Re: [-empyre-] Self-programmable media activism; just cheap talk?

You know, it's a cogent point you make about the connection to Real-ness through the print, as if it is close to being some site of meeting/meaning.  Almost always, for example, the people that I ask to be guests on -empyre- , by some luck or chance I have had a chance to meet them and work and play with them, not just on line. Not that this is required, by no means, still, often it seems that I have some sense of who they are, why I am passionate about the topic, ,what matters, when I have this chance to meet.  Of course this requires luck and resources, and the latter is always in short supply. 

  It's hard in a vastly distributed culture like  -empyre-'s tiny community of seven or eight hundred readers, which extends across the globe, across several major languages, across so many kilometers, such that it's impossible for everyone to meet, except, somehow, through the voci of the list.  But that's why for example it's so great to have Marcus now as a new moderator on the list, because, he lives among all those in Sao Paulo who are active in new media. No one could know without being there how much is going on, and how to bring people into conversation.

  Still, are you saying that, beyond the self reflexive environment of the list, that the live'ness - perhaps, the lived-ness, of print media especially independent alternative press media, is still so much a touchstone to the reality of physical life: to touch / to read/ to hear/ to think/ to speak?.   The physical presence of media made the hard way.   This reaches towards the 'fortification' Ryan and Cara wrangled with a few days ago. But perhaps the best thing about this situation is how the worlds fold in on one another, so that we can speak here as well as in print.  Both/and. 
This perhaps touches on what Cara's cri de coeur contains: 

"Culturally speaking, I can't seem to shake the feeling that I'm just missing something enormous, eminent and wonderful and that at least one of you is here to say so. Bet you didn't see that one coming.
In the end, i need you, my friends, my nodes. I'm worried about us not having a real plan for fortifying ourselves, ability to exchange w/one another privately even if we wanted to..and so on."

Thank you (and Cara)  for this heartfelt and not so 'dumb' polemic. 

-----Original Message-----
From: "" <>
Sent: Nov 27, 2005 4:10 PM
Subject: [-empyre-] Self-programmable media activism; just cheap talk?

Since this is The Journal?s last week on empyre, I hope you?ll indulge me
in this act of cynicism- more of rumination 
on doubt than a steadfast ideology. Unfortunately I do not follow new media
discourse that closely and I would not 
be surprised to hear that this argument is made already. Additionally some
might dismiss my argument as simple 
nostalgia, but I wasn?t alive during the decade I will briefly deify.
Therefore if you are going to dismiss it off-hand, 
please do so because it is historically naïve. The simple thesis statement
here is- ?While the internet and digital 
technology has aided in the proliferation and dissemination of oppositional
voices it has failed to do little more for 
the long term than make talk cheap.?

I?ll make a dumb, short-sided, biased and simple argument that confuses and
mixes terms, one that stems from a 
question that I?ve spent some-time pondering; I think this is an
appropriate place to share it. This question starts 
with two things: one is an appreciation for Marshal McLuhan, the other is a
simple act of syllogistic comparison. 

I?ll start with the syllogism- a ?time elapsed? comparison can be drawn
between 1968 and 2005. Using 1964 (golf of 
Tonkin) and 2001 (WTC collapses, Pennsylvania field plain crashes, Pentagon
bombed) as beginning points (low-
level Asian conflicts escalate to all out war), 1968 and 2005 are both four
years down militaristic imperialism's 
runway of death. 

As for McLuhan- I am interested in the medium is the message concept here.
The late Sixties can be seen as a hot 
period for Mcluhan's hot electric media (rock and roll, television) as well
as a boom time for more traditional cool 
media (printing/ mimeography). In Mcluhan?s day a major dialectic in
technology, hence culture, was Hot vs. Cold, 
electric vs. mechanic, Eros vs. Thanatos, freaks vs. squares. Today this
dialectic is irrelevant as the mechanical is a 
cave painting, hot media has won and baby boomers demand high-end home
entertainment centers for there 
personally decorated suburban homes.  Paul Virilio seems to be a major
chronicler of the triumph of speed in our 
culture today, but that?s not my point. McLuhan never talked about
self-programmable technology, choose your own 
adventure TV shows, interactive media, blogs, pirated software, Ipods,
cheap editing equipment and least of all the 
internet.  In McLuhan?s time, although consumer electronics were
democratized into the hands of many, unlike 
today, the content which was broadcast through these channels was formally
connected to, and dependant upon, 
visible external relationships and hierarchy?s (producer/consumer). Average
citizens couldn?t choose the play lists. 
?The arbiters of cultures? did. To put the dialectic of self-produced media
into Mcluhan?s terms, the message of 
self- programmable media is ?individual freedom, creativity and invention?;
the message of hardwired technology is 
?absolute relationship to external powers?. Our hot and cold is a tension
between society and self. 

Here I?d like to draw a comparison between the underground press of the
60?s and a blog. Both media are a variant 
on the concept of more democratic form of speech- both are seen as the
insurgent media types of their respective 
days. That?s where the similarities end. In order to have a successful blog
this is what you need: a) computer with 
Internet access b) something to write about c) tenacity. Meanwhile in order
to have a successful underground 
newspaper you need: a) something to write about b) access and knowledge of
printing press and process c) a 
workable "brick and mortar" distribution network  d) continual access to
capital derived ultimately through the active 
development and servicing of a community willing to support the project by
going down to the store or record shop 
to shell out some hard earned dough and purchase the rag. Blogs facilitate
a profusion of individual and unique 
voices in virtual space, while at the same time put marginal value on the
creation of dynamic and active social 
networks that operate in political space. They are not accountable to a
public and they find their strongest niche in 
reporting ?gossip? and personal opinion. A blog is a wholly private affair.
Underground newspapers on the other 
hand have a higher bar of entry yet encourage and require the development
of social networks, patterns, and habits. 
These external conditions (the active readership) both legitimize and
fiscally support the publication and it?s 
messages. Without a paying costumer base whom believes that they need the
service it provides, the paper dies for 
lack of funds. When underground newspapers alienate readerships they have
been physically attacked or taken over. 
As quasi-public institutions, these spaces are effected by tangible
methodologies and develop real world public 
affects. Methodologies of public cultural rituals are like sharing a new
cassette or cd between friends in your living 
room while sipping martinis, talking with a sales clerk about a book she
dislikes, or sitting in a café while reading an 
ostentatiously arty or militant symbol of your collective alienation in the
form of a colorful broadsheet.

The switch from media?s that are programmed for us by others, to the
illusion of a media that we produce ourselves 
privately has been accompanied by the destruction of the social fabric
(here I am referring to both the public welfare 
state and the atomization of public life into the desks that hold our
entertainment/work station). A social fabric that 
in the past relied upon our ability to mobilize strangers to operate in
spaces other than the comfort of our own living 
rooms. Self-programmed media creates the illusion that the individual is
the center of the universe- while other-
programmed media reinforces the notion that an individual is a somehow a
member of a larger society. Whether that 
is the straight society of CBS TV and Capital Records, or the radical
society of the East Village Other and Heresies, 
that choice is up to the social individual. Membership in democratic
society comes with certain terms, while 
membership in individualistic libertarian cultures is somewhat of an

This old argument of virtual culture vs. real culture gets played out into
my syllogism 1968 vs. 2005. The supposed 
promise of democratized technology is the emergence of more democratic
culture and government. For activists the 
buzz around viral-activism has been how great it is. But the question that
I am asking is how has it been effective in 
building and innovating resistant cultural forms? Beyond ?networking? folks
in abstract ways with virtual proxies 
(donating money, signing petitions) what has been the actual effect of this
proliferation of voices? What profound 
new forms of communal human possibilities have these self-programming
medias actually engendered?

This is where my argument gets really dumb, stooping to the level of
Frankenstein vs. Dracula. Ignoring everything 
else, if we were to compare the level of political experimentation and
growth, if we were able to quantify and qualify 
the amount and effect of grassroots or non-grassroots political activity,
if we were able to weigh the weight of truly 
alternative cultures that were created between the years 1964 to 1968 and
2001 to 2005- which side would win? 
Ignoring contexts, I know this is a ridiculous measurement but why not give
it a try? Between the years of 
1964-1968 groups like SDS went through a thousand different
transformations. From a small and elite student 
affiliated civil-rights group working with the insurgent Mississippi
Freedom Party trying to play on the national 
political stage, to an immense high school and university anti-war group,
to an organization that was actively 
supporting cross racial class based organizing in urban and rural slums, to
a militant separatist group. Along the 
way the SDS affiliated organizations developed in tandem with countless
other organizations, movements and 
actions trying to develop alternatives to the war state in the actual
places of every day public life. Though these folks 
were subjects of hot media- their organizing tools were completely cold,
relying not on the disembodied tools of the 
digital age, but the grassroots tools of a handshake. (Anecdotally, the
power of the Right is attributed not to their 
tech savvy, but to there continued ability to organize socially through
such hard-wired media as the churches.)

What has digital activism brought us? ?The Dean Phenomena?; a candidate who
can effectively out raise money 
through viral networks but is unable to actually win elections.,
an organization in representation only. 
Smart mobs seemed promising, but all to often nobody knows how to do
anything in public together other than 
stand around proud of their able to use technology in a cool way. How has
digital technology hindered, rather than 
aided, our ability to connect to one another in deep, profound, creative
and effective ways? Even interventionist 
artwork- itself a product of a world where monadic individuals assume the
right to rupture the social fabric as an 
aesthetic gesture; Is a disturbance by an autonomous individual comparable
to an aesthetics gesture that somehow 
acknowledges that individual?s relationship and dependence upon that very
same culture he is critiquing? 

By accepting self-programmable technologies as the resource of choice for
activist and artist practice, how much 
have we lost by not using tools from and with tangible connections to the
?real?? When we talk about the 
development of a virtual activist network- how often are we talking about
the group of friends we?ve lined up like on rather than the development of a truly active and
purposeful phone tree? By opting for technologies 
that allow us to file share super quickly, what have we lost by not getting
together with a group of like-minded 
people for a couple of hours to chat and fold envelopes? By being able to
post our own opinions on the public 
domain of the world wide web, what experiences will we never gain by going
door to door and sharing our ideas with 
our neighbors- or standing on a street corner and making public speeches?
By choosing the freedom of 
and our living room, what communal experience might we be absenting
ourselves from amongst the audience at the 
local Cineplex? By choosing to spend our time talking in chat rooms,
discussion boards, and emailing what faces, 
hearts, and eyes, are we missing out on profoundly connecting with? If we
can agree that political change relies upon 
transforming individualized alienation into collective action, than how are
we not shooting ourselves in the foot by 
accepting as our primary medium a machine that thrives in alienated spaces?

Ultimately I am not a Luddite, just an active skeptic. Self-programmable
technology might be a fetish item providing 
us with the illusion that we can be effective armchair-activists and
artists, however there are ways that I am certain 
that self-programmed technology has been an aid. For me the most effective
and innovative use of self-
programmable media has been the types where these tools are used within
social contexts. Here I am thinking of the 
use of text messaging at the sites of protests and actions. The indymedia
centers that spring up at the site of 
protests. The street level access to demographic information used by
political operatives in door-to-door grassroots 
campaigns. In all of these cases self-programmed media is used by
individuals in ways that collectivize information 
and power in real world (rather than only virtual) situations. While I do
sympathize with activism as described in the 
Critical Art Ensembles ?Electronic Disobedience Theater?, and do believe in
the importance of radical programming, I 
wonder if too much of this work has been just theater, confirming to the
programmer their genius. Meanwhile we 
could be entertaining friends and strangers with the spectacular
magnificent scary frightening unbelievable 
possibilities and circumstances of what can be when we overcome the
self-reinforcing and alienating illusions of the 
media which define us by creating invigorated forms of real social

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