On time and drumming with Taylor Hawkins

So I went to watch the Foo Fighters on the weekend and had a few moments when I achieved a philosophical appreciation for the excellent drumming of Taylor Hawkins.

Taylor Hawkins – according to Dave Grohl ‘The answer to the question – “What if Freddy Mercury had a surfboard”? – is one of the better drummers I’ve seen live. And I think the fact that he’s clearly a Queen fan is no coincidence. Hawkins has a remarkable ability to enter into the moment and alter it both with his singing, drumming and presence more generally.

Don’t get me wrong, Dave Grohl is also a consummate showperson – every time I’ve seen him (3 times now) I’m impressed by his commitment to perform. He’s always interested in reactions, and responsive to them, 1 and I usually spend some of the show thinking about whether his musical legacy is more important than Kurt Cobain’s… and I generally answer ‘yes’, and that’s some testament to his talent and endeavour.

But with Hawkins, he is equally in control and also (at least seemingly) possessed by the performance – just like Freddy Mercury. When I’m watching him I get the impression that what he’s producing is in and of the moment. Possessing ‘haecceity’, or ‘thisness’ that makes something truly unique.

As a communication theorist the reason I find this fascinating is that communication is typically understood in our world as a process of ‘information exchange’. That is, according to both scientific and empirical theories of communication, when I’m listening to Hawkins and the Foo Fighters I am receiving information – here’s the high hat, here’s the kick drum and so on. However, the experience of being at a Foo Fighters concert is significantly more than that information. Hawkins slight altering of the tempo and beat patterns are in and of the moment and adaptive to the feeling of the music which is immanent to the crowd and the occasion.

I have previously written about why live music experience cannot be replicated and I touched on this issue there. There is something incommensurable (incommunicable) about such experiences and that is – in essence –  the thing. I also know that great theorists like Ron Bogue and, of course, Heidegger, have written about time and experience in far more interesting ways.

However, my take away, and something that I think is helping me think through these issues, is that communication (real communication) is a process, not information exchange. In identifying it as a process you come to understand the difference between information and communication. We have the ability to exchange information globally, and indeed you can even see examples of Taylor Hawkins performance on the weekend right here.

But while the information has complete parity with what happened on the weekend, it is not communicating the same thing. The reason is because there is a process involved in watching music live that is not replicated in reading a blog.

While understanding that process is important seems to replicate McLuhan’s ‘Media is the message’ what I think is really important is to understand what is not happening in ‘information exchange’… a reduced appreciation for iteration and immanence for one, a failure to appreciate our human capacity for another… and an absence of reduction to purpose, a celebration of experience in its place.

‘Zombie Capitalism’ by Chris Harman

Wow, this was a long and sometimes arduous read.

Zombie Capitalism is an orthodox marxist account of the repeated crises of capitalism. Written by Chris Harman, who is a maxist of some repute, I read the book hoping to see how the Zombie trope was employed to explain/confront capitalism.

In 360 odd pages, Zombies were not mentioned, not once. Vampirism did cop a mention in the final chapter, and there was quite a bit on the ‘organic composition of capital’ and ‘dead labour’ – but nothing explicitly on Zombies. This makes me suspicious that the title arose as a marketing gimmick as Zombies were hot at the time of publication (2009).

Anyway, I read the whole thing which took me ages because I knew enough about marxism and historical materialism to be somewhat uninspired. This was a book that – at least until the last third – I could not maintain an interest in. In the last third, the manner in which Harman dealt with the financial crisis of 2008 did become more interesting and new… but for the most part this felt a little polemical, even if it was generally consistent as a result.

Anyway, it was healthy for me to reacquaint myself with Marxism before engaging in my own ‘zombie history of everything’ in my upcoming book, so I pushed through and here’s a few of the things that I will take away from Zombie Capitalism.

  • When you write as a historical materialist, you locate the source of every social and cultural change within changes within the means of production. Harman explains every moment of crisis in capitalism as arising out of the pressing need for capital to find profit in a system where the rate of profit actually decays as an inherent part of the system of competitive accumulation.

To explain the issue of decay, I find thinking about managing a factory to be helpful. If you’re a factory manager then investing in a better widget maker, or a bigger workforce, or digitising your records will all operate to increase your efficiency and therefore your rate of profit. However, this advantage only lasts until all your competitors copy your innovation. Moreover, if one of your competitors does something else to innovate or economise, the actual profitability of your product on the open market decreases (because on an open market you need to be able to value match your competitors in order to sell, so your profit margins are actually reduced by competitor’s innovations/gains in efficiency.

So the system is not just a system of commodity production; it is a system of competitive accumulation. This creates limits to the action possible not only for workers, but also for capitalists. For if they do not continually seek to exploit their workers as much as is practically possible, they will not dispose of the surplus value necessary to accumulate as quickly as their rivals. They can choose to exploit their workers in one way rather than another. But they cannot choose not o exploit their workers at all, or even exploit them less than other capitalists do – unless they want to go bust. They themselves are subject to a system which pursues its relentless course whatever the feelings of individual human beings. p.37

The problem for the system as a whole is that the ‘real value’ (that is the value accumulated in the process of producing a thing) remains constant, while the opportunity to profit from producing things decreases. So Harman points out that falling rates of profit are endemic to the capitalist system and also points out how they have resulted in the need for both war and increasingly ludicrous financial speculation as a source of profit.

(for e.g) Vast expansion of military spending has been a crucial ‘solution’ to various crises in capitalism (US/Germany in the 1930s). But as a non-productive investment (Harman describes it like advertising, a waste of productive capacity that nevertheless helps to secure markets for real production), this creates inflationary pressure on the economy which mandate a need to return to actual productive investments (such as rebuilding or colonising after a war). So Harman views ‘total’ and proxy war as a direct outcome of the mechanisms of capitalist accumulation.

A more recent solution to the falling rate of profit has been to focus on making profit out of speculation, rather than actual production. The promotion of various sort of spot market and derivative trading schemes has arisen, according to Harman, because the mega-rich can no longer make great money off simple production. The GFC is explained as a direct result of the failure to anticipate the falling rate of profit that Marx predicted. Harman is delightfully droll in his critiques of economic theory in missing this.

  •  The state plays an inherent and central role in maintaining existing capital. This argument flew in the face of much of what I previously felt to be true (i.e. the state is no longer useful for much at all) but Harman makes a fairly compelling point about how the state serves two crucial purposes in capital accumulation.
  • Firstly, a strong state creates all sorts of public goods that capital relies on to increase its rate of profit. A well educated and innovative workforce with good health care and policing is a significant and immutable advantage for profitability. Even if such a workforce might demand a higher wage, the fact that another bright, secure and disciplined worker can be found locally is a significant advantage for capital.
  • Secondly, the state has played an increasingly important role in maintaining the profitability of capital. As mentioned above, Harman details the significant increase in government spending as a share of GNP since World War 2. This seemed almost counter-intuitive to me but is apparently clear enough. The state plays a more central role in diverting public money into productive or non-productive investments in order to maintain some profitability for capital. This includes facilitating mergers and subsidies to increase competitiveness of capital ventures within a state (the US state played a central role in consolidating its microchip and aerospace industry in order to maintain a profit advantage over international competitors (p.254-257). Similarly, when crashes come about, the state is the only entity with the capacity to bail out the system (i.e the recent GFC)… so the state is essentially the curator and guarantor of the capitalist system.2 This linked nicely back in to Agamben’s point that all struggle is now struggle against the state.

So given the orhtodoxy of his approach, it is probably unsurprising that Harman identifies the solution to the problems of capitalism in the paradoxes of the system itself. He bravely rejects the ‘autonomous’ moves of Western marxism which have been eminently fashionable since Empire was released by Hardt and Negri in 2000. In its place he identifies a very particular sort of ‘intersectionality’ of the working class that should supply capitalism’s grave diggers. It is in the large aggregations of exploited workers, who will be facing increasing systemic failures in the coming years that Harman locates the source of change. 3  It is (still) the working class, and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system, which will produce change.

So, reflecting on the book as a whole. It was interesting in the final third and I suppose I learned some things about the marxist approach to materialism that I had forgotten in my long exposure to critical theory. However, I found Harman’s approach to be slightly doctrinaire and rooted, still, in a sort of deification of productive process. Yes, that is both the strength and the weakness of the work.

As a challenge to the paradigm of historical materialism, for instance, how is it possible to reconcile the view of digital capitalism that is advanced in move fast and break things with the model that Harman perceives as integral to capitalism? Specifically, the decay of profit takes place because of competitors actions, or the mobility and organisation of labour. How then, does this analysis relate to Google, who absorbs all competitors and thus actually has no competition? Similarly, when profit is no longer related at all to use value but rather the perceived value on the market, the issue of ‘productive vs unproductive labour’ seems to become very muddied. Harman clearly believes that ‘dead labour’ (commodities produced in the past that contribute to production -i.e. the labour invested in a hammer) and constant capital still play an integral role in the production of value. I’m just not so sure that’s true in a post-scarcity economy. Whether ‘real costs’ are at all important in contemporary economics is inherently questionable (although I certainly agree that they ought to be).

Despite these minor issues its clear that Harman is (was) a decent academic and a strong critical reader of economic theory. I have my reservations about focusing on production, when I see very little opportunity to alter that relationship without also focusing on consumption (which I believe is the more pressing symptom of contemporary capitalism – not that our workers don’t get enough to eat, rather that they are encouraged to eat too much in order to generate higher rates of profit). But what Harman has reminded me about is that a strong materialist philosophy is another solid way to escape relying on philosophies of consciousness to create a better world. It was refreshing to see a marxist ‘stick to their guns’ and point out why capitalism might eat itself after all.

I’ll finish this rather long post with some of my favourite quotes from the book.

on the inherent immorality of the capitalist system:

in every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Apres moi le deluge! [After me, the flood] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the outcry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? [Marx, The working day, Capital]

on the need for class consciouness rather than ethnic consciousness:

…there are two different directions in which the despair and bitterness that exist among the ‘multitudes’ in the great cities of the Third World can go. One direction involves workers struggling collectively and pulling millions of other impoverished people behind them. The other involves demagogues exploiting the sense of hopelessness, demoralisation [346] and fragmentation to direct the bitterness ofone section of the impoverished mass against the other sections. That is why the working class cannot simply be seen as just another grouping within ‘the multitude’ or ‘the people’, and of no intrinsic importance for the struggle against the system. p.345-346

on the inherent contradictions of the system:

As the runaway system lurches from boom to slump and tries to boost profits and write off debts in a wild attempt to lurch back again it dashes the very hopes of a secure life that it has encouraged in the past. It insists the mass of people have to work longer for less, to accept they must lose their jobs because bankers lost their heads, to resign themselves to hardship in old age, to give up their homes to pay the repo men, to go hungry on peasant plots so as to pay the moneylender and the fertiliser supplier. p.350

on the rise of finance in the economy:

Global financial assets were equal to 316 percent of annual world output in 2005, as against only 109 percent in 1980. p.278

Quoting Engels on private interest vs public interest and failure of process perspective:

The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions… In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominately concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character. [Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, in Marx and Englels, Collected Works, Volume 25, p.461] p.83

 

Continue reading “‘Zombie Capitalism’ by Chris Harman”

The Comming Community by Georgio Agamben

Because of the need to return the book to the library, I spent yesterday reading ‘The Comming Community’ by Agamben.

Translated by Micheal Hardt, who worked with the other prominent recent Italian theorist Antonio Negri on ‘Empire’, I  initially started reading this book because I felt it might be useful for one of my PhD students, but then thought that it might have something to offer in terms of a different understanding of both community and communication.

Well, the book did have some vague ideas about this which I will bastardise as this:

  1. that understanding truly occurs through the occupying the position of the other.
  2. that commodity fetishism is a continuation of the idol worship (and deferrence of judgement) implicit to religion
  3. That we remain in  fascistic system of meaning through representation.
  4. That emancipation is no longer possible by seizing  control of the state but rather all community must exist in opposition to the state.

So these are important points and, to be fair, these points are made among some very detailed and historically interesting arguments about representation, meaning and community. There were a few passages that struck me as somewhat profound:

In regard to some recent thinking I’ve been doing around AI, ethics and zombism:

‘The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realise. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible – there would be only tasks to be done.’  P. 42

In regard to the paradox of representation:

‘If the word through which a thing is expressed were either something other than the thing itself or identical to it, then it would not be able to express the thing.’  P.73

and on the issue of the meaning of communication/ communication as information exchange:

‘What hampers communication is communicability itself; humans are separated by what unites them. Journalists and mediacrats are the new priests of this alienation from human linguistic nature… There is nothing of God, or of the world, or of the revealed in language…

…Even more than the economic necessity and the technological development, what rives the nations of the earth toward a single common destiny is the alienation from linguistic being, the uprooting of all peoples from their vital dwelling in language’. P. 82

Did I love the book? Well it was easy and quick to read and it generated quite a bit of associated knowledge on my part, such as the discovery of Swiss writer Robert Walser and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould both of whom seem incredibly interesting. The quotes above really gave me a bit of a thrill as well.

However, overall, this was philosophy and not really critical theory. As philosophy it seemed to treat religious ideas and texts as sacrosanct and while there was also some interesting meditations on the various mathematical/biological and philosophical debates about individuation vs transcendentals I found it weird that there was always a deferrment to the religious perspective.

Overall, while reading this was a nice break from the Marxist history I’ve otherwise been progressing through, I’m not really sure that I comprehend how to ‘use’ these arguments; possibly that is Agamben’s hope.

‘Disconnected’ by Carrie James

I’ve just finished reading ‘Disconnected: Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap’ by Carrie James. James has taken a ‘glass half empty’ approach to how the internet is reconfugiring ethics in this crazy, mixed up world.

I have to say, the book is largely empirical – James directly describes the ethical dilemmas and work around that their research subjects – preteens to young adults – are generally employing from 2008-2012. James writes clearly and confidently and the real strength of the work is in its observation of how ethics is negotiatied (or not) online.

A few things struck me while reading it. Firstly, there is some really putrid behaviour online, and the nature of the internet seems to actually be eliciting putrid behaviour offline. Two cases that struck me were the Stuebenville rape case and the rise of ‘creepshot’ sites/pages/subredits. In each case the possibility of sharing degrading images seems to have actually provided the incentive for committing acts of assault and molestation. I won’t go into detail here but what I found weirdest about this was that the tech (anonymous, or psudo-private sharing) seems to be opening up ‘new’ ways of victimising people.  I guess that sounds like a ‘duh!’ statement, considering the breadth of information about cyberbullying that is out there. However, I’d previously considered these instances to be simply ‘amplified’ versions of offline behaviours. Here we’re seeing the development of specific bullying to suit the media d’jour.

James explains how this has become possible – there is a growing gap between how we understand ethics in our ‘real life’ and how this is understood online. Teenagers (and others) tend to regard online ethics and morality only in terms of personal consequences; a problem exacerbated by education programs and parents that are focused on protecting ‘the children’. This doesn’t encourage thinking of others and there is a tendency for the internet to appear as a distinctly different space to real life. Given that it is a pretty vile place for most people – they develop a view that it is completely ‘virtual’ (in the traditional, not Deleuzean sense) and thus don’t necessarily approach it as moral agents.  James finishes up the book by naming a few things that can be done to force a reconsideration of online actions as an extension of real communities and relationships (and also constituted by real ‘others’ who deserve respect).

This brings me to what I see as the key oversight of the book – that it brackets and disregards a lot of the broader normative arguments that surround this research program. For instance to what extent are horrid ethical (and moral) choices a sign of the broader social and cultural times and not something directly related to technology use? At a few points James raises this question, or at least points out that this is a possibility which she is not focussing on. But for me, she could have well reflected on this more meaningfully. She clearly states that it is difficult to know how much of the ‘self interest/self concern’ attitude that dominated her research group was a consequence of technology and how much was a pure reflection of the parents pre-existing attitudes. Because she does state that this attitude of self interest was the defining feature of parents approach and educational explanation of ethics. So, the book left me wondering how much we can blame technology for declining ethical standards, when the same decline in care for others has been evident in the voting patterns and social attitudes of the last few generations.

and finally, a note on realisability:

James’ solutions all involve getting the online ethical world to relate more directly to the offline world. Here she is challenging the fundamental problem of ‘disconnect’ as described in the book’s title. In an engaging passage in the last chapter she describes a ‘conscious connectivity’ and ‘roles and responsibilities’ thinking which can help people think through the real world implications for their online behaviour.  The roles and responsibilities angle (that you should consider the ramifications of your online actions in light of all facets of your character) was particularly provocative for me, as it seems to imply a semi-repressive disciplinary subjectivity which would be the opposite of other-regarding or connective ethics. Surely, one of the things that makes the internet interesting is that you can escape your ‘roles and responsibilities’ and experiment with different subject positions? It seems to me that doing so (experiencing something like being someone else) is actually one of the best opportunities to broaden your ethical perspective.

In the face of this, I’d like to advance the concept of ‘realisability’. Its actually an idea developed by Elliot Delys in his 2010 Honours research which he did with me. ‘Realisability’ is an added dimension to digital ethics which describes the possible implications of an online action. Simply put an online action which has direct and clear offline effects has a high degree of realisability whereas an online action which has no clear effect on an other has a low degree of realisability. With this concept as a moderator upon ethcial judgement, it possible to judge the actual moral and ethical implications of online behaviour without completely restricting the experimentations that online space offers.

So, for instance, posting hate speech on a marginalised group’s facebook page has a high degree of realisability – the hatred is subjectively experienced by a large number of people who each internalise the message with specific ramifications. Compare that to trying to inhabit a different subjectivity in an online chatroom where the only possible ‘realisable’ effect is the discovery of your disengenousness… well while the latter may be unethical, it could be considered only so if the effects are realisable.

And for those of you having trouble with the notion that there are always implications for online actions, you can think of ‘realisability’ to think through those implications (and the other assumptions you’re making about our relationship to the virtual). To what extent is any online action realisable and why?

Been gone a while

It has been some time since my last post. Partly this is because I’ve had no immediate teaching reason to be playing around with web design, partly this is because I haven’t had much spare time of late but MOSTLY this is because the last time I wrote a post (about the inherent corruption of insurance) word press swallowed up the draft. This was enough of a kick in the teeth for me to stop this hobby for a while.

But today, the kids are at their grandparents and I have a moment to myself so I thought I would take the time to update all my plugins (etc) and make a post about what has been going on.

1. Australia says ‘Yes’ to marriage equality.

Phew. *packs application for NZ citizenship back into drawer*.

I have nothing insightful or intelligent to add to this, except that this was a case where a ‘no’ answer would have driven me to the pits of despair. I can also add that I did not encounter a ‘no’ argument that made any logical sense and while I understand that ‘no’ voters are scared of change, I’m a big believer in Yoda’s claim that fear leads to hate, hate leads to anger and anger leads to suffering. Fear is not the basis of an argument, it’s an emotion (and an often irrational and dangerous one at that).

Mostly I am just relieved that Australia wasn’t revealed to be more conservative than Ireland and the US(!) and hopefully this shift towards equality can be realised in ever more broader terms.

2. Zombie writing continues apace.

My article with Katie Atwell and Ian Dolphin ‘Wishing for the Apocalpyse: The Walking Dead as ecosophic object‘ was turned around very quickly by Continuum and has been published. It was great fun to write with Katie and Ian, who are old friends and TWD afficionados. I’m not sure it makes a strong a fist as it could – I was hoping to make a broader important point about the fate of literary criticism needing to avoid profound ‘individuation’ – but we were really hampered by the word limit.

The next project is really the book Humans vs Zombies, which will draw on that article and other work I’ve been doing on big data, and previous work on what it takes to be human (as well as the central conceit, that mobile phones may be helping us become zombies). I’m having trouble really figuring out whether its a book concerned with zombism (the lack of agency in desire) or a book concerned with technology (a summary of all the research out there about what mobile phones and digital media are doing to our culture). But I’m trying to snythesise those two arguments. At the moment, I’m reading Zombie Capitalism by Chris Harman, and he’s definitely using zombie as a pejorative adjective rather than a possibly creative concept. It has been a useful refresher on Marxism and thus has reminded me of endless units from undergrad.

3. Teaching semester is wrapping up

Hence the blog post. Grades more or less all done now. I had some great students this year but overall am a little alarmed about the declining level of ‘investment’ or effort in tertiary students. Don’t get me wrong – the great students are still great – but the ‘middle’ students who could once be inspired now listen online, work from Google and learn the bear minimum. They avoid effort and they avoid difference and thus the net effect of teaching (lifting people beyond what they already know) is being reduced IMHO. I see this as a little bit of a crisis for education, at the very least at the tertiary level. And I guess I’ld like to write more on it later.

Anyway, that’d be enough for now. There’s more on my mind – such as the #MeToo campaign and the role of social media in policing social crime. But I’ll stop now to keep it fresh and hopefully not spend too long before I do this again. And hopefully, this time, the internet won’t swallow my draft.

 

What I thought of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin

When Jon Taplin appeared on ABC’s Nightline a couple of months ago I had a string of recommendations to engage with his work – notably from my mum and Joe Hutton – as well as colleagues at UWA. After reading his latest book “Move fast and break things” I understand why.

Taplin explores the effect of digital monopolies on cultural production throughout the book. Some of the arguments were painfully familiar to me; I’ve also written about ‘The big data public and its problems’ in an upcoming issue of New Media and Society. My argument being that the network benefits of sharing one particular system (Google, Amazon, Facebook) actually creates a tendency towards homogenisation and the loss of difference.

Taplin explores this phenomenon through music – outlining how the prevalence of YouTube as a music streaming service has eroded regional and stylistic differences in musical styles. But where Taplin really added to my understanding of the digital media ‘ecology’ was in the description of how the internet behemoths act as monopsony – creating a market situation where there is only one ‘buyer’ of cultural goods – specifically YouTube for music, Facebook for news, Google for information and Amazon for books.  By being the only place where artists can effectively sell their material online, these vendors can issue demands about pricing and distribution that are essentially noncompetitive and unfair to the artists… What this means is that unless you’re at the very top of your game (whatever that game is) it is becoming harder and harder to survive through producing things.

Taplin does a great job of exploring the libertarian philosophical underpinnings of these industries and also equating what is going on in the digital world to the increasing economic stratification within late industrial economies. In this world you’re either flourishing because you’re riding the tech wave and are either enjoying or employing a digital monopoly or you’re sidelined and becoming increasingly powerless.

The book is not without its weaknesses, Taplin paints an overly rosy picture of the A&R culture of music labels and it’s clear that he is writing from a position where – as a producer of cultural commodities – he has been undercut by digital tools.

However, his intimate experience of seeing his friends, colleagues and family struggle in the new media world adds passion to his writing. More importantly, his research into how Google has infiltrated the upper echelons of the US democratic system is really illuminating. He also points out how ineffective the judiciary and legislature has been in trying to curtail the noncompetitive practices of these digital giants.

He presents a re-decentralised, local and competitive vision of a better digital future, which I also feel has to be the way forward. However, he doesn’t really outline how we would get there, with some of his ideas seeming to be based upon the collective will to disengage with the ‘masses’.

I feel the problem with this optimism is that we are all too concerned with what ‘everyone else’ is thinking to have the will to break away from that and seek more local and subjective experiences. However, I do think these local and subjective experiences are still, actually, more rewarding, so maybe that’s the field that digital media can open up.

TL;DR It was a fascinating book and well worth a read.

What I think of Ryan Holiday’s ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’

I’ve just finished what I have to get done before tomorrow and both my kids are still having their afternoon nap. Gold.

After the last post about identity politics I have reflected more on that topic and decided that I’d like to write more about it, as a way of exploring my own ideas and also as defense against anyone who might think I’m not a consistent feminist and/or defender of the marginalised. However, that will have to come later. In this post what I want to do is talk about the work of Ryan Holiday, which I’ve been reading lately as part of my research and teaching in digital media.

In his two books I’ve read thus far Trust me – I’m lying, confessions of a media manipulator and Growth hacker marketing Holiday discusses his own experiences as a strategic communicator for American Apparel and various other brands, authors and movie producers. The former book ‘Trust me’ is a sort of tell all mea culpa that describes how easy it is to leverage status and page hits into the media stratosphere for contemporary media manipulators… it is by far the better book and includes some nicely cynical insights about the state of online news and publishing at the moment. The latter book is more of a ‘how to’ guide for people who want to grow their online presence. It is much shorter, much more ‘instrumental’.

So yes, Holiday has, in one book, decried the easy and lasting corruption of digital media platforms and in the other, he’s written about how to make the most of it. He doesn’t come off as too hypocritical, in Trust me, he goes out of his way to identify the actual harm that comes from media manipulation and owns up to damage that he himself has caused… but as he himself notes in the introduction to the updated edition, his exposure of everything wrong with digital media hasn’t changed a thing.

So I think that book is a worthy read for anyone interested in moving into ‘strategic digital media’. It has enough reference to media theory and actual instructive lessons to make it valuable. It is not as good on media theory as something like Pariser’s ‘Filter Bubble’ and it doesn’t really explore the full ramifications of the problems Holiday is uncovering… (which you can read more about in my New Media and Society article on ‘The big data public and its problems’) but it does present some pretty insightful and easy to understand lessons about the digital media industry.

The top thngs I’ve learned from Holiday? That RSS and other syndication models are being phased out of new browsers and operating systems because publishers and editors want you to have to check back on their site all the time (rather than receive notification when something you are interested in has been added – in this way, you create more pageviews and more revenue for the site owner). While this probably won’t seem remarkable to anyone else, I find it a really interesting shift… I’ve always thought Aaron Schwartz (inventor of RSS and reddit) was a visionary and if there is a hope for the internet it comes from the deliberation that engaged communities can generate. The book was also great for outining the economies of supply and demand on websites, which generate the banal and baffling content that you find therein.

It’s also clear that the tail is wagging the dog of public interest and debate… but that’s been true for some time now. Reading Holiday made me more fond of public broadcasting systems and more determined not to use tauel.com to chase traffic but rather to explore important ideas that do not get explored elsewhere.

Identity politics destroys my mind

Recently there was a social media uproar (read: twitter shitstorm) about the fact that the Glastonbury headliners for 2017 are all white males – Radiohead, Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran. People are up in arms about the fact that this doesn’t represent the true diversity of the music world… I am less sure about condemning Glastonbury because of this choice, partly because I know at least two of these bands are great live acts and a perfect choice for festival goers who expect the headliners of the mainstage at Glasto to be, well, great live acts. While I do reccognise the structural inequality that has led to these acts becoming great, I don’t lament their right to be where they are… and I feel that to do so is actually somewhat unfair. Yes, I am saying white males can be treated unfairly. I am not trying to get ‘in’ with the MRA people, I just really struggle with identity politics.

My colleague and friend warns me not to be ‘white marxist dude’ who reduces all social problems simply down to inequal distribution of wealth and power. I am that guy, to a certain extent. And yes, I’m a rich, white male. So nothing I say from here on in really counts right? As I could never know the pain of structural inequality and I am always passively benefitting from that inequality. I get that, and I acknowledge that it is true. However, I don’t actually think that means that nothing I have to say on the issue could matter.

Structural inequality comes in many, many forms. For instance, among rich, white males, there is a hierarchy of height. Taller men earn more money, have more status and are more likely to find a mate. Similarly, people born to wealthy parents are more likely to be wealthy themselves. Finally, people with anglicised names do better than people with strange names in job interviews, dating sites and promotions. (etc).

Now, as a relatively short man with a very strange name, who didn’t come from an exceptionally privileged background, I have to say that these inequalities are not necessarily determining – I’ve managed to find employment, a mate and some financial comfort despite these things. And I don’t think that is merely because I have had the good luck of being born white and male. My sister, who is notably not male, has had similar successes; and has been coveted by far more employers, more suitors and more accountants than I’ve ever been. And power to her, she’s worked hard for every bit of it. As have I.

Another way of putting it is that I think that everyone is unique, and while we can certainly detect overarching, or ‘molar’ systems of inequality (and unfairness should be battled wherever possible) our identity should never be reduced to those overarching ‘molar’ categories.

One of my go-to people on this topic is Hannah Arendt.  In The Human Condition and ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ she advanced a highly controversial interpretation of identity politics. She urged everyone to feel pride in and celebrate the things that made them uniquely who they were but, at the same time, felt that the things which make us who we are ‘never condition us absolutely’ (HC, p.11). Now, she was a Jewish woman who fled the Germans and saw many of her friends and colleagues killed in the process. When asked to report on the trials of Adolf Eichmann, she demured from her ‘Jewishness’ and instead reported on them as a philosopher. She identified that the underlying mental fault of Eichmann was not that he was monstrous, rather that he was banal.

It is this banality that I see in identity politics – a desire to reject the specific and gravitate toward a global ideal that can be ‘intersectional’ for sure but also demands a deadening of sophistication and the creation of straw men (strawpeople?) for twitter drive-by abuse and social condemnation.  In the end it seems to reduce people back to their identity – and that is not their identity as defined by them and their actions but rather their identity as defined by their skin colour and gender. In prioritising the global and exclusive categories (white, male), as opposed to the global inclusive (human) or specific and local (white, male, middle class, depressive, introverted, arrogant and more) we obscure both the difference we’re trying to celebrate and the REAL systemic causes of exclusion and inequality.

So while no doubt there is something about men generally having less time pressures in their lives, which has allowed more men to experiment with the possibly frivolous pursuit of pop music I have to say that all of those headliners deserve to be there. Choosing to pursue a career in rock is a risky move and there would have been no safety net if they failed…  They have worked hard to get where they are and their hard work (and ability) is what is recognised in the headline slot… not their maleness, not their whiteness. I mean Thom Yorke has facial paralysis, Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters battled for a long time with  heroin addiction and Ed Sheeran is a redhead (nuff said). They’ve all known marginalisation and they all make art about resisting it.

So as much as it feels good to condemn people for what they inescapably are, it is, I feel, more instructive to celebrate what they uniquely bring to the world. And in what we can bring, we are actually all inescapably different.

 

 

 

Introduction: Why a website?

This year I’ve started teaching a masters unit in digital media for strategic communciation. I have a massive research interest in the are having written a number of books and academic articles on the issue. However, in order to bring real insight to my teaching and research I thought I ought to re-engage with the practical aspects of maitaining a web presence. When learning the ins and outs of Google Analytics, for example, there is nothing better than having your own account, your own TLD and your own vested interest in doing so!

Having a rather unique name meant that tauel.com was available as a top level domain name and rather than invent some strange portmanteau it seemed logical to get tauel for myself. I’ve been told all my life of various meanings for the word tauel and I thought that the word should have its own space. If you have any ideas about what tauel might mean, I’d love to know.

Of course, the only problem with having a site is that you need to have something on it. So far, that has meant including a few of my favourite photos and a brief run down of things that I’d like to promote to everyone (sort of scream from the rooftops good stuff) and things I’d like to warn people about. I’ve also imported some old html pages from my first attempt at web building in the year 2000. A lot of that content has gone missing but I included everything I could find with minimal effort :).  One of the better parts of that site (and its raison d’etre) was my travel diary from my year of travelling through Asia, Europe and the Americas in 1999… at the time it was the only way of allowing friends I met overseas to keep up with what happened in my travels (no facebook/instagram/flickr back then).  So that’s there too, along with a large pdf file of my first big solo trip in 1996, where I started out going to Thailand and then ended up hitching around Britain and Ireland. On that trip the world didn’t even have internet cafes – and travellers had to talk to each other and make stories instead of constantly updating friends back home. The world was a very different place in 1996.

Back to now, there are, of course, a number of reasons that academics should have a public profile and part of me fantasises about the potential of blogging and sharing information over the net. So I’ve also resolved to blog occasionally to get things off my chest and play around with ideas for research and writing. The hope is that people will engage and respond but if nothing else, it is a space for some venting. While I can’t always guarantee my ideas will be well thought out or articulate, I can promise to be at least as reasonable and informative as Andrew Bolt.

Finally, I’ve set up what I call ‘the ideal speaking space‘ simply as a little experiment. The ideal speaking position is a theoretical concept that establishes the conditions that allow a conversation to be reasonable. I have always wanted to play with that concept on the web, so there it is. As I’m still learning the ins-and-outs of forums it is definitely a work-in-progress… but I hope one day someone will ask a question in that space and we can see how it works.

That’s it really. Hopefully not too conceited and painful. Please let me know if there’s anything you’d like to discuss, or questions we can find the answer to together.