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.”