August 04, 2015
Political vernacular has always had an ironic edge to it. The contemporary idea of a “presidential race” is an apt one, only because it seems as though the nature of political discourse in North America has deviated in recent years from its original form. It has become, for lack of a better word, a contest.
Yes, debates still require assertions of particular stances and beliefs, an understanding of the socio-economic and international spheres of influence, and a domestic sensitivity. There is an intellectual component to every election. But underlying the intellectualism is a cultural element that has become so ingrained in the public mentality that it’s difficult to discern from the surrounding tissue of our society.
Elections have been relegated to game-show antics. And in this way, so too has the democratic process.
When an animal is thrown into an unfamiliar setting, it is instantly and simultaneously overwhelmed by the experience of novel stimuli – certainly, Western colonialism is familiar with this mystique which compels the forces of imagination and exploration. The romanticism of terra incognita. But given ample time and exposure, the “new” invariably declines into the mundane and ordinary. The human spirit, which is only an extension of the human as a physical and mental creature, requires a constant supply of fresh stimuli in order to keep it active and engaged. If we don’t get it, we become immune to our surroundings. We decline into complacency.
Our most recent cultural artefact is one which, in the advent of a digital age, is irrepressible in its capacity to alter, mold, and influence perspective: sensationalism. But the breadth of its effect – where it has left us – requires us first to step back and reconcile the historical progression of our language. More specifically, the method of its transmission.
There has always been an anthropological fascination with the transformation of oral societies into literate ones – when the tradition of spoken word slides into the written. Social critics like Neil Postman and Marshal McLuhan go even further by suggesting we’ve taken another leap, from a literate society into a virtual society.
The American palaeontologist Alfred Romer proposed that in many cases, the “initial survival value of a favourable innovation is conservative, in that it renders possible the maintenance of a traditional way of life in the face of changing circumstances”. In other words, adaptations (whether genetic or socially engineered) are guided toward preserving the same mode of living in the wake of a constantly changing environment. Technologies like writing and the Gutenberg press irreparably altered the nature in which information was transmitted and propagated – what was said now had permanence. Institutions of Law and Religion were affected dramatically. Laws, penalties, and examples of similar transactions could now be looked up and referred back to – it crystallized judicial policies into a retrievable format. In terms of religion, the word of God was no longer a subjective interpretation, but a permanent fixture, a doctrine. The birth of dogma. We arrive at a Red Queen hypothesis of literacy. As an adaptation, literacy didn’t necessarily arise as a way to occupy new circumstances, but as a way to keep pace with the perpetual changing of conditions of an organism and its environment: humans. While the advent of writing may have been a major adaptation, it sought to maintain the same mode of living. It sought to fulfil the same function that orality had once served. That is, as a reservoir of stories, moral codes, and an itinerary of exemplary behaviours. Writing sought out of its oral roots to accommodate mythology in a cultural landscape.
The dilemma, then, is where it fits into the dawn of ‘virtuality’.
A virtual or graphic culture, as it has appeared thus far, has had mixed success in terms of compatibility with this transmission of mythos: philosophy, abstract thought, contextual information. Instead, we are plagued by a meme-culture. In a global village, one which is ineluctably connected at all avenues, at every point, the flow of information is unrestrained, unsolicited, and exponential. The consequence is an influx of irrelevancy. Currently, according to the Daily Telegraph, more than 72 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube every 60 seconds. Add to this the 571 new websites created, 278 thousand Tweets, and 3600 Instagrams that take place in the same space of time – it is humanly impossible to keep up with the sheer amount of information available at any given moment.
Now we are tip-toeing the cusp of what social theoreticians call a simultaneity. An asymptotic access to infinite data. Or if not infinite, at least extant to the point any distinction is irrelevant. What we mean is… lots and lots and lots and lots of available information. The stuff that you can actually know.
This has some implications when it comes to issues that actually mean something in a broader context. Even when we are able to strain the deluge of data down to its basic and salient elements, events or facts that have crucial underpinnings in terms of world events, their delivery has very little personal affectation.
Hearing about protests in Libya on the television in the morning will (unless you’re a government diplomat) have a negligible effect on the way you organize your daily life. In the past, literate and oral cultures received information and engaged in public discourse that had a direct influence on their lives. The news they received was something that affected them in an immediate sense. It was something that allowed them to act upon these events, and which embodied a more libertarian sensibility. They became active participants in the data of their culture.
In contrast, the emergence of virtual transmission hinders action. There’s a deterministic quality to Neil Postman’s eminent warning – that too much context-free information creates a problem of “diminished social and political potency”.
Cue Facebook. Its real-time interface with second-by-second trends and global space both exemplifies this helplessness and at the same time attempts to offer a remedial alternative. We are inundated with bombastic headlines and current events featuring students crushed by riot police, the brutalization of women and minorities, and wide spread suffering in the wake of natural disasters – but it’s too much information, it lacks personal context. It may evoke sympathy, and some part of us wants to help, but we’re paralyzed. In a virtual-graphic culture only a cursory examination of incoming information is permissible.
So instead, Facebook gives us the Like button. The perfect salve in a click-point-click culture. We can support, from afar, anonymously, instantly, other people’s assertions that yes, there are bad things happening out there. As if acknowledgement of an issue were enough to alleviate conscience. And then we move onto the next trending item in our feed. That’s bad enough.
But this lack of attention span has worse underpinnings. From day to day, regardless of the how horrible the news might be, it doesn’t really affect the way we live our lives. We invest very little emotional income in the excess of information. As a result, our inability to act in a direct way which might alter what we see outside of ourselves creates a deliberate numbness, one which carries over into the experience, participation, and perception of our own culture. There is such a thing as learned helplessness. And without realizing it, we’ve become excellent students.
There is another approach to this idea of human reliance on surplus: that our zealous over-dependence on information is a symptom of self-domestication. Canadian naturalist John Livingston in his book The Rogue Primate describes this process as the swapping of the instincts/interdependence of a species for dependence on a proprietor. As opposed to other organisms (cows, goats), human dependence is not on a proprietor, but “on a storable, transferrable, retrievable technique”: technology.
The plot thickens.
Human fascination with technology isn’t mere curiosity. It’s temporally located. Primeval, arguably genetic. For thousands of years, technology has been an overriding premise. From obsidian axes to integrated circuits, “modern” society would cease to exist without it. Their nomenclature is contingent. When talking about transmission (whether it’s stories, belief, or another technology) we’re inclined to use the term medium. Unlike technology, which has a strictly physical attribute, a medium describes the social and intellectual environment a technology creates, and to which we become indentured. As Livingston points out, our needs lie not so much in a new ideology, but in the need for an ideology. What that ideology consists of – as orality, literacy, or virtuality – and provisionally, what ideas technology makes convenient to express, inevitably determine what the important content will be within a culture.
If the Internet is any indication: cats, pornography, and selfies. These are highly visual.
Now admittedly, followership is rooted in us. We are drawn to authority, if not in our leaders, than to the doctrines suspended in our ethos. The capacity to hi-jack a contemporary ideology bears witness to its followership. From a political point of view, it makes sense to appeal to whatever strain of public thought is dominant – and in the United States, this mode of thinking is virtual one. In fact, a graphic one, rooted in the image of “symbol”.
What’s the danger in that? It comes back to context. That images resist contextualization. In oral and literate cultures, context is provided through speech or writing. In ancient times intelligence was not measured by how much you could remember, but by the meaning of what you could remember. The sages who could recite thousands of parables were revered not because of their capacity for memory, but for their ability to relate the parable to a current event, to give it the needed context.
The danger, then, is not only a lack of context, but degree.
An image or symbol, on its own, is incapable of conveying anything but rudimentary information. Physical reality, Ernst Cassirer observes, seems to recede in proportion as a man’s symbolic activity advances. Intellectual and public discourse is inaccessible to graphic media, because context and abstract reason are also absent. There’s no logical order when scrolling through 9gag or 4Chan, Reddit forums – there’s just a constant assembly line of images replacing themselves – and when there is a linear train of thought, it is rooted in banality. Virtual media becomes synonymous with an “influx of irrelevancy”. Sure, we might consciously recognize it as only smoke-and-mirrors. But what we don’t’ seem to grasp is the ability for other institutions to usurp our obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Meditation, contemplation, intellectual scrutiny cannot exist in a graphic culture, because quite frankly it doesn’t have the attention span required to process that much information, categorize it appropriately, and apply it to useful action. The consequences of a sensationalist paradigm when overlaid on the political élan of a culture is equally disastrous. Deliberation, glasnost, and proactive democratic cooperation are traded for short-sightedness, slogans, and SuperPAC PR campaigns that could bankrupt a smaller nation.
Again, Neil Postman points to a contrasting dissimilarity in American politics; before the advent of television and telegraphy, speeches and public forums would extend for hours. He uses the infamous debates between Lincoln and Douglas to demonstrate the measurable decline of a public attention span. The amount of focus required by audiences watching the Lincoln/Douglas debates was paralleled only by the demands on the audience to understand important political speeches or activities that had happened previously, the capacity to remember previous points made by each candidate, and the faculty to link it all back in a larger cohesive picture of events. If Barack Obama had decided to talk non-stop to an audience for seven hours as part of his platform, I doubt he’d have made it to the oval office. We want slogans, not speeches. Yes we can. Political elections follow Romer’s Rule of conservative adaptation. As we move out of a literate phase, one which might have audiences gathered and enthralled by the oratory prowess of a candidate, the demands of a graphic culture shift require candidates to “look good”. It doesn’t take a genius to decipher the successful characteristics of a President: he’s handsome, charismatic, well-groomed, and a family-man who embraces patriotism and freedom. This is the very symbol of the new American ideology, and as long as you rally behind that symbol you are not obligated to “talk” about these characteristics, only to “display” them.
Proponents of war-time propaganda and advertising firms alike understand this core concept intimately. It’s the basis of their entire vocation. And their success is a scathing testament to public supplication.
Now consider televised debates. There is nothing profound (psychologically, intellectually, or spiritually) about candidates squabbling back and forth. A candidate is given two minutes to answer difficult questions, and his opponent another minute for rebuttal. Such topics of discourse are incompatible with the medium that the technology is associated with. Instead, strategy is designed to enhance an aesthetic. In a culture that is ‘graphically and virtually dependent’ on a frenzy of information, the only thing that resonates in the public conscience is an aesthetic. To speak of a video going “viral” on Youtube may be eerily symptomatic of virtuality’s methodology. An ideology that is graphically-oriented does, at face value, bear resemblance to a virus: subject to almost instantaneous mutation once it encompasses a large enough population, and eventually immune to any attempt to displace it. Take the 2014 #GamerGate fiasco, a movement whose core tenets eventually became so indecipherable as to eliminate any useful debate whatsoever. The function of the new ideology is unlike its predecessors. Rather than conveying mythos, it conveys entertainment.
Mythology, as the late historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade reminds us, is an account of creation. At the very least, it must supply ontology, a sense of purpose, by revealing the exemplary models of behaviour for all significant human activities. The question is whether technology (entertainment) can provide the same basis for subsequent mythological incarnations, which as we’ve seen, are fundamental to our being.
For the perseverance of a conceptual ‘self’, this has a number of ramifications. The author and journalist Arthur Koestler makes the piercing determination that an individual must acquire a self-transcending structure of belief, either “through social integration or a peak experience”.
The global-network known as the Internet is probably the most pervasive example of social integration. This is a hereto unique phenomenon – the ability to connect and interact, to exchange information at the click of a button, preserves the biological adaptation of community and interdependence by virtualizing it. The self-transcending structure of belief evolves into a cybernetic organism, a graphic representation where the ‘self’ reverts to an avatar. The latter, a “peak experience”, is probably less obvious. Known to the Greeks as kairos, it hints at a qualitative nature of time, a pivotal turning point, in which a decision or shift is made in a mode of thought or action. For instance, hearing God or a near-death experience. The same model that applies to religion applies just as seamlessly to politics. Kairos, which presents itself in the form of virtual-graphic media, is the catalyst for an experience that alters the perception of reality. And this kairos happens every day. McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it” accidentally gets stuck on repeat in your mind as you’re driving to work. You are less likely to remember something Einstein or Winston Churchill said than to remember what they looked like in a photograph. Through virtual forums like Reddit, 9gag, and 4chan we become united in the familiarity with a new meme. Even the news, which may be at the forefront of this paradigmatic shift, advocates truncated information in the form of “headlines” – fragmentary, impersonal, sensational.
The format of information in a virtual-graphic culture prevents the kind of contemplation and discourse available in other mediums provided by orality and literacy.
We might trace a source for the decline in modern political efficacy. The act of governing, as it once applied to an intellectual enterprise, is susceptible to the culture it operates out of. Politics lapses into a sound-byte reality-show, a form of entertainment. Its function steers away from actual governship to satisfying the cultural prerequisites of being graphically appropriate to the role. We get heroic figures that embody graphically appropriate characteristics, and give us graphically appropriate promises, all existing under the shadows of symbols which are ill-equipped to properly represent reality. Failing to represent reality, they must fabricate it. French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard described the juxtaposition of realities in his book Simulation and Simulacra by noting that a contrived reality could supplant an original reality if the public belief in its veracity was unanimous – a fake bank robbery played out by scripted actors using fake guns will still elicit the same response from individuals in the bank who aren’t aware of the performance. Even those who are aware that the bank robbery is a farce will be pulled in to the illusion and begin to act as if they were real thieves. The Stanford Prison Experiment, although limited by a number of factors, and only scratching the surface, illustrated the same sort of mass dissonance, where behaviours changed to correspond to roles. Students who were scripted as inmates began to act like inmates, and students scripted as wardens began to act like wardens. The holographic truth displaced an original truth.
In politics, this holographic truth is administered through ‘symbol’. A campaign is less an opportunity for political discourse than an advertisement. And as any good advertising agent knows, image takes precedence over word. The reason for this is two-fold: image is seen as being ‘more’ true than word. That which is merely said holds a lot less truth than what can be shown. A politician falsely accused of a scandal, regardless of how eloquent and genuine his denial, will still be viewed with a certain air of caution and suspicion – the power of the media to influence the holographic truth cannot be overstated.
And it works both ways. The strategy of advertisement and slogans is second nature to American politics. Commercials are a staple component of any platform – and their aim is always to strengthen the image of their constituents while defaming the image of a rival. Symbols battling symbols, but very little attention paid to the individual character – rather, the character of the individual is dissolved and then reassembled as a symbol. Obama becomes a symbol to the American people, one of “hope” and “renewal”. We may have things divulged about his upbringing (schooling, etc.) but in general the American public is content to view their leader within the parameters of the symbol he stands for, because it’s enough – it’s imagistic and easily conveyed. And most importantly, it’s timeless.
Another element of the image is how it portrays time. Reading a book requires, as we’ve seen, the coordination of a number of faculties – the ability to process visual marks into words, words into sentences, sentence into coherent ideas, the ability to link contiguous ideas, and the ability to think critically and arrive at an opinion. The written word makes demands on the reader. The most important of these is to remember, and in remembering, literacy produces history.
By history I mean a sequential array of information contingent on a linear progression (ie. causation). History allows us to look back on events and observations and to develop intelligent speculations about future events, and conversely, to avoid unfavourable outcomes. Once again we come back to the issue of context – technologies like orality and literacy, which permit the cultivation of a ‘history’, necessarily contextualize it. Images, as we’ve seen, are inherently non-contextual, and therefore accommodate no history.
This becomes a serious factor if the system of modern politics orbits the cult of the image. Politics loses its history. The public succumbs to mass amnesia and is unable to make rational decisions about a democratically elected ruling body because it chooses to focus on the image rather than on the history of the political landscape, which might provide a more responsible course of action. This has been the leaning tendency for the past half-century. But this conversion, because it’s synchronous with the rest of the changes in our environment, continues unobserved (or if it is, only marginally). It would be hypocritical to blame the politicians. They are as subject to indoctrination as the rest of us. It is only my observation that the movement into a graphic-virtual culture has serious potential consequences. Postman’s truism, what becomes significant in a culture is what is conveniently expressed, may be prophetic. Where technology (television, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube) prevents the transference and expansion of academic, intellectual, or spiritual ideas, something else races to fill the void. What is “entertaining” and accommodating to the image – the easily digestible and easily expendable – becomes the fore-running philosophy.
The latest hype about Justin Bieber is easier to transmit and a lot less information than the works of James Joyce or Shakespeare. Our presidents are more appealing as holograms than real people. Dialogue has devolved into truncated emoticons.
God, help us. Virtual or otherwise. ☹