Month: August 2017

Is this the Matrix?: Reality in the era of bots

NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosts a show called On Point, which covers a multitude of topics ranging from schooling to online dating to genetics to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Available as a podcast, On Point featured a story on August 9th about bots, which I listened to in curiosity and dismay, and not as much surprise as I wish I’d had. Bots are essentially automated software programs that run tasks on the Internet, and according to one of the experts on the show, they’ve been around as long as the World Wide Web has been. The show’s focus, however, was much more specific, targeting the use of bots by certain individuals, organizations, and political entities to disseminate propaganda and fake news, or “disinformation,” in order to meddle in electoral politics. The show’s guests discussed the ways in which bots originating in Russia were used during the 2016 election to influence the U.S. population’s view of the candidates, the issues being discussed, and the general political state of affairs of our country, to which an elected president theoretically would provide a resonating response. Apparently, these bots can generate commentary and content which is, at best, biased, and at worst, patently false.


By Ian McKellar from San Francisco, CA, USA – Elektro and Sparkotaken from: www.maser.org/k8rt/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18986910

This is clearly a new era we’re in, because though the use of propaganda is as old as human society itself – incidentally, propaganda means simply a form of communication intended to sway or persuade its audience in favor of or against a given individual or group – the bots are used in a curious way. Employed on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, bots create “news” content whose volume and relevance to one’s own opinions can persuade a reader to follow that opinion. They function cleverly, or rather are designed in a clever way, in that they are meant to emulate a real person by patterning off of language used by current participants, and further appear to confirm the views of the reader through the temptation of accepting information that appeals to our established beliefs, thus persuading us via confirmation bias. Given the magnitude of influence of these bots, whose presence appears to range in the thousands across popular social media sites, it may not be too much to suggest that our view of the world, at least the view which we draw from our screens and hear echoed in the mouths of our colleagues and loved ones, is not simply a wake-up-and-see-what’s-true-today process.

Or is it? I’m no technophobe, but I do come from a generation that was raised without the Internet, without screens (excepting only 1/2 hour of TV a day, for which I’m still grateful), and without that addition to my consciousness that I might at any time be missing out on something on a screen awaiting my attention. I remember rotary phones and the use of folded-up maps stuffed in the glove box. This is not intended to be simple nostalgia, however. I’m actually asking what we might do about something all of us as deeply smitten phone lovers are well aware of.


By Aditya19472001 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose what I’m asking is, how did we develop critical literacy and media literacy in the past? How did we think about the information presented to us, sort through it, and determine what was of value not because it made us feel warm and safe but in fact because it presented us with what was happening in the world? The American poet T.S. Eliot apparently even distrusted newspapers, believing that those who read them were easily manipulated away from a true engagement with the world. I’m not suggesting not taking in any information from news sources, which we tend to read now online, but a return to the issue will ask where we get our “news” from. And this is really the key when we think about social media. Baudrillard’s hyperreality was one in which, as in The Matrix, individuals are completely enveloped by the worldview they consume as true (that is, my belief about my reality, is what is created and given to me outside of my own influence). Under this social logic, we are simple consumers of our reality, not participants. This is not unlike the consumer posture we are encouraged to take as we experience the ads and clickbait that accompany us as we look at photos of our cousin’s new baby. We may not realize that our reality, our political agency, is being slowly pushed back behind a curtain, and is being replaced by blurps and blips that confirm our perspectives and comfort us that we are right, that we are looking at what’s “real.” The battle, it seems, is a philosophical and a psychological one as well as a political and technological one.

To close with the questions Eliot asks in his famous modernist masterpiece, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”…
Do I dare…Disturb the universe?

Do we dare to do this? Do we dare to put the phone away, close the Twitter feed, log off of Facebook, even for a moment, a moment when we might miss something…a something which might be worse than taking in nothing at all?

Speech, whistleblowing/leaking, and silence: languaging as a political force

Today’s news in many ways is not remarkable, in the sense that we’ve been submerged in a swampy mess of falsehoods and fictions that choke off our view of the world around us (see my recent post about Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which asserts that our definition of reality is served up to us, hot and processed, by social media in a steady stream that replaces our awareness of our agentive participation in this reality). I’m considering discussions of climate change – rather, the use of the term “climate change” – and an attack on a mosque in Bloomington, MN, as well as  the crackdown on leaks/whistleblowing by the Department of Justice under the Trump administration.

The unreleased report about climate change – which incidentally used to be called “global warming” before Franz Luntz, spin doctor extraordinaire and well-funded consultant to conservative politicians who seek to change public discourse through “winning messaging,” successfully assisted the George W. Bush administration in creating the less-alarming term – shared with the New York Times can be summarized below (though I recommend reviewing the executive summary and the first few pages of the report):

The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration.

The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited.

“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” a draft of the report states.

This report evidently includes thousands of studies by eminent scientists and scholarly institutions which indicate that we are headed for a disaster at a world level that most rational people agree upon. Europe, for example, is struggling with a record-breaking heat wave ominously termed “Lucifer,” and in the U.S. folks in the West and Southwest have seen deaths due to daily highs unseen in our nation’s history.

Yet what’s important is the fact that the report was leaked to the Times due to concerns that it would be modified or censored by the current administration. This concern accords with Trump’s priorities regarding the question of economics vs. environment, as he has selected former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and big oil-backed Scott Pruitt into the lead administrative role of the EPA. Further exemplifying Trump’s obvious commitment to U.S. economic status quo is his statement that the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris Agreement enacted in 2016 because it was a raw deal for America. In light of Trump’s apparent desire to silence various voices from all quarters against him and his narcissistic agenda to be the top dog business leader in the country (note that I said “business leader” and not “political leader”), this is a justifiable fear. We can’t forget the firing of James Comey or the fact that during his campaign, Trump leveraged calculated yet ardent attacks against the media in what the U.S. News and World Report called a “politics of intimidation” in his incessant tweeting.

This use of language as a political tool – the creation of variant forms of information which promote the occlusion of scientific research, the exclusion of reporters from White House briefings (and the eventual shift over to off-camera briefings to replace publicly broadcast events with the press), and many other changes which signal a consolidation of power by the White House as an attempt to control public discourse – is not a new phenomenon. Propaganda has been used over the course of U.S. history (and the history of all other countries) to persuade constituents that certain actions by politicians deserve their support, or else didn’t happen in the way that they appeared to happen. What’s terrifying about Trump is that he is exploiting the power of the White House to bully and silence journalists and to rewrite our history and current state of affairs to serve his own solipsism. It is through the use of language as a performative, highly contingent social tool that he is doing this, a means of manipulating our country’s anxious, angry social climate in acts of languaging that instantiate real-life results.

Silence, too, has the potential to operate as a performative, a process of political languaging. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that Trump has advocated violence against journalists in a tweet, a point on which GOP lawmakers have apparently remained silent. This silence enacts what might be considered tacit agreement with Trump’s comments. I suggest that we don’t read this silence as a lack of speech, but rather a very strong example of silence AS speech. It has great political force not to comment on threats, on violent speech and deeds, especially when one is in a position of power. It seems that we lack a better conceptualization of what silence can do in such circumstances (a point which my own research hopefully will attend to in the future).

To bring in a third dimension of languaging as political force, we can further consider the concepts of leaking and whistleblowing. John Kiriakou, a whistleblower who was incarcerated for almost two years for exposing the torture program of the CIA under George W. Bush, spoke on Democracy Now! about the role of whistleblowers in “bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety.” Kiriakou explains overclassification and discusses the illegality of classifying a crime like torture (which is illegal under U.S. legal code and international mandate), which he exposed and for which he was prosecuted. Leaking, in contrast, is, according to Kiriakou, is sharing with journalists information which is sensitive or private but not classified. The blurring of the definition of these two terms is taking place under the anti-media campaign being waged by the Trump administration, under the argument that public safety and national security may be compromised if certain information is exposed. Making these vague statements justifies the punishment of reporters and journalistic sources for publishing leaked information, a form of silencing employed as a performative languaging move by Attorney General Jess Sessions in a recent press conference intended, no doubt, to intimidate journalists and win more leverage over the public record by calling it a “culture of leaking” that must be stopped. (Of course we could assume that Sessions’ actions are a stab at self-preservation, but this does next to nothing to defend his actions here or elsewhere.)

A final thought about silence/silencing is a connection I’m making with all of this and Trump’s vociferous lack of tweets about a bombing attack on a Bloomington, MN mosque in the heart of a Somali community in that city on August 5th. Trump is on vacation, but apparently he’s been tweeting regularly as always. This has not escaped the notice of many media outlets and political leaders, including the mayor of Bloomington himself, providing yet another example of the power of silence as a form of political languaging. What does Trump’s silence say? It is a clear example of tacit support of conservative groups in this country that suspect immigrants of terrorism, see Muslims as invaders and sources of instability in their communities, and feel reassured by earlier strains of U.S. nativism that portrays non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants as a threat to the American Dream.

Silence, all of this is to say, is approval for these actions. Silence, in fact, commends and recommends actions like this. Let’s hope the symbolic violence of this political speech, enacted in the seemingly neutral contribution of silence to the public discourse, can become a viable part of how we see languaging and politics in this country. We don’t have any time to lose.

Violence, animals, and the stopping-of-thinking

I am a new-ish vegan, a feature of my existence that I consider to be less of an identity and more of a commitment. I don’t eat meat, dairy, eggs, honey, or anything else that comes from animals (to my knowledge – this is a looooong process of learning about animal exploitation, the differences between animal activism and animal welfare, the racialized dimensions of veganism and frictions in the pursuit of intersectionality and/or unity, and so on), and I am reading and learning a lot about the political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and cultural anthropology dimensions of such a conversation. Needless to say, it is a lot.

One place many scholars, animal activist and otherwise, continue to push and explore is the question of violence. (For an interesting ongoing exploration of this topic, check out Histories of Violence‘s short video clips of eminent scholars and public thinkers on the subject.) Concerns about this question vis-à-vis human beings have emerged from mass violence in times of war and genocide, individual violence in the case of sexual assault and domestic abuse (though one can easily make connections between individual cases of violence and broader structural violences that inform and support these cases), systemic/symbolic violence (as in the case of silencing in research, which I am currently deeply interested in, or in the case of inequitable testing and educational practices in public schooling which disadvantage certain groups of historically oppressed young people), and so on.

Yet when we turn to the question of violence against animals, the conversation becomes very complicated. This form of violence has been imbricated in our social existence at all levels of human experience: food, religion, entertainment and sport, clothing, protection, research, even our definition of home and domestic life. Non-human animals – which is the term many animal activists use, as they argue there is no inherent distinction between human and non-human beings under the general heading of “animals” – have, according to most human cultural traditions, existed to serve, sustain, accompany, and protect us. While it may seem like an emotional plea to approach this conversation by using terms like “violence,” it’s actually important to consider the fact that the exploration of violence as a topic of study in political science, anthropology, sociology, critical race studies, feminist and gender studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, and philosophy is far from over. And very few of the scholars considering these topics, including Hannah Arendt, Franz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and many others are taking a purely emotional tack (though emotion plays a powerful role in one’s ability to reason). Violence is a universal topic, in fact, in all of our lives, and different scholars and disciplines approach this from different histories and toward different objectives. I would not, for example, argue that the symbolic violence of silencing Black and Brown students in public schools via monolingual/U.S.-centric pedagogy is the same as sexual violence. Yet one of the possible functions of violence – to reinforce the power of the ruling class, group, or individual in a given social context – is very much shared by both examples.

And thus I come to my point. Rather than deliver an annotated bibliography of scholars who have written about violence and the relationship between human and non-human animals, I simply want to reflect on the meaning of a sign like this one on a street near where I live in Queens. Yes, we could all quite easily say that we agree, we should reject, question, and oppose violence. But what about the violences that have become so normalized that we don’t see them as such? I have a good friend who is deeply committed to anti-racist pedagogy and education in public schools. And he makes a real difference with his students. Yet he chomps on chicken without a second thought. (Actually, to be fair, we did talk about animal agriculture while he was eating, and he did state that he could become vegetarian, though he just couldn’t go all the way and become vegan.)

I’m not writing to rant about hypocrites. I am also one, as are all of us to some degree as a condition of participating in today’s society and political economic system. However, the stopping-of-thinking is the place where I want to suggest the seeds of violence remain underground, untilled, unmoved, and free to bloom into new forms as late-stage capitalism moves forward and we demand more and more animals for consumption, commodification, exploitation, and entertainment as an ineluctable requirement of “the way things just are.”

Yes, violence is a part of the way things are. But in the past we’ve made choices and changed our relationship to violence – whose potential always lies within us and around us – in different ways. We have pursued legislation and legal cases that have, some might argued, reduced abuses and oppressions in ways demanded by the sociopolitical times. What might lie ahead in terms of environmental violence (and environmental racism, which is an indirect result of this violence) or violence in a systematized form in the case of corporatized animal agriculture? Might we start to rethink the keeping and breeding of animals as pets, or their (ab)use in medical trials and scientific research? Could we consider that this keeps humans in a position of power that we’ve always assumed is “normal” but in reality generates potentially troubling consequences?

I don’t say any of this is easy or even possible yet. The point I’m making is, we’re not talking about this with the framework of violence in hand. The concern I put forward is that not doing so so perpetuates the problem, the many violences without name or demand for redress, and maintains the veneer that status quo is unavoidable. As in all questions about this bizarre and hard time, I hope that is not the case.

“We don’t ride on railroads they ride on us”: raucous listening against apathy

The title for this blog post is a slight misquote of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century social and political commentator best known for Walden who wrote about topics including the abolition of slavery and the value of civil disobedience, which he explores in an essay by the same name. Thoreau was concerned about, among many things, the exploitation of laborers and radical changes to our definition of humanity in projects of capitalist expansion under the teleological thrust of technological advance during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, including the mass construction of railroads:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them…And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

(A discussion of Thoreau’s concerns about humanity, technology, and capitalism comes from this article in Wired.) I saw a version of the first line of this quote in a cartoon by Art Young, socialist and political satirist from the 1910s and 1920s, in an exhibit at the Argosy Bookstore, New York’s oldest independent bookstore open since 1925. See some examples below:

 
 

The last of the four cartoons is a version of the Thoreau quote. I found it interesting – and a bit depressing – to know that we continue to struggle with the balance between the pursuit of progress and the preservation of humanity. But what is important, really, is to remember that our humanity should not be defined after we’ve struggled toward the next innovation, the next profit. What should be happening is a radical consideration of humanity as a collective social project, radical in scope, that progresses toward a more egalitarian possibility.

Apathy would be one response to such cartoons – god we’re here again, we can’t escape our fate of self-destruction – and this is very much the feature of today’s politics and public discourse. I struggled with this as I left the Argosy Bookstore and headed to meet a friend for dinner in Queens. Emerging onto the street, I turned and saw a park full of people:

 

Groups of people, from different backgrounds, different countries of origin, different languages and religions and and views of the world, all sitting together as a community. It occurred to me that we are all part of a community, several, in fact, and we walk toward each other every day, sharing and singing and spitting and swirling into bigger and smaller spaces. This collective life cannot be taken from us. We can only give it away, along with the force of its voice and its will to change the reality in which we live.

Idealistic? Or realistic? Anything is more real than the stories told by the sociopath running our country and his cabinet of cronies. We can remember – we have always known – what is real and true for us, by us. Yes, capitalism seeks to convince us that we are consumers first and last, that we owe nothing to the person next to us and should fight for his seat. But this is not what our social histories will remind us, should we listen, raucously, together.