[iDC] Public Sphere Polka

tt tterra at fastwebnet.it
Sat Jul 8 06:27:42 EDT 2006

dear trebor, grant and all,

first of all, let me apologise for not clearly distinguishing what I 
thought from the arguments I was referring to (obviously Trebor, I do 
not agree about most things being said about the mass, but I cannot help 
register that there is a diffuse debate about what I can only describe 
as the many, and I do not think we know how to talk about that). So all 
I meant was to open a space to talk about this phenomenon, very visible, 
very vulgarly empirically visible, which is the problem of networks as 
involving large numbers of people in new configurations, which, to me, 
are different than the public sphere or the mass. This is not theory, 
for me, sorry, it's something very practical.

I do apologize though, for all those references to readings that not 
everybody would be familiar with. It was meant to be a moment of sharing 
and not an imposition.To make up for it, I want to talk in more details 
about this project I have been working on for the past year and a half, 
a funded project, into the relationship between East and West - and 
specifically the question of the Image of Islam as something that is 
produced for most inhabitants of this planet not simply through direct 
knowledge of Muslims or participation into the Islamic ummah, but 
through what once used to be called the 'mediation' of representations. 
This has been a very concrete, pragmatic, dramatic problem for what one 
can define the Arab world - which includes not only Muslims, but also 
many Christians. The writings of exiled Palestinian writer Edward Said 
really focused on this problem, from the point of view of an Arab man 
living in the US. His studies into the colonial relation between East 
and West (and subsequent work in the field), have shown how colonial 
power is maintained not simply through sheer violence, or through 
colonial administration, but also through culture. The domination of 
some populations by others is reinforced and made acceptable culturally, 
through representations. Said also carried out an analysis of US 
coverage of the oil crisis and Iranian revolution in the late seventies 
and found what we might call the beginning of an information war aimed 
at shaping the perception by the American public of peoples and 
populations they had mostly no direct experience of. Said chronicled how 
this phenomenon only grew in later years at least in the mass media 
system producing an immensely charicaturized image of the Arab world 
with clear roots in an older colonial tradition. This relation with the 
Other ( as postcolonial studies called it) is not something easily 
accomodated in the notion of a public sphere. It is not a matter of 
theoretical warfare, for me it is political, it is about inventing new 
ways of opening up what can be done with the Internet to unsettle 
relations of domination, make them more reversible - and in this case 
specifically colonial, neocolonial and postcolonial.

The research question involved asking how this situation, this cultural 
hegemony of the West on the East, which is also a colonial relation 
involving geopolitical control of entire areas of the planet, is changed 
by the emergence of the Internet as a global medium. Trebor (and others) 
have abundantly pointed out through a series of links, how the Internet 
is really in the process of being decentred from its Western hegemony 
(US and Europe). Internet Usage statistics point out how this hegemony 
holds in terms of numbers (which do matter in my opinion, even if we do 
not know how). North Americans and Europeans constitute together 17.6% 
of the whole world population, but 52% of Internet users. On the other 
hand, the last five years have seen an exponential increase of the 
number of users in Asia and the Middle East (59% of the world 
population, currently 35.9% of Internet users) . The post-colonization 
of the Internet is of course not simply a matter of the increasing 
number of users from non-Western countries. However, it is undeniable 
that this mutation in the composition of the Internet public has had an 
effect on its overall culture – undermining and underlining at the same 
time a precarious Western hegemony over informatic space. In this sense, 
the Internet - or the global space of communication - is becoming more 
like our cities, with new waves of migrant labour and refugees altering 
their architecture and ecology. To get a micro-slice of the phenomenon, 
I have looked at blogging from Iraq (Iraqi citizens, including some Iraq 
journalists, some from exiles or neighbouring countries, and US soldiers 
and journalists) - without forgetting the asymmetrical relation that 
such bloggers entertain with the larger public captured by mainstream 
media. I have looked at a small number of blogs, at different times.

a few links below

Baghdad Burning by Riverbend, of course (http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/)
Raed in the Middle http://raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com/
Faiza's blog http://raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com/
A Citizen of Mousl http://moslawi.blogspot.com/
A diary from Baghdad's Green Zone by http://rosebaghdad.blogspot.com/
and more...

on the US side, I have looked at many milblogs (although many of them 
have tended to disappear, others have become more official(see black 
five http://www.blackfive.net/; or turningtables at 
http://turningtables.blogspot.com/, or 
http://www.dixiesappers.org/hhc/journal/sept/sept_28.html, and more...)

The material is really fascinating. On the one hand, it registers what 
can only be called an absolute distance between representations and 
reportings of the War from the Internet and within the mainstream media 
- which really forces us to ask some question about what is a public 
today. The feeling of experiencing a war such as the Iraqi conflict at a 
distance can never equal to what it means being on the ground, but 
different thing pass through different channels and modes of communication.
Making the active choice of reading a series of blogs from the field, 
over time, in a serial manner, constitutes you into a different kind of 
public than a TV spectator or even a newspaper reader. One might have 
come to this choice following one's opposition to the war, as a matter 
of principle, at the beginning. But developing a relationship with some 
of these bloggers, having conversations/listening to conversations 
between people in very different situations (in Iraq and outside) and 
with different relationship with the war, is really a study worth 
carrying out. It produces not only a specific account, but also a kind 
of recapitulation of the whole of this environment of communication, 
this cultural mutation that is a global network culture.

I do not want to make this posting too long, but I just wanted to give 
you a sense of how the questions I asked before did not just came down 
from the sky, as some theoretical uber-gaze, but have really mostly 
emerged through the study, observation and partial participation in 
activism against attempts to impose a highly neo-colonial notion of a 
preemptive war and security on the Middle East. I understand people's 
impatience with theoretical pontifications, but I feel rather impatient 
myself with attempts to say that empirical case studies are just self 
evident. I have witnessed too many detailed writings of empirical case 
studies not to know that even the most detailed and observational of 
them, carry within them lots of unstated assumptions that make the 
accounts always partial, always carrying the consequences of particular 
approaches which are often left unstated. Even the most specific 
detailed case study is philosophical. I understand the perceived danger 
that theory will just take off up in the sky to come down again as some 
kind of intimidating voice, and I apologize again for making that 
mistake, but I really believe that all empirical studies carry within 
them a thinking that is deeply encrusted with old philosophies and 
ideas. And that it is important to get some clarity and head out of 
familiar spaces to invent something new, to think not so much 
theoretically as philosophically.

The study of blogs (together with that of new communication strategies 
invented by people like Karl Rove in the US) has really pushed me to ask 
question such: isn't the idea of the public sphere to restrictive to 
really make sense of these new modes of communication? Are really 
rational subjects those involved in these kinds of exchanges? What are 
we talking about when we talk about democracy? How do numbers and the 
dynamics of large numbers affect the quality of communication? What is a 
majority, what is a minority in any given milieu of communication ? (in 
this list, for example, the overwhelming and a bit depressing majority 
of men as in most of the lists I have participated in apart from 
explicitly feminist lists?) Why all this need to talk about the 
hoodwinked masses, which persists even as theorists criticise it? More 
concretely, the questions I am asking of course involve how to resist 
the current forms of preemptive war and preemptive security, with 
neo-imperial and colonial projects they carry, but not only resist, also 
to affirm something else, to affirm that something else is happening in 
relation to this violent moment of globalization as an encounter between 
cultures which is also the return/repetition of Western colonialism. You 
can see it in the discussion between the West and the Rest (!) in these 
sites, how difficult and necessary this moment is.



As far as grant
Grant Kester wrote:

>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)
>>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
>>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
>>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"
>>"Future Mobile: Africa"
>>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
>>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/,
>>All this speaks to quantity. What about quality? Andreas¹ post and also
>>the recent weird "Digital Maoism" essay by Jaron Lanier addressed that
>>"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,
>>The many people who become media authors are the quality;
>>the fact that so many people are activated constitutes a qualitative
>>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?
>>iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity
>>iDC at bbs.thing.net
>>List Archive:
>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
>iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (distributedcreativity.org)
>iDC at bbs.thing.net
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