The “Democratization” of Information: Truth and Freedom de-defined.

The twentieth century saw incredible change in almost every part of social life. One of the most significant occurrences lies in the transition of a society at the pinnacle of industrialization followed by the ascendancy of an information society. This shift enabled commerce and communication to thrive as they had never done before. The ability for people to be inter-connected with places, concepts and things were dramatically altered in a way that allowed them an almost instant ability to assess information and to acquire objects. Technology was the code that unlocked the Pandora’s box of the world and allowed individuals the means to achieve interconnectivity at such an accelerated pace that it was difficult to imagine; the telephone, radio, television, the cell phone, the personal computer, the internet, and satellite communications have all come into existence in only the last 135 years. In recent years, this exponential access to information has coincided with another cultural phenomena; the relativation of the known through postmodern “truth-letting”- the slow and inevitable death of all grand narratives via the communication meta-stream.

Because technology has brought an instantaneous availability of other cultures and their varied narratives clearly into view, time and space have become compressed, the result is that time and place have lost meaning and significance. People begin to lose faith in the narratives that they once believed were in control of their lives and find themselves searching for some modicum of control.

As this phenomena takes hold, media images and communication devices themselves have become the language of communication, while the actual information or content becomes secondary. The McLuhan-esque effect of, “the media is the message”, becomes real. This devaluing of information through fragmentation and shear volume, inevitably leads to the breakdown of information into symbols that might be commodified. This commodification further alienates truth from the individual who comes to believe that truth can simply be bought or sold. (You choose – Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch)

The effects of globalization and the commodification of information have created a society in which there is an increasing emphasis on the self. Information, relationships and identity have all been commodified by media and technology to the point where the individual is disengaged and mistrustful of all information, and has kept community “at arms length” through the construction of an external, public self-image, that is exemplified by the worlds of Facebook and Twitter. (Lindsey just took her first tinkle in the hoosegow-OMG)

As globalization has brought cultures closer and increasingly interrelated, and technology and social marketing has commodified information, people are suffering from a kind of twenty first century anomie. This anomie is unique in that each successive generation has suffered increasing alienation from its role as part of a greater society and has been ever more reliant on the “self” to interpret, value and discern a vast amount of information through an ever changing technological matrix. ( “There is no spoon”)

When these destabilizing conditions become the norm within culture, there is a profound effect on the individual that sets the postmodern condition apart from the social challenges of previous eras. Now de-centered, the individual looks for another source of anchoring and finds a willing participant in the media culture. ( Dude, I just TiVo’ed Beck and Olbermann from my iPhone…wait can I watch that on my iPad?)

Media continues to contribute to this de-centering as it provides often inaccurate and always fragmented information that is focused primarily on image, thus the content is irrelevant- image = content. Void of narratives, and discernable truth, a cultural destabilization takes place as individuals seem to have no other alterative but to randomly invent meaning from cultural symbols whose sole purpose is to provide an affirmation of the self. (“Are you a Mac or a PC?” “Coke or Pepsi?” “Jesus Christ T-shirt or Che Guevara T-shirt?”)

During the search for meaning in cultural symbols, individuals become reflexive, looking for the next potential meaning in the image du jour. The proliferation of images becomes rampant and the channels to receive the images are unlimited. As a result of this reflexivity, combined with the compression of culture, the image culture cannot provide stable meaning. What is left to make up the self is the pastiche personality. The loss of the internal voice has led to an isolation that is profound. Once isolated, the postmodern person feels as though they are in control of their life and have a decreasing connection to the culture. Yet there is a paradoxical relationship that occurs in the postmodern information society. As the individual becomes more detached and retreats into the micro world and illusion of autonomy, they are simultaneously allowed to expand their standoff connection with society through an ever-expanding web of communication and information yielding systems and devices. (My car just parked itself.)

The information society has promised a revolution in communication. But unchecked it cannot sustain itself. What promised more freedom has ultimately provided isolation and the loss of identity. If we do not find a way to swing the pendulum back to the center of tension between technology and humanity, then we will fall pray to the juggernaut of the information culture and lose ourselves forever along the way.

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The End of Suburbia: A Sociological Analysis

The American Dream has as many definitions as individual’s asked. But as Emile Durkhiem has stated “an individuals intellectual activity is not as rich or as complex as societies intellectual activity as a whole”. If this is true- than we would be able to identify the American Dream in the collective conscious and social facts and actions of the whole. Simply put, the “proof” would be in the pudding. The American Dream would reveal itself readily when the society was examined. The advent and expanse of suburbia is one such characteristic that can be viewed in almost any major community in America. The physical presence of suburbia can be viewed using several perspectives. What function or dysfunction did and does suburbia serve? How did our society evolve economically and politically to allow for and accommodate such development? What forces were at play?
The film The End of Suburbia asks and answers these questions and many more. But how did America “buy in” to the lure of Suburbia so readily? The film begins by offering a capitalistic greed and oil junkie perspective that begins as a potentially valuable alternative to an entrenched Western perspective, but, unfortunately the film devolves into portraying our future as the advocated and unavoidable post-apocalyptic return to serfdom. According to the film, “we will have no choice”, and we will be “forced to grow our own food” because we will be “economically depressed forever”. Chaos will reign as there will be an “infinite war” and “lots of death”. As to our energy future, the film states that “ it is too late for alternative fuels”, but advocates being responsible anyway. Politically, “dictatorial maniacs will be elected- creating violence” and it is inevitable that “Democracy as a social experiment is over.” And lets not forget blaming, “Cheney” “imperial army”, “Patriot Act”, “oil empire” and “global warming” to boot. The End of Suburbia absolutely discredits itself- and it’s too damn bad, because it has something valuable to say in a couple of key areas regarding how we are living and the means by which we have arrived here, a.k.a., the American Dream. Firstly, about how we are currently utilizing land and how we might do so in the future and secondly, how the illusion of individuality, an American value, has clouded our choices of how we might create and sustain communities.

Land Use
Americans have been generationally socialized to believe that the land that we are living on in America is a birthright. From a very young age we look to cowboys, who use the land to live, as heroes that have access to gobs of wide open spaces. We are taught songs like “This Land is Your Land” and refer to land as our own “piece of the American Dream.” Even to this day the idea of universal home ownership is a bipartisan carrot held from the stick of every politician in every election. A promise that is unattainable and unsustainable as evident in the housing bubble of 2006/2008. In the face of reason, these land/housing advocates use a functional approach to justify their rationale. i.e., if people have a goal, they will work harder, become more productive and moral, and be less prone to deviance A final reason that we are hooked on land is that it improves our status. Regardless of the group, if we are viewed by our peers, as living in or on a valuable property, we are given more credence as an individual and granted more power to influence others. This “material effect” is so pervasive that newcomers to most industries have a similar mantra about flaunting material goods to fool others regarding their ability to deliver as promised…”fake it til you make it.” Whether you believe that suburbia is an evil unsustainable force or just “less than effective” city planning, the sociological effects of our attitudes regarding land are unavoidable.

Individuality
As Americans, we are intrinsically linked to capitalism. Though there is a great discussion as to the outcomes of capitalism, few would argue that the American Dream has a historical connection to it. We are co-opted into the ethos through several American values, including the emphasis on Individuality. If one works hard and follows the tenets of capitalism and rugged individualism, then success and happiness are soon to follow- or so goes the narrative. Several sociological characteristics come into play. Class is an important factor in how we view individuality. We presume that the financially successful perform better in the individuality department. This causes us to value class and seek individuality to achieve class. Democracy is also tied to how American’s express their individuality. Individual negative liberties are the basis for Jeffersonian democracy and our legal and ethical system has had an important role in how we have come to value individualism. Lastly, role expectations in American society are predicated on the individual and not upon the collective. A strong man or woman, father or mother, student or employee, is one who has achieved the most autonomy and individual achievement and not assisted others or advances the whole.

The American Dream is a debatable concept. Our use of land, and our philosophy of individuality has played a major role in the development of our collective conscience. If we hope to reorient the use of our land resources and begin to work together to preserve our communities, an awareness of these influences can assist how we might approach the problem.

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Keep the River on your Right: A Freudian Analysis

Tobias Scneebaum eats people. Or, he ate a part of a person once, a long time ago. Tobias Scneebaum teaches cultural anthropology through profane songs about eating the poop and pee of fish. Well, he did once. He earns his living by taking the money of tourists who are interested in taking pictures of indigenous peoples circumcise penises. Tobias is an expert in the fertility tokens and phallic symbols. Well actually, he is an expert in the phalluses themselves. Tobias Scheenbaum is one fascinating, cool and Freudian kind of dude.

Tobias Shneebuam is the subject of the film, Keep the River on Your Right, an exploration into Schneebaum’s long ago journey into the heart of the Amazon. Tobias was interested in the anthropological and archeological study of indigenous peoples, but as the film reveals, Tobias seemed to be on a search of much more than information. Tobias was on the search for the answers to his life. He ended up in South America as the result of a Fulbright scholarship to Machu Picchu in 1955, but just as in Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness, the river beckoned to him, taunted him. Maybe, if he only traveled a little further up river, deeper into its core, its heart, Tobias might find what he was looking for. So, after hearing a rumor about a distant mission, he just started walking. . . alone . . . into the Amazon. No committees, no funding, no support . . . he just did it. Tobias found the mission, but he did not stop there. He would come to live with the Amarekaire, and do everything they did, including take part in ritual cannibalism- a total immersion into the culture. Would Tobias find what he was looking for? The film seems to leave this question unanswered, but a Freudian analysis of Tobias and the film might lend us some clues.

Freud based his ideas on the premise that at our base, we are sexual beings, and that this nature of sexuality is not limited only to sexual acts, but is intrinsic to all aspects of our socialization. He suggests that all that we do is, at least in part, affected by how we passed through what he deemed his four stages of development. In Stage 1, we are oral beings, only concerned with what “goes in”. In stage two, the anal stage, we become aware of what “comes out”. Thirdly in the phallic stage, we become aware of our “equipment” and the differences between the sexes, and attempt to clarify what these differences might mean to us. Lastly, in the genital stage, we become independent of those confusions and mature into fully functional sexual identities. Much has been made of the sexual nature of these stages and some have found little merit in this approach. But regardless of its validity, the approach is useful in media analysis. For Tobias, Keep the River on Your Right, gives us a short glimpse into show those stages are still visible in him.
The key conflict of Schneebaum’s life is the singular moment when he ate human flesh. At once the event was a departure from Western culture, an embracing of his newfound culture, and a Freudian oral paradox that he would deal with for years to come. After all, one of his contemporary New Yorkers, Michael Rockefeller crashed his plane in 1961 and was eaten by cannibals- or so the story goes. How could Tobias stray so far from the path of his youth? Or was he ever even on the path we suppose he was on to begin with?
Tobias teaches Anthropology at the Barnard school, and one tool that he uses to teach his students about his experience in South America is a song. He sings it in Azmat, then translates.
“The fish eat in the river. The fish pee in the river. The fish poop in the river. The shrimp eat the pee. The shrimp eat the poop. We eat the shrimp. “
Is Tobias telling us about fish? Or perhaps the effects of Western expansion. Either way, it is difficult to separate from a Freudian Anal awareness of what is “coming out”, and how it effects others. Tobias says that he hates money and Freud suggests that throughout history that folklore has always associated money with defecation. If this is true than it is no wonder why Tobias hates the way he earns a living. A vocation that is almost too obvious an example of the phallic.
To make money, Tobias teaches lectures to tourists in Indonesia on cruise ships. He is the resident expert on the Indigenous peoples that the cruise ships pass by, offering excursions to visit, and he gives lectures on his experiences around the world. One of the most popular excursions is the observation of a circumcision, a rite of passage on a small island. Tobias gives a play by play to the tourists, but into camera he only derides them for their inappropriate gawkings. As the film progresses, we travel with Tobias back in time, revisiting long forgotten people and places, only to find some remembrances; an old friend, an overgrown mission, a lost lover. Does Tobias find any peace, any answers in replaying the past? We do not know for sure.
How Tobias feels about his time in the Amazon, his journey up the river to find himself, about how his cannibalism has defined him – his inner conflict, all reminded me of the officer in Apocalypse Now who is assigned to travel up a dark river to kill a fellow officer. He takes the assignment, but when he arrives, it is himself that he must confront.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission. And when it was over, I never wanted another.”
Colonel Willard, Apocalypse Now

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A Semiotic Analysis of The Control Room

This document hopes to analyze the material presented in the documentary film The Control Room. The film, produced in 2004, contains some interviews conducted with Western media, but at its core, the film is about the relationship between Al-Jazeera television and US Army Central Command leading up to and during initial phases of the Iraq War.
Any analysis of media should be based upon the success of the text to achieve what it sets out to achieve. A semiotic analysis bases its judgments on the signs and juxtapositions within a text to interpret its meaning. In the case of The Control Room then, we are looking to examine how the film uses semiotics to achieve its goal. But first we must define what the film sets out to do, in order to analyze how it uses semiotics. So what was the goal of The Control Room.
At the time the film was produced, Al-Jazeera did not have an English language channel, yet the films primary interviews were all carried out in English, and the film was premiered at the Sundance Film festival. Thus, the intended audience of the film it can be surmised is the western world. The film sets out to show a different perspective of the events of the Iraq War by looking through the eyes of Arab media correspondents, the Al Jazeera control room, and a U.S. Army communications officer John Rushing. Leaving politics, and positions on the war aside, we look to the construction and exegesis of the film for clues to its intended effect and potential biases.
The films internal critique of the war comes from two main characters. Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese journalist who is not shy about his anti-American biases, and Senior Producer of Al Jazeera, Samir Khadir, a chain-smoking news cynic, who often gives contradictory messages about news and propaganda, the role of media, and America itself. The film is a powerful and provocative exploration into war, media, and the dissonance of narratives in the world today. Based upon the intended audience and the main perspective put forward, we can assume that the goal of The Control Room is to bring an Arab perspective of the Iraq war to an American and European audience.
The Control Room uses visual media semiotics in a substantial and effective manner including in the use of camera techniques and editing. Much of the film was shot using a handheld technique. Though this is most likely out of production necessity, it still brings a chaotic feel to the events surrounding war. The most important part of the semiotics of The Control Room that helps to convey its message lies in the metonymy produced by the juxtaposition of images in its editing, intended to bring about a specific reaction from the viewer.
Time after time, immediately following a statement from Rushing, an image is brought to the screen that contradicts his statement. Conversely, Hassan’s commentary is supported by imagery. Several times images of coalition forces are shown aggressively searching civilians, but never once is an IED shown exploding or even mentioned as a threat. In fact, no violent act is seen, no weapon is shown being fired, no bomb explodes, and no act of war is included in The Control Room, unless it is a U.S. Army action. The Iraqi Army and insurgents never appear in the film. The effect on the viewer is that he/or she can only perceive what they see, an aggressive occupying imperialist force, that is unconcerned with the effects on the Iraqi people. In turn, the issue of the fate of Saddam Hussein is treated as almost incidental to the fate of Iraqi’s, and he is offered as preferred to anything the Americans might offer. The film also offers no context of the attitudes (justified or otherwise) of the Arab World toward Americans, leading up to Iraq War. This lack of context magnifies the anecdotal nature of the film. The use of metaphor and metonymy in The Control Room is quite genius and the viewer is left with only two options for his opinion. The viewer must choose a side based upon the presentation, and the choice is clear -the U.S. forces are misguided at best, or hypocritical racist imperialist war-mongers at worse. In this sense, The Control Room has achieved its goal of bringing an alternative view of the events of the Iraq war to a Western public, reorienting their view of the purpose and image of the U.S. involvement and War in Iraq.
Though The Control Room is a documentary, it is not void of artistic semiotics. In the opening sequence there are three images; the rising sun, birds flying over Baghdad and several shots of makeshift antennas. A semiotic view of these images could be interpreted as a bright future, freedom and progress for Iraq, all presented prior to the U.S. invasion. By contrast, at the end of the film, the U.S. forces impact is signified by a freak storm over CentComm as the Americans are packing up in Qatar and heading to Baghdad. The rain is coming down in the desert of Arab lands, as US soldiers run frantically to save their production equipment- the instruments of their propaganda. The message is clear. Darkness has come to the Arab world. Fade to Black. End Credits.

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