McKenzie Wark visit to University of Canberra

McKenzie Wark is visiting Australia next week and is giving talks at various places.

He will be giving a seminar at the University of Canberra.

Location: Room B02, Building 2, University of Canberra
Date: Wednesday, 19 October 2011
Time: 11:00am – 12:30pm

From thought as an occupation to some thoughts on the occupation

Twenty years ago McKenzie Wark coined the term ‘weird global media event’ to describe the then-recent events in Tiananmen Square. While hardly on the same scale, the Occupation of Wall Street shares with it certain characteristics as an event. In this presentation, Wark sums up the trajectory of his research on media, culture and politics, with particular reference to his new book The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso). The book offers a timely reminder of the relevance in the twenty-first century of the Situationist International. The last of the great aesthetico-political avant gardes, their work foreshadows in many respects the rise of the Occupation movement, which spread from New York to over sixty American cities, and is itself an echo of the politics of space that took place in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year.

McKenzie Wark is Professor of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He is the author of Virtual Geography (1994), A Hacker Manifesto (2004), Gamer Theory (2007) and various other things.

It is supported in part by the Public Communication Research Cluster in the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Canberra.

The Canberra seminar is open to the public, so please pass on to relevant interested parties. Space is limited, however, so please RSVP to glen (dot) fuller (at) canberra (dot) edu (dot) au

Steve Jobs RIP: Can Design Make the World a Better Place?

My tweet questioning the outpouring of grief regarding the passing of Steve Jobs has generated a range of responses. My original tweet:

Deliberately provocative, it certainly provoked. Perhaps too much, so I am writing this post.

My first response to hearing about the news was ‘whoa’ and then I began thinking about Deleuze’s discussion of death as a perfect example of an event. Death is necessarily impersonal; ‘your’ death is never experienced as such, only by others. The greater the proximity to death (as one is dying, for example) the more the living can appreciate you for your ‘life’; a life. Life itself. Deleuze draws on Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:

A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death (28).

I recognised that in Steve Jobs’s passing. A life had passed. I am not a psychopath; I also felt sad at Jobs’s death, particularly because his illness was rendered public due to the market-based connection between his health and the relative share value of Apple.

Yet, Jobs is no hero to me. There has long been a nascent hostility amongst the digital elites between those that saw Jobs as a hero and those that did not. By ‘digital elites’ I mean those whose professional lives and perhaps existence is in part defined by the competent, if not masterful use of information technology devices. The hostility is played out in rather fascile ways in a discourse of fanboiism. Every member of the digital elite is familiar with it, and participation in it, at whatever level, probably marks you as one of the digital elite. I certainly recognised Jobs as a skillful innovator in the consumer technology markets. He is on par with Alfred Sloan the GM President from 1920s-1950s in terms of the scale of transformations he helped introduce and guide through development. Sloan was behind the introduction of the annual model change, brand architecture, industrial design, automotive design (styling), and planned obsolescence. If Sloan herald the creation of the proper mass market, then Jobs herald their innovation. That sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, no. Think of how much waste has been created in the world because of these initiatives. Having done a little research in car culture, I used to boggle at just how much was wasted creating new model lines every year. So? This is typical leftist propaganda, surely?

Coming out of the Sydney inner-west crowd, I was very aware of a progressive political ethos by a number of people who work in the information technology, design and marketing industries. I would talk with them at various social media shindigs, chat on twitter and the like. I could see a pattern in my twitter stream that those announcing their grief largely belonged to this group. These are people that I mostly personally know, so I am not describing tweeted links to other stories or similar. There is a contradiction here. Between a cohort strongly emphathetic with those who suffer because of the injustices in the world and the various mechanisms by which suffering and injustice is reproduced.

Steve Jobs seemed to embody the belief that well designed devices could somehow make the world a better place. This belief is materially realised whenever one typed or swiped the screen of a phone. Maybe I am misunderstanding some of the assumptions here. By increasing the degrees of freedom — experienced at the level of design/interaction — for relatively privileged elites how is the world made better, except for those privileged elites? I certainly agree with design philosophies that valorise creative innovation but what did Jobs lead Apple into innovating?

Discussing this with Barry Saunders I pointed out that Apple was not One Laptop per Child, he pointed out that computing freedom is more complex than basic access. I certainly agree, and I was glad that we could come up with a spectrum upon which it would make sense to locate the work of Apple and in particular the role of Jobs. Some of the more enthusiastic comments on Twitter have correlated Jobs’s role within a global society of somehow increasing access to personal computers for the unprivileged and non-elite. Apple’s business is not giving away computers or devices, it is selling them…

Perhaps the closest the empathising Left can come to making a convincing argument is when they point out the market segments created or innovated by Apple under Jobs’s leadership comes to define a given discourse. This discursive category then becomes the locus for democratisation. Here is an example from Gavin Costello:

The rolling out of “iPad-like tablet to university students” can be interpreted as the democratisation of access to personal computing technologies that is in part attributable to a Jobs-lead Apple.

The suturing of effective technological design and the discursive production of markets is what is troubling me here. The best research I have seen on this is by Kamal A. Munir and Nelson Phillips “The Birth of the ‘Kodak Moment’: Institutional Entrepreneurship and the Adoption of New Technologies” (2005). They describe in their abstract:

[We] examine how Kodak managed to transform photography from a highly specialized activity to one that became an integral part of everyday life. Based on this case, we develop an initial typology of the strategies available to institutional entrepreneurs who wish to affect the processes of social construction that lead to change in institutional fields.

They analyse the introduction of the roll-film camera by Kodak in 1882, and its role in producing change to the consumer markets. They “stress how a transformation in the ‘meaning’ embodied by particular technologies — the roll-film camera in our case — is critical to the evolution of a new field. Accordingly, we focus on how discursive processes reconstructed the field surrounding photography, and led to the development of this new field. Furthermore, we focus on how Kodak managed strategically to embody its interests in the evolving institutional framework through carefully planned and executed discursive practices” (1666).

Kodak produced a number of innovations with the goal of influencing the popular imagination so as to ‘democratise’ the roll film camera so it became ‘institutional’. The problem for Kodak was that photography was a specialist and expert practice. Munir and Phillips draw on Latour (1987) to pithily note that “while the solution was at hand, the problem remained to be created”. They continue, “Cameras and other implements of photography were still considered tools of the experts, and ‘Kodak moments’ did not yet exist in the popular imagination” (1671).

There is a parallel here to the way Jobs has been mythologised. Firstly, Jobs has come to personify the work of an entire company. This is evident in the way those on twitter slip from discussing Jobs to discussing what ‘they’ did. Jobs is not a ‘they’. The mythology imagines something like the above with ‘Kodak’ replaced by ‘Jobs’. Secondly, Jobs was certainly gifted at being able to create solutions for which there did not seem to yet be a problem. The first problem created by Jobs for which an Apple product was the solution, was the artefact of the ‘personal computer’. Then there were many others.

These innovations do not last forever. The socio-technological assemblages that occupy special social functions are often replaced. The practice of photography with a Kodak roll-film camera capturing ‘Kodak moments’ for the purposes of storing in a ‘photo album’ (the ‘photo album’ was another Kodak innovation, Munir and Phillips 2005, 1678) is a socio-technological assemblage. I discuss in one of my lectures how the ‘Kodak moment’ has now been replaced by the ‘Facebook moment’. People do not necessarily take photos with film cameras for their photo albums, they take photos with their smartphones so as to be shared through social media.

Hopefully, you can see I am not diminishing the effect Steve Jobs has had on the world or on my life. Has Steve jobs made my life better? Yes, I am part of the privileged elite. Yet, I am very hesitant to celebrate design work, however innovative, that contributes to the production of new markets for the purposes of commercial profit. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone I know. The point is this is what Steve Jobs was very good at. Imagine what could have been achieved if Jobs took questions of sustainablity more seriously? And I don’t mean only environmental sustainability.

I am struggling with the students I teach in our Online News journalism units to formulate a way of imagining sustainable opportunities. I don’t only mean ‘triple-bottom-line’ initiatives that take into account environmental and labour issues, as they are still oriented towards generating a profit. I mean a model of sustainable opportunity for appreciating a mode of entrepreneurship for industries like journalism, which have a social function that is often at odds with the commercial function of the media. What if iTunes had returned more its profit to artists? What if iTunes wasn’t a closed ecosystem? These questions are obviously foolish if you do not believe in working for sustainability…

Paul Kelly vs Chris Berg debate in the marketplace of ideas

Chris Berg, all-round great guy and neoliberal ideologue, has a post on The Drum that equates ensuring access to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ with the regulation of ‘debate’ (which he suggests is a bad thing) in the context of questions asked in the Media Inquiry’s recently released discussion paper. Chris writes:

Implicit in the marketplace of ideas theory is that freedom of speech has a purpose. It is utilitarian. The only way to come to the truth about an idea is to freely debate it. The best ideas – that is, those which are most true – will out-compete the rest.
Yet it’s trivially easy to demonstrate this ‘marketplace’ is distorted. Some have access to louder megaphones than others, as everybody keeps pointing out.
And if speech has a utilitarian purpose, it never quite achieves its ends – even once ‘truth’ has been obtained through free discussion, speech freedoms continue to allow wrong ideas to be broadcast.

Of course, that is why ‘political economy’ approaches are the best tool to understand precisely why the ‘marketplace of ideas’ gets distorted by people who have greater access to ‘megaphones’ compared to others. A political economy approach to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ would move in two directions at once. Firstly, map the ‘public sphere’ with the actual marketplace for media content. Secondly, examine who and what gets access to the public sphere via the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

I don’t agree with this approach either, mainly because I think the ‘public sphere’ is a myth. Admittedly, a useful myth, but a myth nevertheless. There is no public sphere. Inter alia there is no ‘marketplace of ideas’. The only way to come to the truth about anything is to research it, not through ‘free discussion’. I’ve never witnessed ‘free discussion’. There is certainly debate, however. What matters in ‘debate’ are words on a page or screen, screen time for comment, the rhythm of publication, the endurance of attention for focusing on specific issues across the entire media ecology, the capacity for an audience to engage and reflect upon what is discussed in a rational manner and so on. Chris is worried about the government regulating debate somehow. He says:

We do not want the Government managing public debate for all sorts of reasons. First among them is that any attempt to do so will necessarily abridge our basic right to freedom of speech. […]
For instance, the right to speak must be also the right not to speak; to determine the content of your speech. This principle is breached clearly by one of the major proposals of the media inquiry issues paper – a legally guaranteed right of reply which would treat newspapers as regulated common carriers.

Chris’s argument is strangely the opposite of a similar critique made by Paul Kelly in The Australian about Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay. Kelly argued that Manne wants to shut down the capacity for ‘debate’:

…the startling feature is Manne’s fixation on repressing stories and debates he doesn’t like…
For Manne, the paper’s crime was to stage this debate. He believes certain views have reached “uncontested” status and must not be contested. Books and views that contest Manne’s beliefs are to be met with silence and censorship. It is good that Manne’s technique of handling opponents is put on the public record…
Manne says that on climate change our democracy must rely upon citizens placing “their trust in those with expertise”. Again, the idea is that certain beliefs cannot be debated or contested…
Once again, the paper’s offence was its refusal to shut down debate. Period. Manne insists his view embodies Enlightenment rationality. During our interview to stress the gravity of his position on climate change he actually compared the issue with the Holocaust.
I told Manne that one reason for the public’s backlash making carbon pricing so unpopular was the precise attitude he took. While pretending to be rational his rejection of debate was really faith-based dogmatism and the Australian public didn’t like being told what to think by patronising experts…

Therefore I believe it is necessary, at this juncture, to ‘stage’ a ‘debate’ between Paul Kelly in favour of ‘debate’ and Chris Berg who is clearly a ‘debate hater’. Indeed, I hope that journalists working for The Australian will welcome what I am inferring Chris Berg is implying, that an outcome of the Media Inquiry will be that they will be forced to encourage ‘debate’ for voices from opposing ideological position if they decide to instigate a ‘debate’ in their own pages. Surely, as Paul Kelly writes, they would not want to shut down or censor debate? Worse, that by critiquing a view, position, scientific theory or what have you in the paper, that The Australian would, in effect, manufacture a relative silence in the ‘public sphere’ around opposing views by not strenuously encouraging their ideological opponents to enter into debate with them? Without supporting the regulated and enforced access to the public sphere via the ‘marketplace of ideas’ surely The Australian would be guilty of attempting to silence critiques and stifle debate? Surely Kelly would not want that…

Was that ‘debate’ good for you too?

Maybe the point of ‘the press’ (the historically specific overlap of the social instution of journalism as the ‘fourth estate’ and the commercial media industry as a mode of distribution) is not to actually stage debates at all, but to report on the them. (I introduced Daniel Boorstin’s concept of ‘pseudo-events’ to my first year students a couple of weeks ago.) If ‘the press’ is staging debates are they then fabricating their own ‘marketplace of ideas’ where they get to control who has access to participation and therefore which ‘ideas’ will be reported on as having ‘value’? This line of argument — where freedom of the press is defined in terms of media controlled access to ‘debates’ that are actually staged by the media — therefore becomes incredibly fraught. Real issues and real news then become lost, and there is not much worth trying to salvage from that situation in the name of the ‘the press’ when the commercial media industry is using the image of fourth-estate journalism so as to serve its own interests.

CJR piece on whether Occupy Wall Street should be considered a social movement

There has been a bit of a discussion on Twitter and around the internet regarding whether or not the Occupy Wall Street protests have received ‘sufficient’ news coverage. Here is a good piece by Joe Pompeo where he crunches some numbers. Erika Fry at the Columbia Journalism Review has published a piece of meta-journalism also questioning the sufficiency of the press coverage. She should be lauded for attempting to bring an analytical frame to the discussion. She draws on the work of celebrated sociologist Charles Tilly in an attempt to ascertain whether the Occupy Wall Street protest should be considered a social movement or not. Fry writes:

They [sic] press coverage indicates that most journalists have found Occupy Wall Street a movement not significant to give much coverage. If Tilly were around today, given his criteria, he’d likely agree.

Unfortunately, Tilly is certainly not the most useful academic source to draw on in this circumstance. For Tilly, social movements should be thought of as attempts by a politically engaged population to effect change to a nation’s political apparatus. Is that what is happening here? I don’t want to get into too much political or media theory, but ‘Wall Street’ is an event in part constituted by everything signified by ‘Wall Street’. Does Fry understand this? The Occupy Wall Street protests are not protesting a building or even an actual street. The protests on the actual street called Wall Street serve as a resource for counter images, the locus for the production of counter-narratives and so on. They are not protesting against a physical location; the physical location is simply a locus of action. Just as ‘Wall Street’ itself is distributed across the social body in repeated and yet different ways. Fry writes:

For a perhaps concurring perspective from the world of social science, consider the canonical work of American sociologist and political scientist Charles Tilly (he died in 2008) who developed widely-accepted criteria of what constitutes a ‘social movement.’ Yes, the media is not academia—there is of course a place for things that are timely, newsworthy, and important—the police’s questionable use of pepper spray on protesters for example—but in deciding the extent to cover a nascent protest movement, to which national media attention is oxygen, it is worth considering his criteria.

Its been pointed out that Fry’s logic is circular (nascent social movement needs national media coverage — its ‘oxygen’ — but won’t get it because it is not a social movement). But that is relatively unimportant compared to correcting the misunderstanding regarding Tilly’s work. Firstly, if Tilly was ‘canonical’ at one point, his work has shifted in status to ‘seminal’. The difference is that a ‘canon’ is a political artifact within knowledge economies, its importance is sustained by agents who are invested in its importance (imagine scholarly ‘Tilly experts’ who want Tilly to remain important). A work becomes ‘seminal’ when it has real influence in a field because it inspires other scholars to produce critical work that engages with its arguments or points in a thorough manner.

Tilly’s seminal work has inspired other scholars such as Jeroen Van Laer & Peter Van Aelst who have published a paper that is particularly relevant: “Internet and Social Movement Action Repertoires: Opportunities and Limitations” (2010). Laer and Aelst draw on Tilly’s framework without necessarily agreeing with his arguments and present their own more nuanced perspectives. This is the real scholarly influence of ‘seminal’ work. How many times Tilly’s work is set as required reading, for example, would indicate its canonical status. This indicates that it is important but not why.

Laer and Aelst offer a nuanced perspective of social movements that are entirely or partially organised around internet-based opportunities for political action. Fry seems to miss the obvious point (and, well, it is obvious, surely??) that the Occupy Wall Street protests have developed in such a way so the offline protest provides ‘oxygen’ for the online protest. Fry is not stupid, she seems to admit this point, but without sufficiently engaging with its importance:

The group has many grievances, but what they want to do about them or achieve by occupying Wall Street is much less clear—both in those “unfair” media reports and the content churned out by OWS’s own media machine.

So the Occupy Wallstreet Protest organisational group has its own ‘media machine’, ok… this is not newsworthy? Maybe not yet?

It’s just not the kind of coverage the protest group—which produces a lot of media in its own right—was hoping for.

Fry admits that the protest group is producing a large amount of its own media content through its ‘media machine’. Does Fry ask if this is different from other social movement protests? Or what the protest group hopes to achieve by producing a large amount of its own media content? No, she does not.

They have also built a sophisticated social media infrastructure and communicate on Twitter. Yet, just by looking at the pictures or a livestream of events, aside from the presence of technology (lots of Macs), it’s so far hard to distinguish OWS from any other liberal protest.

They’ve also ‘built a sophisticated social media infrastructure’! So aside from the presence of ‘technology’ — you know, technology that can be used to produce your own media coverage of an event, and indeed produce a planned ‘media event’ of the protest, for which the offline protest serves as a resource — Fry finds it hard to distinguish the Occupy Wall Street protests from any other ‘liberal’ protest. Ok, this isn’t news. It isn’t even meta-news produced by a meta-journalist (a ‘journalist’ covering other journalists) from the CJR. I am not sure why Fry believes that her own inability to distinguish between liberal protests is news or even media commentary. That is why journalists should go speak to experts, instead of relying on Wikipedia definitions of useful scholarly research such as Tilly’s definition of primarily 20th century social movements. Hence, we arrive at Fry’s money shot — the line in any work of online news-based media content (I won’t call it journalism) which is designed to function as ‘link bait’. Trollumnists (columnists who function as internet trolls) will organise their columns around such examples of ‘link bait’. Fry’s link bait trollumnist money shot is that the Occupy Wall Street protests are ‘all hype’:

Tilly explains this can come from participant demeanor and an air of seriousness. OWS seems to project by it’s worthiness by its own media machine, shrewdly developed in advance of the protests to steer the narrative and call attention to itself — the rather sophisticated websites, Twitter feeds, livestream technology, and thought that has gone into documentation and projecting an image online is impressive. OWS’s PR machine has not been matched by on-the-ground reality. OWS is all hype.

Occupy Wallstreet is all hype. Clearly. Fry says so based on evidence derived from Tilly’s Wikipedia page and her own inability to distinguish between protest movements as defined by her robust analytical journalistic mind. Why not ask a related question based on Tilly’s own understanding of internet-based social movements, one that is far more interesting and, dare I say it, newsworthy? Let’s frame it in a way that would be relevant for a meta-journalist such as Fry working at CJR:

Charles Tilly argued that internet-based social movements do not have strong enough social ties to constitute a viable social movement, does this observation apply to the Occupy Wall Street protests? If not, then how should journalists approach internet-based social movements? Are there any ethical or professional issues attempting to cover a social group that is producing their own media narratives that compete with the media narratives in the so-called ‘mainstream media’?

You see how that would produce actual news? It transcends the political divide not because it asks for representative opinions from various ‘sides’ of the protest (“he said, she said” journalism), but because it asks a question that anyone interested in the protests from any side of politics will actually want to know.

I hope there are not too many typos in the above, I’ve had to hammer it out before a three and ahalf hour drive to Sydney!!