Last month I pondered the extent to which the Arab Spring and Occupy Everything are socially-driven acts of creative destruction. Creative destruction is defined as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” The mutation, in this case, is reactionary responses to established interests, mostly driven by or assisted by social media. Governments and power structures are falling, but the replacements aren’t immediately ready in the wings. Continue reading “New Economies”
Bret Easton Ellis pops up at The Daily Beast and manages to pull a whole bunch of cultural threads together using almost-overnight memetic sensation and celebrity-carwreck Charlie Sheen as nexus/exemplar.
You’re completely missing the point if you think the Charlie Sheen moment is really a story about drugs. Yeah, they play a part, but they aren’t at the core of what’s happening—or why this particular Sheen moment is so fascinating. I know functioning addicts. They’re not that rare or that interesting. What this moment is about is Sheen solo. It’s about a well-earned midlife crisis played out on CNN instead of in a life coach’s office somewhere in Burbank. The midlife crisis is the moment in a man’s life when he realizes he can’t (or won’t) any longer maintain the pose that he thought was required of him.
Anyone who’s put up with the fake rigors of celebrity (or suffered from addiction problems) has a kindred spirit here. The new fact is: If you’re punching paparazzi, you look like an old-school loser. If you can’t accept the fact that we’re at the height of an exhibitionistic display culture and that you’re going to be blindsided by TMZ (and humiliated by Harvey Levin, or Chelsea Handler—princess of post-Empire) while stumbling out of a club on Sunset Boulevard at 2 in the morning, then you should be a travel agent instead of a movie star. Being publicly mocked is part of the game, and you’re a fool if you don’t play along. Not showing up to collect your award at the Razzies for that piece of crap you made? So Empire. This is why Sheen seems saner and funnier than any other celebrity right now. He also makes better jokes about his situation than most worried editorialists or late-night comedians. A lot of it is sheer bad-boy bravado—just cursing to see how people react, which is very post-Empire—but a lot of it is pure transparency, and on that level, Sheen is, um, winning.
Transparency! We’ve been talking about its effects at the nation-state and corporation levels for a few years, but the same corrosion is happening down here in the culture trenches; I’m sure you can think of people in your circle of friends, online or off, who are doing a similar “performative fuckuppery” kind of thing, albeit (probably, or rather hopefully) not as intense. (After all, a 7-gram-rocks coke habit isn’t accessible to most income bands, AMIRITES?)
But this is important: Josh Harris may be a bit unhinged, but he realised it way before anyone else: we live in public. You know how when you get a videocam out at a party or bar and there’s always a few folk who immediately start playing it up for the lens? Well, we’re all on camera all the time, metaphorically speaking… and behaving normally does little more than let you fade into the background. This is the same root phenomena that drives comment trolling and those Westboro shitheads, but also the chain of revolutions across the Middle East and the sudden upsurge of protests in the UK and the US. Publicity is a feedback loop, but only now is it fast enough that the feedback can start really amping the signal. Sheen is not an end-case; he’s more of a prototype.
As Ellis points out, we’re in a transition period where Empire and post-Empire celebrity share the stage, but the Empire types don’t understand the landscape that the post-Empires are exploiting to their advantage. For example, here’s a classic Empire project: David Tang’s iCorrect website, where celebrities can correct the false mythologies that have accreted around them in the roiling mediasphere. But why would you want to go and shatter the mystique? They’ll believe whatever they want to believe, anyway; you might as well just play to the peanut gallery. After all, they’re the people who are most likely to spend money on things you do in the future… better to be a carwreck on a busy highway than pulled up carefully on the verge of a backroad.
After looking at kids adapting to living in public, here’s the other end of the scale: internationally-notorious public figures managing their public profile. Bush administration uber-weasel* Donald Rumsfeld has learned a few choice lessons from the sudden rise of radical transparency… or at least his publicity people have.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, there are few rhetorical tactics Rumsfeld can employ to satisfy his hordes of critics. So he’s accompanying his memoir, Known and Unknown, with tons of primary source material: hundreds of raw documents detailing his thought process at the Pentagon, all searchable on his new website. This way, he’s not engaging with a debate he’s unlikely to win; he’s burying it under an avalanche of paper.
To put it uncharitably: when you’ve got a rep for being less-than-honest and unwilling to debate, you might as well let the documents speak for themselves.
This is interesting primarily because it subtly exploits a fundamental problem with all forms of communication, namely the signal-to-noise ratio. Or, to put it another way, the best way to hide needles is to put them in haystacks, and then salt the haystacks with a few distracting nuggets:
… RummyLeaks ain’t quite WikiLeaks: his documents have been officially declassified, and many paint him in quite the flattering light, on their face. But like WikiLeaks’ trove of war documents, Rumsfeld leaves it up to his readers to dig through a huge trove to find their own gems. A transparency measure, sure. But one that has the effect of snowing a reader under a ton of data, leaving them in the meantime with the narrative that he’s shaping.
I doubt this is going to make a huge difference to public perception of ol’ Rummy; them as have always backed him will continue to do so, and them as have always seen him as a weasel won’t take this hand-picked and carefully-manicured splurge of documentation as proof to the contrary. But it shows that old dogs really can learn new tricks… which is something to bear in mind every time you see your elected officials acting like they haven’t left the house since 1994. They’re not as naive or technologically out-of-touch as they’d like you to think.
[ * Yes, that's a personal value judgement on my part; no, I have no interest in retracting it. ]
So last week I flippantly suggested the possibility of a smartphone app for reporting politically or religiously unpalatable behaviour by persons in your immediate vicinity. I often make these worst-case-scenario suggestions as a rhetorical device, a kind of ultimate extrapolation of the sf-nal “if this carries on…” riff, rather than in the sincere belief that they will actually come to pass. Sometimes, however, reality likes to remind me that a cynic is rarely disappointed… [via TechDirt]
Citizen Concepts announces the launch of PatriotAppTM, the world’s first iPhone application that empowers citizens to assist government agencies in creating safer, cleaner, and more efficient communities via social networking and mobile technology. This app was founded on the belief that citizens can provide the most sophisticated and broad network of eyes and ears necessary to prevent terrorism, crime, environmental negligence, or other malicious behavior.
The underlying concept is actually pretty sound (not to mention an inevitable component of a truly networked society) but the presentation is, to me at least, chilling in its jingoistic nationalism*, and a reminder that technology is morally neutral: it’s the hand that swipes the screen which wields the blade.
[ * This is not an anti-American dig, by the way; I'd find a Union Flag-draped equivalent even more unpleasant. It is my hope that systems like this will actually erode nationalism in the long run, but it's far from a foregone conclusion, sadly. ]
Yup, still talking about Wikileaks; even if the content of the leaks is boring you, their existence is one of the biggest sociopolitical stories of the moment, and as such it’s gonna be a while before I stop thinking about them. So here’s a link for those who’ve asked “what’s this Assange character’s motivation, anyway?”, via the double-Boing; Assange wrote an essay in 2006 entitled “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” [PDF link].
It’s the sort of document I’m going to need to spend some time with before I can offer my own opinions on it, but I’m immediately getting serious harmonic chiming with a lot of my own (admittedly far less thoroughly baked) theories on the-state-as-sytem. In the meantime, it is analysed in detail at ZunguZungu, offering an insight into the philosophies that inform Assange’s projects.
[Assange's] model for imagining the conspiracy, then, is not at all the cliché that people mean when they sneer at someone for being a “conspiracy theorist.” After all, most the “conspiracies” we’re familiar with are pure fantasies, and because the “Elders of Zion” or James Bond’s SPECTRE have never existed, their nonexistence becomes a cudgel for beating on people that would ever use the term or the concept. For Assange, by contrast, a conspiracy is something fairly banal, simply any network of associates who act in concert by hiding their concerted association from outsiders, an authority that proceeds by preventing its activities from being visible enough to provoke counter-reaction. It might be something as dramatic as a loose coalition of conspirators working to start a war with Iraq/n, or it might simply be the banal, everyday deceptions and conspiracies of normal diplomatic procedure.
He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire…
Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets. The point of Wikileaks — as Assange argues — is simply to make Wikileaks unnecessary.
And as an added bonus (not to mention yet another reason for any right-leaning pro-nation types still reading to write me off as a mad raving lefty pinko), here’s arch-academic Noam Chomsky pointing out that the most interesting thing about the Cablegate material is the subtext [via BigThink]:
… the main significance of the cables that are being released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. The results are rather striking. They show the Arab opinion holds that the major threat in the region is Israel — that’s 80. The second major threat is the United States — that’s 77. Iran is listed as a threat by 10%.
With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority — in fact, 57 – say that the region would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. 80, 77, say the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. 10 say Iran is the major threat. This may not be reported in the newspapers here — it is in England — but it’s certainly familiar to the Israeli and U.S. governments, and to the ambassadors. But there is not a word about it anywhere. What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership and the Israeli political leadership. These things aren’t even to be mentioned. This seeps its way all through the diplomatic service. The cables to not have any indication of that.
When they talk about Arabs, they mean the Arab dictators, not the population, which is overwhelmingly opposed to the conclusions that the analysts here — Clinton and the media — have drawn. There’s also a minor problem; that’s the major problem. The minor problem is that we don’t know from the cables what the Arab leaders think and say. We know what was selected from the range of what they say. So there is a filtering process. We don’t know how much it distorts the information. But there is no question that what is a radical distortion is — or, not even a distortion, a reflection – of the concern that the dictators are what matter. The population does not matter, even if it’s overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy.
Cue lots more stuff about Israel/Palestine… you can say what you like about Chomsky, but at least the guy’s consistent, AMIRITES?
But this all kind of underlines the point I’ve been trying to make about Wikileaks-as-phenomenon, which is to say that waving it off as “an attempt to embarrass the United States” is to engage in exactly the same myopic narcissism that it’s trying to destroy. Whether you think destroying that narcissism is a good thing is different question entirely, of course…
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