Archive for February 2011

Dialogic Identity and the Web

February 23rd, 2011 — 12:49am

Mikhail Bakhtin, the famous Russian literary theorist, is perhaps best known for his collection of essays, ‘The Dialogic Imagination’. In them, he outlines some of the most important concepts in his theory of language such as the idea of ‘heteroglossia’, which emphasizes context over text in the generation of meaning and is an inspiration for later thinkers’ ideas of relational epistemology. In Bakhtin’s view of the dialogic imagination, our thoughts and utterances derive their meaning from the context in which they appear. Everything we say is in some sense a response to somebody else’s utterance, and everything we think or can imagine is also part of the interplay between ourselves and the external world and others.

In other words, to be ‘dialogic’ is to be connected, is to exist only in relation to, or in conversation with, others. Bakhtin applies this idea to the self, and suggests that there are in fact three different parts of our identity: “I-for-myself”, “I-for-the other”, and “Other-for-me”. The first is that secret, internal self-image that we all have and instinctively believe to be our ‘true’ identity, who we ‘truly’ are, if only that was how others actually saw us. The “I-for-the-other” is how we are actually perceived by others, which, Bakhtin argues may be a fairer assessment of our true identity, and the third, “Other-for-me” is that part of other peoples’ identities that is shaped by their relationship with us.

For Bakhtin, then, identity is not solely contained in our own minds and imaginations, it is shared with our friends, our families, and everybody we know. The way we act towards others and what we actually say to them is our identity, just as much as the unreliable and hardly objective views we hold about ourselves. We are not just connected to everybody we know, but we don’t really exist without them. And neither do they without us.

In terms of his literary theory, Bakhtin divides works into ‘monologic’ and ‘dialogic’ categories. The former being more or less self-contained or containing no discernible references to or links with other literature, forming no part of a tradition and not carrying on any ‘conversation’ with, or response to, other pieces of writing. Dialogic texts, on the other hand, are deeply conscious of their relationship with others and constantly allude to or show their awareness of these connections.

It struck me the other day, listening to Matt Adams from Blast Theory talking about the SMS based interactive narrative Ivy4Ever that these concepts may be very helpful in thinking about storytelling online and across platforms. Digital platforms present a number of challenges in terms of presenting simple, sustained narrative texts. That is what books are good at. But the Web, due to its fundamental interconnectedness, also presents a huge range of possibilities for telling stories in a different way. It is a truly dialogic medium because everything is linked together, and everything on the Web clearly derives some part of its identity from its relationship with all the other billions of sites and artefacts around it, or directly linked to it.

Instead of trying to construct narratives, then, which take their form and their meaning from a single source, from the as-it-were ‘monologic’ imagination of a single author, moving in a single direction, stories for the Web should acknowledge their existence in a space where they can be infinitely variable, infinitely tampered with, endless, and shared. In a book, the author’s imagination meets the reader’s in an immanent set of words and sentences. On the Web, this fixation can be overcome. The reader can re-make the story as it is being played out, can re-visit it and find it changed, can interrogate characters and go behind the text. The story is no longer impermeable, and it is no longer disconnected from the world around it, from other stories, pictures, videos and texts. The identity of the story does not just belong to the author. It can be made and re-made by everyone who reads it or plays it. The same claim is made about fiction now, to the extent that every reader has his or her own interpretation. But that is not the same as saying that the form, the text itself, changes in response to each reader’s participation. That is the dialogic nature of storytelling on the Web.

It’s clear that this is something we are just beginning to understand, and it feels as if there’s a long way to go before some of us lose our overweening attachment to traditional book-form storytelling and text and understand the narrative richness, and perhaps most of all the immersive possibilities of a brilliant online story, but we should certainly be exploring these new possibilities. Quite a few artists and writers already are, such as Naomi Alderman with Perplex City, Kate Pullinger with Inanimate Alice, etc… but there’s still some way to go before these new works gain the kind of understanding and acclaim they deserve.

I think Bakhtin can help us here, and if we embrace his notion of the dialogic text, we can start to see more clearly how the Web offers a host of possibilities for fiction, storytelling and connected works of art that will greatly add to and enhance the current forms we use.

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decadence and decline

February 21st, 2011 — 9:32pm

(this is a long post, and not for the faint-hearted, but stick with it, it might be worth it in the end)

There comes a point in the history of all great civilizations when the era of expansion and increasing power and wealth peaks and is replaced by a period of stagnation and then decline. There is no definite path for this downturn, and no clear timescale. Sometimes it will seem to have been halted, or even reversed temporarily. But once it begins, that country will never again regain its preeminence. In Britain, we can date our period of global expansion and influence back as far as the construction of the Royal Navy by Henry VIII (although a more accurate date might be the Battle of Plassey, 1757, which established colonial rule in India). And our decline as a world military and economic power from at least 1914, with the disastrous entry into the Great War (although many historians would argue that British power essentially remained intact until 1939). 1914 was the decisive moment, for me, in which the seeds of the destruction of British power were sown.

Between 1945 and 1971, the United States enjoyed a period of sustained and impressive GDP growth (from $293.7bn in 1950 to $1038.3bn in 1970), as it developed trade with countries all around the world and the Dollar became the global reserve currency (over the objections of Lord Keynes), allowing the US to spend at marginally lower costs than other governments.Some economists also attribute the period of expansion to consistently low oil prices (which certainly played a role in keeping inflation low) and the adoption/continuation of policies for managing the economy and an active fiscal policy (as prescribed by Keynes) to invest in infrastructure and jobs.

But, real median household income has grown only slightly between 1967 and 2010, in a period when GDP growth has increased by a factor of ten. Between 1989 and 2009, median household income in the US increased by only 3.1%, or 0.15% per year over twenty years. In the period 1980 – 2010, compound inflation in the US was 178.52%. In the period 1967 – 2009, the Gini coefficient (showing income inequality) in the US has increased from 0.397 to 0.468.

In other words, not only has the cost of living in the US increased rapidly over the last thirty years, but at the same time real income distribution has changed dramatically in favour of the top earning households. The median figure is better than the mean income distribution which is distorted by the enormous increases in wealth at the top, but it still doesn’t tell the whole story very accurately. In order to see it more clearly you have to look at income distribution among each percentile of the population. Income inequality chart 1967-2003 What this chart clearly shows is how percentiles with annual incomes 2, 3, and 4 times higher than the median have seen a steady increase in their wealth over this period, while those with lower incomes have seen their wealth decline over the same period (relative to the median) or stand still. It’s also worth pointing out that the above chart does not show income growth for the top percentiles, whose worth may be 50-100 times as high as the median. Their wealth has increased at an even greater rate.

Recently, thanks to the introduction of “ill-conceived” tax cuts, which “have conferred the most benefits, by far, on the highest income households”, government revenue has decreased and deficits have continued to rise. President Obama’s new budget proposes $1.1TN spending cuts, which will mean cuts in many social, welfare and education programs, raising comparatively little new revenue, but increasing the pressure on lower and middle-income families. At a time when many Americans are already feeling the painful effects of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, when foreclosures are at record levels and unemployment touching 10%, these cuts and the widening gap in income distribution is likely to have important political ramifications.

In Wisconsin this week we see a Republican state legislature trying to break public sector unions by removing their collective bargaining rights, callously claiming that, since other people are suffering or working for less pay and worse conditions, so too should teachers and other state employees. But this is not about sharing the pain of other citizens, it is simply a convenient mask to cover up an attempt to destroy one of the very few remaining centres of organised labor in the US. In the private sector, unions have long been disbanded or even made illegal. Wal-Mart, to take one example, forbids its employees from forming unions and even sends a special union-busting squad from its headquarters to any store where managers report employees forming casual associations. I could write a lot about the power of organised labour and its counter-balancing of private capital, but that’s really a whole subject on its own.

The single biggest factor in the growth of US government debt is the healthcare system. Spending on healthcare is approximately 16% of GDP, far higher than any other developed country. And yet there are over 50m Americans, or just over 16.7% of the population, without health insurance. No other developed country has a system which leaves so many people with no coverage or access to treatment. Warren Buffett has compared the cost of health insurance premiums in the US to ‘a tapeworm, eating at our economic body’. We have yet to see whether the reforms introduced by Obama will make a significant reduction in the cost of healthcare in the long run. By the CBO’s own estimates, the bill will save $143bn dollars over ten years. Sounds like a lot, but it is actually peanuts when you compare it to the total annual cost of Medicare, Medicaid and other programmes. And the real issue is not just what the government spends, but the rising cost of insurance premiums across the board, which are responsible for pushing many families into bankruptcy and further widening the gap between rich and middle and poor (medical debt contributed to 46.2% of all personal bankruptcies in the US in 2007).

There is also the small matter of the trade imbalance with China. China has accumulated dollar reserves worth $895bn, but America cannot de-leverage or restore this balance while the price of the Yuan remains artificially low and China’s output surges. This leads to further outsourcing of jobs, artificially low interest rates in the US which may lead to future asset price bubbles, and obviously gives China a huge amount of strategic influence in US fiscal and even foreign policy. The disappearance of jobs overseas is a huge cause of resentment and anger, and it also plays into a narrative of unpatriotic, out-of-touch politicians and big business selling America’s middle class and working families down the river.

Many people believe, because they have been so ruthlessly propagandized and exploited, that government spending and tax increases are to blame for their lack of prosperity. In fact, their wealth has been destroyed not by spending on government programmes, but by the corruption of the financial system and its political overseers, who have colluded to turn the great engine of growth and prosperity into a charity for the rich, by an unfair tax system which takes from the middle and the bottom and gives to the top, and by the invention of a banking system which has given astronomical rewards to people who have taken the biggest, stupidest risks and, when they lost, bailed them out with taxpayers’ money. It is not even ‘trickle-down’ economics, it is ‘trickle-up’.

Anybody, no matter how greedy he or she is, must be able to see that this is an unsustainable way of running the economy. Marx said the capitalist should worry about revolutions. I simply say that the capitalist should worry about capital, about the destruction of capital on an almighty scale. 2008 was the clearest example of a crisis caused by runaway greed that you can imagine. In retrospect, in the light of day, it is hard even to comprehend the stupidity, arrogance and venality of the bankers and speculators, politicians, academics and regulators who caused it and let it happen. There are already some excellent accounts of the crisis – for beginners I recommend John Lanchester’s ‘Whoops’, and for those a little more confident in their grasp of economic fundamentals there’s Joseph Stiglitz’s magisterial ‘Freefall’. Charles Ferguson’s excellent new film ‘Inside Job’ also gives a very good (if slightly polemical) insight into the mindsets and lifestyles of those who caused the crash and the corruption of the system that allowed them to do it and get away with it.

When you see that Goldman Sachs, for instance, hedged its exposure to CDOs (mortgages and other personal debts) by shorting them (even the debts that it sold on to other banks) there are two questions that occur to you. One: how the fuck did we ever get into this position in the first place where the people who sell you something know that it is a shit product and are betting against you even as they ink the deal? And two: how did we ever get into a position where the global OTC derivatives market was worth as much as $500 Trillion? Yes, that’s right. 500 trillion dollars.

Well, the story is actually quite well rehearsed. It begins with the repeal of the most important elements of the Glass-Steagall Act, put in place during the New Deal, to prevent deposit banks and investment banks merging, by the Gramm-Leach-Billey Act in 1999. And it also includes, importantly, the relaxation by the SEC of the net capital rule in 2004, allowing banks to borrow much more than they had been permitted to do before, which led to an explosion in ‘mortgage backed securities’ (CDOs, etc…) a primary ingredient of the 2008 crisis. Both of these pieces of regulation were designed to prevent the kind of risk-taking and the concentration of risk that occurred in the years leading up to the crisis. Both were removed as a result of intense political pressure brought to bear by the financial sector on the White House, Treasury and SEC and members of Congress.

Bankers will always argue that they operate within the law, and that all they do is to follow their own rational self interest (i.e. generate as much profit as they can), which, they claim, is their social function and patriotic duty. Just how disingenuous and misleading this argument is can be seen from the history of the Financial Services Roundtable and its members’ attempts to have the law changed in favour of their own preferred business practice, and in how little tax (proportionally) they contribute to the countries they owe their very existence and operations to. Barclays in the UK was forced to acknowledge that it had only paid £113m in tax in 2009, a year in which group profits rose to £11.6bn and the company paid a total of £2.6bn in bonuses to its staff. When unemployment is rising rapidly and most households are faced with declining incomes and potentially devastating changes to their employment and means, is it surprising that people feel hatred and loathing towards the banks and the people who carelessly, and recklessly, threw their money away and still got paid?

It is clear that money has corroded the whole constitutional basis of the government. Campaign contributions, lobbying and appointments to key government positions have allowed Wall Street and financial institutions to dictate government policy and undermine the basis of democracy. Neither of the ruling political parties can operate without the support of these companies. This sounds ridiculously hyperbolic, I know. But there’s no other way of putting it. Just read Matt Taibbi’s article for Rolling Stone and see what I mean.

The US constitution was designed explicitly to separate Executive, Legislative and Judicial powers, but it has failed to separate those powers effectively from the corrupting influence of vast amounts of money. The genetic signature of American decline might be seen (symbolically at least) in the conflicts between Hamilton and Jefferson in the early days of the republic, in the tussle between New York and Washington, the world of business and politics (to be fair, their disputes were mainly over the importance of a central bank, the terms on which the Federal Government might assume the debts of states, etc… not about regulation and fiscal or monetary policy). But neither of the Founding Fathers could have seen how completely, one day, the financiers would come to control their politicians, and how the dark genie of decadent capitalism would poison their bold new institutions. You have to go back to a much older wisdom and a much earlier chapter in the history of the New World for that: “One day, Spaniard, you will learn that you cannot eat gold.”

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The future of power

February 12th, 2011 — 12:13pm

One of the striking features of debate about the Web, and about open culture more generally, is that it has been characterised by a technologically utopian belief that the internet will free us from existing power relationships. Recently, adherents to this belief have become very negative in their commentary, depressed by what they see as the colonisation and corruption of the Web by major corporations and its partition by governments.

There is something almost touching about the way in which early creators of Web communities and activists believed that the internet would provide a genuinely new environment, one in which traditional notions of power, ownership and control were abolished, and in which property was held in common (e.g. John Perry Barlow’s – ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’). To any student of politics or sociology, this idea most obviously ignores Aristotle’s famous dictum that ‘man is a political animal’, not to mention most of human history.  All societies, so far (apart from very small communities), have been marked by the concentration of political and financial power in the hands of a few controlling interests. Even the counter-balancing of those interests by representatives of the people is a relatively recent innovation.

What the early internet gurus seem to have believed is that it is the ability to communicate directly and instantaneously that allows a true democratic community to arise. In other words, that the Athenian Polis could be recreated by virtue of instant online communication making it possible for everybody to take part in the political process.  Now, anybody who has read their Thucydides will be able to give you a number of reasons why direct democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But in any case, the right to vote on legislation is only one aspect of power, and there are other, less easily regulated forms that the internet is no more capable of resisting. Financial power is the obvious one. In any society based on the free market and the protection of private property, there will soon be a concentration of financial might in the hands of a few. This power can only be effectively balanced by legislative institutions that are designed to put the common good above the good of private investors.

The internet was always ready to be exploited by companies as another sales channel, and by advertisers as a new platform for their messages. Google’s entire modus operandi is based on clever advertising, afterall. And search itself, the ability to link you to the information you need, is a tremendous source of power, perhaps the most potent the internet has unleashed. The optimists amongst us, and I count myself reasonably optimistic, still believe that it is this liberation of information that will ultimately have the most profound political consequences.

But the question is really about fundamental human behaviour, not about the space in which we live and act. If we have been unable to escape the hierarchies and inequalities of capitalism in the offline world, what makes us think that we can find a better way of living online, a better way of sharing? Especially where legislation is still emerging and there are no supranational bodies to balance the might of multi-national companies, why should we expect the internet not to be taken over by a small group of major institutions?

Well, there are several reasons why not. Or rather, there are several reasons why it will be harder for companies or governments to establish long-lasting control over the internet than over resources in the offline world.

1 – the barriers to entry are so low.

2 – attention spans are short

3 – change is accelerating

4 – information wants to be free – this is a notorious statement and one which has attracted a lot of controversy, but that’s because it has been taken as an economic argument, when really it is an ethical statement, even an ontological one. What it really means is that no-one actually owns information. Of course certain people control access to it, and that is what they charge you for. But there is something insidious about that because they are not creators of the information, they just know something you don’t. Perhaps a better way of putting it is like this – information wants to be known. That is why it exists, to be known and to be understood. In other words, it wants to be free of restrictions. It is hard to keep secrets because information is meant to be shared. Our instinct is to share it, even when it may be very damaging or embarrassing. We want to tell someone.

5 – (there was a fifth point but my sieve-like memory has not retained it)

So power will change more rapidly, fortunes will rise and fall, companies will come and go. It my be hard, now, to envisage the end of Google, or the shrinking of Apple, but they will inevitably fade as generations pass and technologies evolve again and again.

In terms of its impact on political systems and institutions, we are already seeing a huge amount of change facilitated, if not directly caused, by, the use of platforms such as Facebook and YouTube and in particular, Twitter. These social media allow groups to coordinate political action very quickly, very effectively, and in a way which is very hard for authorities to stop. They also allow protestors to publicise their efforts and get their stories out to the world, effectively giving them their own broad/narrowcasting arms and printing presses, even before stories are taken up and re-circulated by major news organisations. There are interesting international repercussions in all this, of course, because of the interconnectedness of the online community. Domestic political pressure rises on leaders in the West in response to the solidarity of their citizens with protestors in the Middle East and elsewhere, as we have now seen in Tunisia, Iran, and of course Egypt.

To see protestors in Tahrir Sq carrying banners that read ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter’ somewhat undermines the arguments of people like Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell who claim that social media plays no important role in these uprisings and revolutions. It does, of course. What it cannot do, though, as is becoming apparent in all three of the countries I just mentioned, is ensure a truly democratic outcome or fundamental constitutional change. In other words, the Web is very very good at precipitating and organising mass protests at very short notice, but that does not necessarily lead to the kind of organisational coordination or longevity and persistence needed to see through a revolution. What happens when the Twitterati’s concentration span wanes?

Or perhaps I am being too cynical and these flashmob-style political movements will slowly reveal a more durable and centralised internal organisation. Michael Hardt from Duke University has a very interesting take on this (see ‘Democracy in the Age of Empire’). We’re still, as it’s always worth remembering, at the very beginning of this new era and only starting to understand the role the Web plays in politics and social change. What is clear is the speed at which things can now happen. Protests can be organised overnight. Global reaction plays out in real time. Regimes have to respond immediately, which often forces their hands and leads to breakdown and confusion. None of that alters the fundamental properties of political alignment, or necessarily leads to more democratic and better governments, but it does offer hope that tyrants and elites may be able to get away with less evil shit, and they may be removed more quickly.

It was Martin Luther King Jr who said that: ‘the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Perhaps the Web is shortening it.

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