Sunday, December 27, 2009

Don't you just LOVE the "media war"?

Although RT has a point, it's motives are far too clear. Still, a good presentation of that side...


What won't the commercial media do for controversy and ratings... rights?

And well, when Russia Today is criticized by one of the most ridiculous phenomena in TV history, they can't swallow it, without offering compliments in return, of course..!


Just really hope we don't end up having The Onion or the Daily Show as our prime news sources, indeed...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Self-destructive consumerism

"Goods and services providers" have been in panic since those first heavy snow forecasts last week: of course, their fear was that in the much-coveted pre-Christmas time everyone stays at home and doesn't generate enough (or rather - the expected) revenue. Well, we all know that it's kind of untrue, as those, who left Christmas shopping for the last minute, are going to do it no matter how much it snows outside.

And many also know that much of the DC area was paralyzed because of some 15": a usual (or even laughable) phenomenon for many... so shoveling was a skill EVERYONE around here could use, even if just for the sake of being able shop.

Anyway, here's an ad I got from Borders last night, and thought that it rarely gets THIS ironic and self-contradictory...

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

D.C. Snowstorm: Day 1 :))

 That's how it all started... (my roof at night).

And the view in the morning :))

Lots of snow, indeed...

My window!?!?!?


The Park Road view..

You can't see even some of the cars!

Yeah... this is how havoc descends upon D.C., apparently. People need to start getting used to it, though, with the rapid changes in the climate...
a good wake up call, perhaps? If only it is heard...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A somewhat belated reflection on Erdoğan's talk

(Photo courtesy of Daily Mail)

The agenda of Erdoğan’s visit to Washington this week was clear way in advance. It was not going to be about the relations with Armenia, or Israel, for that matter, despite the wishful thinking of some. Rather, it was going to focus on the current agenda-toppers: Afghanistan and Iran. Of course, we can never know what exactly went on during the private two-hour-long discussion that Obama had with him; but from what the “unnamed officials” are telling the media, the disagreements are still there: Erdoğan refuses to commit more combat troops to Afghanistan, he is still willing to talk with Iran, and he still dislikes – very much – whatever happened in Gaza last winter. Despite all that, he made sure to demonstrate his devotion to the U.S. by talking at the Trans-Atlantic Leaders’ Forum at Johns Hopkins University, after the official part of the day, giving himself another pat in the back, calling for more understanding of his government, and praising the Americans for their support.

Mark Lynch wrote in his Foreign Policy blog that “There is probably no more interesting figure in the Middle East diplomacy these days.” I tend to agree with him. Erdoğan indeed is trying to live up to this characterization, learning from the West and gradually realizing that often perceptions matter more than deeds.

I am not quite sure there was the need for a show this time, though. Obama still hailed Turkey as “a great country” and stressed he is “strongly committed to creating the best possible relationship between Turkey and the United States.” However, did he have an alternative, given the attempts to leave Afghanistan and Iraq while saving face, and given the strong desire to stay out of Iran as much as possible?

Not only has Erdoğan capitalized greatly on the geo-strategic importance of Turkey’s location and relations developed over the past fifty years, but he has also successfully positioned himself and his government in the center of East-West relations. Despite all the accusations of Islamism inherent in his party, he seems to have internalized the “democracy-speak” very well, and the U.S. certainly likes it. He was the one to co-sponsor Zapatero’s Alliance of Civilizations initiative in the UN General Assembly in 2005, making a conspicuous show of good will in taking up a greater role in mediation and international diplomacy. His government has also come up with all the various initiatives on “peace in the region”: be it regarding Greece, Syria-Israel, Armenia, Iran, or Georgia-Russia.

His JHU speech underscored the value he gives to strengthening Turkey’s position as such. Just as throughout the past year, he once again criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza – particularly the use of the phosphorus bombs – by appealing to what he called “humanist” values, and at least trying to demonstrate impartiality, openness, and desire for justice (however, these claims can be easily refuted in light of ongoing trouble over the Kurdish issue). Neither did he shy away from defending Iran’s right to have a “peaceful nuclear program” and from calling on the West to “practice what they preach,” openly criticizing the attitude towards Israel’s own nuclear arsenal.

Turkey has been a largely disliked and distrusted actor in the region, given the history, as well as its close ties with the U.S. and Israel. Being consistently rejected by the EU, increasingly recognizing the further potential benefits Turkey can reap thanks to its location (and to the recently renewed energy hype), and playing on the strong popularity at home, Erdoğan has set out to truly achieve his “360-degree look at the world.” And again, he did not miss the opportunity of criticizing “some people who are unhappy […] [and] envious of Turkey’s position” and achievements in the region, and who are “trying to disrupt the process.”

At JHU he openly talked of Russia and Iran being Turkey’s top business partners, with $30 billion and $10 billion of annual trade with each of them, respectively. And yet, he still emphasized his desire for Turkey to join the EU and take upon the recognition as a secular, democratic, and prosperous state. He was not modest in stating his objectives for 2023, the centennial of the Kemalist Republic: to be one of the top 10 economies in the world, and to be a major agenda-setter in global affairs.

Although he claimed there can be no “shift” in Turkey’s foreign policy focus because of its inherently diverse nature, the West is indeed getting increasingly wary of the more independent path Erdoğan seems to have chosen. However, given the key role Turkey has come to play in the region in all respects – be it military, economic, or political – it cannot be ignored in any of the calculations. Knowing this, Erdoğan gets yet another boost of confidence, making his vision for 2023 Turkey ever more reasonable.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Identity crisis and the shortcomings of “Ice Age” Diplomacy

No, I’m not referring to global climate change here. I’m talking about the cartoon, Ice Age 3, which, according to Amb. Glassman who spoke at SIS on Nov. 5, can do a far better job in getting the foreigners to like America than many other traditional PD techniques (the cartoon is said to have got into the top five record-breakers in terms of worldwide market revenues). I cannot really see how Sid or Scrat are promoting the American image and values abroad… especially to the more conservative of the audiences. And still, it’s better than Britney Spears. That’s for sure.

Image courtesy of All Movie Photo.
In a recent article, R. Reilly, former director of VOA, says the shortcomings of the American PD can primarily be attributed to “lack of clarity about what the West stands for” and the over-reliance on advertising . The first major issue Reilly identifies is the loss of American credibility due to its embrace of pop culture and promotion of “tolerance based upon moral relativism.” He also takes an issue with the fact that the current main objective of the US – the promotion of democracy – requires “the primacy of reason over passion,” while advertising, which is extensively employed to achieve that end, does not appeal to reason or rational calculation, but rather to desire and “emotional impulse.” The result? Lack of clarity and inevitable confusion.
This all in light of the new media environment, the rise of non-state actors, and the boom (at least in the developed world) of the so-called iDiplomacy. Last year, Glassman talked of Public Diplomacy 2.0, network building, and its potential for engaging foreign publics in a conversation: an innovative and effective way of conducting PD and achieving national security interests. But that’s according to the Ambassador. Not only do I agree with Hayden on that it is questionable whether an “open source PD” can ultimately translate into improved public opinion abroad, but I also think that it can further undermine the American message
Both, Nye and Hanson point out that the lack of attention and of credibility are major issues currently impairing the American PD effort. By flooding the foreign publics with PD 2.0 attempts and iDiplomats, the US runs the risk of not only losing the attention of its target audience, but also making further damage to its cause through the haphazard “free market” noise that will only undercut the message AND its credibility. Nye cautions against leaving the PD endeavor completely to the free market, stating that is can project an image of the US that is “too facile.” I could only add that coupled with “open source PD” it might completely confuse the foreign audiences about what the US really stands for and what are its true objectives.
But well, the US itself is unsure as to what its message is. There are national security interests, and there is certainly a need to persuade foreign publics. But when there is no proper argumentation and overt “relativism,” the US is seen as attempting to make others “believe without knowledge” – essentially the definition of “moralist” propaganda (see J. Brown’s discussion on the subject); and well, when recognized as such, propaganda undermines credibility by default.
Reilly says that in order for PD to function, “there must be a recovery of purpose and this purpose must be related to justice.” I think the message would also benefit from abandoning relativism and what can be seen as “double standards.” Certainly, all these cannot be incorporated into the purpose without a proper understanding of the audience and their view of matters. While when it comes to defining a purpose, there should be a core power that can clearly formulate the message and deliver it through multiple channels.  PD 2.0 and iDiplomacy MIGHT be able to do a good job in delivering the message and providing feedback about its perception. However, to have an effect the process should be well organized, otherwise the result is havoc.  To quote Reilly again, “in order to fight a war of ideas, one has to have an idea.”
American PD seems to have entangled itself in the ambiguity and the unmanageable plurality that it, itself, has created. There has to be the realization that no matter the channels and the ways of projection, the American image is still largely perceived by many (particularly in the Middle East, where there are many counter-messages that DO work) as fuzzy and devoid of real substance, at best, while immoral and nihilistic, at worst. This is especially so when there is a multitude of contradictory sources conveying multiple vague underlying promises of freedom, peace, and gradual prosperity that, for some reason, keep failing to materialize.

Image courtesy of Rising Powers.
Whose responsibility it is, then, if not the government’s (that is, just by the way, entrusted with leading the nation and promoting its interests) to make sure that the process of message formulation and delivery is properly administered? Certainly, there has to be input from all the levels of the society, especially from those who manage to think outside the box; however, at the end of the day, the government is still the one that has to deliver on the promises and live up to the cultivated expectations. For all these reasons, without an effective government oversight, there is the risk of further ambiguity and loss of American credibility.
I couldn’t agree more with Nye on that “developing a long-term relationship is not always profitable in the short term.” Leaving PD entirely to the “market” – be it the private sector or the self-branded citizen diplomats – will not only “lead to underinvestment” in what is currently considered a primary concern for American national security, but can also hamper all future attempts to regain what was lost.

Monday, November 16, 2009

'Obama should speak to Al Jazeera'

On the very same matter that made up the core of our readings this week. Very fresh: published today...

Richard Grenell, director of communications and public diplomacy for the US permanent representative to the UN in the Bush administration, in an AJE interview.

"Like it or not, the most popular network in the Arab World is Al Jazeera and we have a golden opportunity to speak directly to 200 million Arab households through Al Jazeera.

I don't think that this conversation should be just one interview by the Obama administration or by President Obama; I think it needs to be the beginning of a constant flow of information both ways so that the 200 million Arab households who watch Al Jazeera on a regular basis can hear a variety of US policy goals."

Read the interview HERE.

The Listening Post (AJE) on the media situation in Eastern Europe

Yes, the Berlin Wall fell. Some of the countries that used to be on the other side are EU members now. And yet, freedom, and especially media freedom, is something much more difficult to achieve: certainly requires more time and CONSTANT re-invigoration (just as the cases of Italy and France show).
Another great piece from The Listening Post, and yet, far from being comprehensive...

Just last week two bloggers were given 2.5-year prison terms in Azerbaijan for criticizing the government. Read more on the case from Reporters Sans Frontières here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The failure of the “diplomatic” argument

“And I call upon the Iraqi people to reject violence, band together to insist that the country move toward a peaceful tomorrow. Iraq is changing for the better. I mean, look at the soccer team.”

– G. W. Bush, Interview with Al Zaman, May 20, 2004

Ethos. Pathos. Logos: the three Aristotelian pillars of successful argument still very much relevant today, but, for some reason, also very much neglected by several major states in their international affairs.

Modern-day conduct of foreign affairs heavily depends on communication, especially when it comes to public diplomacy and non-traditional warfare. After all, it’s about perception management and “manufacturing consent,” be it domestic, or within a foreign public: control over info. That’s the key.

A government cannot purge all unfavorable discourse from the public, excommunicate all “unorthodox” thinkers, or, for that matter, hunt down and burn all their writings: fortunately we have been out of the Middle Ages for a while, now. Yet, governments still get entangled in their attempts to literally control information, spin it to work in their interest, or improve their “international ranking” in terms of appeal. This is especially true when the government is also desperately trying to win a war of ideas, which essentially constitutes multiple communication battles.

To continue with the over-abused example of the American “War on Terror”… It indeed has a major ideological component. Yet, again, the US ended up in a situation where it had to learn the hard way. You cannot bomb ideas. You have to bend them, or you might even have to disprove them altogether. To do that, you need persuasion. Persuasion requires argument; cohesive argument. The US has been trying to persuade the Middle Eastern public for most of the last decade, and yet, its persuasion tactics have been far from even resembling a true Aristotelian argument (rather, they involved military invasions, consequent humanitarian crises, attempts to clamp down on the local media, and disaster cases such as the corruption in the “Oil for food” program or the Abu Ghraib controversy). So what is wrong, exactly?

Ethos: the ethical appeal, i.e. credibility. - The Western arrogance towards the region, and the invasion already established a “bad name” back in 2001. The outburst against Al Jazeera  (and other “uncensored” media, which freely covered the TRUE nature of the war) and the support of corrupt local regimes provided further proof that the US was unable to practice what it preached. Not to mention the constant negative framing of the Muslims and their culture by Western media – at least as perceived by the Muslims themselves. There goes credibility, down the drain. 

Pathos: the emotional appeal, i.e. sympathy and compassion. - I don’t think it is fair to expect many people in the Islamic world to feel enough compassion towards any of the coalition forces in light of the Afghanistan or Iraq invasions, and the events that followed. The local media – successfully providing counter-frames that worked – undermined all American effort to make a “sweeping victory” over the hearts and minds of the population. 

Logos: the reasoning of the argument, including cohesiveness and supporting evidence. - In this case, the initial rhetoric was that of hostility, and although it changed later on, it was far from being cohesive. As in the case of ethos, the US and its coalition partners showed, time and again, that they were unable (or were simply unprepared) to follow the very principles they were supposedly promoting, giving rise to many alternative explanations, that (at least seemingly) made more sense, especially to the local public.

This all in light of an incompetent speaker as president and a new media environment, where there is an abundance of alternative sources of information, as well as multiple channels of access to it. The US had apparently forgotten to take good note of that, and assumed that just like in the good-ol’ Cold War times the people would unquestioningly internalize whatever they were told, as long as it was coming from America. The flowers and cheers for the “liberators” were not there for the American troops. Did the US fall victim to its own rhetoric and information campaign?

Whatever the root causes and the real reasons behind the “War on Terror,” it is certainly not perceived as a war of “liberation” by the ordinary Iraqis or Afghans, or by most of the people in the region. The US attempts to promote the “democratization” rhetoric have fallen short of actual evidence to support it, while political and economic dealings get increasingly more dirty in both, Iraq and Afghanistan (and the US is conspicuously involved in most of these cases). And certainly, the most prominent example of the US not keeping to its own values is its very attempt to overtly control the flow of information: bashing of “unorthodox” (in American view) media, embedding reporters in the military (thus successfully hampering their chances of some true reporting), and sometimes even preventing journalists from reporting altogether (references can be found in all of this week's readings).

Basically, the Americans have failed to deliver; and even where they have, the means to these achievements were largely disastrous. Given the situation as well as the context, the US might not have many options left. The most promising one, however, remains true understanding of and sensitivity to the local cultures (and figuring out what is that they really value at the time, unlike "soccer," for example), as well as a better demonstration of the true American values through more effective communication and palpable evidence. Yes, openness and true freedom of choice for the people of the region might mean that in the short run the “coalition” might not see friendly governments there (but that’s just the way a true democracy works, right?). And yet, the picture might be different in the longer run, if these governments are engaged and better integrated in an international cooperation system. In the end of the day, despite the importance of communication, it’s not only about words, but deeds as well.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

EMPIRE - The Long War: The US and Al Qaeda (Al Jazeera)

Noömanagement Crisis, continued...

Marwin Bishara and notable "panelists" discuss the problem on Al Jazeera English.

The second part of the program touches upon "glocalization" of Al Qaeda's ideology, and the implications of this for the general "War on Terror."

Highly recommended...

Dictator’s Dilemma and the power of The Cell Phone

The statement that “new ICTs empower the individual and non-state actors at the expense of the state (of course)” seems to have become quite a cliché by now. Yet, although not arguing against it, this week’s readings provided an alternative understanding of the situation as well: one where the state not only retains its power, but can also use the ICTs to enhance it.
Hanson summarizes the usual argument that the modern ICTs, especially the Internet, facilitate communication, information exchange, and coordination of activities, thus providing “the physical means of building coalitions across great distances, connecting local groups with international allies and enabling them to frame their claims in global terms.” This, of course, undermines the state and particularly its role as a core international actor. A counter-argument claims that despite being a powerful globalizing force, technology can “amplify political and/or social fragmentation by enabling more and more identities and interests […] to coalesce and thrive.”  But then, this is not news.
What I found more interesting was the “Dictator’s Dilemma”: the desire to have the benefits of the Internet without the threat of political instability. How can a government give its people access to all the new technologies and information for purposes of health care, education, and commerce (for example) while blocking political information? This inevitably reminded me of Gorbachev’s “dilemma,” and his very honest attempts of reforming the USSR from within, essentially through glasnost and perestroika. The system was under extreme pressure: externally (the Reagan administration made sure of that), economically (it was turning into a starved state), militarily (Afghanistan has always been a big headache and a major waste of resources for any invader), and domestically (all of the above started making it increasingly unpopular among its own people, finally). It just needed another decisive factor to face its end. Apparently openness and (relative) freedom of information played this role, even if initially intended to serve the opposite purpose (at least, supposedly).
Again, how does one benefit from the advances of technology (Internet and other new ICTs) if the system is BASED on oppression, absence of freedom, and no real tolerance of reform? Hanson says that although the Internet generates political change (be it in the long or short-run; directly or indirectly), it does not necessarily result in democratic institutions. The people, as well as non/sub-state actors can have the illusion they have more freedom, and the expression of unorthodox ideas that are considered to be harmless can be tolerated for a while; however, states, particularly some states, learn very well how to “channel” this flow and thus ATTEMPT, at least, to manage the situation without obvious oppression (China’s flooding of the Internet with its own info in addition to the attempts of overt control, or Russia’s “Spinternet,” are good examples here). Very much like the "mainstream" media management attempts in the good old days…
Well, perhaps the cell phone, with its mobility, person-to-person platform, and real multi-modality can truly overcome all attempted limitation or “management” by the government? Castells sees its strength in being a tool that enables a personal network (i.e. trusted and having no room for potentially hostile external members), which can easily move one into action for change. Coupled with the fact that cell phone use is spreading with inconceivable speed around the world, it can indeed stand the chance of being the ultimate “empowering” tool in the coming decades (we already saw how such networks work in Iran, Moldova, Belarus… even Ukraine and Armenia, to an extent).
But such an argument ignores factors such as the need for state “permission,” if a provider is to operate in a country, cell phone viability (can the local population afford buying the phone and, later, paying for the services?), as well as its cultural applicability as a primary tool of politically unorthodox communication. In any case, it is still very much a developing issue, deserving close attention as it unfolds.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Democratization of the Internet

Sounds ironic, doesn’t it? Apparently, the medium which was thought to be one of the greatest (if not the greatest) agents of democratization has started going through a process of real democratization only recently. What was it before, then? To me, it seems to have been leaning towards more of an authoritarian structure, although very decentralized, and as the system could not handle this decentralization anymore, it had to reform itself (authority of the government is in its power, after all). Hence, the ICANN “liberalization.” ICANN is only about “name control,” of course, but then naming an object ultimately gives one authority over it (was it the Bible that said this?).

Yes, Cowhey and Aronson put forward several arguments – quite reasonable – suggesting that the US is there to stay, at least for another decade or two, as the “pivotal” power in the net-o-sphere. Seems like it might not last that long, though. Just last month ICANN completed the Joint Project Agreement with the US, ending its “final say” over the “international” private organization that oversees the Internet’s naming system. And whatever debate on net-neutrality was taking place within the US, seems to had taken a slightly different form at the international level… although, structurally, it ran roughly along the same lines: freedom.

Despite being somewhat ignorant of the tech aspect of it all, I still find it difficult to comprehend the arguments against neutrality. Seems like no matter what the content, as long as there is an element of regulatory involvement, a motion is considered to be necessarily bad by some; even when regulation is meant to ensure freedom (supposedly, at least). This is worrisome. After all, we consider the Internet as the ultimate tool of empowerment of the post-modern individual. Yet, it seems that it’s running the risk of falling to corporate interests. Again.

So, what does this have to do with ICANN?

We have been talking about globalization and the power of the networks for two months now. If we are to have a truly democratic global system of “Internet governance,” the major powers would have to give in, eventually, no matter how hard they find doing that. But then, it would allow genuine plurality, as well as true glocalization of the Internet: be it through domain names in one’s own alphabet, or local (i.e. non-state) TLDs [top level domains], such as .nyc for New York, for example. More freedom; more neutrality; more democracy.

Yes, the Internet gives power to the global network of both, state and non-state actors (as the latest ICANN ruling suggests). It is obvious by now that we cannot have a truly democratic global governance system in the real world (not yet, at least). Virtually, however, there seems to be more hope, and the first steps are just being made… perhaps?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Noömanagement Crisis

   That information is power or that the media are the space where that power is decided is not news. What is new, however, is the increasingly near-“perfect” information that can be transmitted and accessed by virtually anyone (at least in theory), unquestionably giving power to those with the ability and shrewdness to manage these flows to serve their interests, be it states, companies, civil society groups, or insurgent movements. What they have to do is just to overwhelm the “info market” with the right information, which will then transform into their desired result (propaganda, advertising, public relations, strategic communication, etc…). As Castells put it, “What does not exist in the media, does not exist in the public mind.” So they key is to put the “right” image in the public mind. But that image has to live up to its promises, even if partially.

   As all of this week’s readings pointed out, the new media are changing the structures of information flows, robbing the formerly powerful players of their ability to shape public opinion, and making the latter more malleable and susceptible to “counter-power” influence. This is not necessarily bad, but can be used to serve many not-so-friendly goals, too, as the success of various insurgent movements has come to prove. Networks such as Al Qaeda or Hizballah have utilized new media and the communication space not only for achieving financial sustainability and waging their war of ideas (which are among the key components of Mary Kaldor’s “New War” model), but also for achieving legitimacy outside of their own local communities. They have successfully created a new set of goals and ethics – be it the fight against a hostile foreign nation state (US or Israel, in these cases), or the provision of local support networks vital for the day-to-day survival of the local population due to the total absence of functional societal or state institutions (Qandahar or Southern Lebanon) – and have proved to be consistent in matching their deeds with their promises.

(Although the cartoon makes a "somewhat" different argument, it's still one of my all-time favorites! Courtesy of Cox & Forkum)

   Despite the increasing prominence of non-state actors, the nation state has not lost its status completely – yet – as many states are still attempting to manage the information flows so as to contain the “counter-power” influence over state objectives. Prominent examples of such attempts, to name just a few: the American efforts to embed reporters within military units in Afghanistan or Iraq; Russia (or Georgia and NATO, for that matter) flooding the international media with biased reports on the war in South Ossetia in August 2008; the desperate attempts by the Islamic Republic of Iran to control the web-space in the post-election debacle this June. And when these attempts fail, all the state can do is finding a clearly identified scapegoat to blame: Al Jazeera, NATO, or "The Great Satan." 

   As it has become increasingly obvious, addressing Noöpolitik with Realpolitik has not only NOT been successful, but has further discredited the attempts of the state to maintain legitimacy. To use the America example – after the alleged “win” in the Cold War, the US simply stopped its efforts in maintaining its international image, and even the eight years of “War of Ideas” have not brought it back to senses. Just as it is currently being discussed - openly - despite all the fluffy names, such as “public diplomacy” or “strategic communication,” effective coordination is nonexistent and the government has no clue as to what is REALLY being done, how to gauge the efforts and their success, or how to manage them more efficiently.

   The incumbent “powers” in the international sphere will need to adapt if they want to survive; otherwise, the increasing number and influence of the global “counter-powers” will deem them irrelevant in the Noosphere age. Arquilla and Ronfeld say that this would require rebalancing of relations among state, market, and civil-society actors. But then, why not match the rhetoric with deeds, for starters?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Facebook taking over...

This Saturday I spent an hour online that cost me a fair share of my weekly stress allowance, observing (and, perhaps, participating in) an event in a way I would never think possible even two years ago. (By the way, this event will most probably change the fate of my nation for the decades to come, at least.)

I had just logged on Facebook when the news broke: “The signing of the Armenia-Turkey protocols delayed indefinitely for unknown reasons.” And that’s how it all started. A large part of my Armenian “friend” population suddenly came to life with status updates and shared links, discussions and comments… I tuned in, and within seconds I was reading tweet and news updates on Facebook from reporters in Armenia and “on the ground” (i.e., Zurich, where the event was taking place), going through articles hastily put together by the wires, having protracted discussions through comments on friends’ Facebook/Tweet statuses and shared links… simultaneously watching (rather, listening to) two TV news live streams online, while skyping with a friend on the same issue. By the end of the hour, when the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey finally signed the much-debated and controversial agreement, I had updated my Facebook status five times, shared some ten-eleven links, and made dozens of comments and tweets… When I actually stopped and looked back at it all, this week’s readings started making more sense than ever. Within an hour I had probably communicated with more than thirty people, consumed and shared multiple media, smoothly fitting in the Armenian wave that swept the information sphere that day... all that without even leaving my chair.

Engagement and convergence: the key words this week. The digital media have indeed transformed the relief of the information sphere, not only flattening the industry hierarchies and empowering the reader to get active in the interpretation and discussion of the issues, but also indirectly making them participate in the entire production process. The beauty of it, however, is that anyone (given they have the means, of course) can take part, basically controlling what gets “out there” and connecting with people from virtually anywhere around the world. The trend seems to have started with mIRC, forums and blogs, but the boom of the social networking sites and various widgets gave it a whole new dimension. Of course, we cannot really measure the actual amount of consumption around the world, let alone its impact, but taking Facebook as the most successful and well-known example one can get a fair picture. Here are some of the official statistics on Facebook use:

- More than 300 million active users
- Average user has 130 friends on the site
- More than 6 billion minutes are spent on Facebook each day (worldwide)
- More than 2 billion photos uploaded to the site each month
- More than 2 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photos, etc.) shared each week
- More than 70 translations available on the site
- About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States
- More than 15,000 websites, devices and applications have implemented Facebook Connect since its general availability in December 2008
- There are more than 65 million active users currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices (and these users are almost 50% more active on Facebook than non-mobile users).
- There are more than 180 mobile operators in 60 countries working to deploy and promote Facebook mobile products

Revealing, to say the least. And that’s just Facebook. Web pages have started making active use of the “share” tool, many providing some 90-100 different share options and widgets (Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Windows Live Favorites, Yahoo Bookmarks… to name a few). So if you’re “connected,” it is basically impossible not to get involved, especially when sharing a valuable/interesting piece of information with friends is just one click away. And with the increasingly mobile global population, where despite the distance people can stay connected – virtually – means that the explosion in consumer digital technologies is here to stay (for a while, at least).

So what is left in the industry for the traditional media content producers? Singer is right to suggest that their roles are transforming from reporters and filters to monitors and managers of information flows. This basically ties in well with Toffler’s “prosumers,” whose product mainly aims to engage consumers and thus, induce further content creation. Consequently, despite transforming professional functions and tremendous shifts in the trends, approaches, and means of production and advertising, profits are there to be made as the industry has proven to be fairly resilient in adapting. As for the consumers… they run the risk of becoming tools themselves, just by engaging, acquiring virtual lives and identities, and, ironically, becoming ever more alienated despite being increasingly connected.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hope for a better-informed global media consumer

We have been discussing the global media, and particularly its socio-political implications for the past couple of weeks. And the only agreement we could come to – “we” as a class, as well as the authors of the readings – is that there is nothing much that can be done about the current system of global media ownership and flows. Yes, it’s always easy to criticize and point out the faults; and yet, none of us can do that constructively, suggesting viable improvements or ways out. But then, it’s not just us. It’s also the “people with power” who could do something about it, if they knew how to approach the matter.

But they don’t. Is it the system? Fair enough. Even if we go blaming the system, we could at least try thinking of some bottom-up means, which are usually said to work against the “oppressive regimes.” On a global scale, the nation-states would be the “local” players, acting from the “bottom.” But that power was taken away from them by the transnational conglomerates, and the nation states seemed to have given it up fairly easily. Or at least they had to, given the current global economic trends and integration.

So where did the power of the individual go?

The concept of liberty, when discussed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, was not meant to be conferred upon the mass of the people universally, at least for so long as there was no universal education on the proper use of this liberty. Giving liberty without the appropriate limitations on it could lead back to chaos, oppression, and the eventual loss of the liberty itself.

People worldwide are increasingly gaining the “liberty” to access information and consume media from literally around the world (that is, given they have the means and make the necessary effort). And yet, the increasing availability is not matched with a similar rate of education on the use of that media and the need to approach it critically, in all respects. Mostly on purpose – and yet, sometimes not as much – people can be easily “socialized” into the consumerist and apathetic mindset, without any realization of the need for alternatives. And the ultimate questions, time and again, are “WHO makes these decisions?” or “WHOSE interest does this serve?”

Given the current global political and economic circumstances, nation states or even representatives of the so-called global civil society cannot overtly oppose transnational media giants, their interests, and programming/production that often takes away the individual’s right to true liberty. And yet, the former can make the effort of conscientiously and regularly investing in awareness campaigns and education on media and news consumption. Only thus can the vicious circle of media production and audience demand be broken, as well as an increased awareness of the true world around them be achieved. Then, if the demand for a more “informed’ and “un-distorted” media culture appears, one would hope that the global giants would step in to meet that demand.

Thus, although the current prospects are bleak, the global civil society, as well the nation states, can play a role, and do have the moral responsibility of doing so, being the representatives of their people. Yet, when it comes to profits, unfortunately many ethical considerations tend to be forgotten…

Monday, October 5, 2009

The recurrence of the “gramophone mind”

I may be “biased”. I admit. But that gives me a better reason for writing this post. So please, bear with me for a while.

I’m sure most are well familiar with the concept of socialization: the process through which one acquires the norms within their culture through social institutions. Well, this process does not only include family and friends, but also the educational system, the media, the political system, etc… and it was only last week that we discussed the significance of the media in “shaping us.”

As much as it is true, it is also very worrisome. I’m sure the stereotype of the “assembly-line-produced Soviet person, who is not even an individual per se” is still well-stuck with many, just as the case of the “madrasah-idoctrinated zealots out there.” Well, these images may carry some degree of truth, especially when we consider the circumstances in which these “non-individuals” were “produced” by their respective systems.

Yet, as much as we would not like to think of it, a similar tendency seems to persist – though in a significantly different form – in most of the “developed world” today, and both, McChesney and Thussu attest to that. Isn’t a prevailing standardized message, centered primarily on entertainment and driven by sensationalism a threat to societies which hold their diversity and liberties dear? How different is then McChesney’s “populace that prefers personal consumption to social understanding and activity,” or a “depoliticized citizenry… [which is a] mass more likely to take orders than to act,” from the (hopefully) obsolete images mentioned above?

Orwell’s “never-published” preface to the Animal Farm makes this point precisely (So what if he was talking about WW2 Britain? The piece still makes a lot of sense, today). To quote him directly: “Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark without the need for any official ban.” It’s all about mainstream public opinion, and the unwillingness to go against it.

Not so? What if “national security” is at stake? Well, at Orwell’s time the wording was a little different: democracy was the principle of the day. “If one loves democracy […] one must crush its enemies by no matter what means […] [even if that] involves destroying all independence of thought.” Don’t we see that happening now? Especially after 9/11…

Yes, much has been written and said about the politics of fear. Or rather, we heard the part that was generally tolerated. Yet, there was a part that was not. For example, none of the American TV networks would air Adam Curtis’ “The Power of Nightmares”. Too controversial? Yes. And although a little over-stretched at times, it still makes a very strong point, which could have been regarded as just another prominent political-historical documentary had it provided an acceptable perspective. But apparently it was too unorthodox. (By the way, I really recommend watching it. Just for fun.)

The problem is kind of similar in the case of Al Jazeera or any other non-Western TV network (especially when it comes to news). They are extremists, terrorists, communists, nationalists, fundamentalists… you name it! Why? Well, they are simply talking in their own terms: something that becomes increasingly unacceptable by the mainstream. However, given that there are practically no true media contra-flows, the mainstream in the West becomes the mainstream everywhere else, too. Gradually.

Improvement and progress cannot happen without the realization and a true acceptance of a problem. While without the freedom and room for “unorthodox” ideas, the true realization may never come in the first place. Just as Orwell put it: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Well, the American officials are increasingly trying to open up to the world and understand where the problems in their approaches lie (just today I attended a panel discussion on the subject). And yet, at a larger scale, they do not have much influence even over their own public opinion, precisely because they do not have any power over the profit-driven transnational media corporations. Free journalism, which supposedly had to perform the role of the “unorthodox thinker” and of the true “agenda-setter,” is now completely distorted by the commercial, 24-hour “breaking news” and “get-it-the-first” cycle, allowing no room for any substantial analysis, debate, or the “unorthodoxy” that would kick-start a change for the better. Cannot resist quoting Orwell here, again: “The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Democracy in peril?

As Aldous Huxley very rightly put in his Brave New World: “Words can be like X-rays. If you use them properly, they'll go through anything.” I find this a fair illustration of the significant role that language plays in the transfer of ideas and in shaping the society, the culture, and… the entire world we live in. So, should an unregulated flow of words and media products – ultimately, ideas – be allowed, given all their power and influence over people, who then (attempt to) decide how things function? This question becomes even more significant when put into the modern-world context: we see a “chicken or the egg”-type debate about media content and gradually shifting patterns of demand.

Siochrú and Girard point out that media products are special because they are essentially the tools of “society production.” In order not to get back to the discussion of the media shaping identities, suffice it to say that their statement is in itself a powerful argument for a cautious regulation of the media market, especially as it is increasingly privatized and taken over by commercial interests.

A free media market essentially implies equilibrium. This can work perfectly well… in theory. In reality, many times people forget to ask about how that market demand is created. A second question that needs to be urgently addressed is whether, given the above-mentioned special status of the media products, the mega-corporations should be given the unlimited freedom to create that demand. I see the matter as an ethical issue (especially when it comes to news reporting and journalism), unless, of course, the sole acceptable morality is that of profit-maximization and instant gratification.

The traditional “mainstream” approach in the US seems to have been very critical of the European (as well as other governments’) attempts to regulate or, at least, carefully monitor the media market. Well, perhaps justly so. After all, a true democracy cannot function without freedom of speech and a free flow of information. However, I still find it hard to understand how a system that took such great care to create a meticulous structure of checks and balances can be inclined to completely overlook a fundamental threat to its very existence. With the increasing trend of privatization and liberalization of the media markets, which gave way to the rise of the large transnational media empires, the very democracy that freedom is supposed to facilitate is being jeopardized, as the corporations start to acquire and exert political influence.

Yet, their influence – acquired through large profits channeled into active lobbying and “support” campaigns, in expectation of favorable policies and treatment – is not limited to the political sphere. It is no secret that media ownership affects content and that through carefully directed programming, media companies can potentially cultivate the demand for specific “products”, create and promote ideas and social movements, and even kick-start revolutions. The first example that jumps to the mind is the claim made by the Iranian regime about the June presidential election. However, why go there? Let’s look at the US and Obama’s healthcare plan debacle.

Of course, Al-Jazeera, being the channel that it is, is NOT unbiased, but still it provides a very good alternative insight into the recent 9/12 demonstrations and the role Fox News played in all that. Needless to mention, of course, that Fox is one of the central pillars of Murdoch’s empire, and that there is absolutely no coincidence in the fact that he had recently begun voicing his concerns about Obama’s approach to the economy, calling him “dangerous.”

Freedom of speech and information, whether in the national realm or in the global sphere, was meant to serve as a vehicle to ensure plurality and diversity of opinions, as well as best possible access to the best possible information. Being fundamental to democracy, these were also supposed to improve governance AND effectively check the government’s power. Thus, the media were meant to be the “domain of information” and supposedly assumed the responsibility to act as the fourth estate, in the public’s best interest. And yet, the recent trends of conglomeration, privatization, and deregulation have resulted in a situation of decreased competition and domination by aggressively profit-driven corporations that gradually become the very power that was meant to be contained. And so it happens that by “using the words properly” the transnational media corporations are spinning the idea of freedom to serve their own ends, defeating the very purpose of the much-cherished First Amendment.

Did you know?

An interesting summary of many facts on the Info Revolution: co-produced by XPLANE and the Economist.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Globalization and Realism

It is funny how ideas and paradigms get their names and retain them, even after becoming supposedly “out-of-date.” A perfect example would be Realism, which, despite being dismissed as obsolete, still retains its name and its sense as the most “down-to-Earth” and “assumption-less” approach to analyzing affairs. With the emergence of all the complexities of the globalizing world, particularly, Realism might provide a very limited view on the “real” state of things. But when circumstances get down to the “real” things that really matter, no one can deny that self-interests and cost-benefit calculations are the ultimate determinants of decision outcomes. I see this idea as the very essence of the arguments pushed by globalization pessimists, who view globalization as perpetuating the existent inequities, while the “agents of change” as pursuing ulterior motives. In a sense, they are right, as there can be no development or progress unless there are substantial incentives driving those, particularly if they involve large costs. Multinational corporations are trying to maneuver the international space looking for profit maximization, and it is only rational of them to pursue their goals in a Realist manner. The same can be said about states, with a slight change in wording: substitute “profit maximization” with “national objectives.”

That said, it is important to note the OVERALL outcome. Globalization that brings with it the intensification of resource flows and a greater interdependence of nations can ultimately result in an increase in general output: i.e. overall increase in affluence and in the standard of living. What is more, one cannot overlook the fact that the more the states are economically interdependent, the less willing they will be to engage in any conflict, which, in turn, can lead to further stabilization and sustainable economic and political development (even in cases where the interstate, or the state-corporation relationship is regarded as asymmetric). Therefore, potentially, globalization can bring the greatest benefit to most people, and all the readings this week touched upon this matter in one way or another.

Nevertheless, they also pointed out the fact that the benefits are not as equitably distributed as most of us would like to hope, which gives further ground to the pessimists. Even more relevant in this matter is the fact that the nation state seems to be among those to lose out most in the globalization process, as its sovereignty and self-determination are gradually eaten away by the post-modern tendencies. Together, the groups that fall behind in this intense global competition (be it on the international, national, or sub-national level) can present viable evidence to prove the selective advantages of globalization and its deficiencies. And certainly, the Marxist argument of “the rich exploiting the poor” is ever present in any such talk, be it concerning nation-states, or MNCs. Perhaps it may sound rudimentary, but one only needs to look at the current international sphere to see that these arguments might really be making a GOOD point. International structures such as the G8 and G20, despite all their altruistic mission statements, are essentially serving the interests of the select few – those who are IN the club – and even if the attainment of their goals might involve the development of the other parts of the world (well, being interdependent will allow more international stability and better business), they are still motivated by their very same self-interests. Fair enough. But that is where Morgenthau and Realism come creeping back in.

And yet, the end result should not be overlooked. Development and “progress,” especially on a global scale, can take many decades, if not centuries, to achieve and instant gratification is not something one should expect. Even if all the “agents of change” are ultimately driven by their self-interests, they can still play a significant role in dragging the “laggers” along. It is then up to these laggers to make sure they are included in the process, by proving their potential and getting involved – sufficiently and on time – instead of merely complaining and waiting for benevolence. If one looks at world affairs as a game, then there are rules by which it is played, and each player should make the most out of them, apparently, without expectations of altruism from others...