What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice
by Antonio López
New media and cultural practices mirror each other in the same way that contemporary gamers now view the world differently than gamers of old. Consider how baseball evolved with radio. Its slow pace is perfect for the narrative storytelling style of the oral tradition. American football, on the other hand, is perfect for television, its visually impressive and vignette-driven coverage timed perfectly for the commercial break. In both cases, though, their dissemination requires top-down distribution and offers clear and definitive outcomes, making them excellent fodder for discussion, distraction, and catharsis. Not surprisingly, politics have come to mirror sports spectacles with teams (parties) and strategies (platforms) that have a way of eschewing actual discussion of issues, substituting real politics with horse-race-like coverage.
No wonder the native intellectuals of the colonial media system can’t deal with the open-ended politics of kids raised on “infinite” games. Infinite games are about keeping the gameplay going, not about definitive winners and losers. The goal of infinite games is not an “end game” — as so many corporate media pundits search for in the narrative of the movement — but sustainability. How do you keep it going? “It,” in our case, is just life for those of us who want to raise our children on a healthy planet and in a prosperous and just society. In zero-sum games the focus on ends has a distinctly Western cultural spin. We are indoctrinated to believe that the struggle between winners and losers is the nature of our world, going as deeply as the Judeo-Christian narrative that underlies the world system .The premature declarations that capitalism had won the Cold War justified American imperial expansion because it was argued that we were finally at the end of history and that global expansion of a U.S.–led world system was inevitable.
But now this narrative is challenged in a big way by an emerging global youth revolution, best exemplified by the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. According to journalist Paul Mason’s extensive research, these planetary youths have several characteristics in common. Not only are they technologically savvy “graduates with no future,” they are everywhere. Ironically, these conditions are a by-product of globalization’s boom years. Revolution appears to be the flipside of the world system’s diffusion around the world. According to Mason, activist media tactics can be generalized as follows. Facebook (or other social networks) are used to establish groups with “strong but flexible connections.” Twitter then becomes a conduit for updates and news that bypass traditional media. Evidence is supplied through YouTube and online photo sharing services like Yfrog, Flickr, and Twitpic. Bloggers create sites that people can link to. The widespread use of mobile phones makes the network immediate and expandable, subverting the hierarchical control maintained by traditional media institutions and expanding the horizon of revolutionary potential.
In the United States the Occupy movement challenged the dominant symbolic order in two different ways. The first was iconic, at the level of memes, and the second was through the actual production tools used to mediate the movement’s message. On a symbolic level, Occupiers built on old-school strategies going back to the 1960s, by creating events that mainstream media would inadvertently cover because of their sensational character. In other words, it’s possible to “play” the corporate media by turning its economic prerogative for novelty against them.
Late in 2011 I became enraptured by Tim Pool’s USTREAM live cast of an Occupy Wall Street’s action to occupy a vacant lot in Lower Manhattan. When the initial occupation was thwarted by authorities, throughout that evening protestors played cat and mouse with the police as they traversed the city in pursuit of new occupation sites. After dodging the NYPD throughout Manhattan, protestors spontaneously organized a General Assembly in Times Square. Using the people’s mic, they “testified” as to why they were part of the Occupation movement, all the while bathed in the surreal glow of corporate media. Times Square is the quintessential spiritual center of the corporate project. Once the seedy underbelly of New York’s deviant unconsciousness, since Rudy Giuliani’s reign as mayor in the 1990s the open space of 42nd Street has been transformed into a kind of dystopic hydra of capitalist enclosure. A mix of surveillance and marketing über alles, Times Square has become an open air television studio that invites anyone to enter and be mediated by the planetary corporate rulers. A hybrid of advertising and reality TV, there are few other places on Earth where Disneyland, advertising, military, finance, and mass media cohere into a pulsating hum of mediated insanity. And like moths to a flame, people are attracted by the very thing that could ultimately destroy them. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, not since the Nazis has our own alienation and self-destruction been made to look so beautiful.
Yet as police stood by to protect holiday shoppers and business as usual, a handful of Occupiers bore witness to this insanity (thereby labeled by the system as lunatics). Here, as the embodiment of Earth’s spirit, these brave souls momentarily disrupted the pulsating spectacle. Whilst in the past numerous crazies have attempted such sacrilege against this colonizing machine, something has changed.
The message is being heard. And it’s resonating.
It’s happening despite the luminous power of Times Square and its tentacled financiers in Wall Street. A people’s mic, which is a spontaneous form of direct democracy and speech with high instantaneous feedback, utterly contradicts the communication forms of advertising in which psychologically tested and honed messages are pushed into people’s mindspace. The occupiers waged guerrilla war against that mechanism through the deployment of prefigurative politics that pulled people together with a shared sense of responsibility and reciprocity. Their collectivity, community, and ritual become an alternate form of mediation that deprives the corporate powers of their ability to colonize human energy. Such moments of autonomous collectivity — which are increasingly more common — are signs that we have reached the limit and end of the old system and we are currently in a transition into a liminal state in which the previous mental models of the past five hundred years are becoming destabilized.
To mark the two-month anniversary of the initial occupation of Zucotti Park, on November 17, 2011, occupiers organized a day of coordinated action in Manhattan. That evening, as protesters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, an extraordinary event occurred. Like the bat signal launched into Gotham City’s skyline, a large round spotlight appeared on the side of the Verizon building inscribed with the symbol, “99%.” Soon words appeared: “MIC CHECK! / LOOK AROUND / YOU ARE A PART / OF A GLOBAL UPRISING / WE ARE A CRY / FROM THE HEART / OF THE WORLD / WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE / ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE / HAPPY BIRTHDAY / #OCCUPY MOVEMENT / OCCUPY WALL STREET / [a list of cities, states and countries] / OCCUPY EARTH / WE ARE WINNING / IT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING / DO NOT BE AFRAID / LOVE.” The projection served as an instant morale booster; not only did it uplift those with their feet on the ground struggling day in and day out with various assaults on their movement and bodies, it also quickly spread through the internet. Magazines and newspapers wrote about it. A documentary on how the project was made and its source code were uploaded to the net. That a localized guerrilla media action used one of the world’s biggest telecom company headquarters as its canvas and became a global media phenomena utterly shatters the world system’s colonial model.
In a sense, we are experiencing a networked version of Martin Luther’s protest in 1517. Like the ninety-five theses he posted on the church door, which later was reprinted and widely disseminated with the new media technology of that period — the printing press — we now see an unprecedented diffusion of an alternative paradigm that challenges the power structure through participatory media technology. This 99 percent bat signal serves as a kind of updated thesis. Whereas Luther challenged the corrupt authority and abuse of power by the Roman Catholic Church, Occupiers the world over do the same against current dogma by contesting the domination and colonization of human experience by corporations. Clear evidence shows that post-Zucotti Park, the economic discourse in the United States has changed significantly. Income inequality, which was once practically taboo, became central to the debate about the direction of society. Even Republican presidential candidates cribbed notes from Occupy. But it will become necessary to move this discussion even further to link economic issues with the environment. The degradation of our biosphere and economic collapse are two sides of the same coin. It is now time to upgrade the global revolution to put climate change on an equal footing with economic injustice.
For good reason Native Americans and other oppressed land-based groups like the Palestinians might object to the “occupation” metaphor. Occupation is associated with conquest and colonization. In fact, in response to concerns of Native Americans, one group in New Mexico changed its name to Reoccupy Albuquerque. In reality the contemporary, emerging occupations around the world are really struggles to re-occupy the commons: these efforts are meant to contest and reverse the colonizing privatization of the planet, and hence defend the dignity of our living systems. Consequently, I mean to use the term in the neutral sense, as a way of describing the taking up of a position in relation to the global economic project that will destroy the biosphere, or at least make it immanently uninhabitable, if it is not stopped.
An example of media (re)occupiers can be found in Flagstaff, Arizona. There a group of punk Native Americans developed their own brand of do-it-yourself media activism, combining their sacred perspective of the land with political activism and punk attitude. Billing their project as the Outta Your Backpack Media Collective, they developed a clever portable media production studio that fits nicely into a skateboarder’s rucksack. They produce short videos about resisting the dominant system, contesting current mining operations, and protesting the desecration of their sacred mountain. They host film festivals, train youths in media production, and post their work to YouTube. These indigenous decolonists are prototypical media occupiers, reappropriating the tools of the oppressive system to tell new stories and to network with other youth media makers and storytellers from around the world. By hybridizing their indigenous cultural heritage with media technology, these innovative youth bridge the ancient past with the emerging future.
Such practices fall under an ethical framework for “green media citizenship.” Here are other ways to think about how to democratize and green media:
Disrupt the symbolic order. Symbols are tied to power and discourse. Use whatever means necessary to break the world system’s disastrous monologue through billboard liberation, culture jamming, pranking, guerrilla theater, flash mobs, Temporary Autonomous Zones, etc.
Be tactical, not strategic. Strategies are for battlefields and sports. Your mind is not Monday Night Football. Be tactical by selectively disrupting colonial rule; be subversive where it counts.
Community is not a demographic. Don’t sell out your communities to commercial interests. Resist commodification by acting like a human and not a list of interests.
Stop glamorizing. Media’s biggest hook is ego gratification. Take seriously the indigenous belief that cameras steal souls.
Produce more media than you consume. Create new forms of communication and participate.
Strategically use copyright and creative commons. Share with the world your art and culture, but protect it from colonization. Use appropriate measures to ensure it is protected, but also keep it sharable.
Act globally, think locally. Learn to think within your landscape. Relocalize consciousness, ground it into Earth and your bioregion. Become a node in the global movement, but don’t think like other people. Respect and celebrate your unique cultural identity while honoring global ethics.
Think ecologically. The economics of media systems is based on energy consumption. Use ecology as a reference point to learn how it works.
Create media gardens. Don’t just hang out in Twitter and Facebook. Hang out with friends, family, and neighbors by relocating media to the place you live. Host film festivals, house concerts, reading groups, poetry slams, music festivals, jam sessions. Gather and celebrate life. Corporations will come and go, but art, poetry, and music remain.
Keep communication systems open. Choose open operating systems, advocate for equal access to the net, and restrict corporate media monopolies.
Push for green technology and labor justice. Our gadgets and their energy consumption are choking the planet and killing the people who make and dispose of them. Fight for better design and laws that protect workers and the environment.
Make communication sacred. The dominant model of media is to make communication an instrument of commerce. Sacred media starts with the principle that all communication is sacred: it is embedded within our spiritual being. Words start with our breath. What we communicate is intention and a spiritual attitude that becomes a spell cast upon the world. Don’t feed the trolls.
Know your mind. Through mindfulness become aware of how your attention is hooked. Learn and understand the methods of manipulation and control that cause you to give away your power.
Know your relations. Mindfully engage the relations you cultivate through the media. Build strong and meaningful relationships, and bridge your participation with your personal life. Are you behaving like a demographic, or are you an active member of your community? Enter into open relations; stop the enclosure of the commons.
Know your environment. No matter where you are, there you are. Be aware of the environments that engage your attention. What do these environments (be they computer interfaces, shopping malls, churches, or forests) demand of your awareness? What possibilities or restrictions do they afford?
Know your gadget. Our media gadgets are part of vast networks of material extraction, production, and waste. They are also programmed to do some things and not others. Disengage those systems of power that are enabling environmental destruction and injustice.
Know your connectivity. Every screen is a portal. Such portals are nodes into vast possibilities of experience. Enter into these space/places (“splaces”) with eyes wide open and feet on the ground.
Bringing the world back into balance means that decolonial media must also be implicitly green. The democratization of media shouldn’t just be anthropocentric, but ecocentric. The challenge is to become aware of how our media practice is colonized and colonizes the lifeworld.
The Beginning Is Near
In 2003, for the most part the media cartels downplayed or outright ignored the historical significance of thirty million people around the world protesting against the impending Iraq War. Media were still enraptured by the spell of 9/11, which gave the United State’s military and political rulers carte blanche to invade and destroy any country they pleased. Eventually the media turned on Bush, mainly because of the lesson about Nazi propaganda: no lies can ultimately shield what is actually happening on the ground. Eventually reality bites back. The failure of the wars, political systems, economies, and ecosystems are doing just that. The combination of these undeniable crises and people glocalizing their response through Occupations has made it impossible for the corporate media to ignore the truths that resonate with the greater population.
But getting media coverage is a small part of the strategy. It certainly helps to get the message out to isolated populations: the fact that it is done by people getting together in public spaces with handwritten cardboard signs makes the irony that much greater. Good old-fashioned civic politics draws on our ancient, democratic traditions. The slow, deliberate consensus process taking place during Occupy General Assemblies with their cumbersome people’s mic has managed to capture — occupy — the public imagination. These practices are not necessarily new — anyone who has done activist work over the years will recognize the form. In the past we did it in the absence of media interest, so for the majority of people, these activities didn’t exist. That it now magnetizes vast numbers of people despite a vast propaganda network shows the innate power of awakened consciousness.
The various occupations taking place around the world are connected to ancient cultural practices of communion and ritual. The difference is that the modern technological infrastructure enables local reclamations of the commons to network on a planetary scale. Youth movements around the world, as is the case with the Arab Spring of 2011, indignatos in the Mediterranean, or Occupy, significantly inspire and impact the global symbolic order. To put this in terms of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, the global disorder created by capitalism is in the process of being restored to balance. As such, people deploy new symbolic relations, be it the Earth photo from space popularized by the environmental movement, the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta repurposed by the Anonymous hacker underground and Occupiers across the globe, or Avatar’s memes. These movements find solidarity through symbolic resonances made in the planetary cultural commons. As such, the spirit of DIY at the core of this emerging media occupation has a lineage to not just punk, but hip hop, Situationists, hippies, Dadaists, anti-colonists, indigenous resistance, ecological activists, and decentralized global justice movements across the world. We have a great heritage of radical critique and action to build upon, a history that gets relearned with every new generation. As one popular meme to emerge from the Occupy movement states, the beginning is near. By greening our media ecosystems with ecological intelligence, we combine the figurative circle and cross to become resilient in the face of tremendous upheaval and change.
Because of our active participation and engagement, the media ecosystem is coming alive. Its conscious evolution is now in our hands. Like media gardeners prepping the soil, it’s time to get our hands dirty.
Antonio López, MA, is a media educator and journalist who has written for Tricycle, Punk Planet, In These Times, High Times, The Brooklyn Rail, Reality Sandwich, and scores of other magazines, newspapers, websites, and academic journals. His first book, Mediacology, was published in 2008; his newest book is The Media Ecosystem. He currently resides in Rome, Italy, where he teaches media studies and is completing his PhD in education for sustainability. He blogs at mediacology.com.