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: http://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)%5D, 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?

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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.

Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.

“GOP Gov. Snyder’s office says Detroit school kids have no right to literacy”: an opportunity to develop media literacy

The post title comes from an article a friend of mine posted on my Facebook feed, alarmed and asking what I thought of this situation.
herbert-randall
Photograph by Herbert Russell

Below is my response…

It’s a very interesting proposition. Checked out the story on the CBS website and this is what was included:

“The lawsuit says the schools are in ‘slum-like conditions’ and ‘functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.’ The case, filed in federal court, directly accuses Gov. Rick Snyder, the state school board and others of violating the civil rights of low-income students.”

A couple of missing connections:

1) Schools in Detroit (and Philadelphia and Chicago and other struggling school districts) have suffered from a lack of funding which is connected both to housing issues as well as to the direct connection of federal funding to school performance, which has been in part due to the way that some states have interpreted the Common Core (see http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/common-core-state-standards/). Obscured with this kind of commentary is the connection between federal funds and testing/school performance, which also drives decision-making on teacher retention, and the fact that schools continue to be financed by property taxes. Those tax revenues in Detroit have fallen significantly over the last decade or more, due in part to the Great Recession as well as other economic issues germane to Detroit, all of which has contributed to the struggles of that school system.

2) The accusation that Governor Snyder — who has indeed been taken to task for mismanagement and shady dealings with the public school system in Michigan — explicitly believes that students should not have a right to literacy is not accurate. Here’s another story whose header reads, “Literacy Not A Right For Detroit School Kids According To State” (http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2016/11/21/literacy-not-a-right-for-detroit-school-kids-says-state/) but which doesn’t include any specific comment that Snyder actually made about this.

I’m concerned that this is sensationalistic reporting rather than a deeper exploration of the complex questions in play. I would say that negligence is definitely a part of this, but saying that Snyder was attacking the civil rights of poor and the illiterate children of Detroit is an exaggeration. This is attack-the-individual thinking which has characterized “reporting” of late and keeps us from working on bigger and more complicated problems.

A final point: We as Americans are stuck in the democratic paradox (see my discussion of this in a previous post), which allows liberalism — freedom to pursue your own way of doing things, freedom not to be responsible for other people, etc. — to coexist with democracy. How can we support the participation of all Americans in our civic spaces when we prioritize the education of some over others through inequitable economic policies and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” thinking?

I don’t think my friend liked my response. It’s been three hours, which is like an eternity in FB world.

The objects of our mission: disability and subjectivity in social media

A friend of mine wrote an article recently about an interesting phenomenon in the ubiquitous conversation about social media: the use of the Internet to access voice, subjectivity, and visibility in new virtual spaces. The article refers to a mildly ironic story of a Russian website, “Dvach,” which in the past has opened up space for misogynistic attacks by regular citizens on women who been in pornographic movies (no men were pursued in the witch hunt, I’m guessing), yet whose comment boards have recently given rise to a different, more socially progressive outcome. Evidently, a woman calling herself Yelena Ovechkina who lives in Kazakhstan posted a video on YouTube about her life as a real live PWD (person with a disability). She speaks to the camera during the video, stating “invalids are people, too.” The article wrapped up with an important idea:

Ovechkina says she loves the Internet, especially because it lets her reach out to fellow disabled people and learn more about their lives. But most of the information available about disabled people is depressing, she complains, and that’s why she decided to record videos about her own life, which she says is a happy one. “I want to show the other side of disabled people’s lives. After all, it’s not all lousy, hard, and sad,” she says, smiling.

The story is a poignant one about the ways in which public opinion shifts via the ticker tape of information on social media, as it translates into awareness of different ways of being. A single user on Dvach drew the attention of the other participants on the site to the video, and the connections made across the world included tributes and well-wishing. Of course one can comment that social psychology plays a hand; who hasn’t seen a Facebook post that they liked because they thought they should participate in some sort of ethical box-checking not unlike signing a yearbook in a certain way because you know others will see what you wrote (or didn’t)?

Still, the story is meaningful and important, not least because of Ovechkina’s comments about her life with disability. She is a real person with individual experiences in disability, someone who has subjectivity in her experiences and her ways of articulating them. It is easy to make assumptions about others as they are represented to us by media or by hearsay, something which is particularly complicated when we think about people who are depicted as the downtrodden, the lost, the pushed aside by society.

I experienced similar changes to my understanding when I wrote a blog as a graduate assistant at UMass Boston a few years ago. Every week, I posted about different topics regarding inclusion in the workplace, as well as the community(ies) who participate in the conversation about disability in society. A powerful shift in my own thinking came gradually, as I realized that it’s one thing to post on/about and another to dialogue with ideas and people, and that positionality is central to the construction of truth in the public space. Did I think I speak for people with disabilities? Did I choose to represent them, and if so, who was I to do so? How did my representations contribute to (mis)information, and how could I be more interested in acting as a moderator or facilitator than simply a conveyer of a version of truth that kept me in a posture of authority while the people I was writing about were simply my latest subject?

An example of alternative authority and subjectivity in such speech is called Autistic Hoya, an eponymous blog written by a young person who identifies as “queer, trans*, asexual, fat, disability, gender, and sex positive; anti-oppression, anti-imperialism, and anti-racist; and inclusive of, accessible to, and affirming of all bodies/minds.” Autistic Hoya has published since 2011 on a number of topics related to a critical view of dominant paradigms, forces of oppression, and injustice enacted through ableism in American society. Yet also, the blog, like Ovechkina’s YouTube video, expresses the real voice and real face of a real person with disabilities. It is not seeking pity or attention. It is speaking to express one lived experience in a shared space where norms are highly dynamic and ideas pop and splash constantly.

This is the remaking of power relations and definitions through access on a new stage to an audience that didn’t know it wasn’t listening. Attending to this construction of meaning in fluid spaces of sharing and dialogue demands that the self-righteous banner of saviorism be lowered and real action, through listening and interrogating assumptions, become possible. While we in the able, dominant groups believe we have a mission, it may not be one which includes the voices and leaders it should truly have.

austin
PHOTO BY SUE AUSTIN

Immigration and the question of assimilation

When I was in in masters program at UMass Boston, the word assimilation came up occasionally in conversations about how immigrants adapt — or not — to their new cultural, social, and political environments. The old model of assimilation (defined here on Wikipedia) gets a bad rep, in part because it implies that (1) immigrants who come to a new country will invariably acclimate to their new surroundings in a unidirectional fashion, and (2) the receiving society by definition provides the cultural target that guides the process of adaptation. Newer visions, including one I’ve been exploring in a class at the GC with Richard Alba and Nancy Foner, discusses the relationship between individual, interpersonal, collective, and institutional dynamics as ecological conditions in which immigrants and residents in a receiving society interact and influence each other. I’m curious to learn more about some of the following:

(1) How does the political economic climate of any given time shift both public discourse as well as intellectual movements relating to how immigrants are perceived, received, and conceptualized (and, accordingly, humanized or dehumanized)? For example, the challenge to the old assimilation model came, not surprisingly, in the 1960s, when civil rights questions sat right in the middle of civic consciousness.
(2) How does academia overlook the structural barriers that exist to marginalize immigrants in the form of gatekeepers (teachers, employers, local representatives, etc.) and the ways in which their prejudices can unconsciously/consciously structure the outcomes of immigrants’ experiences of assimilation?
(3) How is the acceptance of new valid cultural ways of being — anything from the relatively new attractiveness of people of varied and uncertain cultural backgrounds (the Benetton ads of the 1990s come to mind) to the popularity of Trevor Noah — relate in part to processes of commodification under the heading of capitalism and its creation of consumer culture in the U.S.?
United Colors of Benetton
(4) What about racism, then? I’m not sure it’s gone. Rather, it seems to fade or flourish depending upon the political economic climate in which people live. At a geopolitical moment of economic uncertainty, fear, and anger, I think people are persuaded by arguments that our stability is further threatened by foreign-language-speaking Brown people, some of whom (according to two of 2016’s presidential candidates, see https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/us-news/video/2015/jun/30/donald-trump-mexico-comments-nbc-universal-video“>here and here) may be rapists or terrorists. How do the fluctuations in political economy and public discourse influence processes of assimilation and cultural experience of immigrants who come to this country? How does this change the conversation about topics like equality, access, and inclusion, as well as safety, security, and integrity?
To add a final real-life touch to these thoughts, I’m including a sign I saw on the NYC subway yesterday. It’s a campaign to poke fun at stereotypes about Muslims. I get it. But it makes me angry that it’s assumed that I’m a racist, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe. And it’s even more insulting to think that Muslims should have to apologize or explain themselves, even in encoded “jk” form.
IMG_2200 IMG_2199

Being seen: re-humanizing aging

NPR this morning had a story about the overmedication of older people living in nursing homes, a scary but evidently not uncommon practice called “chemical restraint” in which antipsychotic drugs are used to pacify people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As you might expect, the drugs are not approved for such use and are recommended by doctors who do so without getting informed consent from the patient.

Terrifying, at least for people like me who worry about what is going to happen to them when they get older. The rush of fear is provoked by the prospect of one’s irrelevance in later life, passed over and forgotten, left to watch television for weeks on end before a familiar face arrives. (At least this is the form my fear takes.) The reality is, we’re terribly unprepared for the process of aging that is unavoidable in our own bodies, which occurs regardless of how many step classes we’ve taken or marathons run in our younger years.

478px-Elderly_Woman_,_B&W_image_by_Chalmers_Butterfield

In part I think this is due to our cultural (and perhaps global) obsession with the tightness, the health, the desirability of youth. We stare at 18-year-olds who casually bike by in short shorts; we gawk at how flat a model’s tummy is; we buy Spanx and breast-lifting bras and juice cleanses and hair dyes. (Yes, this is a gendered conversation, for the moment. But men have similar concerns.) We seek to abolish all semblances of weight or age that put us a day or a pound over our stats at senior prom, for we will one day become less desirable. Less see-able.

We veil our fear in envy; the reality is, we think we’re melting off the planet by fleeting degrees in the form of wrinkles, questionable blood tests. But this wouldn’t be so in a culture that didn’t over-sexualize youth and under-vitalize people above the age of 40. We would see it as normal to have our doctor tell us we need to follow up on a procedure, because it would be acceptable, even natural and – dare we imagine it? – beautiful, rather than fear-producing, that we’re getting older. Not erased slowly, but made slowly.

Instead, we, in a society obsessed with being seen (think Facebook, blogs like this, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on), quail at the notion of fading away, and so we hold on, and share more, and expose more. At least, that is, the images and versions that are the most youthful, the least cranky or puffy or un-made-up. Swiping through to find that one really good one that makes us look 5-10 years younger.

And the circle turns back again. 20- and 30-somethings are given to think they are the focal point, the place of timelessness, the image we all crave. And so they are; social media and popular entertainment confirm that. But what if we chose to see people of all ages as valid, real, seen, rather than dehumanized versions of themselves once they become a liability – “too much of a handful” – to their families? What if we stopped the march of images as a basis for unreal comparison and started seeing the people around us, and ourselves, as perfect, real, slightly less-than-perfect, and even better for it? What would this do to elder care, and health care in general?