How personalization helps activists find each other while losing society
Also published at Alternet.
Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You is a must-read for pretty much anyone who uses the Internet. Eli breaks down troubling trends emerging in the World Wide Web that threaten not only individual privacy but also the very idea of civic space.
Of key concern to Eli is “web personalization”: code that maps the algorithms of your individual web use and helps you more easily find the things that the code “thinks” will pique your interest. There’s a daunting amount of information out there, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to even begin sorting through it. Personalization can help. For instance, I can find music that fits my tastes by using Pandora, or movies I like through Netflix. The services provided by companies like Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, et al are designed to study us—to get to know us rather intimately—to the point where Netflix can now predict the average customer’s rating of a given movie within half a star. Eli paints a picture of your computer monitor as “a kind of one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click.”
Whatever the benefits, the intent of these services isn’t just to benevolently help us find the things we’re looking for. They’re also designed to help companies find unwitting customers. When you open your web browser to shop for a product—or really for any other reason—you yourself are a product whose personal information is literally being sold. Companies that you know, like Google and Facebook, and companies you’ve probably never heard of (e.g. Acxiom) are using increasingly sophisticated programs to map your personality.
And it’s not just creepiness and individual privacy that’s at issue here. Personalization is also adding to a civic crisis. It’s one thing for code to help us find music, movies and other consumer products we like. But what about when code also feeds us our preferred news and political opinions, shielding us from alternative viewpoints? Personalization now means that you and your Republican uncle will see dramatically different results when you run the same exact Google news search. You’re both likely to see results that come from news sources that you prefer — sources that tend to reinforce your existing opinions. Maybe your search will pull articles from NPR and Huffington Post, while his will spotlight stories from FOX News. Both of you will have your biases and worldviews fed back to you — typically without even being aware that your news feed has been personalized.
Web personalization is invisibly creating individual-tailored information universes. Each of us is increasingly surrounded by information that affirms—rather than challenges—our existing opinions, biases, worldviews, and identities.
This filter bubble impacts everyone. And it poses big challenges for grassroots activists and organizers in particular.
In his essay Voluntarism and Social Masses, Antonio Gramsci argues that “the actions and organizations of ‘volunteers’ must be distinguished from the actions and organisations of homogeneous social blocs, and judged by different criteria.” He defines these “volunteers” as “those who have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative…”
His language of volunteers vs. organized social blocs aligns with a similar distinction often made between activism and organizing. Anyone can become an activist overnight, if he or she so desires. All you need to do is to start taking action as an individual on an issue you care about. I’m not about to be as dismissive as Gramsci seems to be in this essay about the value of such an act. However, he makes a good point: organizing is about finding other people to take action with you. But there’s more – and here’s where I find Gramsci’s framework so helpful – organizing is not just about finding anyone to take action with you; it’s about working to activate an already constituted social bloc and turn the bloc itself into the historical actor.
originally published on November 1, 2010
In my post last week (Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!??), I asked, as the title suggests, what prevents the kind of broad, committed, collective action that we’re seeing in France from happening here in the United States. This is especially perplexing, given that their strike is about opposing the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 – whereas here our retirement age is already later than that, our college tuition rates promise a lifetime of debt, our health care system is all sorts of effed up, our hours are longer, our vacations shorter, our social safety net far less comprehensive. I could go on.
I started to answer my own question, discussing the mechanics of how collective action and protest have been negatively branded here, so as to effectively inoculate many people against participation. In response (over at Daily Kos), Pesto asked:
The $64,000 question WRT inoculation is why it hasn’t worked as well elsewhere. It’s not as if multinational corporations in France never considered trying to break French workers’ solidarity or willingness to shut the economy down to win what they want. They certainly understand the basic concepts of propaganda that have worked so well in the US. But whatever they’ve been trying in France hasn’t been working very well.
Big question. Where to begin? Well, why not start with Lady Gaga? More specifically, let’s start with CNN’s utilization of Lady Gaga as a cultural intermediary in their “coverage” of the strikes:
France strike – Some 200 demonstrators blocked France’s Marseille-Provence airport for more than three hours Thursday as strikes and protests continued across the country. The action comes ahead of a final vote on the country’s Pension Reform Bill. Pop star Lady Gaga postponed two Paris shows this weekend because of “the logistical difficulties due to the strikes,” her website said.
originally published on October 21, 2010
Do you ever look at newspaper articles about worker and student strikes in countries like France or Greece or Argentina-you know, the kind of activity that shuts down the whole country-and think to yourself, “Holy shit, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Those people know how to protest!?”
Well, I sure do.
Not to glorify any particular tactic for it’s own sake, but geez, the spirit of collective action and common purpose that’s displayed in those moments-let alone the negotiating power it awards to grassroots movements, unions, and progressive political parties-is something that sometimes, um, feels a little lacking here in the good old U.S. of A.
So what are you waiting for. Go ahead. Try that here. See how many people you can turn out. See where it gets you.
Likely. not. very. far.
We have a situation here. We’re stuck in a Catch 22. As a society, we presently seem to be inoculated against the means necessary for our own collective advancement. (If you’re at the top of the plutocratic order, now’s the time to congratulate yourself on a brilliant system.) And I’m not talking about any one particular style of collective action or protest – we’re not France or Greece or Argentina, and I don’t particularly want us to be. I’m fully ready to embrace an all-American style, and I would settle for whatever kind of collective action (within ethical and strategic limits) powerful enough to challenge entrenched power and privilege. Is that such a tall order?
originally published on September 30, 2010
Listen to the full interview with Jose Vasquez:
Jose Vasquez shares his journey from Army Staff Sergeant to Conscientious Objector to Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War – and offers some reflections on organizing with veterans and GIs in today’s antiwar movement.
To find out more about IVAW, check out their new site.
You can donate to IVAW here.
When I’m in my home, I want to be comfortable. I don’t want to live with people who make me feel ill at ease, or whose values I don’t share. I don’t want conflict. I take great care in making my “house into a home.” I hang things on the walls that reflect my personality, my values, and who I am. This is my sanctuary.
When I’m driving in my car, I want to get somewhere. I have a destination in mind. Gas is expensive, and Rhode Island drivers are effing crazy – so I’m not interested in much other than Point A to Point B.
Sure, when I’m in my home, I may have some projects and have goals around those projects. And, sure, when I’m in my car, I may want to listen to music that I especially like, or have great conversations with my friends.
But entertain the (admittedly over-simplistic and falsely dichotomous) metaphor for a minute and ask yourself, are your politics your home or your car? In politics and the political organizations you’re part of, are you looking primarily for sanctuary, or are you looking to get somewhere? Do you get involved to express your values (like hanging paintings and posters on your walls), or are you stepping into a vehicle with a destination in mind? And do you have a map?
Or are you in a gas-guzzling mobile home that’s broken-down on the side of the road – really hoping the engine will magically restart some day, but it’s been like 40 years, and you’ve kind of gotten comfortable here, and you’ve forgotten what it’s like to arrive somewhere new? And besides, cars are bad.
And here’s the three-part essay:
What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically?
- Ritual & Engagement
- The Story of the Righteous Few
Reposted. Part Three of a three-part article from 2006, written in collaboration with Madeline Gardner. Read Part One here and Part Two here first.
Many of us, when we become disillusioned with the dominant culture, we develop an inclination to separate ourselves from it. When we begin to become aware of racism, sexism, capitalism and whatever other forms of social, economic or ecological oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. This often comes from a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.
However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from society. With society seen as bad, we begin to look for ways of distinguishing ourselves and our groups from it. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate and develop distinctions between ourselves and society, because these distinctions support our justice-oriented narratives. The distinguishing features often go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive. We adorn ourselves with distinguishing features to express separation, and also to flag likeminded people and establish ourselves in–and assimilate into–oppositional subcultures.
Reposted. Part Two of a three-part article from 2006, written in collaboration with Madeline Gardner.
Read Part One first. And then here’s Part Three.
While in Argentina in 2004 I interviewed Maba and Valde, a sister and brother from one of the Movements of Unemployed Workers1 groups, MTD Solano. Interviewing them separately, I asked them what they value most about their work with the MTD. Both answered that they like how integrated their lives are now. Maba said that while many join MTDs out of necessity, she joined by election, because her life felt too fragmented before. Now nearly everything she does is related to MTD Solano; her work at a collectively run cafe, a children’s workshop she organizes, her neighborhood, her family, etc. All of her activities share a meaning and purpose.
Political Science Professor Emily Stoper describes a similar cohesion experienced by members of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) during the Civil Rights Movement:
Many SNCC members report that before 1964, they often experienced a sense of harmony and certainty that is rarely felt by other Americans. Their lives were not fragmented. Instead of filling a series of largely unrelated roles (parent, employee, citizen), they filled only one role: SNCC worker. Instead of balancing in their heads a multiplicity of values, all of them tentative, they had one certain, absolute set of beliefs. The group provided a world order that is far more complete and stable than any that individuals could assemble for themselves. 2
This article made the rounds on Z net and a bunch of Indymedia sites back in 2006. I wrote it in collaboration with Madeline Gardner. I’m reposting here in three parts, with no edits.
Here’s Part Two. And here’s Part Three. And here’s the video.
Ritual & Engagement
It’s August and I’m back in San Francisco. I love this city. It’s been over three years since my last visit – an extended stay that started a week after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At that time thousands of people in the Bay Area launched, and for many weeks sustained, a stronger show of resistance than could be seen anywhere else in the country. People put their bodies on the line to shut down San Francisco’s financial district, as well as war-profiteering corporations throughout the region. I was proud to be a participant. I’ve spent most of the time since in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, organizing with the Lancaster Coalition for Peace & Justice. Now I’m back in SF just a few days, already marching in an anti-war protest.
“Hey hey! What do you say? How many kids did you kill today?” the crowd chants.
I don’t join in. We don’t use chants like this in Lancaster. Actually, I can recall very few occasions where we have chanted at all. I used to chant as loudly and enthusiastically as the next person, but now something holds me back.