An Unaccelerated Grimace: The Transformative Power of Narratives of Reality

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An article in The Nation questions whether the internet really is a transformative force for the betterment of mankind as claimed by cyber-utopianists like Clay Shirky in his recent books Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus.  The utopian view is that the internet frees us from the passive time sink of television thereby allowing people to spend their leisure time on productive activities like Wikipedia, making Youtube videos, and propagating silly memes that ultimately are beneficial for everyone but are simultaneously made available at a de minimus cost.

The critical view set forth by Chris Lehmann in this article and in the book he cites, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom by Evgeny Morozov, attacks the utopian premise by focusing on its poor understanding of how markets work (which in my opinion is a valid criticism) and by pointing out the geopolitical complexities that prevent something as trivial as Twitter of Facebook from having real transformative effect.

Both sides incorrectly assume that transformative forces must offer a better future than the present.  But it is not a question of the future or the present. It is a question of alternatives in the present.

To change the world, you do not have to promise a better world.  You simply have to demonstrate that this world is not real.  Specifically, you have to show that what people consider to be the real world is not in fact reality, but rather a construction, a narrative of reality that is demonstrably false.

The essence of the anti-utopian argument is this:

The unfortunate propensity to log on to the web and pronounce it a global revolution in the offing is what Morozov dubs “the Google Doctrine”—the overconfident conviction, inherited from the West’s cold war propaganda, that the simple transmission of information beyond the reach of state-sanctioned channels has the power to topple authoritarian regimes. But just as the Eastern bloc’s downfall had far more to do with the internal stresses besieging the dying Soviet order, so does the Google Doctrine paper over a vast nexus of real-world causation in global affairs.

What both the cyber-utopianists like Shirky and their critics like Lehmann and Morozov all fail to grasp is that this “doctrine” is actually almost a tautology.  The moment a view of reality is shown to be wrong, that view must adjust or collapse. If we view the state-sanctioned channels and state-controlled press as that nation’s “spectacle” in Debord’s terms–the combination of signs, symbols, and messages that stands in for reality, community and truth on all matters beyond the very local range of a viewer’s personal life–then anything that challenges that state-sanctioned spectacle immediately and directly undermines not only the spectacle itself but also the state that sanctioned it.

To put it differently, by carefully controlling what people can see or read, either as news, pop culture, literature and art, the state regulates, constrains, and defines within a single universal narrative all of the activities, thoughts, and events of its people’s lives in a way that reinforces its power over them. The state crafts a certain universal narrative–crafts a certain reality through media and cultural narratives–to magnify and reinforce its control.  When it came to crafting narratives in the latter half of the twentieth century, television was the autocrat’s force multiplier of choice.  Controlling the reality of television meant controlling what people thought was reality.  This form of state control places all of the interactions and relationships among the people into a rigidly bounded cognitive space of permitted activity.  Any new thoughts, new forms of relationships, and new ways of being that exist outside of this space that the state cannot fold back into it immediately undermine the authority of the state to define reality for its subjects.

This is why state-controlled media always exists alongside a secret police apparatus.  The former defines the acceptable reality and openly glorifies it, the latter exists outside of it, but brutally and secretly imposes it.

We saw this play out in Egypt.  Social media like Facebook and Twitter allowed Egyptians to see a version of reality that was different than what state-controlled media presented.  It did not matter whether this new version of reality was “true” or simply another skewed narrative of a different order and origin.  What mattered was simply that it was (a) different and (b) not included in the reality narrative told by the state. Shirky believes that the transformative power of the internet lies in creating not only a different version of reality but a subjectively better one, and his critics focus their attacks on whether it really is better. But being “better” (whatever that means) is irrelevant and unnecessary.

To be transformative, all that matters is that the alternative narrative be different in a way that the existing narrative cannot be amended to contain.  It is always the inability to reconcile disparate narratives that is the greatest problem for dictatorships in general and the government of Egypt.  In the past, Middle Eastern states were able to reconcile the openness of the West with their dictatorial regimes by labeling the West as corrupt or decadent, the two things that those states swore to defend the people against in the name of Islam or Arab socialism.  Casting the West in this way was possible because in the past the narratives of the West came primarily through the cultural dominants of film and television, both of which could be easily controlled, restricted or re-contextualized by state censorship and media control. The problem for the Egyptian government in 2011 was that there was no way to reconcile their narratives with the narratives of Facebook and Twitter which cannot be censored or contextualized in situ.

Faced with those irreconcilable differences, the Egyptian government did what autocratic governments do best.  They panicked and pulled the plug.  The instant they blacked out the internet was the moment the curtain was pulled by on their illusion of power. Shutting off the internet amounted to an explicit admission by the state to the people that state-controlled media was pushing a version of reality that was false and more constrained for the purpose of tightening their control over the people.

So in this Nation article, Lehmann gets it exactly backward:

It has never been the case that authoritarians are allergic to information technologies. Quite the contrary: as pioneers in the production of mass propaganda, they love mass media, and maintain an intense interest in later-generation digital technologies such as GPS and Twitter location that permit them to plot the real-time whereabouts of online dissidents.

Tyrants love mass media because it projects their messages to the masses.  They do not like media, like Twitter and Facebook, where masses can individually choose to ignore those messages and choose to listen to entirely new and different ones messages.

The problem that both the utopians and their critics have is that their arguments are made within the context of our narratives of reality.  This is why some much of Shirky’s books, Morozov’s and this article focus on the question of what is “better.”  Because to focus more broadly means that we too have to accept that our world isn’t real. 

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8 Responses to An Unaccelerated Grimace: The Transformative Power of Narratives of Reality

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    “What mattered was simply that it was (a) different and (b) not included in the reality narrative told by the state.”

    But people don’t need the internet, or even mimeographed samizdat, to see a narrative that conflicts with the state’s narrative. They have eyes and ears. In the old Soviet bloc, it was *axiomatic* that everything in the state media was a lie.

    In your last paragraph, you get close to it: It’s not the massness of the media, it’s who’s providing the content. What’s important isn’t that the state’s narrative is undermined, nor does conflicting information necessarily undermine that narrative; if people believed it to begin with, most of them will be hard to shake. What’s important is that people who aren’t the state can communicate with each other. It’s not that they’re suddenly exposed to a new narrative and the scales fall from their eyes; it’s that they can plan stuff and agree on it. They all hated Mubarak all along and they never trusted him anyway. That’s old. What’s new is that they can now all be on the same page about exactly how and when to object to it.


    “To be transformative, all that matters is that the alternative narrative be different in a way that the existing narrative cannot be amended to contain.” That’s the essence of your (PB’s) argument, and I agree, though in para 4 it can be misinterpreted literally to imply a certain level of Matrix-y delusionality, which isn’t what you meant (I think.)

    But if we just accept the premise that one narrative isn’t “better” than another, the mere fact that it is different, and, importantly, can’t be accommodated by the first, makes it better.” In other words, if we’re going to judge it as better or worse based on an outcome, then it’s better. Of course, by that logic, Scientology is better, especially for actors.

    The problem with his critique of Google, et al, is that he misses the point of what the every day user of those social media use them for: escape. With facebook it’s easy to see that, but going to or CNBC is just as much as an escape. Entertain, make my heart race a little, nudge me to find out if there are any bikini pics of that reporter, give me emotions that I don’t really have or need, etc.

    I find it hard to value “things”– narratives, ideas, objects, social media– until they’re used by a guy for a purpose, and then it’s easy. I realize that in making that statement (because it’s backwards), I exhibit a total misunderstanding of po-mo, but I am too busy writing this into WordPress to check my sources.

  3. carping demon says:

    This is terrific. “To change the world, you do not have to promise a better world. You simply have to demonstrate that this world is not real.” That can be quite a challenge, though. One of the first responses is always a dismissive, “Well, you’re not offering any alternatives.”

  4. DataShade says:

    “Both sides incorrectly assume that transformative forces must offer a better future than the present.”
    Well, to be fair, I think cyber-utopians (especially ones with a background in computer science, as opposed to livejournal hipsters who feel safer and happier behind a keyboard than at work) just assume that if we keep trying, then each transformative force is an iteration toward utopia; if we keep a perfect factual record of each stage, then each transformation should be closer and closer to the ideal.

    That kind of only works as long as the people using any particular transformative technology are actually concerned with anything other than themselves. I think we’ve seen how that works.

  5. Comus says:

    An excellent post. Here’s my pocket change.

    The way for the state to control the new media cascade is similar, yet different, from the old. It is a form of the french old proverb that calls for change in order to things to stay the same. The new user created media differs from the old mass media in that it has no direct control over substance. Now, if the state would be wise, it would not concentrate on cencorship or blacklisting, instead it would focus on the values. In other words, on the reality that creates the substance.

    Blogs, tweets, fb-updates etc. are all based on individualistic values. Whether it has under some circumstances trasmogrified into solidarity machine is a byproduct. People want their voices and opinions heard, they want to be seen and heard, they want be something. The motivation is selfish – to create a projected image of self for the world (or the Other). If the state tries to control this, it is always taken as a narcissistic attack that is similar to hosing down an oilfire with water. The wise state will do this indirectly, by packaging the rebel beforehand, construing an identity the blogger, tweeter or whomever can buy into. After this the otherwise dangerous anarcho-syndicalist, new leftist, or any other typecasted voice on the internet wil be looked at as a characterization of that stereotype, not as an individual. This take the edge off, as the protagonist is rather happy with this persona and stereotype, as it adds to his or her ideal self-image. It is suddenly easier to be an angry young man, wearing che guevara and buying fair trade. To be a state-approved dissident. This construction of reality is still done by the media, but on a deeper scale than obvious lies and manipulations. The two forms of media also do not exist in a vacuum, they are more like a highly overlapping venn-diagram, a feedback-loop of reality.

    The state to be most feared is not the one that hunts down it’s dissidents, it’s the one that domesticates them.

    • This construction of reality is still done by the media, but on a deeper scale than obvious lies and manipulations.

      Damn, that twists my thinking. Perhaps we can make the argument that the guy in the example wanted the approval (even if it was a stereotype) — more than he wanted individuality? And that the state wouldn’t be able to domesticate someone uninterested in that type of praise. (I think domesticating the thinking of others would be a different issue.)

      But then again, we’re all domesticated to some extent, by virtue of living in society. And maybe that’s good for change. (Or maybe there’s no other way around it.) I do think it’s more rebel to change the system from within (without necessarily fitting any extreme stereotype that domesticated minds would likely discredit) — than to attempt to change it while pretending to stand outside of it.

      And maybe that’s the only way to change the system, because globally we’re still stuck with all of the ‘original’ social problems we claim to be against, if not more. I think it has a lot to do with exactly what you’ve described, regarding political activism and revolutions. For long-term solutions, we need to accept that we are the system, and work within that framework instead of getting sidetracked by alter identities that just cater to more superficial needs, like acceptance and recognition.

  6. Guy Fox says:

    Good post, two beefs: 1) This can and does all happen even without ‘the state’ as a teleological, disciplining intelligence. The state media in the US is a withered husk, but many nefarious constructions can persist anyway. E.g. the state has squat all to do with half-baked self-help ideas (The Secret, Scientology, etc.). A largish number of self-regarding people who are willing to accept a welcome message/easy answer without testing its quality with reason is all you need. 2) Many constructions aren’t so nefarious at all. There is no such thing as ‘human rights’. There is no such thing as ‘first degree murder’ or ‘aggravated assault’. These things only exist so long as we are all agree that they do, and this agreement is the only thing keeping them going, so they are constructions. Still, the world would (almost certainly) be a worse place without them. Deconstruction can bring undesired collateral damage.

  7. Rookie says:

    Hmm… that really reminds me of therapy: helping a client realise that the bullshit they tell themselves is not supported by a good look at reality and guiding them through establishing a new interpretation of their reality.