[video link] Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
Today is National Day of Unplugging, which obviously I’m not participating in due to a massive deadline (hence the sudden burst of productivity on this blog!). However, in solidarity I’d like to share this terrific video from Tiffany Shlain & Ken Goldberg which riffs on Ginsberg’s “Howl.” It features the wonderful narration of Peter Coyote.
The video gives a flavor of the kind of profound encounter they have when seeing Earth in space, which inspires tremendous feelings of care and precariousness not unlike those we feel for our children.
While watching the video I had two thoughts. First, what if everyone in the world had a five minute experience of seeing the Earth from space, and second, would that create a new religion?
I think it would.
Clearly until space travel becomes more common, few people will have the privilege of peering out a portal and seeing the thin layer of our atmosphere set against the vastness of space. But media can help take us there. And this is exactly the kind of positive impact I think media can have to raise ecological consciousness. I wish this video had been made when I was writing The Media Ecosystem, because I would have included it as an example of a kind ecomedia that raises consciousness.
Many of us may be wondering right now what kind of madness and spiritual sickness currently pervades our screens, yet we can also start to wonder how awe can also become part of our daily experience and begin to envision media that shows life as profound and unique. Such a vision should lift us past the horror that besets so many earthlings today.
A big thanks to the Planetary Collective for making this wonderfully positive video. Check out their homepage and support their work
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.
This is how uncool I am: until I read about Klout at Wired.com, I had no idea what it was. In case you are an Internet loser like me, Klout is a service with a proprietary algorithm that scores how much of a net “influencer” you are (its tagline: “Klout is the Standard for Influence”). Upon my first try, I scored a measly 16, which classified me as a “dabbler.” A 50+ score is for the super savvy, whereas 20 is the average for most users. But when I “liked” one of their partners, WWF, I jumped to 45, making me a “networker.” With such a drastic increase with one Facebook like, I find their scoring methods suspect.
Ultimately I don’t really give a damn about my rank, but at first I have to admit that my initial score left me feeling like one of those kids in the park that no one will play with. Then I got a quick high from my score boost, fulfilling my inner desire to be liked and connected (these are part of the psychological motives that Sherry Turkle writes about in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other). Now that I have been confirmed as an insider (albeit by some kind of software glitch–I’m more likely still a 16), I have to ponder the meaning of this status.
Is it too simplistic for me to say this is just another popularity contest in which the jocks and cheerleaders prevail? Or is it revenge of the geeks? Is this wisdom of the crowds? Or just a measure of the mobs?
The first thing that makes me suspicious of this entire phenomenon is how it defines its particular ecosystem of cool. The only way to generate a score is to connect Klout to predetermined social networks that it dubs worthy. They mostly happen to be corporate platforms (Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, LastFM, etc.). There is no way to link my Klout score with my personal blog or presence within independent media communities. Nor does it measure my role within my own communities of practice. It also doesn’t gage my capacity for cultural citizenship. It merely measures how much of these activities have been filtered through the balkanized Web. In this sense, it may just reinforce the branding of social relationships and lead to a kind of digital fascism.
All media systems can be gamed. Klout just allows you to do it for dominant social media platforms. This is both good and bad. If you are a band, writer, activist, musician, etc. it’s good to have a tool that gives feedback for the kind of reach you have. As the graph above indicates, it has a matrix that defines different levels of participation, which allows one to make an action plan for attention.
It’s really hard to get a sense of how quality is measured, however. In fact, it really only shows us quantity. It appears that the algorithm rewards gratuitous and excessive networkers, even those who like to tweet when they are taking a crap. In the end, this just may very well be a refined engine for networked hubris.
By the time you read this, it will be old news. The Kony 2012 meme has probably already exploded and splattered across the various portals, screens and networks of your sphere. Today everywhere I looked, there it was: my favorite blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook wall, speakers of my office mate’s computer, and the hallway of the university where I work.
With its vast, instantaneous spread and quick linking without thought, this obviously made me curious, not just to learn more about the issue, but also to think about this as a phenomenon and lesson in the power of social media.
Admittedly the whole thing made me feel suspicious. But rather than indulge my critical tendencies, I thought it would be good to acknowledge that the people behind this project (Invisible Children) probably mean well and are doing what they think is the best solution to solve a terrible problem. So what follows are my initial thoughts about its positives, and then some reflections on those elements that make me guarded.
What it does right:
Demonstrating collective action around an idea, using a clear message, slogan and image. A successful campaign that has drawn attention to an area that usually is considered peripheral. Generating debate and dialog about best practices and methods. Showing the organic and open character of the internet in which an idea can be promoted and contested. Clever and persuasive use of cinema for the greater good. Connects global problem with local reality. Effective harnessing of empathy. Nice slogan: “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether your live.” Makes the political personal. Good use of social marketing by telling a story rather than just showing facts. Powerful design and packaging strategy.
Things that make me wary:
Presents a neoliberal/neocon vision of political activism, reducing it to brand politics not unlike focusing on the arrest and elimination of Osama Bin Laden as a means for solving a much bigger, systemic crisis. Pseudo-empowerment based on flattery of the activist. Politically safe action that reinforces existing power relations. Not very Afro-centric. Promoting the role of the US as global police force. Threatens to be meme of the week, and little more. Too self-referential, self-congratulatory, and ego-driven. Orientalist in that dark Africa is once again a means for the purification of a white man’s soul. A little too emotionally manipulative, bordering on the group pressure tactics of religious cults. Potential abuse of slick design and packaging strategy to mask larger complexities.
As a native Angeleno, one of my annual rituals is to watch the New Year’s Day Rose Parade. Though I have never witnessed it in person, I have checked out the scene in Pasadena the night before and know many artisans who design and build floats for the annual parade. This year was no different, with the exception that I wanted to share the nostalgia with my kids. However, now that I’m a bit of an ex-pat, I see things that were part of my past with a slightly defamiliarized perspective.
As the parents of former students have told me, media literacy ruins TV watching for the family. Though I wanted to convey my enthusiasm for the artisanship of Rose Parade floats to my daughter, I couldn’t remove my critical hat. I became highly sensitized to the more troubling aspects of the event’s televised broadcast. Before watching it I was keenly aware that an Occupy group planned to tail the parade with their own anti-corporate message, so I was hoping to see if the network coverage (in this case, NBC) would mention or cover the Occupiers. What transpired should be of little surprise to any seasoned media watcher.
The parade coverage opened with a flyover of a Northrop Grumman’s B-2 stealth bomber, ironically dubbed the Spirit. In a sense, Spirit is an apt name for it represents the “spirit” of a particular mode of thinking (as in zeitgeist, which means “spirit of the age”). At a cost of $1.5 billion each, the B-2 represents the absurdity of our social structure in which our government pays outrageous sums to an elite group of military contractors at the expense of a withering infrastructure. Anthropologists and historians of the future will note how incredibly insane such a social system is. Meanwhile, parade commentators Shaun Robinson and Al Roker fawned over the bomber arguing that for most of the audience it was the main attraction. Such death technology warship should not be surprising given that one of NBC’s primary shareholders is the military contractor General Electric.
The rest of the broadcast represented a seamless integration between the values of the military industrial complex and totalitarian capitalist ideology. The parade’s Grand Marshall, J. R. Martinez, is a bit of a rising media personality whose notoriety comes from his experience of overcoming the psychological damage of getting 40% of his body burned while deployed in Iraq. While I admire his perseverance and resilience, none of the discussion of this man’s tragic circumstances get contextualized by how unnecessary it was in the first place. No doubt, with stealth bombers getting applauded by pop culture punditry and parade organizers, these dirty little details need not be aired publicly. Martinez is a perfect metaphor for the denial of our sick system: get burned and disfigured and then turn it into corporate motivation for how to transcend the adversity of Empire’s reckless global behavior.
Meanwhile, each parade float was a mini-ad for its corporate sponsor. It was obvious that Roker’s canned commentary was essentially ad copy penned by the corporate overlords. Meanwhile, interspersed throughout the coverage was a noticeably higher ratio of advertising that mostly hawked product discounts and financial services for the newly poor. Though subtle (or not if you are media savvy), this was truly a hegemonic spectacle selling the ideology of the 1%. Good thing the Occupiers were there to counterbalance the message. Yet.. if you watched NBC, such a perspective didn’t exist. It was eliminated from the parade’s coverage.
This is a blatant example of how alternatives get excluded by the traditional power structure’s media system. Luckily, we no longer exist in a reality bubble of top-down communications. The complex ecology of our current social media allows for alternative perspectives to be shared horizontally. This is not to say that Occupy Rose Parade was entirely ignored. The LA Times and local news stations mentioned it, and those who were in attendance at the parade certainly had a chance to be exposed for the first time to the Occupy message. Not surprisingly, some critics disparaged the protestors for degrading a family event with politics. But in light of the parade’s default message of corporate and military domination, to not see the entire event as political represents a triumph of ideology.
Let’s hope that those who fail to see the political nature of mainstream media spectacles increasingly become the minority. Transforming and educating for a new perspective means we have lots of work to do. To begin with, its time to occupy the spirit of our age. I keep harping on the Occupy theme, but I believe it represents a concrete alternative to the mode of communication propagated by the hyper-capitalist take-over of the cultural commons.
The miracle of this animation is that Zizek was condensed into ten minutes (here is the whole lecture). But even in this short burst we get a dense critique of cultural capitalism, a stark rebuttal to the kind of ethical capitalism that is being peddled these days through the likes of Starbucks. I have been grappling with my innate distrust of the claims made by the likes of the mega-chains like Wal-Mart and Starbucks who are dipping their toes into the kinds of activities we have long advocated for: fair trade, organics, etc. Zizek argues that there are contradictory aims of a Birkenstock wearing multinational that perpetuates the system that is creating the problem in the first place. It is like the viscous cycle of a medical system in which the drugs we take to cure us make us sick. What I see happening on the ground is that corporations are taking over the commons, and there is little debate as to whether or not this is really healthy for the world. The net result seems to be a re-feudalisation of society and the creation of electronic apartheids across the globe. Throughout Europe and the US the public is being stripped of hard-won services and benefits, yet we are paying more taxes? And for what? To pay off interest to the banks who are making profits that are utterly absurd. Where is the social good there? I am oversimplifying, I know, but something really stinks. My only hope is that this final grab will backfire, and that the facade of cultural capitalism will be stripped away to show the ugly face of primitive accumulation for what it is.