Sunday, February 06, 2011

Infotention: Our Bodies, Our Selves, Egypt (xposted on Mind Amplifiers)

 I was struck, during our live session about Infotention in Howard Rheingold's Mind Amplifiers entirely OL class, how much of the discussion was about our bodies: the retention/"software" limits of our brains, the ways exercise awakens our bodies and augments attention, the traces of handwriting and design in calligraphy, the impermanence of ink on paper as a metaphor for human expiration.

Our attention, our bodies, our Selves.

I capitalized "Selves" because I am thinking through the parameters of selfhood as they got redrawn in our entirely virtual community on Friday, and then redrawn again as I think about the moral force of bodies in Tahrir Square.

Now more than ever, I believe the ideal environment for thinking, learning and being human is hybrid.

We are watching the profound power of feedback loops between F2F and OL circulating so quickly that those circuits are literally powering revolution: in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Jordan, in Yemen.  Revolution--relatively peaceful agitation for democracy--becomes imitable as we watch it unfold.  

Dave Parry (UT Dallas/Emerging Media) sez: "It's not the Public Internet.  It's the Internet Public." That is, social media has changed how we perceive being in public, being a citizen, whether or not Mubarek decides to shut off the internet for 92% of Egypt (the remaining 8% being allowed for the highest eschelons of commerce.)  Says Parry:  "when the government in Egypt chose to shut down the internet, they could shut down the trafficking of information along those channels, but they couldn’t shut down the public that was already created by having already communicated and interacted along those channels."

To Dave Parry's idea I add:  The Internet Public is also perforce a physical public, bodies in the square: f2f.  The point may be obvious, but it's not trivial, and it's not being theorized alongside the implications for networked culture, new media and its implications for social democracy.  What happens when you take Parry's credo (you can shut down the Internet, but not the public that the internet fosters) a step further is that you suddenly have a population that's willing to put its bodies on the line because of what it learned in the networked contexts.  And that continues to be willing to do so because the global channels of information are buffering them from the horrendous human rights violations perpetrated against pro-democracy advocate by other brutal dictatorships such as the Orwellian-named SPDC ("State Peace and Development Council") in Burma.

In Egypt, we have the results of highly concentrated Infotention:  an informed citizenry putting their bodies at risk to assert their will for democracy. As Howard has noted in his Smart Mobs work (and here I'm mixing in Dave Parry's gloss) it is not inevitable that Internet Publics will operate progressively, or even in their own interest.  It can go either way.

That is the power of contingency, of unpredictability.  It's ideology on the clock: people wound up by ideas fed by that intense circuitry of F2F/OL and then set loose IRT, most recently in Tahrir Square.

That unpredictability: it flies in the face of Foucauldian over-determinism, the idea that human agency is "always already" contained by a public that's internalized the Panoptic gaze.  That fears the prison guard.

Not to minimize the real force Foucault identified: look to Burma (Myanmar) to see the fear unleashed by the SPDC, an unremitting police state, a smug and brutal junta systematically leeching the natural resources from Burma.

My point is that bodies are never fully contained, or inscribed by those in power.  It so happens US and other western interests are too keen in the Middle East to abandon the pro-democracy movement there as we have abandoned Burma to China and India.  

In Egypt, because of its strategic advantage to the US and its allies, ordinary people will step foot outside their homes and walk to the public square.  Informed.  And knowing they are being watched by us.  And by their neighbors, who have started to agitate for democracy themselves.  The Twitter stream for #egypt and #jan25 updates so quickly one cannot really even read the stream: you can only soften the eyes and watch it whirl.  You can click, but it's moving so fast that the chances of not actually hitting the thing you clicked on are pretty high.  Which seems like more than a metaphor for what's going down.  It is the thing going down: that pace, IRT.