Monthly Archives: August 2018

When Worlds Collide


Charlottesville demonstrations, summer 2017 (link)

I’ve been thinking about this picture a lot recently. My research explores how extremist groups can develop using modern computer-mediated communication, particularly recommender systems. This picture lays the main parts like a set of nested puzzle pieces.

This is a picture of a physical event. In August 2017, various “Alt-Right” online communities came to Charlottesville Virginia to ostensibly protest the removal of confederate statues, which in turn was a response to the Charleston South Carolina church shooting of 2015. From August 11th through 12th, sanctioned and unsanctioned protests and counter protests happened in and around Emancipation Park.

Although this is not a runway in Paris, London or New York, this photo contains what I can best call “fashion statements”, in the most serious use of the term. They are mechanisms for signifying and conveying identity,  immediately visible. What are they trying to say to each other and to us, the public behind the camera?

Standing on the right hand of the image is a middle-aged white man, wearing a type of uniform: On his cap and shirt are images of the confederate “battle flag”. He is wearing a military-style camouflage vest and is carrying an AR-15 rifle and a 9mm handgun. These are archetypal components of the Alt-right identity.

He is yelling at a young black man moving in from the left side of the photo, who is also wearing a uniform of a sort. In addition to the black t-shirt and the dreadlocks, he is carrying multiple cameras – the sine qua non of credibility for young black men in modern America. Lastly, he is wearing literal chains and shackles, ensuring that no one will forget the slave heritage behind these protests.

Let’s consider these carried items, the cameras and the guns. The fashion accessories, if you will.

Cameras exist to record a selected instant of reality. It may be framed, with parts left out and others enhanced, but photographs and videos are a compelling document that something in the world happened. Further, these are internet-connected cameras, capable of sharing their content widely and quickly. These two elements, photographic evidence and distribution are a foundation of the #blacklivesmatter movement, which is a response to the wide distribution of videos where American police killed unarmed black men. These videos changed the greater social understanding of a reality encountered by a minority that was incomprehensible by the majority before these videos emerged.

Now to the other accessory, the guns. They are mechanisms “of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”. Unlike cameras, which are used to provide a perspective of reality , these weapons are used to create a reality through their display and their threatened use. They also reflect a perception  of those that wield them that the world has become so threatening that battlefield weapons make sense at a public event.

Oddly, this is may also be a picture of an introduction of sorts. Alt-right and #blacklivesmatter groups almost certainly interact significantly. In fact, it is doubtful that, even though they speak in a common language , one group can comprehend the other. The trajectories of their defining stories are so different, so misaligned, that the concepts of one slide off the brain of the other.

Within each group, it is a different story. Each group shares a common narrative, that is expressed in words, appearance, and belief. And within each group, there is discussion and consensus. These are the most extreme examples of the people that we see in the photo. I don’t see anyone else in the image wearing chains or openly carrying guns. The presence of these individuals within their respective groups exerts a pull on the overall orientation and position of the group in the things that they will accept. Additionally, the individuals in one group can cluster in opposition to a different group, which is a pressure that drives each group further apart.

Lastly, we come to the third actor in the image, the viewer. The photo is taken by Shelby Lum, an award-winning staff photographer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Through framing, focus and timing, she captures this frame that tells this story.  Looking at this photo, we the audience feel that we understand the situation. But photographs are inherently simplifying. The audience fills in the gaps – what’s happened before, the backstory of the people in the image. This image can mean many things to many people. And as such, it’s what we do with that photo – what we say about it and what we connect with it that makes the image as much about us as it is about the characters within the frame.

It is those interactions that I focus on, the ways that we as populations interact with information that supports, expands, or undermines our beliefs. My theory is that humans move through belief space like animals move on the planes of the Serengeti. And just as the status of the ecosystem can be inferred through the behaviors of its animal population, the health and status of our belief spaces can be determined by our digital behaviors.

Using this approach, I believe that we may be able look at populations at scale to determine the “health” of the underlying information. Wildebeest behave differently in risky environments. Their patterns of congregation are different. They can stampede, particularly when the terrain is against them, such as a narrow water crossing. Humans can behave in similar ways for example when their core beliefs about their identity is challenged, such as when Galileo was tried by the church for essentially moving man from the literal center of the universe..

I think that this sort of approach can be used to identify at-risk (stampeding) groups and provide avenues for intervention that can “nudge” groups off of dangerous trajectories. It may also be possible to recognize the presence of deliberate actors attempting to drive groups into dangerous terrain, like native Americans driving buffalo off of pishkun cliffs, or more recently the Russian Internet Research Agency instigating and coordinating a #bluelivesmatter and a #blacklivesmatter demonstration to occur at the same time and place in Texas.

This theory is based on simulations that are based on the assumption that people coordinate in high-dimensional belief spaces based on orientation, velocity and social influence. Rather than coming to a static consensus, these interactions are dynamic and follow intuitions of belief movement across information terrain. That dynamic process is what I’ll be discussing over the next several posts.

The Radio in Fascist Italy

The Radio in Fascist Italy

  • Philip Cannistraro
  • Journal of European Studies
  • scholars have generally agreed that the control of the mass media by the state is a fundamental prerequisite for the establishment and maintenance of totalitarian dictatorships (pg 127)
  • It is not so widely acknowledged, however, that contemporary totalitarian governments have been largely responsible for the initial growth of the mass media-particularly films and the radio-in their respective countries. (pg 127)
  • In their efforts to expose entire populations to official propaganda, totalitarian regimes encouraged and sponsored the development of the mass media and made them available to every· citizen on a large scale basis. (pg 127)
  • Marconi shrewdly reminded Mussolini that it would be politically wise to place control of the radio in the hands of the state, pointing out the radio’s great potential for propaganda purposes (pg 128)
  • “How many hearts recently beat with emotion when hearing the very voice of the Duce! All this means but one thing: the radio must be extended and extended rapidly. It will contribute much to the general culture of the people” (pg 129)
  • … to insure that EIAR’s programmes conformed to the requirements of the regime’s cultural and political policies. The High Commission included government representatives from each major area of culture: literature, journalism., the fine arts, music, poetry, theatre, and films. The programmes Commission screened the transcripts and plans of all and censored the content of all broadcasts. (pg 130)
  • His broadcast, ‘The Bombardment of Adrianople’, was awaited by the public with great interest and was heralded by critics as the most significant cultural event of the Italian radio.ts Marinetti’s colourful language and emotion-packed presentation blasted un expected life into the Italian radio. His flam.boyant style introduced the concept of the ‘radio personality’ in Fascist Italy, and the success of his talk encouraged those who, like Marinetti himself, hoped to make the radio a new art form. Broadcasts by Marinetti, most of which were lectures on Futurism, continued to be heard on Italian radio each month for more than a decade. (pg 131)
  • The regime quickly recognized the effectiveness of this technique in· arousing listener interest, and it was an easy matter to transfer microphones to mass rallies from where the enthusiastic cheers of the spectators could be heard by radio audiences. (pg 132)
  • The popular announcer Cesare Ferri created the characters ‘Nonno Radio’ (Grandfather Radio) and ‘Zia Radio’ (Aunt Radio), speaking to Italian youth with unprecedented familiarity in terms they easily understood. (pg 132)
  • In order to popular arouse interest in its EIAR sought to stimulate indirect audience participation through public contests for short stories, poems, songs, In and children’s fairy tales. addition, surveys were conducted among listeners to discover trends in popular taste. (pg 133)
  • The radio had an important task to fulfil in the totalitarian state, that of binding the Italians together into one nation through common ideals and a common cultural experience inspired by Fascism. (pg 134)
  • Mussolini proclaimed Radio Rurale a great achievement of the Fascist revolution, for contemporary observers saw it as a new instrument with which to integrate rural existence into the mainstream. of national life. (pg 135)
  • The measures taken by the regime to overcome cultural and political provincialism by creating a mass radio audience in the countryside met with qualified success. (pg 137)
  • Regarded by many as an important step towards the creation of a truly popular culture, Radio Btdilla’s purpose was to give the working classes of the city and the countryside the means of acquiring a radio at a modest cost. Through the radio art, instruction, music, poetry-all the cultural masterworks–cease to become the privilege and unjust monopoly of a few elitist groups’. (pg 139)
  • ‘The ministry, in carrying out its delicate functions of vigilance over radio broadcasting, must guide itself by criteria that are essentially of a political and cultural nature.’ (pg 140)
  • Once the radio had been integrated into the structure of the Ministry of Popular Culture, the Fascists began to develop m.ore effective ways of using broadcasting as a cultural medium. While the number and variety of programmes had begun to increase by the beginning of the decade, it was only after 1934 that they became politically sophisticated. (pg 141)
  • Fascist racial doctrines became a major theme of radio propaganda during World War II. An Italo-German accord signed in 1940 to co-ordinate radio propaganda between the two countries included measures to ‘intensify anti-Jewish propaganda’ on the Italian radio as well as in foreign broadcasts.78 The Inspectorate for Radio Broadcasting organized an important series of anti-Semitic that centred around the ‘Protocols of Zion’, and talks such as ‘Judaism. versus Western Culture’, the ‘Jewish International’, and ‘Judaism. Wanted this War’, were broadcast from 1941 to 1943. (pg 143)
  • information received from the Vatican radio during World War II was generally regarded more accurate than the obvious propaganda broadcasts of the Allies (pg 147)
  • On the radio he astutely employed direct, forceful language, shouting short and vivid sentences to create a sense of drama and arouse emotional reactions. ‘This ‘maniera forte’ that characterized Appelius’ radio talks had a great appeal for many Italians, especially for the ‘little man’ who wanted to be talked to on his own level in terms he could readily understand.121 In his broadcasts Appelius screamed insults and ranted and raved at the foul enemies of Fascism. with a powerful barrage of verbal abuse, inciting his audiences to unmitigated hatred and scorn against the evil ‘anglo-sassoni’ and their allies. (pg 150)
  • In the broad context of Fascist cultural aspirations, all the media aimed at similar goals: the diffusion of standard images and themes that reflected the ideological values of Fascism.; the creation of a mass culture that conformed the needs of the Fascist state in its capacity as a totalitarian to government. (pg 154)

Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought – The Broken Thread of Tradition

Hanna Arendt – Thinking Without a Banister

These two connected statements had already been torn asunder by a tradition that translated the one by declaring that man is a social being, a banality for which one would not have needed Aristotle, and the other by defining man as the animal rationale, the reasoning animal. (pg 23)

What Aristotle had seen as one and the same human quality, to live together with others in the modus of speaking, now became two distinct characteristics, to have reason and to be social. And these two characteristics, almost from the beginning, were not thought merely to be distinct, but antagonistic to each other: the conflict between man’s rationality and his sociability can be seen throughout our tradition of political thought (pg 23)

The law was now no longer the boundary (which the citizens ought to defend like the walls of the city, because it had the same function for the citizens’ political life as the city’s wall had for their physical existence and distinctness, as Heraclitus had said), but became a yardstick by which rule could be measured. Rule now either conformed to or overruled the law, and in the latter case the rule was called tyrannical usually, although not necessarily, exerted by one man-and therefore a kind of perverted monarchy. From then on, law and power became the two conceptual pillars of all definitions of government, and these definitions hardly changed during the more than two thousand years that separate Aristotle from Montesquieu. (pg 28)

But bureaucracy should not be mistaken for totalitarian domination. If the October Revolution had been permitted to follow the lines prescribed by Marx and Lenin, which was not the case, it would probably have resulted in bureaucratic rule. The rule of nobody, not anarchy, or disappearance of rule, or oppression, is the ever present danger of any society based on universal equality. (pg 33)

In Marx’s own opinion, what made socialism scientific and distinguished it from that of his predecessors, the “utopian socialists,” was not an economic theory with its scientific insights as well as its errors, but the discovery of a law of movement that ruled matter and, at the same time, showed itself in the reasoning capacity of man as “consciousness,” either of the self or of a class. (pg 35)

The logic of dialectal movement enables Marx to combine nature with history, or matter with man; man becomes the author of a meaningful, comprehensible history because his metabolism with nature, unlike an animal’s, is not merely consumptive but requires an activity, namely, labor. For Marx labor is the uniting link between matter and man, between nature and history. He is a “materialist” insofar as the specifically human form of consuming matter is to him the beginning of everything (pg 35)

Politics, in other words, is derivative in a twofold sense: it has its origin in the pre-political data of biological life, and it has its end in the post-political, highest possibility of human destiny (pg 40)

the fact that the multitude, whom the Greeks called hoi polloi, threatens the existence of every single person, runs like a red thread throughout the centuries that separate Plato from the modern age. In this context it is irrelevant whether this attitude expresses itself in secular terms, as in Plato and Aristotle, or if it does so in the terms of Christianity. (pg 40)

true Christians wohnen fern voneinander, that is, dwell far from each other and are as forlorn among the multitude as were the ancient philosophers. (pg 41)

Each new birth endangers the continuity of the polis because with each new birth a new world potentially comes into being. The laws hedge in these new beginnings and guarantee the preexistence of a common world, the permanence of a a continuity that transcends the individual life span of e each generation, and in which each single man in his mortality can hope to leave a trace of permanence behind him. (pg 46)

introduced the terms nomo and physei, by law or by nature. Thus, the order of the universe, the kosmos of natural things, was differentiated from the world of human affairs, whose order is laid down by men since it is an order of things made and done by men This distinction too, survives in the beginning of our tradition, where Aristotle expressly States that political science deals with things that are nomo and not physei. (pg 47)