Sunday, August 25, 2013

Uprising in Egypt - Connecting the Internet and muscular liberalism in the mess of global political economy

The theory I proposed in Uprising: The Internet's Unintended Consequences, was that proletarianization is characterized by the unregulated circulation of information on the Internet. This was and is somewhat naive, given what is now known about Internet security thanks to leaks from Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian newspaper and the United States Government's National Security Agency (NSA). NSA Home Page

Everything we submit and see is surveilled, regulated and monitored. The NSA makes this its goal as an institution of the US Government.

The NSA's mission is to "protect US national security systems and to produce foreign signals intelligence information." It has been doing this since Cyber War was first put on the public policy agenda, back in the mid-1990s. I was first alerted to the concept of cyber war by a colleague at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who worked closely with the US military.

Since that time my assumption has been that my work, my movements as an alien and US resident and my communication is surveilled as a matter of course. No surprises there.

Putting more detail into the theory of unregulated information circulation means that while on one hand the Internet offered a public interest kind of freedom to see everything, as long as it could be digitized, on the other hand the Internet offered government and its institutions ways to keep track of everyone through their electronic communication. This "freedom" is now obvious, while earlier it was in an opaque, "black" or unknown public territory - of which there are many. The current context is simply this:  the Internet operates strictly within the domain of US national security.

This is and was the freedom of the Internet - the dystopian present's answer to the utopian past of emancipation through the information cornucopia. The ubiquity of total surveillance in the US and beyond, brings to mind the 2006 German film, The Lives of Others, because that film portrayed everyday surveillance in the last years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a totalizing invasion of every human action, Everyone was an enemy of the state, or at least suspicious. With minor legal adjustments, everyone using the Internet is now a suspect. Indeed, the case can be made that even curiosity will result in punishment - this is the argument from The Who's guitarist Pete Townend, who was arrested and charged with child pornography use. He was curious. (The end of curiosity is a subject for another time).

Which brings me to the current and ongoing crisis in Egypt. The Arab Spring has been sprung because the Moslem Brotherhood and their allies in Hamas and elsewhere - democratically elected governments by the way - are obvious and known through surveillance of their communications. Of course, I can only follow press reports on how the NSA and other security organizations capture Internet traffic and assume that the righteous determination of the US to oppose non-Western political forces has run its own race, outside the jurisdiction of the US Government and the republic's legal institutions, such as the courts.  

This leads into the messy business of tolerance in political theory. What will the west, primarily the US, accept in elected governments? There are thresholds. These thresholds are ill defined, until such time as they matter. In the 1930s little was done to stop the Nazis and the Spanish fascists headed by Franco. Yet much was done to stop the communist movement in Russia from 1917. Why stop communism but not fascism? Recall that the US entered World War 2 after it was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and claimed the victory over the Nazis while in the three years prior, it stood by as millions were sent to their deaths. (Imagine the difference in discourse if we conflated those Jews, Gypsies, trade unionists, socialists and gays killed in Nazi concentration camps with the Russians killed by the Germans? We know that Churchill and the British Government were not too worried about the Nazis attacking the Soviets... )

More recently the Rwandan genocide, or the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia - took a month of Sundays to prompt interventions by the west. Does religion and skin color determine the response of liberalism? If Muslims and communists are being killed and if black Africans are being killed, don't worry about it. Is that how our government's think?

Our government's still think in ways that are at best predetermined. Today, the Internet provides total information that feeds that predetermination. In the past, an action may have been deniable, as diplomats and spies on the ground were relied  upon to find out an opponent's position or intention. Then report back with some nuance, time for rumination. Internet time is real time, but the decisions seem eerily in line with earlier history.

Who has come to the defense of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt? Enter more messiness in global politics and the challenges facing liberalism, the hegemon of political economy. The roots of liberalism as a political force are not without their contradictions. Using surveillance to snoop on the world's Internet population, on governments and any institution deemed worthy of interest is an action considered to be acceptable in defense of liberalism. Think about it! This is a paradox that needs a lot more thought. Internet surveillance then military interventions against elected governments by the west take place in defense of tolerance - liberalism's key philosophical claim.

Look at this comment from Joshua Hersh in a piece from The New Yorker 17 August 2013.

"...Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, a seventy-three-year-old academic and politician who has been a leading figure in Egypt’s liberal establishment, and now represents one of the most confounding elements of the country’s current crisis: the wholesale alignment of old-guard liberals with the military."
Portrait of a Cairo liberal as a military backer

The key paradox of liberalism: interests that close down liberalism as practiced at the ballot box.The Internet will give the west more and more information, offering more opportunities for muscular liberalism that is sclerotic in the way it embodies tolerance. There is something wrong with this picture... will the flow of information help us understand what to make of global political economy and act accordingly? Or is that moment beyond us? If surveillance is the only game in town and drones - another Internet tool - are the preferred option, who dares stand up to this liberalism? 

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Amazon arrival - new media anxieties

Amazon dot com owner Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million USD on August 5, 2013. There is a constructive commentary by Lexington in The Economist about the purchase and the future of newspapers, especially when opinion leaders like the Post end up owned by someone like Bezos, someone unkindly described as the billionaire owner of a large warehouse business.What right has a non-communications person to move into newspaper ownership?

(see The New Yorker, August 16 for more pics of this era, scroll down the page)

Of more importance - and a real question as opposed to the faux one above is:  what happens to news when it is given the digital  treatment by new economy entrepreneurs?

Here are some Lexington suggestions as answers to that question from The Economist, August 10, 2013.

"With luck high-tech types such as Mr Bezos can dream up digital wheezes that attract new readers, while preserving the best of general interest newspapers - their breadth, and the serendipity of stumbling on unexpected articles or opinions. If new proprietors merely finance niche outlets with ever-tinier circulations, their money might do more good elsewhere. Mr Bezos has invested in space travel for instance..."

"Digital wheezes"?! What exactly would that be?  I suspect that any connotative analysis of the phrase would suggest that digital innovations are some inferior tool used by the illiterate global hordes. Semiotic analysis has its place. And in this case Lexington's intention appears to be an attempt to wind back the digital in favour of the quality broadsheets, the real deal newspapers of the nineteenth century, or the pre-Internet era. But wheezes?

The endless harping about the end of various print media traditions has two sides:
1. the traditional-literary culturalist always believes in the supremacy of Anglicised knowledge accumulation. The Tory by any other name believes in the good, the just, the right and the entitled: in short, queen and country.
2. the revolutionary visual culturalist for whom the screen is the embodiment of all human achievement, where the eye is the gateway to the ineffable soul of the masses, wherever they are.

Visual Culture is unmaking established sensibilities. Perhaps Bezos knows this and will take the Post to a place that reinvents news within a communication dimension that cannot be recognised at this time. Even Bezos does not know, he intuits. He sees the Arab Spring, the remaking of the police state in Egypt, the fragmentation of existing nations, the vicious movement of totalizing control by limited interests. The perfect conflict that is always visually engaging. The essentialism of visual culture/

Everything feeds the visual desire. This may be the $250 million investment.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

News Corporation - the journalism of silence

Traveling on the San Francisco highway listening to KQED, the National Public Radio station. Too many cars. There's talk back, with articulate, well informed Americans calling in about the President.

Then a caller catches my ear unlike others. Last week President Obama visited Phoenix, Arizona and made some major policy announcement about Freddie and Fannie Mae, including reforms to the housing and loan industry. Not everyone likes the changes, which are seen as privatizing the the loan industry more than it currently is. Obama puts "private capital" at center of housing plan

Housing policies aside, the KQED story was more important for what it suggests about News Corporation journalism. This is Fox News offering coverage to the population of Phoenix to a local Presidential visit, plus a policy announcement.

There was NO live coverage on Fox News in Phoenix.

In all of journalism, silence has rarely been considered a hallmark of the profession. Surely journalism has always been about utterance, presence, presentism, discourse, annunciation, "the record," knowledge, information and entertainment.

What is a journalism of silence?

Absence of coverage raises all manner of questions about journalism and it is generating a position that may be considered new in the field. Not reporting a story as a major event for the local population offers a new strategy in news coverage.

Interestingly, it is not too far removed from the arguments put by News Corporation Australia editors and managers, when they verbally rampaged against the public interest reforms in Australia. Their come-back to critics for why their organisation should not be overseen by a Public Interest Advocate, was that the Internet offered countervailing information to balance any misrepresentations of their news.

Providing no coverage is a deft, yet troubling move. It assumes active listeners and news consumers who will find other sources. It is a position that conveniently does not appear to hold up to journalistic standards, like the ideals of telling the truth - you can't get near the truth if you say nothing.


Friday, August 9, 2013

News Corporation, an Australian election, discourse

Media scholars and their colleagues in political economy have often considered the behaviour of the owners  media to be one of the most fundamental tests of democracy. In the dominant western model of representative democracy, the prevailing view is that journalists have been entrusted with a level of objectivity in reporting that embodies open tolerance for diverse views of society. Of course, there is a limit to the tolerance which reflects the ideals of the Enlightenment - civility, maturity (of debate), individual self realisation, emancipation, rationality, respect for the law. All of which are open to negotiation. Media scholars, sociologists, philosophers, in fact pretty-well everyone refers to this as social discourse.

When media owners allow their privately held beliefs to overstep the bounds of that discourse and to directly control it, then the discourse is no longer characterised by tolerance. It becomes a directed channel to a limited, (immature) conversation.  As I noted in Uprising and elsewhere, the Internet serves to reinforce immaturity - that is the narrowing of public discussion, in some cases facilitating "ideological grooming." If you have one set of values reiterated over and over on an appealing delivery system (all the bells and whistles of the Internet) why bother with tolerance?

This is where fundamentalism finds its richest nourishment.

Following this logic, media ownership has been freighted with unique responsibilities in democracies. These "responsibilities" emerged with the liberalism of the Enlightenment and despite protestations from pedants, are the values that underpin tolerance and about which there is always active debate. What should de tolerated?

What happens when a media proprietor in the Internet era sees his responsibilities as being about the defence of his empire, not about the discourse? To complicate matters, what happens when that mogul's business interests are primarily shifting to new media, even while he has established near-dominance over old media?

Enter stage right - Rupert Murdoch.

These and similar questions have moved into sharp relief with the announcement by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of a Federal Election, September 4, 2013. Indeed, Rudd accused Murdoch of collusion with the liberal (conservative) leader Tony Abbott. Collusion quote, comment 

Suggestions that Murdoch is a serial government-influencer have been well established in media history. His support for Margaret Thatcher was the first major international move by News Corporation and Murdoch to influence the outcome of an election. He had previously supported the Australian Labor Party's Gough Whitlam in 1972, and later turned on him in 1975.

After two weeks of the official election campaign, Kim Williams CEO of News Corporation, Australia resigned. This followed the appointment by Mr Murdoch of Col Allan to oversee the election coverage by News Corporation in Australia.

Williams is the person who made the strongest possible case against media reforms in Australia, arguing against the Public Interest Advocate. (See my blog March 2013 Australian hysteric). Chief of News Corporation Robert Thomson thanked Williams for his efforts - especially on this front:

"He has been a powerful, eloquent and effective advocate for media freedom and freedom of speech in Australia. His leadership against hastily conceived 'reforms' ensured that the vigorous and vital debate that has characterised our country will endure.We all owe him a debt of gratitude for that strong and principled stand." Regulation fight

Taking a principled stand against Public Interest ideals is what Robert Thomson means. He also means that taking one side in a debate, where News Corporation is often the only source of news in Australia, is acceptable and can be defined as "debate."

Media scholars would probably agree that the Enlightenment includes the quest for emancipation from oppression. Oversight of Public Interest ideals is not an offence against freedom, nor a type of oppression, which is what Thomson seems to be suggesting. What he and News Corporation want is freedom to do and say whatever is in their own interests. That hardly rises to the level of responsible media ownership in a democracy.