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Catching the Drift

February 06, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Current Events, Ecology, Randall Amster

Can We Avoid Getting Swept Up in the Winds of Disenchantment?

by Randall Amster

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the news cycle, as if it actually represents reality and merits our continuous attention. But it’s largely a “bad news” cycle that we’re talking about, and in consuming it one can hardly avoid the conclusion that “the sky is falling” — a notion that’s coupled with a hegemonic “unless” that asserts “the end” can be averted only through more devices of the war-austerity-exploitation sort. Simply put, the mainstream media cultivates a dualistic ethos of despair/fear and resignation/capitulation that is difficult to resist, and yet is one that must be resisted if we are to retain the capacity to imagine a better world and work toward its realization.

I struggle with this dilemma on a daily basis. To unplug from the incessant negativism of the news crawl is to fall “out of the loop” in short order and to be lost in the myriad conversations of our lives that devolve upon “hot topic” and “currently trending” references. It also makes it difficult to comment on said news in order to offer analysis, critique, or even points of reference that will resonate for readers outside the avowed Luddites in our midst. Thus, in order to be relevant, it seems as if we need to be at least conversant with the “devil’s in the details” quality that makes up the news of the day.

On the other hand, to be immersed (or even just casually exposed) is a decided downer. The resultant “coefficient of drag” on one’s psyche is proportionate to the level of exposure, but it is never zero. Even should one decide to try and unplug from media manipulations, even temporarily, it’s a relative impossibility in actual practice. The header on your email program likely presents news items; the top stories are on the login page for many sites; screens blare at us in airports, malls, bars, and other places of public accommodation; schoolrooms are wired; digital billboards are positioned to demand our attention. In order to be completely insulated from the faux news that passes for current events, it seems that one would need to live on a “sky island” in utter isolation.

And then, even if such an “extreme unplugged” (sounds like a musical reality show!) state could be attained, one would still be subjected to the gaze of the “eye in the sky” on a planet continuously mapped by satellites and under skies increasingly policed by drones. Such a personal “cone of silence” would thus be purely a one-way endeavor, since one’s refusal to access information would not by any means ensure the opposite effect from the powers-that-be (indeed, it might even draw greater scrutiny upon oneself).  So, in the end, notions of being “above the fray” or “out of the loop” have become largely fictitious in short order during the digital age.

For me, as I suspect is true for many others, I try to strike the balance by getting the big picture of the news and then selectively going deeper on items of particular interest. Such a process is hardly scientific, and is often based on whim, presentation of the item, someone’s suggestion (e.g., an item forwarded by a friend or colleague), or by professional necessity (as with a topic I’m researching). If such a happenstance-oriented strategy is indeed fairly widespread, it raises an interesting question given the totality of the information barrage we’re subjected to and the fact that no one could possibly access all of it: are we even all experiencing the same version of current events? And if our perspectives are not in fact commensurate, how are we to engage in meaningful dialogue?

In a wired world with billions of participants/consumers, there are potentially billions of perspectives at work. No doubt, powerful interests often attempt to limit the range of perspectives through media hegemony and the simple repetition of contrived phrases intended to foster a “consensus reality” on a given issue that we’re supposed to buy into — e.g., “WMD” or “fiscal cliff” or “homeland security.” Even more crassly, many of the common points of reference involve nonsensical “infotainment” items, corporate sales pitches, dumbed-down sitcom lines, or bubblegum-music lyrics (“call me maybe?”). We often seem to be of “one mind,” precisely when more would do.

All of this continuous negotiation takes a toll. Living in the multimedia age is overwhelming, exhausting, repetitious, and largely boring. Everything seems so carefully packaged in just the right number of bytes at just the right volume, like pharmaceutical grade e-pills doled out throughout the course of the day in doses designed to keep those neurons firing and those endorphins pumping along. Too much and the absorptive agent shuts down; too little and the human data points can’t function in their consumptive capacities. Modern life often feels like an elaborate beta test of shortening attention spans and repetitive stresses, in which we’re all the subjects.

Of course, you’re most likely reading this in the context of a mass-information delivery device. (Maybe I should start snail-mailing my articles around and/or wheatpasting them on building facades and bulletin boards?) Like many others, I too drift along through this contrived “reality” with no easy answers for how to successfully manage it. At times the feeling of profound despair and utter helplessness is hard to resist; the game feels thoroughly rigged, and even my attempts at meaningful dissent seem like little more than very low-level safety valves that ironically serve the purpose of being more of a palliative that keeps people (self included) in the loop by making it seem as if the loop includes divergent points of view (when it’s really quite hegemonic in most important respects). I strive to maintain a distance while remaining in the conversation, uncomfortably playing a one-foot-in, one-foot-out rhythm.

This self-revelation is hardly surprising, I’m sure, but perhaps it reveals something of the totality of these times. Yes, the world is fully wired, the global economy is rigged, the planet is technologically ensnared, and by now even near space is colonized — all while the magnitude of converging worldwide crises escalates beyond our apparent capacity for remediation. Almost every time I peruse the news, this rationalistic/fatalistic discourse is reinforced. Shutting out the “talking heads” may not alter the course of human events, but it does have the virtue of providing a moment to reflect independently of the din and in a less linear manner.

And in this, I find a degree of authentic hopefulness, namely that it is precisely the carefully constructed, counterintuitive, manufactured nature of this linear narrative that renders it most vulnerable, and perhaps even patently absurd. Thoroughly lacking is an understanding of chaos and its inherent impetus, any long-term (or even medium-term) perspective on social and ecological processes, or a balanced view on how privacy/insularity and publicity/interaction mutually define a healthy system. This is a hyperrational, quick-fix, total surveillance edifice we’re living in — one premised on a notion of “forced obsolescence” that is simultaneously a mass-production virtue, a media hallmark, and a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy for the dominant paradigm.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to move against this grain; the leaf can hardly resist the wind. Staying with this metaphor, being “deeply rooted” and utilizing a “bend, don’t break” logic indeed serves green things fairly well. Perhaps that’s something to emulate. Being an energy producer, living on the sun’s bounty, sequestering carbon, mutually interdependent with the habitat, conscious of carrying capacity, growing food, holding space, providing shelter, sustaining watersheds, being stoic but responsive, quietly majestic — these seem like apropos virtues for us type-A bipeds to consider adopting on some level. (Sorry, but if you’re looking for more technocratically compliant points of figurative departure, the so-called “cloud” does not provide “shelter from the storm” — it’s merely another energy-intensive windblown way station in our burgeoning voluntaristic panopticon.)

The prevailing winds are hard to resist, and even harder to move against. Standing still is not a realistic option, but being rooted and flexible might be. One green entity is vulnerable, whereas a collective (interconnected underground) is harder to break. But a metaphor only gets us so far, and the pressures of modern life are intense. Still, “voices in the wilderness” beckon, reminding us that “going paperless” isn’t the feel-good panacea it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps we should seek that “forest within,” if you catch my drift…

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).

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