Newstweek: if only they understood philosophy they way the understood technology

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Newstweek is a wireless networking hack in which wifi devices are added to unsecured wireless networks to subtly change the content of popular news sites as users on that network browse them. For example, you leave one of the Newstweek devices in a Starbucks, and everyone in that Starbucks reading the BBC news site sees a fake headline like “US wants Assange as head of Defence Department.”

Newstweek relies on a group of people to edit the news stories or headlines on a central server from which all of the compromised wifi networks will pull stories when those sites are accessed.

I applaud the technical achievement, and even appreciate the sentiment that “a strictly media informed reality is a vulnerable reality.” But I think this project is ideologically flawed. First, it is driven by precisely the kind of biased thinking and contempt for the public that the people behind the site believe motivates the major news outlets in the first place. In other words, they assume that all of the news is biased propaganda, but then all they do is replace the original content with skewed snarky propaganda of their own that is predictably anti-US and anti-capitalist.

What is much more interesting to me is the hacker ethos on display here. The idea that because the network is unsecured, and because they have the skills to do so, it is okay for them to manipulate what others can access on that network. As if having the technical skills automatically entitles them to have their views heard. It isn’t enough to have the right to speak, but these hackers have to force you to listen.

At the root of this and many other art and technology projects is the idea of getting people to see things your way. It is deeply anti-social. It is at once an admission that convincing people through argument has failed, and also that the blame for the failure rests entirely on the public, not the speaker. The idea is that the hacker knows how things really are, he knows the truth, and he needs to get people to see it. This is also the motivation behind art that shocking or offensive, or behind endless screeds from groups that demand that the people “wake up.” These people are right, absolutely, and your rejection of your message reflects a defect on your part, not theirs.

The fact is that is none of these “radical” opinions are new, they are simply alternative. “Coverage of Libya is biased!” I could tell you that simply by looking at the price of gas. But now tell me why it shouldn’t be? Tell me why the bias is to my detriment and not in my favor?

The project’s creators have made a fundamental mistake. The media does not inform reality, the media creates it. That’s why all their alterations are immediately glaring and conspicuous. It would have been much more persuasive to redirect requests to those sites to a page that informed the reader of the provable biases in these media agencies and their relationships with and dependencies on the governments and corporations they cover. Then, after informing the reader of these, they could then give the reader a choice: to continue on to that site unimpeded but in possession of some additional knowledge or to go to a different site to get a different perspective on the news. That would be more persuasive because is gives the reader the ability to consciously choose the bias.

But these hackers aren’t interested in giving the reader a choice. But the mere knowledge of the choice is what is needed. That choice exists is the true radical idea. It takes what is implicit and unconscious and under the control of others and renders it conscious, explicit, and subject to our control. Taking the objects of media and government and making them subjects again. You can read this, but ask yourself if you believe it. 

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7 Responses to Newstweek: if only they understood philosophy they way the understood technology

  1. JohnJ says:

    Damn straight. Now if only everyone would open their eyes to this. Someone should do something to shock people into awareness. When this many people disagree with me about something that should be obvious, there must be other factors at play.

    And while we’re decrying society’s ignorance, let’s keep encouraging ignorant people to vote.

  2. operator says:

    I believe that your interpretation of the motives behind this action needs to be taken a step further – while it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the makers of Newstweek want people to see silly headlines, the goal is not to get people reading their content.

    Because Newstweek manipulates data, it could be suggested that it is not necessarily clarifying the news, but just giving someone else’s view: the selective gatekeeper is still there, it has just changed its owner. Irrespective of whose content it is, the possibility of just changing the content not only addresses technical issues of security, but emotional issues of trust. Many research reports around the world conclude that changing the medium of news delivery to digital builds a greater level of trust. Oliver and Vasiliev make the point that “a strictly media-informed reality is a vulnerable reality”.

    … so you didn’t quite make it to the point – no right-minded social engineer would stop at spoonfeeding “facts” to the general public: the goal is to breed more skeptics.

    • Fifi says:

      I have to agree with Operator in this case, the point isn’t so much to replace the official narrative but to get you to question it and how easily it can be manipulated. (And probably to get a kick watching people read the fake headlines! Though if it was only all about the lulz the headlines would more likely be about porn and lolcats.)

      It seems more in the vein of the Yes Men’s corporate and news hacks, a sort of political/social pranksterism that involves using the media, or medium, to critique itself. (One can easily argue that the Yes Men use the corporation as a medium, they manipulate the system to their own ends. That said, sometimes they have a very clear agenda to raise public awareness about specific issues, like the ongoing fallout for the people of Bhopal.) They also seem pretty busy tweeking headlines of European news sites so I’m not sure why there’s all the drama about “anti-Americanism” and “anti-capitalism” — what’s up with that Pastabagel? I could be misreading what you wrote but you seem to have gotten hung up and annoyed by something that actually seems more about you – and how they’ve failed your agenda that you’re projecting onto them – than it is about the actions they’re taking. Seems to me they’re having a bit of a laugh with the whole radical activist cloak and dagger aspect (it’s hardly secret when you video it and put it on the web).

  3. DataShade says:

    First, it is driven by precisely the kind of biased thinking and contempt for the public that the people behind the site believe motivates the major news outlets in the first place. In other words, they assume that all of the news is biased propaganda, but then all they do is replace the original content with skewed snarky propaganda of their own that is predictably anti-US and anti-capitalist.

    It’s not contempt for “the public,” it’s contempt for the technologically illiterate, the people who’ve never given a thought to how “the series of tubes” works, people for whom the internet is powered by black magic and big voodoo.

    Only, it’s not even contempt for those people, it’s just contempt for their illiteracy.

    Only, it’s not even contempt for their illiteracy, it’s bemusement by it. Really, have you never watched Bill Nye (or anyone like him) running some sort of science experiment where he plays it up like it’s magic, then breaks it down step by step and shows you how he did it?

    You see them posting the HOWTO as contempt; I see it like a magician teaching a novice his tricks. I don’t know that I’m correct to jump to my conclusion, but I do know that the eagerness with which you jumped to your conclusion makes you a misanthrope. If you’re going to be a misanthrope, could you at least be funny?

    The project’s creators have made a fundamental mistake. The media does not inform reality, the media creates it. That’s why all their alterations are immediately glaring and conspicuous.

    I guess you’ve never read The Onion?

    You can read this, but ask yourself if you believe it.

    Don’t you reach that same destination if you warn people that anyone could be hacking the articles they’re reading? Wouldn’t that awareness propel a concerned or eager reader to verify sources or corroborate readings?

  4. Guy Fox says:

    At the root of this and many other art and technology projects is the idea of getting people to see things your way. It is deeply anti-social. It is at once an admission that convincing people through argument has failed, and also that the blame for the failure rests entirely on the public, not the speaker.
    Wow. We go from French post-modernists straight into Habermas. Is the public an agglomeration of reflective individual subjects or a single mass of uncritical impulse, as you suggested in your comment to the “Unthinkable” post? Either way, you’re right that sarcastic snark is the last refuge of a scoundrel, and looking down on the technologically less literate is just self-serving condescension.

    It would have been much more persuasive to redirect requests to those sites to a page that informed the reader of the provable biases in these media agencies and their relationships with and dependencies on the governments and corporations they cover.
    Self-promotion and product placement on Partial Objects? Et tu, Bagel Augustus? (kidding)

  5. spriteless says:

    If they can change newspages, they can record, and change any pages, and any interaction people make on the pages. An obvious prank makes more headlines than stealing financial information. Therefore they ‘create reality’ just as much as the media by doing that.

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