Thursday, February 03, 2011

"We Are the Medium"

It's February and winter seems long during the shortest month. The photo is by Eddie~S published with a CC 2.0 license.

February 2nd is Groundhog's Day here in the USA. One of our silly customs takes place not so far from where I live in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A group of men in waistcoats and top hats get together to determine whether a groundhog, named Punxsutawney Phil, who is kept in a little zoo there, sees his shadow or doesn't at the dawn's early light. The outcome is supposed to predict an early spring or whether winter will be long. This year Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow meaning an early spring.

It's a silly custom, yet oddly cheering, if for no other reason that people can all say aloud that winter is hard. February 2nd is also the day Christians celebrate Candelmas. I don't have the story straight but our own little pageant involving a groundhog is thought to be some adaptation of German custom. There aren't groundhogs in Germany, and the animal in question there is a badger. There are plenty of groundhogs around here. They're burrowing animals that hibernate, so are snug in their burrows now.

David Weinberg wrote a blog post a few days ago and I took his title. Here's a bit of what he wrote:
I mean by “We are the medium” something I think we all understand, although the old way of thinking keeps intruding. “We are the medium” means that, quite literally, we are the ones through whom information, messages, news, ideas, videos, and links of every sort move — and they move through this “channel” because we decide to move them. Someone sends me a link to a funny video. I tweet about it. You see it. You send a Facebook message to your friends. One of them (presumably an ancient) emails it to more friends. The video moves through us. Without us, the transport medium — the Internet — is a hyperlinked collection of inert bits. We are the medium.
With the events in Tunisia and now in Egypt I've been glued to the Internet. I don't really think of the links I post at Facebook as being particularly political, or controversial. I think of them more as "human interest" stories. Oh and lots of Youtube music videos. But people still read into my posts certain assumptions about my politics. Clearly the major social networking sites all have algorithms to peg me to, for example Twitter is happy to provide a list of people like me and their recommendations make a lot of sense.

Anyhow at Facebook I put up a half dozen or so link in re Egypt. It seemed as though I got quite a lot of pushback, essentially the message to the effect that I was awfully naive and perhaps stupid in my opinions. What struck me as strange was I hadn't really imagined that I was expressing opinions, but rather pointing to sites aggregating news and to a few posts by people with informed comments--yes including Juan Cole.

Meanwhile I was also posting the normal sort of "feature" articles. I posted a video of Orlando Napier singing Yesterday. I hadn't heard Napier before I read a blog post recounting a speaking engagement by Daniel Dennett in front of a gathering of Irish athesist. I linked to the post because a few of my Facebook friends are atheists and Dennett is a star player on their team. However the main reason for including the blog link along with the video link was I thought it interesting that Dennett had played recordings of Napier singing as an example of "secular Gospel" music. I thought it interesting that Dennett was apparently a fan of Napier's work. The whole notion of Dennett thinking "secular Gospel" music important and the the Irish crowd didn't like the sound much seemed a bit funny to me; a joke I thought might amuse some of my other American friends.

I'm reluctant to copy an old friend's comment here, or to name him. The comment itself is carefully couched, but I took the gist of it as a negative stereotype about Muslims. Later, the next day, I linked to a moving video of an Egyptian in England protesting outside the Egyptian consulate in London. My friend left a comment "Be careful what you wish for." that comment lead some more back and forth in re Egypt.

I's still trying to find some conservatives to love. It seems a useful exercise, but is slow going. There was lengthy report released recently by The Pew Center for People & the Press. One factoid from that is about 18% of Americans think of themselves as liberal. "Liberal" in American parlance has all sorts of meanings, some of which I would distance myself from. But in most contexts I cop to the term. Probably overall my views, which I hardly consider far left, are left of the views many American liberals hold. So I'm out there on the fringe, and sometimes I forget that.

Before the American invasion of Iraq I was at a party and the same friend who commented on my Facebook links and I had a somewhat contentious conversation about it. Now I was out, and I'm sure I was trying to be on my best behavior. I can rant on obscenely and my poor father has has endured those, although even then I do try to retrain myself. Anyhow it seems to me the way that discussion is remembered by other friends at the party is that I was fighting, and being impolite. And in the Facebook thread my friend warned me to stay "just this side of a fist fight."

I like that some friends my age are using Facebook now. It's something new, and the culture of Facebook is pretty nice. That's nice. But I think it a little strange that my old friends seem to have any idea how heated conversations on the Internet can be. Yes, I think they've heard of flame wars, but don't know. Good grief, I surely do disagree with my friend, but his standards of politeness seem awfully fragile to me.

It's very strange to think how people imagine me, especially based on links, based on what I point to on the Internet. Ah, but of course I'm th3e same way. I follow people on Twitter for example and construct some sense about them, however the more important thing seems to be whether what they say and point to seems interesting to me. All this rambling to make the banal point: if we are the message the old chestnut "Don't blame the messenger" really isn't such an obvious distinction nowadays.

My the argument I was pursing about the events in Egypt very roughly was to make the point that neo-liberalism was hitting the wall. Of course it may be the roughness of my argument, but it made little sense to my friend. This post by Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is polished and makes some points well that I only attempted to make. I doubt my friend would read it, but if you've gotten this far along in this post, I recommend it to you.

February is also Black History Month in the USA, another of our quaint customs. Cornell West tweeted on the first day of February:
Black people's struggle for freedom is the key to the moral and political history of the democratic experiment called America.
. Yep, that's why I don't think Black History Month silly at all; many Americans do think it silly.

Anyhow, tonight an Arab American tweeted that this video, a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last speech with a photo montage, was being shared widely by his Egyptian friends on Facebook this morning (The night was very violent in Egypt. And the Internet after being cut off in Egypt was just being restored.) "We Shall Overcome" moves me. Here's part of what King said used in the video, but the whole speech is worth reading:
I can still sing "We Shall Overcome."

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—"No lie can live forever."

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—"Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again."

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing earlier today,

Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne.

Yet that scaffold sways the future.

And behind the dim unknown stands God,

Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
Irish atheists may not know what to make of "secular Gospel" music, but I think it's charming such a hard-headed atheist like Daniel Dennett thinks such a category is worthwhile. I suspect his relationship to this speech and others where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to Gospel songs is one reason why. It's very moving that Egyptians after such hardship would rush to post the video this morning. "We Shall Overcome."


The 27th Comrade said...

Prof. Daniel Dennett strikes me repeatedly as one of those just so love to be secular that they cordon off any possibility of following the implications of their secularism to where they should lead. For example, the chimera there, of "secular gospel" certainly sounds too good for the unresolvable tension in it to be examined. And I do not mean the religious implication of "gospel". I mean that, in a World that has only particles knocking each other, there is no such thing as "anthem" or "rousing" or "beautiful". Oh, he would protest this. But there is a reason he is no Alex Rosenberg.

It is hard to imagine you tossing forth fightin' words. You put on too much of the rather yielding front when you are on the Internet. Isn't this the very opposite of what we should see, given that the Great Internet Fuckwad Theory has been proven to fifteen decimal places? :o)

I forget where I found the link on "catabolic collapse", but it seems that these premises are there in the article you link to. I hated the comments on that post (when I read it), because there was no challenge of any sort; just an echo chamber, and inept challengers. I may not agree with it all, but where I concur is large, as with the link you put. In particular, this food thing requires a second look from everyone.

The Martin Luther King thing shows just what a gifted orator the guy was. Yet interesting that you are correct on the relationship between atheists and this kind of moving humanity. The problem is that beauty, truth, justice, and brotherhood are all less-rational than God (not least because they are rooted in Him, but also because they are not part of an assemblage of physical particles any more than they are part of an assemblage of snail turds). To grasp these things of beauty, taste, feeling and hope, you awaken your right brain, and at that point you abandon the maniacal precision that can sustain things like "There is no God." You cannot have both; but Prof. Dennett is probably too smart to know this; too smart to be correct on such a thing.

The 27th Comrade said...

Ah yes, as I remembered, the link came from you, on catabolic collapse. Yes, of course. Incidentally, now I can draw a picture of what goes on in your mind. I guess I can expect that, in a short while, you will be one of those survivalist hordes stocking up on guns, bullets and canned foods. Americans can be very foolish, sometimes, it's amazing.

(Plus, earlier blog link is not correct; this one is.)