I’ve just spent two wonderful days in the company of very clever people, at the welcoming hands of the University of Manchester. Sometimes I felt – from my position as an interested observer and (just about) mere citizen witnessing the event – that some of the English needed translating for my cloth ears. But even where I struggled to get a handle on some of those terms which escaped me, none of the presentations in question failed to engage in some constructive way.
These were high-powered concepts which matched the serious times we are living.
As you will see from the programme link above, a broad range of subjects was covered. The deprofessionalisation of mainstream journalism – in particular photo-journalism – and its corresponding issues of ethics and professional integrity linked in quite clearly with the progress which volunteer translator communities had made in the radicalisation – even the overt politicisation – of their labour. The “crisis readiness” we are all being educated into possessing, that instinct to being prepared to film or snap any and every notable event, in particular those events which occupy the tragic public sphere, neatly engaged with Russian experiences in what was termed “shovel” organisation: the small, localised and politically non-threatening community organisation that has recently begun to accompany not only natural disaster but also relatively impactful man-made and administrative incompetence.
From many of the papers presented, it was clear that those of who occupy spaces in the Western Anglo-Saxon world are barely – if at all – aware of the prejudices we hold: from the mass digitalisation of government documents in Russia to the humongous (and highly active) online participation of the Chinese to the curious state of second-generation immigrants in Italy, the planet as presented through the lenses of these thinkers is never as simple as it looks.
Democracies which treat their citizens like second-class objects of disparaging discourse; one-party states which allow considerable internal dialogue; anarchist groups which organise in such a way as maintain their “brands” and their virtual presences; hierarchical structures which repeat but do not solidify; volunteers who are driven by imbalance to provide contrasting imbalance; worlds where a powerful couplet of bias and its corresponding transparency replaces that ever-so-durable veneer of traditionally institutional “objectivity”.
Frame being so important as it clearly is, we were presented with examples of highly contrasting journalistic practice. These ranged from citizens in cases of extreme involvement to distancing drone footage attempting to shrug off its surveillance overtones; from overtly biased and authentically stolen moments to manufactured product, clearly pre-packaged and pre-digested primarily for the benefit of bottom lines; from devolving Silicon Valley web instincts to Hollywood-like impulses to teach podcast skills through star-riven trainers.
Essentially, that is, the push and pull between a civic contribution to a broader intelligence and that sliding scale of reward which greater “competence” often chooses to finally demand of the “consumers”.
Where we choose to volunteer, we start out on a journey of societal collaboration. Where this reverts to being more a case of primarily learning a craft, that old old need to earn a living kicks in. But in the grey area between one and the other, marvellous things can still be achieved by civic-minded witnesses of events that require mindful empathy.
I’ll be writing in more detail over the next couple of days on a number of the papers thus presented yesterday and today. In the meantime, here’s a final thought to be going away with: 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?
And only in defining this answer, and in fixing its location on the spectrum of behaviours the web currently displays, will we ever manage to rescue all the fascinating potential of citizen media from what might otherwise be interpreted (and ultimately seen) as the clutches of a universally educated cruelty.
Further reading: you might find the abstracts of the papers given of interest. They certainly make interesting rereading for me, as I strive to sort my way through so many rich and splendid ideas. A case of a citizen witnessing his own information overload perhaps?