Today's media ecology is a digital matrix of ‘mediatization’ in which the new everyday we create reciprocates in its very structure the ordered chaos of the world we physically inhabit. This new everyday is a space of betweenness – of plurality and ambiguity – wherein the non-universality of the practice of social action is highlighted. As we reflect upon progress in this issue, we also wondered about situating social progress within the context of technological innovation.
With every technological innovation and media revolution comes a shift in our communication with one another. As such, the practice of everyday life is in constant flux – in part due to this technological evolution, the ensuing globalization, and the effects of these processes upon our biological and sociological evolution. This phenomenon itself is neither good nor bad but both, since media are powerful tools for hegemony or social transformation.
Ubiquitous in their expansion, these new media of re-presentation (namely the Internet and its networked hardware infrastructure) are transforming the landscape (our experience of the world as mediated by our bodily sensorium, as-is) and we along with it. As Sherry Turkle writes in The Second Self , “There was a time when computers evoked, rather than determined, thinking.” Now, the age-old debate between determinism and free will is being played out on the subjunctive stage of the datascape, where our experience of the world is mediated by technology. The datascape is a space at once frontier, boundary, liminality, possibility, past, present, future in which we might relate to ourselves, each other, and, via our stories, the world in which we live.
Given the fluidity with which the landscape and the datascape interlope our lived experiences, they may even be conceived as a Möbius strip; their separateness existing only in our ability to conceptualize it as such and to situate ourselves accordingly. There is a dialectic relationship between these 'scapes' and us: we create them, and they are the spaces within which we create societies, our organizations, cultures, and ourselves. The 'scapes' are also the means by which we come to know of and experience cultures and places other than our own. Technology and globalization change these 'scapes'; change these cultures, societies, organizations. Everydayness becomes a constant stochastic process.
In this context, culture has been taken up by various social change actors as a means of situating ourselves and one another within this increasingly transnational and technological everydayness. Cultures –expressions of individual and group identities – can be (and often are) undergoing frequent metamorphoses. As an example, write Ginsburg et al., culture is “increasingly objectified and mediated as it becomes a course of claims for political and human rights both nationally and on the world stage." Historically, definitions of culture (in anthropology and elsewhere) have been strongly correlated to geography; that is, the identity of a group of individuals or even diaspora communities as they relate to a particular landscape. Indigenous people’s human rights grievances are, for example, often intractable from issues related to the landscape, as are their claims to recognition as indigenous peoples. Political nation-state borders also represent both a demarcation of culture (i.e., France and French culture, the United States and American culture) and a colonial disregard for the social and everyday constitutions of culture; the implications of which are still – and often violently – playing out to this day (i.e., the ‘Stans' of southeast Asia, Kashmir, Sudan, et cetera).
“Now, shared conceptions of identity are predominately conceived within the lived experience of the everyday, in both the landscape and the datascape. There is no longer a focus for the formation of shared identity, but instead myriad foci that include the constellation of options for everyday lived experiences in the landscape and the datascape.”
Now, shared conceptions of identity (culture) are predominately conceived within the lived experience of the everyday, in both the landscape and the datascape. There is no longer a focus for the formation of shared identity (culture, landscape), but instead myriad foci that include the constellation of options for everyday lived experiences in the landscape and the datascape (mediated access to many cultures and many landscapes). These constellations, as Ricki Goldman-Segall writes, are places where "chunks" of the datascape are configured by individual stakeholders and communities of practice. As technology constitutes and makes possible evermore of these everyday lived experiences, we consequently become increasingly cyborgian.
Albeit, the referent of the term “culture” and even the word itself is a site of contestation in various academic disciplines as well as the international human rights community. There will never be a defining of “culture” that is at once objectively universal, ontologically foundational, and locally universal. As a concept, though, it is indispensable. Culture, as Cowan, Dembour and Wilson write, might help to “identify and think more productively about the specificities of, and differences and relations between, (a) local or group-specific, (b) nation-state and (c) supra-national concepts, institutions and processes concerning rights.” However indefinable, culture does function as an expression of the world's myriad societies, thereby providing a basis for analysis, comparison, understanding, and empathy.
Across the range of human rights identities and cultures – defenders, lawyers, activists, anthropologists, victims, perpetrators, the international human rights system (namely the United Nations and its ancillaries), and transnational human rights networks – individuals and groups committed to human rights advocacy and action engage in what Ginsburg et al. call projects of “societal self-production.” In such projects, a consciousness about incorporating technological objects into their value systems may be a meaningful arbiter of success. From cell phone users in Jamaica and Bollywood producers in India to Latino marketeers in the U.S. and Hip-Hop aficionados in Japan, such societal self-production also points to an important shift in the relation of rights to agency and power: the datascape has opened another front for social action; one that allows individuals and groups to organize without organizations.
Importantly, the evolution and ease of social media and the resultant access to tools of storytelling production, documentation, and evidence gathering also allow pro-social narratives a different way to access – and the option of circumventing– mass media networks as well as the international human rights bureaucracy. For those myriad human rights actors attempting to redress their particular problem, this opens another front in the struggle to achieve social change locally and, in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “curious grapevine,” teach a global human rights consciousness.
A brief purview of history and a glance at today's news headlines makes it abundantly clear that violence is normative and, much as we might like to think otherwise, not at all aberrant. We are enmeshed in a cycle of hegemonic violence and a related historicism. Walter Benjamin takes this observation much further when he writes, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." His validation of this statement is rooted in a discussion of the historical practice of the ownership of cultural treasures being transferred to the victor of a battle or a war. As it has been since the dawn of recorded History, historicism is still the ultimate spoil of victory.
“Today, we are living in the embodiment of the spiral confluence of space-time-perception: both an explanation of the present and particular, as well as validity across time and space. Spacetime is the message of the Internet.”
Despite prominent and meaningful examples of revolution and social change, global and local politics continue to be stuck in a circle of hegemony and via a cultural declaration of the victor by the victor. It is for this reason that understanding violence and power, and being familiar with these narratives, is a necessary precursor to the remediation of human rights violations; for historical narratives of violence provide both a basis for making meaning of contemporary violence and a starting point for staving off future transgressions.
One contemporary example of hegemony that has ties to the datascape is the invisible yet extant power media wields upon our personal, individual psychologies and the manifestation of this influence in our corporeality and other interpersonal communications. When used to create rather than only complement our own intelligence and imagination, the result can be a dynamic in which technology becomes the arbiter of reality.
Today, we are living in the embodiment of the spiral confluence of space-time-perception; what Walter Mignolo calls spacetime: both an explanation of the present and particular, as well as validity across time and space. Spacetime is the message of the Internet. It is the current culmination of a progression of communication and empirical and emotional understanding of the landscape, and a concomitant transition into, and expansion of, the datascape. The result is a profuse democratization of communication fueled by a new logic of politics that is actualized in both organized networks and networked organizations. This phenomenon presents great opportunity for positive social action. As Ginsburg et al. write:
Whatever the contradictions, as new technologies have been embraced as powerful forms of collective self-production, they have enabled cultural activists to assert their presence in the polities that encompass them and to more easily enter into much larger movements for social transformation for the recognition and redress of human and cultural rights.
In other words, the datascape has enabled what Walter Mignolo calls a “geopolitics of knowledge,” in which knowledge has become a commodity and information can be used as a currency of peace as well as it can be a display of power. While this may have always been possible, the amplification of its possibility has been exemplified from the arguably inane (i.e., the “Pull your pants up!” Facebook cause) to the essential (i.e., charity: water), and from the most grassroots and “small media” (i.e., the 1979 Iranian Revolution) to the most sophisticated and well funded (i.e., President Obama's 2008 presidential campaign).
Some say we are now – and possibly more than ever – shrouded in a veil of artificiality, from behind which we no longer recognize the self-perpetuating oppression and conditioning of rampant skepticism. The turn of entertainment, predicated on public humiliation and the cannibalistic ego (i.e., reality TV) renders a wasteland of girls wishing they, too, could be a Kardashian. The militaries and terrorists of the world continue to produce fodder for more storytelling. War maims and kills and so gives the rest of us who are safe something to talk about.
“We believe that the change at hand, engaging in the datascape and becoming cyborgian – fusing our selves with the haptic – needn't follow the current course of environmental destruction and blithe ignorance.”
Journalism has gone from forays into the sensational to a 24-hour live stream of competition for viewers’ attention that is judged on scales of extreme shock and awe. Reality itself is shrouded in a veil of artificiality and, as Fred Ritchin writes:
The attempt to camouflage the artificiality is shared. It is not only the power elite and their media managers but also the publications and television stations that are complicit...This editorial process, while its results are highly visible, is ultimately unseen. And the digital, with its nearly undetectable alterations, becomes a useful tool in extending the camouflage.
Despite the datascape’s belligerent manifestations, tremendous benefit and convenience can also be found in the expansion of the datascape. One of the most prevalent and often touted advantages is the relatively recent mobilization of access to the Web and (mass) communications. Such devices as the cellular phone, the laptop computer, and the tablet computer allow for mobility without the sacrifice of connectivity; and not just for the world's elite, as is evidenced in the proliferate use and increasing popularity of mobile phones in Africa and other so-called developing regions of the world.
We do not pretend to have the answers that will determine whether our future is utopian or apocalyptic. We do know, though, that there is a difference between ecology (which is cyclical) and, for example, our production and consumption processes (which are relatively linear). This disparity gives rise to unprecedented structural violence and human rights abuses. We believe that the change at hand, engaging in the datascape and becoming cyborgian – fusing our selves with the haptic – needn't follow the current course of environmental destruction and blithe ignorance. Instead, we can learn how to take documentation of the world’s horrors for cautionary tales of the dangers inherent in being unwitting tourists in the datascape. Should we do so, storytelling of all sorts may re-emerge as a means of communication, expression, understanding, and not the ascription of meaning and knowledge as an end to itself. In other words, we can, in each of our everydays, teach and express a critical consciousness.
We can also, we believe, bring to media ecology a measure of historicism that has as its scaffolding a genealogy that is confluence; that is (e)motion and the simultaneity of many truths; that helps to conceptualize history in terms of remembrance. As such, history is genealogy and genealogy is a hypermedia project: a choose-your-own-adventures scenario of situating ourselves in the landscape and the datascape with a critical consciousness. It allows for a conception of History and progress as a constantly evolving confluence of archives in which acknowledgement of everyday participation and the action of participating in the everyday constitutes culture and is the writing of histories.
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