I was at a fascinating Citizen Media event hosted and organised by the University of Manchester recently. Some initial thoughts I had immediately afterwards can be found here.
In that piece, I provisionally concluded that:
[...] universal education, a glory of latterday progressive societies and perhaps a key reason for the much wider deprofessionalisation of society all of us are manifestly witnessing (from the already-mentioned craft of journalism to teaching to legal practice to even – in Google’s wonderfully weird world of medical search – that doctoring whose bedside manner we thought we would never give up), is no guarantor that progressive behaviours or beliefs will spread. In fact, universal education is only able to assure us that all parties on all sides of political conflict will become powerfully better at their own particular brands of prejudice.
It is our responsibility, therefore, on understanding that citizen media does not necessarily equal constructive democratisation, to ask ourselves one simple question: what sort of citizens – and therefore what sort of citizen mediators – do we want to become?
It was rather a depressing point of view to take from a series of erudite papers which provided much evidence to the contrary. So today, I’d like to turn the question around and ask whether the construct of Citizen Media is leading us not to more brutality but, rather, to a more analytical and constructive society.
I won’t deal individually with each and every discourse made – this wouldn’t be fair to those involved for two reasons:
- There’s no guarantee I would be able to fairly represent their arguments.
- They’re not here to defend themselves from my inaccuracies.
What I will do is list some thoughts I wrote down whilst listening to what they had to say. This second post, then, will deal with two papers I felt spoke to each other – even where from quite independent starting-points and narratives.
Let’s start with the subject of citizen-witnessing – in particular, with respect to its implications for traditional photo-journalism and the attack from which a wider professionalised mediation of reality is currently suffering. These are some of the randomised ideas I had whilst witnessing Stuart Allan’s words – let me emphasise, they are not intended to represent his arguments in any way, reliable or otherwise, but instead provide evidence of the sparks they generated in my own thought processes:
- There are news-gathering processes of different sorts and different motivations: in it for the money; reckless and gratuitous; committed and engaged.
- A citizen can begin to occupy the space of a journalist but, similarly, a journalist can begin to occupy the space of a citizen. (This leads us back to the issue of social responsibility, but in normal corporate structures this is essentially impossible – a problem of “political economy”.)
- Perhaps to achieve reliability in this different kind of witnessing, it might be necessary to disentangle “citizen” from “witnessing”. Alternatively, the summation and output of citizen points-of-view through software and community can assign its own “objectivity” too.
- Crowdsourcing and intelligence-gathering raise issues of trust and authenticity. It may be possible to relocate citizen journalists and witnesses as a kind of raw data which a new journalistic profession of post-generation analysis can serve to validate and, thus, engender trust. In this way, we could combine amateurs and professionals in symbiosis; a different relationship which nevertheless would maintain the tenets of professional journalism somewhere down the line.
- The digital treatment of photos is like the verbal analysis of events: mediated in a similar way, no more nor less. A frame placed at the time of capture is just as much an act of construction as a post-production airbrushing, as in exactly the same way a carefully chosen collection of words inevitably filters the direct experience of reality.
- Professional photo-journalism has been termed “the heartbeat of humanity”: in this way, mediation doesn’t necessarily mean negative confection or a lack of authenticity. Like art, such artifice may get closer to that heartbeat than a nominally unconstructed and citizen-based observation.
- As professional photo-journalists lose their right to exercise their profession, “humanity is being robbed by people with money on their minds”.
- The “Google-isation” of society: many professions are now being taught not to know things but to know where to find them.
- We now live with crisis on a permanent basis – we have all become permanently prepared witnesses of violence.
- Universal education is paradoxically leading to the deconstruction of the professions; an intelligent and trained mediation seeing its virtues being undermined.
Contrast some of the above with other images which have been, in a complicated way for me at least, defined as the product of post-human impulses. My incomplete appreciation of this terminology has led me, in part, to reject it: I see it as being defined in terms of technology versus humanness, and yet do not see technology as anything but a tool which has always extended humanness: the discovery of fire, for example, is a clear hyper-reality – just as arrowheads, cutting implements and shields similarly were.
Also: “The digital is just social by another name.” (Brandotti, 2011)
Here, then, we have some further thoughts which, in my disorganised manner, I am equally unable to properly disentangle from Bolette Blaagaard’s own challenging presentation:
- Objectivity is seen as a performance, which can be measured in terms of truth.
- The lack of professionalism leads to the perception that the image is taken (a stolen moment) rather than made (fabricated and therefore not as authentic).
- The photograph/image is defined socially: personal dream sequences are now publicly shared images, as the imagined “global consciousness” takes over.
- Images taken from drones see people as ants; history as that of the masses. The language of drone imagery is paradoxically that of Marxism more than capitalism (impersonal imagery; zero interpretation; zero subjectivity). As journalism it can allow access to areas where traditional witnessing with relevant permissions would not be allowed. But can it ever shrug off its surveillance-state overtones and carryover?
- Perhaps drone imagery is not a “post-human” process at all (whatever that really may be) but – rather – a foregrounding of our analytical side over our emotional. Perhaps the participation of computer software in both drones and crowdsourced intelligence-gathering is painfully – unexpectedly – moving us away from historically-felt emotions. It is not a matter of losing touch with the essence of our humanity but, instead, of handing control over to a future logic and rationality – a logic and rationality which was always present but not always prioritised. This, of course, for violent beings, is a curious process to undergo. But not necessarily destructive.
I’ll be posting later tomorrow on another pair of trains of thought: a) on the subject of doing an encouraging “good” online; and b) on the subject of doing an unremitting “bad”.
In the meantime, I note that whilst capitalism is judged to be finally taking over from everything else history has offered, especially as it imposes its cruel processes of austerity in the times of crisis it is primarily responsible for, its characteristic sign of identity as a supposedly individualising and liberty-developing creature appears to be subsuming itself as it battles the contradictions of an Internet-mediated citizenship.
Thus it is that the very technology that an “individualistic” capitalism makes its money from is precisely the latterday tool which a “social” crowd is using to fight back.
A mighty contradiction, indeed.
Wouldn’t you say?