‘And the narratives they invent have all the sinister charm and eerie cornball poetry of Bela Lugosi at his best moments.’ – RAW, Everything is Under Control, intro
Something of a hodgepodge, this, but hopefully coherent enough. I haven’t used Twitter for a few months, but will tweet this post – I feel liberated now that the world’s richest free-speech absolutist is in control of that platform. (More cheap jokes like that below!)
Basic idea: while politics, following Leary-Wilson circuits 1-4, tend to repeat, media forms rapidly transform (‘Jumping Jesus’ phenomenon). But political media critics still tend to rely on anachronistic models from pre-internet commentaries (Orwell, Chomsky, etc) or pre-decentralised/social media “lessons” (eg of misleading 2003 Iraq War coverage).
As an example, take the now-prominent issues of “free speech” and “censorship”, framed in ways still suggestive of legacy media gatekeeping “centres” (eg of publishing and broadcasting) – even though the debates concern mostly “decentralised” online media with algorithm gatekeeping – often featuring “censored” celebrities with access to multiple alternative platforms. Perhaps we have less of a “free speech problem”, and more of a “swamped by noise and disinformation problem”? (The latter predicted by RAW, incidentally).
We peek at neglected aspects of new media – neglected when we remain hypnotised by old, inadequate constructs which crowd our attention. And neglected when we take for granted enlightenment-era notions of our own “rational” ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.
‘As Josiah Warren remarked, “It is dangerous to understand new things too quickly.” Almost always, we have not understood them. We have murdered them and mummified their corpses.’ – RAW, Email to the Universe (Damnation by Definition)
Attention extraction paradigm #1
The race to the bottom of the brainstem attention economy…
‘There are all these services on the Internet that we think of as free, but they’re not free… We’re the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.’ – Justin Rosenstein, The Social Dilemma
‘That’s a little too simplistic. It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product… There’s nothing else on the table that could possibly be called the product. That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are. It’s a gradual change.’ – Jaron Lanier, The Social Dilemma
A.I. algorithms – TV – McLuhan’s tetrad
‘Businessmen are allegedly hard-nosed, pragmatic and “objective”… A brief examination of the dingbat politics most businessmen endorse will quickly correct that impression.’ – RAW, Prometheus Rising, Chapter One
Amid the noise about Elon Musk was his announced intention to make Twitter algorithms “open source” (ie available to public scrutiny, critique and improvement). If true, that seems pretty “huge” (Jaron Lanier has commented that media companies’ algorithms are currently the most tightly guarded secrets on the planet).
But Musk’s description of how this algorithm transparency would work sounds very much like the process of editing Wikipedia pages. I hope Elon reads Stephen Wolfram’s testimony to Congress on the subject, as Wolfram explains that what Musk proposes can effectively be considered “impossible”, due to the nature of current machine-learning systems: “For a well-optimized computation, there’s not likely to be a human-understandable narrative about how it works inside”. Wolfram proposes a different kind of solution to problems inherent with “monolithic AI” platforms: “Third Party Ranking Providers” and “Third Party Constraint Providers”.
Amid my mental noise on the “negative” effects of those A.I. platforms (political chaos, nudged states of mind, etc) is the notion I should rethink more “positively” and “globally”. (The habit of attempting to reframe more “positively” comes more from reading Robert Anton Wilson than from New Age type affirmations, btw).
Recall David Lynch’s scathing assessment of the new mobile media: “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real”. But also note the simultaneously emerging “New Golden Age of TV” – an aspect of the same media evolution (eg streaming, on-demand, binge-watching). Those “critically acclaimed box-sets” – the quality and the depth of engagement seem off-the-scale.
Lynch’s own co-creation, Twin Peaks, heralded this Golden Age (David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, cited Lynch as major influence/inspiration). I picture – probably inaccurately – reactionary TV execs (circa 1990), when faced with the success of Twin Peaks, thinking, “Do people really go for this ambiguous, depraved weirdo liberal bullshit? I thought they liked sensible stuff like Fox News!”
Meanwhile, what happened to Fox News? As a UK resident, I don’t see it on TV – I just see clips on social media – mostly of folks like Tulsi Gabbard, Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey guesting on Tucker Carlson’s show. It looks like the only “mainstream” TV in the western world in which Putin gets consistently better publicity than the US president. The latest clips I saw were of Carlson presenting a Fox show called ‘The End of Men’, in which he discusses “testicle tanning”. It almost makes Twin Peaks look mundane.
Some media mutations appear visible and obvious – eg from radio to television. Others not so much – especially more recent transformations. A.I. algorithm-driven mobile apps, and their dominant business models, can be considered something “other” than “the internet” – in many ways replacing original conceptions of “the web” (ie web pages on browsers running on desktops or laptops). The medium is the message, and if media mutation follows the rate of technological advance, how do we better understand the effects, social, political and otherwise, soon enough?
‘Photoshop didn’t have 1,000 engineers on the other side of the screen, using notifications, using your friends, using AI to predict what’s gonna perfectly addict you, or hook you, or manipulate you, or allow advertisers to test 60,000 variations of text or colors to figure out what’s the perfect manipulation of your mind. This is a totally new species of power and influence.’Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma
For one thing, the role of “user”/”audience”, ie YOU, has mutated – no longer the customer, more the raw material forming the product – but that seems one of the more obvious changes. Do we need improved ways of “non-simultaneously apprehending” (gratuitous insertion of RAW phrase!)? The old constructs for apprehending “let us down” – unless we first recognise them as such (Ye Olde Metaphorical Constructions), and then perhaps re-perceive as kitsch or art. (Or, in Steve Bannon’s case, as networked political warfare – see below).
Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad seems a good starting point, as it yields a more “meta-” view of media, among other things. For an insightful guide to the tetrad and the current relevance of McLuhan (which also has a lot of fun, up-to-date examples), I recommend Paul Levinson’s ‘McLuhan in an Age of Social Media’ – a self-contained update to Paul’s ‘Digital McLuhan’, one of RAW’s listed essential-read books.)
‘The tetrad, in a nutshell, is a way of mapping the impact and interconnections of technologies across time. It asks four questions of every medium or technology: What does it enhance or amplify? What does it obsolesce or push out of the sunlight and into the shade. What does it retrieve or bring back into central attention and focus – something which itself had previously been obsolesced. And what does the new medium, when pushed to its limits, reverse or flip into?’– Paul Levinson, ‘McLuhan in an Age of Social Media’
Steve Bannon’s project & the tetrad
We perhaps forget that as well as being White House strategist and Trump’s advisor, Bannon helped run Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica, and has spent his time networking his “far-right” political cause with a wide array of global influencers (eg Nigel Farage and George Galloway, to give two examples in the UK). Bannon made a fortune from investing fairly early in the successful US comedy show, Seinfeld. And as The Guardian put it, “Bannon’s wealth smoothed his path from finance to media and politics”.
To speculate on Bannon’s activities in terms of McLuhan’s tetrad, I refer to what I’ve previously documented – that Bannon adopted some old “leftwing” tropes, which he sheared of specifics (making them “cooler” in McLuhan’s terms), for appealing to a younger audience. He regarded Fox’s audience at the time as “geriatric”. Bannon had studied the output of people such as Michael Moore to see what “worked”, and he’d recognised the power that could be wielded by the huge online communities of alienated young people (audiences of sites such as Breitbart).
To quote Devil’s Bargain (by Joshua Green), Bannon “envisioned a great fusion between the masses of alienated gamers, so powerful in the online world, and the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart by its radical politics and fuck-you attitude”.
Using McLuhan’s four-part tetrad “probe”, we can consider what Bannon’s project Enhances, Obsolesces, Retrieves and Reverses, in political-media terms. One obvious retrieval is what I describe above – Bannon’s project retrieved old ‘left’ tropes – binary political frames/categories, such as:
- Anti-establishment vs Establishment
- Ordinary folk vs Elite
- Outsiders vs Corporate Media
- Unjustly maligned “official enemies” vs Malign US Deep State
Tied to their original, left-ideological “hot” specificity, these tropes might seem inadequate for making sense of the fast-moving fractal-like chaos and complexity of 21st century political culture. But Bannon et al, I think, realised their “cool” effectiveness when used in non-specific populist expression – the kind tweeted by Trump, for example. (Prof Levinson writes that this non-specificity in Trump’s tweets – inviting people to interact and “fill in the gaps” – makes Trump’s communication “cool” in McLuhan’s jargon).
In terms of the tetrad, this enhances the revolutionary fervour of, say, anti-establishment protests (or, alternatively, you can see it as enhancing the angry rabble-rousing of demagogues). It obsolesces the “geriatric” aspects of the conservative right that Bannon saw as an impediment. It reverses certain traditional conservative moral associations with conventional “authority”, which perhaps flips into adoration of “strong” “maverick” types. (Frank Luntz has also worked on this reversal – with his advice to conservatives to always blame everything on “Washington” “D.C.” “establishment” authority).
More tetrad speculation: much (but not all) of the above seemed, for Bannon, about getting a younger online demographic into his “alt-right” vision. It also appears to enhance sweeping generalisations and either/or thinking – due to the binary nature of the original tropes, now shorn of specifics, and presented in “cool” (but ironically demagogic) soundbites. Social media algorithms, designed to maximise engagement, appear to promote content with the type of characteristics that happen to be enhanced by Bannon’s media strategy. (I wrote at length about this in an earlier post, and argued that Robert Anton Wilson’s semantic approaches effectively “counter” such disproportionately boosted populist framing).
‘Korzybski’s mathematized language structures, like the Fenollosa/Pound emphasis on Chinese ideogram, helps us perceive/conceive Internet in alternative ways, not possible for those restricted to Indo-European semantic structures.’RAW, TSOG (Preview of The Tale of the Tribe)
“Proxy war” conspiracy story
A bunch of commentators who portrayed Joe Biden as dementia-riddled now argue that Biden (after drinking a lot of Bulletproof coffee fortified with nanotechnology?) masterminded the Russian invasion of Ukraine for American strategic purposes, and that U.S. media, in lockstep with the CIA, “are pushing for WWIII”. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin – basically Jesus with a KGB skill-set – has negligible agency in this.
Sounds like a fun VR app to run on Google Cardboard Insane.
On seeing a video of Putin humiliating his own spy chief, my first thought was of RAW’s “burden of omniscience” concept (part of his SNAFU riff). Some reports from Russia (amplified by western media accounts) claimed that people around Putin feared telling Vlad the truth, leading to information jam in the Kremlin. Tom Jackson (RAWIllumination.net) commented on this, together with the SNAFU connection, back in March.
“Censorship”, “surveillance”, etc, framing-wise, belong to the same pyramid structure as SNAFU – vertical power hierarchies. Still valid for humans, alas, but maybe not so much for new “decentralised” (itself an inadequate metaphor?) media technology. To the extent we continue to use these established (and thus comfortable) but anachronistic (for media) frames, we miss the significance of newer, mutated “interventions” that operate on “decentralised terrain” – continuous micro-interaction personal data-mining/profiling and algorithmic behavioural nudging, using sophisticated machine-learning systems on mobile biometric supercomputers (aka smartphones).
I’m pretending to understand it by lining up a lot of words. (Incidentally, my bank recently notified me that they’re “improving security” by introducing “behavioural biometric” checks for online payments: “We’re not actually checking your email address; it’s how you enter it that matters, including your keystrokes. It’s known as ‘behavioural biometric’ data and it should be unique to you.”).
Everyone understands “censorship” (Mickey Mouse). Few understand “surveillance” (Edward Snowden). Hardly anyone understands what Cambridge Analytica actually did (Einstein). And nobody understands the new micro-behavioural AI algorithms (Emperor Norton).Original: Malaclypse the Younger, KSC, vandalised by RAW semantics
Anti-war – sleight-of-hand or hallucination?
Tom also linked (in a more recent post) to an interesting article with some Noam Chomsky quotes, which begins with the intelligent point that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented us with a terrible dilemma – ie no good options. Worst case: nuclear.
But, halfway through, the writer (Matt Taibbi) performs a curious semantic sleight-of-hand with “war critic”, “anti-war” and “anti-interventionist” labels:-
‘Before “de-platforming” was even a term in the American consciousness, our corporate press perfected it with regard to war critics… [Matt then gives detail on exclusion of “Anti-war voices” from 2003 Iraq War coverage]
‘Since then, we’ve only widened the rhetorical no-fly zone. In a development that back then I would have bet my life on never happening, anti-interventionist voices or advocates for such people are increasingly confined to Fox if they appear on major corporate media at all.’ – Matt Taibbi, America’s Intellectual No-Fly Zone
That seems weird to me, as it implies that corporate media opposition to, and criticism of, the major war under discussion (Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine) exists practically nowhere but on Fox! Matt’s comments make logical sense to me only if I assume at least one of the following:
- I’m hallucinating the wall-to-wall media opposition to a major aggressive war currently being waged.
- Matt doesn’t see Russia invading Ukraine – he sees some other war that isn’t being opposed/criticised in current media coverage.
- The terms “war critic”, “anti-interventionist” and “anti-war” have a special, qualified meaning for Matt, which he doesn’t specify.
(Actually, I see the “real” problem here as something Nassim Taleb has alluded to – outdated media models tied into a sort of logical fallacy. Incidently, Taleb, not so long ago, supported people like Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi Gabbard, et al, but has recently taken to denouncing them on Twitter – he’s repeatedly called Greenwald and Edward Snowden “frauds”, and his criticism along these lines extends to folks like Caitlin Johnstone and even Elon Musk. “Fraud” seems an over-the-top allegation to me – I prefer to think of these folks as using various outdated top-down constructs for media, “censorship”, “surveillance”, etc, while simultaneously using sometimes-valid notions of political corruption in “liberal” “establishments” – the latter to populist appeal; the former confusing the media issues. I’m trying to be charitable and diplomatic here!).
‘Chomsky regards all forms of manufactured– Robert Anton Wilson, Everything is Under Control
consent as Orwellian mind control.’
Orwell retrieved & obsolesced
Orwell quotes (often in the form of memes) currently seem a popular way to frame 21st century political and media scenarios. The above-mentioned Matt Taibbi piece uses Orwell quotes in this way, and cites Chomsky as “often” using them in a similar way. But the language here seems curiously anachronistic when you consider what Taibbi and Chomsky refer to.
Taibbi asks Chomsky about the negative responses on social media to Chomsky’s recent remarks on Russia/Ukraine. The MIT professor replies that it’s normal for “doctrinal managers” to condemn people who “don’t keep rigidly to the Party Line”. Taibbi cites Orwell’s view that “free societies suppress thought almost as effectively as the totalitarian Soviets”, and quotes Orwell saying certain inconvenient views are not “entitled to a hearing”.
I’ve looked at a lot of the negative responses to Chomsky’s Ukraine remarks – including the ones that Taibbi links to. I don’t see “doctrinal managers” or a “Party Line”. I see a lot of individuals on social media posting various (quite diverse) criticisms of Chomsky’s remarks. I see neither “suppression” of thought, nor any speech denied its “entitlement” to “a hearing”. (A typical example of the recent harsh critiques of Chomsky is this Twitter thread, which was retweeted by the journalist George Monbiot).
Orwell’s Animal Farm was published in 1945. His views on “suppression” of thought and speech reflect the media forms of the time. Similarly, much of the language Chomsky uses on political media dates back to his Manufacturing Consent (1988) – effectively pre-internet.
Nassim Taleb commented recently on the Orwell meme pictured (above right). He wrote: “exactly 100% backwards”, adding:
‘In 1984, there was no web; governments had total control of information. In 2022 things are more transparent, so we see imperfections. THE TRANSPARENCY EFFECT: the more things improve the worse they look.’– Nassim Taleb, on Twitter
Attention extraction paradigm #2
‘At YouTube, I was working on YouTube recommendations. It worries me that an algorithm that I worked on is actually increasing polarization in society… The flat-Earth conspiracy theory was recommended hundreds of millions of times by the algorithm. It’s easy to think that it’s just a few stupid people who get convinced, but the algorithm is getting smarter and smarter every day.’ – Guillaume Chaslot, The Social Dilemma
‘There’s a study, an MIT study, that fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than true news. What is that world gonna look like when one has a six-times advantage to the other one?’ – Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma
‘If the world seems full and overstocked with stupid, crazy and half-asleep people, that is because it remains dominated by Belief Systems.’– RAW, TSOG, p107