Sunday, October 21, 2007
Here's a picture of my daughter (she's the one with autism, in case you haven't been keeping up with every detail of my life), and my son. There's an amazing bond that they have between them, although at home, more often than not, he makes her shriek at the top of her lungs by annoying her left and right, which is what siblings do, I imagine (being an only child, I can't state this for a fact).
This year's event was a really big deal in no small part because the Governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, came by and gave a little talk. I didn't get to meet him myself, I'm low priority at these things, but he did have a photo op with my daughter. They love having my daughter around for these things, because she's photogenic and fairly well behaved. This would be her second picture with a New Jersey Governor, as she had her picture taken with now disgraced ex-Governor Jim McGreevy years ago. One of these days I have to try to find a copy online, or scan it from the newspaper it appeared in. I also don't have the photo of my daughter with Corzine, as it was taken by one of the staff photographers. But I'm sure we'll get copies eventually, and I'll post it here as soon as I can. In the meantime, here's a picture my wife took of my daughter waiting for her photo op with the governor. In case you're not familiar with him, Corzine's the one with the beard, glasses, and bowtie. And that's the back of my daughter's head in the bottom foreground.
Okay, but here's the kicker. My son, who was supposed to be waiting with me, instead ran off to the VIP room to hang out with my wife and daughter, so my wife got a picture of him with Governor Corzine.
Now, is that cool, or what? Anyway, the other big attraction for this event was a special guest, Max Weinberg. Weinberg is famous for being the drummer in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and also the leader of the Max Weinberg 7, the band for the Late Night With Conan O'Brien TV talk show. Again, I was the only one who didn't get to meet him, but I'm glad that my wife did (she worships Springsteen), and that my son did as well (he's gotten into Springsteen lately). Springsteen is the official state religion of New Jersey (that's not a joke, I am absolutely serious here), and after all, I am the only member of our family who is not from Jersey (I'm a native New Yorker, and I like Springsteen, but he's not God, man!). Anyway, here's a picture my wife snapped in the VIP area of Corzine and Weinberg talking.
So, aside from all this, there was a big fancy dinner, and here's a shot of my son and me at our table.
Gov. Corzine gave a very heartfelt speech. Everyone was commenting that he really does seem to care about the autism epidemic. There were a few other speakers, and a special presentation made to Max Weinberg, and to Robert and Michelle Smigel, who had a great deal to do with the success of the event. Robert Smigel also has a Conan O'Brien connection, as a head writer and as Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. He was also a writer for Saturday Night Live, and is best known for his TV Funhouse cartoons. And no, I didn't get to meet him either. In all honesty, after all the high profile stuff with the Media Ecology Association this summer in Mexico, it's a pleasure to settle back into comfortable anonymity. Anyway, they had a dance band performing, and for one set Max Weinberg sat in on the drums, and they played a few Springsteen numbers. And I got up to dance with my daughter.
We were doing the little bit of the Lindy Hop that I know there. She loved it, I almost plotzed. It was quite a workout. Oh and here's some pictures of Max Weinberg playing with the band, and I have to say that that guy is really, really good!
And once the set was over, it was back to the table for some recovery time.
And that pretty much sums it up. It was a rare night out for us as a family, and a memorable one. Thank you, COSAC!
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Okay, now, to be fair, I should balance out my praise for this well-produced and thought-provoking example of applied media ecology, with a bit of criticism. So, here goes. What's missing from this quick take, and as Neil Postman would point out, the very format works against more complex discussion of ideas, is the fact that the previous technologies, beginning with the use of the printing press to mass produce "blank" forms (I put blank in parentheses because of course they are not blank pieces of paper, but printed text with standardized blank areas where individual information is to be filled out) was revolutionary, a technology of information processing and control. They made possible the emergence of bureaucracies (the very word bureaucracy refers to bureau, the ancestor of the filing cabinet) and complex horizontal organizational structures, as well as filing and in general the ability to collect and process hitherto unimaginable quantities of data about all aspects of a society. This led to the rationalization of society, accelerated its differentiation into increasingly more discrete subsystems (and subsubsystems, etc.), and laid the groundwork for modernization and mass society.
Now, I'm not saying that Mike should have included all that in his short video, which is after all about how things have been changing recently, but I am saying that this is the part of the story that has been left out. In fact, if you follow Marshall McLuhan's arguments, then the revolution, or evolution, that Mike is portraying in fact represents a kind of rewinding backwards, from the modernized, bureaucratic, differentiated society, to something more akin to tribal or village life where there are few boundaries between what we would call sectors of society, everybody knows each others' business, and there is a relatively low degree of specialization among the members of society and their activities.
Anyway, McLuhan would describe Mike's videos as probes, whose purpose is to test, explore, and open up thought and discussion, and I think I just demonstrated how effective they are at that sort of thing. Anyway, Mike also recently uploaded another video that provides a very revealing sense of what students today are like:
The format appears to be taken from recent advertising and public service spots, and is certainly more than a little sobering for those of us in higher education. But this also complements the other video, as it shows, at least among this one population, the effects of the information r/evolution that we are experiencing. Well, so much for western civilization, eh? So it goes.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Now, if you click on that link, that may be the last I see of you, because it will take you to a poem that these two fellows wrote, and many of the words in the poem are linked to other pages with other poems. So, you can either go ahead and read/explore it, and meet me back here later, or not at all, or if you like, you can read the comment I left for them on that poem's blog page (third page of the comments I believe), which I've pasted in below (slightly edited).
Wow! Fabulous! What an immense undertaking, David and Si, and apparently very much the labor of love. You have really used the medium well here. The idea of hypertext, and hypertextual poetry (or should we say hyperpoetry) has been around for almost two decades, predating the web itself (which relies on hypertext markup language aka html), but there is surprising little experimentation with the form here among the MySpace poets, at least the ones I've encountered. And maybe rightly so, as just because a technology makes it so you can do something doesn't mean that you ought to do it.
But this isn't a hypertext in the original sense, that is, a single-authored work with links that allow you to move in nonlinear fashion among different pages. This is web hyperpoetry, where the links take you to other pages that already exist, and that were created by others. So, at once you have a poem that stands as its own work, and as others have indicated, it is a fine write in and of itself. The fact that it's co-authored makes it a little bit atypical, especially for a poem, but collaborative writing is far from unknown in print culture.
But it seems clear to me that you did not write this poem first, then decide to look for appropriate links, but rather that you had the idea to create this new form, and that the writing of this poem was shaped and influenced, at least in part, by the other poems that you were thinking of including. That imposes certain constraints, of course, which can often lead to a better work than just going free form, but it also means that in some way you have retrieved aspects of traditional oral poetry (e.g., Iliad, Odyssey
, Beowulf, etc.), in which pre-existing elements are woven together to create a new composition.
In other words, while this is not epic in scope or theme, but rather a more individualistic, inner-directed, self-conscious meditation on poetry of the sort that was born out of print culture. It is epic in the sense that it goes beyond the individual to represent an entire community and a tradition of sorts (albeit a very young one). It is epic in weaving (and the weave metaphor is at the heart of epos, that's what rhapsode is all about) a grand tapestry that stands as a great celebration of poets and poetry. And of community. More than anything else, you have made a beautiful and loving statement about a community of poets, a tribe!
All media are best understood as environments that we live in, not just things that we use (or ignore), but this poem truly brings that to the fore as what you create is a poetic environment that the reader can move through, and explore that community of poets. This is truly representative of a new, electronic form, that is outer-directed and other-directed, and yes, environmental. I think that, more than a good write, this stands as a significant achievement of lasting value.
On a personal note, I would add that I feel privileged to have been able to join that community, and honored to be included in this work. Thank you, guys.
And I hope I've made myself sufficiently clear: I like it, I really, really like it.
So, there you have it. All that I have to add is that I have now come up with the perfect name for this new form: MetaInternetaHyperPoeta! Come on now, say it with me: MetaInternetaHyperPoeta. Now, try saying that ten times fast! Or just go back and enjoy all that poetry.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
But even though there are many outstanding programs to choose from, there still is something about television that lends itself to the mediocre, to junk, which Neil Postman argued, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, is what television does best. Back in that first Golden Age of Television, Ernie Kovacs said that television is a medium because it is so rarely well done.
But enough with the cooking metaphors. The point is, sometimes we don't want to watch something that requires focused attention, that asks us to ponder deep messages or make sense of complex story lines. Sometimes, we just want to veg out and be entertained. And when I say we, I of course mean me, myself, and I, and the vast majority of Americans, of course, of course.
But it is also true, for me, and I suspect for you, that sometimes we start watching a show that we think might be interesting, and it isn't terrible, so we continue to watch it, even though it's not all that exciting, out of some form of inertia, habit, or just to pass the time. Maybe the show has potential that it's not living up to so far, but maybe, just maybe, things might change.
So, this is the situation I find myself in when it comes to the SciFi Channel's original series, Eureka, which completed its second season not too long ago. And if you click on that link, you can go to their page on the SciFi website, and there are episodes of the program you can watch if you care to.
When the series premiered, I thought the concept was a promising one. The title of the program is also the Greek word for "I have found it!" and the image of a scientist or inventor shouting "eureka!" is pretty much a commonplace in our popular culture, or at least it was when I was growing up. As for the program itself, Eureka is the name of a small town, set up in secret, that is populated almost entirely by super geniuses, as a kind of think tank/industrial park/colony for creative thinkers in the applied, and theoretical sciences.
Now, the premise here is an intriguing one. On the one hand, we have the traditional all-American small town, on the other we have good old American ingenuity, on the one hand old-fashioned community, on the other, progress. The two sets of values and myths are contradictory, but co-exist generally by being kept apart from one another. Bring them together, and we have the potential for a new American myth, a new synthesis to emerge, much like Claude Lévi-Strauss said that the function of myth is to mediate cultural contradictions.
And let me emphasize once more, this is a very American myth. If it were Europeans telling this sort of story, then it wouldn't be a small town, it would be a wonder-city, a metropolis (as in the Fritz Lang silent film). It's the small town that makes this peculiarly American.
So, what we would expect from this sort of series is a sense of excess. Futuristic technology popping up everywhere, lots of robotic devices, a kind of Jetsons meets Andy Griffith. The ads promoting the show led us to believe that's what we would be getting, and for that matter, so do the opening credits. And through the miracle of computer graphics, making it so should be a cinch.
Only, the show never delivers. There's lots of Andy Griffith, sure, but just not enough Jetsons to satisfy the set-up. Maybe it's because much of contemporary technology, computers, virtual worlds, biotech, just lacks the visual interest of the older, mechanical devices that once signified the futuristic. But even so, the problem is that there is one futuristic technology highlighted in each episode, typically presenting a mystery to be solved. But just one, which is hardly excessive. Otherwise, there are a few things here and there, including a smart house, but it's just not technology popping up everywhere, gratuitously.
Futuristic technology should be environmental in this show, not just the occasional gadget. That's what's missing, as the environment itself is essentially an ordinary contemporary small town. What this program demands, or seems to promise and fails to deliver, is excess, technology as far as the eye can see, embedded within the context of the small town. In fact, if done right, this sort of myth should set things up so that the technology is what makes a return to small town life and genuine community possible, thereby resolving the contradiction between the two myths.
Apart from the lack of a surfeit of new technology, the series seems to be sidetracked and distracted by the presence of some alien intelligence that some of the scientists are trying to study. Sure, that fits the science fiction theme, but as it becomes the central mystery that ongoing plot lines revolve around, it detracts from the emphasis on invention that the show seems to be about.
The problem goes farther than the mise-en-scène, and extends to the characters, the inhabitants of this scientific small town. When it comes to scientists and inventors, it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that such folks are typically portrayed as eccentric. But one of the minor disappointments of the show is that, of the regulars that make up the cast, eccentricity is largely limited to Jim Taggart, a supporting, relatively minor character (an Aussie crocodile hunter type), played by Matt Frewer, the former Max Headroom whose comedic talents seem not to be put to very good use here. The other major character type you would expect to find dominating the cast is the nerd, which in the program is concentrated in Douglas Fargo--but why is he the only nerd here?
In the cast picture below, you can see how resolutely normal everyone looks. In the foreground on the right is the main character, Sheriff Jack Carter (Eureka's version of Andy Taylor/Griffith). He is supposed to be our point of identification, the regular guy who, in the pilot, becomes the Eureka's new sheriff, and in every episode is dumbfounded by all the genius and advanced science and technology that surrounds him, but is able to use his basic common sense to solve every problem that comes his way--a fine albeit mild manifestation of the anti-intellectualism basic to American culture. Now, that's fine, but rather than representing the audience as an observer of Eureka's technological excess, he becomes the focus of the program, so much so that the sense of wonder that we should be experiencing is replaced by Carter's own ordinariness. Joining him as a newcomer to Eureka is his rebellious teenage daughter, second from the left below, who humanizes Carter, but places further emphasis on his character as opposed to the technology.
Henry Deacon, dressed as a handyman with a beret, had the potential to be an eccentric inventor type of character, but over the course of the series shifts from a jack-of-all-trades, perhaps the biggest genius of them all, to a star-crossed lover, then a man with secrets looking to avenge his love who was died in an accident (or was it murder?). It's a shift that is too abrupt and loses exactly that charm that we might expect to find in Eureka, as Henry does not turn out to be the goofy kind of inventor you'd expect to find in this scenario. As for the chick next to Sheriff Carter, that's Beverly Barlowe, the town's shrink, who's more than a little sinister. She's an intriguing character with potential, but underutilized, until the end of the second season where she suddenly has a significant role at the end.
Carter's love interest through the first season and into the beginning of the second is Alison Blake, on the far left, who is divorced from Nathan Stark, the slick looking (and arrogant) bearded guy in the suit. Both are resolutely normal aside from being geniuses. From Alison's point of view, her relationship with Nathan is clearly over, although they remain cordial colleagues. Nathan seems to have regrets, and is definitely jealous of Carter. So now, kudos for the interracial romance/love triangle. But while the first season presents Alison and Sheriff Carter as gradually getting closer and closer, there's an abrupt about-face during the second season, which ends with Alison getting back together with Nathan. Simultaneously, Carter finds a new love interest, so, there are no hard feelings on either end, and it is all very pat, it seems to me.
It's as if someone in authority suddenly stepped in and told the producers that they were advocating divorce and immorality with this scenario, given the presence of the ex and the fact that they have a child (with a disability to boot). And they were somehow pressured or convinced to change direction suddenly, abruptly. I'm not saying this actually happened, just that this is how it looks to me. And for whatever reason it happened, they would up eliminating one of the better elements of the series as a consequence.
At the beginning of the series, Nathan's parental role was very much downplayed, and his son is pretty much identified as Alison's child. What brings them back together during the second season is their son, Kevin, who has become involved with the alien entity. Again, not a bad development overall, but it eliminates one of the interesting sources of conflict in the series.
But here's the thing. In the pilot, Kevin is introduced as a young boy with severe autism, mute (although with a hint of speech). He is also potentially a savant, which fits in very well with the scenario for Eureka. The inclusion of an autistic character is an obvious point of interest for me, and I looked forward to some interesting developments. Sure, there's a tendency to latch onto the whole savant thing in film and television narratives, and to exaggerate it to absurd proportions sometimes. That's a stereotype, but at least Kevin wasn't another rain man, and I looked forward to some plots dealing with childhood autism.
But those plot lines never materialized. Instead, through the intervention of the alien entity, Kevin was magically transformed into a typical child, feeding unrealistic fantasies of recovery from autism. This was very, very disappointing. In the final episode, he is freed from the alien influence, with the understanding that he would revert back to his earlier state. But at the end, in a brief scene, he seemed to retain his power of speech, somehow. I just can't help but think that this represents a missed opportunity to actually engage in a substantive way with the realities of autism.
So, not enough fantasy where fantasy is called for, and not enough reality where reality is called for. This is a program that could have been something special, but has unfortunately missed the mark.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
So, yesterday I stopped by a local liquor store to pick up a six--in New York State, where I grew up, beer was never sold in liquor stores, but only in supermarkets, grocery stores, and beverage centers, while in New Jersey beer is only sold in liquor stores. And I saw a beer I don't remember seeing before, that really caught my eye with it's orange and brown label and packaging. The brewer's name is Magic Hat (how about that!) located in South Burlington, Vermont, and the name of the beer is the enigmatic #9!!! A reference to The Beatles perhaps--remember Revolution #9 (number nine, number nine, number nine...)--or to Cloud Nine maybe, or the nine lives that cats are said to have?
I really can't tell. But the name is followed by the following description: "flavored not quite pale ale" which is also a bit mysterious. Definitely what McLuhan referred to as a cool medium. In fact, a nice, cold one. Anyway, on the little label on the neck of the bottle I found the following text:
The ancient ritual of brewing a distinctly rich and flavorful beer is nothing short of magic. Our mysterious mix of time-honored ingredients, chaotic chemistry, humble patience, and blind faith age into the secret brew we share in the rousing company of good spirits.
Tell me that's not intriguing, and ya gotta love the reference to chaos theory--maybe a bit of the old magic ecology? So, I open the bottle, and notice that under each cap is a little message--shades of Snapple! The one I just opened said "It's all a Movie, but it's Your Movie" which isn't exactly fortune cookie profound or Snapplishly noteworthy, but does add a little bit of fun to the proceedings.
But none of this means a lick if da beer don't taste good. But if it didn't taste good, I wouldn't be writing this, would I? And it is good, excellent really, absolutely delightful, and surprisingly so. It's definitely on the pale side, light, but it does have a lot of flavor, a fruity quality that's not too strong, just enough to give it a little extra something. The bottom line? I found it utterly delightful.
Now, you may be wondering if this is some kind of paid endorsement. It isn't. This is entirely unsolicited, 100% me just wanting to share this with you, and recommend something that is both interesting in regard to packaging, and a really great beer. I am getting nothing in return for this.
But, if the Magic Hat Brewing Company sees this and wants to send me some more, well, I won't protest.
But even if you are an absolute teetotaler, let me recommend their website to you. I took a look before writing this, and I have to say that it is also quite involved, and a bit mysterious. One frustrating thing about it is that I couldn't copy and paste their images to pretty up this post, or copy and paste their text, so I had to type the following in all on my lonesome--see what I do for you? Here's what they say about #9, which appears to be one of about a dozen or so beers that they sell:
A Beer Cloaked in Secrecy
An ale whose mysterious and unusual palate will swirl across your tongue and ask more questions than it answers.
A beer brewed clandestinely and given a name whose meaning is never revealed. Why #9? Why, indeed.
A sort of dry, crisp, fruity, refreshing, not-quite pale ale. #9 is really impossible to describe because there's never been anything else quite like it.
And they're right! I really can't compare it to anyone other beer I've ever had.
Anyway, the website, http://www.magichat.net, is more than a little strange-looking, intriguing in its imagery, offering "amusements" and "happenings" in addition to information about the beers, a shop with t-shirts and the like, a search engine for finding outlets that carry the beer, and under the heading of "Mother Ode" there's "A Brief and Illuminating History of the Magic Hat Brewing Company, An alchemistic tale of great intestinal fortitude and mental fermentation" all in the form of an extended poem!
I should add that I think there are problems with this web design. It's attractive, fun, intriguing, but difficult to navigate or get a handle on. I'm not sure it's as effective as it could be. But you can go judge for yourself now, if you care to. Me, I'm going to get another #9.
Sunday, October 7, 2007
As has so often been repeated, it was the show about nothing, which actually means that it was the show about communication (ever read what Plato had to say about rhetoric in the Phaedrus and the Gorgias?). It was Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life turned into twenty-two minutes of comedy a week. And more often than not, it was a show about media--someone needs to compile a key of all of the references to motion pictures, other television shows, comics, and other forms of popular culture that were used in the series. As a show about nothing, it was easy to fill it up with innumerable references, allusions, and quotations.
And so, not surprisingly, Seinfeld has lent itself to further play with its iconography, re-imagining the sitcom along the lines of grand fantasy. In this spirit, I want to share with you an image my son found on the net, entitled Seinfeld Wars:
I thought that was pretty comical, especially George as R2D2, and Newman in the background as Darth Vader. Jerry fits in nicely as Luke Skywalker, Elaine makes sense as Princess Leia (and Elaine is essentially a Jewish-American Princess, even though the character is identified as a shiksa (non-Jewish woman) on the show--George and Kramer are both Jewish character types as well, even though they are presented as gentiles).
Probably the toughest decision was whether to make Kramer into Chewbacca the Wookie (Kramer does have some animalistic traits), or to depict him as C3P0, as was done here. I think this was the right choice, as they share the same quality of awkwardness, although the decision to have him hold a gun strikes me as a mistake--that's not C3P0 at all! Instead, a better correspondence would have been to give Kramer one of his typically confused expressions.
So anyway, I took a further look, and found a Seinfeld Wizard of Oz as well:
This one isn't as good, simply because the correspondence between the characters is less than perfect. Sure, Elaine could be Dorothy, who else? Jerry? Actually, in terms of group dynamics, that would make more sense. So, Jerry as the Tin Man? No heart? Jerry? I don't think so. Kramer as the Scarecrow works in regard to body type and that same awkwardness, although (as my son just pointed out to me), personality-wise the Cowardly Lion might be a better fit. Again, George as the Cowardly Lion seems to be more about body type than personality. So, nice try, but it just doesn't work.
Now, I have not done an exhaustive search, so maybe a Star Trek Seinfeld is out there? Jerry as Captain Kirk, Elaine as Lieutenant Uhura, George as Dr. McCoy, and Kramer as, what else? The alien, Mr. Spock. Well, if it hasn't been done, maybe there's an artist out there willing to take this on?
How about applying McLuhan's laws of media to form a Seinfeld tetrad? Here goes:
All right, all right, enough already, I admit it. This has been the blog about nothing, and that's no fantasy.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Here's how it begins:
Not long ago, the path by which the recent Justice Department scandal traveled from tidbit to tsunami would have been seen as an exotic trip through an unknown land. These days, it’s almost routine. A prominent blogger — Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo — posted an item last December about a US attorney who had been fired for mysterious reasons. Marshall asked his readers for help. And in the weeks and months that followed, they responded by sending him similar tales. Marshall and his posse of blogger-reporters kept the story cooking on Talking Points Memo and a companion site, TPM Muckraker. The mainstream media finally noticed that the Bush administration had been playing politics with federal prosecutors. Soon, the Justice Department was in full meltdown mode. And, in late summer, after many months of twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finally resigned.
Okay, now get ready for the media ecology reference coming up in the second paragraph:
That this tale of media ecology now seems unremarkable says much about how rapidly the media have evolved in the Internet age. At a moment when the traditional media are hemorrhaging readers, viewers, and listeners, a new type of media — democratic, decentralized, grassroots, melding elements of journalism with political activism — is thriving. The animating idea behind the most innovative projects is that news is a conversation. No longer should readers, viewers, or listeners be seen as passive recipients of whatever the media feel like feeding them. Now we can talk back — and, more importantly, participate.
So, we're talking interactive media, and democratizing, both longstanding themes relating to new media. But now, here comes the issue of concern:
It is a remarkably open moment, similar to radio in the early part of the 20th century. As with radio, some corporations — in this case, the telecommunications giants — would like to bring that moment to a close by pricing small players out of existence. The threat is real; if “net neutrality,” the term for the equal access we now enjoy, is lost, we’ll be getting most of our online content from the same media giants that dominate broadcast, cable, and print. For now, though, the open Internet is enabling grassroots media on an unprecedented scale.
So, net neutrality is the concern here. If you haven't heard the term before, or if you have but are not entirely sure what it refers to, it's worthwhile familiarizing yourself with the issue, and this article serves as an accessible introduction. Now, Kennedy goes on to mention some of what's at stake:
Consider this: were it not for YouTube, Virginia voters never would have seen Republican senator George Allen blurt out the vaguely racist word “macaca” at Democratic rival Jim Webb’s dark-skinned, video-camera-wielding aide last fall. Not only would have voters likely re-elected Allen, but today he might well have emerged as a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Instead, he’s back home in Virginia, wondering how it all went wrong.
Or look at MoveOn.org and Daily Kos, two websites devoted to political organizing from a progressive point of view. Such sites have proved so adept at generating money and excitement that they may well have been indispensable to the Democrats’ taking back both branches of Congress last fall. (Not that such sites can’t sometimes prove to be a mixed blessing — witness how the right mobilized over MoveOn’s recent full-page ad in the New York Times asking whether General David Petraeus might prove to be “General Betray Us.”)
Indeed, Internet-based political activists — the “netroots” — have become such a crucial part of the Democratic and progressive base that Jonathan Chait, whose magazine, the New Republic, is frequently lambasted by these activists for its insufficient ardor on behalf of progressive causes, has called them “the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right more than two decades ago.” And that’s just the overtly political side of the new media. If anything, the effect on journalism may prove to be even more revolutionary.
Dan Gillmor, who popularized the term “citizen journalist” in his influential 2004 book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People , likes to refer to these newly engaged, interactive news junkies as “the former audience.” Gillmor writes: “Tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation, or a seminar. The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communications network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just the few who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar printing presses, launch satellites, or win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airwaves.”
What might this conversational, revolutionary news model look like?
• In an attempt to combine the social-networking power of sites like MySpace and Facebook with journalism, a nascent, experimental project called NewsTrust encourages participants to rate news stories, media outlets, and even one other. Unlike the more popular Digg or Reddit, which asks users only if they like or dislike a particular story, NewsTrust users are presented with a wide range of criteria, including thoroughness, fairness, and sourcing. It’s the classic “wisdom of the crowd” notion — the best and most important stories should rise to the top, regardless of whether they appeared in the mainstream media, on an alternative website, or in a blog.
I should interject here that crowds are not necessarily wise, we don't often speak of the wisdom of the mob or the masses, nor do we necessarily view popularity contests as legitimate means for determining quality. There is some need for standards, for professionalism, for elites. That's the basis of systems of education, of legal systems and systems of justice, or art as a system as well. Without editors, gatekeepers, the problem we face in the information age is overload, and how to separate the wheat from the chaff, how to decide what is worth paying attention to in the limited amount of time we have available to us. Following the crowd may not be the best strategy. This is not to discount the argument being made here, I am sympathetic to what Kennedy is saying. It's just that it is not an unmitigated good, as Neil Postman would say, we need to consider what this will undo as well as what it will do for us. And I do believe that what Kennedy is describing is the clear and definite bias of the new media, so the problem will not be how to safeguard it, but how to balance it out. But back to the article now:
• New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has long used his widely read blog, PressThink, to argue for journalism that somehow combines the best of the traditional media with the energy of bloggers and citizen journalists. Now Rosen is attempting to put that into practice. His latest project, NewAssignment.Net, is devoted to what he calls “pro/am” or “open source” reporting — professional journalists and the “former audience” working together, applying more human capital to a journalistic endeavor than even the best-funded investigative team would be able to muster. It’s too early to tell whether NewAssignment.Net will be successful, but some of its projects — like “Off the Bus,” presidential-campaign dispatches produced by amateur correspondents and uploaded to the Huffington Post — are intriguing.Jay was a student of Neil Postman's and a graduate of Postman's media ecology doctoral program, and this is his way of addressing the specific needs of the journalism profession. Jay views the role of journalists much the way that Neil viewed the role of teachers in books like Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and Teaching as a Conserving Activity. So, he by no means is looking for the abolition of professional reporters and editors in favor of new media amateurism, but rather wants to revitalize their profession. Okay, back to Kennedy:
• Across the country and around the world, people are setting up local blogs to cover the comings and goings of their communities. They range from slick efforts like Baristanet, a for-profit site in Essex County, New Jersey, to a wide range of amateur (and often amateurish) projects slapped together by activists and cranks alike, read by just a handful of people. With even small weekly newspapers getting snapped up by large, out-of-state corporations, these local blogs — “placeblogs,” as they have been dubbed by Lisa Williams, founder of H2otown in Watertown — are emerging as a vital alternative.
Clearly, the industrial, top-down, corporate-controlled news media of the past 150 years are in the midst of giving way to something else. The late social critic Neil Postman was not alone in pointing out the fallacy of thinking about new technology as nothing more than a better, faster version of that which it replaced. Superficially, radio was the audio equivalent of print, and television was radio with pictures. Because each of these developments required less work and less engagement on the part of the consumer, each led to an increased reliance on emotion over reason, on received certainty over critical thinking.
Of course, Neil was deeply concerned about these developments, as Kennedy implies.
Radio, and especially television, are passive, one-way media. Since the advent of television, radio has been the medium of choice mainly for people doing something else (driving, cooking, exercising), which at least ensures a certain amount of blood flow to the brain. Television, though, can only be taken in while sitting reasonably still, the better to receive messages in all their packaged totality. It’s an alternate reality that seems as real, or more real, than what’s taking place outside our homes. It has created a society of alienated, atomized individuals; a decline in civic engagement; and an expectation that entertainment and information are merely to be received, not acted upon.
This passive model of media consumption was the inevitable consequence of the Industrial Revolution, whose giantism influenced the media as fully as every other sphere of life. As Yale University law professor Yochai Benkler shows in his 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks , as recently as 1835, James Gordon Bennett was able to found the New York Herald, perhaps the first truly modern newspaper, with an investment of just $500 — $10,400 in 2005 dollars. By 1850, the cost of launching a daily paper had risen to $100,000, or nearly $2.4 million in 2005 dollars, thanks to the introduction of high-speed industrial presses, the telegraph, and the concomitant rise of wire services. Needless to say, once the 20th century rolled around, the cost of launching radio and television stations was exponentially higher than that of starting a newspaper. All of this led to the media environment with which we’re so familiar today: enormous organizations controlling nearly all of our television and radio stations, newspapers, books, magazines, music, and film, with little or no competition and virtually no meaningful way for citizens to interact with them.
But, typically, media ecologists do not use the Industrial Revolution as our punctuation mark, as common a practice as that may be. Instead, we trace the shift back to the mechanization that begins with the invention of the printing press with movable type in 15th century Germany, and is fueled primarily by the knowledge explosion that printing made possible. That's the beginning of mass production and passive reception of information via print media (albeit with very activating results).
Admittedly, there was a communications revolution that began in the early 18th century with the application of steam power to printing, resulting in the first mass circulation newspapers, followed by an ongoing explosion of new media such as photography, telegraphy, sound recording, motion pictures, radio, and television. But along with that giantism he mentions, and more significantly, is the speeding up of communications via electricity, and the ability to recreate reality via film, sound recording, and broadcasting. So we tend to see a continuity between the 1820s and today. But there are some who see the computer as representing something different from the electronic media that came before it, as introducing that new element of interactivity in contrast to the one-way nature of the mass media (but not, I would note, the telegraph and telephone, or photography for that matter), and Kennedy is one of them:
But then the Internet happened. And rather than being simply the next phase of industrialization, the Internet mode of media proved to be distinctly post-industrial. To be sure, huge corporations have tried mightily to stake their claims. Every media organization, large and small, has its own Web site, and the online incarnations of the New York Times , the Washington Post , and MSNBC, to name a few, are among the most-visited news sites on the Web. But, in contrast to the industrial media, the Internet enables small players and individuals to engage on a roughly equal footing with Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch. Moreover, the Internet is uniquely suited to talking back, thus transforming what had been a we-speak/you-listen model into something approaching a dialogue. “Statements in the public sphere can now be seen as invitations for a conversation, not as finished goods,” writes Benkler.This is consistent with media ecologists who argue in favor of the computer and related technologies, like my colleague Paul Levinson, and my buddy Doug Rushkoff, and Howard Rheingold, to name a few. And I am sympathetic to this view, these technologies do introduce something new, although I would maintain that they also extend and reinforce some preexisting tendencies of the electronic media. But let's go back to Kennedy, as he acknowledges that gatekeeping problem I mentioned earlier, albeit dismissing it rather quickly:
But what of the cacophony of voices? If everyone is shouting, can anyone be heard? This is not an insignificant problem. The level of Internet discourse can be quite low, and it’s a challenge to weed out the consequential from the irrelevant. Yet this problem is not insurmountable. For one thing, judging the relative credibility of various websites and blogs is not all that different from deciding that the New York Times does a better job than the New York Post. News and political websites and bloggers must earn trust by doing good, reliable work over time, just like mainstream-media organizations.
The Internet, though, offers tools that empower the community to make those judgments in ways that just weren’t possible with traditional media. Tim O’Reilly, in his 2005 essay “What Is Web 2.0,” is far from alone in putting this in terms of “collective intelligence.” And, indeed, the tools that have come to be associated with Web 2.0 — tagging content so others can easily find it; sharing it on social-media sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Digg; mass rewriting and editing, as with Wikipedia; or group blogging (with the “best” posts being sent to the top of the heap by the community), as with Daily Kos and a number of other political sites — allow for a certain rough consensus that gathers the judgments of many people.
Moreover, the very notion of mass media and mass audiences is giving way to small, specialized sites, to niches within niches within niches. The pioneering blogger David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999), which anticipated much of this movement, has put it this way: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 people.” Most of the Internet — and certainly that part of it devoted to political activism, blogging, and independent journalism — exists somewhere in “the long tail,” a phrase popularized by Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson to describe the vast majority of products, such as books and CDs, that sell in too little numbers to warrant being stocked by, say, Wal-Mart, but that can easily justify their existence in a virtual world without warehouses and inventory.
Anderson’s description sounds a lot like the new media landscape that is starting to slip into view. “You can think of the Long Tail starting as a traditional monetary economy at the head and ending in a nonmonetary economy at the tail,” he writes in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006). “In between the two, it’s a mixture of both.”
Until recently, the news media were all head, no tail. Now the head is shrinking, but the tail is lengthening. Before it stopped posting a McDonald’s-style tally on its home page earlier this year, Technorati, a search engine for blogs, had claimed that there were as many as 70 million blogs in existence. And in between the head and the tail, as Anderson observes, is the mix of paid and unpaid content — the NewAssignment.Net experiment in “pro/am” journalism, or Josh Marshall’s reader-driven investigation of the Justice Department, or the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that led an investigation into congressional earmarks last year built mainly on an online appeal to readers to contact their congressional representatives, ask some tough questions, and e-mail the results.
However overly optimistic this view may be, the issue of net neutrality that Kennedy now returns to is important to consider:
As the tail lengthens, Big Media are starting to panic. In this regard, the canary in the coal mine is the music industry, which is going after everyone from high-school and college students who download music from those peer-to-peer networks that haven’t yet been sued out of existence to the meager earnings of Internet radio stations in an attempt to shore up its once-guaranteed monopoly profits.
It could get a lot worse. Not long ago, the idea that corporations could use their power to gain control of the Internet might have sounded ridiculous. The Internet, after all, is an open platform, with a capacity that is, for all practical purposes, infinite. Even with the media giants’ setting up vast websites and pulling in huge numbers of eyeballs, there was nothing to stop ordinary citizens from pursuing their own projects. Right?
Well, sort of. In fact, the Internet may not be as impervious to the depredations of Corporate America as we might have thought. In his book Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, published earlier this year, veteran media activist Jeff Chester traces the long, dispiriting history of media regulation in the United States and predicts that, if we’re not careful, the Internet — like radio and television before it — will be handed over to business interests by elected officials dependent on their campaign contributions and by regulators hoping for lucrative industry careers once they leave government service.
But wait — didn’t radio and television fall into corporate hands because of a simple law of physics? Didn’t hopes for a democratic broadcasting regime fall victim to the reality that there are only so many broadcasting frequencies out there? How is that even remotely comparable to the Internet and its limitless capacity?
The argument Chester makes is that we should stop thinking about the Internet as it is and instead focus on the much faster Internet of the future — an Internet supercharged with fiber optics, capable of delivering broadcast-quality television, full-length movies, and all sorts of content well beyond the capacity of today’s cable and DSL connections. This is the Internet that could be closed off and reserved for corporate content. Or, as AT&T chief executive Ed Whitacre memorably put it in 2005, “Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?”
In return for bringing the next-generation Internet online, the telecommunications companies want to be allowed to do away with “net neutrality” — that is, to be allowed to charge content-providers a premium to take advantage of the faster speeds. Such a two-tiered arrangement would relegate nonprofits, community-based sites, lone bloggers, and the like to the slow lane — and, eventually, to oblivion, as users would come to see them as too retro and too frustratingly slow to bother with.
The Internet is the single greatest threat to corporate dominance of the media since the industrial model was established a century and a half ago. It would be naïve to think that these corporations wouldn’t fight back. In so doing, they are embracing (as Neil Postman predicted they would) not the strategy of Orwell’s 1984, but of Huxley’s Brave New World. By ensuring that all the latest, richest, coolest content is on the new, high-speed, corporate-controlled Net, they’ll deprive the independent sites of the oxygen they need to survive. And we’ll be so overloaded with entertainment that we won’t care.
“That the self-serving interests of a few giants could end up threatening the potential of the Internet to serve democracy and fair competition illustrates the corruption and intellectual bankruptcy of U.S. communications policymaking,” Chester writes. The election of a Democratic Congress last November, and the ascendance of pro-consumer congressmen like US Representative Edward Markey to key regulatory positions, may help stave off the telecoms — for now. But these behemoths, after all, donate to members of both parties. A leading proponent of the campaign to do away with net neutrality is former Bill Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry. Clearly, the assault on the open Internet is a bipartisan proposition.
The fight to ensure net neutrality is the first great media regulatory war of the 21st century. The outcome will determine whether the Berlin Wall is really falling down — or if, instead, this is a Prague spring, a brief moment of freedom that will inevitably be followed by a new wave of corporate media dominance.
A counterexample comes to mind. When the ancestor of the internet, the arpanet, was first set up, it was a network limited to an elite group of research universities. Other schools that were shut out of this network set up the rival bitnet, while hobbyists outside of academia created the fidonet (readers of a certain age will remember these networks). And what happened? The separate networks became increasingly more interconnected, until they were absorbed into the internet. This is the bias of this technology, to absorb and interconnect, not to isolate. So I would predict that efforts to establish a net apart will not hold up, at least not in the long run.
It is true that the big players need a faster internet to support better data transfer for audiovisual content. But those of us doing simple blogs may not need faster lines--does the time it takes to load this blog bother you at all? So, I'm not sure that the problem is quite as acute as Kennedy and others make it out to be.
And at least some of the big players will still want people to create their content for them, so something like YouTube will not be shut out. Google won't be left out. Since YouTube owns blogger.com, I think this blog will probably also come along for the ride.
So, again, I believe that in the long run, net neutrality is a given. But policy is about reacting to events in the short term, and in the short run some damage could be done if the corporate interests have their way. So Dan Kennedy does have my support. Oh, and to be fair, here's the byline from the article:
Dan Kennedy, a Phoenix contributing writer, teaches journalism at Northeastern University and blogs at Media Nation (medianation.blogspot.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.
But when Kennedy cites Postman towards the end of the article, noting that corporations employ the strategy of amusing us to death, it is important to add that putting dumb ass videos up on YouTube is no countermeasure. Neither is putting dumb ass political videos up there, or on an independent website. The problem is that net neutrality may simply allow everyone to amuse each other to death, rather than allows ourselves to be amused to death by the corporations. Not much difference there, from Postman's point of view.
What's needed is a new new medium, one we don't have yet, one with a bias towards logical, coherent, reasoned discourse. But we may not be able to find it on the net, neutral or otherwise.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
As media ecologist Jacques Ellul explained in his classic book, Propaganda, even totalitarian governments base their legitimacy on the consent of the people. Whether they actually have that consent is irrelevant, the bottom line is that they must maintain the appearance of government of, by, and for the people. Look how quickly the mighty Soviet Union collapsed, even with the largest army in the world, once its legitimacy was revealed to be illusory. There is no doubt that the lesson was learned by the government of China, and neighboring Burma.
How could the junta not see the writing on the wall when the monks turned on them in this deeply religious society? The significance of the events was discussed in last Sunday's Week in Review section of the New York Times (September 30, 2007), in an article entitled "What Makes a Monk Mad" by Seth Mydans:
As they marched through the streets of Myanmar’s cities last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.
It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families — effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.
That gesture is a key to understanding the power of the rebellion that shook Myanmar last week.
The country — the former Burma — has roughly as many monks as soldiers. The military rules by force, but the monks retain ultimate moral authority. The lowliest soldier depends on them for spiritual approval, and even the highest generals have felt a need to honor the clerical establishment. They claim to rule in its name.
Begging is a ritual that expresses a profound bond between the ordinary Buddhist and the monk. “The people are feeding the monks and the monks are helping the people make merit,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University. “When you refuse to accept, you have broken the bond that has tied them for centuries together.”
Instead, the monks drew on a different and more fundamental bond with Myanmar’s population, leading huge demonstrations after the government tried to repress protests that began a month ago over a rise in fuel prices.
By last week, the country’s two largest and most established institutions were confronting each other, the monkhood and the military, both about 400,000 strong, both made up of young men, mostly from the poorer classes, who could well be brothers. Rejected by both its spiritual and popular bases, the junta that has ruled for 19 years had little to fall back on but force.
It unleashed its troops to shoot, beat, arrest and humiliate the men in brick-red robes, definitively alienating itself from the clergy whose support gives it legitimacy. Soldiers surrounded monasteries, preventing monks from leading further demonstrations — or from making their morning rounds to collect the alms that feed them.
In Myanmar and other Buddhist nations, many join the monkhood as a lifelong vocation, but many other young men become monks for shorter periods, ranging from a few months to a few years. These young monks remain closer to the lives and concerns of the people whose alms they receive.
Burmese monks have taken part in protests in the past, against British colonial rule and against a half-century of rule by military dictatorship. The most notable recent occasion was in 1990.
Their militant resistance to the British produced the most prominent political martyr of Burmese Buddhism, U Wisara, who died in prison in 1929 after a 166-day hunger strike.
His statue stands near the tall, golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s holiest shrine, which was a rallying point for the recent demonstrations and the scene of the first violence against the monks last week.
That attack came as a shock to people who said the military would not turn violently against the monks, and it had the predictable effect of arousing the fury of a devout population.
But monks have not always been in the political front lines. It was students, for example, who led the mass demonstrations of 1988 that brought the current junta to power in a military massacre.
The monks’ power comes instead from their role in bestowing legitimacy on the rulers.
“Legitimacy in Burma is not about regime performance, it’s not about human rights like the West,” said Ingrid Jordt, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and an expert on Burmese Buddhism. “It is something that comes from the potency and karma bestowed by the monks. That’s why the sangha is so important to the government,” she said, referring to the Buddhist hierarchy and the spiritual status that its monks can convey. “They are actually the source of power.”
The junta has gone to great lengths to identify itself with Buddhism. Like their predecessors through the centuries, the generals have been busy building temples, supporting monasteries and carrying out religiously symbolic acts. In 1999, they regilded the spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which now glitters with 53 tons of gold and 4,341 diamonds on the crowning orb.
The gilding of the spire was a high-risk ploy for an unpopular regime, an act permitted only to kings and legitimate rulers. When the two-ton, seven-tier finial was added and the spire was complete, the nation held its breath, waiting for the earth to send a signal of disapproval through lightning or thunder or floods, Ms. Jordt said. But nature remained indifferent.
“Aung pyi!” the generals shouted. “We won!”
But their grip on power has never been secure. They have ruled through a security service that keeps order through intimidation. They have arrested thousands of political prisoners and have held the pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
In that context, the huge street demonstrations were an act of courage and catharsis.
They started tentatively on Aug. 19 after a fuel price increase raised the costs of transportation and basic goods. Veterans of the student demonstrations of 1988 staged small protests, but most were quickly arrested or driven into hiding. The unrest was fading when security officers beat monks and fired shots into the air during a confrontation in the city of Pakokku on Sept. 5.
That became a spark that grew into a broad-based challenge to the government, culminating last week in the breach between those who hold moral authority and those who have the guns.
“This was not an accidental uprising,” said Zin Linn, a former editor and political prisoner who is now information minister for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile opposition group based in Washington. The transition in leadership in the protests — from militant former students to activist monks — was well planned, he said, through secret meetings among young men sharing similar grievances and aspirations for their country. For the most part, it was not the elders who backed the protests. Over the years, the junta has worked to co-opt the Buddhist hierarchy, placing chosen men in key positions just as they have done in every other institution, angering and alienating the younger monks.
After the military clampdown on the monasteries last week, the streets of Yangon were mostly empty of monks. But their gesture of rejection of the junta, and the junta’s violent response, had changed the dynamics of Burmese society in ways that had only begun to play out.
The junta’s action “shows how desperate they are,” Ms. Jordt said. “It shows that they are willing to do anything at this point in terms of violence. Once you’ve thrown your lot in against the monks, I think it will be impossible for the regime to go back to normal daily legitimacy.”
And so, the military tries to draw the blinds and curtains, by cutting off the internet, a strategy that only seems feasible because of the slow diffusion of technology in this impoverished nation. As usual, my friend and colleague at the University of Toronto (where he is an heir to the media ecology legacy of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan), Ron Deibert, and his OpenNet Initiative has assessed the situation--the following comes from an OpenNet Initiative Blog entry posted on Saturday, September 29:
The brave citizen journalists of Myanmar
IT vs Guns
The Guns can’t shoot down the “IT”
The Winner is Burmese People
-thread on overseas portal Mandalay Gazette
An extraordinary mobilization by “civilian” or citizen journalists and bloggers to keep information flowing out of Myanmar continued even as Burmese authorities violently targeted monks, protesters, and journalists. Images of bloody, ransacked monasteries, chaos, and casualties have circulated around the world along with a battery of videos and an outpouring of comments (see Cboxes here and here).
However, after blocking certain blogs and websites, the junta then moved to shut down the Glite revolution (named after a proxy server popular in Burmese cybercafes, this refers to the use of small-scale technologies to circumvent the firewall) and cripple the essential communication tools used by citizen journalists: cellphones and the Internet.
While filtering is typically employed to keep information from reaching within a country’s borders, the junta used a tactic much more crude than a firewall by cutting off Internet access altogether in Yangon and Mandalay. Raids on ISP offices were also reported. As a result, many of the lifelines of images, updates, and witness accounts fell at least momentarily silent or slowed to a trickle.
A chorus of voices from Myanmar, China, and elsewhere around the world calling for UN action have also pointed out the importance of China’s role, beyond the resonant example of Internet censorship that it provides. The Chinese government, Myanmar’s largest trade partner, has also recently rendered tens of thousands of websites inaccessible as a result of the unplugging of Internet data centers.
It is unclear whether or how much this “saffron revolution” resembles the “color revolutions” that took place earlier this decade in several countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. In Georgia and Ukraine, for example, “networked” movements maximized cell phone technology and used the Internet as a platform in political mobilization for new elections. The New York Times reports that the US government is now considering purchasing cellphones to disseminate information.
Mobilization funneled through exile organizations, NGOs, and independent media has gone viral. And although media is already weighing in on the potential loss of political impact as Internet and phone access is compromised, a relatively small number of individuals has already virtually ensured that Burmese authorities will face some measure of accountability for their repression.
Some accountability indeed. I discussed the situation in Burma in my Communication and Technology class on Monday--at least some of the students should be reading this post--and talked about the larger context of censorship and technology. Simply put, you can intercept and confiscate material items such as books, magazines, newspapers, tapes, discs, etc., at a border, but it is much harder if not impossible to censor or block electronic communications, especially wireless transmissions and broadcasts. Looking back again at the fall of the Soviet Union, it was the widespread diffusion of television, and satellite TV reception in particular, during the eighties, that set the stage for the collapse of that empire.
Ron Deibert and another media ecologically minded scholar, Mitchell Stephens of New York University's Journalism Department, are quoted in another New York Times article published today, entitled "Myanmar Junta Unplugs Internet," also by Seth Mydans:
BANGKOK, Oct. 3 — It was about as simple and uncomplicated as shooting demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by smuggled video and photographs that showed their people rising up against them, the generals who run Myanmar simply switched off the Internet.
Until Friday television screens and newspapers abroad were flooded with scenes of tens of thousands of red-robed monks in the streets and of chaos and violence as the junta stamped out the biggest popular uprising there in two decades.
But then the images, text messages and postings stopped, shut down by generals who belatedly grasped the power of the Internet to jeopardize their crackdown.
“Finally they realized that this was their biggest enemy, and they took it down,” said Aung Zaw, editor of an exile magazine based in Thailand called The Irrawaddy, whose Web site has been a leading source of information in recent weeks. The site has been attacked by a virus whose timing raises the possibility that the military government has a few skilled hackers in its ranks.
The efficiency of this latest, technological, crackdown raises the question whether the vaunted role of the Internet in undermining repression can stand up to a determined and ruthless government — or whether Myanmar, already isolated from the world, can ride out a prolonged shutdown more easily than most countries.
OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet censorship, has documented signs that in recent years several governments — including those of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — have closed off Internet access, or at least opposition Web sites, during periods preceding elections or times of intense protests.
The brief disruptions are known as “just in time” filtering, said Ronald J. Deibert of OpenNet. They are designed to quiet opponents while maintaining an appearance of technical difficulties, thus avoiding criticism from abroad.
In 2005, King Gyanendra of Nepal ousted the government and imposed a weeklong communications blackout. Facing massive protests, he ceded control in 2006.
Myanmar has just two Internet service providers, and shutting them down was not complicated, said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch. Along with the Internet, the junta cut off most telephone access to the outside world. Soldiers on the streets confiscated cameras and video-recording cellphones.
“The crackdown on the media and on information flow is parallel to the physical crackdown,” he said. “It seems they’ve done it quite effectively. Since Friday we’ve seen no new images come out.”
In keeping with the country’s self-imposed isolation over the past half-century, Myanmar’s military seemed prepared to cut the country off from the virtual world just as it had from the world at large. Web access has not been restored, and there is no way to know if or when it might be.
At the same time, the junta turned to the oldest tactic of all to silence opposition: fear. Local journalists and people caught transmitting information or using cameras are being threatened and arrested, according to Burmese exile groups.
In a final, hurried telephone call, Mr. Aung Zaw said, one of his longtime sources said goodbye.
“We have done enough,” he said the source told him. “We can no longer move around. It is over to you — we cannot do anything anymore. We are down. We are hunted by soldiers — we are down.”
There are still images to come, Mr. Aung Zaw said, and as soon as he receives them and his Web site is back up, the world will see them.
But Mr. Mathieson said the country’s dissidents were reverting to tactics of the past, smuggling images out through cellphones, breaking the files down for reassembly later.
It is not clear how much longer the generals can hold back the future. Technology is making it harder for dictators and juntas to draw a curtain of secrecy.
“There are always ways people find of getting information out, and authorities always have to struggle with them,” said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of “A History of News.”
“There are fewer and fewer events that we don’t have film images of: the world is filled with Zapruders,” he said, referring to Abraham Zapruder, the onlooker who recorded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Before Friday’s blackout, Myanmar’s hit-and-run journalists were staging a virtuoso demonstration of the power of the Internet to outmaneuver a repressive government. A guerrilla army of citizen reporters was smuggling out pictures even as events were unfolding, and the world was watching.
“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank A. Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.
Since the protests began in mid-August, people have sent images and words through SMS text messages and e-mail and on daily blogs, according to some exile groups that received the messages. They have posted notices on Facebook, the social networking Web site. They have sent tiny messages on e-cards. They have updated the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
They also used Internet versions of “pigeons” — the couriers that reporters used in the past to carry out film and reports — handing their material to embassies or nongovernment organizations with satellite connections.
Within hours, the images and reports were broadcast back into Myanmar by foreign radio and television stations, informing and connecting a public that hears only propaganda from its government.
These technological tricks may offer a model to people elsewhere who are trying to outwit repressive governments. But the generals’ heavy-handed response is probably a less useful model.
Nations with larger economies and more ties to the outside world have more at stake. China, for one, could not consider cutting itself off as Myanmar has done, and so control of the Internet is an industry in itself.
“In China, it’s massive,” said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There’s surveillance and intimidation, there’s legal regulation and there is commercial leverage to force private Internet companies to self-censor,” he said. “And there is what we call the Great Firewall, which blocks hundreds of thousands of Web sites outside of China.”
Yet for all its efforts, even China cannot entirely control the Internet, an easier task in a smaller country like Myanmar.
As technology makes everyone a potential reporter, the challenge in risky places like Myanmar will be accuracy, said Vincent Brossel, head of the Asian section of the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders.
“Rumors are the worst enemy of independent journalism,” he said. “Already we are hearing so many strange things. So if you have no flow of information and the spread of rumors in a country that is using propaganda — that’s it. You are destroying the story, and day by day it goes down.”
The technological advances on the streets of Myanmar are the latest in a long history of revolutions in the transmission of news — from the sailing ship to the telegraph to international telephone lines and the telex machine to computers and satellite telephones.
“Today every citizen is a war correspondent,” said Phillip Knightley, author of “The First Casualty,” a classic history of war reporting that starts with letters home from soldiers in Crimea in the 1850s and ends with the “living room war” in Vietnam in the 1970s, the first war that people could watch on television.
“Mobile phones with video of broadcast quality have made it possible for anyone to report a war,” he said in an e-mail interview. “You just have to be there. No trouble getting a start: the broadcasters have been begging viewers to send their stuff.”
Simply put, there can be no secrets in the electronic media environment. And you can see some of the smuggled video on the CNN website.
The problem for so many of us is that there seems to be no effective way to channel the outrage we feel over these events into some form of constructive action. With this blog, I have become part of International Bloggers Day for Burma, and together we are registering a significant protest on the internet. And clicking on either banner will take you to www.free-burma.org, where you can sign the list of participants to register your protest. You can also get the code for graphics, etc., to add to your website, blog, etc. And it's not too late, even if you are reading this after Oct. 4th. To give another example, here's a blog entry by one of my MySpace friends and a leading poet, Amanda Joy, devoted to Poems for Free Burma that represents the response of an entire community (and here's my own modest one). And let me also encourage you to sign this online Stand with Burma Petition.
But, will this make a difference, or does it just provide the illusion of action? I don't know. But, like chicken soup, it can't hurt, perhaps we'll learn something more about the internet through this campaign, and even if it is a losing battle, you still have to fight it, don't you?
Another MySpace blogger asked these kinds of questions, which I responded to in a comment, and having thought this through further, would like to add that here:
There is a sense of impotency that comes with these kinds of events, and it is hard to say whether registering our outrage through posts or signing petitions means anything at all, beyond making us feel better. Perhaps, though, if enough people are concerned about this issue, then our elected officials will feel obliged to take some kind of action. Apart from that, it is very astute of you to ask about markets, and there are some attempts to pressure China, Burma's neighbor and ally, to do something, as China has much more to lose, particularly as host of the next Olympics. It's not much to go on, given China's own dismal record. The only other thing we can do is to collectively send a message saying, we are watching, we are paying attention, there are witnesses, which may not prevent the crime, but perhaps guarantee that sooner or later there will be justice.