Thursday, April 26, 2012

TX-RX Episode 4: Jason Reid and Adam Brown

I am pleased to bring you the latest episode of the Transmit-Receive podcast featuring documentary filmmakers Jason Reid and Adam Brown, the creative minds behind Sonicsgate, the Webby Award-winning documentary chronicling the controversial sale of Seattle's NBA franchise. Also, we discuss filmmaking in the age of "free," net neutrality, advocacy and future film projects on their radar. Download the mp3 here.

But wait, you can watch the feature length documentary, Sonicsgate, right now:

Also, watch the trailer for their forthcoming piece, The Kicker.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Old Digital

An ingenious solution of the problem of obsolete digital technology:

Because of the fragility of magnetic media, data on floppy disks will eventually degrade, obviating new solutions for the archival of floppy-based data. This clever solution has a charming, Rube Goldberg-esque quality to it that I can't help but admire. However, children born in the new millennium will see the floppy disk as quaint or arcane as a horse-drawn carriage or a black-and-white tube television. They will wonder how we could ever stand such an obviously flawed, inferior technology.

I remember when the selling point for a 3.5" floppy disk is that it could fit in your shirt pocket. What's next: shirts without pockets?!?!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hard Copy Comfort

The Encyclopedia Britannica announced last week that it will no longer be publishing a print version of their huge multi-volume encyclopedia. Their blog posted an attempt to sooth and comfort ("Change: It's Okay. Really.") those who see this as yet another omen of the imminent post-print era.

This news bookends well (no pun intended) with the discussion that my latest guest on the podcast, Katelyn Hackett, and I followed to a brief, yet unfinished, conclusion. We agreed that there remains some value to physical experience of a book, but the convenience of the technically superior eBook has a place as well.

Certainly, replacing a complete set of the Brittanica with an electronic version would save shelf space on the order of a parallel parked Winnebago, and perhaps even save you money. Their site is offering a week of a free tour of Brittanica Online, with the cost of an annual digital subscription at 70 bucks. That would save you a bundle, given that a set of the print Encyclopedia's sticker price was somewhere between $500 to $1,000 dollars. But the real question, for me at least, is whether or not a subscription to a digital Brittanica is simpley worth that much, given the much larger, more dynamic (not to mention free) Encyclopedia: Wikipedia?

The denizens of the Old Guard will make a lot of sound and fury about the defending the stalwart objectivity of the Encyclopedias written by a cabal of dedicated, well-schooled experts against a heterogeneous mob of basement-dwelling, high school dropout sectarians with a grudge and an internet connection. But, of course, it can't be that simple. Over time Wikipedia has, through the process of time and erosion, molded millions of entries on so many subjects that they could never fit in a 30 volume set. While the information within will never make for iron-clad footnotes in a graduate school dissertation, it does offer the casual knowledge-seeker a brief jolt of information (and paths to dig deeper, if they so wish). Also, there's something to be said for the temporal fix of a printed volume. Things happen, and Wikipedia can change, but your 2002 version of the Encyclopedia won't.

In addition to how the form factors work in favor of an online presence, each page on Wikipedia allows you to browse the "Discussion page" behind every entry; displaying the sometimes mundane/sometimes illuminating arguments between the page contributors and site editors about the objectivity of the information contained. From my desk, access to this (as well as the ability to join in) is invaluable. Unfortunately, with Brittanica, we never got the opportunity to sit in on their editors' meetings and take notes.

In addition to the inherent deficit of information about what Brittanica's editors chose to leave out, the very format in which each article is written influences the quality of the information within. To put it simply, you can only fit so many words in an entry. Linguist and media critic Noam Chomsky illustrates this problem of 'concision' has on knowledge:

As "gatekeepers" of knowledge, editors routinely must balance the intractable problem of what to leave in, and what to leave on the floor. Perhaps, now that Brittanica has moved online (and must now compete with the larger, more agile Wikipedia) we hungry consumers of information may benefit from this competition, and each of us can take to our role as a gatekeeper, furthering the project of the democratization of information. As someone who grew up in a world bridging the analog and digital eras, part of me mourns the death of a titan of the Old World. But, to the benefit of our civilization, the internet is no Library of Alexandria... and it can't be burnt and left a pool of ash.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Episode 3: Katelyn Hackett

It's long overdue, but I present the next podcast episode of Transmit-Receive, wherein I speak with local blogger Katelyn Hackett. A Western Washington native and daughter of two Presbyterian ministers, Katelyn has been written on topics of Seattle's burgeoning hip-hop scene, the delights of cooking as well as other Seattle-themed potpourri for, Seattle Sound magazine (now City Arts) and We touch on these topics, as well as the encroachment of information technology in our daily lives, the fate of "hard-copy" books and the problem of copyright and income for professional artists.

In the interview, I mention this TED Talk by Gabe Zichermann as well as this AMA session with Sam Harris.

Also, follow Katelyn's twitter stream here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Motivational Speaker

After a prolonged hiatus (Hawaii vacation intervened), I need some motivation to get back up on the horse, provided by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson. When asked on a Reddit AMA, "What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?"

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.

Episode #3 Incoming...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Ziggurat and the Future of Big Ideas

In chatting with a friend about the implications of the waning of science in America (if you haven't, listen to my interview with Research Scientist Dr. Alan Glasser for more context), I happened upon a talk by native Washingtonian and prominent science fiction author Neal Stephenson. The title for his brief lecture is "getting big stuff done," a focus that fits squarely within the bounds of the discussion in podcast #2. Get comfortable and watch the author of 'Cryptonomicon' discuss the future:

Stephenson makes the case reiterated so often among today's cultural and scientific elites: we aren't focused on making manifest the promises of the future (at least the kind of utopian, high-concept future of the olden days). Stephenson lays part of the blame on IT as a siphon for America's capacity to innovate (a vortex to which Yours Truly fell prey) as well as those in the culture responsible for dreaming up the next great thing.

But, America's great popularizer of science Neil deGrasse Tyson, summarizes it so much more eloquently here:

I'm unsure if Stephenson's dream of the 20 kilometer tall building, truly a Ziggurat, is interesting, and it's one grounded in pragmatism. I'll resist the obligatory literary comparison between Stephenson's building and the Tower of Babel; I am skeptical of the moral conclusions divined from mythologies written by anonymous, bronze-age barbarians. But I digress, we have the technology.... But, both Stephenson and Tyson aren't just kicking the can down the road to the next generation of kids with agile, unbroken spirits; they are trying to lay down the cobblestones to help them find the future. This author does believe they are correct when asserting that building a dream, albeit a fictional one, is the likely first step.

As a film school graduate (and ardent SciFi fan), I am saddened that my young nephews' exposure to science fiction has been reduced to Michael Bay's infinitely-stupifying forays in the banal spectacle and George Lucas' uninspired retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth (with light sabers). Hollywood cares little for stories with new ideas, and even less for subversive or un-focus-grouped tangents. If we rest the responsibility for dream-making entirely in the hands of Hollywood, those dreams will likely be as hollow and forgettable as any creative work made exclusively for profit and by a committee well-fed plutocrats.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Presidential Hopeful Mitt Romney-R(eplicant)

The prospect of Mitt Romney as President of the United States of America makes me uncomfortable. It isn't just my aversion to Republicans (with their dogmatic, bigoted and nihilistic political philosophy), or even Romney being the current frontrunner in the primary (and hence a real possibility of being our next POTUS). Also, it is not just because of how he chooses to earn his money (by buying small companies, drowning them in debt, driving them into the ground while "flipping" them for profit), or as the lowest form of political hypocrite (passing a health care mandate in Massachusetts but campaigning in opposition to Obamacare), or even his conspicuous Mormonism (a complicated, but troubling American religion replete with secrecy, factionalization and a growing political appetite). He has another nagging problem, pundits are calling it the "enthusiasm gap." Now this phrase was originally coined to describe our apathetic electorate and the epidemic of low voter turnout. In Romney's case it has been appropriated to reflect the more anecdotal, qualitative issues that the mainstream press is broadcasting about his apparent lack of likability.

It is his cold, unemotional, even robotic character that allegedly troubles Romney's campaign. New York Magazine's profile of Romney last year brilliantly lays it out:

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he has adopted a public persona that contains no detectable motives at all, one that is buried in objectivity, in data, in process.

Of course, it has been a growing trend for presidential candidates to appear to hold no opinion too strongly or answer a question too directly. The highly calculating, finely honed nature of American electoral theater all but requires a candidate to appear devoid enough of substance to allow the voters superimpose their own desires on the candidate. If you want to be likeable, be vague. Take the case of Barack Obama.

Romney evidently plays this game very well and for the Republicans, who largely see the President's role as CEO-in-Chief rather than a legislative coxswain, his handlers and financial backers are probably very happy about his performance so far. But Romney hasn't won yet, a fact that candidate #2, Newt Gingrich, is banking on. But there is still the vulnerability of Romney's stiff persona.

The Atlantic's Brian Fung wrote recently in an article that suggests another way in which to view this dilemma: Romney as Creepy Robot. He states that Romney exhibits an "uncanny valley" quality that confuses and unnerves us. This is the relatively new idea that as we make more realistic automatons (human-like robots), the more creepy they get.

Watch the Japanese dental assistant training robot for a shining example:

Fung puts it succinctly:

Romney's problem is that he occupies a kind of uncanny valley for politicians. Just as people who interact with lifelike robots often develop a strange feeling due to something they can't quite name, something about Romney leaves voters unsettled.

You could write off this "enthusiasm gap" or Romney's weirdness as being a combination of his stilted demeanor mixed with the alien-like nature of his purported religion, or more simply that as an extremely wealthy citizen (certainly a member of the "one-percent") Romney lives in a separate social sphere then the rest of us. The true cause for the weirdness may never be solved by this kind of speculation. But this metaphorical play about humanness and automatons compels me to revisit one the great films of the 20th Century(in my opinion, anyway): Blade Runner.

In Ridley Scott's dystopian science fiction opus, the human-like robot antagonists are called "replicants," designed to mimic us in every way, except for their truncated three-year life spans and their lack of emotion. Here we run headlong into uncanny valley and the tragic cliche of the soulless, unfeeling robot. But, in this world the newest replicant models come out, the "Nexus Six," and they begin to grow their own emotions. The films action centers around a "blade runner" named Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), who is essentially a detective that hunts down and retires (read: kills) escaped replicants. Besides a powerful gun, the blade runner relies on a Voight-Kampff machine to interrogate a suspected replicant and from the lack of true emotional response, catch them.

At its core, this is an action film, so we get our expected dosage of running, brawling and shooting. But the film's lasting contribution to discourse is, I argue, its meditation on a key question: what would life mean if we could not tell the difference between real and artificial life?

The replicants are used as slave labor in the "off-world colonies," in outer space somewhere, and their function is that of a disposable work force built to do the dangerous or difficult tasks humans no longer want to do. Deckard learns that a group of escaped replicants violently overthrow their masters and return to Earth seeking... well that's what the audience wants to know. For those who have not yet seen the film, the below video is a bit of spoiler (you may wish to skip it):

We witness the violence and apathy toward human life, as the replicants kill their way to their goal. Deckard's necessity is predicated on the notion that in this world the replicants are dangerous and must be stopped at all costs. But, we slowly grow to understand that while there may be a horrifying and sadistic decadence in the way the replicants exercise their violence, that they are designed to be killers. Also, the life into which they are born, slavery, affords them only two real avenues in their short lives: to obey or to kill. We also find that they fall in love, keep photographs of one another and possess a desire to experience beauty and pleasure, and even to search for meaning.

As Deckard faces the prospect of his own death at the climax of the film, his nemesis Roy Batty, saves him with an act of pure compassion. And hence, the film creates a role reversal: which one is the real killer?

Mitt Romney, and his well-paid cadre of campaign strategists, may well be crafting a narrative for him as the good replicant who will catch us as we fall. We are certainly sung the songs of a messianic savior with all of the republican candidates, but Romney seems to have the most to prove in regards to his humanity. In November, without fail, these primary days will be lost, like tears in the rain.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Episode 2: Dr. Alan Glasser

Our sophomore episode is now live! I talk with Dr. Alan Glasser from the University of Washington's PSI (Plasma Science and Innovation) Center. We discuss nuclear science, nuclear power, science in general and religion. Exciting stuff. Click the play button below to make it happen:

XML/Podcast feed to follow shortly. In the meantime, if you'd like the download the file for later, click here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Science Saturday

I am preparing to record an interview with Dr. Alan Glasser on science, among other things, and I came across this short clip of Ken Miller on the human genetics and our primate ancestors. Although the uploader of this video chose, I think, a title too provocative, the subject matter is facing. Take a look:

The intriguing bit, which he waits until the end of the topic to reveal, is that Miller admits to being a theist, but not a creationist. I am fascinated by the growing distrust of science and terrified that one of the outcomes of this distrust may that an entire generation of Americans loses their incentive to help expand the frontiers of knowledge. More on this later...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

SOPA, Protest, and Acting "As If..."

If you turned on your Internet yesterday you may have seen subtle (or gross) evidence of a boycott of some pending legislation. Namely the House of Representative's SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and its Senatorial counterpart PIPA (the Protect IP Act). Both bills inscribe new powers granted to the Federal government to police the web for copyright infringement. While the case for the need for such powers is far from settled, opposition to the bill has centered around its callous disregard for due process in this newly declared war on piracy.

Instead of me attempting to describe the biggest problems about SOPA and PIPA, please watch this video primer from noted Internet pedagogic guru Khan Academy:

The key point the narrator makes here is "...on just a whim [the government] could take down any site with user generated content..." Of course, it would be foolish to think that, if enacted, the newly minted Internet Police would take down Facebook or YouTube (those sites are too wealthy, have too many lawyers, and too well connected to face a serious threat of shutting down), but they won't. However, the number of these suspected sites that would be in violation of copyright infringement would be so large it could represent a majority of the webpages on the Internet (there are over 340 million pages on the web, by the way). But obviously they can't do that, so what would follow would be a witch hunt of sorts, highly politicized, that would mire the courts and the very infrastructure of the Internet for years.

So, cue Internet activism! Yesterday, January 18th, sites like Google and Wired censored their pages in part, or like Wikipedia, blacked them out entirely. And it worked, for now. Congressmen and Senators, likely seeing the potential backlash from future voters, did an about face. The number of legislators who stated as explicitly for/against flipped from 80/30 to 64/108. The combined voice of many large cultural entities on the Web *did* shift the political trade winds in this instance, and we should take note.

However, we should always be cautious. The sponsor of SOPA, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, will continue to mark up the bill in February, effectively putting the legislation back on the table. And, even more likely, if it cannot be passed into law in its current form it will added into other future legislation; legislation against which it will be even more difficult to rally congressional opposition.

There is much too much say about the intricate web of influence bearing down on this legislation (the poster child for this is the newly minted CEO of the MPAA and astoudingly hypocritical Former Senator Chris Dodd) from movie and music industry lobbies to video game developers and publishers. Not surprisingly, this is a bipartisan effort fueled by the coffers of entertainment industry lobbyists to secure complete regulatory capture over the public's interest in creative works. Not only solidifying their control over the law, but the enforcement of those laws as well.

Infuriating as the legislative situation may be, I was more intrigued by the notions of another commentator, a man who is invisible to lawmakers, the mass media and, well, just about everyone else too out of touch with the Internet to comprehend it without some kind of grossly oversimplified and utterly misunderstood analogy. That man is Maddox, pre-blog era blogger and creator of The Best Page in the Universe™. Known primarily for his take-downs of pop culture icons (i.e. Joan Rivers, Jar-Jar Binks, etc...) or his indignant and incendiary backlash against duplicitous and fraudulent internet businesses. He's the foul-mouthed, spitfire contrarian most people would prefer to ignore forever. But buried within the satirical sass lies the seeds of bitter truths.

Maddox's current page has a rant with a large title splashed across which states "I Hope SOPA Passes." Why, you ask? It's not because Maddox owns a multimedia empire vulnerable to those pesky digital pirates. Quite the opposite. He's a small blogger who is able to keep "above water" from the revenues from his online store. Maddox's satirical appropriation of images or clips from other copyrighted works are key elements his commentary. Such is the case with most content creators on the Internet. It's the protest itself he finds unpalatable. He wants SOPA to pass...

Because that's exactly what we need to wake up from this slumbering, do-nothing, "occupy everything," stagnant, non-action slump we Americans are in.

He goes onto pointing out the other types of things this protest culture believes:

  • Boycotting gas for a day makes a difference. It doesn't. Delaying when you buy gas by a day only broadcasts your intentions to oil speculators so they can profit. And the oil still gets purchased a day before or after anyway.
  • Neurotically recycling every single shred of garbage in your home makes a difference. It doesn't. Even if you, your neighbors, and everyone you've ever met recycled everything and reduced your waste output to zero, it wouldn't even make an observable impact on overall waste production in the world. Household waste and garden residue account for less than 3% of all waste produced in the US. That's less than the average statistical margin of error, and most people don't even come close to producing zero waste.
  • Changing your profile picture on Facebook will get people to: A) stop abusing kids B) stop molesting kids C) stop killing kids and D) do anything.
  • Signing an online petition, or changing the front page of your website to protest SOPA will fix anything.

The kind of irrationality Maddox rails against has been described by Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek as "fetishistic disavowal." He clarifies this as the the way in which we know our behavior is not actually having the desired effect, but we continue to do it and act as though it does anyways. This is the same tendency that like to call "theater." For example, the increased presence and authority of the TSA in domestic airports. They are agents of the security state designated to catch potential terrorists on domestic flights, but have failed to catch even one terrorist. This is a kind of "security theater" wherein we employ thousands of agents, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, to give us the impression of security, in the absence of evidence that they really accomplish the goal of increased security. In fact, the TSA's own "Top 10 Good Catches of 2011" were forgetful or clueless, yet innocent, people. I am also fond of describing "dog poop theater," wherein a dog owner must pretend to pick up poop off of a strangers lawn if the canine didn't defecate, for fear that someone will see them if they don't pick up "the poop." But, I digress.

This "disavowal" is, at its core, rooted in our ideologies. It is a kind of faith we place in overarching narratives about causality, about the outcomes of our actions. But more importantly, the narratives about our own agency in the world. Us humans are perpetually caught between the contradictory notions that we are ultimately helpless to larger forces at play in the universe and simultaneously the boundless masters of our own destiny. Our ideologies create the lens through which we view this contradiction, and either empower us to action or comfort us in our misfortune.

My answer to this, and my rebuttal to Maddox, is that while we should be critical of over-praising ourselves as saviors but we should celebrate every little victory we achieve, even if the victory is merely symbolic. The SOPA win is praiseworthy and significant, just the same as the Occupy movement, because it brings new issues to light, new discussions to the fore. But, we should not go to sleep afterward and become complacent. And we should never be afraid to dream, for in dreams possibility is without limit and only from dreams that humanity's true marvels have been realized.

EDIT: A must-read follow up to the on-going SOPA fiasco.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

If You Listen to One Thing Today: Mike Daisey and China

Monologist Mike Daisey on China: The Place Where All of Our Junk is Made:
Chilling and brilliant. Give a listen.

Monday, January 9, 2012

On the Limits of Debate (Election 2012 Edition)

As I stated in my previous post, watching the Republican candidates debate is a "mind-bendingly elaborate insult to rational discourse," and very few inside the media are wont to scrutinize the inanity of the process. While the debates themselves were, in the past run by a non-partisan and independent organization, the League of Women Voters, since 1988 the debates have been a collusion between the two ruling parties, and hence a sham. Not only does the Commission on Presidential Debates effectively exclude third-party and unpopular opinions for national, televised debates (the sole avenue through which most Americans learn about the candidates), but the participants agree on ground rules (those topics for which they can and cannot discuss) behind closed doors and without any form of public participation. The process as it stands now is unrepentant political theater at its purest and a conspiracy in the truest Twainian sense:

“A conspiracy is nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public”

So it follows that yet another mechanism of discursive gatekeeping has been inscribed in the process itself, limiting the candidates who may appear (and hence their ability to be "known" by the electorate), limiting the scope and boundaries of the topics discussed, and ultimately constraining the potential range of policies any given President may be able to enact.

If the above breakdown sounds cynical and defeatist, I admit for the moment, that it is. But every so often, the contradictions that exist within this closed system yield unexpected results.

Take this Vlog discussion between linguist James McHorter and Brown University's Glenn Loury on Ron Paul and the Republican debates:

Once again, Ron Paul is the key here. The process as it is produced a candidate for whom a portion of his political message runs diametrically opposed to political orthodoxy, namely the sacrosanct triumvirate of the domestic security state, the "war" on drugs, and military intervention and occupation abroad. This is so shocking because even the Democrats were afraid to run a candidate so boldly in opposition to warlord Bush in 2004, fearing the label of being "weak on defense."

Glenn Loury very lucidly (and I think accurately) denounces the requirement of each candidate to "genuflect" appropriately to satisfy the overarching Republican narrative (Obama must be stopped at all cost, taxes must be cut to end recession, America needs to fight and expand its wars indefinitely, entitlements must be eliminated, etc...). They make reference to the idea of Ron Paul's odious views as akin to "farting in church," which in and of itself invokes a startling image of the ideological groupthink in which the political and media classes are embroiled.

The conclusion drawn by both commentators is intriguing, namely that Ron Paul's views on domestic policy are abhorrent, but seeing as how the media elite have done everything in their power to make him invisible (and when they cannot ignore him outright, paint him as "unelectable"), it is fascinating to hear his views on foreign policy in such close proximity to the perpetual caterwauling over whom would bomb Iran MORE.

It is difficult for me to produce an opinion more articulate and striking as the above two commentators, but I would only say that despite my aforementioned cynicism, I think that the mere inclusion of Paul's anti-Imperialist critique in the debate signals a larger civilizational trend for the growth of civility in our fractured world. In 2003, on the eve of starting an unprovoked, illegal and immoral war on Iraq, we saw some of the largest world-wide protests ever recorded. Despite the ubiquitous gloom and doom impressed upon us by global events, we are becoming more civilized; the voice of reason, and those willing to repeat and amplify that voice, are growing. Strange days, indeed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More (Apocalyptic) Thoughts -- In Long Form

In building this podcast/discussion enterprise, I am slowing realizing the value of "long form" material. Certainly my first podcast, which clocks in at roughly 1 hour 15 minutes, is a tangent from your standard "The Day in 100 Seconds" web fare. It may be my own self-righteous inclination to prosecute discussions in the same manner as one would patronize a potful of tea. To that end, I will make no apology for long-windedness, I will merely aim to make what I present to you worth your precious time.

Mea culpas aside, my reflections on the New Year® have wandered into darker territories, as the current political circus revs up for what promises to be a mind-bendingly elaborate insult to rational discourse. Author and journalist Chris Hedges appeared on C-SPAN on New Years Day to perform an impressive three-hour marathon of interview and caller questions (as has become C-SPAN's signature format for notable guests). He lays out a case, in first 15-or-so minutes, for the downfall of the American Empire and the rise of "Corporate Totalitarianism." Take a look here (apologies as C-SPAN's archive does not allow embedding):

For Hedges, the decline of the economic opportunity, as well as the erosion of civil liberties (and the pernicious cultural manipulation used to create popular consent for this disenfranchisement) are really a failure of institutions. Journalism, trade unions, populist politicians/legislation; these are the firewalls that once insulated the vulnerable citizenry from political and economic dispossession, but are now lost to decades of concerted class warfare by the corporate elite.

Hedges view is certainly not unique. His is essentially a Chomskyan worldview, delivered through the experiences of the baby boomer generation, informed by the dissent of such figures as I.F. Stone and Dwight Macdonald, all with a dash of Liberation Theology-flavored radicalism. He certainly makes all of the tell-tale allusions to anarcho-syndicalism (the Wobblies) as well as to the Bernays/Lippman program of the "manufacture of consent." Hedges also has the distinction of a front-line journalist, which can produce an understandably bleak (but well informed) critique of powerful institutions.

While Hedges laments the "slow motion" destruction of the tools available to popular movements to affect change, he ultimately concludes (as he does in his 2009 book 'Empire of Illusion') that hope rests solely in mass popular movements, akin to the labor struggles of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

This strikes me as another case of "Chomsky's Wager." Legendary author and activist Noam Chomsky has long maintained that given the proper education, the masses will grow to understand the blatant contradictions between our national self-image (freedom and democracy) and the actions carried out by those who purport to work in furtherance of these ideals. Ultimately, these revelations will give rise to a populist moral imperative to eschew the misguided violence and control that these institutions utilize, and either co-opt them or abolish them outright in a wave of mass actions.

On the subject of Chomsky's Wager, I am ambivalent. I am skeptical of the redemptive power of a righteous mob in service of objective truth (for reasons which I should not need to expand upon here). A set of assumptions underlies the surety of Chomsky's solution, the foremost of which is that societies of a sufficiently large size possess the capacity to undergo such gargantuan shifts of public consciousness. The emotional fervor evoked by American patriotism and nationalism within the electorate are powerful, if not insurmountable.

Also, I find it dubious that Americans, despite the gradual dissolution of their rights, who live in an uncommonly open and prosperous society would seek to destabilize their immediate material and social lives for an alien and unfamiliar future. Their economic safety net, albeit a crumbling one, is reinforced by a comforting ideological safety net, which is so persuasive that seemingly no amount of military aggression, domestic repression and economic disenfranchisement has yet been able to unseat. The American dream is an enduring delusion.

In contrast to Hedge's gambit, I humbly direct you to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Last year, Zizek appeared on a Dutch television program to expound on ideas from his book "Living in the End Times." Watch the master at work:

Zizek's unique political and social perspective is born out of the turmoil of Soviet-era Yugoslavia. He is known primarily for his study (and appropriation) of the French Psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan's cultural theories and as labeling himself as an unapologetic Communist. For Zizek, the problem is (and always has been) ideological in nature, as it is ideologies that create and sustain the semiotics and mythologies that comprise our sense of self. As Zizek is fond of repeating "It is not what lies in the wheelbarrow, it is the wheelbarrow itself."

It is our vulnerability to adopting factually falsities (the example in the above video of the hedge fund millionaire, claiming the market wasn't allowed to work because government intervened) that is the trademark of ideology. It is the propensity for the simplistic, false, and irrational to supersede the quest for truth. Zizek often uses a dialectical method of analyzing cultural phenomena, looking at the obverse as well as the inverse.

I appreciate the way it was put by H.L. Mencken: "For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong."

Viewing our crisis from a Marxist perspective, Zizek links the ideological issue to that of our economic system. He claims that recent economic crisis was decried by Capitalism's apologists that "tr[ied] to put the blame on how we were not faithful enough to the fundamentals of the system." Zizek goes on to state that "...Capitalism today is a matter of religion, in the sense of it's built on trust." In other words, our failures amounted to a problem a lack of devotion to the Church of Capitalism, not that the problem might be Capitalism itself.

Ultimately, Zizek concludes that "[n]either the market nor the state... will do the job..." of rescuing us from ourselves. Zizek does offer a solution, however it is difficult to know whether or not to take him seriously. He calls for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" to be sole hope of human social liberation.

His critics accuse him, and rightly so, of sometimes espousing contradictory positions in his meandering and raving polemics, but like Marx himself, the methods he uses to frame the problems may be more valuable than the solutions offered. My own view on Hedges and Zizek lies somewhere in between.

Ideology represents the single greatest achievement of the human species (the ability for different tribes to organize around common principles) and has led to much of the advancements that we hold dear. But the ideologies of our past, as well as the institutions we build to sustain them past the lifespan of any single human, die hard. The speed of information, the quickening of the pace of communication and the shortening of attention point us towards quick hits, not long games. The pining for the old newspaper, the proud union, or the inspired political party betray our inchoate desire for the benevolent dictator; if only we found the CEO/president/spiritual leader that understands us best, the future could be salvaged. Perhaps the secret is not to look for salvation at all.

The little apocalypses we create may merely be visions of our personal ends. And the future may be beset by chaos; we are buzzing little bees without a queen.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011: A Year for Recaps

With the New Year® already in swing, the compulsion to nostalgize grows, and the beast must be fed. I'll refrain from boring you with a personal eulogy of all things tragic about the last year, but, I urge you to take the time and watch Charlie Brooker (the UK's answer to Jon Stewart) and his snarkey, sobering and always insightful commentary on the now-by-gone annum:

With a runtime of about an hour, you'll definitely want to make time for this clip, but it is well worth it. Not least of all was the glimpse into the events that the British obsessed over, but didn't show up on our news radar here in America. Perhaps most bizarre was the super-injunction scandal, which was tantamount to institutionalized press censorship.

Also of note: Brooker's commentary contains a mini-documentary by the brilliant filmmaker Adam Curtis on embattled publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch and his rise to power. Curtis' incisive, and award-winning, explorations of topics like the manipulation of public mind garnered much praised, but his works has not yet received too much attention in the states. If you have *more* time today, I recommend getting comfortable and watching The Century of the Self... you'll thank me for it.

And, I digress. Happy New Year to you all!