Friday, October 29, 2010

Wikileaks and the Affectivity of Openness

In the span of just over six months in the spring, summer, and fall of 2010, WikiLeaks has made headlines in national and international news sources with three different releases documenting ethically problematic practices in the ongoing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On April 5, WikiLeaks released edited and unedited documentary videos of “a classified US military video depicting three airstrikes from a US Apache helicopter on July 12, 2007 in New Baghdad, Iraq.” On July 25, they released the “Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010,” “an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.” And on October 22, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 additional reports from Iraq, detailing in the Iraq War Logs evidence of previously unreported incidents of torture and tens of thousands of additional unacknowledged civilian deaths.

Each of these releases has garnered WikiLeaks an extraordinary amount of attention, both positive and negative, in print, televisual, and networked news media. WikiLeaks has both been lauded for making available audiovisual and textual evidence of atrocities perpetrated in the conduct of the war and been accused of taking information out of context and of making available confidential information that could further endanger US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as inflaming anti-American sentiment in ways that could increase the risks of terror attacks on US soil. Almost all of the discussion surrounding WikiLeaks, however, has focused on the question of media content, on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of releasing confidential information to the global media public. I want to pursue a different tack, however, by taking up the formal and affective qualities of these releases, particularly the way in which they function to foster what I would call an affectivity of openness. WikiLeaks works as much by modulating collective affect, or structures of feeling as it does by providing people with information or content about the war that they did not otherwise possess.

WikiLeaks’ mobilization of the affective sociality of militarism, video, and gaming is one way in which it participates in the politics of everyday affects. The release of 92,000 military field reports from Afghanistan and another 391,832 from Iraq is another form of mediality which provides the affective links to accepting the war as part of our screen-based environment. In both the Afghanistan and the Iraq releases US military and political figures simultaneously insisted both that there was very little "news" in the WikiLeaks releases and that these releases have endangered the lives of American military and other citizens in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the world. How can both of these perspectives be true? One way to approach this contradiction is to look at the way in which the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Logs deploy socially networked media for the mobilization of collective affect.

Word of these leaks first came to me, as to large numbers of people, through social media like Facebook or Twitter, through email updates from political sites like Huffington Post, Politico, or Daily Koz, or through the increasingly socially networked cable news networks. In our current premediated moment, such "news" operates largely through anticipation. Reading a tweet or a shared link on Facebook or an email alert from our political blogs produces in the socially networked media user the affective state of anticipation that fuels our social networks and mobilizes collective affect. Although the Afghan and Iraq releases report on the recent past, the mode in which they have been circulated by WikiLeaks produces an anticipatory readiness, a bodily and perceptual orientation towards the future--perhaps first to an intermediary site like the New York Times or Huffington Post and then to WikiLeaks itself. These tweets and their accompanying links would then be retweeted or shared on Facebook, be picked up by RSS feeds, simultaneously producing the technical and social anticipation of further responses and social media sharing.

Such circulating texts are not just about sharing information but operate affectively as well, not only through being read but also through their premediated formats--indeed often not through reading them but simply through scrolling or scanning or downloading them or just knowing they will be available in the future. The materiality of the screens of mediated texts, and the variety of options provided by Wikileaks—which consisted in the case of the Afghanistan Diaries of “HTML (web), CSV (comma-separated values) and SQL (database) formats, and was rendered into KML (Keyhole Markup Language) mapping data that can be used with Google Earth"—produce and intensify an affectivity of anticipation for the experience of a variety of embodied and technical formats.

In the hours leading up to the formal release of the Iraq War Logs, WikiLeaks tried to orchestrate this anticipation through its Twitter feed, both premediating the upcoming release and then tweeting with links the publication of these leaks in major news sources like The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Al Jazeera, Swedish TV, and the New York Times. On its site, WikiLeaks describes the significance and magnitude of its action in releasing the Iraq Web Logs in the following self-aggrandizing terms:
"At 5pm EST Friday 22nd October 2010 WikiLeaks released the largest classified military leak in history. The 391,832 reports ('The Iraq War Logs'), document the war and occupation in Iraq, from 1st January 2004 to 31st December 2009 (except for the months of May 2004 and March 2009) as told by soldiers in the United States Army. Each is a 'SIGACT' or Significant Action in the war. They detail events as seen and heard by the US military troops on the ground in Iraq and are the first real glimpse into the secret history of the war that the United States government has been privy to throughout.
"The reports detail 109,032 deaths in Iraq, comprised of 66,081 'civilians'; 23,984 'enemy' (those labeled as insurgents); 15,196 'host nation' (Iraqi government forces) and 3,771 'friendly' (coalition forces). The majority of the deaths (66,000, over 60%) of these are civilian deaths. That is 31 civilians dying every day during the six year period. For comparison, the 'Afghan War Diaries', previously released by WikiLeaks, covering the same period, detail the deaths of some 20,000 people. Iraq during the same period, was five times as lethal with equivallent population size."

Wikipedia offers two different ways to access the documents, each of which works to intensify an affectivity. “Diary Dig” allows visitors to the site to browse and search the reports for key terms or dates or locations, bringing up long lists of reports which match the terms entered into the site's search engine. And “War Logs,” which allows them to browse and comment on the various sigact reports, uses participatory media techniques like tagging, favoriting, and sharing to encourage the wisdom of the crowd to deploy affective or cognitive labor to give shape to the mass of date presented on the site. As an incentive to help tag and thereby provide some kind of order to the nearly 400,000 reports, WikiLeaks has created a kind of War Logs competition, a list of high scores of people who have favorited the most sites. Both modes of interacting with the site work to emphasize and reinforce the feeling of participating in a process of openness that is WikiLeaks' "raison d'être."

In calling attention to the way in which the premediated materiality of the Iraq War Logs mobilize and intensify individual and collective affectivities of openness, I do not mean to minimize the political importance of the leak in making evident, open, or "transparent" (in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's term) the conduct of the US-led War in Afghanistan. Rather I mean to try to explain this importance in a different way, as resulting less from the specifics of the new revelations contained in the Diary than from the mode in which the anticipation of reading these revelations was circulated and intensified by our print, televisual, and socially networked media and fulfilled by the documents' availability on the WikiLeaks site.

Organizations like WikiLeaks, as well as many “open government” organizations and software design projects, do extremely important work both in making the content of government transparent and, arguably more importantly, designing software that will allow the networked public to monitor the statements, policies, and actions of powerful governmental, media, and non-governmental organizations. What I have been calling attention to here is another, often neglected, element of these open government and open software movements—the way in which they produce, mobilize, and intensify an affectivity of openness among global netizens that operates according to different temporalities and media logics, some of which work almost independently (or even against) the development of open software or government platforms. To understand the efficacy of our print, televisual, and networked media in an era of premediation and social networking, we need to attend not only to the content of the messages circulated by these media but to their affectivity and mediality as well.


The distribution and intensification of premediation in the 21st century is evident in the new slogan for MSNBC’s political news programs, “Lean Forward,” which is of a piece with the temporality of anticipation that I have outlined in Premediation, especially the anticipatory gesture with which today’s global netizens lean forward almost lovingly towards their media devices.

MSNBC's new slogan speaks to the idea that global media today, as well as our networked public culture, are focused on the future rather than on the present or recent past, that we live in a moment of anticipation in which people are encouraged to “lean forward” towards the next moment of socially mediated interaction. This anticipation is tied directly to the media formation of the first decades of the 21st century, to the structure of social media, Facebook, Twitter, email, and texts—to something as seemingly innocuous as the proliferation of and everyday media form like the shared, synchronized online calendar, which fills the future with, and orchestrates, premediated individual and collective personal, social, or professional events. MSNBC has tried to plug in to this anticipatory temporality of the 21st century in its branding campaign for“Lean Forward,” which features two 1-minute commercials to introduce the campaign and six additional 30-second commercials, one for each of its various news shows. I want to focus here on the two longer branding commercials, to look at the ways in which they present a televisual mediation of the temporality of anticipation that marks our premediated moment.

Each spot features a variety of different people in motion, depicting mobile embodiment, people moving forward. In each commercial, interestingly, the predominant motion forward is from left to right across the screen, as in a book or as in a scroll across the bottom of the screen—a textual lean forward in an audiovisual medium. But this movement from left to right is also significant in another respect, in that it reverses one of the standard iconographic tropes of American progress from the 19th century, the movement of the American empire across the continent from right to left, marking the move from East to West as if across a map. This trope figures prominently in Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, which hangs in the US Capitol,

as well in popular lithographs like Thomas Gast’s American Progress, which represents an allegory of technological progress moving from the civilized East to the Western frontier, from right to left again as on a map.

In the 19th century, the iconography of westward movement in nationalistic images like these deployed a harmony between pictorial and cartographic space in order to naturalize and make inevitable the manifest destiny of the United States to control the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

MSNBC’s remediation of cartographic visual space as televisual space marks a cultural shift from a more fixed, geopolitically stable world to a more fluid one, in which it is motion itself that matters. Perhaps a cynical critic from the right might see the movement from left to right as marking the movement of Hollywood liberalism from California across the nation. While I don’t think that was the aim of those who produced the commercials, there is a sense in which something not unlike this might indeed be the case, as the two commercials work to present the movement of affectivity and mobility across the nation from West to East as a reversal for the age of premediation of the 19th-century march of the progress of the American nation from East to West, or right to left, across the national pictorial and geographical space. However one might read the movement of the images, MSNBC is clearly promoting the idea that the country needs to move forward from the left.

In 2010 the MSNBC branding ads portray mobile bodies and technologies moving through US national space, with technology, culture, and a wide variety of people communicating a kind of affectivity of forwardness, an affectivity of motion of progress of anticipation. In the first spot, “Declaration of Forward,” this anticipatory movement is depicted not only visually but also in terms laid out by the narrative voiceover:

The governing conceit of the ad is of course MSNBC’s remediation of the Declaration of Independence as a 60-second branding commercial. From its initial sampling of the Declaration of Independence (1776), “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” MSNBC positions itself as the 21st century media equivalent of the American colonies contesting the sovereignty of the British crown. “The Declaration of Forward” distinguishes itself from the “Declaration of Independence” of the United States of America, through its commitment to a principle of leaning forward, a vital, affective anticipatory premediation of the future. In remediating the 1776 Declaration, MSNBC elides, condenses, and supplements the document’s fundamental assertion of human equality and inalienable rights into a declaration of moving forwardness, of physical and temporal anticipation. Even while explicitly including women among those counted by the “Declaration of Forward,” the commercial moves ahead quickly from “self-evident truths” to the “pursuit of happiness,” by eliding the agency of a Creator who endows people with rights. People aren’t endowed with these three famous rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they just “have” them—and they have as well in the “Declaration of Forward” a fourth right, the freedom to believe that “our best days are still ahead.” In MSNBC’s “Declaration of Forward,” the freedom to anticipate that our best days are ahead takes the place of independence. The declaration of this new freedom rewrites the 1776 “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the freedom to believe that our best days are still ahead.” This new premediated freedom to believe in a better future replaces the 1776 Declaration’s fundamental assertion that governmental power comes from the consent of the people governed and that therefore people have the right to abolish their government if it fails to secure these rights.

“Hardwired,” the second spot in MSNBC’s “Lean Forward” campaign, picks up both the question of unalienability and the anticipatory gesture of leaning forward. “Hardwired” uses visual and narrative mediation to suggest a technical rather than a divine agency. People are not “endowed” by a “Creator” with inalienable rights but possess “an innate sense of direction.” “Hardwired” implies both a technological and a genetic agency in originating and maintaining an anticipatory vitality that seems to start at the moment of conception.

This commercial’s opening montage begins with an image of vital, swimming sperm, juxtaposed with an ultrasound image of a fetus, followed by a sequence of three topless infants trying to move forward, one on its stomach, another on its hands and knees, and a third just rising to two feet before heading forward into the camera and screen. The “innate” quality of this moving-forwardness is clearly tied to female reproduction, from the female narrative voiceover to the images of graduation and wedding ceremonies among othere. The action in the spot, both visually and narratively, is forward-moving, as in the first spot almost exclusively from left to right and towards the screen and the viewer’s mediated space. In the final lines of the commercial, the narrator’s cadence creates in the viewer an expectation or anticipation of the pledge of allegiance. “We are one nation, in progress,” is followed by a long pause which recalls the last lines of the pledge of allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But instead of God, indivisibility, liberty, and justice for all, we get “in progress” accompanied by the declaration of the nation’s innate evolution and movement forward: “We were built to evolve, we were not made to sit still.”

In both of these ads, MSNBC models portions of its rhetoric on two of the “sacred texts” of every American’s high school civics class. In each case the document is rewritten to eliminate both the agency of divine sovereignty and the universal right to self-governance. As an avowedly political news network, as opposed to financial networks like CNBC, sports networks like ESPN, entertainment networks like E or BET, or general news networks like CNN, MSNBC uses its Lean Forward campaign to remediate the governmentality of these national documents in terms of the mediality and affectivity of anticipation. In so doing MSNBC redefines American national identity, depicting the nation not in terms of spatial qualities like wholeness or universality but in terms of temporal qualities like evolution, progress, or motion. Anticipation, not independence or allegiance, marks MSNBC’s forward-leaning, premediated America.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chilean Miner Rescue and the Premediation of Positive Global Affect

What made the Chilean miner rescue into an almost instantaneous global media event? What made it into history?

There is no shortage of reasons for the rapid mobilization of such intense, widespread media and public interest in the rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days. Simply from a feel-good perspective, such an event commands the attention of print, televisual, or networked news media. Whether on Twitter, Buzz, or Facebook, in the socially networked blogosphere, or among national and global English-language corporate media like CNN, Fox, NBC, or BBC, how could anyone not be overjoyed to watch the lives of 33 trapped miners saved through a successful high-tech engineering rescue mission?

Around the world, the rescue of the miners infused into our media everyday a socially networked affectivity of collective, indeed global interest, hope, and joy. The narrative emerging both from and into this media event combined elements of heroism, hope, technology, and national pride. The mediated, collective joy that marks the Chilean miner rescue feels like a compensation for the mediated suffering of recent disaster-events, going back to Katrina, but encompassing Haiti, the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and most tellingly here the Chilean earthquakes of 2007 and 2010—made more welcome, and more powerful, among a media public suffering from the worst global economic recession since the 1930s.

But media events—especially feel-good ones like this one—do not emerge magically or without effort. They require tending and care. The rescue of the Chilean miners became a global media event by mobilizing an extensive, heterogeneous social network of human and non-human technical resources. These resources were deployed not only to articulate the feel-good narrative, but also (I would argue) more importantly to distribute positive affectivity through and immanently within global media forms and practices. The Chilean miner rescue afforded an opportunity for collective global mediation of an almost unqualified joy.

Among individual, social, and corporate media networks, the rescue provided an affective reaffirmation of the necessity of technology for the subordination of the planet. Media professionals, amateur hacktivists, or engaged netizens—throughout the socially networked world everyone took an interest in, became hopeful for, and then felt good about the successful rescue. In light of other recent natural, ecological, and economic disasters, the positive technological resolution of an industrial accident by a national government provided a sense of reassurance concerning the human mastery of nature through the use of drilling technology—particularly in the Western Hemisphere.

Although mining and drilling for oil at great depths represent analogous structures of extractive capitalism, it is important to note that many of the extractive technologies used to allow humans to travel from the surface of the planet to its depths for the capitalization of nature are of a piece with the media technologies used in the rescue, as well as those that enable networked communication across the globe. On the second night of the rescue CNN made particular note that the fiber optic and tele-video technologies used in the rescue were the very same technologies used regularly by CNN.

As John Stewart lampooned on the rescue’s second day, CNN had earlier conflated the television studio with the Chilean mine by among other things producing a replica of the rescue capsule, which provided the opportunity for its reporters and other staff to play the role of trapped miners to demonstrate how the miners would be bodily impacted during the rescue. But as The Daily Show also reported, the complicity between mining and media technologies went both ways. On every side the heroic and technological rescue was performed with the global media in mind. Even before the rescue had begun the miners had already been developing a verbal contract for sharing revenues generated from selling their stories to the media just as the Chilean government took full advantage of print, televisual, and global news media to distribute its own affectivity of caring and competence.

The Chilean miner rescue emerged as an exemplary premediation event in the globally networked and socially mediated second decade of the 21st century. Like all premediation events, the rescue functioned to mobilize collective affectivity. The rescue event was a complex and heterogeneous assemblage, made up of rocks and air, water and food, laborers and capitalists, clothing and equipment, technology and society. All of these diverse elements of the assemblage and more were held together under the intensifying mediated force of the rescue event.

Most crucially the Chilean miner rescue occurs over an extended period of time, which allows for the mobilization and proliferation of anticipation—marked in this case not as the negative affective anticipation of fear or danger, but the positive affectivity of hope and joy. Indeed the temporality of the miner’s rescue was anticipatory through and through, beginning with the earliest determination of the number and health of the survivors, to the days of anticipating the completion of the drilling, followed by the successful lowering of the rescue capsule down into the mine, to the scheduled rescue of the first miner, to the repetition of this structure of anticipation and joy. Each stage of the event anticipated the next, keeping the anticipatory premediation moving forward, intensifying into a global media event as the moment of the rescue approached.

The Chilean miner rescue has already established itself as a global historical event. This is of course on account of the heroic actions of the Chilean government, US and international technological experts, and the miners and rescuers themselves. But equally importantly it has established itself as a historic event not only through its heroic rescue narrative but also for the way in which it mobilized global affectivity through the workings of premediation. In the second decade of the 21st century historical events are not separable from global media events.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Google and the Premediation of Everything

If it wasn't already evident, events of the last few weeks should have made it clear that Google's new strategy is "the premediation of everything." Although Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in the heyday of what Jay Bolter and I characterized as the double logic of remediation, its current media logic has much more to do with the affectivity and mediality of what I have been describing as premediation.

In its earliest incarnation Google aimed to revolutionalize internet search through its PageRank technology, employing remediation's twin logics, immediacy and hypermediacy, to structure its search interface. "I'm Feeling Lucky," still a signal feature of the Google search interface, offered the user an experience of immediacy, bypassing the mediation of the long list of extraneous results offered by other search engines like Lycos, Yahoo, or AltaVista, and sending the user directly to her desired website. But Google also offered users the hypermediated experience of pages and pages of search results, an experience that has only become more hypermediated over the years as Google added a multiplicity of search options (Images, Videos, Maps, Images, Shopping, etc.) as well as a variety of other search tools for organizing and representing its results.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, however, Google has come increasingly to shift its logic of mediation from remediation to premediation. An explicit expression of this new corporate logic appeared in a recent interview that Eric Schmidt gave to the Wall Street Journal. In describing Google's use of targeted advertising, for example, Schmidt portrays a fully premediated future in which Google's "technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them."

But the quote that grabbed the most public attention (including William Gibson's in an excellent New York Times op-ed) was the one that best captured Google's commitment to the logic of premediation: "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions," Schmidt elaborates. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next." As Schmidt makes clear, Google's aim is no longer to remediate the web through search, but to mobilize the individual and collective affectivity of anticipation that marks the premediated everyday of the 21st century.

Now Google continues its relentless campaign of premediation with its newest search feature, which it hyperbolically claims will revolutionize the search experience. Explaining its introduction of Instant Search, the Official Google Blog explains how its new Instant Search improves on earlier versions: "Because you don’t really want search-as-you-type. . . . You really want search-before-you-type—that is, you want results for the most likely search given what you have already typed."

The media temporality of Instant Search follows closely on the logic of premediation behind Schmidt's claim that "most people don't want Google to answer their questions... They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next." To answer someone's questions (no matter how immediately one does so) involves a past-oriented temporality of remediation. To provide them with search results before they type involves the future-oriented temporality of premediation.

Of course, the emergence of premediation does not do away with, but supplements, the double logic of remediation. This is nowhere more evident than in Google's stomach-turning video remediation of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," as presented in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Don't Look Back.

Indeed, if one were to couple Google's shift from the double logic of remediation to its newly intensified focus on the premediation of everything with its recent questionable collaboration with Verizon in relation to the question of net neutrality, one might want to say that the remediated Dylan video signals a shift in Google's corporate motto from "Don't be evil" to "Don't look back."

Just saying.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Securitization of Iraq

"Civilians to Take U.S. Lead After Military Leaves Iraq," trumpets the front-page headline of this morning's New York Times. The departure of the US military and the concomitant transfer of security responsibility to civilians does not signal the disappearance of US governmental power or control in Iraq, but the transfer of responsibility for maintaining order in Iraq from the Pentagon to the State Department, a transfer unprecedented in scope.

“'I don’t think State has ever operated on its own, independent of the U.S. military, in an environment that is quite as threatening on such a large scale,' said James Dobbins, a former ambassador who has seen his share of trouble spots as a special envoy for Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo and Somalia. 'It is unprecedented in scale.'”

The end of the US combat mission in Iraq, as the Obama Administration has pledged, is not then, as the Times article emphasizes, the end of US security presence in Iraq. But this replacement of soldiers with security contractors should not lead to the cynical conclusion that the military mission in Iraq has no more been accomplished under Obama in 2010 than it was under Bush in 2003. Instead it should be taken as further indication of the transformation of the form of US biopower in the 21st century.

The significance of the end of combat operations lies in the transformation of the Iraq operation from a military operation to a security one, a transformation that is of a piece with what Foucault has described as the shift from a disciplinary state to a governmental one. Indeed the replacement of defense with security, of militarization with securitization, can be seen in almost any discussion of US foreign policy in the 21st century.

In transferring control of the US Iraq mission from the Pentagon to the State Department, the Obama administration is participating in, and instantiating, the shift from a modality of power that works by constraining and limiting mobility of individuals and groups of individuals to one that works by allowing and encouraging mobility. This modality of power goes under the name of "securitization" and has been examined by scholars of international relations in the nascent field of "securitization studies."

The establishment of securitization as the dominant modality of US power can be seen in an unremarkable use of the term "security" in another article in today's Times. "U.S. Strategy in Pakistan Is Upended by Floods" discusses the way in which the major disruptions of Pakistani society caused by the catastrophic flooding that has beset the nation have also disrupted US foreign policy. “'Every dimension of our relationship — politics, economics, security — is going to see major shifts as a result of this historic disaster,' said Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan. 'All the tools of diplomacy have to be examined in light of this new reality.'”

What is telling about this quotation is not just its assessment of the way in which the Pakistani flooding is a security as well as a natural event, a complex quasi-object that has had both material and virtual effects, damaging homes, businesses, crops, and bodies as well as less tangible entities like "the tools of diplomacy." But for our purposes General Lute's comment is also telling for his taxonomization of the US relationship with Pakistan in terms of "politics, economics, security." The shift from militarization to securitization in Iraq is only of a piece with the ongoing transformation of US geopower in the 21st century in the Middle East as well as elsewhere around the globe, including the US "homeland."

In my recently published book, Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11, I begin to explore the relationship between securitization and mediality, the way in which our quotidian media interactions are both enabled by and enable the globalized formation of securitization. In particular I point out the way in which we are individually and collectively encouraged to generate terrabytes of data to be mined for purposes of security through our participation in social media networks, electronic commerce, and the mobile internet.

Virtually all of these media transactions, particularly their role in bolstering securitization, go unnoticed by us, insofar as they have happened incrementally and almost invisibly. These mechanisms of securitization work paradoxically to control populations by encouraging us to move quickly and effortlessly through mediated networks of transportation, communication, and information. As we move forward into the second decade of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us as media scholars and as media users to continue to be alert to, to interrogate, and where necessary to oppose the mechanisms of securitization that make up the fabric of our media everyday.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Some Questions about Net Neutrality--A Divergent View

Perhaps it's the Emersonian in me, but when I see large numbers of people thinking in lockstep about an issue, I begin to feel a little uneasy. So as FB friend after FB friend have declared the recent Google-Verizon proposal "the end of the Internet as we know it," have signed petitions urging Google not to be evil, and have posted and reposted the same alarmist articles about the apocalyptic impact that would result from the implementation of this proposal, I have begun to ask questions about some of the arguments and the impetus behind them.

1. Would the implementation of this proposal really be the end of Internet as we know it, or the end of the mobile Internet as currently used by a privileged group of a technically-savvy, well-off community of mobile users?

2. Put differently, who does the "we" in the phrase "the end of the Internet as WE know it" refer to?

3. Is the wireless mobile network distributed through cellphone providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint the same as the Internet, or isn't it already a pay for play service with access available to those willing to pay the added fees for 3G or 4G service?

4. How can the current mobile internet be considered to be the same as the wired Internet, when unlike the Internet itself, which can be accessed at libraries, schools, and other places for free, this network is only available via subscription to cellphone service, at a price?

5. Has there ever been anything like "net neutrality" or "a level playing field" in the first place?

6. Does the technical equality of all packets produce an information equality for all users or does the ideology of net neutrality merely facilitate a form of inequality that benefits those with the resources (economic, social, educational, technical) to make more of the Internet than those without those resources?

7. Is there a necessary, definite relationship between the technical form of the Internet and its social, political, cultural uses?

I suppose I could go on, but I think these should do. Don't get me wrong--I am not advocating the Google-Verizon proposal or the creation of pay-for-play fastlanes on the wired, wireless, or mobile Internet (or on any future manifestation we, or Google-Verizon, may not have thought of yet). But I raise these questions to make two points.

First, I would want to suggest that if such a proposal were to be adopted, it would not replace a neutral net but rather the unequal net that currently exists. The issue is not a neutral net as opposed to a biased or unequal net, but the current net inequality as opposed to some other form of net inequality, a form which might very well, as has been argued, be even less equal, less neutral, than the form we have now.

Second, I would argue that technical neutrality, particularly insofar as it is defined in terms of the speed by which packets move across the Internet, is not the same as cultural, social, or political neutrality. The Internet comprises so much more than the switching of packets, but you wouldn't know that from listening to the current debate. The technical defense of net neutrality obscures or erases the multiple forms of inequality and non-neutrality that this defense would seek to protect.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

More on the Affectivity of WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary

In today's New York Times, Frank Rich likened the potential effect of the recent WikiLeaks data dump to The Pentagon Papers. He did so not because of the new or shocking nature of the information about the Afghan War, but rather because of what he characterizes as the limited effect of the Pentagon Papers on US policy towards Vietnam. Rich argues that the Pentagon Papers were published after public opinion had turned against the Vietnam war; similarly he contends that the relative indifference to the WikiLeaks release (an indifference that is arguable, I would say) marks the public's indifference to the War in Afghanistan.

While I don't completely agree with Rich's argument, I do think that he may be on to something about the effect of the Afghan War Diary. As I suggested earlier this week, I don't think that there was anything particularly shocking about the content of the WikiLeaks material. More interesting was the way in which its release activated individual and collective circuits of affectivity, particularly of negative affective feeling about the ongoing war. In my previous blog entry I traced out the way in which these leaks fed into the affect of anticipation that marks our current media moment. But what I did not emphasize was the quality of this anticipatory affect--specifically its intensification (in a quotidian fashion) of the negative affect towards the war that has come to predominate among the mediated American public.

Put differently, the significance of WikiLeaks' Afghan War Diary is almost certain to have little or nothing to do with the news it reveals about the current state of the US War in Afghanistan. What it might do, however, is serve as something like an affective tipping point, coalescing the widespread opposition to the war into a collective affective feeling that the war has outlived its usefulness, an affective premediation of the war's impending end.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wikileaks and the Affectivity of Socially Networked Text

On the Op-Ed page of today's New York Times, Andrew Exum, of the Center for a New American Security, opines that there was very little "news" in the latest WikiLeaks release of 92,000 military field reports and other documents about the progress (or lack thereof) of the US-led Afghanistan War. According to Exum, anyone who has been paying attention to news reports from Afghanistan would find little to be shocked or surprised at in the Afghan War Diary, the name that WikiLeaks has given to its latest leak. Exum's response was, to a large degree, mine as well--though I have not made my way through anything close to the 92,000 reports. Nonetheless, I have not found anything surprising in the reports I have read--though of course I have found much that was distasteful, inhumane, and perhaps criminal.

Why, then, has the Afghan War Diary generated as much media and public outrage as it has?

From the Obama Administration's perspective, the latest leak has complicated and made public the conflicting opinions within the presidential circle about how to proceed in Afghanistan. Thus the White House has been forced to mobilize its media machine to counter and contain the perceived damage caused by WikiLeaks. And cynical media critics will point to the 24-7 news cycle and the eagerness of every political "side" to find material with which to propogate its point of view. Certainly print, televisual, and networked news media are always looking for new content, new stories--new "irritations" to the system, which in Niklas Luhmann's terms work both to destabilize and maintain the autopoietic system of the media. What better irritation than 92,000 field reports?

Clearly both of these perspectives make sense. But I think we need to take seriously Andrew Exum's claim that there is in fact nothing "new" in these leaks, not to dismiss their import as he would, but to offer another explanation of their efficacy: that the Afghan War Diary deploys socially networked media for the mobilization of collective affect.

Word of the leak first came to me, as to large numbers of people, through social media like Facebook or Twitter, through email updates from political sites like Huffington Post, Politico, or Daily Koz, or through the increasingly socially networked cable news networks. In our current premediated moment, such "news" operates through anticipation. Reading a tweet or a shared link on Facebook or an email alert from our political blogs produces in the socially networked media user the affective state of anticipation that fuels our social networks and mobilizes collective affect.

Although the Afghan War Diary reports on the recent past, the mode in which it has been circulated by WikiLeaks produces an anticipatory readiness, a bodily and perceptual orientation towards the future--perhaps first to an intermediary site like the New York Times or Huffington Post and then to WikiLeaks itself. Or even before this, or somewhere along the line, many users would retweet or share the link themselves, simultaneously producing the technical and social anticipation of further responses and social media sharing.

Finally, I want at least to point to the role that the affectivity of text has in media events like this. I have written elsewhere (as have others) about the affectivity of audiovisual media, the way in which such media operate as much through how they move people affectively as through what they represent or communicate. But texts, too, operate affectively, not only through reading them but also through their mediated formats--indeed often not through reading them but simply through scrolling or scanning or downloading them. The materiality of the screens of mediated texts, and the variety of options provided by Wikileaks--"The data is provided in HTML (web), CSV (comma-separated values) and SQL (database) formats, and was rendered into KML (Keyhole Markup Language) mapping data that can be used with Google Earth"--produce and intensify an affectivity of anticipation for the experience of a variety of embodied and technical formats.

In calling attention to the way in which the materiality of the Afghan War Diary's mediations mobilize and intensify individual and collective affectivities of anticipation I do not mean to minimize the political importance of the WikiLeaks leak in making evident or "transparent" (in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's term) the conduct of the US-led War in Afghanistan. Rather I mean to try to explain this importance in a different way, as resulting less from the new revelations contained in the Diary than from the mode in which the anticipation of reading these revelations was circulated and intensified by our print, televisual, and socially networked media.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Premediation on the High Seas

Today's New York Times has a front-page article detailing the competing video wars going on in the aftermath of the recent Israeli raid in international waters on the Turkish-supported aid ships heading towards Gaza. The article does a good job of laying out the competing claims made by videos on each side, the ways in which these videos participate in competing political remediations of the historical event.

But what is made less apparent here is, I think, the more interesting element of this event, the competing premediations of the event by the Israelis and the organizers of the aid mission. How one understands what happened during the raid depends upon how the situation was premediated prior to the Israeli boarding of the lead ship--aggressive attempt to violate a legal blockade or legal attempt to provide humanitarian aid to suffering Palestinians in Gaza.

From a medialogical standpoint, however, what was more interesting is the way these competing premediations were supported by sociotechnical media networks in place to make sure that whatever happened on board the ship would already have been mediated at the very moment that it emerged into the present, if not before.

Thus not only did the Israeli Army make sure the event was premediated before its commandos even dropped down from the helicopters on to the deck of the ship, but the organizers of the aid trip did the same:

"The flotilla’s organizers, from Insani Yardim Vakfi, the Free Gaza Movement and other groups, were Webcasting live from the open seas as the confrontation started, using the services of Livestream, a New York-based company that hosts free Webcasts.

"The organizers 'chose to make their trip to Gaza a media event,' said Max Haot, Livestream’s co-founder. Aboard the ship was a 'full multicamera production,' he said, uplinked to the Internet and to a satellite that allowed news channels to rebroadcast live pictures of the raid in progress."

While we have been accustomed to thinking about the immediacy of live, networked video and the competing political remediations of recent (and not so recent) historical events, we need also to bear in mind the ubiquity of premediated social media networks in our current historical moment and to begin to consider how these premediated networks might serve to impact not only our actions in the present but our understanding of the past.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Affective Continuity between Modern War and "Modern Warfare"

The front page of today's New York Times presents an important story about a video decrypted by and posted on, as well as shared on YouTube. The Times headline, "Airstrike Video Brings Notice to a Web Site," focuses on the ongoing competition between mainstream and socially networked digital media. The article takes up the controversial nature of, especially in the eyes of the US military and other governmental agencies. For me, the more powerful impact of the video, posted in greater detail on a Wikileaks website called Collateral Murder, is the way in which it reveals, or perhaps more accurately makes us feel, the continuity of the socially mediated collective affect of our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with that of the multiplayer online shooter games that my son plays with his friends, and which are played by millions of youth across the globe.

This Wikileaks video is the most powerful documentary video I can remember seeing. For me this is in some sense more powerful even than the Abu Ghraib photos, precisely because of the apparent ordinariness of the experience. In my forthcoming book I argue that the affective force of the Abu Ghraib photos derived in large part from their continuity with our everyday media practices. My argument is that the affective continuity of these socially networked digital photos with our media everyday explains why the incidents at Abu Ghraib, unlike similar incidents at Guantanamo or at dark sites across the globe, became a matter of widespread political concern, a global media news event. I do not know if this event will have a similar impact--the length of time required to watch the video makes me almost certain that it will not. Nonetheless, I want to comment here on the affective and medial affinities between this video (and by extension of course the incident it documents) and the current practices of online video game playing not only on PCs but more powerfully I think on video-game platforms like X-Box Live and PSN (Play Station Network).

Multiplayer shooter games, like other online games, involve teams of players, sharing the same networked space but in different physical spaces, competing against other teams or against the game itself (in this latter scenario teams of 2-4 players can also share the same physical space, playing in a family media room). My son, presumably like many players, sometimes plays against the game, sometimes joins teams randomly on line, but most often plays with a pretty constant team of friends. This last option produces a kind of affective sociality, held together through the networked mediation of online gaming, that bears affinities with, and helps to premediate, the kinds of social interactions that occur among soldiers in the field,

The scenarios in these games, most notably the Modern Warfare series, are remarkably similar to what US soldiers experience, as the Wikileaks video makes clear. Take, for example, a single-player AC-130 sequence from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In this sequence the individual player interacts with his enemies/targets via video screens with black-and-white images (infrared in the game but remarkably similar in look and feel to the videos in Collateral Murder). The player must wait for permission to engage and is told which targets he must avoid. Targets are vehicles or individuals on foot, just like the Collateral Murder footage. Especially interesting is the dialogue programmed into the mission. After particular kills, one of the characters in the game is programmed to say things like "nice shot" or "way to go"--just like the soldiers say in the video.

There are other striking affinities between the Collateral Murder video and Modern Warfare 2, which help in some sense to illuminate, if not to account for or justify, some of the actions undertaken by the soldiers in the video. For one, it is interesting to note that in MW2, becoming a helicopter gunner is one of the rewards in the game, which a player achieves by sccomplishing eleven "kills." So the position of the helicopter gunner is already something of a privileged position.

A more interesting connection with the Modern Warfare games concerns what is called "last stand" or "final stand," which are perks available to players who reach a certain level of gameplay. In multiplayer games especially, if a character who has this perk is shot and wounded, he is given the ability to crawl away and keep firing, even to stand up if he is not quickly killed. This perk perhaps helps to illuminate the scene in the Wikileaks video where one of the two Reuters photographers is spotted wounded on the ground. The soldiers are eager to kill him, but according to rules of engagement cannot shoot an injured man unless he goes for his weapon, which is the explicit reason you hear them hoping aloud that he will do so (a weapon which is, as we know, only his camera). But their eagerness might also be attributed to the premediated video game scenarios of last or final stands, where wounded enemies have the ability to keep fighting as if they had not been shot before. This unrealistic feature of MW2 could easily contribute to the impulse to use excessive force against already wounded enemy combatants.

One point in comparing Collateral Murder with multiplayer shooters, particularly the Modern Warfare franchise, has been to call attention to their similar video and medial interfaces. Of course I do not mean to understate the significant differences between the experience of playing a video game and fighting in a war--beginning of course with the difference between human and algorithmically generated victims. And certainly the embodiment of flying in a helicopter with its ambient noise and vibration and smells and its sensations of physical movement, is fundamentally different from the experience of playing a video game in the proverbial comforts of your home. But these differences are not between an embodied and a disembodied experience but between two different embodied experiences. With vibrating controllers providing feedback when one "shoots" in a game, these differences, though still profound, are being lessened--and will likely continue to be lessened with technological advances in the gaming experience.

But the point I am most interested in making concerns some of the uncanny similarities between the affectivity and sociality of the two experiences, the ways in which the collective affect of multiplayer gaming simultaneously remediates and premediates the affectivity of soldiers in the field. Not only are video game designers basing the affective and social behavior of their algorithmically generated characters on the behavior of soldiers in the field, but it is undoubtedly the case that soldiers in the field are remediating affective behaviors that they have themselves experienced and participated in while playing video games at home. And when you remember that these games are not only being played by teenagers at home in the US and across the globalized West, but are being played by the soldiers themselves both before they deploy abroad and in between missions back at their base, then the force of Wikileaks' Collateral Murder video is to make the boundaries between these two experiences ever more difficult to secure. By premediating the sociality and affectivity of warfare for American youth, video games like Modern Warfare work not only to prepare a new generation of soldiers for combat but also (given the demographics of our current volunteer military) to modulate the collective affect of an even larger group of US and global citizens to accept modern war as an unexceptional feature of our everyday media landscape.

NB: I want to give a shout-out to my son Sam for his essential insights on the Modern Warfare games.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cyber Shock Wave--Fearmongering on CNN

So this past weekend CNN broadcast its two-hour prime-time special on the recent Shock-Wave exercise. The aim of the exercise was to simulate a catastrophic cyber attack in order to scare the American public so that they would be willing to accept the imposition of even more draconian security powers for the US government. As a one-off, the broadcast will inevitably fail to succeed. As part of a continued premediation campaign distributed across print, televisual, and networked media, a campaign that is in full swing and appears to be heating up, Cyber Shock Wave might have some small effect on modulating individual and collective affect.

What was most striking about this simulation was its simplistic model of how the government might respond to such a catastrophe. The largest problem was that the simulation began from an assumption of nearly autonomous, separate spheres of action. So the whole event involved discussions among various government officials, responding to breaking news of the cyber attack received from GNN, a faux-CNN news outlet, in preparation for advising the President on what he should say to the American people and how he should deal with it.

The model of power deployed here was so one-dimensional as to be hysterical. There was no sense, for example, that such an attack would immediately, and in some sense always already, invoke massive distributed technical responses from government hackers and cyber-security personnel (both human and more importantly non-human). Any deliberation about response would inevitably have to incorporate and address the massive data flow that would be coming in about source, nature of the attack, possible counter-attacks, and so forth. Undoubtedly millions of bots and other network crawlers and scrapers would already have been deployed in anticipation of and response to such an attack. The idea that the government response would consist of a bunch of mostly card-carrying AARP-member white guys sitting around a room responding to cable news reports imagines a model of government already outmoded when Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove.

Nor was there any sense that such an attack (carried out via cellphones, which the President apparently had no authority to "quarantine") would also be met immediately by millions of netizens, who would undoubtedly circulate via social media both the need to avoid using these phones to spread the "virus" and possible ways to resist such a virus or to work around it. Participatory media would undoubtedly play a significant, if not quite calculable, role in responding to any such attack.

By failing to recognize the intermingling of the technical and the social realms (among others), this "simulation" did not simulate anything but a fantasy of white male governmental power seeking to reinforce or recover a sphere of influence that has been rapidly diminishing in an age of socially mediated networks. Cyber Shock Wave was nothing but a bald-faced attempt to scare the American public away from its increased reliance on, and involvement with, socially networked media and back into the arms of cable television and pasty-faced government officials.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"We Were Warned": CNN Premediates Cyber.ShockWave

On Saturday and Sunday at 8 PM ET, CNN will televise the results of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Cyber.Shockwave, the simulation of a major cyber-attack on the United States staged today, February 16. For now, here is a video from CNN's American Morning news show featuring an interview by John Roberts with former CIA Director General Michael Hayden and Fran Townsend, CNN reporter and former Homeland Security Advisor for the Bush-Cheney administration, two of the principals in today's simulation. This interview premediates the scenario that will unfold in Tuesday's simulation, which itself is a premediation of possible cyber attacks on the US.

Both Hayden and Townsend underscore their belief that the US is not prepared for a potential attack. In describing the possible consequences of such an attack, they paint any number of potentially terrifying scenarios, like the breakdown of transportation networks, the loss of electrical power, the shutdown of ATMs, or the disruption of the nation's cellphone networks--all intended to frighten the public. Roberts plays into this fear-mongering throughout the interview, repeating on more than one occasion how what they are telling him makes him and the audience anxious or terrified or frightened. At no point does he or his guests note that any such disruptions would undoubtedly prove temporary. While there may be vulnerabilities in the nation's cyber-defense system, the damage from such attacks would most likely be quickly repaired. It's not as if the entire nation will lose electrical power or internet service or cellphone connectivity for an extended period of time.

In the interview Hayden makes it clear that the simulation is not an attempt to predict a particular future scenario but to impact policy decisions today, including front and center questions of privacy, the relation between government and the private sector, or the question of chain of command. What seems clear from this preview of today's event is that the aim of those staging and participating in this "shock wave" is precisely to shock or scare the American public into accepting further incursions on individual and collective liberties by premediating the most frightening possible implications of a cyber attack on the US.

CNN's weekend report on today's scenario will undoubtedly prove to be the US media's most extensive premediation of cyber war to date--or perhaps more accurately its premediation of a premediated cyber war. In any event, this special report will bear watching. Check it out. You've been warned!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Are Twitter Users Agents of US Cyber War?

In an interesting story in this morning's New York Times, Sharon LaFraniere and Jonathan Ansfield describe China's concern about cyber-security threats resulting from the omnipresence of western-based hardware and software among China's networked computing infrastructure. Because of this concern, the authors write, China has become "'absolutely the world leader' in development of Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6)—-the successor to the current Internet." China's leaders seem determined to free themselves from their current reliance on Western IT companies by developing a home-grown Internet infrastructure.

What was most striking about this article, however, was this take on the so-called Iranian Twitter revolution: "'How did the unrest after the Iranian elections come about?' People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, asked in a Jan. 24 editorial. 'It was because online warfare launched by America, via YouTube video and Twitter micro-blogging, spread rumors, created splits, stirred up and sowed discord.'" Where print, televisual, and networked media in the Western world celebrated the use of Twitter and YouTube as instances of grass-roots, anti-fascist cyber-democracy, China (and Iran) see these social media networks as weapons of online warfare launched by the US.

In my forthcoming book, I argue that in generating and proliferating pleasurable affects, social media networks encourage people to furnish all sorts of transactional data that help to vitalize our current securitization regime. From this perspective grass-roots netivism does something similar not only for US netizens but for those on the ground in other nations as well. And perhaps even more insidiously, does the promotion of an ideology of grass-roots socially networked activism among print, televisual, and networked media work to transform socially conscious users of Twitter and YouTube into unwitting agents of US cyber war? And how might this connect with the extensive premediation of cyber war under way at the current moment, particularly the February 16 "simulation" of an attack against the US by foreign sources?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Premediating Cyber War

According to a post by the Atlantic's Mark Ambinder, the US government will be war-gaming a cyber attack in public on television on February 16. While some may consider this a form of simulation or rehearsal, it seems clear that its real value is as a premediation of Cyber War. This fictionalization of a cyber attack seems designed less to work out how the US military might defend such an attack or how it might be prevented than to premediate for the American public the likelihood of such an attack.

This premediated war-gaming goes hand in hand with recent Senate testimony by US intelligence and defense officials about the likelihood of such attacks, as well as with related state-based and media premediations in the US, the UK, Israel, and other nations. Given our increasing affective, social, and commercial dependence on information and communication networks, any extended disruption of these networks could cause incalculable damage to our social, affective, and financial exchanges--not to mention other kinds of damage to power networks, transportation networks, water purification and sanitation networks, and so forth.

Premediating such attacks is not likely to have a major effect on our social, technical, and commercial networks, but may help prepare the public affectively for major network disruptions. The aim of these various premediations is less to predict specific attacks or to prepare specific lines of defense than to modulate public affect with an eye toward encouraging us to accept the necessity of increased practices of state and corporate securitization.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

US Intelligence Officials Premediate Terrorism and Cyber-Attacks

In an article nearly buried on page 6 of the front section of the New York Times, "Senators Warned of Terror Attack by July," top US intelligence officials are quoted as premediating terrorist attacks on US soil within the next 3 to 6 months.

Dennis C. Blair, who directs the nation's intelligence operations, and Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, both pre-mediated an attack by Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates. Panetta said that "The biggest threat is not so much that we face an attack like 9/11," but "that Al Qaeda is adapting its methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect." Blair underscored this point, but began his testimony by premediating the possibility of a crippling cyber-attack on US telecommunications and computer networks, contributing to increasing concerns among the intelligence community of a "cyber Pearl Harbor."

The fact that such news does not merit placement on the front page is worth considering, particularly insofar as we are only six weeks or so beyond the failed Christmas Day bombing. Perhaps it is simply a sign of the short attention span of the US public. Perhaps it means that the American public is beginning to take a more mature approach to the inevitability of terrorist attacks. More likely it means that the US media does not yet see such premediation as something that will sell newspapers this week. After all, this is Super Bowl week; the media's premediations seem oriented largely towards the Colts and the Saints.

It is also worth considering the aim of the intelligence community and the Obama Administration in issuing such premediations. Prior to 9/11 there was very little specific talk of this nature in the media; on the contrary the Bush-Cheney crew wanted to keep such intelligence on the QT, even from the president himself, it seems. After 9/11, however, in the run-up to the Iraq War, the Bush-Cheney administration used massive, widespread premediation to prepare the public affectively to accept (even when it cognitively or politically opposed) the invasion of Iraq. While the decision to invade Iraq, unlike the terrorist attacks premediated by the intelligence community, was in the hands of the US government, something similar nonetheless would seem to be involved here.

By premediating potential terrorist attacks on US soil or US networks before they happened, the Obama administration might be seeking to accomplish at least three related goals. First, such premediations can work to prepare the public affectively for such attacks so that their effects (particularly on the US economy) will not be as devastating as they were in the aftermath of 9/11. Second, by premediating such attacks now, the Republican opposition and their print, televisual, and networked media allies will have a more difficult time blaming the Obama administration for being unprepared (although of course that will not stop them from making such claims). Third, if such premediated attacks do not come off before the next election, say, Obama and the Democrats will be in a position to take credit for having kept the US safe.

Undoubtedly, there are other motivations one might imagine. From my perspective, what is most interesting is the fact that premediation continues to play an important role in US media and political discourse. And, in terms of a new research project that I am just beginning to undertake, it is telling that cyber war is being premediated alongside of terrorist attacks on US soil as an imminent threat to the security of the homeland.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics--Part 2

Held at Lucerne's Swiss Museum of Transport, an interesting, relatively high-tech facility, the 8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics set out to address some of the big global problems facing humanity at the start of the second decade of the 21st century. The Biennale charged 90 Swiss francs for the weekend and drew an audience of several hundred people. With the notable exception of the first day's intervention by Latour and Stengers (about which I posted an entry last week), the tenor of the papers was mostly non-academic, which was presumably part of the design of Rene Stettler, who has organized these events from their inception. Or perhaps more accurately, the overall tone of the event was something like a self-congratulatory celebration of the possibilities of a socially conscious science to redeem the world. Indeed, for much of the weekend, science and technology were presented as the new religion and the new priesthood, offering an enlightened public a new age, pseudo-ecological theology of the inter-connectedness of humanity, nature, earth, and the cosmos.

Day 1 was devoted mainly to science, beginning with a lecture on Leonardo by Frijof Capra, whose book The Tao of Physics was hugely influential among intellectually inclined seekers in the 1970s and beyond. Capra's thesis, which made virtually no reference to any of the voluminous scholarship on Leonardo, was that Leonardo had anticipated many of the tenets of contemporary non-linear science, including fluid dynamics, organic form, ecological design, the Gaia theory, and so forth. All that was missing was the claim that Leonardo had invented the internet. Margaret Wertheim, an Australian science writer based in California, followed with a critique of the Pythagorean idea that mathematical equations could describe the natural world, ending with a critique of the misplaced priorities of such scientific projects as the Large Hadron Collider. The other lectures included a critique of the idea that humans were inherently warlike by science journalist John Horgan and a defense of systems theory as a way for science to account for conscious experience, by Michel Bitbol, a philosopher of science at the École Polytechnique in Paris, which was the most academic of the four talks. While all of the talks offered what one might characterize as "enlightened" critiques of science, none of them broke any new intellectual ground. Each talk could be seen to participate in the construction of something like a socially conscious scientific theology, belief in which could somehow lead the way to a more humane future.

This new religion was most evident on Day 2, which focused on art and science, particularly in the presentations of Kevin Kelley and David McConville. Kevin Kelley, not to be confused with the founder of Wired magazine and former editor and publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog, is "an artist, best-selling author, and entrepeneur," author of a 198 NY Times best-seller, The Home Planet, which featured photographs of earth from space coupled with inspirational prose from scientists, poets, and philosophers, among others. Kelley presented a new digital tool to visualize our place in the evolution of the universe. His hypnotic narrative of the digitally generated images was accompanied by songs and poems by Rachel Bagby, "an arts and social change innovator." The aim of their presentation of this visualization tool, which was received with awe and wonder by most of the audience, was to dramatize how brief humanity's time on earth was and yet how dramatic its impact had been. Kelley claimed that his plan was eventually to make his software into open source media and to make it ubiquitous--on computers, cellphones, watches, and so forth. At no time did he give any indication of the impact that networked digital media might have had on the planet.

The erasure of technical mediation was even more complete in the planetarium presentation by David McConville, a disciple of Buckminster Fuller and "noospheric researcher" at the Elumenati, a full service design and engineering firm specializing in the creation and deployment of immersive environments, located in Ashville, North Carolina. McConville presented a dazzling planetarium show of the observable universe, whose aim was to "invite" the audience members "to imagine stepping outside of their own perspectives to reflexively consider how suspending beliefs can enable new ways of seeing and knowing the world." While the display was impressive, what was most interesting about the planetarium presentation was the way it transformed the museum into something like a 21st-century cathedral, as the priests of a new-age scientific theology dazzled believers with powerful digital visualization technologies of mediation. Reclining in the dark among a crowd of fellow believers, looking up to the digitally projected heavens, the audience was invited to immerse itself in the power of these new technologies, which worked to erase all signs of their mediation in the presentation of a new cosmology. What wasn't reflexively considered was the role of computational and visualization technologies in producing this interactive display or the info-capitalist aims of the Elumenati.

With the exception of the intervention by Latour and Stengers, the weekend's presentations aimed primarily at feel-good solutions to complicated global problems. The 8th Swiss Biennale could be seen to represent a popularization of an interdisciplinary academic conference, one focused more on edu-tainment than education, more on celebrating a shared set of cultural beliefs about science and technology than on contesting and composing the complex interrelations among science, technics, and aesthetics today.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics--Part 1

I don't usually use this blog to report on my travels, but I was recently in Lucerne, Switzerland, in the midst of a two-week lecturing tour in anticipation of the release of Premediation in April, so I thought it would be worth while to report on what proved to be a disappointing but nonetheless interesting event.

My attendance at the Biennale was due to a coincidence of circumstances. First, I found myself with a free weekend between talks at University of Warwick and Anglia Ruskin University last week and a workshop at University of Durham this coming Tuesday, followed by a keynote address I will deliver on January 21st at a conference in Amsterdam on "Futures in Finance and Security." During the months before the conference, I began receiving emails publicizing the Swiss Biennale, which is designed as something like a gathering of public intellectuals--scientists, philosophers, writers, and so forth--to address the question of The Large, The Small, and the Human Mind, a theme based upon a 1997 book by Roger Penrose. Normally I wouldn't find such an event of much interest, but I noticed that the first day of the Biennale featured an "intervention" by Bruno Latour, chaired by Isabelle Stengers. I have great respect for the work of both Latour and Stengers, and I have known Bruno for more than twenty years, since my early days at Georgia Tech (though I don't think I had seen him for more than a decade before this weekend). Given the coincidence of my free weekend and the opportunity to renew an old friendship and perhaps to start a new one, I decided to give the event a go.

The highlight of the Biennale for me was the “intervention” on the first day by Latour and Stengers. Designed as something like a dialogue, with Latour addressing the audience and Stengers interrupting him with questions which helped move the argument along, the intervention represented an early attempt at what Latour is calling his Compositionist Manifesto.

Latour’s lecture was of interest to me for several reasons. First, he framed his talk with a reading of James Cameron’s Avatar. In fact Latour joked that if he had an agent he would sue Cameron for plagiarism as the ending of the film, in which the planet Pandora asserted itself in Gaia-like fashion to repel the colonialist invaders and to transform the crippled Marine into a full-fledged N’avi, could be seen as a cinematic depiction of a possible way forward out of the modern dilemma which Latour sketches out in Pandora’s Hope. Insofar as I have been working on a short piece on Avatar tentatively titled, “We Have Never Been Avatars: The Last Film of the Twentieth Century,” this claim was of interest to me. Latour’s compositionist manifesto was also interesting because of the distinction he invoked at the end between “le future” and “l’avenir,” a distinction that bears some relation to the distinction between the two different understandings of the future entailed in prediction and premediation, respectively, which I develop in some detail in my forthcoming book.

But what does Latour’s Compositionist Manifesto consist of? He begins with a definition of what he sees as the new spirit of our time, in which the modern belief in time as an inevitable forward progression has begun to give way to a recognition among non-moderns that progress is fully reversible. Compositionism transforms what it means to progress or to go forward, issuing a warning or call for attention so that we will stop going further in the same way as before, the way in which moderns have tried to do ever since the great divide instituted by Descartes and fortified by Kant.

Compositionism distinguishes between progress and progressiveness, taking up the search for universality without believing that universality is already there in the future waiting to be discovered by the progress of modern science. Composition conceives of universality as composed of utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a complete, uniform whole, but at best a fragile, barely held together whole.

Stengers replied at this point, contending that the fact that this universality will never make a whole means that it will never be at rest, but must be continually maintained, must be composed and constantly kept together through activity and motion. Any composition must always be maintained and attended to. Different kinds of care or physical attention are always required.

Latour then explained that composition is the opposite of critique, which depends upon the fundamental opposition between illusion or delusion and reality. In so doing, Latour maintained, critique creates a massive gap between what is felt and what is real and must depend upon a belief in a world beyond this world on which to base critique. Composition, on the other hand, is completely mundane, and entails a question of having the right tools for the right jobs. So while a hammer may be a good tool for destroying idols it is less good at stitching together heterogeneous elements that make up a composition. Iconoclasm depends upon a sturdy or juvenile belief in the beyond, which can only be reached by destroying the idols that stand between the critic, the iconoclast, and reality. We must leave the 20th century behind, Latour proclaimed, let the dead bury the dead.

But what of Nature, Stengers asked? What about the 19th century idea of the natural as a foundation for narratives of the modern of the 20th century. Even life, if it is composition, is not natural ini this 19th-century sense. Latour replied that while “post-natural” has some currency as a term to address the end of nature, compositionism is perhaps more comfortable with the term pre-naturalism. Nobody has ever lived in nature, Latour maintained. Ever since the bifurcation of Descartes between the cogitating mind and the objective world, nature has always been something made, constructed, composed. How, then, can we move forward without the engine of progress? Perhaps by recognizing that we are closer to the 16th century than we are to the 20th. We’re now more familiar with the time before the modern bifurcation. Everything is now in some sense post-natural.

Stengers then suggested that we need to take seriously the idea of breaks, of a succession of breaks in the 20th century, so that we can see that each time an old alliance was broken it was taken by the moderns as a sign of progress or science. We were beyond the break—breaking science is beyond the break. If we are closer to the 16th century, it is a different 16th century, a different point. To return to the animated cosmos of the 16th century we must take advantage of this idea of animation without thinking about intention. Lovelock’s idea of the revenge of Gaia is a problem if it’s understood that Gaia is intentional. It’s better, Stengers said, if Gaia doesn’t know us. Agency only operates within assemblages. There is no agency without composition, no anime without connection.

Latour picked up on Stengers’ point, claiming that the invention of the inanimate was more remarkable than the invention of the animate. The inanimate is not to be taken as the given state, with the animate developing or evolving out of it, but rather is the more interesting phenomenon, which can only be invented or composed by animate agents. In practice all agency has to be distributed at each step, in theory this is not necessarily the case. Realism is dependent upon the contradictory, irrational idea of action without agency in which inanimate objects act on their own—nature is already assembled. For Latour (and for Stengers) the agency of the natural world is distributed among animate and inanimate, human and non-human agents.

Latour then took up the question of the continuity of cause and consequences. Compositionists, he maintained, cannot rely upon continuity, which is a given to realists or naturalists, but which for a compositionist must be composed slowly and progressively from discontinuous pieces. The concept of matter, Latour claimed, is too anthropocentric and especially too idealistic. We need a more mundane, materialistic definition of matter, if we are to compose the material world.

Stengers then responded that consequence always overflows the material cause (much as affect overflows intention or cognition). For Stengers, everything we do must be disputed, discussed, imagined, and reimagined. We must slow down, but to do so is seen as a betrayal of modern ideas of progress in which we must feel this imperative to go quickly, to advance—and feel this deep anxiety if we slow down. Rationality ignored consequences—don’t worry about them, let them take care of themselves.

Latour then introduced the idea that modernists never actually run to the future, but only run from the past. Benjamin’s Angel of History looks behind, not ahead. Modernity, Latour claimed, flies backwards from the past. At this point, Latour began moving humorously backwards across the stage, demonstrating how the modernists move into the future while facing the past.

Only recently by a sudden conversion have moderns finally realized how much catastrophe has been left behind by the progress of science, technology, and society, because for the past century or so moderns have never looked to the future because they have been so busy fleeing from the pat and now begin to realize that they have in fact been creating the destruction they have been fleeing in the first place. Moderns have never contemplated their future until a few years back, that is, their future of fleeing their past backwards.

Here, Latour introduced the distinction in the French language between two kinds of futurity, le future” and “l’avenir.” “Le future” is like the English term and denotes a predictable determined future into which one is moving in a linear, progressive way. “L’avenir” means something more like prospects, which are not determined, and which have to be composed from many potential future directions or paths. The moderns had “le future” but did not have “l’avenir.” But now they have begun to have one—the future and the prospect of things to come have really no connection with each other. The moderns, Latour now seems to hope, have no future, but many prospects—but prospects very different from the future teleological development of progress that they had imagined while they were moving forward while facing behind.

Stengers ended her remarks by asking about the relation between the Communist Manifesto and the Compositionist Manifesto. Both she and Latour agreed that the search for the common is what the two have in common, though they insisted that this search had to be slowly composed rather than taken for granted, or revealed in a sudden revolutionary action.

Latour ended by returning to Avatar as a sign of Pandora’s Hope, the hope for a new prospect, for the composition of a fragile assemblage of humans, technologies, and nature in a heterogeneous network of animate and inanimate actants.

What was perhaps most astounding about this intervention was how at odds it was with every other presentation over the course of the weekend. I hope in the next couple of days to post the second part of this report, on the ways in which the Bienniale's mystification of science, coupled with the erasure of practices of technical mediation, not only served as a 21st-century version of the cathedral but also suggested a different reading of James Cameron's Avatar, one less hopeful than that offered by Latour.