Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist » media

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Media manipulation

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

This semester, I’m taking a class in “Managing Emerging Technologies”. One of the points of the class is to consider not just the technology itself, but all of the social and cultural and political ramifications of the technology. To illustrate this point, we watched the movie The Future of Food in class last week, which examines some of the issues surrounding genetically modified seeds made by Monsanto, including the intellectual property battles that Monsanto waged against farmers, etc.

The thing that struck me as I was watching the film was the rampant use of framing to tilt the dialogue. Here are just a few examples that I can recall without consulting my notes:

  • When the film reviewed the history of man’s use of technology in agriculture, they showed people with gas masks spraying crops down with insecticide, presenting the frame of insecticide as poison.
  • In a similar vein, they repeatedly showed planes cropdusting fields, using angles and sound effects to evoke bombing runs.
  • When talking about how the recombinant cell technologies work, they used the term “cell invasion techniques” to frame it as a foreign invasion, rather than a recombination of existing genetic material.
  • They made sure to play up the angle of the one lone farmer fighting against the charge of patent infringement filed by the multinational corporation Monsanto, framing it as David vs. Goliath. Of course, they failed to mention that the way IP law works right now, if Monsanto does not protect its patent in all possible venues, it loses the right to that patent in all venues.
  • It mentioned a ballot initiative in Oregon which would have required genetically modified foods to be labelled as such. The ballot lost due to, according to the movie, an advertising campaign, despite polling that was 90% in favor of such an initiative, also according to the movie. It wasn’t that voters disagreed with the initiative – it was that they were weak-minded and could not resist the evil companies

I mean, the interesting part is that I agree with the thesis of the film for the most part – that the ramifications of genetically modified food are manifold and we should probably be more careful before deploying them. But the presentation of the material was so overtly manipulative that it completely turned me off. It reminds me of DocBug’s idea that Advertising is a form of violence, because I did feel attacked during the movie and became very defensive.

Ironically, part of the reason I’m so sensitized to framing issues and the use of tilted propaganda is because of the extensive work of the left to make me aware. Between Lakoff’s work, AlterNet, and organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, I am all too aware of the omnipresence of media bias and have learned to distrust it. So even when such techniques are used in support of positions I agree with, I react against the techniques.

I’ve mentioned this before (also here), but what I’d really like to see is more training done in the area of media literacy, of teaching people how to see the frames and either ignore them, or at least distrust the sources that rely on framing. One of the things that really bothers me is the last item in that list above – that our citizens may actually be influenced enough by the media that advertising will overwhelm their ability to vote for their interests. That’s a truly depressing thought. And, unfortunately, bombarding them with propaganda using those techniques, even in the name of good, will only reinforce their herdlike mentality and inability to think for themselves.

Of course, a populace that can think for itself is a threat to pretty much all of our currently entrenched powers, from politicians to corporations to even non-profit organizations, as they are all designed around the principle of being able to scare us into obedience. So none of those powers have any incentive to teach such media literacy, which means we’re pretty much doomed. Eit.

P.S. Man, I keep on meaning to post more, but I was down with a cold last week that pretty much kept me muzzy-headed all week. I left work early on Friday afternoon, and then didn’t leave the apartment for forty-plus hours, and slept for a large percentage of that. But I think I’m mostly better now. Of course, now I’ve got to do homework for class. Eit again.

Became very defensive: I never saw Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Incomplete Truth for a similar reason. I knew I already agreed with the basic gist of those movies, and watching them would only anger me against the filmmakers because they were designed to be overtly manipulative.

Art and connection

Sunday, September 17th, 2006

In an amusing example of the way in which conversations can take unexpected turns, somebody on a mailing list I frequent posted the question “Are Xena and Buffy Really the Same Show?”. As a long-time Buffy fan, I immediately had to jump in to claim that they were not because Buffy was far superior. As did another fan. Somehow the discussion that ensued turned to the question of what made one piece of media superior to another, whether there were any sort of objective criteria and eventually the topic of what is art. It’s gotten me thinking about these sorts of topics, and so I figured I would capture some of my ideas, cribbing liberally from my recent emails on the topic.

Let’s start with the question of what is art. I’ve talked about this before and even specifically on what makes art powerful, but let me recap. I currently think that art is about creating a connection between the artist and the observer. A work of art, in isolation, is just an object. It has no intrinsic value. We should judge the quality of a work of art by how successfully it delivers its message, how it reaches its audience. That audience may be as small or as big as the artist desires. The piece may only be intended for one person. But there has to be a connection made for it to be art.

When I sang in a chorus, there was some part of me that enjoyed the process of mastering the music, getting it technically perfect. And I sometimes wondered whether a group that only rehearsed, but never performed, would be satisfying. And the conclusion I came to was the one above; it would not be satisfying because there would be no connection made (well, there would be between the singers, but that’s not the same thing). To complete the artistic process required an audience. Up until the work was performed, it is craft; it may be technically excellent, but we rarely think of a well-executed piece of engineering as art. To use a sports analogy, figure skating measures both the craft of skating with its technical ratings, and the art of skating with the artistic ratings. They are two separate things.

A lot of modern art strikes me as being full of craft, but lacking in connection. It may be craft in terms of theory, where I admire the way in which the artist is commenting on a particular mode of thought or whatever. But it still doesn’t work for me as art. Stuff like John Cage and Schoenberg fall in this category. I think that they were trying to do interesting things, things that pushed the envelope and made people think about what music was. But sitting through the performance of one of their pieces is downright painful. Schoenberg’s alleged disdain for the audience is made pretty clear by his music. But then again, he wasn’t speaking to them. So does it work as art even if I’m not the intended audience?

What’s interesting to me these days is how we try to impute the artistic work with a given value, as if the value were measurable in some objective sense. And I think that is just not the case. We all come from different backgrounds, we have different perspectives, we’re at different places in our lives, and that has an effect on how we perceive a work. So for any of us to say that a given work is objectively better is presumptuous in projecting our own experience and our own connection to the work onto others.

There’s also an interesting discussion to be had about the ownership of art, and in particular the appropriation of shows by fans. But I think that will be a separate post that I will write at some point when I don’t have 6 chapters to read for homework.

Deconstructing Sweet Home Alabama

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

I saw the movie Sweet Home Alabama yesterday. It was decently entertaining, but later in the evening, I started thinking about the cultural memes that it is propagating, possibly because I have been reading too many of Jessie’s posts. The rest of this post will involve spoilers so if you have not seen the movie and plan to, you have been warned.

Quick plot summary: We first meet Reese Witherspoon as a successful fashion designer in New York City, getting engaged to the New York City Secretary of Housing, who is also the mayor’s son. She tells him she wants to tell her estranged parents about the engagement personally, so she flies back to rural Alabama. There we meet her childhood friends, including her high school sweetheart and husband, from whom she was never officially divorced. Wackiness ensues. By the end of the movie, she chooses her high school sweetheart over the overly coiffed New York paramour.

It’s a bit preposterous on my part to think of such an inconsequential movie as having an agenda, but I thought it was interesting that the film centers on the rejection of New York culture in favor of a simpler, more friendly, family-oriented Southern culture. The New York mayor is portrayed as manipulative and cold, always calculating the political consequences of an action. The Alabama friends are portrayed as living in the moment, having a good time down at the bar each evening. At the climax of the film, where Reese breaks off the engagement at the wedding, the mayor tries to stop her, saying that no poor white trash can do that to her son’s political ambitions, and starts excoriating Reese’s mother. Reese punches the mayor, saying “Nobody talks to my mama like that!” as the crowd cheers this victory over the Yankees.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a snooty New Yorker now, but this portrayal really bothers me. New York seems to represent a lot of what is great about this country. It is a true melting pot, with people of all nationalities mixing together; it’s almost more common than not to hear languages other than English being spoken. It is a land of opportunity, where people move every year in search of their chance to make the big time, whether in finance or media or theater or whatever. Everybody here is ambitious, aspiring to something great. Yes, New York can be harsh, but as the lyrics state, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”.

Meanwhile, the stereotypical Southern culture as portrayed in the movie is far more static. Her childhood friends are all still mostly the same, living in the same town, doing similar things. Reese’s father is a Civil War re-enactor, still fighting for the Confederacy. Nothing had changed in the seven years since she had been home. At one level, it’s very comforting; “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”. However, I could also call it stagnant. It promotes a conservative worldview where we can aspire to nothing more than what we already have. In fact, anybody that does aspire to anything more should be thought of as crazy because such ambition implies that the status quo is not the best of all possible worlds. Such ambition disrupts the comfortable community, and thus the agent of change must be treated as an outcast.

At the end, the film tries to have it both ways, by having the high school sweetheart create a business that he can then move to New York and join Reese, holding true to their past but moving forward together into the future. But I find it interesting that they were unable to carry out their dreams in their hometown. They had to move someplace new, using a new context to create a new identity, as Reese did in her initial move to New York, and as she got her husband to do later in the movie. Even in a movie where New York is portrayed as a shallow glitzy sort of place, it is still an environment of change.

And change is good. Change allows for the possibility of improvements. It can mean progress. Change is also scary and terrifying because it brings the unknown, but that can be good as well. I think we should celebrate agents of change like New York; if it weren’t for people like ambitious New Yorkers striving to make their mark on the world, we would not have made nearly the amount of progress that we have.

I find it interesting that the rest of the country despises liberal bastions like San Francisco and New York, and yet celebrates American ideals like innovation and competition, which are best exemplified by those bastions. Conservatives tend to despise the Old World of Europe for holding on to the past, and yet idealize small-town culture (or the stereotypical Southern culture portrayed in Sweet Home Alabama) which is stagnant and unchanging.

It’s interesting how I ended up with a political rant from an attempted movie deconstruction. Cultural memes are transmitted through movies, which influence people’s worldviews by reinforcing certain attitudes and deprecating others, and those worldviews influence how people end up voting. Frames trump facts. It’s also interesting how I’ve become such an intellectual leftist relativist postmodern freak, for having once had such an objective hard-science viewpoint. But that’s another story and another post.

Reinforcing patterns

Sunday, August 13th, 2006

Somewhat following in the footsteps of my posts about persistent patterns, one thing I noticed in the news reports of the terrorist plot was this line: “Teams of at least two or three men were assigned to each flight, the schedules for which they had researched on the Internet, the official said.”

Is there anybody you know who _doesn’t_ research their flights on the Internet at this point? No, really. Anybody?

This line is completely superfluous. But it serves to reinforce the idea that the Internet is dangerous, which many media outlets have been touting for years. “Terrorists use the Internet! It’s dangerous! It’s a threat to our way of existence!” And it’s relatively subtle – it’s a throwaway line in a story that is all about the big bad dangerous terrorists. But because our minds are already in the pattern of being afraid, of being impressed with the evil genius terrorists, they can sneak in this line that is completely ludicrous to the conscious mind. It’s using the pre-established frame to create connections to serve its own ends.

But after seeing the hacking the mind talk, I’m increasingly starting to notice this sort of coercion of patterns. In particular, it takes advantage of how well our brains pick up on patterns, even really subtle ones. So inserting a consistent element into a pattern makes our brain use that element at a subconscious level, because it’s built into our perception of the patterns. Even when that element is no longer present, our mind fills in the blanks and we see it anyway. This is where prejudices really start to kick in.

I’m definitely interested in learning more about hacking the mind. Not quite sure if I can do anything about these sort of manipulation techniques yet. But it’s certainly a fascinating topic.

P.S. My flight to the Bay Area was actually entirely reasonable despite the scare words about the lines – I got to the airport over two hours before my flight and security actually took less time than it ever had before in NYC. After landing and getting picked up by my sister, I took a brief nap, and then went out to dinner with friends, went to a liquid nitrogen ice cream party, and then headed out to the SRL show. Eight hours of fun on my first night back. Today was more low-key, running around buying supplies in the morning, picnicking all afternoon in Golden Gate Park, chill evening at Tortuga. Tomorrow is brunch and Killer Joe, etc. Vacation is exhausting!

My personal blogosphere

Tuesday, August 9th, 2005

There’s been lots of talk echoing around my personal blogosphere recently about the aftermath of the BlogHer conference. In particular, the initial BlogHer session involved discussion over how men tend to network widely but shallowly and women tend to link narrowly but deeply. Given a link-based economy, the former strategy tends to be rewarded more by being rated higher on things like the Technorati 100. This post by Liz Lawley captures some of the follow-up discussion that I’ve read.

I’ve been reading a bunch of these posts over the past few days, and I think there’s been some really interesting discussion over the different attitudes that people take towards linking (danah boyd had an interesting post on the biases of links, for instance). But, in the end, I’m not quite sure what the uproar is about. I guess it’s that tools like Technorati systematically underrate the contribution of women to the blogosphere, because it uses metrics that value things that women don’t care about. This is the principle behind Mary Hodder’s Paris Index.

I guess I have a different perspective than most. Note the title of this post – “my personal blogosphere”. I don’t make any assumptions that everybody’s blogosphere is the same as mine. In fact, one of my recent quixotic causes has been promoting recognition of the fact that we all live in different worlds. There is no one single blogosphere that everybody must subscribe to either in its entirety or not at all.

It may be inevitable that there’s an “A-list” of bloggers (Clay Shirky has a good analysis of the power law phenomenon). But the advantage of the blogosphere is that if I don’t like the A-list, I can ignore them entirely. If I don’t put them on my RSS feed, they might as well not exist. Unlike the world of movies or TV or advertising, where it’s almost impossible to avoid the dominant players, I can read blogs out in the long tail of the distribution and be blissfully ignorant unless something of actual interest goes over one of those dominant channels, and is linked to by one of my feeds

My point is that by creating our own personal blogosphere, we also need to take responsibility for how we create it. If we are subscribing to blogs based on the Technorati 100, it is not Technorati’s fault that our blogroll ends up with biases. We have to recognize that things like the Technorati 100 are merely tools with inherent biases, and it is up to us to use those tools appropriately, recognizing their limitations. I think there could be an argument made that if a certain tool has such an overwhelming presence that it dominates a field (e.g. Google), the creators of that tool have a responsibility to either be utterly transparent about their biases, or endeavor to make the tool as bias-free as possible. However, the former is a far more attainable goal than the latter.

The blogs I read (as seen on the left) have slowly accreted over time, mostly by following links from blogs that I already read or from recommendations from friends or mailing lists. Friend recommendations carry the most weight, obviously. As far as links go, when confronted with a new blog, I often will skim a few posts to see if it is written well and covers topics I find interesting. If so, I’ll generally pick it up for a bit and see where it goes.

I may also be unusual in that I don’t like high volume blogs like BoingBoing or Gizmodo or Slashdot. I am mostly looking for interesting people writing about interesting things: less frequent updates, more thought per post (danah boyd and Christopher Allen are good examples). I don’t want more random links to the rest of the web; I want analysis. And tools like Google and Technorati don’t do a good job of finding such blogs for me; I went and looked at the Technorati 100 for the first time while writing this post, and only 1 of the top 100 is a blog I read regularly. So I don’t use those tools, because they don’t do what I want.

Do I think they should change the tools so that they are useful to me? Not really. Maybe they’re useful for others – who am I to take away their tools? I think Mary Hodder is on the right path in creating her own way of ranking blogs that’s useful to her. We need to create a plethora of alternatives, a toolbox of blog-finding options, so that no matter what kind of content you’re looking for, you can find something appropriate. Perhaps the links-as-a-sign-of-prestige paradigm is so dominant right now that it seems like there are no other options. But with the self-awareness that the BlogHer discussion has enabled, it seems like it’s now up to us to specify the things we find important in blogs, and construct our own tools.

What would be truly ideal is a meta-blog-finder, a tool into which one could input one’s own biases, and it would spit out a personal top 100 blogs. Bloglines has a “Recommendations” page, but it’s way too much like the Technorati list to be of use. But something along those lines, where one inputs blogs that one finds interesting, and it goes and finds other similar blogs, based on the metrics that one specifies, could solve a lot of these disputes. Everybody would have their own top 100 list, and there would no longer be any questions over the biases inherent in the system, because you would be able to specify your biases up front. It’s a pipe dream, sure, but it would be interesting. I guess the next step would be to start reading up on some of the possible metrics for rating blogs, and seeing if there’s a good way to split them up into different axes, so we can construct an N-dimensional blog-characteristic space.

Mary Hodder’s post has some starting ideas for such metrics, but she seems to be more concerned with creating another One True List, whereas I feel that any such list should be personalized to be of interest just for me. I guess the question is, what is the point of creating a list? I want a list that helps me find new blogs. There is a well-defined customer/user (i.e. me) in this scenario that can be designed for. I’m not sure who the customer is for the One True List. Mary mentions in her post that advertisers and PR are trying to find “influential bloggers” – are they the customers? Is it meant to be a list for the BlogHer cohort? It’s very unclear who her target audience is from her post, and therefore it’s going to be hard to design to. As somebody who’s spent a lot of time recently arguing over software specifications, I feel that until you know your target user, it’s going to be hard to settle anything else. One of the advantages of the meta- approach is that the tool can then be tailored to all sorts of different possible target users. Of course, the downside is that creating a general-purpose tool is always harder.

Anyway. There’s clearly some work that can be done to develop some of these ideas. Which reminds me, yet again, that I need to get into the habit of writing more consistently. One of the things I need to remember is that even if I only have a vague idea when I sit down at the computer, it can often be developed into a post while writing. Like tonight, I had originally planned to just link to a bunch of the other posts I’ve been reading because they’re interesting. And yet I managed to extract a relatively coherent post out of it. Well, somewhat coherent. Not completely incoherent? Okay, it’s clearly time to stop. But I’ll pick it up tomorrow. Promise.

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