Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Spectacular Society: why the open source movement could lead to a conscious revolution for social justice

Kite running in Afghanistan is a dangerous sport. Lives are endangered in this endeavor so distracting that Afghans have plunged to their death from great heights or been gravely injured chasing their beloved kites, as precious and revered as baseball and apple pie for Americans.

Guy Debord, the author of “The Society of the Spectacle” suggests that mass media offers a distraction by showing a fake reality to obfuscate the degradation of capitalism. After being subjected to a few minutes of the reality TV series “The Real Housewives of New York” in a physician’s waiting room, one might suspect he was on to something.

Could distraction be the metaphor for our involvement in international conflict? Is the pursuit of war a massive spectacle to distract the ordinary citizen? The phrase, “Go fly a kite” comes to mind. In other words, beat it, so the important work can get done.

Victor Klemperer’s writing regarding the language used by the Nazi regime illustrate the importance of observing how those in power manipulate language. Ironically after surviving the oppression of this regime as a Jew he went on to serve in the Volkskammer of the former German Democratic Republic, one of the most oppressive states of the 20th century.

Repeated negative images, news of death and failure, unemployment, the continuing spill of oil into the Gulf all cause us to suffer from “compassion fatigue”, burn out, secondary traumatic stress disorder. Where political events and our private lives in the post 911-era intersect, it appears that scaremongering and schadenfreude create compassion fatigue which in turn is remedied tidily by spectacle.

The disconnect caused by spectacle has also engendered a sense of desperation for contact. We are so obsessed with the need to be ‘in touch” that we repeatedly reach out to our colleagues and family members via text message and Facebook. In a dislocated, spectacular world, our constant seeking of reassurance that everything’s “okay” drives us as intensely as the Afghan kite runners.

A little distraction is probably okay, within the realm of normal even. But how can we be assured that we aren’t completely disconnected from human suffering and injustice? One way is by reclaiming the message we’re given. If everyone can possess the means to reshape the images and messages sent to us, then meaning can be re-framed and the hegemony of those who have power over our language can be challenged.

New meaning can be recreated, communities formed and social change created. In this way, much like the open source software movement, open data and information access can be the tools of compassionate social change.

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At the intersection of art and new media, a place where the convergence emerges.