openDemocracyUK

Part Three: reality management #fail

Part Three of our conclusion to the Networked Society debate: Goodbye, year of new movements: bring on 2012 and Occupy Everything.
Aaron Bastani
11 January 2012

Part Three of our conclusion to the Networked Society debate: Goodbye, year of new movements: bring on 2012 and Occupy Everything

 How are the existing institutional actors within the media and the party political establishment attempting to mediate a new reality that is economically and technologically transformed and that has given rise to such innovative and new social movements and forms of protest? Do these new movements conceive of politics in a fundamentally different way to established media and political actors? Consequently are the terms of debate between these actors and the new social movements incommensurable?

In another article on 'Our Kingdom' Dan Hind wrote compellingly how Ed Miliband's take on the occupy movement was instructive of how the political establishment reacts when 'real people' actually do politics as opposed to placidly accepting the inevitability of being represented by politicians, no matter how much they feel unrepresented.

He wrote,

...Miliband concedes that the occupiers ‘still present a challenge: to the church and to business – and also to politics’. Note that Miliband doesn’t think that the occupations are themselves political. Oh, no. The occupiers ‘reflect a crisis of concern for millions of people about the biggest issue of our time: the gap between their values and the way our country is run’.

Hind continues by saying, 

...they (the 'Occupy' movement and protestors in general) present a challenge because they are staging the debate that the ruling elite have studiously avoided since the financial system – and the governing economic consensus – began to collapse in 2007...but while ‘the role of politicians is not to protest, but to find answers’, he offers no hint as to what he proposes to do about the collapse of the country’s economic model. He says that people are ‘wondering whether politics can make a difference’. Remember, what’s happening in the assemblies and the working groups… isn’t politics. Politics is about promising to reduce tuition fees before slipping in something about ‘measured spending cuts’...It isn’t open debate between equals about the fundamentals of social, economic and political organization. Everyone clear on that?”

There is a strange relationship in the new reality between the old institutional actors – the political parties and their ideological conduit(s) within the mainstream media - with newly networked forms of social movement. Along with the 'hacking crisis', it did at times feel as if, during the course of 2011, that the whole 'reality management' system of such actors was under threat.

With regards to what presents an ‘existential threat’ to the present system there are of course larger, historical forces at work than any single scandal. Indeed one can argue that the existing institutional actors within both politics and the media are predicated on previous communicative ecologies of information scarcity – but are now under threat under present conditions of information abundance. As Bruce Bimber puts it,

“...vertically integrated firms, retail stores, administrative organisations and even universities are in part adaptations to a communications ecology in which information is costly and assymetric.”

As with those institutions as listed above the 'mass' political party and the mass media were both created for conditions of information scarcity and premised upon the closed-source model and centralised network. Under the changed and information abundant conditions of the present they simply no longer know how to respond to crisis, or, with regards to political parties based at the level of the nation-state, whether they actually can. As one group in Baltimore writes with regards to the future of the US Occupy movement;

“We’re not asking for better wages or a lower interest rate. We’re not even asking for the full abolition of capital, there’s no one to ask.”

In a similar vein when asked about the role that politicians could come to play after the England riots Ed Miliband answered by saying they could offer 'hope and optimism'. Perhaps now we are coming to realise that, as Dan Hind implies, politicians are fundamentally unable to amend economic or social conditions within the neo-liberal compact. Hence the related cries of ‘Real Democracy’ and ‘No Demands’ (to be made of ‘representatives’) have been heard on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few years, by two of the more prominent examples of the new movements. 

Within this new framework elected representatives are found out to be nothing more than anachronisms within the network society whose purpose is to illicit and mediate emotional disposition and affect. The role of politicians within such a paradigm, the socio-political reality into which the 'Network Society' and its tools were born, is reduced to that of managers of emotional reality - as opposed to democratically legitimate actors endowed with the ability to change economic relations in the rational interests of the electorate. This is now increasingly evident - such realisation itself being part of a much longer trend that increasingly does not trust institutions in general and politicans in particular.

As a friend recently commented to me while watching the G20 summit one got the curious feeling that one was watching the 'powers that were'. I am increasingly inclined to agree.

As with political parties, mainstream media outlets are premised on the old logic of the 'cathedral' and frequently fail to deal with the ‘bazaars’ of open source activism – likewise they are seemingly unable to delegate popular demands or mediate popular discourse when it is increasingly facilitated by memetic online networks. One increasingly gets the impression that they are incapable of challenging distributed social networks such as Twitter for news. Consequently it is those mainstream networks, particularly the likes of Al Jazeera, that are most responsive to such changes that seem to have the upper hand among the titans of the old media. For how long remains a question without a concrete response.

Put simply there is too much information, and there are too many trends, too many hunches about the economy, current affairs and politics for centralised media models to deal with them all sufficiently. At one point in early 2011 I recall looking at the hashtags that were simultaneously covering events in Wisconsin, Libya, Greece and Egypt. All were showing video and photo content, with multiple first hand accounts as well as links to more analytical pieces written by actual participants embedded within events themselves both within and outside of the mainstream media. All this while other Twitter users drew their own conclusions, and made their own analyses and predictions – this itself frequently providing historical context, anecdote and comparative analysis.

This intensity of content and interpretation is simply unmatched by centralised models of media and in light of increasingly large numbers of (primarily younger) people becoming accustomed to such information abundance when using distributed networks for news it should come as no surprise that many come to see the mainstream news networks as, at best, second-rate, and, at worst, not much more than propaganda.

 

Closed-source media cannot deal with memetic reproduction of movement or action – the August riots and the witless, chaos of the 'reportage' that followed was fully illustrative of that. The pitiful lack of media analysis after the riots (with the noted exception of the Guardian) should have been expected – traditional media models are simply incapable of navigating emergent, leaderless and non-hierarchical movements. Perhaps this has always been the case. However, given we are now entering a period where such movements are increasing both qualitatively and quantitatively because of economic, social and technological variables it is difficult to see how the media, as well as the political establishment can adapt. While the hacking scandal could hasten the demise of much of the old media, in the UK at least, much quicker than many thought possible, one can rest assured that the end of the News of the World and perhaps even News International really marks only the beginning of huge changes in the media over the coming decade.


 

Go to the final article: And so? Occupy Everything.

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