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Monthly Archives: July 2010

When we hear from the big players in the telecom industry about net neutrality—the requirement that internet service providers (ISPs) treat all content on their network the same—the industry, Williams tells us, “does not call itself commercial, let alone capitalist. It uses public-relations descriptions like ‘free’ and ‘independent’, and often contrasts itself with ‘monopoly’ or ‘state control’” as it calls net neutrality a threat to freedom, peace, and puppies ( p. 32).

Here’s the thing about that quote, though. It’s by Raymond Williams, from Television: Technology and Cultural Form (as republished in 2003) and he wrote it in the 70s about television.

And here’s the thing about those major players and their allies: at the same time that they talk up the “free market” and “free choice” and worry about keeping the government’s hands off the internet and predict doom (Study: Net Neutrality to Cost 600,000 Jobs, Shrink GDP $80 Billion), what they aren’t saying is that they want to keep it legal to use pay-for-play in determining what content you get to see.

Without net neutrality, preferred, partner sites that show the money come to your browser window faster than Average Joe on the Web. Those are the stakes. I keep coming back to a phrase from Williams: “uncontrolled and therefore unequal competition” (p. 38).

The idea that this constitutes anything resembling freedom is laughable, and Williams called this one in the context of TV, too: “The American version of ‘public freedom’ was open broadcasting subject only to the purchase of facilities, which then settled freedom in direct relationship to existing economic inequalities” (p. 136.

In the early days, the FCC “tried to keep the competitive market open, against strong tendencies to monopoly” (p. 30). This continued even into the recent past, but beginning with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 restrictions on how many different media properties one company could own were greatly reduced. And guess what? Fewer and fewer companies own greater and greater swaths of the mediascape—you can, then, blame Clinton for ClearChannel.

The fallout of this is harder to see in the Internet era even than it was in TV times–when we had FoxNews and MSNBC!!11!oneoneeleven!1!! “All earlier forms, in large-scale societies, were more limited in character and scale. The sermon, the lecture, the political address were obviously more limited in immediate points of view. Only in certain favourable situations was there regular choice and variety of viewpoints which is now common within even the limited range of current television argument” (p. 45).

These days, Google News gives us thousands of sources at our fingertips, and that is a dramatic improvement to be sure. But we can’t let that become a bait-and-switch such that “under the cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could reach farther into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities” (p. 157).

Even today, with the Internet a well-established and vital part of contemporary existence, studying it is seen as less than fully respectable. As Tom Boellstorff argues in his 2008 book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, this position rests on “an unfounded suspicion that cybersocialities are not legitimate or sustainable places of human culture in their own right” (p. 201)

The implications of the argument that it’s illegitimate to take online cultures, such as that of Second Life, as the object of study are troubling. It is, in fact, exactly like contending that you can’t study “gay culture” (or “African-American culture” or “academic culture”) because it doesn’t exist in isolation from hegemonic culture.

Second Life, like other internet phenomena, has a distinct culture, worth studying, and this does not require believing that the subjects that interact in it aren’t produced by and with the capitalist, racist, and sexist prejudices of the actual world—no one, least of all Boellstorff, is claiming that.

This—the positioning of virtuality as always ever derivative, secondary, and incomplete—is why no one takes us seriously.

Instead, what we have to ask about not only “virtual worlds” such as Second Life but all new media developments is: to what extent is it new or different, and to what extent is it just like one’s “first” life or “old” media?

That is, to shamelessly plagiarize Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, we can’t know in advance how they will relate to each other—the cultural forms in SL and other new media phenomena are “shaped in unpredictable ways by actual-world sociality” (Boellstorff, 25).

This is to say that, though “not everything connected to virtual worlds is novel,” neither is nothing new, such that “it is imperative that we ascertain precisely what elements are new and in what ways they are new” (Boellstorff, 25).

Finally, though the technophobes and technophiles among us might want to pin everything on the technology, we also can’t know in advance how that influences the ultimate shape the culture takes

After all, technology “always comes to be through particular cultural and historical circumstances,” such that, for example, “drive-in movie theaters could not have come into existence without the automobile, but were not an inevitable consequence of the automobile’s invention” (Boellstorff, 32, 58; see also Richard Dyer‘s argument about film technology in 1997’s White).

These, then, are the major difficulties one runs into when examining new media phenomena: (non)triviality, (non)novelty and (non)technology. Through careful analysis and a willingness to stick to one’s guns, however, they can be negotiated, and truly high-quality work can emerge.

Particularly in the contemporary era, when the media-producing organization, as Theodor Adorno described it long ago in  “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (republished in 2001 in The Culture Industry) “no longer even needs to directly pursue everywhere the profit interests,” but can instead achieve profit indirectly through “the manufacturing of ‘goodwill’” (p. 100), it is vital that the common-sense linkage between “produsage” or “prosumption” and democratization be broken.

That is, though Henry Jenkins most likely did not mean it this way in Convergence Culture it’s essential to pay attention to the “the work—and play—spectators perform in the new media system” ( p. 3), and we should pay special attention to the fact that the exploitation of users’ freely-given, playful labor for corporate profit is always a possibility.

This is particularly so when, as José Van Dijck and David Nieborg point out in their 2009 piece Wikinomics and its Discontents: A Critical Analysis of Web 2.0 Business Manifestos, many of the most enthusiastic expositions of the possibilities of user-generated content—for example Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing (2009) and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008)—are business books designed to help companies build businesses around this unpaid labor.

In Class, Knowledge and New Media (2010), Christian Fuchs argues that “the produser commodity does not signify a democratization of the media towards participatory systems, but the total commodification of human creativity”(pp. 148-9). In this way, he contends, the labor done by users of Web 2.0 sites produces value for the capitalist without said capitalist having much (or even any) outlay of labor costs, resulting in more or less pure profit (143, 147).

Fuchs does this quite explicitly, demonstrating—in what strikes me as a particularly orthodox Marxist way, with those delightful M-C-M’ formulas—the “overexploitation” of these produsers. However, there’s also something to be said for a more theoretical articulation, which is what Adorno gives us. It’s a bit less concrete, admittedly, but it is very good to think with (things I never thought I’d say about Adorno include . . . ).

In particular, Adorno’s vision helps us understand the sleight-of-hand involved in linking self-exploitation with democracy—just how it is that “for the citizen the free capacity to produce replaces the idea of a life free from domination” and mass culture, a “culture industry” product, is passed off as “something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves”(pp. 88, 98.)

In fact, what we quite eagerly take on in the name of freedom is really quite the opposite: “the masses are [ . . . ] an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object” (Adorno, p. 99).

In this way, it is clear that “we should not think of those plain new rows of dwellings but rather of the detached family houses which fill such a large part of Old and New England: standardized mass products which even standardize the claim of each one to be irreplaceably unique” (Adorno, pp. 78-9).

That is, it’s not the little boxes made of ticky-tacky you need to keep your eye on, not what is transparently mass-produced, but rather that which appeals to the sense of smugness we get from not being “taken in” by the mass produced, and this is exactly what much of Web 2.0 is.

There’s something about the Tea Party.

That something is eerily familiar as I’ve been rereading David Savran’s 1998 book Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. And no, this won’t be something that hasn’t already been said about the Tea Party’s racially-inflected hysteria, but damned if this whole white-people-angry-at-their-imagined-victimhood thing isn’t something we’ve seen before.

And it’s entirely possible that, in Battlestar Galactica style, all this will happen again, particularly as white Americans do become numerically the minority, but I have enough faith in the inexact nature of iteration (See Butler‘s Gender Trouble [1990] and “Signature, Event, Context” in Derrida‘s 1988 Limited, Inc) to think that figuring out how it works will make it go differently on down the road.

So, with that in mind, what is it that’s so familiar? During the 70s, Savran says, “as Faludi points out, ‘the “traditional” man’s real wages shrank dramatically (a 22 percent free-fall in households where white men were the sole breadwinners.’ Yet these wages were being channeled from working-class white men not to African Americans but to the very rich (who are overwhelmingly white)” (p. 207).

Does this sound to anyone else like our current situation, in which there was an economic downturn due to the greed of those extremely rich, overwhelmingly white people but neither the blame nor the consequences ever seems to fall on them (unless you’re Rolling Stone exposing Goldman Sachs)?

And now there’re angry white people in the streets over anything our black-under-the-one-drop-rule president does, even things that are in their class interest like the expansion of healthcare.

People have, of course, been picking up on the racial politics of the Tea Party, but it’s not the central story the way it seems to me like it should be. After all, “only after the Oklahoma City bombing did the press even begin to consider that there might be a relationship between the mythology of the white male as victim and the growth of the paramilitary Right,” and it seems like there’s some amount of asleep-at-the-wheel happening here again (Savran, p. 206).

Even the fact that a guy flew a plane into that IRS building didn’t quite connect the dots. Apparently it has to be guns and bombs for anyone to notice.

Moreover, the dominance of white people has in no way been challenged by recent events. Unemployment, after all, has disproportionately affected people of color in this recession much as it always has.

Nevertheless, now as 40 years ago, “the remarkable level of prosperity of white men relative to women and African Americans by no means prevented them from later identifying themselves as the victims of the slender and precarious gains made by those groups” (Savran, p. 192).

The only real difference would seem to be the inclusion of white women, and that’s a kind of gender equality I, for one, could do without.

In the end, then, the Tea Party may be new in that it is a populist white backlash instead of the more top-down one the last time (though my knowledge of that history is admittedly a bit fuzzy), in many more ways it is disturbingly familiar.