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Angering Ourselves To Death – Postman’s Brave New World Re-Re-Visited - Chapter 4

Chapter IV: Analog People, Binary Computers

Composite image of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.According to polling and analytics firm Nielsen in their 2018 Total Audience Report, adults over the age of eighteen in the United States use electronic devices for over ten and a half hours a day. More time is spent using electronics than sleeping. Use of information communications technology – computers, smartphones, TVs, tablets, etc. – is an inescapable part of modern life. The widespread adoption of the Internet in the late 1990s was as revolutionary to civilisation as the mechanical clock or the printing press. There is no going back to a state prior to ICT – it was not an additive invention; it is a transformative one.

In Postman’s and French sociologist Jacques Ellul’s view, the bargain we make with new technology is Faustian; what problems new technology solves seems to take something away at the same time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, some magazines and TV programs seemed to pine for a pre-ICT era of face-to-face interaction and community; while the counter-argument was found in widespread adoption of Usenet groups, BBS, forums, and nascent forms of social media such as LiveJournal, Xanga, and in the latter part of the 2000s, MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook.

As discussed in the previous three chapters, the downsides to our uncritical flocking to smartphones and mass communication media has created one of paranoia, distrust, and mass surveillance. Each day, hour, minute, we’re inundated with terabytes of information and are standing at crossroads every time we scroll a screen – do you like this, or don’t you?

Weiner’s conception of man using machines to improve man has been turned on its head; we’re now using machines to gain feedback from man to improve the machines. The almighty algorithm processes data in binary terms – PageRank for Google; News Feed for Facebook. In effect, it has transformed our consciousness of how we interpret and respond to information. The new mass media has purposely excluded the middle since its entire architecture has erased it entirely. There is nothing in between 0 and 1 in binary – it either is, or it is not.

Amid the heightened emotion and shock of the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush addressed the nation, saying "Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done…Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

The post-Cold War era of a “multipolar” or “unipolar” world order had come to an end. At the dawn of the binary computer came binary politics and binary culture. There is no nuance. There will be no negotiation, no terms. You’re either with us, or you’re against us.

The Aristotelian law of excluded middle is not new; this was used to great effect in totalitarian dictatorships across time. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia being the prime examples. All things deemed acceptable were “Aryan” or “Bolshevik,” while whatever was outside this purview was “degenerate,” “Jewish,” or “Bourgeois.” Like 1984, this required doublethink to pull off with any degree of success; for example, Germany’s military pact with Japan required Nazi lawmakers to accede that the Japanese people were “honourary Aryans” to match their binary worldview.

Much of today’s “thinkpieces” by the identitarian Left and Right seem to ascribe to a two-valued orientation – either you are on our side, or you are “Nazis”, “white supremacists,” or “Socialists.” These tags are used in wild abandon – they were applied to moderate Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential Election, resurrected in 2016 during the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump’s candidacy. The Trump candidacy could be the first to use the two-valued orientation to its advantage – either you wanted to Make America Great Again, or you wanted America to fail. This identitarian trope backfired for the Hillary Clinton campaign, calling “half” of Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables” on September 9, 2016 – almost 15 years to the day President Bush made his rallying speech:

“They're racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic – Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.”

Clinton’s two-valued orientation is clear – you’re either With Hillary as an American, or an irredeemable “deplorable.”

The ensuing tribalism is a feature (not a bug) of our artificial-intelligence driven “siloing” of people among racial, gender, political, etc. lines. Where as mass market advertising broadcast messages such as buying jeans to “look sexy,” only a sub-section of a sub-section of a population may have been receptive to the message. To the rest, it passed undetected. By giving up our preferences and dislikes to an algorithm, it has sorted us into self-selecting groups that are binary in nature: you are either for “spicy memes,” or you are a “soyboy cuck” or “white supremacist patriarch” to use two opposing invectives.

Rushkoff calls this AI driven, agenda-adopted polarisation of civil society an “exploit” of our human emotions. That these memes and narratives are designed to trigger our amygdala brains into fight or flight, kill or be killed – bypassing our rationality and logic as granted in the neo-cortex. Postman in his Amusing Ourselves To Death remarked that we, in 1985, were living in a soundbite culture; where a complex idea or nuanced debate was chopped up into bite-size, three to four second clips. This is distilled even further into repeating GIF images, image macros, screenshots of tweets, and other internet errata. The algorithm serves to reinforce long-held viewpoints, shut out debate, exclude the middle. Worse still, it is learning new methods of exploiting us, as Facebook's AI learned to speak its own created language in 2017.

Even search engines are engineered to cater to our biases. For example, if one searches for the “benefits of stevia,” one may never see results for “drawbacks of stevia” unless one searches for terms that criticise stevia as an artificial sweetener. There is money to be made spruiking both sides of the argument. Harmless in debates of taste, but not of fact. This can lead to disaster such as the January 2019 measles outbreak in the continental United States, partly blamed on pockets of unvaccinated people.

The binary orientation does not require context, nor does it require extraordinary evidence to back up its often extraordinary claims. To the identitarian left, the Muller investigation into President Trump’s collusion with Russian agents during his presidential campaign is a “smoking gun” or “did not go far enough.” To the identitarian right, the President was subject to a “witch hunt” and “dirty politics” by his opponents. The excluded middle may not be the factual truth, but it may lead us to further questions and increased (though not total) accuracy in reporting and coming to a conclusion.

In April 2019, podcaster and entertainer Joe Rogan of the Joe Rogan Experience invited Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Twitter Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead Vijaya Gadde to debate journalist and YouTuber Tim Pool as to whether Twitter’s policy on free speech is biased against conservative and libertarian voices. Prominent right-leaning personalities such as Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos were banned from the platform, for example.

The entire episode runs for three hours and twenty-five minutes; longer than the 1858 “great debates” between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat opponent Stephen Douglas. Of course, the worlds both podcast and oratory inhabited are alien to one another. Commentators chopped up Rogan’s podcast into soundbites, often decontextualised to fit identitarian, binary narratives. Setting aside three hours of screen time to focus on one debate is folly, considering the sheer amount of content on offer at any given time.

The computers are using us to profit from us; with the soil fertile for commodifying dissent, how does one cash in using the modern mass surveillance, binary-oriented media ecology?

 Next Chapter: Angry Reacts Only – Harvesting Cash from the Media Ecology


Christmas Straight Up Sucks

I figure that the most irritating holiday of the year requires input from yours truly, because we seem to be the generation that has perverted it to such a degree no one knows why we sit around a table, eat a damn bird that no one eats during regular times and other shit that we only care to think of during December. Surely, this process could all be mediated instead over Facebook, somehow?

If it were up to me, I'd probably order Chinese food with hell of egg rolls and chicken wings instead. (Provided I was somewhere that did that kind of order.) I'd sit around, download more episodes of The Wire and watch them on a big screen TV, oblivious that my local bar, CD store and Discount Tyre outlet were all closed. I lead an interesting life, dammit - I exist as an eternal mixture of intrigue and backwater sass. (Hah, who am I kidding.)

Talking about The Wire, its cerebral television; it has this uncanny ability to draw you to its narrative, even though the bulk of it is ego-driven political dialog the likes of which Aaron Sorkin loves to masturbate over, losing his jive whenever the characters say "fuck." (And they say "fuck" quite a lot!)

If you can imagine your best friend - as complicated and imperfect as they are, you can get a handle on how compelling and brilliant The Wire is. You probably met at some time in your lives where you both had the same interests and conversation flowed so freely you didn't even notice the sun rising after spending all night on the phone, greeting their brothers and sisters and tagging along to strange as hell events like their Dutch migrant piano recital or application for tags at the DMV. (Er, VicRoads? Screw it, y'all know I want to be seppo)

The Wire is the televisual equivalent of your best friend - the tension between their own self-interest and your need for attention - exists like allegory on the screen. You see cops beating on their own, drug dealers aspiring for the average life and the corrupt, perverse nature of institutionalizing humans at their worst, at their most demonized. As it plays out, you understand and feel everything it offers in and of itself and beyond - much like your best friend does - without even realizing.

Next year, we should all watch The Wire instead of having Christmas.


Straight On 'til Morning

If there's something to be said about political discourse in the United States, its this; people love their tribes. They love being in one camp vs. the other. Not all but some people are tied to the gut with love for their own teams and hard-boiled derision for the other. I always open my eyes wide with surprise whenever I hear a growl of "COME ON!!!" in local bars as their Quarterback races toward a touchdown. But as time wears on during my time living here, my surprise wanes.

On television, the big three news networks are built on similar principles. CNN taking a moderate approach much like its sister TIME Magazine, MSNBC taking on the left-liberal "watchdog" approach as the right Fox News bulldog mauls them with half-truths, distortions and their own version of political correctness; didn't you know that America is a conservative country and liberals are meant to govern in its shadow? Standing before a wall of books in a local Borders store, politics seems to boil down to partisan nit-picking, vituperative retort or self-congratulation with little to no regard for what ideas may benefit the country. Not once since I have been here have I heard a Fox News commentator commending a Democratic politician for a good idea, nor have I heard the same platitudes coming from an MSNBC journalist for a Republican.

I remember in high school during my International Studies class, we had a tireless and unabashed conservative as our teacher. Since I was entering my political education post-9/11, the Iraq War was about to begin. As a neo-realist, he believed the war was just and necessary. However, one remark he made remains as clear as day in my mind; I remember he said something along the lines of:

"The division between the two parties aren't so sharp that they'll fuck up the country. Sure, some people are dissatisfied with [former PM] Howard. But you'll find just as many people upset about Mark Latham if he was Prime Minister."

This viewpoint made the most sense - in a two party system, the prevailing party must capture the center to win government. President Obama promised tax cuts for 95% of Americans during his campaign and likewise Kevin Rudd promised to run as an "economic conservative." Even David Cameron, current UK Conservative Party leader has been described as a "moderate."

For coverage of news here, its a matter of holding up who is "more wrong" to intense scrutiny rather than asking what the facts are and analyzing what the intended and actual effects may be.


Warning: Politicians Talking

Outside my apartment in Atlanta, GA, there's a small post with a fluorescent marker on the top. It reads "WARNING: UNDERGROUND FIBER OPTIC CABLE." I kind of laughed first off, considering that the only people afraid of Fiber Optic cables are Telstra and the Australian Federal Government. In the US, people lament that their Internet services are sub-standard at best, saying that Asian powers such as South Korea and Japan have got the right idea and are beating them over the heads with it. That may be true; however, if the US are blind, then Australia is blind, deaf, lame and crippled from the waist down when it comes to providing internet - wireless or otherwise - to its citizens.

As huge billboards proclaim that "4G is now in Atlanta" most of Australia can't even manage to lay claim to having workable 3G services in urban areas at even half-affordable prices. Working with the Australian Domain Name Administrator earlier this year, more commonly known as auDA, we had to facepalm ourselves almost constantly every time the Government announced a new "initiative" regarding communications and the internet. We recoiled at how embarrassing our "firm" was presiding over the fair use of domain names when next to no-one could put anything on their websites that people could access with their supposed "broadband" connections (which may or may not be capped. Why do we cap data transfer? Like the IT Crowd chides Jen for wondering why "the internet" feels so light; it doesn't weigh anything.)

First there was the whole content filtering debacle and now the government costs Australian business money by flaking on even the most obvious infrastructure upgrades (Fiber to the home, for instance) that will futureproof domestic communications, even while wireless services catch up to fill the gaps, eventually becoming the standard for rural and regional centers. If the world thought Australia was a joke before, we might as run around with clown masks on now.

If Conroy and co. ever get a clue, please let me know so I can call up Julia and congratulate them myself.

And now it's raining and thundering so much here I can't remember a time when I saw such a thing.


Taking it like a Champ

Talking to people in and around Atlanta, one dude who clearly wasn't a fan of Dubya did have an admiration for him insofar that (and I paraphrase)

"No matter what dumbass idea he* had, even if it was going to wreck the country, he always stuck to his guns. If he said he was going to do something, he did it."
As startling as that striking observation was, determination as a character trait isn't considered a flaw; on the contrary, its something that most would consider a strength. Although misplaced in so many ways the way George W. Bush used it during his term, President Obama isn't displaying the same kind of iron-willed fortitude as his predecessor, allowing the right-wing to scare out moderates by putting words in his mouth and the left to grow increasingly dissatisfied with his performance to date. So we have an appearance of indecision, sheepish policy statements and general confusion among some of those who are acting more hysterically than others.

Of course the standard "special interests rule this town" argument can still be applicable to the debate, but if the Obama administration wanted everyone to have affordable health insurance, he would finagle a way for everyone to get it, instead of having conservative pundits showing an uncharacteristic regard for the environment by lamenting at the amount of paper wasted every time they take out a copy of it to show how large and complicated it looks (In comparison to what, we shall never know.)

It seems that some of the respect for Obama would be restored for him if he did a little more of this instead of umming and ahhing.

*Its also worth noting that the same friend I quoted also used "A load of Dubya Bush" as a synonym for "bullshit."