Collective Consciousness and Democratic Transformation

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Democratic reform and structural change are impossible without a transformation in individual and collective consciousness and values. Until people unlearn the values, ideologies and sedimented desires that allow for the internalization of their own subjugation, neoliberalism along with racism and other forms of oppression will be normalized, viewed as common sense, self-evident, and hence removed from critical inquiry.

-Henry Giroux, The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (interview)

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The White Geek’s Burden

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“Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth…Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

-Julian Assange, The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ 

Field Project: Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms {Work in Progress}

I recently completed my Master’s field project proposal, which consists of a literature review and plan around new media and global citizenship education. The project will materialize as a set of curricula and/or website activities geared toward educating youth in America around the ways digital storytelling shapes our perspectives of global issues. I intend to develop the curricula over the next few months, and it should be completed by December 2013.

A brief summary about the project is below. You can download the full version (30p) here: New Media Literacy Project. I welcome feedback and encourage you to read it!

Title: “Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms: A Space for Critical Media and Postcolonial Frameworks”

Purpose of the Project: A supplemental form of critical learning whereby students actively participate in sharing stories, posting critiques and engaging in dialogue around current events and social causes. The goal is to foster global citizenship – a frame of mind that is globally aware and read to take action on issues both at home and abroad – and to develop critical thinking skills by empowering young adults to share their stories and feedback about the worlds in which they thrive – both online and offline.

Theoretical frame: The predominant frame is a concept knowns as the “White Savior Industrial Complex“. Coined by the author and poet Teju Cole in March 2012, it posits that Western media contorts, essentializes and oversimplifies developing or “Third World” countries’ problems in an effort to portray dominance. In this view, drawn from postcolonial theory, European-driven perspectives of the Global South are the representative and normative understanding of the world; moreover Third World problems are frequently viewed from an outside-in lens under the framework of humanitarianism. A good example of the White Savior complex is the KONY 2012 campaign, TOMS shoes and Charity:Water. (Full disclosure: I am not trying to condemn or vilify global humanitarianism; in fact, I have contributed to both Charity:Water and other large-scale campaigns in the past, and own a few pairs of TOMS shoes. The main theme I am attempting to shine a light on is white privilege – the power, wealth, and politics that surround it. For context, I will restate the argument that Mr. Cole put forth in his article: “Those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”)

Statement of the Problem: Globalization and the rise of social media, as a result, have shaped the contours of this White Savior narrative with greater impact – and ease: stories of “the other” are now circulated at warp speed across social networks, purporting “the other” as objects rather than subjects. Education programs may use KONY 2012 as a teachable moment, but many if not most fail to reach beyond traditional media literacy programs in identifying the power structures behind these types of events. New media programs, while beneficial in separating fact from fiction, do not routinely apply critical literacy and postcolonial frames to issues of global import like KONY 2012. And while successful civics engagement programs use new media projects to empower youth in oppressed communities, they lack the “global citizenship” framework to raise consciousness while critically examining new media’s role in shaping their perspectives.

Signficance of the Project: The ongoing effort to combat misinformation and distill truth in a 24/7 news cycle is daunting, and educators and parents lack the resources and time to be able to effectively implement these strategies. Moreover, they also lack the tools to guide critical discussions of privilege and power within these current methods and pedagogies. In addition, global activism campaigns target youth through aggressive marketing and storytelling tactics; by capturing the zeitgeist of the movement, these campaigns make it difficult for parents and educators to join the conversations or guide the discourse. In effect, social media campaigns’ stickiness and rapidity of scale make challenging the discourse in real time almost impossible. Furthermore, the essentialization that occurs in global charity and humanitarian campaigns makes for an increasingly difficult concept to unpack, especially given that these “global citizen” movements entice young people to “make a difference” through lending their voices to the causes they care about.

GOAL of the Project: This project aims to go beyond both the current new media literacy paradigms that largely focus on digital literacy as a tool to combat misinformation or distinguish fact from fiction and the civic engagement processes that urge youth to become agents of change without negotiating the broader worldviews they bring to the causes they champion. This project advocates for a marriage of the two paradigms within the greater themes of critical literacy and postcolonial studies from Cole’s White Savior theory. Be re-centering the frame from one that propels the West to be the agent of change towards a more inclusive model, this way of thinking can guide youth in understanding how their privilege reifies the current discourse around global causes. In turn, the process of changing these paradigms can empower youth the change the worlds in which they live.

Why storytelling matters

Storytelling, as a medium, is (seemingly) timeless. The first cave paintings emerged 40,000 years ago in Southern Europe. Ever since, humans have been documenting our world using the forms most readily available: stone, parchment, tablet, canvas, film, video, and now…pixels? What began as an oral storytelling culture has evolved, with language, to include visual and material objects. Text, type, art, symbol, and icons constitute our ever-changing library of meaning-making. What a bountiful spread!

Storytelling matters because stories explain our relationships, both with ourselves and with others. Stories allow us to understand the world: the rich tapestry of colors, sounds and shapes of the physical world, as well as the fantastical, dream-like qualities of the worlds inside our own heads. Life is made of cells, atoms and particles, which are also stories. Each part exists because we have a story to tell around its existence. Every death, birth, creation of new or recycling of old is just another story to share and to remember.

What does that mean for the digital age? Jonah Sachs calls it the “digitoral” era – the rise of digital storytelling, where sites like Facebook and Twiter (even TED) have attempted to recreate the Roman fora, the town square, the campfire. Facebook is the absolute monarch of the digitoral era; instead of tyrannical rule over its subjects, though, it commodifies them. A post about a sip of coffee is worth $4. Your story is now theirs. The social contract consists of giving and getting. You give, they get. You get a little too, but not forever. They own your story. Why? Because their own story depends on it.

In this new era of storytelling, whose story is it anyway? Whose story is being told?

Recently, I’ve been reading Studs Terkel, the master of oral history and ethnographic storytelling, and wonder what he would think of this new era. Instead of live tweeting American Idol, or the latest gadget’s release event, what if we live tweeted someone’s memoir? Or a book we’re reading? Or a conversation we had with someone, years ago?

In-depth ethnographic books like Race, or Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or human-interest documentaries on the unfortunate, are not self-produced works of art. These are stories that have been compiled, edited, and filtered by the author or director– not the subject. The subject is really the object, in traditional storytelling parameters.

Have we begun to invert the subject/object relationship through the rise of social media? One’s story need not have a listener to be told, nor a production team to package it. It need not even be curated as a worthwhile story. Look around, these stories are what sell: cheap, and in the millions, these mass-produced stories make ad executives at Facebook and other social networks rich. And again, who benefits?

At the core, humans want stories to be simple, evocative, to elicit empathy, to depict the human experience. Storytelling is an art, but are we all artists now? A Facebook post is by nature, devoid of context. Unlike a diary or journal, Facebook is outward-facing – the audience silently receives an update, and whether they “like” it or not, it’s there. Meaning cannot easily be derived from this 2D representation of thought. We write into the abyss, hoping someone understands our story, but the medium is already complicating itself. The story has all of a sudden become far less simple than the campfire days, when eager listeners gathered around for a few solid minutes of undistracted wonder. These stories have been stripped of intention, of meaning, and are raw bursts of thought. Collectively, this makes for a lot of anger, frustration, and sadness. Can we find the themes that matter?

Storytelling is a rich and important facet of life. In a way, I argue that it is life. We are nothing without our stories. Technology has captured and monetized our stories through film, TV, radio, and print, for generations. The internet medium, however, is borderless: we are no longer hemmed in by physical constraints of old media, yet the inward/outward and subject/object fuzziness makes for a complicated and messy situation.

Where do I start, and you begin? I’ll read Death of the Author and get back to you.

On Nuance, Noticing and the Cult of Personality

A recent Amazon.com visit led me to purchase the bestselling book Quiet: the power of introverts. I thought, this seems like an interesting read, let’s take the Prime free shipping bait and go for it. Little did I know how much of an impact this book would have on me.

The book is full of the rich cultural history of the 21st century American ethos: anecdotes on celebrities, scientists, billionaires and the everyman abound, tied together with the soft and smooth writing of the author. In between these linked stories she reveals what it truly means to be an introvert in a society perpetually fixated on our next 15 minutes of fame. (Woody Allen comes to mind here). Her writing went beyond the descriptive aspect of cultural or psychological studies, to a deeper truth – we introverts are, by and large, wholly misunderstood by society.

One thing that I’ve realized as I get older is that my core dispositions and tendencies are unwavering, even though my behaviors may change. I may move from one city to another, dye my hair a different color, or bury old habits in hopes of reinventing myself every few years, but my true self — my values and beliefs — remain solid. Yet, as the book helped me learn, I never fully acknowledged their importance, weight and value. Ever since graduating college and entering the “real world”, I’ve pushed and scolded myself to be someone that the corporate workplace values: an extrovert.

Plagued by guilt over the fact that I don’t “chase dreams” and “take risks” in the conventional, no-holds-barred American daredevil fashion, over time I ended up brainwashing myself into thinking I didn’t have any dreams at all. Working for corporations large and small, I felt disheartened that I didn’t possess that innate “rah rah” feeling that came from working on group brainstorm meetings, attending large-scale, swag-filled conferences, or aggressively “innovating” in the Silicon Valley sense of the word. Did I not enjoy the work? Was I depressed? No. What I realize now is that I just have a different way of thinking about the world, and this way of thinking is not the normative one. I thrive, but on my own terms. I am not going to be the cheerleader, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be your strongest and most fervent advocate, in my own way.

What I’ve discovered is: an A/B Tester, I am not. I am a thinker. I look before I leap. I notice. I observe. I may not jump on the bandwagon at first, or at all. If my (former or future) places of employment view that as an “area of improvement” or, worse, a weakness, then they aren’t taking the time to get to know me and my strengths. They aren’t investing in me, when I am doing just that to them by being a loyal employee. I may need coaxing, sure, but once I believe in something, I’m loyal for life. I add a lot of value, and contribute in ways others don’t. I want others to recognize this.

I like to notice things, especially the nuances of life: the ironies, the subtleties, the gaps and the pieces that others gloss over. I’m not some freak intellectual: I enjoy socializing, I absolutely love discourse and meeting new people – in certain situations, of course. That’s not a misanthropic sentiment, it’s the fact that as an introvert, I am more averse to novelty. I am what you might call “highly reactive” – I respond to and feel deeply about the world around me. I am not scared or afraid, I am just a little more cautious. I like to evaluate, and you know what, that’s ok!

The “cult of personality” that supposes one must be daring, utterly confident, and a “people person” is a true American phenomenon. It lives within the mantras of “style over substance”, “fail fast” and “do now, think later”. I am not saying these ideologies are wrong, because I do believe there is a place for them. I simply regret that this ideology is the predominant and seemingly only acceptable one in mainstream society.

What Quiet taught me was that I should embrace my true character: as a thinker, lover of ideas, beauty, animals, stories and systems – a person who is deeply sensitive to the human condition. I am an introvert, hear me roar. 🙂

Future of News: Click or Thought Provoking?

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Ye olde media offline hours.

I often wonder about the future of news journalism. I’ve been a news reader for a long time, and in the past 5 or so years since I gave up my TV, most of my news has come from online sources (a lot from my iPhone). On a daily basis, I might catch a headline on New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, or HuffPost. And who can ignore SFGate, CNN or People.com, places I visit if when I am bored or want some mindless fodder for the water cooler, so to speak. Facebook used to be my go-to social network, but now it’s exclusively Twitter, where I follow journalists alongside comedians, entrepreneurs, educators and celebrities. On a given day I probably spend 2 or 3 hours reading online. When I told my aunt that I read longform pieces on my iPhone, she was shocked. That’s life in the digital age. And just because I do that does not make me a “digital native”. It just makes me someone who likes to read a lot using a different medium.

My interest in news is not due to the whole FOMO phenomenon, where I might only seek out news to satiate my growing hunger for connection or to suppress my fear of not being part of something ‘important’. No, it’s really about curiosity and learning. I enjoy reading, learning new things, exploring new topics and generally discovering trivia bits along the way (especially movies and TV – thank you, IMDb). Another reason is pertinent to my identity as a cultural observer. I like to observe what goes on in the world and make connections, form links from one news item or event to the next. “Systems thinking”, if you will. Shutting off access to news would really only help me in the short-term. Ultimately, I feel that understanding the world, and all its craziness, is a fundamental part of the human experience, and media is both a facilitator and corrupter of this process.

Why a corrupter, you ask? Anyone can tell you the devolution story of the once-heralded nightly news anchor, now represented by derivative, 24/7, MSNBC and FoxNews drones/talking heads. The privatization and commodification of news, along with the consolidation and merger of media companies, have together created a monolithic, giant news monster machine, churning out content to reward advertisers and punish our eardrums. Yes, these companies need to make money, but their nosedive into cynical broadcasting, which implies that their viewers are dumb, gullible, and shallow, is a much more sinister tactic. The idea that news is just a bi-product of the crusty layer of sugary, salty junk food otherwise known as ratings, makes us into its mindless consumers. Shop till you drop? How about Watch till you go blind! We are none the wiser. Ok, maybe I am getting a little too Network-y here. But still, you get the point. It’s a mess.

Broadcast media aside, what lies ahead for online news? Writers of headlines have long perfected the SEO amygdala hijack to seduce clicks and garner eyeballs on the page. Is online news a click factory – where clicks and time-on-site are the new ratings – or is there space for thoughtful journalism? Well, it’s a mix of both. As Micah Sifry so poignantly put it, the media are the “immune system of democracy”, and yet misinformation [I’ll add in fatuous content], much like bugs and viruses, is “with us to stay”.  We can try to diet, filter and block it – treat the problem like most medical problems are treated, after the fact. Or, we can prevent it through strengthening the health of the systems from the get-go. We can’t remove the Honey Boo Boo’s from the world, but we can perhaps mitigate our exposure to them by seeking out content that is thought provoking, critical, in-depth, and validated, or by spreading ideas that break down “common sense” myths while creating new paradigms. This cycle can’t go on forever. Clicks, ratings and dollars will cease to flow if the cycle continues to oppress those who feed it. The public deserves better.
The future of news could be a far cry from what it portends today. As a reader, I’m hopeful.

Bodhisattva, the iPhone and You

Recently, I was able to attend a mediation class at Spirit Rock, a famed spiritual center that teaches Buddhist mediation, mindfulness lifestyle practices, and hosts high-end spiritual retreats. During the Dharma talk, our guide mentioned the ‘points of intervention’ along the cycle of ‘dependent-arising’, or what we might call the cycle of habits (good and bad). The cycle is straightforward enough: we approach life with certain dispositions and behaviors – conscious and unconscious – which, over time, manifest into habits by being repeated over and over again, birthing new cycles of habit along the way. The cycle is unavoidable, but how we react can change the cycle from one of dependance to one of spiritual liberation. Pain is part of life, but suffering is an option: this theory of mindfulness is profound, yet simple in its resonance. Breaking the dependency cycle is a choice, and requires one to be mindful of its existence in order to change its course.

As Newton’s famous third law of motion goes, ‘every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction’.  This is true in the physical world as well as the spiritual, emotional and metaphysical worlds. Life happens, and we react to it. This law explains a lot about our internet worlds, the spaces where our identities are symbolically attached to physical forms, even if through a few letters strung together with an icon – what we call avatars. Newton’s law occurs constantly, in the ether and in ‘the cloud’. An echo-chamber-like reaction is created, birthed, and destroyed alongside every article, TV episode, tweet, text or post that is released into the world. Our mediated lives are constantly bombarded by images, texts, sounds and energy particles that are generated by these reactions: comments fuel diatribes, anger begets violence, speculation creates fear, fear shapes ideology, and so on. Wherein lies the discourse? Wherein lie the pauses, the time for reflection, meditation, and questioning? The dependency cycle of our internet age is self-perpetuating, and appears to be accelerating at an unsustainable rate. Where’s the stopping point? And more important, to what end does it benefit having rapid-fire access to information, even the most tedious and uninteresting kind? Are we pushing ourselves towards a greater purpose, or seeking to touch the darkest, most visceral parts of the human experience? Which reaction are we really aiming for, and which parts of the spectacle really matter?

Our brains are often referred to as ‘supercomputers’. We need to ‘download’ the data off our brains in order to rest our hard drive, and reboot our systems. See how easy that was to comprehend? Science likes analogies, and the public needs them in order to understand our complex and complicated world. And yet, in the endless quest to ‘optimize’ our lives and progress to a better future, we are left with a shell: the calcified outer layer of society, protecting, guarding and safekeeping our cultural mores in a solid structure resembling the simplest forms of nature. What about what lives underneath this layer? What about mindfulness, of truly understanding the impermanence of our human existence? The bodhisattva, or enlightened being, is not treated as sacred; it pales in comparison to the relationships we have with our iPhones, popular culture, and societal ideals around family, wealth, and happiness. What we call life equates to the physical and material world, and yet we ignore the spiritual and metaphysical worlds that shape our experience.

Where is the space for mindfulness, when our iPhones serve as physical and emotional extensions of our minds and bodies – a beep, chirp, buzz or swoosh elicits reactions from our brain that we, up until recently, would only associate with a whimper, cry, scream, or nervous laugh. With emerging products like Google Glass, Kinect, or brain-controlled computers, we have leapfrogged toward a new era of man and machine. The bodhisattva isn’t going anywhere, yet our failure to recognize and embrace it may result in us losing way more than we have ever thought possible.

Authority and authorship in a post-Google world

In a previous post I wrote on the difficult ways to establish trust and intimacy in the digital age. In pushing this idea out a bit laterally I have begun to ponder more about the ways that authority and authorship dictate our digital lives.

Think about trust: Google and other technology companies are in the business of making trust. They are “trust making” companies. Authority and authorship are baked into their business model. Don’t be evil is another way of saying trust us. You are viewing the physical representation of this ideology right on their search results page. The blue links are just colorized trust icons. Each link leads to a source that has authorship embedded into its very existence. Do we fail to recognize how humans are behind these texts? Sure, algorithms whip up something great and serve it on a facile platter for easy consumption, but a human being is tied to each and every bit and byte. To ignore that or to claim that the Internet is somehow neutral or neutered is naive. Their authority, and the authorship guiding each and every move on the internet, is precisely the source, fuel and engine of their power.

Corporations are commodifying trust, and this is not new – every brand is a logo-fied version of a monetized public good. Might as well take a branding iron to the forests, since that’s basically what every paper company has done. This signifies a new owner/author of the public domain. They stamp, brand and own what is effectively no one’s and everyone’s. They restrict and legitimize space and time. They create patents, aka the system of ‘search and destroy’ that targets anyone who trespasses on their sacred domain. Commodities are signifiers of a largely unnamed world, and yet those in control want to make the world into another material object. And as ‘consumers’, we have willingly bought into this myth, since we too, want a piece of the author pie. It’s ours to share, have and hold. A beautiful marriage of consumerism and empowerment.

Commodification, authority and authorship are one side of the coin; democracy is the other. We continue to view the world in this binary frame where everything post 21st century is ours/theirs, and yet the public space is still no one’s. How can we live in this mediated space where the two are incompatible? This myth will only continue to be perpetuated unless we have a larger discussion on what it truly means to be a democratic society. I’m hopeful that there are others out there who feel the same.