[iDC] Public Sphere Polka

Grant Kester gkester at ucsd.edu
Fri Jul 7 23:44:56 EDT 2006

Dear Trebor and all,

I want to second Trebor's call for "actual examples." One of the drawbacks
of the rise to dominance of "theory" as a venerated subject position in the
media arts (and the arts in general) has been an emulation effect: we all
yearn for the comforting mastery of the theoretical voice (I'm as guilty as
anyone else, I'm sure). The result is an impressive breadth of writing and
reflection taken from the middle distance, but relatively few of the kinds
of close, situational readings that give real complexity to a field of
inquiry (and help us move past unproductive generalities). I would be happy
to forgo further invocations of the grand recits of Deleuze, the Italian
autonomists, etc. for a little plumpes denken or vulgar empiricism, some
"thick" descriptions of specific activist new media projects (not myspace,
youtube, or cell phone use), in all their complexity, success and
compromise. Speaking as an "outsider" to new media discourse, that's really
what I hoped to find here. Do any of our list colleagues have some extended
descriptions of this nature that they would be willing to share?

Best wishes,
Grant Kester

On 7/7/06 8:01 PM, "Trebor Scholz" <trebor at thing.net> wrote:

> The liberatory nature of sociable media with regard to politics had not
> been sufficiently mapped in terms of pros and cons before Benkler¹s ³The
> Wealth of Networks.² He delineates the constantly resurfacing
> "ready-made answers" that Tiziana refers to and responds in depth.
> Tiziana offers a succinct bird¹s eye view, a blueprint of this polka of
> arguments that could play on ³shuffle.² She writes:
> "The answers can only be: yes (it has been demonstrated, it is
> constantly been demonstrated in thousands of ways as trebor has
> remarked); no (it cannot constitute a pure opposition because its
> implication in oppressive modes of governmental and economic domination
> is also clearly observable, whether it is about surveillance or
> marketing); and yes and no at the same time (it is both, so the question
> is how to amplify the liberating potential in ways that sidestep its
> oppressive one)."
> While I agree that this dynamic jumps into place, I think that an
> analysis that looks for more specificity and actual examples of
> technologies will make it more difficult for our subject positions to
> simply "fall into place" in a Pavlovian manner.
> It is important to see that we are not talking about an imaginary future
> here. Speculating about the future is different from noticing what is
> going on around us. Future talk easily becomes mixed up with
> techno-utopianism or its scared counterpart. And let me also be
> absolutely clear that I think that networked and embodied experience
> increasingly converges.
> Tiziana-- "The mass today: a field of dispersion. Yes, ok, one can
> produce all this information about the war which is not there in the
> mainstream media [...], but this has no impact overall because the mass
> disperses the potential active effect."
> It depends on what you mean by ³active effect.²
> "Fragmentation of attention and discourse... the ubiquity of information
> and the absence of the mass media [are] condensation points [that] will
> impoverish public discourse by fragmenting it. There will be no public
> sphere. Individuals will view the world through millions of personally
> customized windows that will offer no common ground for political
> discourse or action, except among groups of highly similar individuals
> who customize their windows to see similar things." (Benkler, p.234)
> The large scale, chaotic, Fordist, and uninformed masses that you refer
> to are socialized into systemic submission, I agree sadly though that
> leaves little or no room for hope. If revolution is what you really mean
> by ³active effect,² then, yes, I am doubtful about the extent to which
> sociable media can aid this process.
> Jurgen Habermas always stressed that "the importance of a vital and
> functioning Öffentlichkeit, a sphere of critical publicity distinct from
> the state and the economy, consisting of a broad range of organizations
> that represent public opinion and interest groups, to counter these
> developments and to ensure a pluralist democratic debate in an open
> society that is not entirely dominated by the mass media." (Boeder)
> But in March 06 Habermas stated that:
> "Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of
> communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on
> intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the
> less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens
> the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an
> anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information,
> allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues
> and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the
> growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralized
> access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by
> intellectuals lose their power to create a focus." (Jürgen Habermas
> 03/09/06: acceptance speech for Bruno Kreisky Prize)
> <http://www.networkcultures.org/weblog/archives/2006/07/
> missiondriven_o_1.html#more>
> <http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/the_great_seduction/2006/04/
> jurgen_habermas.html>
> To what extent does it matter if February 15, 2003 did not stop the war?
> Anti-war activists like Lucy Lippard told me many stories about their
> fight against the war in Vietnam. May Stevens, another artist and
> activist was not shy about her contribution: ³We stopped the war in
> Vietnam!² I took them ten years.
> And 02/15/03 witnessed a perhaps more broad-based movement than the
> unfolding of the anti-war efforts against Nixon.
> ³MySpace² is not the battleship ³Potemkin.² People will not protest in
> the streets and then take over the factories and offices, and finally
> throw the Zar and his kin out of the Hermitage (in Argentina or
> Venezuela-- yes, but not in Switzerland and the United States any time
> soon).
> Blogger is not a sleeper cell. Not at all. But something is happening
> that adds novel aspects to the networked public sphere.
> The sheer mass of people who take to the Web to speak about their lives,
> their concerns, their anger, their frustrations creates a new level of
> online sociality that has to be reckoned with. People do connect.
> Obviously that is no new news but the massification of online sociality
> is political due to its participatory nature. This surely changes a
> culture that is otherwise deeply rooted in lonestar individuals who want
> to make it on their own, and give a damn about the group.
> The next argument that many would raise is that of fragmentation and
> information overload. Both are not significant problems because people
> found ways to filter. They aggregate blogs, on their handhelds or a
> desktop computer; they join small concentrated groups.
> "This body of literature on network topology suggests a model for how
> order has emerged on the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the
> blogosphere. The networked public sphere allows hundreds of millions of
> people to publish whatever and whenever they please without
> disintegrating in to an unusable cacophony, as the first-generation
> critics argued, and it filters and focuses attention without re-creating
> the highly concentrated model of the mass media that concerned the
> second-generation critique." (Benkler, p.253)
> Charlie counters that "it seems ... that blogs and other such means need
> to be a lot more than merely a corrective to conventional mass media, if
> they are going to produce a substantially different kind of public
> sphere. Otherwise they risk both merely shoring up the status quo and
> becoming an excuse for tolerating the increasingly craven mass media,
> 'it doesn't matter that Fox/The New York Times/the BBC don't report
> [fill in atrocity/scandal here] because some blog will deal with it'.
> What Charlie demands is already in place. It's not the vague future,
> it¹s not imagined; it¹s not barely emerging; it¹s not a fad but a fact.
> Sociable media don't function as quasi-cathartic substitute but instead
> they force commercial mass media to deal with destabilizing truths.
> Trent Lott is just one, small example.
> The blogosphere actualizes what Indymedia set out to do but never (or
> rarely) managed: to influence the commercial mass media, to get news
> items into the commercial mass media. This happens, and I can at least
> confidently speak for the US, ...all the time.
> Sociable web media already dominate a novel kind of (not necessarily
> progressive) public sphere. If the mind of ³the people,² the ³masses² is
> represented by what we find on MySpace... we can kiss ourselves
> goodnight. People are motivated to participate by hormones, challenge,
> the desire for knowledge, competition, altruism, community
> identification and much much more.
> But it's hard to ignore the 7.7 million college students for whom
> Facebook is a verb now and they do it daily. Just a few more numbers:
> social networking sites attracted 45% of active Internet users in North
> America in April 2006 alone (MySpace: 38.4 million unique users,
> Blogger: 18.5 million unique users, YouTube: 12.5 million unique users).
> YouTube has 60.000 uploads a day now. There are thousands and thousands
> of new blogs every day. Some leftist superstar weblogs receive more
> daily visitors than a TV station called Fox News (you may have heard of
> it). 
> That's not exactly peanuts. The digital divide arguments by critics that
> would surely follow here can be at least in part be addressed by the
> explosive use of cell phones in the developing world. In Uganda,  where
> electricity is indeed a problem, people simply pay on a stand in the
> market-- it costs a few cents to get their cell phone charged.
> "Greetings from the 3.1 billion people of China"
> <http://collectivate.net/journalisms/2006/6/8/the-internet-in-china.htm>
> "Future Mobile: Africa"
> <http://www.collectivate.net/journalisms/2006/6/20/future-mobile-africa-
> and-the-www.html>
> <http://www.cybersoc.com/2006/05/nearly_50_of_us.html>
> In North America youth drifts away from TV screens. They get their news
> online, they watch movies on the computer and of course they play games,
> and listen to music online. We preserve our memories online now (from
> high school year books to photos of romance). A few examples of sociable
> media:
> http://english.ohmynews.com/, http://boingboing.net/,
> http://archive.org/, http://digg.com/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/,
> http://slashdot.org, http://www.blogtopsites.com/,
> http://www.current.tv/, http://www.flickr.com/, http://www.gather.com/,
> http://www.last.fm/, http://www.myspace.com/, http://www.newsvine.com/,
> http://www.ourmedia.org/, http://www.technorati.com/,
> http://www.youtube.com/
> All this speaks to quantity. What about quality? Andreas¹ post and also
> the recent weird "Digital Maoism" essay by Jaron Lanier addressed that
> question.    
> "The qualitative change is represented in the experience of being a
> potential speaker, as opposed to simply a listener and voter. It relates
> to the self-perception of individuals in society and the culture of
> participation they can adopt. The easy possibility of communicating
> effectively into the public sphere allows individuals to reorient
> themselves from passive readers and listeners to potential speakers and
> participants in a conversation. The way we listen to what we hear
> changes because of this; as does, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we
> observe and process daily events in our lives. We no longer need to take
> these as merely private observations, but as potential subjects for
> public communication. This change affects the relative power of the
> media. It affects the structure of intake of observations and views. It
> affects the presentation of issues and observations for discourse. It
> affects the way issues are filtered, for whom and by whom." (Benkler,
> p213) 
> The many people who become media authors are the quality;
> the fact that so many people are activated constitutes a qualitative
> turn.  
> Technologies are indeed not inherently charged up with liberatory
> spirit. From the telegraph, to the telephone and the radio, technologies
> are never inherently good or evil. It depends how we use our own devices
> in line with or contra to the intentions of their inventors. The
> printing press was never solely a tool for social change (Rupert Murdoch
> could attest to that) and yet it supported revolutions.
> If mobile devices have a special role to play in all this, I¹m not sure.
> Be doubtful about it, but acknowledge that very concrete changes were
> made already in the Phillipines, where SMS was instrumental.
> How does all this change the way we navigate the city? How does it
> relate to architecture? Perhaps some locative scholars, architects,
> activists, and artists have to join this round of conversations now?
> Trebor
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Grant H. Kester
Associate Professor, Art History
Visual Arts Department, 0084
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0084
(858) 822-4860
gkester at ucsd.edu

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