela Geller is getting far too much attention from this. The downside is that politics are reduced to theater, where media events matter more than dialog. However, given the open nature of the internet, such media stunts are far more likely to generate discussion than in the old days when we relied on just a few filters to understand the world. Imagine if the incident was completely mediated through the eyes of the New York Post (who broke the story and ran the Eltahawy video). Thankfully the incident has resulted in greater debate than the initial speech act (the poster) intended, allowing us to sort out who the real savages are.
Postscript: To add to the drama, Pamela Hall, who is seen defending the poster in the video (and shot the second one), is intending to sue Eltahawy.
* Here is their mission statement: “The AMERICAN FREEDOM DEFENSE INITIATIVE (AFDI) is a human rights organization dedicated to human rights, the rule of law, the dignity of the human person, free speech, the free conscience, and equality of rights for all. There is no incitement to violence in our work.” OK, you be the judge.
Another great video from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Here they combine top-notch journalism with animation to present a systems-wide perspective on the climate costs of the American burger diet. Not only do they do an excellent job of digesting complex data into a simple narrative, it strikes a good balance between alarm and fact. With a light touch and some humorous graphics, it avoids scare tactics that often drive people away from tough issues.
Cudos to CIR for innovating and evolving investigative journalism so that it can thrive in the post-newspaper environment. Also check out their excellent YouTube channel, The I Files.
This is why I donate to Democracy Now! Where else do we get alternative perspectives on debacles like Rio+20? Here environmentalist David Suzuki concisely breaks down why we keep making the same mistakes over and over again by trying to shoehorn the environment into an broken economic model. He makes the simple but obvious point that we need to remember that we are animals and that we depend on clean air, water and food to survive. If we shrink the earth down to the size of a basketball, the layer of atmosphere that sustains life would be thinner than plastic wrap.
If we are such intelligent creatures, how is it possible that we can’t focus on these basic facts? Media that do not address this paradigm are essentially immoral and insane. And for those of us who are media educators, we need to do a better job of highlighting and advancing this ecological perspective.
Well, right on cue, Gasland director Josh Fox released a new video which serves as an excellent companion to my previous post. The Sky is Pink is a condensed version of Gasland, but updated to target New York governor Andrew Coumo’s efforts to allow fracking in his state. The thing I like about this video is its effort to debunk industry criticisms of Gasland by offering a mini-lesson in media literacy (“the sky is pink” refers to the PR strategy of making false claims that are then covered by news media for the sake of being “balanced”). I think that you will agree that after watching this Tom Ridge and his industry cronies are villains in the truest sense and that independent media makers are heroes!
For more background info about this short film, click here.
In 1976 Frank Zappa performed on Saturday Night Live his brilliant anti-TV tirade, “I am the slime” (from Over-Nite Sensation). I love how the TV monitor oozes slime. Can you imagine such a courageous anti-media diatribe on NBC now?
More good stuff from our favorite mind candy factory, RSA Animates. This one features Manuel Lima (senior UX design lead at Microsoft Bing) discussing the evolving paradigm of networks in everyday life. It’s interesting how he explores knowledge metaphors and their important influence on shaping how we organize everything from business to science. How could this apply to media literacy education? In particular I think educators are still stuck in the paradigm of 19th Century hierarchical order, viewing “the media” as an external force at the top dominating everything else. Power–and hegemony for that matter–is more defuse, and so too is people power. Media educators could focus more on how media texts are nodes within networks of meaning, rather than just being self-contained units of atomized information. I find the traditional media literacy approach has an implicit bias that views the mind as a programmable calculator. Alternatively–as the network metaphor alludes to–the mind is really part of an extended network that is not limited to a self-contained brain inside a skull.
The Republicans’ recycled one-liner response to anyone exercising free speech–Get a job–will continue to substitute for any genuine commitment to democratic discourse. It’s not by accident that Fox News producers go out of their way to find the least experienced, inarticulate examples from the movement in order to create a straw man that can be easily torched. By contrast, consider this thoughtful discussion on Democracy Now! that presented diverse views about the movement. Can you imagine any of these panalists being interviewed on Fox? Chances are no, not only because Fox would never allow anyone so articulate to air his or her views, but these guests are wise enough to avoid letting themselves get cannibalized by Fox in order to become fodder for future propaganda. I ultimately don’t know Schultz’ motive, but I think it was a mistake (and perhaps a big temptation to be on TV) to give Hannity a forum to exercise his magician’s skills.
As evidence for how little Fox and friends comprehend what is happening outside the walled studio, they refer to Schultz as a leader of the movement. Strange, I didn’t know OWS has leaders or spokespeople. Regardless, it’s clear that this kind of media coverage is a diversion to avoid talking about real issues. It is to Fox’s detriment that they are unwilling to grasp the truly unsustainable nature of the situation and to patronize young people by yelling at them to get a job.
This kind of playbook response is well anticipated. As is the case with any activism that challenges the status quo going back to the 1960s, corporate media typically marginalize the protestor’s claims through flak. They discredit these claims through association with the counter culture (“they’re not like us,” “they are not reasonable people,” “they are lunatics”) and radicals (“anarchists,” “socialists,” “communists,” “Hamas” affiliates, “anti-Semites,” “Nazis,” etc.). They impose a narrative that portrays them as childlike (“petulant,” “spoiled”), naive (“they don’t know what they want”), aiding the enemy (Chavez, Hamas and the Ayatollah “love them”), and destructive (“they want our stuff,” “they will destroy capitalism”). This is not to say that sympathizers in the corporate media don’t exist. Nonetheless, those seeking serious discourse about the world’s problems won’t find much of it in a media environment dominated by conflict-driven infotainment spectacles that consider shouting matches democratic discussions.
I believe it is pointless to expect a reasonable discussion or debate in the corporate media. I think it is far better to continue creating alternative media that works towards building the new paradigm of participatory democracy and media. If you need a good example, go no further than this documentaryy, which offers fantastic insight into the Aikido move that we need to make around mainstream media.
On this note, consider the wise words of Bertrand Russell:
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
In what can be seen as the evolution of propaganda, for better and for worse the networked public sphere has been Konyfied. This means that slick aesthetics and creative storytelling combined with social networks has the potential to spread any message far and wide.
No doubt, Kony 2012 did inspire eco-communicators to think of new ways to spread the concept of sustainability. But we have also been broadsided by the likes of a video produced by Free Market America, “If I wanted America to fail” (posted above). It pushes a right-wing anti-environment business agenda with slick, youth appeal aesthetics (I can’t wait for the mash-ups!). Though I find this kind of propaganda somewhat disturbing, I’m not sure if it works. It uses a confusing language of irony that contradicts its own messaging. Psychologists have remarked how conflicting it is to say something like “Don’t do drugs” because “don’t” and “do” in the same sentence usually cancels out the negative (“don’t”). By combining “If I wanted American to fail” with all the the actions they don’t support, they in fact are encouraging those behaviors! But then again, most rightwing propaganda is designed to be a mind-frak anyways, so maybe that’s their intention.
Just to be clear, the video offers to expose the “extremist” agenda of environmentalists (and by implication the Occupy movement as well), yet the views expressed here are really those of extremists who are ready to let the planet fail at the expense of an outmoded ideology. The reason why free market radicals are now doubling down on their madness has to do with a psychological need to reinforce an entrenched worldviw in the face of utter contradiction. How can they ignore, for example, that the economic crisis since 2008 basically demonstrated that the free market cannot survive without government intervention or subsidies, or that every year the scientific consensus gets closer and closer to near unanimous acceptance that climate change is caused by humans? Friends, denial ain’t a river in Phoenix (it’s a dry riverbed!).
Apparently Fox doesn’t like the video either, not because they disagree with the main premise (see video below). Rather, it’s because they think it’s a little too over-the-top to convince the non-believers. How’s that for the kettle calling the pot black!
Just as every month is Black History Month, every day is Earth Day. To mark this year’s passing, Alternet.org features a fabulous review of nine environmental documentaries that bring ecology to the center of our cultural awareness. In particular it led me to Surviving Progress, a necessary critique of our current notion of “progress.” Based on the book, A Short History of Progress, this film has been called a mash-up of Koyaanisqatsi and The Corporation. I’m all for anything that problematizes our notion of technological evolution.* Moreover, I feel this is an area of critique generally lacking in media education. For one, youth media educators could problematize how mediamaking devices are produced and disposed of. Media lit educators focused on textual analysis could zoom in on how technology works as a trope for a variety of values associated with consumption and unlimited growth. Along these lines, here are some more suggestions for ways media education can be greened:
Discourse analysis: Media literacy has pioneered techniques for analyzing the way media frame and discuss issues, both visually and textually. Since discourse analysis can be applied to news and propaganda, green media educators can use this tool to examine how a critical issue like climate change is covered in the news, or how to detect greenwashing. Claims makers–from BP to GreenPeace–vie for public attention. What strategies do they use, and what systems enable some voices and not others?
Semiotics: Basic media literacy is a primer for the deconstruction of symbols. Often times semiotics is used for studying representation, in particular racial, gender, and cultural stereotyping. Animals and living systems are also used and stereotyped in a variety of ways. Why and for what purpose?
Marketing: Media literacy techniques have mastered deconstruction, drawing attention to nearly 30 different persuasion techniques used to manipulate and hook our attention. The primary technique, emotional transfer, is represented by how marketers (or propagandists for that matter) generate feelings in order to transfer those sensibilities to brands. But the various emotions generated by sex, fear, and humor are tied to more ancient needs related to our connection with living systems. Media literacy could point out that when advertisers are playing with our emotions, they are trying to tap into deeper experiences of authenticity and resonance that can be fulfilled by activities that don’t require consumption, and could even tie into our primary need to connect with humans and nature.
Ideology: This is usually applied in the form of critical media literacy, and aims to challenge the claims made by corporations and governments. In the age of Occupy, much attention will be applied to the way in which economic values are propagated through media. To this extent it is absolutely necessary to examine those discourses surrounding growth and consumption, and how they lead to debt on multiple levels: personal, social, and ecological. To what extent are both economics and ecology ultimately two sides of the same coin?
An additional dimension can be explored: different media promote a range of environmental ideologies–beliefs about how we act upon the world– spanning from anthropocentric to ecocentric perspectives. What implications do these different worldviews have for ecology? Moreover, given that most media literacy aspires to greater democratic participation, it would be good to examine the kind of democracy we believe in. Is it anthropocentric, or could we work towards what Vandana Shiva calls Earth Democracy, which incorporates living systems?
The Cultural Commons: Educators pushing for media justice can link the enclosure of the techno-communication system by telecoms and media corporations with the enclosure of culture. IP law, anti-piracy legislation, and corporate mergers all have the effect of limiting democratic participation and access to cultural resources. This process began with colonization and witch hunts, which eliminated indigenous and female participation in order to promote patriarchal control. Now these processes are extending to the enclosure of all ideas: it is the colonization of our interpersonal realities. This can be challenged by highlighting the importance of open culture, reformed copyright laws, and a less restrictive approach to sharing.
Intertextuality: People should not just think about ecosystems, but think like ecosystems. This means looking at our mental models and learning to think in terms of systems, relationships, and connectivity. Our social networks do this naturally, but what about media texts? Traditional media literacy tends to focus on single texts (like an alcohol ad), but what if we looked at texts as if they were a node in the media ecosystem? The way the web makes all texts open works does that for us. Consider how Kony 2012 became a dialog between many different texts produced by a vast range of critics and supporters. Or how a WikiLeaks document becomes linked to a Web of ideas and practices. Or look how we make sense of a film like Avatar, with its linkages to various genres and tropes from other films, and then how fans and activists remixed and spread various memes from the film.
Gadgets: As mentioned, media education programs rarely critically engage the tools used to make media. We should celebrate the creative process and promote the empowerment of media making, yet we should not take our eye off the fact that the gadgets we use have an increasingly negative impact on global ecology and social justice. Can we get away with making critical documentaries without also examining our own complicity within this production system?
Phenomenology: Most media literacy looks outwardly to ask questions about what media do to us. Sometimes the question is changed to focus on what we do with media. But what about the manner in which media influence our cognition–for better or for worse? How does media engagement impact our sense of space, place, and time? What are the “splaces” we are engaging? How might this experience of extending ourselves into media networks impact our sense of planet? How can we become more mindful of our attention so as to not lose ourselves in the dreamworlds of other people’s design (Kony 2012 seemed to be quite hypnotic in that sense)?
Alternative Cultural Practices: There is a tendency among many media educators to focus on the negative aspects of media. But we also need to support positive media practices. After all, media are a necessary means for solving problems. While I fully endorse critical approaches, I also would like to warn against too much negativity that leads to learners feeling powerless and victimized. We need to pull people towards aspirational solutions. This is a slightly different take on problem-solving pedagogies that focus on how to fix problems. Rather, we should encourages learners to create solutions. The difference is subtle but important. What we are aiming for is supporting lifelong learning skills that build towards sustainable cultural practices that can envision a positive response to a very wicked problem.
These suggestions are part of a larger project I’m working on to re-orient media education towards a green worldview. These points barely scratch the surface of what I’ve been developing. If you are interested in joining me or offering feedback, please comment below.
Happy Earth Day!
* For what it’s worth, to question technology is to not be anti-technology. Hopefully people will come to realize that thinking critically about technology is not a desire to go back to the Stone Age, but rather to consider the boundaries and limits that can be placed on how technology fits within the context of ecology and human experience, and not the other way around.
What the BP case shows is that media decolonization requires decoupling our media from the carbon economy. For those of us who use computers and networks, this will mean a transitional period, since currently our consumption of electronics and energy use are increasingly large sources of C02 emissions. In fact, computer networks now produce more carbon emissions than the airlines industry. A Google server farm will use as much electricity as a city of 250,000 people, so efforts by companies like Google to transition to renewable energy is absolutely necessary. But with the exponential growth of the information economy, we may be drowning in data anyway. For example, some communications scholars argue that data clouds, bloated software, redundant archiving, and media rich data centers are pushing the overall planetary impact of physical data storage to unsustainable levels (“The Internet Begins with Coal” titles one report about network power consumption). They suggest that it will become increasingly necessary to ration data, meaning that people should be sharing copies of media rather than having to access them from multiple clouds. Unfortunately, the current push toward cloud computing by dominant corporate providers Balkanizes the net into data fiefdoms, leading to less compatibility and sharing.
As long as we perpetuate the current fossil fuel regime, the belief that unlimited data is harmless to the biosphere will remain intrinsically bound to the creed that information is weightless and immaterial. This situation, the researchers argue, parallels our treatment of the oceans, which are being pushed to the brink of ecological collapse because people have assumed their capacity for producing food and absorbing pollution is limitless. Not only is linking computer and network usage directly to their impact on the environment a crucial step toward green cultural citizenship, it’s a radical challenge to a status quo predicated on tightly restricted intellectual property. Proprietary control of data is the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Ultimately, only a culture based on a cultural commons that values sharing resources would ensure that the next wave of computing doesn’t result in black clouds in our atmosphere.
The Webzine Motherboard offers this fantastic glimpse into how a group of techie activists seek to revolutionize networking. In an effort to create software/hardware that matches the concept of the Occupy General Assembly, the Free Network Foundation is taking McLuhan’s aphorism to heart: the medium of an independent P2P network is the message.
In their own words:
We envision communications infrastructure that is owned and operated cooperatively, by the whole of humanity, rather than by corporations and states.
We are using the power of peer-to-peer technologies to create a global network which is immune to censorship and resistant to breakdown.
We promote freedoms, support innovations and advocate technologies that enhance and enable digital self-determination.
Sometimes media can help us see that which we can no longer sense. Here NASA’s imaging of Earth’s ocean currents reminds us how interconnected everything is, and that the world is in constant motion. Is this a bridge from the technological sublime to the natural sublime?
Just in case you didn’t watch the Grammy Awards (I didn’t either), it featured this commercial, which is a fairly good example of ecological communication. By explaining a complicated system with concrete symbolism, this is a good demonstration of how advertising techniques can promote positive thinking. Chipotle, which you may have seen featured in the documentary Food Inc., wants to highlight its “food with integrity” program that promotes the humane treatment of animals and a decentralized food system. The soundtrack features Willie Nelson covering Radiohead. Wow!