Monday, October 10, 2011

Blogging the (Un)Control Machine

“I broke out my camera gun and rushed the temple — This weapon takes and vibrates image to radio static — You see the priests were nothing but word and image, an old film rolling on and on with dead actors — Priests and temple guards went up in silver smoke as I blasted my way into the control room and burned the codices — Earthquake tremors under my feet I got out of there fast, blocks of limestone raining all around me — A great weight fell from the sky, winds of the earth whipping palm trees to the ground — Tidal waves rolled over the Mayan control calendar.” - William S. Burroughs, “The Mayan Caper”.

The author William S. Burroughs proclaimed, “smash the control images, smash the control machine” in “The Mayan Caper” from his 1961 novel The Soft Machine. Burroughs believed that the word and image has been used throughout human history to control thought. He particularly associated it with the Mayan civilization of Meso-America. Whether or not Burroughs was historically correct in his assessment of the “Mayan control calendar” is largely irrelevant today, if one pays attention to Burroughs more simple claim that images and words populate the imaginations of people when they are broadcast using the electronic mass media. Mass media for the majority of Burroughs’s life (1914-1997) was broadcast using the one-to-many model. Newspapers, Television and Radio beamed messages into the lives and minds of millions of people every day. This network of one-way information channels (if one ignores the heavily censored Letters to the Editor and talk back radio) is drowning today in an ocean of user driven digital content. Fourteen years after the death of Burroughs, anyone who can access the Internet can fashion their own ‘camera gun’ and begin beaming images into the minds of others. As a revolutionary force, the writings of William S Burroughs provide us with a set of principles that can be used to understand how the ruling order is replaced in relation to the digital media sphere. The blogs, wikis, live feeds, podcasts, web journals, micro blogs, RSS feeds and forums of today are soft weapons that ‘take and vibrate images to radio static’, breaking them up, distributing them and making the digital food of revolution. Blogging with its millions of channels is now the media ‘uncontrol machine’.  
In his fiction Burroughs paints a picture of a bygone society where one delves “Into the interior: a vast subdivision, antennae of television to the meaningless sky. In lifeproof houses they hover over the young, sop up a little of what they shut out” (Naked Lunch 11). Today it is nearly impossible to shut much out in the average suburban Western home, and controlling production of media content is like trying to contain a solar storm. Millions of channels circle the planet offering input and output possibilities for anyone with a story or an image. Among the many, the Chinese government attempts censorship in the face of this image horde, but there are always holes in any Great Wall. Recently a colleague travelled to China to give a series of lectures on film and the digital image. She was of course unable to access YouTube, so she Skyped instructions about which videos to rip off the site and I sent them to her from Europe via the file-sharing site Sprend. These videos were then shown in a Chinese university lecture hall. This is just one crude example of how information always finds a way. I would like to mention some others.
The proposed revolution of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is radio-sonic, if one judges by the radiating ‘i’ logo of the Global Revolution livestream site.  Twenty-four hours a day, beginning on September 17th 2011, people began occupying Zuccotti Park (Liberty Park) in Downtown Manhattan in New York. Coinciding with the physical occupation is the digital barrage of Twitter (micro-blogging run off hashtags), the live video stream, forum discussion, archives of links and comments, blog posts, still images, podcasts, live audio streams, email lists and YouTube videos. This river of information has sparked Occupy [enter-town-name] around the USA and even overseas. What could be relegated as a collection of disenfranchised and left-leaning complainers has quickly evolved into an idea (“occupy everything” seems to be its slogan, and it of course comes with a manifesto The ability of digital media to spread this idea (and I am doing it right here) is a testament to the tenacity of the word virus. The need to overcome the dominant dream narratives is most recently articulated by popular Slovenian philosopher Slovoj Zizek when he spoke at OWS on 9th October 2011 and said, "The ruling history has even limited our capacity to dream". The dream of authenticity goes on.

Philosopher-at-Large Slavoj Zizek addresses the crowd gathered in Liberty Plaza

Global Revolution media feed, Saturday October 8th 2011. The end of the Mayan Calendar as we know it?

The OWS movement is the latest and possibly most visible outside mainstream media of a series of high profile digital image barrages connected to popular protest and resistance we have seen develop over the last couple of years. In a rough time line that also shows a growing sophistication, these include the 2008-2009 Israeli-Gaza War, the 2009 election protests in Iran, the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the civil uprising in Syria, and finally the present Occupation of Wall Street. The Israeli-Gaza War was mostly conducted on the Internet via Twitter, with some videos and websites taking up the events only often after they occurred. The 2009 election protests in Iran were Twitter based, but many of the feeds from the micro blogging site were located outside the boarders of the Islamic Republic. However, videos built an enormous following online for the ideas and demands of the dissident forces in Iran. This culminated in the murder online of Neda Agha-Soltan, a video of the shooting death of a beautiful young woman on a street in Tehran that went viral. As Neda gazed into the camera lens, blood gushing from her nose and mouth, the viewer was propelled into the human drama of a cruel and unjust situation. The image wars in Iran had just been stepped up a notch.
The speed of the revolution in Tunisia stunned the world. On 17th December 2010 a street vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself alight in protest over long term persecution by corrupt local street officials. Mohamed Bouazizi died on 4 January 2011, at 5:30 pm local time. Protests began immediately afterwards, and built up until President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia with his family on 14 January 2011. The rest is history, and the role of social media in the build up to the flight of Ben Ali is contentious. Wikileaks is said to have playeda significant role in the turn of events in Tunisia, along with high unemployment, inflation and official corruption. However, the Tunisian uprising is clearly an example of the masses no longer believing the official control narrative of the government. As Mohamed Bouazizi lay dying in his hospital bed, Ben Ali visited him on December 28th 2010, promising to appoint a new Minister of Youth and to look into the unemployment problem (running at around 40% in Sidi Bouzid) . What resulted from the visit was an undermining of the official information line, with Al Jazeera reporting, “For many observers, the official photo of the president looking down on the bandaged young man had a different symbolism from what Ben Ali had probably intended.” The game was over for Ben Ali and a new set of images are still being developed to replace the old in Tunisia.
The revolutions in Egypt and Libya seem to follow a similar pattern to that of Tunisia, as information channels are gradually developed and become dominant, in form if not in content. This progression often mirrors the changes occurring in the streets and corridors of power in each nation. Images replace images as power shifts. Flows of information supporting one group or idea become larger, more regular and more widely distributed, as support grows and gains are made on the ground. What is different from the usual flows of propaganda in any political changeover is that the sources in these contemporary changeovers are multiple based on weight of numbers. While major broadcasters such as Al Jazeera covered the assembly in Tahrir Square in Cairo from atop the buildings around it, creating a visual metaphor of distance and collectivity, the real coverage was happening on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and countless Egyptian blogs. Wael Abbas, Sandmonkey, Hossam Eid, Ali Seif, Nora Younis, Misr Digital, and Baheyya are some of the most popular blogs. It must also be remembered that in the last weeks of the regime of Hosni Mubarak the Internet was shut down for the entire of Egypt in an attempt to silence dissenting images and ideas. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates commented on the shut down in a highly perceptive analysis, "Whenever you do something extraordinary like that, you're sort of showing people you're afraid of the truth getting out." In the same story by The Huffington Post it was revealed that efforts to shut down such an information network inevitably fail. As they did for Hosni Mubarak.
Attempts are still made in digital media sites to summarize the movement in a single form of language. In doing so the summary attempts to return a movement to the singular, what the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin calls a monoglossia, which identifies the locus of control with the authoritative interpretation of the word. The OWS movement is one example of this, where a major digital news site took pictures of 34 people in Liberty Park and described it, as “This should give you a pretty good idea of the different types of people occupying Wall Street“ .  What I would ask of buzzfeed’s summary of who is occupying Wall Street is where does the occupation begin and end? Is the video feed running 24 hours a day part of the occupation? What about the forums, blog posts, videos, and Tweets? Are they part of the occupation? If they are, where are they? With millions of channels open all over the Internet, the occupation of Wall Street has become part of the infrastructure of the World Wide Web, which as its name suggests, is worldwide. There is no place for an idea, as it occupies the world as a virus does, in time but not in space.
As the forms and practices of the OWS movement become more established they are copied. Well not so much copied, as manifested. It is contagious and how it is going to end we do not know yet. In researching this article I cam across a new site in the United Kingdom called BEYONDCLICKTAVISM, which gives a little bit of background and then four reasons for its existence:

Beyond Clicktivism was set up following the netroots uk event primarily to address the following questions:

  • What can we do online that is uniquely progressive so that if others emulate us their response is informed by progressive values?
  • How do we get people climbing the ladder of engagement, moving from Facebook “Likes” to actual concrete action?
  • How do we integrate progressive use of social media with non-political use of social media?
  • How can we build tools that can also be used to call politicians to account and stop the next Blair or Clegg from flying in the face of the principles of their parties and shamelessly tearing up their pledges to the electorate?

Directly below these points is the statement; “The scope and ambitions of the site have expanded since then.” I am sure I can say the same thing about the activists and media artists mentioned in this text, working around the clock and around the globe to realize some crazy dream they have, over and over again.

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