Of Spectators and Participants

spectatorsIn response to many questions years ago about the nature of postmodernism as a cultural era, I described it as the “Age of Participation,” for technology was making it possible for us to participate in culture in ways that were once impossible. As a young boy, I used play “bombs over Tokyo” with marbles in the back yard. We were about ten years downstream from World War II, so the name of the game was a reference to the war. When we were able to buy toy planes, we’d play the same game, but it took a great deal of imagination to actually put ourselves into such a game of good guys and bad guys.

Such it was with just about everything we did, from cowboys and indians to our little rubber models of Disney characters. It was all about making up some story and interacting with each others toys. Not so today.

Video games are so advanced today that the Armed Services actually use them as simulators to train the people who defend our freedoms, and this is what I mean about the Age of Participation. We are no longer forced into a spectator role in our games and entertainment; we can actually be a part of the experience, and this is only going to become more and more immersive.

But it’s way more than just games and entertainment. The Age of Participation will unfold as one in which free people are deeply connected and able to participate in a great many other walks of life. This is a staggering threat to our cultural status quo, which demands that the have-nots be spectators and not participants. It’s right out of the mind of social engineer and father of professional journalism, Walter Lippmann, who with his buddy Edward Bernays wrote the books on how respected intellectuals should run things for everybody else.

Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”

In his 1955 essay “Walter Lippmann and Democracy,” Herbert Aptheker refers to Lippmann as an “offended and frightened snob” to say such things as these:

“…there is no possibility that men can understand the whole process of social existence.” Forgetting “the limitations of men” has been our central error. Men cannot plan their future for “they are unable to imagine it” and they cannot manage a civilization, for “they are unable to understand it.” To think otherwise, to dare to believe that the people can and should govern themselves, that they can and should forge social systems and governments enhancing the pursuit of their happiness here on earth—this is “the gigantic heresy of an apostate generation…”

In writing about Lippmann, contemporary intellectual Noam Chomsky published the following insightful paragraph:

“The public must be put in its place,” Walter Lippmann wrote, so that we may “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” whose “function” is to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants. And if the state lacks the force to coerce and the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right thing, as respected intellectuals have been advising for many years.

As we look at the chaos of today’s election season, we would all do well to remember that the whole system needs the kind of reinvention that only an informed and involved public can produce. In this sense, I have hope that 2016 is a part of the forthcoming cleansing and not something to be feared, an awakening on many levels that we’re all tired of being led around by Chomsky’s “respected intellectuals” for their own benefit and not ours. This will require a different kind of education than what’s being discussed today, one that I view as inevitable so long as we are connected and able to share freely amongst ourselves.

I’ve written many times about historian Chris Lasch and his wonderful 1990 essay, “The Lost Art of Political Argument.” This lengthy essay is eye-opening, especially as it relates to Lippmann and Bernays, for Lasch makes the case that the fall in citizen participation in the political process in the US is directly tied to the rise in the professionalization of the press. Participants need argument; spectators need a view of the arena in which others play, and that has been the role of an elitist press for many years.

We need lessons on arguing a position instead of simply passing along memes that tickle our ears but were created by somebody else. That’s simply lazy.

  • Let’s argue and not inflame, knowing that those who wish only to inflame are playing us through our emotions and fears. The only people in this for us are us, and we need to resist the temptation to be conduits for somebody else’s gain. In politics, nobody speaks the truth, for truth is not the goal of politicians. It must, however, be ours.
  • Ad hominem attacks are never allowed. Following this simple rule alone would lower the decibel level considerably as we worked out our differences publicly. Sadly, those who are smart in the ways of marketing know how easily people fall for character attacks in the place of reasoned argument, which makes the American public complicit in the hubris and hyperbole coming from those they support.
  • Argument is not a dirty word. It’s just a noun. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, the first definition reads like this: “A reason offered for or against a proposition, opinion, or measure; a reason offered in proof, to induce belief, or convince the mind; followed by for or against.” In other words, it’s simply stating your case with reasons. Too much of what we have today is the parroting of marketing or propaganda without reasoning, neither of which come close to Mr. Lasch’s use of the word “argument.”
  • Reasoning must be fact-based. Following this would be the most useful rule, because much of what we pass along today are emotional responses to triggers we “just know” we understand. This is useless in the creation of an argument, but it is so clearly satisfying to those resonate with the message solely on an emotional level. Smart marketers are able to use emotion in stating what they’re selling, and we all badly need to be educated about this trickery. Emotion is not to be confused with passion, for there is certainly a place for passion in the expressing of one’s argument. Those who argue that passion is the enemy of reason are blinded by their own arrogant convictions of rightness.
  • Facts from both sides in an argument must be on the table. This is why reason is so important to the art of argument, because the idea isn’t to blow the other guy’s facts off the table; it’s all about proving those facts to be otherwise. If that cannot be done, then your argument is weak, and this is why public debate is so useful. We’re all entitled to our opinions, propositions, and convictions, but unless we can state them in an argument, we run the risk of falsehood creeping into our consciousness.

The outcome of public debate will often depend on consensus, and we must be prepared to accept that, although we can always go back and hone our argument so as to make it more convincing. There is no appeal process. We accept and we move on. We take the matter up again the next time public debate brings it to the table in the process of our participatory culture. Nothing can be set in stone.

If we no longer wish to simply exist as manipulated spectators, then we must agree that participation involves a willingness to set our own wishes aside occasionally for the betterment of the whole. That means being prepared to listen along with stating our own case.

Call me idealistic, if you wish, but I don’t view the future through dystopian lenses. Life wants the human race to survive and thrive. I’m convinced that the explosiveness of the early twenty-first century is a necessary stage through which we all must pass, because as big as the world seems, it’s really just an island that we share in the midst of a vast and mostly dead universe.

We need each other. We really do.

The coming war on (social media) incitement

facebook-thumbs-downThis is a warning for this generation and the one to come: There is no more dangerous claim we face as a free people today than the hierarchical, authoritarian charge of incitement. This is such an important understanding to have as the postmodern era moves along, for those who sit in atop modernist pedestals do not want the status removed from their quo. And that’s putting it mildly.

The glorious freedom of the network is that the bottom of culture (you and me) can speak with each other, even “broadcast” to each other, absent the filters of modernity, which includes anybody “in charge.” Armed with this freedom, we are disrupting the old institutions, which have evolved from public service to service of the self. We all know it, but we live with it, because that’s the way it’s always been. But no more. Not only are we mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore, but we can actually do something about it. This freedom, however, is dependent on us agreeing that we cannot permit censors of what information or knowledge flows along this “bottom,” and that’s why the word “incitement” is so dangerous.

I’m hearing and seeing this concept so often today – and especially during this summer of discontent – that it bears study and our consideration before we find ourselves censored and our freedoms diminished accordingly. To incite is to “encourage or stir up (violent or unlawful behavior).” Note the violent or unlawful aspect of the word, so the matter often is determined by whoever makes the laws that decide what constitutes unlawful behavior. Another definition is to “urge or persuade (someone) to act in a violent or unlawful way.” Again, the issue is the determination of the conduct’s lawfulness.

So incitement is the noun and means “the action of provoking unlawful behavior or urging someone to behave unlawfully.”

You’ve heard this word in the context of our politics this summer, the Black Lives Matter movement, the murders of police officers, terrorism, and I suppose soon, Pokemon Go. It flows nicely from the idea that everything is causal in our culture and usually the work of an organized group, someone or many someones we can attack. It’s a part of that wonderful American habit of blame, for after all, if we can find the blame, we can eliminate the threat, or so the thinking goes. It’s the underlying layer for much of our left-brain, beancounter-led, lawyer-sustained culture, and it’s going to be used as a way to silence people who disagree. That’s my promise. Sooner or later, you will see this come about.

But if you want a little insight to what lies ahead, you need to go inside my favorite source of human conflict in all the world, the Middle East and especially the fascinating study of human nature known as Zionism. The stage for this is the nation of Israel, and most readers know my biases here. I have Palestinian family in Amman Jordan, so my window on this world is different than most. Many of my friends think I’ve gone off the deep end, but I’ve merely done the study that’s available to anyone, so I clearly see things that others don’t.

So let’s look at Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right wing government and its use of the word “incitement” to get a glimpse of what’s possibly ahead for all of us.

Incitement isn’t just a word in Israel; it’s a core fundamental of hasbara, the propaganda language that Israel uses in speaking to the west. Since ours is the pocketbook that supports Israel, you’ll notice that Netanyahu creates English language videos for distribution here that always continue the basic narrative of Zionism: that the people of the world have an unnatural hatred of all Jews, that Israel was formed as a response to the Holocaust with its 6-million tortured and murdered Jews, that Israel must be supported because we can’t allow this to happen again, and that the need is great, because Israel’s neighbors are among the biggest hate groups in the world.

To this end, an important part of hasbara is the crackdown against those who “incite” violent acts against the Jews of Israel, and this means (mostly) the Palestinians. In December of last year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry created a ten-person bureau to monitor YouTube for videos that might incite actions against Israelis. Here’s how it was described in the Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva:

The bureau will concentrate on three main issues: The first is finding videos containing inflammatory content and subsequently filing an official request to have the social media sites take down these clips.

The second measure will be the development of an application which will identify keywords such as “knife” and “Jews” in Arabic or other languages, enabling the ministry to track the creators and poster of inciting content.

The third, and perhaps most important, is the actual intervention of staffers in discussions on social networks, where they will be tasked with distributing hasbara materials from the Foreign Ministry.

I haven’t heard if any of this censorship has actually happened, and I imagine it will be a closely-guarded “confidential” business arrangement. Now, the target is Facebook. After unsuccessfully pleading a case that Israel should be granted personhood within Facebook (because Facebook’s rules would then make statements against Israel a violation of its terms), last week, Israel went to court against Facebook. Facebook is its big target, because a great many Arab families use Facebook to connect with each other, and that means the dissemination of the Palestinian narrative, which Israel cannot allow to be too widespread.

This censorship action is different than what it’s doing with YouTube, but the target is the same: so-called “incitement.” Here are key graphs from a Mondoweiss article: Israelis take on Facebook ‘monster’ with claims it knowingly incites Palestinian attacks

…the dispute has gotten ugly. Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called Facebook a “monster” last week for not increasing its censorship. Now this disagreement between Israel and Facebook is headed to the courts.

Relatives of four Israeli-Americans and one American tourists killed in Israel and the occupied West Bank between 2014 and June 2016 are suing Facebook for $1 billion in damages, claiming the social media site promotes “terrorism” and “knowingly and intentionally assisted” in their deaths.

The suit was filed in New York federal court. The issue got more interesting this week as Facebook began hiring 13 people to staff its Tel Aviv office, including Jordana Cutler, currently Chief of Staff at the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, and a longtime adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu. She will be head of policy and communications at the new Facebook office. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is headed.

Netanyahu himself uses the incitement word every chance he gets when producing hasbara videos in the wake of news events that fit the message. The truth about Zionism’s ugly behavior in the name of what seems to be a righteous cause will one day become mainstream, although it’s hard to envision just how that will happen in the face of all these attempts to censor the bottom of culture from talking about it. At least half of the Facebook posts by my own family members are about the Palestinian conflict, so what’s to stop Facebook from censoring them? Nothing.

The results of this won’t be limited just to the Middle East, and that’s the real danger here, for once the snake’s head is inside the hole, the rest of it will follow. With violence in the streets of America today, efforts to clamp down on troublemakers are likely to include social media, and this is likely imminent.

A whole lot’s a stake here, friends. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want to do something to guard against the censoring of the Internet, support Free Press. I do.

Broadcasters and Aereo: sometimes winning means losing

We have a lottery game here in Texas called “All or Nothing.” The point is that if you get ALL the numbers on your ticket, you win, but you also win if there are NONE of the numbers on your ticket. Hence, “all or nothing.”

I think the Supreme Court’s pending decision in the broadcasters versus Aereo case is a similar proposition for the broadcast TV industry, although the other way around. They will lose even if they win.

Historically, when given the opportunity — which this case does — to come down on the side of culture, the high court cannot resist, and culture — whether we like it or not — is moving to a one-to-one model of communications. There are exceptions, certainly, but the use of government resources, like spectrum, to enable old school thinking is up for grabs in the hands of the high court. What most people don’t realize is that one-to-one can mimic one-to-many in certain necessary situations, but one-to-many cannot mimic one-to-one. This is the essence of Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal,” and why this case is so fraught with danger for the status quo. You see, it isn’t about my ability to receive; it’s about my ability to send, and that’s why a whole host of laws have to be modified, including the use of the spectrum that’s owned by the people.

TVNewsCheck’s Harry Jessel published a piece last week that examined the question of what happens if the court sides with Aereo. As informative as the essay is, the comments are not only entertaining but also revealing regarding how broadcasters think in terms of defending themselves in the case. Here are six general themes:

  1. Its “unnegotiable” civil defense mission is what will sustain broadcast spectrum. The Telcos even now are working to develop a new system of civil defense warnings and assisting the government in real time and beyond.
  2. The question before the court can’t produce a loss for broadcasters. Since when has the “question before the court” prevented the Supremes from deviating? Sorry, I don’t view this as protection.
  3. Local bandwidth is too small to permit any significant competition to high quality OTA broadcast delivery. This is the same argument used by broadcasters when cable first came on the scene. Quality follows what culture wants.
  4. The most likely outcome would be for Congress to intervene, revising the Copyright Act to bring systems such as Aereo’s within the purview of the transmit clause. The Supreme Court doesn’t need Congress to make law.
  5. There is a finely balanced economic ecosystem going on here in which everyone thrives. But it’s an ecosystem that can be damaged if something disruptive, like a Supreme Court win for Aereo, took place. Nobody cares about our “finely balanced economic ecosystem,” except where it impacts their wallets, and that is a biggie that the court could impact.
  6. If the Supremes give the decision to Aereo, then broadcasters’ spectrum is safe, because Aereo depends on a broadcast signal in order for its antenna farms to work. Well, yes, and that’s a possibility, but Harry’s piece fully explores how that could be a net loss for broadcasters anyway.

If the broadcasters were to win, however, there’s a significant chance, in my view, that the price of winning will be its spectrum, because there is widespread and significant pressure to shift TV stations to cable in the name of spectrum use for the one-to-one world of the Web.

It is the law that gives broadcasters the spectrum. It is the law that says cable companies MUST carry the broadcast signals. It is the law says that broadcasters have a right to compensation for cable carrying their signals. And now broadcasters want the law again to boost their business model. Live by the law, die by the law, for the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is or isn’t law, and that’s why this case was such a crap shoot from the beginning.

Broadcasters are already acting as cable companies, and here’s the rub. If broadcast signals become cable channels, then must-carry laws are irrelevant, and retrains fees become renegotiable. Without the weight of law behind the broadcast companies, there’s little doubt in my mind that the networks will by-pass the local money tree in making their programming available via cable. Hence, the losing even if they win.

The problem for the Supremes — and the key reason I think they took this case — is the profound necessity of rewriting what copyright means, absent the immense Congressional lobbying power of the status quo. “Intellectual property” is an oxymoron created by the entertainment industry to give itself the weight of law in conducting its business throughout the world. It works fine in the one-to-many world of mass media, but it makes no sense in the Great Horizontal, and this is the conundrum for the court. Personal use of products must include sharing in a one-to-one universe, and every one of the old industries that thrived in a one-to-many paradigm must face this reality. It will take something like a court ruling to give the people formerly known as the audience (thank you, Jay Rosen) what they deserve.

The supermarket can’t charge me twice for a meal I share with neighbors, yet this is the absurdity of current copyright inside the network. The network is a cultural shift that’s here to stay, and its advancement is the duty of those in positions to make it so, such as our Supreme Court justices. Neither side in this case gives a ripple chip about consumers, the people, and that’s what the court will be forced to consider.

Folks, there’s much more riding here than the question before the court. In attempting to right what they view as a business wrong, broadcasters have opened Pandora’s box, and the chaos unleashed will likely produce a deleterious result for anything “business as usual.”

BONUS LINK, also via TVNewsCheck: Michael Berg’s legal view of the case (although tilted by an admitted bias towards the NAB).

The "schminternet" doesn't stand a chance!

Jeff Jarvis word for proposal by Google and VerizonSo Verizon and Google — two enormous, profit-making corporate entities — have a suggestion for the government on net neutrality. Let’s keep the wired Web open but close the mobile Web. It’ll never, ever fly, no matter how much money these two giants can bring to bear, because it’s so transparently obvious that anybody with half a brain can see what’s going on. Jeff Jarvis described it best this morning in a wonderful post “Internet, schminternet,” in which he describes the “schminternet” (guaranteed to become a meme) as “not the Internet.”

So ol, grandpa Internet may chug along giving us YouTube videos of flaming cats, but you want to get that while you’re out of your house? Well, that’s the nonnet. I can hear the customer “service” rep explaining this to us:

“Oh, no, sir. That’s not offered on the Internet. That’s on the schminternet.”

You want something new? Anything created after 2010?

“Schminternet, sir.”

And transparency in essence creates a third carve-out: So long as the phone company tells you it’s screwing your bits, it’s ok.

As Jeff later points out, mobile IS the future Web, so these recommendations/suggestions by Google and Verizon are a very, very big deal.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps responded in the way a government representative should.

“Some will claim this announcement moves the discussion forward. That’s one of its many problems. It is time to move a decision forward–a decision to reassert FCC authority over broadband telecommunications, to guarantee an open Internet now and forever, and to put the interests of consumers in front of the interests of giant corporations.”

The most intriguing question in all of this is why Google, of all companies, would get in bed with Verizon in an attempt to restore scarcity to the open market. Google has made its fortune on the open Web, and it did so with the operating mantra “Do no evil.”

There’s also the little matter of mobile broadband using spectrum that is owned by the public. Google and Verizon would be happy if broadcasting ceased to exist and was shoved aside as part of the tired, old wired world, so that they could create their schminternet. Those airwaves belong to us, and our duly elected representatives will decide how they are used.

A lot of people ask me what I think the outcome of this kind of thinking will be, and my response is that it isn’t technology that’s “causing” the cultural disruptions about which I write; it’s disgruntled people USING technology. People have always been disgruntled when a privileged elite gets to dictate life, but the hyperconnectivity of the Web sticks a knife in the heart of all that. This new found freedom is not something people will easily release, so I have faith that neutrality will, in the end, prevail.

Meanwhile, though, vestiges of the past will fight it with everything they’ve got. After all, they already have it rather nice, and they’d like to keep it that way, thank you very much.

UPDATE: Here’s a great overview of why Google is involved in this by Ryan Singel at Wired.

Kevin Martin's sudden love of net neutrality

Net Neutrality advocates are cautiously hailing the FCC Commission Chairman’s sudden interest in the cause. Martin said Tuesday that the FCC would act aggressively to ensure that networks are not blocking access to the Internet. Comcast and AT&T have both had complaints about censoring or restricting access to some.

Both Free Press and Public Knowledge urged Martin to follow through on the investigation and enforcement. “Public Knowledge is pleased to see that the chairman and the commission are willing to stand by their principles to protect American consumers,” the group responded Tuesday. “We look forward to FCC proceedings that will determine what are legitimate uses of power by telecom companies and which are not.”

“We are encouraged by the chairman’s statements today about investigating Comcast’s blocking of peer-to-peer traffic,” Free Press said. “We hope the chairman’s statements, made two months after we filed our complaint, will lead to immediate and accelerated action at the FCC on the critical issue of whether Comcast, AT&T and other Internet-service providers can block the services people want to use. The FCC must stop these would-be gatekeepers and fine companies that censor the free flow of information.”

Martin’s position is curious. The FCC is feeling its way around the world of the Web, and would like nothing more than to insert itself in some form of permanent oversight capacity. The question is at what level and how much? Despite a degree of openness in the 700 MHz spectrum auction, many observers didn’t buy the subsequent complaints from the Telcos, because they view Martin as in their pockets. And Martin is a solid supporter and enforcer of the censorship wishes of such staunch conservative groups as the Parents Television Council and others.

So what gives? It’s all politics, folks, and the strange bedfellows it breeds.

Open access benefits everybody

The FCC’s 700 MHz spectrum auction got a little more interesting last week when Google told the world they would bid a minimum of $4.6 billion provided certain conditions were met. This is a very important move that could actually help the people who “lost” the spectrum in the first place – broadcasters.

Before I get into this, a disclaimer: I’m not a spectrum expert, but I have a pretty good bullshit detector. I’ve also commented for years about how Europe and Asia are beating the crap out of us in applications of third-generation cellphone technologies and broadband networks. You need to look no further than our beloved incumbents in the telecom industry to assign blame for that, and these are the same folks who want and need that spectrum to maintain their grip on certain forms of communication. Every claim by anyone in this debate, therefore, is self-serving, with the exception of the small group of voices pushing for open access.

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s idea of open access really isn’t open at all, but Google’s proposal is. In a truly open broadband network, anybody could play. In the incumbent’s view — and in that of several other entities involved in the auction — they would determine who could play based upon how much money would be involved. This is the same closed-network concept that has driven our wireless systems to the competitive basement worldwide.

If Google is successful, however, broadcast companies will have much more flexibility in creating business models that use spectrum that used to belong to them in the first place. The irony of this is stunning.

For the uneducated about the whole spectrum matter, here’s a nice primer from Om Malik a few months ago. Om provides a 10-step explanation, what he calls “a little cheat sheet.” It’s a good read.

And regarding the Google bid, Michael Arrington at TechCrunch has a terrific summary that includes the four conditions that Google is “recommending.”

  1. Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  2. Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  3. Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  4. Open networks: Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.

But the Arrington piece nails the BS in the incumbents’ response:

AT&T’s response to Google’s letter was breathtaking in its audacity:
Not satisfied with a compromise proposal from Chairman Martin that meets most of its conditions, Google has now delivered an all or nothing ultimatum to the U.S. Government, insisting that every single one of their conditions “must” be met or they will not participate in the spectrum auction. Google is demanding the Government stack the deck in its favor, limit competing bids, and effectively force wireless carriers to alter their business models to Google’s liking. We would repeat that Google should put up or shut up–they can bid and enter the wireless market with any business model they prefer, then let consumers decide which model they like best.

For anyone who doesn’t look too closely at the issue, AT&T’s response seems very reasonable: keep government regulation out of the spectrum let the market decide which services win. But that isn’t really what would happen at all. If fewer government restrictions are placed on the bandwidth the auction winners will be able to extract more profits at the expense of competitors and consumers. So naturally they don’t want to see open access rules like those recommended by Google. The incumbents also don’t want to see Google play in their sandbox and bidding against them – so they have yet another reason to oppose their proposal.

As the leader in the open internet world, Google stands to benefit in a purely open wireless world, but so will we all. Big or small, a level field of play will mean an explosion of creativity and applications that we can’t even imagine today. Just look at what has taken place in the 802.11 spectrum (Wi-Fi) since the FCC made that truly open. From your cordless phone to your home wireless network to hotspots in various public and private locations, all are there using “free” spectrum.

This is an enormous political minefield for Washington with billions of dollars at stake. Thankfully, a lot of extremely well-informed people are paying attention on behalf of the (relatively) shallow pocket folks in the country.