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For decades, the television ruled North American life. It was our alter, our teacher, our babysitter and our almost-constant companion. Despite years of fiery criticism, it seemed hard to believe that more than a tiny minority would ever give up their infernal boxes.
Well, numbers just released tell a different story. Sometime next year, the number of Americans watching “television” and movies on the internet will exceed the number watching actual televisions. This trend has been coming for a while, as cable subscriptions have been falling for years, especially amongst young people.
Speaking from my own experience, I’ve never owned a television nor lived with anybody who owned one since moving out from my parents many years/rentals ago (contrary to popular belief, most anarchists don’t live with their parents). For virtually everybody I know my age, the idea of getting a cable subscription is lunacy. Those who own TVs us them as computer monitors, stockpile seasons of shows on their Xboxes or rent DVDs from the library. To my young son, television is a quaint old technology at grandma’s house, like telephones with wires.
There are still, of course, many millions of cable subscribers, but for once there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It might seem strange now, but when I was young many hours of television a day was considered “normal” for children, and I can only shudder to think of the lingering effects on all of us. As mind-numbing as computers and the internet can be, it really doesn’t compare.
Which brings me to a certain video recently posted by the Globe and Mail, which warns of the dangers of cutting your cable. In a word, it’s embarrassing, and reflects the sad state of Canada’s mainstream press (to their credit, they’ve added an “editor’s note” putting the numbers in context since I first saw it). Do read the comments – they’re worth it. Aside from using laughable numbers, the only real argument they make regard sports, and they don’t seem familiar with any options beyond Netflix and Itunes.
Here’s a hint, guys. There’s this thing, it’s called “YouTube”…
Then, of course, there’s the other option mentioned in almost none of this coverage. This option offers just about every show you can name, extending back decades, and generally appearing online within an hour of their first appearance on television. Even in Hamilton’s somewhat eastern time zone, this often means seeing hit, prime-time shows hours before they hit local cable networks. The one downside is that it’s not entirely, technically, “legal”.
On the plus side, they call it “piracy”.
If this Infographic is any judge, it’s a rather popular choice, making up about a fifth of total internet traffic. To put this in perspective, last Sunday’s “Game of Thrones” premier was downloaded over a million times on bittorrent alone within 24 hours of airing, making it the most pirated episode of television ever (and largest torrent swarm). I can only guess at the number of times it was streamed, or the number of other keen nerds who managed to get their hands on the Walking Dead finale or the much-awaited new episode of Doctor Who. I, of course, would never do such a nefarious thing, but rest assured, it is happening everywhere around you right now.
The rise of this level of thoroughly and openly illegal service shows a couple of things. The first, of course, being that it’s now possible to replicate all the services of a modern cable network without so much as using your real name to sign up (and while dodging the law). Looking deeper, though, we see why this is possible – levels of input which were never possible with a channel-changer. The internet is still largely ungovernable, which gives me some hope. Complain, if you will, about the dangers of unrestricted speech, thought and expression, but I’ll take them any day over their absence. For all it’s flaws, the internet allows me to post hours of video on a (sometimes) weekly basis, on subjects and to a depth which would rarely, if ever, grace the Discovery Channel.
Then, of course, there’s the increasing amount of content now being produced exclusively online. Some are youtube shows, others are fan-films, but they’re growing quickly in number and quality. I’ll admit I was amazed a few years ago when I learned fans had set about filming entire seasons of their own Star Trek productions, but never got into it. I loved “Chad Vader, and even watched a few of the independent Ghostbusters flicks (like “Freddy vs The Ghostbusters“), but when I saw “Dark Resurrection“, the Italian Star Wars fanfilm, I was blown away. If the new Disney movies are half that good, I’ll be satisfied. The special effects technologies which once cost millions are now open to high school students, yet Hollywood can’t seem to make much of a movie for under $100 million. Then they complain (despite record profits), of “losing money” to illegal downloads.
The death of television, even if we still end up watching the same content (sans commercials) online, comes as a welcome relief for the human psyche. As Marshal McLuhan quipped all those years ago, “the medium is the message”. What separates television from other mediums is the centralized and one-way nature of it’s broadcasts. The implicit message is one of passivity and spectatorship. For decades we sat on couches and busied ourselves while choosing between the few channels and shows we could tolerate. We adjusted our lives to it’s schedules and often defined ourselves by what we saw on the screen. TV was our drug, our school and our religion. Now, finally, increasing numbers are waking up from that nightmare.
As we awake and escape, though, we’re met with new kinds of screens which dictate our lives in ways even the television generations couldn’t imagine. These screens react, they connect with each other, and increasingly, they stare back. How will we look back on the era they defined our lives, I wonder, when it draws to a close?
Yesterday marked the dawn of the Steel City’s newest publication: The Martello. Joining the growing crowd of independent papers and pages which have sprung up over the past decade (H Mag, Hamiltonian, Raise the Hammer, Bay Observer, etc), and following in the footsteps of recent radical rags like Mayday and The Hammer/IMC Hamilton, it’s set to become the city’s newest voice of anti-establishment acrimony.
There’s been a lot of talk amongst Hamilton’s radicals about a new publication since the demise of Mayday Magazine a few years ago, though this is the first to reach “launch day”. The Martello (Italian for “hammer”) began as an anonymous, somewhat collective Facebook page in in March 2011, as a way of posting news and events to the social network, and it’s been growing steadily since. The jump to a full-on website, and hopefully soon a print edition, has been in the works for a couple of months, as authors, artists and other contributors assembled in living rooms and pubs to prepare for the big day.
Bearing an explicit and uncompromising anarchist perspective, the Martello plans to follow in the footsteps of pages like Anarchist News, Modesto Anarcho or the legendary Inconsiderate Audio. This low-brow and generally anti-social tone was chosen because it fits Hamilton, and to avoid the trap of overly wordy lefty/academic writing which is often totally indecipherable to anyone without a university education. The term “pissed off news” captures this well – Hamilton is dirty, poor and incredibly fucked up, and that’s something we’re all going to have to stop sugar-coating if we ever want to see things change.
Expect to see a lot more in the coming days and weeks, including some exclusive content from yours truly. Anybody looking to contribute articles, essays, interviews, photos, artwork, events or other content should contact martello[at]riseup.net
I came across an interesting little report the other day – an analysis of traffic from Occupywallstreet.org. Studying trends in hits, new/repeat visitors and length of stay, they came up with a very interesting theory. They’re calling it the “riot porn hypothesis”. The second slide makes fairly clear why – the eviction of Zuccotti Park on Nov. 17th generated an immense surge in views, from ~`10 000/day or less to more than half a million. This date and other events led to the hypothesis, which states that traffic spikes after incidents of arrests or police brutality.
To anyone familiar with the media or activism in general, this should come as no surprise. “If it bleeds, it leads” has just been put to the test, and it got the result everyone expected. Nothing catches people’s attentions like a bunch of arrests, and that’s just as true with new media as old.
Why? Because arrests show that both “sides” were serious. That something “happened”. In an atmosphere of conflicting accounts where most are wary of cops, reporters and protesters, they give a solid number by which to judge the “scale” of unrest. The create a story with compelling characters and conflict, and make normally “boring” issues exciting. “Riot porn” in particular – images and footage from “the front lines” captivates people, whether for or against, and it’s very hard to ignore.
OWSAnalytics didn’t manage much detail on what in particular drives this attention. Is it police brutality per se? Does it matter whether protesters resist arrest or go peacefuly? How about property destruction? How do the effects differ between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland? Ultimately, this may matter a lot less than one might think, since the coverage of these events is so standard, no matter what actually happened. Papers will write about “clashes between demonstrators and police” whether those demonstrators are seated quietly or burning police cars.
We need to be really careful here of treating these events as simple “spectacles” for the sake of viewers at home. They aren’t. There’s a difference between protests and publicity stunts. Success cannot be measured in “views”, and getting people to read your website is only the first step in changing the world. Focusing too much on publicity obscures real strategic goals. These struggles are newsworthy because people are fighting for a cause, not our attention, and once that changes things start to seem a little forced. When it becomes obvious that a group of demonstrators wanted only to be arrested or break stuff, it’s never quite as interesting. Beyond that, these actions are really frackin’ dangerous, and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.
How this all relates to debates about “violence” at protests is a really interesting question. Above all else, it certainly does lend some credence to the oft-made claim that the only reason protests get any coverage is because things get broken and people get hauled off. That does kinda suggest that the actions of the Black Bloc aren’t nearly as “unpopular” as often claimed, and that they’ve done a lot more for moderate groups than most would like to admit. It also suggests that police violence is a less popular than we might think, and that these actions are having a serious impact on public opinion of the justice system. None of this, of course, is any kind of “vindication” of one tactic or another – but it also can’t be ignored.
As someone who often writes about rioting, I must say, my own traffic sees the exact same patterns. Posts about riots get at least double the hits of others, and keep getting visits long afterward – seen most recently when I wrote about Quebec students. This kind of attention ensures that these confrontations will keep happening. When peaceful, thoughtful, polite protests get consistently ignored, while a few dozen rock-throwing vandals can capture the world’s attention, this kind of chaos is inevitable. Condemn them if you like, but you’re the ones tuning in every time it happens.
The Atlantic just posted a remarkably insightful article about the conflicts between anonymity and transparency in the Occupy movement. This is a topic which often doesn’t receive enough attention, and while The Atlantic doesn’t get to much depth on the issue, it certainly deserves credit for bringing it up. In a particularly tense cut from Tim Poole’s livestream at Occupy Wall Street, they show some of the conflicts which arise when people don’t want to be filmed. Having witnessed much of the same during my own involvement, and repeatedly attempting to bring these issues up at assemblies, I can definitely attest that is has been an issue.
The explosion of social networking and online media in recent years has led to something of a euphoria regarding the benefits of “free information”. Countless examples of abuse of authority caught on tape have shaken countless establishments. At the same time, we’ve already seen a clear dark side to this – Facebook profiles becoming a standard part of job and school applications, for instance. This technology works both ways, and in a great many ways it’s utterly terrifying.
The issue of cameras at protests has been rising for years, if not decades. Police surveillance has been a serious issue as long as I can remember, taking every conceivable form, from cops with cameras to private contractors, vans with tinted windows and covertly installed surveillance cameras. Protesters with cameras have been able to turn these tables somewhat, by capturing police brutality and other rage-inspiring images. This has been enormously tactically useful. It must be said, though, that confiscating film and footage (or even phones and notebooks) from activists and independent journalists has long been a tactic of police at protests. Nearly any big anti-globalization demo you could name came complete with (often very bloody) raids on the independent media centres. After the way Facebook and other social media was used against rioters in London and Vancouver, or Toronto’s G20, it’s more clear than ever that there are potentially huge consequences for anybody you post pictures of.
I’ve seen this stuff end up in court far too often over the years. Don’t doubt for a second that pictures of you peacefully and legally protesting can be used to convict you of whatever they want, or that surveillance camera footage proving your alibi won’t be made available. None of these institutions “work for you”, and none of them are “on your side”.
As I’ve stated before, there are a lot of reasons to wear a mask at a protest, and even more to avoid having your picture there published. This could come down to fears about your boss, landlord, neighbourhood skinheads or, of course, police. Having your picture posted on public, searchable databases goes well beyond simply showing your face at a protest. Unfortunately it’s often now an unavoidable result of showing up at a protest without a mask on.
Issues like this, of course, bring out all kinds of problems regarding race, class and other forms of oppression. It’s not uncommon to hear white, male and very privileged individuals like Tim Pool state that they’re not afraid of being photographed and are willing to deal with the consequences. That’s cool – but don’t make that decision for others. There’s an incredibly exclusionary aspect to this kind of behaviour. Not everybody is privileged enough to be able to become an online representation of a movement, and treating anybody who has apprehensions about being photographed like they have something to hide isn’t solidarity. It’s an open invitation not to show up if you are actually oppressed in any serious way.
Since images in the media or online are all that many people see of these protests, they’ve become the be-all and end-all of protest in too many ways. As DeBord and Vangiem described decades ago, the representation has become reality. Any sense of practical achievements or effectiveness gets lost or buried while attempting to appeal to “normal” viewers. The spectacle presented exists for the sake of the spectators, for whom we’re all expected to march peacefully and politely into the meat grinder of state oppression. Again, this plays into a lot of racist and classist assumptions about who the viewers are (white, middle class etc) and what they want to see. The worst assumption of all, that this kind of “influence” works as a means of bringing “change” totally devalues the protest and everyone present, while glorifying the media used to report on them.
No amount of Facebook “likes” or letters to the editor will change our situation. That’s why people are at the protest in the first place. If it fails to mean something above and beyond being an effective media spectacle, chances are they won’t be back. I’ve seen this too many times, and trust me, if you want to “give the people what they want”, do something effective. We need something that shocks people out of being passive spectators, not something that re-enforces this role. A serious resistance movement can do that, but that means something beyond inflammatory rhetoric. Can you think of a real resistance movement anywhere which would willingly post this much information about their members? Stating that we’re willing to reveal all of this is a very clear sign to any who would join that we’re not serious about being any kind of threat.
I cringed when I watched the first Occupy Wall Street arrests, as onlookers shouted over and over again, in front of cameras “GIVE US YOUR NAMES” in an increasingly demanding tone. That uneasiness paled, though, to my utter nausea while watching the livestream from Tim Pool. To accuse someone of being violent by blocking a camera’s view is laughable, while the inherent risks of this kind of filming are very serious. Obviously, the mainstream press has no problem getting their hands on it. Never once does Pool admit that he has the option to simply point the camera somewhere else when asked. Instead he plays the victim while demanding to film everything and everyone on behalf of his thousand online viewers, despite their wishes to the contrary. Many of the Arab Spring uprisings were followed by brutal crackdowns, using Facebook and other online media to target protesters. Only time will tell what befalls those here, but there’s no doubt that this kind of “transparency” will play a big role.
Loose clips sink ships, folks, be careful where you point those things.