Can Twitter help build programs not prisons?

Kalle Lasn, one of the creators of the Occupy Wall Street meme (and founder of the Canadian magazine, Adbusters) has described the police raid to clear Zuccotti Park as “the latest in a series of crisis-driven opportunities.” In his interview with Mattathias Schwartz, Lasn asserts, “World wars, revolutions—from time to time, big things actually happen . . . When the moment is right, all it takes is a spark.” Lasn is calling the evictions the end of Phase I and is now calling for Phase II… What if the focus group dimension of Twitter described by Adam Green could be extended as a platform for aggregating collective intelligence? #KeepSpreadingTheMeme

Intriguing things are happening with Twitter these days.

  • #HAILSTATE appears in the endzone of an annual football rivalry yesterday (Saturday, Nov 26)
  • “Using a hashtag is [among other things] a way for someone to convey that they’re part of a certain scene.”
  • In electoral politics, hashtags are becoming “an ideal way to snark.”
  • Earlier in November: “‘#HashtagsArentAJobsBill.’ Oh, snap.
  • The GOP got 20% more positive reactions [on Twitter] than Obama” on jobs (see chart)
  • The #OWS presence on Twitter is more diffuse and widespread than the closed #teaparty network (see visualization)
  • Campaign monitoring of Tweets for the 2012 election generates a tagcloud of top words in Tweets about the candidates and a column ranking of quantity of Tweets/candidate in real time (watch the data change)
  • The overall rate of tweeting with the tags #ows, #occupy, and #occupywallstreet has been declining over the last 30 days (as of Nov 24) while the overall reach of tweeting with #ows has spread, globally


“Twitter is the world’s largest focus group,” asserts Adam Green of 140elect.  Twitter is now being picked up and used by the political class (see “History” below). “The thing is,” explains Nancy Scola, “it’s not just the political class, traditionally defined. For every #FlipFlopMitt, a hashtag pushed by Perry’s presidential campaign, there’s an organic one started by some random person on the Internet.”  She continues, “Anyone with a free minute and a Twitter account can join in and, for better or for worse, find themselves part of a national media messaging battle.”

Since the police broke up Occupy Wall Street’s peaceful protests, maintaining momentum for #ows via social media may take on increasing importance. Meanwhile, Yochai Benkler at Harvard cautions that

“a complete retreat to an online-only form would be a mistake.

“The ability to focus on a national agenda will depend on actual, on-the-ground, face-to-face actions, laying your body down for your principles – with the ability to capture the images and project them to the world,” Mr. Benkler said, pointing to the outrage over the use of pepper spray at the University of California, Davis, last weekend [Nov 17-18] as an example of an encounter that ratcheted up the online conversation.


Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a clear forerunner of Twitter in requiring users to compose short and clear messages, as well as providing precedent for the Twitter symbols of @ (for author identification) and # (for organizing content): IRC channel names require the first character to be either ‘&’, ‘#’, ‘+’ or ‘!‘ (“hereafter called “channel prefix“). In addition to inspiring the hashtag and address tag, just as Twitter contributes to the circulation of protest and repression that corporate-owned media chooses not to give much airtime, the IRC provided a communication route for news and information when mainstream media were being censored.

Writing for The Atlantic, Nancy Scola reports:

“Observers cite the 2009 Iranian elections (#IranElection) as the moment the tool really took hold in the political realm. Closer to home, the taxonomic application found high-profile usage when the White House encouraged people to use #immigration to discuss a major Obama immigration speech and #AskObama to group together questions for the president for an online forum hosted by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.”

Then, a mere year ago, came the Arab Spring, fueled by social media – namely Facebook and Twitter.  These movements continue: #Jan25, #Egypt, #Tahrir, and #Syria. Protest spread from the Middle East to Spain in May: Take The Square.

And now, right here in the United States, #OWS.

This is how Occupy Wall Street began: as one of many half-formed plans circulating through conversations between [Kalle] Lasn and [Micah] White, who lives in Berkeley and has not seen Lasn in person for more than four years. Neither can recall who first had the idea of trying to take over lower Manhattan. In early June, Adbusters sent an e-mail to subscribers stating that “America needs its own Tahrir.” The next day, White wrote to Lasn that he was “very excited about the Occupy Wall Street meme. . . . I think we should make this happen.” He proposed three possible Web sites:,, and

“No. 1 is best,” Lasn replied, on June 9th. That evening, he registered

Orienting toward the Future

No one person creates a meme. Memes are articulations of a common consciousness, the expression of a deep and widely-shared intuition about lived experience at the frontiers of knowledge. Memes propagate because they resonate and are echoed by individual persons who recognize and act on an affinity with the images or sentiments the language evokes. Viewed historically, memes reflect the zeitgeist of an era; viewed contemporaneously – memes are best explained by the communication concept of interpellation. In plain language, interpellation is about being hailed, being called by persons, things, ideas, etc., into being “this way” or “that way,” into our individual/cultural/social identities: you and I are drawn to the things (objects, ideas) and people that each of us likes; why we like some things more than others has to do with exposure (familiarity) and difference (unfamiliarity). The important point is that being hailed is an interactive process, a dynamic exchange between those “things” (objects, ideas, other persons) and our selves (consciously and unconsciously).

For a meme to take off and become a meme, it has to get traction – the traction comes from the hailing process. The meme hollers “Yo! I’m here! Whatcha think?” If it catches your attention, this provides some ground. If you engage it – in any kind of way, through agreement or disagreement or mocking or celebration or whatever – this starts the foundation. If few others engage, too bad – no co-construction, no interaction = no meme. But if others also engage – whether in a similar or distinctive way than you – a potential starts to build. The process can happen quick or begin slowly; usually there is a spurt when the sucker simply takes off. Spurting remains unpredictable. The best science cannot guarantee when a meme will burst into public consciousness; art may fare slightly better but most memes become obvious in retrospect rather than prediction.

"No one gets rich on their own."
"No one gets rich on their own."

One of the early contributions to the momentum of Occupy Wall Street is the clarity with which Elizabeth Warren explains the economic situation. The 2 minute youtube video pictured above was made prior to OWS.  an interview with Elizabeth Warren on CNBC’s Squawk Box about “the moment” being offered by an upcoming Economic Stress Test. On youtube, that video slides into “Elizabeth Warren Makes Timmy Geithner Squirm Over AIG and Goldman Sachs Bailouts,” and then into “WHY OCCUPY WALL ST?,WHY,WHY,WHY? (MUST SEE!),” which splices an incredible range of news footage together, including Alan Greenspan’s confession to Henry Waxman that the idea he believed in for forty years about free markets’ ability to self-regulate turned out to be completely wrong.

A Revolutionary Moment?

Kalle Lasn, one of the creators of the Occupy Wall Street meme (founder of the Canadian magazine, Adbusters) has described the police raid to clear Zuccotti Park as “the latest in a series of crisis-driven opportunities.” In his interview with Mattathias Schwartz, Lasn asserts, “World wars, revolutions—from time to time, big things actually happen . . . When the moment is right, all it takes is a spark.”  Lasn is calling the evictions the end of Phase I and calling for Phase II… Originally,  “Adbusters invited readers to “zero in on what our one demand will be.” The suggested ideas included a Presidential commission charged with ending the influence of money in politics, and a one-per-cent “Robin Hood tax” on all financial transactions.” Instead, the movement chose the anarchist path, and has refused to coalesce around any one demand.


The question is both literal and figurative. Occupy Wall Street is resistance to the “prison” of the financial game created by financiers and other high stakes gamblers. Likewise, profiting from the penal system encourages profiling and other forms of social injustice. As a result, too many prisoners are Americans that we need contributing actively to the economy, supporting their families and improving their communities.

What if the focus group dimension of Twitter described by Adam Green could be extended as a platform for aggregating collective intelligence? Could crowd-sourcing the issues and ideas allow “the solutions” of Occupy Wall Street to take organic form as dictated by all of its advocates – perhaps even in a kind of competition-based collaboration with its detractors?

Has Twitter become a sufficiently strong medium for asserting political will? Can codes, programs, and applications be written to assess the dynamics of issues vis-a-vis events? Or must we continue to leave the direction of the country up to the closed decision-making of extreme pundits and politicians, as vetted by the corporately-owned mainstream media?

Benkler and Lasn are pointing the way – more physical gatherings, people massing in public spaces. There will continue to be violence from the establishment against the resistance. I confess that I am not sure if I have the guts to put my body on the line in the way so many already have. What I can do, at least for now, is try to design and advocate for non-violent means to #keepspreadingthememe.

Day 72, Occupy Wall Street
27 November 02011

Visions of UMass Students Today

Midterm Video Projects for”Media and Culture” (COM121)
submitted to Michael Wesch’s Digital Ethnography Project:
Visions of Students Today (2011)


“It is appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Six students use this famous quote by Albert Einstein, comparing their experience of today’s technology glut with nuclear disaster.” Why are they so afraid? Einstein is an interesting source of wisdom, especially combined with Kimdelehanty‘s quote from another scientist, Carl Sagan:

“We live in a society

exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which

hardly anyone knows anything about

science and technology.”

What was the setting and context of Sagan’s quote? “Hardly anyone” implies a ratio – who are the people included in “everyone”? Whose society is encompassed by “we”?

MrChadb0urne argues that Change Isn’t All Bad: “Technology’s not that bad, if you use it in moderation.” In a soothing voice, he offers this advice: “If it’s too much, take a break. No one’s gonna judge you for it. If they are gonna judge you for it, they’re too involved in technology and they need to calm down.” BrittRoo agrees, offering individual, meditative-type solutions: Balance. Slow down. See. Breathe.  AlPal13 suggests immersion,  “First step… drown out the rest of the world [with music].”  Hannah Cohen asks, “…if you can’t beat them, join them?”

“We no longer search for the news, the news finds us.” Demifo14 hints at narrowcasting and plays with identity as a reflection. Her mirror imagery is partly explained by wbectler3: “Like all structures, [technologies] have been developed by humans and, subsequently, both enable and limit human action” (wbectler3 quoting from the course text).

“Better hope you’re not alone,” sings Jack Johnson-Hope to beccasiminoko’s lament for fifth grade. tashk013 poses the question about choice given the unrelenting advertising bombardment, and kalf917 brings in Karl Marx: “The production of too many useless things results in too many useless people.” But what if it is up to us? “We become what we behold, we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” jakehoffman4 quotes Marshall McLuhan. Ktrychon questions and celebrates simultaneously, arguing “You Get What You Give,”and  “Let’s Stay Connected,” while claiming: “We live in a society that lacks passion.” (Where does passion live?)

Does cdanoff’s being “Caught Up In The Media” automatically preclude passion? Or is it only education that fails to inspire? “My teacher was having trouble figuring out the projector in class…but then finally figured it out.” It is unclear what csilv117 thinks about that struggle. Two students picked the same song by Citizen Cope, “Let The Drummer Kick,” to emphasize the war for consciousness. Two students (jakehoffman4 & mamciedupie503) also picked the same quote by Marshall McLuhan: “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”

Artificial and Arbitrary?

How do you spend your time?” asks ddavies315, while hdanfort wonders “What were they thinking?” Both questions are posed literally, but can be extended to apply in wider fashion. Jamar points to rescue from hip hop artists Kid Cudi and Common, and gets a call out from the premier digital ethnographer and creator of the Visions of Students Today video documentation project, Dr Michael Wesch. Dr Wesch also commented on tashk03 and Ktrychon’s videos (previously linked). Air23JordanXXIII, please feel free to tell Ryan, no sweat – I got a spot for him in my next class, you bet. “Ducks!

Who remembers the course prompt and our transmedia storytelling model? sbaez1440 pulled out a quote from The Matrix that omits a physical sense: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Why might this be of interest?

The most challenging task as we move toward the two final projects will be deciding what articulations to emphasize (ideologically) and how much experimentation to conduct. What could we gain, for instance, by exploring the nationalism of natefoy’s “God Bless America” screenshot with Carlos123Mencia’s dormroom poster of Malcolm X?” Does it come down to a decision about whether or not we believe, as Hunte46 asks, if we can defeat the machine? Is competition the only frame possible? Is “the real danger … not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.” – Harris (quoted by smorlando3). Will we see/perceive differently enough if, as ckmetz suggests, we take the red pill? Sgershlak tells us we must adapt to succeed, but what adaptations are a) necessary, b) realistic, and c) ultimately functional? When simultaneity is the rule of the day, as when Csi describes seeing all three phases of water, “the vapor, the rain, and the ice” at the same time, how do you decide what truly guards you?

In the comments to follow, students will be responding with observations and identifications with various juxtapositions and articulations presented or hinted at in the preceding teacher’s analytical sampling. They’ll be working with the patterns and outliers evident in this collection of our class’s Visions of Students Today to produce two final videos.


Spaces (transportation):

  • hallways (also stairs, elevator, doors)
  • roads
  • walking versus driving, skateboarding
  • outdoor shots of campus, esp library
  • indoor shots of library, dining hall, dorm rooms, classrooms (large lecture halls, smaller classrooms), dorm entrance (security), gymnasium, campus center, kitchens, Collegian staff office
  • computer monitors, cell phones, television/videogame controllers
  • music

Time (temporal dimension – where identities are made):

  • statistics
  • activities: FaceBook, UMail, Spark, Spire, Tumblr, Twitter, UMassWiki, Google, news, iTunes (and other music apps), basketball (viewing and playing), XBoxLive, classwork, eating, texting…

Content Themes

  • control
  • time
  • the Matrix
  • pros/cons of technology (some exaggerated claims & stereotypes)
  • dread/hope (“key” – from Hymes’ rubric for analyzing an interpersonal situation communication situation; what equivalent analytic for video?)

Making It Real


All grown up and ready to lead, shake it up!

Make it real – compared to what?

Getting shot at, it’s all left up to us.

The hip hop generation, our generation

We’ve got the longevity, educated enough to know

No time for sorrow, gotta share all the love

Love the way it should be.

Not let our minds get trapped in time.

We can change how the world turns.

A remix of lyrics from songs performed by John Legend and The Roots, from the album “Wake Up!


Salamishah Tillet, Digital Booklet, Wake Up! Sept 2010.

Eugene McDaniels “Compared to What”

Leon Moore “Our Generation (The Hope of the World)”

Mike James Kirkland “Hang On In There”

Lincoln Thompson “Humanity (Love The Way It Should Be)”

Bill Withers & Ray Jackson “I Can’t Write  Left  Handed”

Billy Taylor & Dick Dallas “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”

John Stephens “Shine”

Ahmer ?uestlove Thompson “Wake Up Everybody”

Avatar and Academics

3-dimensional timespace

A Golden Globe for best drama? Ouch. Most of my friends and colleagues will be disgusted. There is barely even a story in Avatar, because the re-presentation of the colonizing logic that elevates white men as heroic figures is left completely unproblematized.

I am not supposed to like Avatar. There are so many problems with it.  Really. And I did not enjoy watching much of it.  I winced, squirmed in my seat, felt bored, and was not even enthralled by the visual effects.  The three-dimensionality is pleasing at an aesthetic level, yes, and may deserve awards, but to consider Avatar drama is to cheapen the real human lives of actual indigenous peoples, women, environmental activists, and anyone else who applies their conscience to the experience of watching this film. Drama involves, by definition, “serious subject matter…usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue.” As a buddy keeps reiterating, there was not a single surprise, no unexpected twist, no nod or wink of any kind from the director, actors, script-writers, camera-operators or graphic artists of Avatar to a socially-intelligent audience.

A Window upon Us?

The drama of Avatar is less about the movie itself than how it serves as a blank screen for viewers to project a firestorm of passionate support and cynical disdain. There is a principle of feedback usually applied to interpersonal communication: whatever someone tells us about ourselves is more informative about the feedback giver, a window upon their perception – such as what they value and what assumptions they use to interpret behavior – than it is about ourselves as the target of feedback. As social and cultural critics, many academics in the social sciences/humanities believe it is our job to pounce upon popular culture to try and dismantle what we see as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the public sphere. It does not matter if the object of analysis is classified as ‘high’ or ‘low’ art, was intended for our explicit consumption, or purports to promote or hide overt political intentions. The debate over Avatar, however, is dramatic because it complements the very dynamics critical analysis intends to combat.

I cannot – nor do I want to – dispute the specific criticisms made of the racism, sexism, ableism, colonialism, out-of-control capitalism, and militarism in the film. I agree with these analyses. The question I’ve been mulling is whether this mythic representation of a glorified white male savior has an equivalent meaning in today’s world as it did in the historical world that postcolonialist, social justice, cultural studies, and critical communication scholars and teachers rightly deplore? I think not. I suspect that by assuming these images and representations “mean the same” as they did in the past, i.e., that they will lead to the same kinds of attitudes and behaviors, uneven relationships and hierarchical oppressions as has enabled white domination in recent centuries, then we contribute to “making” them mean what they used to: we collaborate, discursively, in co-constructing the social continuation of stereotypical hierarchies and inhibit processes of identity development and social change.

We. Perhaps I should resist writing in the plural, but what I mean to admit and expose is that I am also part and parcel of these discursive dynamics. Does my whiteness make me more susceptible to the folkloric elements in this classic story? Am I more willing to forgive egregious excess because I overvalue the seeds of incremental change? Perhaps. What might have improved the story of Avatar would have been for Jake Sully to support and affirm Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonzo) as the heir to Aytucan (Wes Studi) instead of competing to replace him. Or he could have given the idea of riding the monster raptor, Toruk, to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and supported the matriarchs in leading completely and openly.

Calibrating to another timespace

The running debate I’ve been having with friends involves things like how so many of us got suckered by the hype, and whether or not there is any redemptive value in the film, and if so, what the heck could it possibly be? My attention was originally captured by a fan review posted by a friend on Facebook, which was followed in quick succession by a blistering anti-racist critique and a thoughtful examination of prosthetic relations and doubled consciousness. I continued reading and listening somewhat incredulously as the debate rose in pitch, arriving even to the edge of tension with friends. I keep wondering to myself, how can so much be at stake? And what do these arguments “do” as communicative work in the world? SEMP suggests the furor is evidence of addiction, an intriguing hypothesis that reminds me of how I interpreted the panic of the monied class in the early days of the financial crisis.

Here’s what I perceive. It is (on the one hand) the same ol’ same ol’ white supremacist myth but with a twist (on the other hand) that matters. The audiences who are most responsive to the positive message of ‘going native’ are among some of the ones who most need to get it: young people (mostly men and some women) who have had enough privilege and/or culturally-constructed desire to experiment with the alternative realities invoked by videogaming.  Many have grown up in such insulated conditions that patriotism (to nation, to the profit imperative, to so-called legitimate uses of violence – to name the most obvious) is so embedded as to be unquestionable.  Yet these same young people are a bit freaked out (if they’re paying attention whatsover) to the inevitability of climate change, the sensationalism of terrorism, and subsequent threats to the security and comfort that is all they’ve ever (really) known.

The lack of any sophistication at all in Avatar’s storyline (a major bone of contention from erudite friends) allows the alternative message to shine: endless consumption has to be reckoned with, and there must be other options than fighting-to-death over natural resources. As caricatures exaggerating some of what is ‘good’ (albeit in a culturally-biased and fragmentary way) and ‘bad’ about the types of people cultivated by the present global political-economic system, it seems clear that the primary intended audience of director James Cameron’s “story” is not graduate students or intellectuals – by assuming that we are Cameron’s target we miss the potential use of a culture’s particular and situated mythology to generate change from the inside.

Interrupting kneejerk belief in the bad

I was intrigued to learn that the cast was contractually forbidden to discuss the storyline. I am definitely prone to finding silver linings, and I’ve always been drawn to the underdog – just as I’m glad the Na’vi survive, I am unsettled by the intensity of academic attack, not on the film per se, but on the viewers of the film who are inspired by its story of betrayal to the military-corporate ethos. Because, ultimately, the critiques say nothing “to” the inanimate film or its characters. Whether or not they are rendered in two- or three visual dimensions they are merely symbols. What matters are the uses to which these symbols are put, and I am concerned that the main thing being accomplished is the reinforcement of cynicism and general hopelessness in the face of perceived inevitabilities.

Avatar is not science fiction; it is fantasy. Fantasy asks for the willing suspension of disbelief. Fantasy evokes a temporary reality, a vision of possibility premised on a vein of reality – emphasize the hope or dwell on dread, its your choice. I prefer to support the chance that plunder and profiteering can be made methods of the human past, rather than surrender to the empty promise of a futile future.


Barbara, Speculum de L’Autre Femme, Why critics of Avatar are missing the point
Rob Beschizza, boingboing, What storytelling risks could Avatar have taken?
Mary Bustillos, The Awl, I Hated ‘Avatar’ with the Fire of a Thousand Suns
Mary HK Choi, The Awl, Flicked Off: Avatar
Adam Cohen, New York Times, Next-Generation 3-D of ‘Avatar’ underscores its message
Joshua Davis, (esp. language details – inventing Na’vi) in Wired, James Cameron’s New 3-D Epic Could Change Film Forever
Erkan, Erkan’s Field Diary, Avatar, the movie
Stephanie Jo Kent, Reflexivity, “believe the data”
Annalee Newitz,, When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?
Lisa, Sociological Images, On Avatar, The Movie
Sr. Rose Pacatte, National Catholic Reporter: Riffing with Myth
Christina Radish, AvatarMovieZone, Laz Alonzo talks James Cameron’s Avatar
Selva, The Scientific Indian, review
The Snake Brotherhood, NationStates, The whole Avatar debate
Emmanual Reagan, merinews, Avatar a Spiritual Fantasy

“radical tolerance of contingency”: a counter to rupture fail?

Passions: Promises and Perils
Communication Department Conference
UMass Amherst

The phrase was posed by Dr Lisa Henderson (Chair of the Communication Department) in the Q-and-A following Dr Rey Chow’s keynote address. Lisa was musing out loud about (what I am describing as) a mapping of cinematic representations designed to invoke fear/horror and the possible range of affective responses called into subjective possibility by a film’s staging. I thought Lisa’s formulation suggested a label for a puzzle emergent in the cumulative discourse of the first day’s worth of conference workshops.

My ‘map’ of the flow of the “Passions” conference discourse traces only my own path through the set of concurrent workshops, so it can hardly be considered complete. However, I wager that it has potential to serve as an adequate preliminary structuring for other conference participants to amend. [The conference forum remains available for de-briefing, networking, further development, etc.] Dr Chow traced a complicated path from a theory of “rupture” by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin to contemporary pornographic and obscene exposures that no longer generate the ruptures that Brecht (and many others) argue spark heightened consciousness.

The problem of rupture failure is acute when theory is challenged to demonstrate its relevance in the face of practice, such as when analysis of film’s effect as a media is confronted with real life effects. This occurred in two instances during the post-keynote Q & A, when cinematic depictions of violence are cast against documentaries of actual violence, and when extradiagetic factors are included as relevant to the understanding of a story.

It is given in many fields that growth often comes from contact with something new, unfamiliar, even strange. Brecht used art to try and inspire people’s conscious perception and applied intelligence. Chow’s idea that “reflexivity becomes increasingly inseparable from a self-conscious type of performativity” obviously brought my own blog to mind, but her analysis is to the ways in which extreme applications (especially in film) tend “more and more…toward violence.” Part of the performativity that I cultivate with my self-conscious ‘thinking out loud’ is the challenge of finding moves through everyday interactions and conversations that veer away from violence without flinching from confronting the violent – even (or perhaps especially?) at the level of the mundane. For instance, the ways in which we academics do our work that results in collusion with the larger infrastructures that we explicitly aim to change.

Later that evening, I relaxed by reading a bit of science fiction.

“No alarming art here, thank you. Nothing ‘disturbing’ was even allowed in public places … the Imperium achieved its final state, the terminally bland.

Yet to Hari, the reaction against blandness was worse…a style based solely on rejection. Particularly among those Hari termed ‘chaos worlds,’ a smug avant-garde fumbled for the sublime by substituting for beauty a love of terror, shock, and the sickeningly grotesque. They used enormous scale, or acute disproportion, or scatology, or discord and irrational disjunction.

Both approaches were boring. Neither had any airy joy.”

Gregory Benford, Foundation’s Fear
p. 17-18, 1997

The beauty and the bane of science fiction is that it generally presupposes no evolution for homo sapiens. In order to remain sensible to readers in the present, people in the imagined future act out trends of behavior palpable in the present and the past. The downside of ensuring recognition (at the level of familiarity, if none other) is that it can feed a kind of fatalistic predetermination about the human condition: always and forever (it seems) we are destined (however one locates the source) to play out the same dynamics, even to be channeled into a limited number of roles, as if identities are possible only in finite quantity.

I anticipated the second day of the “Passions” conference, wondering what the discourse would bring. Everyone acknowledged that the conference was smaller than desired, yet many expressed satisfaction at what the size enabled. Being steeped (this semester) in a course on media historiography, I was attuned to the valorization of experience that permeated many of the presentations (ref Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience”). Experience seemed to justify a need and drive to create safety, as many (but not all) panelists focused on the “promises” of passion instead of on its “perils.”

Maybe (I muse), the graduate students in the Communication Department dealt with peril in the 2006 CommGrad Conference, “Communication in Crisis“? To imagine such a thing, however, means conceiving of some kind of group cohesion over time – a mode of thinking not much in style. Even if at some levels most of us know there is something credible about group dynamics and the enactment of identities and roles…i.e., of the socially-constructed basis of individual experience, it is really, really hard to step back and try to perceive how anything that feels so intimately like my own experience is a reflection of what society allows/determines that experience to be. Just because we get reflexive doesn’t mean we move beyond category! (Dammit.)

So I was absolutely fascinated in the closing de-briefing session at the response from conference planners when a UMass CommGrad requested that the “race” and “objective” panels (her terms) should have been mixed up more, because then she could have gotten some of both. The conference planners had not realized the thematic separation. Several people (planners and participants) had been questioning the presence of dichotomies in the conference throughout, but this one seemed to have slipped past everyone’s radar until the very end. The conversation at this point was intriguing, including logistical reasoning (e.g., ‘we can only group by what seems similar in the abstracts’) and matter-of-fact avowals from some who chose to follow the “race” track: ‘this is me, I didn’t even think about the other choice’ (both are rough paraphrases, just to show the sense).

What does this have to do with rupture?
Maybe nothing. 🙂
Or – perhaps – everything, or at least a lot!
A critique could be leveled that the conference was “too” this, or “too” that, but it is probably more constructive to imagine that the conference was just what it was – an interactive, group-level gathering of academics with common (or at least overlapping) interests, which happened to enact an unplanned division between matters primarily concerning race, and other, shall I say, non-race-based issues. In other words (one could imagine), a mirror representation of a society that wants to treat race as a separate concern for those who are interested in it by dint of personal experience.
During one of the panels during the second day, I suggested that – in light of contemporarily inured subjectivities – maybe we need to develop our communicative skills for generating ruptures in and among, with and for each other. This is not necessarily safe! Yet doing so, I suspect, might enable us to expand tolerances for handling radical contingency – the ever-present chance that, at any moment, things might go or be understood differently than we expect.

The Wrong Side of The Law

Federal Investigation (ongoing)

Before I get all dreamy-eyed about the potential for the Deaf community and sign language interpreters to make a significant contribution to global linguistic equality and transnational social justice (see yesterday’s entry), we have some business to clean up.

FCC announcement1.jpg
Nothing written here should be taken as legal advice. I am not a lawyer – not even a legal interpreter. What I write is only my attempt to make sense of this messy situation for myself.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Officer Jay Keithley told a room crammed full of interpreters, “you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the issue.” It was the second information meeting he held during the conference of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. The room was inadequate for the 100 or so interested interpreters. Squeezing the chairs together, lining the walls, and sitting on all available floor space still left people overflowing into the hallway. Some were repeats, they had attended the first session (two days previous) and returned again, hoping for more clarity concerning liability and the definition of fraudulent behavior.

“This is huge,” one interpreter explained,
“We want this cleaned up way more than you do.”

FCC announcement2.jpgMy motivation to attend was academic curiosity about criminal behavior in telecommunications (I am earning a phd in Communication); I was not prepared for the size of the crowd nor its unmasked anxiety. The sense I received from the palpable concern of interpreters who do work for a VRS company is that there seems to be a significant grey area of calls being made with questionable communicative content.

The Charges: Public Corruption & Fraud (someone got greedy)
The apparently violated law is a general conspiracy law, Conspiracy to Defraud the United States (Title 18, United States Code, Section 371), in which the accused “…unlawfully, knowingly, and intentionally combined and conspired with others to defraud the Federal Communications Commission and its agent, the National Exchange Carrier Association” (p. 2, Affidavit and Arrest Warrant). The National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA) receives regulatory fees from telecommunications companies’ entire customer base, and pays back (technically, “reimburses”) the VRS sub-division or subcontractor or independent provider based on minutes-per-month of (what they call, sic) “online video translation.”
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Federal Communications Commission (together, the FCC-OIG) noticed “a dramatic increase in the reimbursements” over the past four years. The increase in minutes used in January 2005 (1.4 million) to January 2009 (8.1 million) is 578%. (Check my math; this is an incredible percentage.) The difference in dollars is staggering: from $10.8 million (January 2005) to $51.2 million (January 2009) – $40.4 million dollars. Yep, if I had been anywhere near anything this big and illegal I would be quaking in my shoes too. What isn’t known (or at least, what is not shared in the legal documents), is how much of the increase is legitimate due to the Deaf community’s learning curve with the technology:

  1. becoming comfortable with using it,
  2. expanding the circle of family, friends, and work-related calls, and
  3. realizing its capabilities in making general content from the internet accessible.

Personally, I would not be inclined to underestimate how eager the Deaf community is to access the wide world of information available so suddenly and – finally! – easily.

The Crime: generating minutes without providing interpretation – from China!?!
Nested down through two layers of companies and three contracts, a particular VRS provider in Texas, Mascom, “processed a large number of VRS calls from callers who specifically requested that no translation [sic] be done, or to numbers that required no translation [sic]” (p. 6, Affidavit and Arrest Warrant). The internal jargon used by VRS interpreters, as reported in the Affidavit and Arrest Warrant to describe “calls with no apparent legitimate purpose” is ‘run calls’ or callers’ ‘running calls'” (p. 6). Examples given include

  • calls to lengthy podcasts that are not interpreted,
  • calls to numbers where the caller is “put…on interminable hold,”
  • calls when both the caller and the interpreter use what is called a “privacy screen” to block the incoming view (so neither can see the other and interpretation is impossible), and
  • VRS interpreters calling themselves.

Interesting, the American Deaf community does not seem to be the main culprit (at least, not in this first big case). Records show that “there are hundreds of hours of billed calls that originate with Chinese IP addresses” (p. 6). (An IP address identifies the specific computer used by the caller making the call.) This particular Affidavit and Arrest Warrant approximates that 75% of the total 605,000 minutes billed by (and apparently paid to) the owner of the Texas company (Mascom), Kim E. Hawkins, were run calls. That’s 453,750 minutes of the 6.7 million minute increase from 2005-2009: a mere drop in the bucket.
The information quoted in this blogpost is specific to the Texas case; a similar case has been discovered in Florida. Are there other run call scams going on out there? That is the reason why (in my opinion) the FCC made a showing at the RID convention: to rattle the cage and shake them loose. Officer Keithley explained how unusual it is for such an informational meeting to occur during an ongoing investigation; most questions of substance he had to duck or avoid because they related too closely to the details of the existing and ongoing investigation.

Coming Clean versus Hoping to Not Be Noticed?
To date, I have not worked for a Video Relay Service provider of interpretation services between spoken and signed languages. To a certain extent, my ignorance of the conditions of work and types of calls puts me in a similar ‘outsider’ position as the investigating officers from the FBI and FCC. I can understand their reluctance to specify which types of calls are fraudulent and which are legitimate – because who knows how creative people can be when they are deeply familiar with a system and want to take advantage of it. Still, there seems to me to be a very basic boundary: either your hands are up (interpreting), or your hands are idle. If you’ve been in situations that seem like running calls, then part of what needs to occur is a serious study and definition of what is a reasonable wait time (god only knows how long it can take to navigate automated menus) and what are expected/common conditions in which waiting makes sense (blowing one’s nose, for instance, or going to refill a cup of tea, or taking another call). Some parity needs to be established between the freedoms non-deaf speaking people have for putting each other on hold (in monolingual situations) and the freedom of Deaf signing people to adhere to common norms (in multilingual situations).
The ethics of confidentiality, specifically when/where & with whom the lines are drawn, is another arena opened up for clarification by such overt criminal behavior. The immediate suggestion from Officer Keithley is

“if you see this kind of conduct, report it to your managers, and report to the FCC’s Office of Inspector General at” or to himself.

They will protect your anonymity to the extent possible within “law enforcement purposes.” This guarantee is a bit plastic (for instance, you may be identified as a potential witness) but the interpreters who cooperated in the Texas investigation into Mascom are not named in the Affidavit or Arrest Warrant. Their anonymity appears to be protected to the extent that they serve “as a source of information for law enforcement officials” and (presumedly, although this was not stated) are innocent of “knowingly and intentionally” breaking the law. If you were stupid and got caught up in this before you realized how wrong it is, well, its time for another roll of the dice.

FCC’s Informational Meeting, Memo posted to Ed’s Telecom Alert (with comments)
Federal Communications Commission, Wikipedia
TRS (Telecommunications Relay Service, including VRS), Disability Rights, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, FCC
Conspiracy to Defraud the United States, Title 18, United States Code, Section 371. Criminal Resource Manual
Westerhaus, Patrick A. June 24, 2009. Case 1:09-mj-00404-AWA, Affidavit in Support of a Criminal Complaint and Arrest Warrant Against Kim E. Hawkins, text available at Ed’s Telecom Alerts, FBI Warrants and Warning
Reply Comments to Affidavit vs Kim E Hawkins, D’Aurio and Kiser, STI Prepaid LLC
TRS Fund, National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA)
Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Federal Communications Commission (together, the FCC-OIG)
RID’s Statement regarding VRS industry investigation (RIDStatement(1).pdfdownloadable from RID’s website)
Take it easy, folks, Ed’s Telecom Alerts

making amends


There is only one scene that is too tidy in Gran Torino. It seems unlikely to me that after committing murder, gang members would hang around waiting for arrest by the police. But this is part of what gives the film its essential Americanness: in the midst of tragedy, the glimmer of a happy ending.
Gran Torino is a study in control, depicting the redemption of an old man who – as a young man – lost self-possession at a crucial moment and did a terrible thing. All the characters cope with the consequences of history in contemporary U.S. society, from the mass displacement of the Hmong because of allying militarily with America against communism in the 1960s to the showmanship of angry young disenfranchised men playing it cool and dangerous on the street. The verbal aggression is shocking, especially the “man talk” of white men that is typically protected from such blatant public display. Parallels with ways of talking that are stereotypically associated with racial minority groups are not difficult to draw. Racial and ethnic labels can – and are – used to express affection just as readily as disdain.
Using anti-politically correct language is not an automatic barrier to developing relationships of trust and respect across cultural difference. Not surprisingly, young people are most adept at recognizing and codeswitching among distinct forms of address. For immigrants, this is well-documented: bilingual children interpret for their parents and grandparents, bridging differences of language while undergoing irrevocable transformations in identity. The little girl who interprets her grandfather’s request to remove a wasp’s nest is no different from the hearing children of deaf parents, except that her family has no recourse to professional interpretation services. The home maintenance scene is innocent enough, unless one knows the range of situations children can be forced to handle.
Adults cope as best they can, relying on traditional rituals of communication that may or may not translate across contexts and perceptions. Cultures are in contact and conflict: the contrast between the Kowalski’s midwestern family dynamics and those of the Hmong family is stark. Despite, for instance, Walt’s grotesque violation of cultural norms, family members and friends trust a teenage girl’s intuition about inviting this crotchety mean old man for food and beer at a social/ceremonial event. Sue explains some of the cultural differences to Walt, whereas his own son fails to recognize his father’s call for help. Walt’s personal style of complaining about everything is mirrored in his son, and his self-centeredness is mirrored in his granddaughter. She has her eye on inheriting some of his belongings, and he has his eye on the physical decline of neighbor’s houses spoiling his view from the front porch.
Annoyed as he is by feeling imposed upon by his Hmong neighbors, Walt finds a use for the regard he has unexpectedly earned. Grudgingly, but not unwisely, he also allows himself to change, to grow into the opportunities that the situation affords. Circumstances unfold, as they always do, along a mix of predictable and unpredictable contours. In the end, Walt generates the only possible peaceful outcome. He is able to do this not because he is skillful at anticipating or manipulating the passions of others, but because he understands intimately – from the inside out – that fear and threat combine explosively under certain conditions.
The story is a compelling achievement on many levels. As contemporary film, it captures all the volatility of race-based nationalism within increasingly transnational societies. Xenophobia is hardly unique to the United States, and the random violence that once seemed particular to the States is spreading even to Belgium. As a potentially culminating work of art, Clint Eastwood does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution, but he does illustrate a complex set of realistic models from which we can glean inspiration.

talking turkey, making tools

Thanksgiving in Brussels
27 November 2008

thanksgiving dinner.jpg

Thanksgiving in the Verenigde Staten is a holiday and a protest. The mood at the dinner hosted by the American Club was celebratory, although rumblings went round during an aggressive invocation I admit I could have done without. I was also a bit disappointed that no mention was made of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai – they suffer (in part) for their friendship with us, no? Granted, I was affected because of personal connections and an upcoming trip. Otherwise, with the exception of the one-dimensional pumpkin pie (!), the company was outstanding and the meal delicious (especially the mushroom and green bean side dish and the perfectly-roasted turkey).


Conversations were typical I guess? Politics. Who’s traveling home for the holidays, who has family traveling here. Why. Why not. Food. Wine. Needing to buy a t-shirt. I got really jazzed when John started to talk about his work as an engineer, especially when he said:

“We make tools to make tools to make things.”

THAT, my friends, is a metaphor for the language-based concept of indexicality!

John makes mongo agricultural equipment. The design gets done somewhere in the US, the product testing gets done somewhere else (I forget), and then John gets to do the actual production. Just like machine shops where I have occasionally interpreted, a significant engineering challenge is to design and build the machine that makes the tool which can generate the exact part which is needed for the machine to be able to do what it is designed to do. That isn’t all we talked about, we also broached working in seven dimensions (and here I thought I was doing good by adding a fourth!), and John and Kathy went totally off on the Bernouli Principle, which, btw, doesn’t apply in supersonic space.
A few days prior to Thanksgiving, I had begun collecting links and thinking about what I might write. The draft I started was titled, mistakes are for learning. The list I compiled of situations we still need to heal included a story on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s opposition to American Indian Rights, the illegal occupation of Hawai’i by the U.S. since 1898, books accomplishing more than bombs in Pakistan, the need to work for peace in the Middle East, and the problem so many people still have with lesbian and gay rights.
The whole eclectic collection went out of my head instantly when a pal posted a twitter feed on Facebook as the terrorist attacks in Mumbai commenced in the wee hours of the morning. While relieved that my friends and their friends and families are all ok, I continue to consider that the more people I know the smaller the world becomes. I ache for the people who’ve lost loved ones, and for the families of the terrorists – not all of whom can be happy at what their children have done. Amitav Ghosh has written a thoughtful, clearheaded critique of the rush to compare these attacks to 9/11, reminding us that “9/11” refers

also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.

Consequences. This brings me back around to that concept, indexicality. And the metaphor of a machine shop.

An index is the part of a word or phrase that points to something. Indexing is a referential act, a component of how we make meaning together, the core of what is understood when we achieve understanding. The notion of an index implies time, is perhaps even predicated upon time – at least if we understand time in a granular fashion, as a kind of motion that builds incrementally upon itself, accruing into sediments of meaningfulness. (See, if you can, this BBC documentary, Do You Know What Time It Is? by Professor Brian Cox)

So here’s the deal, as I see it. Our language really matters. What we say has substance. Our words effect the world. We elected Obama: he and his team are leading with language. Yes, they are putting together a centrist adminstration, but think “center” as in core. I’ve rarely been prouder to be American than in being part of Obama’s election, but we’ve got to get past the self-absorbed ways in which we sometimes celebrate being American as if the identity came to us pure. It did not. What is special and unique about America is that despite the terrible tragedies of our history, we absorb the lessons and move on. Now, ‘moving on’ means dealing well with the two extremes of radical diversity and horrific disenfranchisement. The former we must preserve and the latter requires redress.
The core must be solid; the boundaries must be clear. We – every single one of us who believes that there is a chance to finally turn the tide, as Ghosh says, in a long, long battle – we must use the words that signal a future that embraces everyone, instead of words “inviting” those who disagree to step outside the room. It is up to us to listen to the words and phrases of Obama and his team and make them, similar to the language of mathematics, “mean what they say, and say what they mean” (p. 14).

nationalism in the civilised present

The gathering was splendid.
The U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Brussels is large, impressive, and immaculately tended. We arrived a few minutes early but were immediately ushered in to mingle in the hallways and anterooms, sipping wine, juice or water and munching delicious appetizers from trays replenished regularly by the constantly circulating staff. Conversation with the delightful company was light and entertaining; it was me being there that edged on the surreal. 🙂
I did not get to shake hands with Ambassador Fox, although we had a prolonged moment of eye contact just as he was being summoned to introduce a short film on Belgian-U.S. relations. An Invisible Bridge is a well-crafted summary of a unique international relationship between two peoples – or, rather between the idea of two nationalities with a special bond. Susceptible as I am to musically-produced emotional tweakery, I teared up at the presentation of NATO’s heroic mission “to secure the future of Europe”, noticing that a Belgian acquaintance next to me was also surreptitiously wiping tears away. When I asked her, post-film, she confessed. Her emotion stemmed from grief at unity lost – the togetherness of a single nation being ripped at its seams along a language divide.
Ambassador Fox is quite proud of the film and the interest it has generated across Belgium. I understand why: the ethos of the film appeals to a human need to belong, to know one is connected with others, a part of something larger than ourselves. The desire for a group identification is, at core, tribal; its modern form is the nation.
I am not advocating an end to the nation (not necessarily, for sure not yet). We need better institutional structures and mechanisms for balancing out economic disparities, and the state is still the best tool for experimenting with various possibilities. My problem with the film is along the lines articulated by a friend who rejected its glorification of war. For me, I can’t say that I saw “glorification” per se. War is a tragedy, and its effects are still viscerally and personally real for many people in Europe: both those who lived through WWII (while so many died) and the children of people who lived/died during or because of the war. The tragedy of war is also etched in the beings of the millions of immigrants to Europe from regions of the world still swamped under the reign of violence.
What I witnessed in the film was an acknowledgment of war’s horrors, and gratitude to those who made attempts to alleviate suffering. The problematic implication for me was the implicit assumption that war is a human inevitability. The film makes no statement about ending war; indeed, by shoring up the borders of nationality the film cultivates the exclusive attitude of distinction that makes war possible.
Still, I appreciate what I learned:

  • Peter Minuit “bought Manhattan from the Indians” circa 1626. (The history obliterated by the neutral statement of fact nonetheless remains.)
  • Father Pierre-Jean De Smet helped negotiate “peace” (my quotation marks) with Sitting Bull
  • the Red Star Line carried millions of Eastern Europeans to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century
  • the WWI Belgian Relief program organized by President Herbert Hoover, Ernest Solvay, and other prominent Belgians.
  • rebuilding of the Library at the University of Leuven after its destruction during WWI
  • the organized escape routes, known as the Comet Line, created during WWII for Allied soldiers
  • the Battle of the Bulge occurred here, in the Ardennes mountain range

Here’s a testimonial of a US veteran of the Bulge returning in 1994:

The most memorable part of our tour to Belgium was the warmth and gratitude expressed to us by the people of Houffalize and Bastogne. As Ken Aran expressed it, “our localized reception was more like a family. It was an experience I shall always cherish.” One of many examples of Belgian warmth for us veterans was the parade at Bastogne in which the not-so-young veterans marched the length of Bastogne’s main street to the McAuliffe Square. As we march along down the Rue Savlon, many school children hurried out to grasp a veteran’s hand and marched along before approving and politely applauding crowds that lined the sidewalks. There were not always enough veterans’ hands to go around, but some children then clasped hands with kids who were already joined with veterans.

There is a huge emphasis on the sentiment of Belgians’ appreciation for the US military’s role in freeing Belgium from the occupation of the Nazi’s. Obviously this is a triumph and a matter of pride for soldiers and civilians who fought and won that war. There is no doubt that the gratitude of the persons and families affected is genuine; nor is there doubt that that war had to be fought. Because humanity (as a sociobiological species) is still riding a plateau of violence (war is collective, cooperative behavior), no doubt there will continue to be some wars that remain necessary. But not as many as we have, and certainly not the wars predicated on a competitive economic fight over the planet’s resources.
We can do better than that. So I am disappointed on an ideological level with An Invisible Bridge. The economic ties between Belgium and the US are substantive: 900 US companies in Belgium, 500 Belgian companies in the US.
Let not the ties between the peoples of these nations be based on pillars of war or greed, and neither motivated by fear.