Going Viral

December 30, 2006 § Leave a comment

By design or not, an hour and a half into a special 20/20 feature on the “evolution of images” via new media, a special report broke the flow to announce the execution of Saddam Hussein. There was a slight broadcast delay while all affiliates synchronized, during which time a picture of Saddam Hussein, the voice of a translator echoing from behind, momentarily collided with the regular broadcast. For a few fleeting seconds Paris Hilton and Saddam Hussein jostled next to one another while a screen counter ticked off the moments to allow stations to switch over. If one was to imagine a kind of white noise preceding the end of the world, this is what it might look and sound like.

The 20/20 special was a spectacle of everything from YouTube to the pleasure Americans take in watching “real crime” unfold on video shot on camera phones, surveillance systems, and small personal digital devices — the delight in seeing something “unfold as if through a keyhole,” as one “expert” described it. During one sequence that seemingly aspired to be an “analysis” of the percolating phenomena of new media images on the web, the issues surrounding “going viral” and the “obliteration of privacy” were alluded to. Going viral refers to the rapid proliferation of images and video now made possible through the web and personal communication networking.

On the dangling heels of “going viral” was a discussion of the diminishing state of privacy and how “young people today no longer value privacy in the way previous generations have.” A ridiculously inane and airy observation as there ever was, and, of course, no one bothered to attempt a nuanced definition of what exactly we might mean by privacy. Moreover, none of the well-coiffed slightly tilted talking heads on camera dared talk about the violation of privacy at the governmental level. Still, I found the whole mess fascinating. Particularly because the whole business finally coalesced into a schizophrenic montage of our collective “symptom” when white noise, Hussein, the voice over, and Paris Hilton all crowded onto my screen for a moment. Snow Crash. Then a return to mediated order.

In “War, Terrorism, and Spectacle:On Towers and Caves” Sam Weber makes the following observation:
“But violence in the United States has generally been
portrayed, if not always perpetrated, as a private affair, done either by desperate
or deranged individuals, or against desperate or deranged individuals.
Violence tends to be individualized or, better, privatized, as with the Mafia
and ‘‘organized crime,’’ and thus understood as an extension of individuals,
of the family, or of private groups. This is the violence that is demonstrated
from morning to evening on the broadcast media, from the reports
of mayhem on the highways that accompany the morning news (at least in
Los Angeles!) to the incessant series of murders and killings that make up
the not-so-new ‘nightly news.'”

Privacy may be taking a turn, as 20/20 tells us, but violence is not. Indeed, violence is more “public” than ever, though privately relayed. If privacy is re-framing itself, it is in the form of the spectacle; as a remediated, viral, and re-disseminated image — a fast-moving “commodity ruling over all lived experience.

The possibilities are endless — and here, I think, there is real potential for new media to re-make our engagement with an embodied experience of “going viral.”

What if we were made to look at that momentary Snow Crash on my screen for three straight weeks — a moment where we were confronted with the anamorphosis of Paris Hilton, Hussein, and a the ticking off of time? What if this was the iteration we could expect as an “image” of the events that unfolded on December 30th? An image that crowded our over-indulgence and gendered voyeurism right up against the dangling heels of a dictator, and the failure of foreign (public) policy?

My fear and sad expectation is that instead we will hear and see over and over again in the days to come a virus of another sort. Can we all imagine ourselves collectively kneeled before the keyhole?

“Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing– is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?” Juanita shrugs. “What’s the difference?” (Snow Crash, 1992)

Miming Think

December 20, 2006 § Leave a comment

So, Bush issued his end-of-the-year press conference where he readily admitted that we might not be winning…. (*Winning*, are you kidding me?)

Why is it that a mind-numbing juvenilia concept like “winning” can masquerade as political discourse, making it to the front page in slightly-larger-than-normalcy news type of the NY Times; the LA Times, The Post, etc?

One possible explanation: the gesturo-haptic. Brian Rotman’s 2002 article argues for a new mode of “writing” and inscription that is displacing alphabetic inscription. The gesturo-haptic is a form of writing that is connected to a developing lexicon of embodied movement made possible by new forms of media like motion capture. {Just think: how many dancing, silhouetted bodies have you seen on advertising banners of late, hm?}

Along these lines, Brian Massumi describes the misuses of “affect” — the autonomically inflected gap between content and effect made possible by mediated images (actually affect is more interesting than this, but for the purposes at hand…). He describes Ronald Reagan’s success as rhetor in these terms: “Reagan politicized the power of mime. That power is in interruption. A mime decomposes movement, cuts its continuity into a potentially infinite series of submovements punctuated by jerks…Each jerk suspends the continuity of movement, for just a flash, too quick really to perceive — but decisively enough to suggest a veer…. Reagan operationalized the virtual in postmodern politics….He was an incipience. He was unqualified and without content. But the incipience that he was, was prolonged by technologies of image transmission, and then relayed by apparatuses, such as the family or the church…. They selected one line of movement, one progression of meaning an implanted it locally. (read more Massumi)



“The emphatic glare”: the problem here is that the interruption is filled by that blank stare, followed by that I-really-do-remember-what-word-comes-after-“the” chuckle.

Or, “The pause and head shake, followed by the quick stab of the hand”: I recognize this form of affect from sports bars on a Sat night. It translates roughly as, “masculine aggression has its smart side too….” In embodiment speak, of course.

Can you blame us for intuitively registering that “winning,” collecting as it does naturally around such haptic gestures, comes across as pretty heady stuff?

Open Source Secrecy and the “Self-Governing” Web

December 3, 2006 § 1 Comment

In the Dec. 3 NY Times Sunday edition magazine is an article on US spy agencies and information technology.

The article traces the history of spying in relationship to information-gathering technologies, focusing on the reluctance of the competing agencies to embrace a new model for intelligence, Intellipedia (based on the open source wiki form of wikipedia). Of interest to me are the implicit anxieties and tensions that are manifest around the attempt to appropriate the idea of open source communication for the esoteric and largely paranoid activities of Intelligence and spying.

While there are some fascinating arguments made for how exactly the ability to track “connectedness” would, in theory, augment spying operations, the coherence of the ideas expressed trip over the very concepts inherent to open source logic. Indeed, the term “self-governing” is employed in this article to describe the theoretical and practical foundations to wiki and blog environments. Distributed authority is the repressed element at play here, and it has become an issue at the center of so many recent debates over the efficacy of wiki-driven information sources (academics, for example, have become increasingly ant-wikipedia of late, despite indications that corrections to intentional and unintentional “errors” are more efficiently dealt with than in more conventional media forms).

Public and private authority and ownership are being entirely re-configured by new technologies and media forms like wikis and blogs. Interestingly, the theories and concepts that inform such technologies are in conflict with an economic and social system organized around the protection of ownership envisioned as the fundamental right to private capital — policing has its roots in the formation of nation-states and capital, even in their most nascent forms. Or, can we detect in this article the mutation of a new form of capitalist logic?

A parallel phenom, I think, is the recent hyper-attention focused on the Russian spy, Litvinenko. Exemplary of how bodies are now becoming media states and media effects themselves, this event works across mulltiple registers in the public imaginary. The use of Polonium-210 has captured our imagination precisely because it so fully manifests the confused elements surrounding the technology of terror amid late-stage capitalism: here is a substance that spreads and contaminates, taking life, but is difficult to detect in its lethal form; and moreover, here is a weapon that can move through the social body without incurring harm, but becomes deadly when it finds its way inside the biological body. What better example of a world caught between the technological, social, and discursive frames of Cold War mentalities, where technologies and bodies, like information, can be atomized and isolated, and an emergent wiki-constructivist system of meaning that registers specific types of “connectedness” as the discriminating agent in determing where bodies begin and end; where systems of mediation and information conjoin and proliferate as “cells” (here, we have to be able to glimpse a closed form and an open system operating simultaneously).

A kind of “self-governance,” to be sure.

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