I was at a party last week when someone asked me what I do for a living. I used the opportunity to engage in what, in retrospect, may have been an ill-timed impromptu pronouncement about the status of the social revolution.
It turns out I'll need to rethink how I use that phrase "social revolution," at least in mixed company, because a tubby drunk man wearing a confusing hat walked up to me and tried to steer the conversation toward war atrocities.
"You can't tell me," he bellowed, "that the atrocities that are happening during the Iraq War are any different from the ones that happened during World War II. It's just that we have more media coverage now."
As I wrote in an earlier post, this is what I've decided to call the Space Odyssey mistake. This particular kind of error is explained by Clay Shirky, who describes a scene from 2001 in which
space stewardesses in pink miniskirts welcome the arriving passenger. This is the perfect, media-ready version of the future--the technology changes, hemlines remain the same, and life goes on much as today, except faster, higher, and shinier.
Lately I've been finding Christopher Kelty's notion of a "recursive public" useful in thinking about what, other than hemlines, have changed. As Kelty describes it in Two Bits (available for download, online browsing, and modulation for free online),
A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.
More to the point, a recursive public is a group of people who exist outside of traditional institutions (governments, churches, schools, corporations) and, when necessary, use this outsider status to hold these entities in check. The engagement of these publics goes far beyond simply protesting decisions or stating their opinions. Kelty, writing about geek culture as a recursive public, explains it thus:
Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.
This is precisely the difference between 1945 and 2009. It's not just that we have more media coverage but that, as Shirky proclaims, everybody is a potential media outlet--everyone has the potential to join a recursive public, whether impromptu or planned.
In fact, the notion that we can all engage in reportage is perhaps a bit too simplistic, at least until we can adjust what we mean by "journalism." When Facebook users joined up in opposition to a change in Facebook's terms of service and successfully pressed administrators to rethink and reword the terms of service agreement, that was the work of a recursive public, loosely banded and easily disbanded once their purpose had been achieved (if necessary, they will quickly gather again in their virtual space and just as quickly disband). We don't recognize this as journalism, often don't even recognize it as civic engagement--but for those who joined this Facebook knotwork, it's certainly some kind of engagement. And what could be more civic-minded than fighting to define the uses of a public space?
The atrocities of war are approximately the same (though, as always, new technologies mean new modes of torture and murder). What's different is the following:
- Citizens within and outside of the territories in question have the capacity to keep mainstream media outlets honest: Biased, incomplete, and corrupt journalism will no longer stand in for the official story.
- Citizens can engage in consequential debate, which is to say that serious public conversation about the merits of a particular conflict can gather enough voices to sway public opinion and result in real policy changes more quickly than ever before. This is Vietnam to the power of Internet.
- Citizens without access to a wide range of new media technologies can still have their experiences broadcast to the world by other members of their recursive public. A cellphone picture of a soldier torturing a civilian, for example, can be quickly distributed for maximum effect.
All in all, it was a good party. Near the end, someone produced a Donald Rumsfeld piñata. We were going to hoist it up and smash it, but it seemed kind of...irrelevant.