Friday, July 23, 2010

Orality, Literacy, Privacy, Identity

The ongoing JournaList fracas recalled one of my recent themes, namely, the differing faces we use in different areas of life and how the net threatens to collapse them.

For those not yet saturated in this story, it's roughly this: a group of left-leaning journalists, academics, and politicos had a private email list where they discussed matters of interest. Right-wing operatives managed to get access to the list and are leaking bits out of it that they think are embarrassing. Both sides are accusing the other of ethics violations -- the right is accusing the members of having improperly cozy relations between the press and the people they are covering, and the members are accusing the right of violating their privacy. At least one person has lost their job as a result.

I'm not going to comment on the politics or ethics because that's being done to death elsewhere. Rather, let me dust off my media theorist hat and talk a bit about the nature of online talk. Roughly, this whole brouhaha seems to stem from the fact that email lists (and other forms of electronic communication like Twitter) are somewhere in-between and share characteristics of both oral and literate communications modes. Obviously, they are superficially more like written language than speech, being composed of visual inscriptions rather than sound. And like written communication and unlike speech, they persist indefinitely and can easily escape their original contexts, as the JournoLists discovered. But they are also oral in that they have an immediate quality to them, they are uttered in near-real-time to particular audiences; they are "hot", and tend to be more agonistic than written communication.

The members of JournoList obviously treated the list as an ongoing bull session among like-minded colleagues and friends. And that is a context in which people say things that they wouldn't write into a published article. Contrary to the rightists screaming hypocricy, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this perfectly normal behavior, except that they journos misunderstood the technology, or were not able to accurately predict all the ramifications from their loose talk, like having stray remarks republished by hostile operatives four years later. Some of them said rather nasty things about Rush Limbaugh, for instance.

Here's an interesting attempt to define, as one of the main components of "technological literacy", an appreciation for the utter lack of private spaces for oral-style communication in the modern Internet:
Say you are an employer evaluating college students for a job. Perusing one candidate'™s Facebook profile, you notice the student belongs to a group called "I Pee My Pants When I'm Drunk." What is your first thought?

It should not be that this student is unemployable for being an intemperate drinker, said Susan Zvacek, director of instructional development at the University of Kansas -- though that it might mean that, too. Mainly, though, it should suggest something else -- something that might be more relevant to the student's qualifications.

"œWhat it tells me," Zvacek said, "‚Âœis that the student is technologically illiterate."
It seems to me that the current state of affairs must be some sort of unstable non-equilibrium. Oral cultures have been around for 10000 years or so, (small) written cultures for a couple of thousand. That's time for rules and conventions to stabilize, but the oral-written hybrid of network communication hasn't had time for that, especially since new variants of it are being constantly invented. Someday it will be understood what is allowed to be said where; there will be techniques for walling off particular kinds of communication so they don't leak out. If I had to put on futurist goggles to go with the media theorist hat, I'm guessing it will be common to have multiple unlinked identities for different purposes. Like I'm doing here. And as here, the identities won't be separated by some kind of cryptographically-secure firewall; rather, they will be more like social conventions, so that what you say in one role can't be held against you in another one.

[the title is a reference to Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word which everyone should read.]

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dancing on the Edge

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Trinity test, the first successful nuclear detonation. As it says here, this did indeed change the world forever and is one of the few technologies that can legitimately make that claim (the Internet may be another). It did put a halt to direct great power wars in favor of proxy wars in third-world backwaters. Nonetheless, what soldier or statesman could resist the temptation of such awesome powers? The results of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have made nuclear war unthinkable for most, but not all. Some moments from nuclear history where we danced close to the edge:

- MacArthur wanted to use nukes on North Korea, but was restrained by Truman;

- the Cuban missile crisis, of course;

- the incident in 1983 where a Soviet officer violated protocols to avert a mistaken retaliatory strike;

Nixon's longing to use nuclear weapons on North Vietnam, restrained by Henry Kissinger ("œA nuclear bomb? Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sakes. You worry about the civilian casualties. I don't give a damn.")

- Tactical nuclear weapons were deployed in Western Europe as a defense against a possible Russian invasion (and apparently are still there);

- It's been alleged that the Bush/Cheney administration was putting plans in place for a nuclear strike on Iran.

As I said the other day, it's somewhat miraculous that we are all still here.

Also, this:

it would be so exciting
it would be so powerful
it would punish us for our sins
things wouldn't be so boring anymore
we could get back to basics
we could remember who we love
it would be so loud
it would be so hot
the mushroom clouds would rise up
we could start over
we wouldn't have to be afraid of it anymore
we wouldn't have to be afraid anymore
we would finally have done it
better than Raskolnikov
it would release our anger
in the ultimate tantrum
then we could rest

Alia Johnson, 'Why We Should Drop the Bombs', 1981

[update: stumbled on this:
"Restraint! Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards! At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"

--Thomas Power, commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command from 1957 to 1964, quoted by Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon

Monday, July 12, 2010

Kill for Peace

Both Harvey Pekar and Tuli Kupferberg died just now. By the rule of celebrity death clusters, there should be at least one more obscure but important countercultural exemplar of humanity falling soon.

When I was a kid I had a copy of 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft by Tuli. I never was the right age to need its advice, but I think the same spirit animated this recent post.

Here's some early Fugs in commemoration:

[update: George Steinbrenner? I don't think so.]

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Bombs bursting in the air

So back when I was a tot, the US tried to blow up the Van Allen Belt because "if we don't do it, the Russians will". The light show was spectacular.

You know, looking forward to dooms yet to come -- climate change, ecological devastation, economic collapse -- together with dooms of the past, I am amazed that against fantastic odds, 6 billion people and I are still alive. I can only conclude that it must be something like the anthropic computational principle at work.

I live in one of the few Bay Area towns that permits legal fireworks, so tonight like every year I'm going to set some off in the driveway to entertain the neighborhood kids. These are pretty wimpy as fireworks go. The official label is "safe and sane", that is, mostly roman candle like fountains; no aerial shells or explosions. But I don't see why I have to be safe and sane while the government gets to be the opposite. This is America, damn it!

Previous independence day thoughts here (jeremiadish) and here (philosophical).

[Update: more from Wikipedia and a blog devoted to this stuff. The Starfish blast apparently killed the original Telstar satellite and many others. And Declassified U.S. Nuclear Test Film #62 goes into some detail.

This test also revealed that the EMP effect of nuclear explosions was much more powerful than had been thought previously: streetlights were knocked out in Hawaii, 900 miles away). It is ironic (misusing the term, but I can't think of a better one) that this is the kind of thing that gave rise to the ARPANET and later the Internet, which now allows me to spend my holiday perusing enormous piles of useless information. I have to admit getting sucked into the technical coolness of this horrific stuff -- must have been fun developing the instrumentation packages for these tests, which were shot up on rockets next to the burst and were presumably destroyed in milliseconds.]