InfoShok: Guerilla Semiotics

  1. InfoShok
  2. Information Media

Do not go to a peace rally thinking about peace. Peace is won, and respect is earned.--William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook

Net discussions are no less than the creation of a new peer group: but a peer group that doesn’t care what you look like, how old you are or how much money you make. Your Internet peer group cares only for how well you can convey your ideas. How well your arguments hold up. How well you can spell--the spelling flame is an art in itself, albeit cheap art. The spelling checker is to Usenet what make-up is to real life, and the library is the plastic surgeon.

Can you imagine traffic court held over the Internet, with video and sound dis-allowed? The judge has no idea whether or not this is a well-dressed upstanding community member, a shabbily-dressed old man, or a pimply-faced gang member. A criminal court where the only thing the jury sees is the facts as presented by the defendant and prosecutor? Where the witness’s uniforms don’t add to their credibility because no one can see it? Don’t expect Internet Court to show up in your area anytime soon, but this is how friendships and rivalries are made on the net: solely by what people say.

Experts have been arguing since George Orwell that the mass media, due to its need to please everyone, becomes an opiate to everyone, the “death of humanity.” Others, seeing in the mass media a new age, have called it simply the “death of the Gutenberg man”. (!) In his place rises a new man, who sees the world in a new way, because he is in a different world. Linguist Noam Chomsky argues that the media “manufactures consent” by expressing news in a way that appeals to all viewers, in effect, being “politically correct” so that it offends no one.

There is a way out, however, as Umberto Eco notes in Reports From the Global Village: if we can succeed in making the viewers take part in discussions of the news as presented, the very meaning of the news will change. Viewers will no longer be machines, accepting data input unquestioningly. We will again be humans, with the ability to control our own thoughts and to question what we take in from the outside.

This is one of the properties of the net as it stands today. When news is presented on television, it is discussed on Usenet. Political speeches are discussed, not by experts who chew the meanings and provide pap for us as if we were children, but by everyone who wants to take part. Some people who can barely spell, others who barely speak English. Some appear well-educated and erudite, others speak more conversationally. The message that the politician, broadcaster, or reporter wanted to push is re-evaluated while individuals--not demographics, but individuals--discuss it with other individuals, each with a different point of view and frame of reference.

No wonder flame wars occasionally erupt, and no wonder some people who once controlled the source of information are afraid of an independent net, where the source of information is the individual with an opinion--as opposed to a corporation with an opinion.

But whereas Eco argued that the individual who instigates discussion be a politician or an educator, here the instigator could just as well be you. Perhaps this simply means that the net transforms all of us, as well as into librarians, into educators, and, yes, politicians.

Can the net--or discussion on the net--change minds? It has long been known that we trust what we see. Even if we profess to distrust the television, its images flow unchecked past our synapses. We are bombarded with so much information that we may even come to ‘believe’ contradictions, ‘believe’ in quotes because we’ve never thought about the contradictions. We probably don’t even think about them as they sneak into our brain from the television or politician or activist who slyly injects them into news, sound bites, and conversation. Of course, everyone knows that science cannot explain how the bumblebee flies. Of course, everyone knows no such thing, but we hear it and consider it unimportant, and poof, it becomes part of our mindset, lounging in the Topaz Room of our minds next to if you make faces, someday you’ll get stuck like that! and if you use crack even once you’ll become addicted and turn into a homosexual black man.

The simple solution is discussion. Bring those lounge lizard brainwaves into the open, compare them to each other and to reality and to other people’s realities. This is not what the net does, this is what the net is. Can the net change minds? I stand before you a reformed drunkard; I have given up disco and returned to the roots of rock and roll. I have entered the net and the net has changed me. I came looking for reasoning to convince my friends not to use illegal drugs; I came looking for arguments for more reasonable gun control. I saw facts, I saw reality, I saw addicts and users and gun owners. And I was conquered, converted from statism to libertarianism, a fervent advocate of individual rights, an end to prohibition, and a gun in every pot. And it was the Internet--or rather, the people on the Internet--that brought me around.

A well-educated electorate, being necessary for the governing of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arguments, shall not be infringed.

If you don’t want your children to think for themselves, keep them the hell away from the infobahn.

Public policy wonks are already realizing this. The average person is finding it a lot easier to e-mail people who say something stupid about public policy than to write letters or telephone. David Gelerntner, after expressing support for the Clipper Chip proposal that requires government eavesdropping, received a lot of e-mail opposing his position. He then said, “I think schools today are so lousy that people can graduate from high school and graduate from college and never have heard of Keats, and I think those are the wrong individuals to build public works.”

The power elite and cultural elite are finally beginning to get the picture.

Last night I dreamt a dream of war. When I awoke, only one thought remained: “We can’t make a frontal assault. Do you know how much e-mail we’d get?”

  1. Gutenberg invented the printer in the west. Gutenbergian Man is the culture that depends on books, and the death of Gutenbergian Man is the death of the reading generations.
  1. InfoShok
  2. Information Media