I’m at a Berkman lunch where Molly Crabapple [twitter:MollyCrabapple] is giving a talk titled “Art in the Age of the Ubiquitous Image.” Tim Maly introduces Molly as a “hustler,” in the good sense. After Occupy, she “hustled her way” into Gitmo. She and Tim were “Artists are the most lucky little foofoos in the world. We spent a century excusing every drpravity if with ‘But we’re an artist.’ …The best individual
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
She begins by telling us about the only two people who have ever gotten angry at her drawing their picture. First was a religious person in Morocco. She wanted to distinguish herself from the culturally arrogant tourists, so she’d sit on a sidewalk and draw. She made friends, except for one guy who looked at the drawing pad and tore it to pieces. The second was a NYC police officer. She was sitting in a court with Matt Taibbi and watching poor people being shaken down for offenses such as riding a bike on a bicycle. A court officer saw her drawing him and said that anyone looking at him is “asking for trouble.” “Drawing can mock power,” she says.
She says she’s an artist in the old sense: She puts paint on a surface until it looks cool. She also does illustrated journalism. She shows drawings from Zuccotti Park during Occupy. She used her sketchbook to show that people were not in fact “dirty hippies.” She went to Athens to show what life as like with the rise of fascism during the Eurozone crisis. At Guantanamo, she drew happy faces on the guards because you’re not allowed to draw their faces. If she’s censored, she wants to show the censorship.
When she was young, she longed for the days when artists dominated image-making. Before cameras, artists drew whatever needed reproduction. She shows a plate from Goya’s The Disasters of War to show how art can editorialize in a way that photos can’t. Drawings can show the truth of what happened.
Another example from the Paris Commune: a woman guarding a hotel. Otto Dix’s drawing of a veteran with skin grafts shows “only the essential, not the extraneous. Even fashion was the domain of artists before photo. E.g., Kenneth Black’s drawings.
But photography has an advantage in that we assume what we see is true. E.g., Goya’s execution painting never actually happened. But now everyone has camera phones, and every is being surveilled. There are more images now than ever before in human history. Where does that leave art?
There are two symbols of global rebellion: the Guy Fawkes masks and arms outstretched holding camera phones. When a kid got beaten up, a crowd of peers formed with their camera phones out. “You will become an Internet meme,” they were saying. Camera phones make people accountable. The Net takes every image that has resonance and spits it back out transformed. Officer Pike, who pepper-sprayed protesters at UC Davis, has become an Internet meme.
The flip side is that the government now can view us unceasingly. Soon the line between what we’re viewing and how they’re viewing us is blurred: the gov’t views us through our phones by which we view our world. Some of the coolest art plays with this. E.g., William Betts does paintings based on CCTV stills.
But as photography becomes ubiquitous, our faith in its truth is chipping away. E.g., Kerry used a photo of wrapped bodies to justify a strike on Syria, but it was taken in 2002 in Iraq. Photos are not the truth and they never were. And even when photos are indisputable, it’s not enough. Police still get away with murder. The videography is less important than the power structure.
We live in a world where everything is captured, so what’s the point of my drawing things? What possible significance can it be? “Or am I just picking scabs? It’s just my personal compulsion?”
Art has always absorbed new tech: Big canvases during the Renaissance, use of the camera obscura. She shows a drawing of the Golden Dawn fascists being confronted by local shop owners. For the drawing, she took many many photos, they looked online to find more posters, and you end up with a drawing that’s a collage. You never now have trouble figuring out what thnigs look like. “Even that is a gigantic change brought by the Internet.”
One of her projects last name was “Shell Game“: taking the Occupy protest and Arab Spring and retelling massive “alter pieces” for them, votives. But when she was drawing them, she wasn’t just drawing what was in her head. She was researching them the way journalists do. She interviewed people. E.g., a Tunisian blogging collective told her that the term “Jasmine REvolution” as “hideous Western branding” and please don’t use it.
She shows a Rembrandt drawing of Haksen the elephant. IT was the first time people had seen it. Now, the image of elephants has become ubiquitous.
Her friend Paul Mason when toOccupy Gezi. He took photos. She drew them, but only after crowdsourcing the translation of signs on Twitter.
Guantanamo is simultaneously the most private and the most surveilled. Every cell has a camera checked every 3 mins. Even the location of the cameras is secret; if she drew them, the sketch would be confiscated. She spent 2 wks there on 2 differenttrips. “What became important to me was to draw the censorship.” She wasn’t allowed to draw anyone’s faces, even though their identities are well known. So she had to scratch out the prisoner’s faces. [The face-blocked prisoner drawings are amazing.] She also isn’t allowed to draw anything that would give a sense of the layout of the camp. The Opsec briefing tells you the only three angles you’re allowed to draw from.
She shows a drawing from life of the Chelsea Manning verdict.
There are other reasons people might not want to be drawn. She shows a drawing of Syntagma protesters with prominent facial scars, so she drew him holding his logo over his face. She shows a drawing of Maxence Valade who had an eye shot out. He let her draw him.
There are places where there are just no cameras. She was jailed for 11 hours during Occupy. It was incredibly boring. She drew pictures in a styrofoam cup and tried to commit the cell to memory. When released, she drew it.
Joe Sacco has drawn images of Palestinians being interrogated. “Artists can take memories and make them real.”
Access can be taken from us. The Internet can be shut off. They can take your camera phone. But drawing cannot be stopped. E.g., David Choe was in solitary for a while. He had nothing to do but draw. He drew with soy sauce and his own urine.
“The art of drawing something sets it apart.” She shows the official Red Cross photo of Hisham Sliti in Gitmo and then her drawing. “I wanted to set him apart. I want you to remember who he is.”
“We need the chaos of multiplicity. We need raw data. We need everything. But we also need the singular. And that’s what artists do. We need people who can be stealthy and subtle, and can go where photographs cannot.” Visual art has no pretense of objectivity. “Images have power.” An illustrator in Syria had his hands broken. “Images get past fatigue. Images get past the raw edges of your heart.”
Q: You’re comparing image production before the flood of images and now. How about how crowds are pulling from the flood now?
A: Artists are always of their age. I use the Internet as an artist, but also to look for steak in the morning to eat. We dive into the multiplicity, pull out the singular, and then that’s pulled back into the crowd.
Q: The Guy Fawkes mask comes from V for Vendetta. The image is owned by Warner Bros.
A: And there’s also the real Guy Fawkes, a Catholic subversive whose politics none of us would find inspiring. Then there were the folk festivals. Then V for Vendetta, retaking the mask as a symbol of rebellion, but more as a carton symbol. Then you have 4chan and Anonymous bringing it back to its original meaning of rebellion.
Q: How do your images find a way through all of that. You talk about using the network as a repository of possible influence, as an expanded canon of images one might interact with. Once an image is produced, how does it find its life in the world?
When Occupy Wall St. hit, it had no images. I did a vampire squid. It showed up on protest signs. Schlocky t-shirts were selling it. The image had a life. She also did a free Pussy riot poster. A week alter there was an Al Jazeera news piece saying “Some people will make money on anything,” focusing on Russian t-shirt makers making unauthorized copies. Madonna tweeted it, and Time said she made it. Memes show up in burlesque shows. Many bad tattoos based on her art. (“That always hurts and artist.”) “The network eats all.”
Q: Do you get criticism from journalists for not being fact-check-able?
A: I work with fact-checkers when facts are involved. When I can’t take photos, I hew as closely to reality as I can. But there’s always an editorial slant to any photo or drawing. E.g., the photo of the Vietnamese police officer executing a suspect has an emotion.
Q: Who are you drawing your political art for?
A: One of my problems with political art is that it draws on the same canon: Soviet, black and red. Very cool. But people know immediately if it’s for them. I want to make art for people who don’t think political aesthetics is for them. Maybe they relate more to fairy tales, or…
Q: Has the nature of cooptation change? What’s the difference between an image being made commercial and an image becoming a meme?
A: In some ways I think it’s cooptation. If someone used my Pussy Riot illustration to advertise their t-shirt shop, with tags like “glam,” yeah, that’s cooptation. Political campaigns do this, as when musicians objected to their songs being used to introduce Sarah Palin. You should fight back against that, but it happens because the world is intensely interconnected.
Q: In the 19th century there was an exhibition of dioramas. The Beehive Collective is doing something similar. Do they understand the diorama? Can we revivify it?
A: The Beehive Collective does this incredibly detailed, gigantic pen and ink drawings of subjects like strip mining, environmental policy, etc. The topics are very complex. They go to the local areas and revise and revise their thing until the locals think it’s a truthful representation. They are telling very complicated stories without depending on language or literacy. It’s an intensely important thing to do.
Q: Do you do that consciously with some of your larger displays?
A: Yes. I always try to get beyond language. One of my first jobs was as house artist at a swanky club. That was my lockpick. Art is totally a lockpick.
Q: What’s been most jarring or unexpected for you?
A: Guantanamo is the most bizarre and jarring place I’ve ever been to. It’s a cheerful American town with a Macdonald’s and karaoke bar, next to a super-max prison dedicated to guarding 169 middle age guys most of whom have been cleared. There’s a pantomime of security there. Everything says that you’re about very dangerous people, but it’s a small American town.
Q: So it’s like North Korea.
Q: The network mainly displays images at 19″ maximum usually, but you draw much bigger than that.
A: I want to do art that’s really big. It affects you differently. It surrounds you. It’s a dominating relationship. But it doesn’t reproduce on line. Diego Rivera was much more known in his time, but now Frieda Kahlo is. That’s because you have to go to a Rivera to see it in real life, but Kahlo reproduces well on a smaller screen. So, how do you take really really big life and give it a digital life that’s somewhat as interesting as real life is.
Q: Panorama stitchers? Microsoft has one that lets you zoom in or out. E.g., the AIDS quilt. Cf. gigapans.
Q: What does the physicality of the drawing do for you.
A: There’s an egomaniacal bit of artists. When I make a large painting, I feel like I’m falling into them. My next project is going to be a show of large paintings about hackers. I want to do a 20-foot wide painting. It’d be bullshit to do something on the network and not have it be on the network.
There are things you can’t see online. I use zinc white, which is toxic, but it’s super transparent, warm white. It doesn’t reproduce in photos. There’s a lot of art you can’t get from photos or on the Internet. We forget that there are all sorts of things you have to be there to see.
Q: The way that experience gets remediated and ported back out to the Internet, it can underscore that they can’t be reproduced on a mobile device.
Q: There are places you can’t bring cameras onto. E.g., courtrooms.
A: I don’t know what they don’t allow cameras. It seems like a rule from wayback when camera flashes made smoke. I know that with the KSM courtroom, they didn’t want any of their cameras shown, or the doors, or the faces. It would have been impossible to get photos there. I think it’s misguided but I also sort of like it because it allows one place where my people can king.
Q: Do you ever encounter people who area trying to learn to draw so they can get around censorship and share emotions?
A: Prison art. I profiled a Gitmo prisoner who learned to draw for that reason.
A: Dr. Sketchy is my alternative drawing class done in a bar with drag queens and models, done in a subversive way. I want people to learn to look without asking for permission. Artists are the creepiest people around [laughter]. Drawing is a way that I was allowed to look, where looking wasn’t taken as an invitation but as something else.
Q: Susan Sontag says that people thought that showing violence would lead to peace, but that images of violence in fact can provoke more violence.
A: That happens when pictures of atrocities can spur revenge. But drawings can also get past people’s defenses. But maybe I’m just being hopeful.
[Great and very special presentation. Thanks, Molly!
Now, as part of the settlement, the school district has agreed to treat the child as a boy. Thus does an entire institution find itself compelled to accept the cultural left’s moral categories and priorities. This is why the Times labels transgender “the next civil rights frontier.” There’s always one, isn’t there?
This is from Ron Dreher’s post at The American Conservative about “Progressivism’s Next Battle.”
But what interests me is his comment, “There’s always one, isn’t there?” You can practically hear the sigh.
Well, yes, Ron, there is always one. Progressives are progressive because we believe in progress, and we believe in progress because — generalizing, of course — we believe three basic things.
First, human understanding is conditioned by history, culture, language. We are products of our times.
Second, our understanding tends towards some serious errors. For example, we tend to prefer the company of — and to trust — people who are like us. Worse, we go seriously wrong in judging the relevant ways people are like us, giving far too much weight to differences that make no real difference.
Third, we humans are capable of learning. When it comes to policies and institutions, the great lesson that we keep learning and need to keep learning is that few of the differences actually matter. Put positively, we need to keep learning that people are actually more like us than we thought. The great progressive impulse is to find more and more common humanity, and to adjust our policies around that truth. (And, as an aside that I both believe, and I hope Ron Dreher will find annoying: Nope, it doesn’t end with humans. We need to stop torturing and killing animals because we like the way they taste.)
So, yes, there always is a next frontier. But it’s not because progressives are sneaky land grabbers who are never satisfied. It’s because we are committed to the endless process of discovering our common humanity, and thus becoming fully human.
I just got a phone call from a firm getting paid to do a survey for the NRA. They’re calling patriotic gun rights supporters in Massachusetts. Would I be willing to listen to a message from Wayne LaPierre (the NRA leader) and answer a few questions?
“Sure,” I said.
Wayne then told me that the government wants to take all our guns from us and “refuses to catch the bad guys.” Because if there’s one credible criticism about Obama, it’s that he’s not going far enough in trying to catch bad guys.
After the message, a live human asked me if I agreed with Wayne LaPierre.
“Absolutely not,” I said.
“Thank you very much,” the guy said as he was about to hang up.
“You’re hanging up on me because I disagree? That’s how you do a survey? That’s completely corrupt.”
“Ok, fine, you want to answer the questions, I’ll be happy to ask them.”
The questions were both of the “Did you know that Obama is on record saying…” sort. One was about banning all guns. The other was about taxing guns.
Derek Khanna is giving a Berkman talk on trying to connect the dots so that policy-makers “get it.” “How do we even frame discussions about the economy and innovation?” Copyright law hasn’t been re-assessed in at least 15 yrs, he says. He begins with his bakcstory: He’s from Mass. Worked for Romney and Scott Brown. (Derek wrote the copyright reform report for the Republican Study Group.)
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
Rule 1: “Being right is just part of the battle.” Rule 2: “It’s less important what you say…It’s most important who says it.” Rule 3: “Control the framing of the issue.” E.g., we [copyright reformers] frame copyright very differently than does Capitol Hill.
Take SOPA. He quotes Adam Green saying it’s not a matter of right vs. wrong but old vs. new. Staffers had been warning about SOPA, but suddenly the public engaged. The result was astounding: Co-sponsors became opponents of the bill. Derek says it wasn’t Google that killed SOPA. It was the 3 million people reaching out to Congress that killed it. “People like Elizabeth Stark, Alexis Ohanian [reddit] and Aaron Swartz.” The RIAA and MPAA like to frame it as having lost to Google rather than having lost to the American people. (He points to a Mario Savio speech that begins “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious…”) SOPA remains very much on Congress’ mind, he says.
The framing was “perfect”: SOPA will censor the Internet and inhibit innovation.
Most conversations about copyright are framed as: Piracy is rampant, costing American jobs. Content is a crucial export, “the only thing produced in US any more.” Copyright is thus good, but more copyright is better.
Derek set out to reframe it in his “Three Myths of Copyright.” At a panel he asked “Who thinks terrorism is bad? Who thinks the TSA is only the way to protect us?” Likewise, is copyright the only way to protect content when it makes 23M Americans into felons? He points to the difference between the original copyright law and the current one. To conservatives, it can be framed as looking like a wild divergence from the original intent.
The “Three Myths” memo went out and was supported by conservatives until 24 hours later when it was pulled. A few weeks later, Derek was fired. He’s continuing but he thinks that when you’re on the outside, you have to fight small, strategic battles.
Idea + Movement + Effort = Legislation
A few weeks ago the head of the copyright office endorsed many of the reforms in “Three Myths,” updating copyright for the digital generation. The day before the content industry made the old argument in Roll Call. The other side isn’t countering. The content lobby knows that Roll Call is read by Congress. We need similar expertise.
How do we start?
Don’t wait for the next SOPA. They’re going to be much subtler in how they do it next time. Sites are still being taken down, e.g., Megaupload. Also funding mechanisms were cut off for ThePiratesBay. Also, Google was forced to take down links to torrents, etc. So, why would they come up with another SOPA? Instead they’re using international treaties to codify the DMCA forever, using stock language that gets replicated in treaties. These treaties only require Senate approval, or through executive actions. Therefore, we have to be more activist.
We have to analyze existing law.
We need support from both the left and the right
We need to focus on areas of common interest where we can form a collective whole
Asymmetrical warfare: Where are we strong and they’re weak? Where have they overplayed their hand? E.g., if you want to take on copyright law, that’s not asymmetric because there’s a strong argument on the other side.
“We lack the institutional capacity to quickly intervene in the political process in the way the content industry has. We therefore need to be smarter and more tactical.” We should start with smaller battles. We should avoid the narrative of “fighting the Man,” that companies are evil, etc. That won’t win over a party that sees itself as a party of business. “Instead, foster a David v. Goliath narrative.” That media like that narrative.
We should not talk about piracy. And even if the DMCA needs to be replaced, that’s a non-starter on Capital Hill.
Derek’s first campaign was on cellphone unlocking, after the Librarian of Copyright said it was now illegal (i.e., ending the DMCA exemption) to enable your phone to be used on a different carrier. Unlocking would increase competition among carriers. Derek wrote an article for The Atlantic that pointed out that the technology for the blind also has to be exempted every three years, a clear example of how the system is broken. Derek expected this issue to be hard. It didn’t get any mainstream media attention. It has a $32M lobbying effort on the other side. “That’s a problem on Capitol Hill: We don’t have a lobby for the future.” IT requires making hypothetical arguments.
But as the argument went on, examples emerged. E.g., Republic Wireless offers very cheap connectivity, but it depends on users bringing in unlocked phones.
Derek started a White House petition that got 114,000 signatures, the largest at the time. In part this worked because of people’s prior experience with SOPA. There were positive arguments on Left and Right. Left: It’s a matter of fairness. Right: Property rights. Derek added to this the value of innovation as a cross-party value.
After the petition, the FCC announced an investigation, and the White House came out in favor of unlocking. Before that, Derek had urged Congressfolks to come out in favor of it, if only because he was worried that after Obama came out in favor of repeal, the right would take the other side. But shortly after Obama endorsed, some conservatives came out in favor. Bills were introduced in both chambers.
Unfortunately, we have no way of mobilizing the 114,000 people who signed the petition; the names couldn’t be captured.
Why was it successful?
They made it simple. (Also with SOPA: SOPA = censorship)
Leveraged social media
Created a diverse coalition
Gained mainstream credibility
Channeled energies into a measurable demonstration of support
Kept Congress in the loop
Solid media narrative
Avoided talking about piracy. Instead: competition, innovation, and property rights.
It was unfair
Everyone has a phone…
Derek presented this at a conservative org and got called a Marxist. Fox Business also: “You’re just against contracts.” “When you take up an issue, you have to know where your third rails are.” Response: The contract is between you and your carrier; the feds shouldn’t be arresting people for violating a contract.
Why is it important? It’s the first time Congress has questioned the DMCA. We might get a hearing on it. Congress is unaware of the implications of the DMCA. It also helped Congress realize that international treaties are being used as a backdoor for these restrictions. It may affect the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty. And it helped identify allies.
Bottom line: “A free society shouldn’t have to petition its govt every 3 years to allow access to tech.” It’s akin to free speech, he says.
On the CFAA: “The statute is terrible.” There’s consensus about this. “But no one has written about in Weekly Standard or Politico.” It hasn’t reached Congress’ attention. Most members of Congress think that the sky is falling when it comes to cybersecurity. Every time a cybersec bill comes up, Congress has experts telling them that we are in deep peril. “Essentially the arguments for CFAA are that we need to reduce the DoJ’s discretion.” You have to defeat that training. Meet with Rogers or McCain or the other cyber-hawks and convince them that the CFAA needs to be reformed, that we can target hacking with a more narrowly focused bill.
Q: Can we try to drive a wedge in the opposition?
A: Yes. The RIAA’s and MPAA’s policies don’t foster innovation in their own industry. Over a 100 wireless carriers supported us on unlocking.
Q: You said that people who “get” tech are on the side of openness, etc. That optimistically suggests that if we educate people, they’ll take more common sense positions on tech.
A: Not entirely. Congress listens to people they trust, who are the RIAA, MPAA…
Q: …But even if Congressfolks fully understood tech, would the funds they get from the content industry still sway them?
A: Yes, some understand and still oppose us. But the ones who understand generally agree with us. The story is more complex: The MPAA/RIAA are very liberal, but the right still tend toward copyright protection.
Q: Why is the content industry so powerful, given the size of Google, etc.
A: AT&T and Verizon are both in the top ten of lobbying companies: $32M. Google spends about $6M on lobbying. “No tech company had a DC presence until Microsoft” when it was about to be broken up. Also, as the tech companies invest heavily to survive, say, patent law, why would you favor wholesale patent law change? Also, when the RIAA/MPAA sue kids, the money goes back into lobbying, not to the artists. They’re self-funding. But the tech industry has to justify why they’re spending money on lobbying.
Q: In Pakistan, piracy is rampant. Doesn’t that hurt innovation?
A: Piracy is real. But, those generally weren’t loss sales. The obsession with piracy is the problem.
Q: How about the role of public interest groups?
A: I’m a big fan of Public Knowledge and EFF, etc. But they need supplementing with more activist movements.
Q: If we focus on small victories, will people think we’re not doing enough? Will you have to keep winning bigger and bigger?
A: You can exist at a level for a while, if you’re strategic about it. Eventually you have to move on to bigger battles.
Q: How about the importance of multistake partnerships?
A: You need as many allies as you can. E.g., I’m interested in orphan works: in copyright but you can’t find the copyright holders. Our interests are in line with the RIAA.
A: Are we in a moment like the environmental movement before it formed under a single banner?
Q: I’m not an expert on the environmental movement. There are lots of lessons to be learned from them.
Q: Is there a schism in the conservatism over copyright reform?
A: I haven’t seen much of a schism. The best argument I’ve heard is the natural rights one: copyright ought to exist forever. But that’s not the system we’ve adopted. Our founding fathers rejected it. I’d like to build a cross-party coalition, but that’s a longtime goal.
Q: Did you get pushback on using the WH petition mechanism?
A: I got some from privacy folks.
Q: When we win a battle, the other side comes up with something more drastic. E.g., we won a first sale argument, but the right may be preparing something much more drastic. How can we avoid that?
A: I’m not sure they’re going to try to reverse the first sale doctrine, but we need to have our eyes open.
Q: What should we do right now?
A: We’d like to start to bring together the CISPA coalition.
At an amazing dinner last night — amazing because of the dozen people there, although the food was good, too — the conversation turned to shared cynicism about the lessons the 2012 presidential campaigns learned about the use of the Internet. Both sides seem to have taken away the idea that victory depends upon evermore tightly targeted ads. Once the campaign can figure out that you are a 37 year old woman, who is a lapsed Catholic who owns a hunting rifle but favors rigorous background checks, who has a daughter with a chronic medical condition, whose sister married a woman from Colombia, and who once ate a panda and secretly liked it, the campaign can target you with marketing material that will press all your buttons and only your buttons.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the campaigns used this micro-specific information to appeal to our reason and judgment. But the campaigns are marketing machines that aim at getting us to make a one-time “purchase decision” and if they can do so by appealing to our lizard brains, they will.
I share much of this cynicism, and all the more acutely because my rose-colored glasses were polished by the 2004 Dean campaign. It used the Net to raise unheard of amounts of money via email campaigns, but it also tried to scale intra-supporter conversations by having supporters connect laterally. The Dean campaign was really focused on winning the nomination [SPOILER: It didn't], but it was also genuine in its belief that the Net would enable a new type of connectedness that could subvert (at least to some extent) the hierarchical nature of campaigns and of governments. (Source: Joe Trippi‘s book. Also, I got to watch up-close.) That makes it all the more disappointing to me that the campaigns are focused on the Net as a medium for personalized marketing, rather than as tools of connection. (We’ll see what Organizing for America becomes.)
Nevertheless, I am not as cynical as most of my dinner companions, perhaps because I’m old and remember politics before the Internet, or because I’m old and foolish, or, most likely both.
So, we can and should bemoan the failure of the two major parties’ campaigns to more fully embrace the Net as more than a cheap way to broadcast messages. We should be cynical about the top-down, one-way, manipulative, non-conversational “messaging” that has become the main way campaigns communicate. But we should also remember that we have a powerful example of microtargeting being used for building multiway, lateral conversations: The Web.
I mean something obvious. In the days before the Internet, our news came from a handful of TV and radio channels and newspapers. If you wanted to know a candidate’s position, you went down to his (yes, almost always his) headquarters and picked up the handful of position papers they kept there. You of course argued with your friends and co-workers, but those conversations and the ideas they generated stayed very local.
All of that has been changed by the Web. We can get endless amounts of information and can engage in endless conversations. Of course much of that information is bad and many of the conversations are stupid-making. Still I would not trade our current vibrant democracy of conversation for the prior media regime that delivered the news in a rolled up bundle of pages once a day.
But you already know that. The question last night was whether we’ll ever see micro-targeting that is lateral, conversational, and not, well, evil. And my answer is: yes, it exists appropriately transformed on the Web. Blog posts, for example, are globally available, but are not exactly broadcast. Rather, a self-selected group comes to read them, and sometimes some people in that group recommend a post to one of their own networks. Likewise, tweets go to followers, and to the followers of those who re-tweet them. Likewise, on mailing lists people circulate links that are “targeted” to the interests that hold those lists together. The Web is what conversational, lateral microtargeting looks like.
Granted we tend not to think about the Web that way because the term “targeting” is so obnoxious. But take the war out of targeting and you have the idea that appropriate content is put in front of appropriate people, which is how the Web — wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly — works.
But there’s more than language at stake here. If we are feeling cynical and depressed about our political processes because the political parties are using the Internet as a medium for aiming messages straight at the reptilian brains of the citizenry, then, yes, we should despair. But if we look outside of the campaigns at the general political ecosystem, we are indeed seeing the sort of lateral, conversational engagement that the Web promised us. The problems with this Web ecosystem — legion and serious — are due primarily to how the affordances of the Web engage fallible humans (i.e., humans). So, we may still feel depressed and cynical, but not because the political system seems to have structural reasons why it cannot reform itself. Reform is possible outside of that system.
We should therefore feel depressed and cynical for better reasons.
No, I’m not suggesting that we amend the Constitution to guarantee American citizens a right to access the open Internet. I’m suggesting that it’s weird that from all the rights we could imagine — a right to an education, to adequate health care, to equal pay for equal work — we continue to enshrine a right to carry guns.
Why guns of all things? Because of a fear of an armed federal take-over that made sense in 1787 but now is merely paranoia? Besides, when the feds have actually used armed force against states claiming rights, the states were defending slavery and segregation. Besides, if you’re hoping to defeat the US military, you better be pressing for a right to own tanks, jets, and, for those states with beachfronts, some battleships.
So, no, I’m not suggesting we pass an Internet Rights amendment. I am suggesting that we pass an amendment nullifying the right to bear arms. Let guns be regulated the way we regulate other objects that can harm us and kill our kids.
Those of us who are not-so-secretly hoping that Stephen Colbert might actually run for Senate should take a look at Beppe Grillo‘s career in Italy.
A controversial political comedian and a leading blogger — he’s got some Al Franken and some George Carlin as well as some Colbert in him — Grillo formed the Five Star Movement, which organizes Italian citizens to back politicians who support the movement’s anti-corruption, green, Euro-skeptical, pro-Internet principles. In October, it led the voting in Sicily. Now the Five Star Movement is holding an online vote to choose which candidates to support.
There are certainly skeptics. But Grillo’s career as a comedian and blogger who has become a political force is pretty amazing.
I’ve always checked in on DailyKos occasionally, but over the past year or so it’s become a multi-daily stop, and was one of my primary sources of news about the campaign. It embodies a lot of the good stuff the Net is doing to news, and some of the bad.
DailyKos is obviously a partisan site. It’s perfectly clear about that. In fact, it wants to build its followers into an effective political force. The news it presents takes sides. Yet, I find it a really useful source of political news, for a few reasons:
1. I’d rather have the bias visible than hidden.
2. My understanding itself is biased: I have political views and commitments. DailyKos generally is in line with my views. So, when I want to understand the impact of some event political event, DailyKos’ contextualization is immediately helpful; I don’t have to read through it, unpacking the assumptions that I don’t share. Reading the Republican contextualization is an interesting and even an important anthropological exercise, but DailyKos gets me to understanding much faster.
3. Although it’s a partisan site, it’s also reality-based. For example, when DailyKos happily reports today that opposition to Obamacare is at its lowest, it prominently adds, “That doesn’t mean that America is suddenly in love with Obamacare, though. The support/oppose numbers remain in the range they’ve been in since the law was passed…” It’s what keeps DailyKos from being a standard-issue echo chamber.
4. It’s a community. The people writing on the front page are generally on staff, but there are thousands of bloggers (or “diarists” in Kos nomenclature) writing on the site and a useful system for bringing them to attention.
5. It’s funny. Often the humor is biting, and it frequently is more negative and personal than I’m comfortable with. But it’s also frequently damn funny.
You can find as much to not like at DailyKos as you want. With all those diarists, there’s no shortage of bad ideas and nasty edges. And the staff writers give plenty of materials to critics. So? DailyKos is one good model for tribal news.
Of course I’d say that. People in echo chambers always think their echo chambers are Halls of Truth. That’s what it means to be in an echo chamber. So, is DailyKos any better than, say, Fox News?
I think so. But, again, that’s #1 and trending at ThingsPeopleInEchoChambers Say.com.
I’d point to a few reasons DailyKos is (a) a better echo chamber than Fox, (b) is not an echo chamber, (c) is a good echo chamber, (d) something else.
1. DailyKos seems to me to be more willing to point to negatives in its own positive news — it’s got more respect for reality.
2. DailyKos seems to me to be more often right at the level at which facts are checked. It also has not been caught as often at Photoshopping (taking “Photoshopping” literally and metaphorically). There have been times when I think DailyKos has taken candidates’ remarks out of context — I still think Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friend” may have meant to point to the consequences for real people when corporations fail. But I haven’t seen (or haven’t recognized) the massive and I believe Fox’s knowing editing of quotes to get them to sound like people are saying something entirely different (“You didn’t build that”).
3. DailyKos seems to me not to spend as much time on paranoid theories. There is nothing that I know of that DailyKos has pursued that sinks to the level of birtherism, or that is pursued with as much single-minded intensity as “You didn’t build that.”
4. DailyKos is genuinely committed to building a community in which all have a voice. Yes, not everyone has an equal voice, but the upvoting mechanism and the ability to follow favorites helps people further down the long tail.
5. DailyKos does not pretend to be non-partisan as the news part of Fox News does. Of course, no one is fooled by Fox’s protestations.
I may be falling prey to the Echo Chamber Fallacy — the belief that my echo chamber isn’t really an echo chamber — but even if I am, there’s no reason to think that all echo chambers are equally bad. And there is, I believe, reason to think that an echo chamber can in fact be a useful way of getting information…and of forming a movement that can then act on that information.
I sent the link to this post to Markos, and he replied in part:
I often see people accuse me of “preaching to the choir”. My response is if that’s so bad, why do churches exist?
People want that tribal experience. So Daily Kos is like a church for the progressive movement — a place where people come to get informed, get validated, find community, and get organized so they can evangelize outside its walls.
Not to mention, anyone who thinks that Daily Kos is an echo chamber didn’t see the site in 2010, when we spent months preparing our readers for the electoral catastrophe that would inevitably hit in November. We were the exact opposite of Republicans this year.
There’s lots being written about why the Republicans were so wrong in their expectations about this week’s election. They had the same data as the rest of us, yet they apparentlydeeplybelieved they were going to win. I think it’s a fascinating question. But I want to put it to different use.
The left-wing subtext about the Republican leadership’s failure to interpret the data is that it’s comeuppance for their failure to believe in science or facts. But that almost surely is a misreading. The Republicans thought they had factual grounds for disbelieving the polls. The polls, they thought, were bad data that over-counted Democrats. The Republicans thus applied an unskewing algorithm in order to correct them. Thus, the Republicans weren’t pooh-poohing the importance of facts. They were being good scientists, cleaning up the data. Now, of course their assumptions about the skewing of the data were wrong, and there simply has to be an element of wish-fulfillment (and thus reality denial) in their belief that the polls were skewed. But, their arguments were based on what they thought was a fact about a problem with the data. They were being data-based. They just did a crappy job of it.
So what do we conclude? First, I think it’s important to recognize that it wasn’t just the Republicans who looked the data in the face and drew entirely wrong conclusions. Over and over the mainstream media told us that this race was close, that it was a toss-up. But it wasn’t. Yes, the popular vote was close, although not as close as we’d been led to believe. But the outcome of the race wasn’t a toss-up, wasn’t 50-50, wasn’t close. Obama won the race decisively and not very long after the last mainland polls closed…just as the data said he would. Not only was Nate Silver right, his record, his methodology, and the transparency of his methodology were good reasons for thinking he would be right. Yet, the mainstream media looked at the data and came to the wrong conclusion. It seems likely that they did so because they didn’t want to look like they were shilling for Obama and because they wanted to keep us attached to the TV for the sake of their ratings and ad revenues.
I think the media’s failure to draw the right and true conclusions from the data is a better example of a non-factual dodge around inconvenient truths than is the Republicans’ swerve.
Put the two failures together, and I think this is an example of the the inability of facts and data to drive us to agreement. Our temptation might be to look at both of these as fixable aberrations. I think a more sober assessment, however, should lead us to conclude that some significant portion of us is always going to find a way to be misled by facts and data. As a matter of empirical fact, data does not drive agreement, or at least doesn’t drive it sufficiently strongly that by itself it settles issues. For one reason or another, some responsible adults are going to get it wrong.
This doesn’t mean we should give up. It certainly doesn’t lead to a relativist conclusion. It instead leads to an acceptance of the fact that we are never going to agree, even when the data is good, plentiful, and right in front of our eyes. And, yeah, that’s more than a little scary.