War and Information – Cont’d

August 30, 2006

A while back I wrote about the new methods of propaganda and discourse at work in the most recent conflagration between Israel and Lebanon. One of Israel’s, let’s say major annoyances in this latest iteration of a long conflict, was its inability to get Hezbollah’s satellite TV station, al-Manar, off the air.

Now, via Defensetech, comes word that where bombing physical installations failed, Israel is looking at a technical fix: blocking al-Manar’s frequency. But it’s not quite so simple as just getting Hezbollah off the air – from Defensetech:

…according to [an Israeli] executive, jamming a communications satellite is “like interfering with civil aviation. You can do it, but it’s against international law and you’ll be subject to all kinds of lawsuits.”

It is technologically impossible, he said, to selectively jam only those satellite signals that carry enemy broadcasts.

“Everything goes out as a single beam, and it is impossible to jam only those channels viewed as a threat,” the executive said. “If you make the decision to interfere with one [satellite signal], then you must be prepared to face the consequences of the collateral damage incurred to the many other legitimate users of the signal.”

Robert Ames, chief executive of the Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group… said it is relatively easy to jam a specific satellite transponder.

“Transponders are separated by frequency,” he said. “All you have to do is know the frequency which it operates on and then put up a signal that is stronger than the programming carrier of the satellite…

Talk about asymmetric warfare. Hezbollah lobs Ketushyas at northern Israeli towns – Israel takes out the sat feed for al-Manar…and, oops, guess you can’t watch the latest football matches, either.

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Social Technology

August 24, 2006

Of course – all technologies are social. More specifically, some technologies facilitate socialization and communication – e.g., the telephone – and some don’t – e.g., the fork (whose use[s] are nonetheless created and impacted by social trends and conventions – this, briefly, is broader definition of social technolgy).

One exciting and fascinating change in the former category of social (communicative) technologies is how Web2.0 and other associated technologies have entered into feedback loops with their users. That is to say: a new product is developed – users begin to use it, often in ways not particularly intended by its designers – and, increasingly, subsequent versions of the product build on and incorporate user-designed and -demanded functionalities. This happens pretty quickly, too.

But surely this isn’t totally new and bright and shiny – surely people have used communicative technologies in unimagined ways, previously, and/or adapted technologies to their needs with norms of social use? Well, yes – like the telephone.

The analogy is not quite complete – telephones, when introduced and especially in rural areas, were “party lines” (many users on a single switch – as if everyone on your block were sharing the same Internet connection and could see what web pages and e-mails everyone else was reading – yikes), and it seems this was broadly considered a bug, not a feature. However, people of course developed folkways to deal with the usability implications of the technology, and Milena Droumeva has a paper with some excellent insights [.pdf] on this very topic:

By 1920, party lines made up close to 10% of urban American cities, and over 60% of rural towns (Hampson)…

Because of the communal nature of party lines, people had to develop rules and regulations amongst themselves about what is acceptable telephone usage and what isn’t. These rules were also heavily enforced by the telephone company’s advertising. All subscribers were to be very careful not to hold up the line for too long, since someone else might need it. Calls of social nature and gossip were strongly discouraged and treated as ‘women’s chitchat,’ getting in the way of serious business.

…under no circumstances was one to ever invite people over the phone (Fischer, p.184). That was considered very rude and bad style, since a telephone invitation will pressure the recipient to accept even if they have other plans. It was not until 1947 that telephone invitations became accepted and not until 1955 that calling before a visit became popular (p.184).

Again, it is hard nowadays to think of the telephone, line or mobile, in any other terms than social and interpersonal. It is also hard to imagine such consideration for time on the phone when everyone has their own private line, and can spend as much time on it as they need, while all the rest of us are willingly or unwillingly eavesdropping. However, while with party lines, people eavesdropped with a sense of guilt because they were invading someone’s privacy, in my ‘cell phone age’ survey, only 23.9% indicated they tried not to listen in, another 23.7% said they were uncomfortable to be in the presence of phone conversations but sometimes they eavesdropped, and a full 22.4% admitted openly they listen in especially if they are bored.

Thus…

…in some post modern way we are never alone. In a way cell phones are like a modern version of public party lines.

Indeed! Continuing with the analysis of different phones, different uses, she notes:

Throughout the 1980s, the business aspect of the mobile phone was reinforced by the quick and widespread automation of communication services in order to save time and money in processing business transactions…
It is not until early 1992 that the social role of the cell phone begins to significantly shift from business to interpersonal communication (Katz, p.13). As reiterated in my web survey, only 13% have their cell phone for work – less than those who keep it for emergencies – while over 50% say the reason they own a cell phone is to keep in touch with friends.

… the pervasiveness of cell phones creates a reality where “the absent are never without fault; nor the present without excuse” (Katz, p.14). This resonates with my current web survey where 23.7% of the participants say the biggest disadvantage of having a cell phone is being reachable at all times. Interestingly, even in the early 1990s this need to be reachable was more pronounced among those who already owned a cell phone compared to those who did not (Katz, p.57). This establishes a trend that we can easily identify today – the more people own cell phones, the harder it becomes for the rest of us to stay ‘in the loop’ of things, to be in touch, to be informed, even to participate in cultural activities.

Okay, so several points. I don’t necessarily buy her conclusion – cell phones are currently one of many ways that people stay various different kinds of “in touch,” but they’re far from the only way. I own a cell phone, but my primary means of staying in touch with people and the world is through a computer. Now – I don’t think we’re that far away from widespread adoption of true multifunction devices that will replicate functionalities currently found in cell phones, MP3 players, laptop computers, digital cameras, and probably a couple of other things. And then, lacking one of those widgets will be a serious impediment to social and cultural participation – but we’re not there yet.

And as to the evolution of phone ethics – pretty fascinating stuff, and it seems clear that, while privacy is currently at a low point, behaviors will continue change as functionalities change, and as users and society generally demand new standards of behavior.


Mindset(s)

August 23, 2006

Not a Monday morning but it feels like it as today is the FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL and, not for nothing, my first time in a classroom in better than four years. In a disussion about identity this morning, a professor I work with mentioned the issuing of a new Beloit College Mindset List (of which I was, somehow, previously unaware). It’s particularly appropriate for today, as four years outside of the mass-socialization grinder that is the American college and university system has changed my mindset, and leads me to wonder just what it is that I’m getting back into.

I promise, this is going someplace interesting, not just meandering backalleys of my mind, despite the extensive first-person usage.

For most of my adult and near-adult life, I’ve been waiting for people to catch up with me, in terms of electronic communication – I had and used e-mail well before it became the assumed method of communication between any and everyone, and the same was true of meeting people online (aka, “Internet dating,” if that’s still a term that has any meaning) and using social networking services. Now, all of these things are universal and, as the Mindset List attests to, are so embedded into the way that some people – specifically, incoming college freshpersons – live their lives as to be unexceptional and un-commented-upon. They are, and always have been.

One item on the list is of particular note:

38. Being techno-savvy has always been inversely proportional to age.

I think that this is definitely something that’s changed recently – growing up with DOS, BBSes and pre-386 computing, technological expertise was something that came with long experience, not rapid trend-adoption.  [and, as an aside – Charles Stross did some wonderful things with this premise in Accelerando, which I urge everyone to read]
And there’s no doubt I’ve fallen behind in many ways (these kids today and their crap music, I tells ya, when I was 18…), butmost markedly in my use of the cell phone. To me, it’s still an annoying necessity – useful for saving money on long-distance (does anyone still talk about long-distance calls?) calls and for making plans for drinking excursions but, really, I kind of wish it would go away sometimes. [Seeing circa-1920s costume dramas makes me nostalgic for a manner of telephonic communication in which I never engaged]

But the bleeding-edge technologist in me is also, from a usability standpoint, frustrated with how limited cell phones’ functionalities are, given how many things they could be doing. And this brings me around to plugging an excellent post that Fred made yesterday on just how much of a better job colleges and universities could be doing in terms of harnessing tehnology for the student experience. Specifically:

What if, instead of making students buy overpriced brand name laptops, we made them buy awesome mobile devices. Imagine if every student walking around campus had web, maps, IM, VoIP and a host of other data services in the palm of their hands? Indeed, many campuses are working to better leverage mobile, but are there better ways to do this than top-down (campus-directed) strategies? In Orientation 2.0, the breakout session would be a mobile hacking session – helping students brainstorm time-saving ways to use their mobile on campus. Ideas could be as simple as using text messages to organize outings, to more complex things like using the web to find books at the library. The key thing here is helping students find ways to use the technology that gives them value and saves them time. As all students walk around with mobile phones, there are obviously some strong possibilities.

A hearty huzzah to that idea – with applications that cool, I’d be perfectly fine being the old fogey of a grad student, trying to figure out how these crazy computer-things work.


Chrisitan Conservatives, Evangelicals – and Mormons

August 21, 2006

I’m’a’gonna try not to talk altogether too much about the horse-race aspect of contemporary politics, as it’s a black sucking hole that consumes my brain, given too much encouragement.

But. A story in this morning’s New York Times deserves comment. John M. Broder, writing about John McCain’s early efforts to recruit supporters and advisers for his 2008 GOP presidential nomination bid, says the following:

He is reaching out to Christian conservatives, who helped sink his 2000 presidential bid, by enlisting the aid of figures like Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, both of whom have strong evangelical followings.

There’s actually a lot going on there, in that one sentence. Bullet points!

  • While it’s certainly true that “Christian conservatives” helped sink McCain’s 2000 bid for the GOP presidential nomination, it would be hard for them not to have done so. Most Americans, and nearly all Republicans, are Christians; most Republicans are conservatives (nearly all conservatives are Republican), and this is especially true of primary voters in the party. Ergo – nearly all Republicans can be fairly described as “Christian conservatives” – be they Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, or what have you. It’s just not particularly descriptive – or accurate, but more on that below.
  • The use of “…strong evangelical followings” at the end of the same sentence indicates that Broder is using the term “evangelical” interchangably with “Christian conservative,” and that is, at best, highly misleading. “Evangelical” is a very particular stripe of American Christianity, and in the contemporary political context, almost always refers to a very particular kind of political activist. While almost all “evangelicals” are “Christian conservatives,” the reverse is most decidedly not true, because…
  • Until recently, many evangelicals considered Catholics – Papists, as they called them derisively – to be rather heretical, what with that Pope-and-saint-worship, to say nothing of the Latin and the incense. And it’s still the case that many evangelicals consider Mormons to not really be Christians at all, what with the Jesus-coming-to-Americ-after-crucifixion and so on. This is important, because…
  • John Huntsman, Jr. is Governor of Utah and, unsurprisingly given that office, a devout Mormon.
  • Do you see where I’m going with this?

Okay. so while it’s certainly not impossible that Huntsman has a “strong evangelical following” (I’ll admit to not knowing all the ins and outs of Republican Christian conservative evangelical politics), it’s my strong, strong suspicion that he, in fact, has almost zero evangelical following – what with being Mormon and all – and having, instead, a strong Mormon following. And Mormons are quite often Christian (depending who you ask – being Jewish I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) conservatives – but they’re just not evangelicals.

As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post pointed out when Huntsman made his support for McCain public,

Huntsman’s support for McCain strikes deep into the political base of [Mormon] Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another of the potential contenders for the Republican nomination.

Huntsman is a member of one of Utah’s most prominent Mormon families.

So, my criticism of Broder might seem nit-picky, but it’s not. These are distinctions with a difference, and change the meaning of things, just as a reporter covering Iraq would change the meaning ofthings by conflating and using interchangably “Muslim,” “Shi’a” and “Sunni.”

And, finally – I will return to this issue in greater detail later, but Broder’s mischaracterizations are exactly the sort of cultural ignorance and miscommunication that leads to charges of the NYT and others having “liberal bias.” That’s wrong, at least if you’re talking about a liberal political bias, but it’s dead right if you’re talking about the separation between the identities of cultural liberalism (present at the NYT, and NYC generally) and cultural conservatism (present, among other places, in Utah, Indiana, and elsewhere).


On-Line and Off-Line Discourse(s)

August 16, 2006

The magazine “Popular Mechanics” has been at the forefront of investigating – and debunking – 9/11 conspiracy theories. They write:

“The results of our research appeared in the March 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics. That cover story, “9/11: Debunking the Myths,” provoked a strong reaction on the internet and in the mainstream media. The online version of the article remains the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times.”

That’s great! So what do they do with the most-read article in the website’s history?

“…we decided to extend our original investigation and publish a book-length version of our findings.”

NOOOO!!!!

You really couldn’t write a better script for – and I don’t like using this term, but have to in this case – an “old-media” company misunderstanding the existant and emerging models of readership than this one.

The whole thing is even more bizarre – for reasons I will explain shortly – because, as they state outright, this investigation seeks not to tell the story of 9/11 but “th[e] book aims only to answer the questions raised by conspiracy theorists themselves.” [emphasis in original]

So why do I find it strange that they’re writing a book? Let me explain.

Having a well-read magazine with a trusted name remains, for the time being, a pretty good and reliable way to make money, and “Popular Mechanics” remains a lead title in Hearst Corporation’s stable.

Writing a book, as has been the case more or less since books were invented, remains a pretty good and reliable way to not make money. To horribly simplify it: a tiny number of books make large amounts of money; a slightly larger number of books make enough money to feed their authors. The vast majority of books fall don’t do either, but rather fall into categories of cost/benefit analysis – namely, does a title make enough over break-even for the publisher to offer the author another contract, or not? The author, in these cases, is earning the satisfaction of publication and not a lot else.

Further, the vast majority of books sell very few copies. Shockingly few.

So while the publication of this book stands a good chance of making some – but almost certainly not bank-breaking amounts – money for the Hearst Corporation (not least because much of the book is apparently comprised of already-published material that has already paid for itself with magazine advertising), the authors will stand to benefit very little, at least in financial terms.

Okay. So why write a book? Well, unless one really really enjoys making money primarily for one’s corporate masters, presumably the motivation is intellectual – namely, a desire to engage with a readership in exploration and discussion of an issue. The book’s editors certainly seem impassioned on the topic when they write,

“The work of comprehending the events of 9/11 is not finished. It is vital to understand exactly what went wrong that day and to make sure it does not happen again. There were lapses and shortcomings on the part of government agencies in the months and years leading up to 9/11. Every American wishes our government had been more alert and better prepared. And every American is entitled to ask hard questions. But there is a world of difference between believing that our government should have known what was coming and claiming that someone did know and deliberately did nothing–or, even worse, actively perpetrated attacks on its own citizens. By deliberately blurring that line, conspiracy theorists exploit and misdirect the public’s legitimate anger over the events of that day.

Some argue that alternative 9/11 scenarios are valuable in that they promote skepticism of a government that has not always been as open as many would like. But a climate of poisonous suspicion will not help America adjust to the post-9/11 world. And the search for truth is not aided by the dissemination of falsehoods.”

The book is not a lark – these are people who clearly care about getting the results of their extensive investigative reporting, editing and writing into the popular discourse to combat what they see as a “poisonous” and unseemly line of thinking. And when you’re talking about an article that’s the website’s historically most popular, one that more than 850,000 people have printed out – well, that’s a pretty sizable readership, no?

No. Or at least – probably not.

9/11 conspiracy theories abound, and have quickly and widely found currency and community because of the Internet. There’s just no two ways about it: the basic fact of the Internet’s anonymity and ease of access to any and all information has allowed lines of thinking and investigation that would previously have been the province almost solely of leaflet-Xeroxing cranks to become accessible to previously-unimaginable numbers of people. While the authors of the book do mention (only to deride) “…Wikipedia, the open-source online encyclopedia, and Loose Change, the 9/11 conspiracy documentary that has become a sensation on college campuses,” what they fail to note about Loose Change is that it has become a “sensation” because it is freely acessible on the Internet – primarily through Google Video but also through YouTube (where a search for ‘loose change’ also includes a Spanish version and several videos de-bunking its claims).

Loose Change, too, would likely be relegated to much, much smaller audiences – those willing to make time for public viewing of DVDs or tapes passed through college and other fringe communities, or those willing to manually make those copies themselves – if not for the Internet. Or, more likely, it simply wouldn’t exist without current levels of information communications technology – the ability of a few individuals to find, piece together, edit and distribute video for little more expense than the already-sunk cost of a computer is a very recent and still pretty mind-blowing idea.

So if the degree of awareness and reach of 9/11 conspiracy theories is due almost entirely to the Internet, then it should be little surpise that the success of articles purporting to debunk these theories would also follow from their availability on… the Internet. Indeed, it’s so obvious as to be a tautology – an article that is “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times” can be classified as an enormous success because it’s “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com and has been printed out more than 850,000 times.”

It’s clear that the article hit a nerve, and that it was able to reach a broad and interested audience. It’s still the top result when you Google “9/11 Conspiracy Theory.” For that matter, it’s the second result when you Google “Popular Mechanics.”
But it also seems to be clear that the authors and editors at “Popular Mechanics” don’t really know why the article was and is so massively successful and popular. Or maybe they do – maybe they realize that they tapped into a massive online community, and figure that their good work (since, clearly, “the most frequently read story on http://www.popularmechanics.com [that] has been printed out more than 850,000 times” means it’s good work) will encourage enough of those hundreds of thousands to buy the book that it will become a big success. And who knows – maybe they’re right.

Another possibility – and one that maybe they haven’t considered or internalized entirely – is that a great many of the people who’ve read the article online disagree with it entirely.

And that is manifestly the case – after the article itself, searching for “9/11 popular mechanics” leads to pages and pages of results of discussion on the article, with almost all of it expressing something rather less than fondness for the “Popular Mechanics” article. “Lies” is a popular modifier.

So am I saying that, given the enormous negative reaction to the article, that its authors and publishers misattribute page views and article-printings for agreement, and that it is not in fact a success? I am not saying that; in point of fact I’m relatively certain that a great many of the readers of the article have agreed with it, and found it a satisfying and well-researched antidote for the uncomfortable charges and avenues of discussion among 9/11 conspiracy theorists (or as the community refers to itself, the 9/11 Truth Movement – more on that here). What I am saying is this: the attention both positive and negative (it’s difficult to count how many thousands of words have been written de-bunking the “Popular Mechanics” de-bunking) paid to the article is a result not of its journalistic merits, or lack thereof. Rather, it is a consequence of the article filling a previously-vacant role in a massive online conversation, that of a major institution addressing not the “consensus narrative” of 9/11 but addressing the critique of that narrative. And it’s further my argument that, if “Popular Mechanics” wanted to effectively leverage their role in that conversation, it’s not the content – which it’s clear many of the article’s readers disagree with – that is their chief asset. It’s their position of institutional engagement with the 9/11 conspiracy theory/Truth Movement – and that position is online.

Now – developing a strategy to actually capitalize on their position might, especially in the higher reaches of Hearst Corporation, have ruffled feathers as being “diluting the core brand,” pulling “Popular Mechanics” away from its usual apolitical gadget-wrangling. Publishing a paper book is a safe way to leverage the article’s popularity precisely because it stands so little chance of any large impact. And it should come as little surprise that a 105-year-old core-brand magazine of a major international media conglomerate is thinking, as they say, “inside the box.”

But what might a winning strategy have looked like? That is a far different question, because there’s no one clear right answer – and probably a lot of different answers depending on the definition of success. They could, for example, have

  • used the article as a jumping-off-point for the creation of a 9/11-debunking community website, an analogue to 9/11 Truth.org. Maybe they’d get accused (as they already are) of being corporate lackeys for consensus reality – but I’ll bet they’d have some pretty excellent traffic numbers, and that’s all advertisers really care about. And for a wood-pulp magazine to be getting some of that sweet ‘Net-ads dollars right now is a big coup.
  • sold the book in both paper and digital formats, with digital copies substantially cheaper, and perhaps either making the intial few chapters free (though they probably are already, as much of the book is recycled from the inital reporting) or eventually making the digital copies entirely free, as several authors have done recently with successful and well-regarded novels
  • something else entirely that I’m not clever enough to think of (admittedly, this covers a wide range of possibilities)

The one thing I’m confident in saying they shouldn’t’ve done is what they ended up doing – they had a fascinating opportunity and chose a perfectly boring solution, whose tepid reception will likely convince them that the opportunity wasn’t really that fascinating in the first place. The jury is still out on a lot of questions regarding, “how to do business/have conversations on the Internet,” but there’s one approach that keeps failing time and again. When you stumble onto a new-media success, don’t try to stuff it back into an old-media box; don’t tell your users that they’re using your product wrong and that this is the way they should be using it, that this is the way this conversation should go.

[Note: I had originally intended to tie this discussion in with the profound failure that is New York Times Select, but will leave that for a later post.]


War and Information

August 14, 2006

It appears that the most recent chapter of the Israel-Lebanon war is close to wrapping up; I’d like to go back and examine some observations from the beginning of this conflict. Anthony Bourdain wrote in Salon of being stuck in Lebanon as Israeli airstrikes began:

“…in the blink of an eye, everything went sideways: Relaxed smiles froze and disappeared. Suddenly, there was the sound of automatic weapons firing randomly in the air from a nearby neighborhood. And fireworks. Then cars — a few of them — teenage kids, women and adults, some leaning out the windows and waving Hezbollah flags and flashing the “V” for victory sign, celebrating what we were told, after a few quick cellphone calls, was the grabbing of two Israeli soldiers. Our fixer, a Sunni; Ali, a Shiite; and “Marwan,” a Christian, who’d just minutes ago been pointing proudly at the mural — all three looked down in embarrassment, a look of sorrow, shame and then resignation on their faces. Someone muttered “assholes” bitterly. They knew — right away — what was going to happen next.

Our irregular “intel” (Mr. Wolfe’s favorite word) consists of printed analysis from a faraway corporate security company (useless speculation), BBC News (pretty good), local TV (excellent — though in Arabic), the Hizballah Channel (scary), Sky News (shockingly up-to-date and thorough), Some Guy From the Pool (almost always on target. He accurately predicts locations and times of airstrikes and seems to know which countries’ citizens are getting out and when), Somebody’s Mom Back in the States (excellent source), and Mr. Wolfe’s printouts from the AOL News Web site (always discouraging). We’ve heard the Israeli prime minister talk of knocking back Lebanon 20 years. And we believe him. We hear of pleasure boats filled with European nationals being turned back by Israeli ships. We call the embassy day after day and get no response. Nothing. Officially — after days of war — the State Department advice is to visit its Web site. Which contains nothing of use.

We watch the city we’d barely begun to know — and yet already started to love — destroyed, seemingly (from where we’re sitting) without sense or reason. We watch Blackhawk helicopters fly in and out of the embassy and hear panicked rumors that they’re evacuating the ambassador (false) and “non-essential personnel” (true, I believe). Around the pool, the increasingly frustrated, mostly Lebanese Americans exchange rumors and information gleaned from never-ending cellphone conversations with we don’t know who: relatives in the south, friends back in America, people who’ve already made it out. Friends who’ve spoken to their congressman. Guys who work at CNN. The list goes on. The news maddening, incomplete, incorrect — alternately hopeful, terrifying and dismaying.

The hotel empties and fills and empties again. We hear:

“The Italians got out!”
“The fucking Romanians got out!”
“The French are gone!”

What is clear — as far as we’re concerned — from all sources is that there is no official, announced plan. No real advice, or information, or public exit strategy or timetable. The news clip of President Bush, chawing open-mouthed on a buttered roll, then grabbing at another while Tony Blair tries to get him to focus on Lebanon — plays over and over on the TV, crushing our spirits and dampening all hope with every glassy-eyed mouthful. He seems intent on enjoying his food; Lebanon a tiny, annoying blip on an otherwise blank screen. I can’t tell you how depressing that innocuous bit of footage is to watch. That one, innocent, momentary preoccupation with a roll has a devastating effect on us that is out of all proportion. We’re looking for signs. And this, sadly, is all we have.

In the end we are among the lucky ones. The privileged, the fortunate, the relatively untouched. Unlike the Lebanese Americans who make it out, we don’t leave homes and loved ones behind, we will get out and return to business as usual. To unbroken homes, intact families, friends and jobs.

On the flight deck of the USS Nashville they’ve set up a refugee camp… On the smoking deck, a Marine shows off a Reuter’s cover photo — taken only a few hours earlier — of himself, nuzzling two babies as he carries them through the surf to the landing craft. His buddies are razzing him, busting his balls for how intolerably big-headed he’s going to be — now that he’s “famous.” He looks at the picture and says, “You don’t know what it felt like, man.” His eyes well up.

A Lebanon I never got to know, a Beirut I didn’t get to show the world disappears slowly over the horizon — a beautiful dream turned nightmare. It’s not what I saw happen in Beirut that I feel like talking about, though that’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? It’s not about what happened to me that remains an unfinished show, a not fully fleshed out story, or even a particularly interesting one. It feels shameful even writing this. It’s the story I didn’t get to tell. The Beirut I saw for two short days. The possibilities. The hope. Now only a dream.”[emphases added]

I don’t think there’s a whole lot that I can add to Bourdain’s observations (for one, I wasn’t there; for a second, he’s just a better writer); others have far better and more complete takes on the machinations of the war itself.

One thing I will say (that Bourdain touches on), is that this conflict shows how the democratization of information (both push and pull) is changing the nature of propaganda. Israel has some understanding of this

From mass targeting of mobile phones with voice and text messages to old-fashioned radio broadcasts warning of imminent attacks, Israel is deploying a range of old and new technologies in Lebanon as part of the psychological operations (“psyops”) campaign supplementing its military attacks.”

– and so does Hezbollah, using its satellite television station al-Manar to keep its compatriots (and its supporters throughout the Arab and Muslim world) aware of their take on the hostilities. Indeed, the continued existenct of al-Manar was a powerful propaganda tool in itself, as Israel repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to destroy their facilities.

I think that this post from John Robb is a good way to close:

“If there was just one Nasrallah in every Arab country — one person with his dedication, intelligence, courage, strength and commitment — Arabs would not have had to suffer stolen land and defeat at the hands of Israel for 50 years,” said an Arab celebrity, Kuwaiti actor Daoud Hussein on Al-Jazeera. (Faiza Saleh Ambah, Arab World Riveted by Coverage of the ‘Sixth War.” Washington Post. August 14, 2006.)

This quote reflects an increasingly common desire: that global guerrillas (non-state forces that use 4GW tactics) are the only way to provide protection against external foes (and potentially against the depredations of their own internationally impotent but domestically repressive governments). Hezbollah’s victory (locked in by the ceasefire that will, despite its language, allow the group to retain both its tactical and strategic capabilities) has engineered a sea change in perception.

But it’s not just the use of 4GW on a purely military level – it’s the ability of these non- (and in the case of Hezbollah, quasi-) state actors to effectively and broadly communicate their message to a local, regional and global polity that’s effected this sea change in perception.


Who’s the Bitch?

August 8, 2006

Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine interviewed Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch magazine. The following exchange in an excerpt:

Deborah Solomon: You sound as if you’re trapped in a pop-culture bubble, which is probably true of many people born since the 70’s, when image became all.

Andi Zeisler: TV and mass media in general are the conduit by which most people get their information and form their opinions. We are such a mediated society.

I don’t believe in postfeminism. The media love to trot out the idea that feminism is dead, and every so often it will be the cover story in Time or somewhere else. But feminism is as alive as ever.

DS: Is it really? It seems as if its original vision of social equality has been undermined by third-wave feminists like yourself, who limit your critiques to, say, Tori Spelling’s breasts. Doesn’t the obsession with pop culture risk trivializing feminism?

AZ: I think that could be a risk. But if you are going to be working in feminist activism, you have to look at pop culture, because that’s what everyone else is looking at. Young women today have more day-to-day contact with “Desperate Housewives” than with the radical feminist writings of Germaine Greer or Shulamith Firestone.

DS: Did you and your co-founder, Lisa Jervis, have any magazine experience before you started Bitch?

AZ: We were both interns at Sassy.

DS: As opposed to Savvy.

AZ: Savvy was earlier, right? Maybe there will be a magazine someday for older women called Saggy.

This is a particularly instructive interview, despite a tone that can only be described (charitably) as catty. Let’s start with the signifiers of identity.

Zeisler is pictured alongside the column, smartly attired in clean, distressed jeans, a mid-cut dark-blue-and-white blouse and closed-toed, high-heeled, sensible-but-stylish black shoes. She has pale skin and red lipstick, a dull-yellow (amber, perhaps) necklace, dark hair swept across and tied back – and three tattoos visible, one on her right shoulder, a bright and large one on the inside of her left forearm, and one peaking out from the inside of the left shoulder-strap of her blouse.

For those who know to look – and that is primarily who we dress for – the outfit says a lot. It is a uniform of kinds for a particular element of the under-40 urban professional creative class. Individual elements betray different consciousnesses and identities: the blouse is quite possibly a $2 thrift store pickup; the jeans quite likely from a $90 New York fashion house; the necklace could be either. For a certain co-hort – with which I’ll admit I largely identify – all of these pieces of clothing mark the wearer as a particular kind of person and, importantly, a particular kind of consumer. That is (briefly), one who is primarily seeking out quality and a personally-satisfying image, rather than being more concerned with “keeping up” with fashion. That in practice there is a broad kind of conformity (i.e., that this outfit is recognizable as a cohort uniform) which grows out of these assertions of personal identity does not indicate any sort of hypocrisy on the part of the cohort. As to Zeisler’s tattoos, I will return to them shortly

As to Solomon: her own status goes unmentioned, except by virtue of her station. She is the interviewer for the New York Times Magazine – for readers of the Times, she is therefore self-evidently important. I do not know her personal history, but that is less relevant than the role she quite willingly (and ably) plays – she is the voice of vapid insider-ism, of been-there-done-that cynicism without the edge. She’s a near-perfect personification of the values of the contemporary commentariat and, they presume, their readership.

Unsurprisingly, I dislike her interview style which – perhaps oddly given the hostility she reveals for Zeisler on this count – I have always found incredibly superficial and glib. But in the context of her role, the superficiality of it all is a feature, not a bug. The commentariat and its presumed readership live in a kind of world of easy pleasures where nothing much matters, and as a consequence project that view of the world onto the world the rest of us inhabit. Passion – caring about anything becomes inherently suspect.

And so, the tattoos. Solomon herself is Jewish – as is Zeisler – as am I. And again – it doesn’t really matter whether Solomon is in fact a bona fide first-wave feminist, what matters is what she represents, and what she represents are the interests of the now-ruling class, and their values. In her own particular corner of the world, this means that many of them are middle-aged New York Jews, who though politically quite liberal are also often possessed of a very particular social conservatism on some things. And boy, are tattoos one of those things. There’s both a long (Biblical commandment – you can’t get buried in a Jewish cemetary with a tattoo) and more recent (the numbers tattooed on the wrists of Jews in concentration camps) social convention against tattoos in the American Jewish community, even more pervasive than the more general societal convention that tattoos are not something that “respectable” people get.

The broader societal convention against tattoos began to break down after World War II, when soldiers – and especially sailors with service in the Pacific Theater – returned home, many (such as my mother’s father [who was not Jewish, btw]) absolutely covered in tattoos. The gradual mainstreaming of biker, rock and metal cultures from the 1960s to 1990s further broke down the idea of tattoos’ disreputability, and the current full-on commodification of the female lower-back and stars-on-the-wrist tattoo has, I’d say, more or less obliterated it in the medium term. By the time my knees fully succumb to arthritis and are replaced with titanium robotics, and probably before, it will be of little note for respectable businesspeople to have obviously visible tattoos.

The Jewish community, however, has been one of the last bulwarks, for the obvious (and understandable) reasons listed above. But for young American Jews – three or four or more generations out of the shtetl or the [Old] Lower East side; two generations separated from any possible relatives who were victims or survivors of the Holocaust – these conventions do not carry much weight and, indeed, flouting these conventions becomes its own assertion of identity.

And so it is with Zeisler – Solomon’s voice becomes that of her parents (or at least her parents’ generation), when getting a tattoo was still something you just didn’t do (“What if bubbe sees it?”) and, at a very minimum, something you went to lengths to hide. No longer – Zeisler’s assertion of a distinct identity is everywhere, from her refusal to capitulate to Solomon’s definitions of “postfeminism” or “third-wave feminism”; to her signifier-rich outfit; to her clearly-visible tattoos; and, finally, in her general refusal to capitulate to Solomon.

The last exchange in the interview might’ve been seen as disrespectful, or rude – but really, it’s just pretty damn funny. And it’s amazingly effective. Solomon spends the whole interview belittling Zeisler, judging her an insufficient feminist, mocking her life and work, and Zeisler fires back in her defense with the last word: you’re old. I don’t really buy the hard-line feminist deconstruction of why this might be an “inappropriate” (e.g., judging a fellow-woman’s worth solely on her appearance/age degrades all women) method, because in one fell swoop it perfectly centers Zeisler in her cohort – young, relevant, with-it – and Solomon in hers – old, out-of-touch, preachingly moralistic. Best of all – both sides walk away vindicated in their core identities.