Ashley Madison and Cultural Dopes

I can imagine a movie done in 2050 about the 2010’s.

It’ll be a period piece, with the usual cultural exaggerations done to let the viewer know it is about that era. Ever notice how movies set in the 1970’s show every house with a lava lamp and a water bed? Some music will be playing in the background to make sure you now it is 70s. Carol Kane? Elton John? If it is a movie set in an urban setting, then you will hear Stevie Wonder. In these period pieces, some cultural attitude or behavior is pointed out for the purpose of showing how naive or silly people were. If it is a movie about the 1950’s, there will always be the obligatory racist or sexist remark – often inserted into the dialogue casually in order to show how commonplace those ideas were.

The period piece set in the 2010’s will have women sporting that “thrift shop” look, men wearing slim fit clothes, and people drinking fair trade coffee. The soundtrack will be by Daft Punk or Adele. And what will be the cultural attitude or behavior that is made fun of? People’s unbelievable naiveté when putting personal information into the hands of online companies.


Edward Snowden as the Avatar of the Free and Open Internet Movement

From Malcolm X…

I do some odd things as I approach middle age.  I watch C-Span for fun.  Browsing the online archives, I came across a video of Malcolm X being interviewed at UC – Berkeley.

There was Malcolm, lean and straight-backed, armed with conviction and a strident piercing voice, answering questions confidently.  He was being interviewed by a white professor and a black graduate student (see the interview here…it is a classic).  Both seemed taken aback by Malcolm.  The former because he was in the unfamiliar position of having this black ex-con matching him wit for wit, point for point.  The latter because he was witnessing his white professor being matched wit for wit, point for point, by this black ex-con.

I saw that interview about a month ago.  It was slowly migrating into the recesses of my mind.  But then, a few days ago I heard Malcolm X being described as the “avatar of the black power movement” on C-Span by Tufts University professor Peniel Joseph.

I like the term, especially for our digital age.  Thinking about the visuals I had seen from Malcolm X’s interview, it made total sense. An avatar is a symbol – a picture or image – that is meant to represent one’s self in the digital world.  The picture associated with one’s Twitter account is an avatar.

Being the avatar of a movement is a bit more than being the “face of” a movement.  An avatar is multidimensional, and can not only represent one’s physical self but one’s values and lifestyle.  Does one smile in their Twitter photo (hinting that one is jovial)?  Does one make the photo black and white (signifying artistic aspirations)?  Would a picture of Bart Simpson as my avatar be enough to show I am a prankster?  How can I show cosmopolitanism?  Allude to my hipster affiliations?  And so on.

The black power movement needed Malcolm.  That is, they needed him to be young, and to exhibit a lean hungriness.  They needed him to be powerful, but not naturally, genetically so.  He needed to have gained his strength through the overcoming of oppression.  It was absolutely essential that he be strident and direct – especially when talking to whites.  It was about black “power” after all.

Currently, a new movement is bubbling under the national radar (but not for long).  It is the Free and Open Internet Movement, and it needed Edward Snowden is its avatar.

…to Edward Snowden

I do even more odd things as I approach middle age.  I find myself more interested in documentary than blockbuster: detailed, factual accounts of everyday social and political events are more interesting than far flung fantasies in outerspace or middle earth.

Recently, I watched Citizen Four, the documentary by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden.  The Citizen Four documentary was, for me, a companion piece to the book written by Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide.  Both chronicle their initial encounters with Snowden and the information he leaked about government spying.

Greenwald’s book is more detailed about what exactly the NSA had done and the extent to which it is collecting information about American citizens.  Whereas Poitras’ documentary – filled with claustrophobic close-ups of Snowden framed in white sheets – reveal more about the man behind the leak.  One watches a bespectacled young man speaking softly but with confident precision, smiling on occasion, often saying something and then laughing sheepishly.  Highly intelligent, but more in the “I know ten times more than you about this one topic and I can leverage this disparity to make you look stupid” style of Sheldon Cooper, than the “My intellect is so powerful and my knowledge so diverse that I can muster my brain power to understand this topic more thoroughly than you” style of Fraiser Crane.  Snowden is the man who can dominate with the piercing, cutting logic of computer code, but not with physical brute force or charisma and searing oratory: he is the nerd who gets the girl after all the other guys become pot-bellied and stuck in middle management.

His value system is binary.  While others may see government spying as compromising our values as Americans but fitting into that grey area where it is deemed “necessary”, Snowden sees no context that would make this incursion on civil liberties justifiable.  For Snowden, The NSA had to be ratted out because they had done wrong by violating our constitution, simple as that.

Malcolm X and Edward Snowden both embody the social movements they have championed.

Malcolm X and Edward Snowden both embody the social movements they have championed.

This is why he embodies the Free and Open Source Internet Movement.  It is a movement filled with people not willing to compromise their Internet freedom in the name of national security or combating terrorism.

They protest in ways that are acceptable by ginning up discontent on social media websites.  They protest in ways that are unacceptable by direct denial of service attacks (often undertaken by the hacktivist group Anonymous).  These protests are done in the digital environment, not the physical.  They may walk the streets holding signs on occasion, but they prefer to protest through computer networks.

As the Avatar Goes, the Movement Goes

The trajectory of some avatars parallels the trajectory of the movements they represent.

Malcolm X will forever be remembered in the tense glory of his youth.  Since his death the public’s understanding of him has morphed from one to be feared to one to be admired.  He became, especially in the 1990’s with Spike Lee’s biopic and the swarm of hats and t-shirts with sporting his likeness, a pop culture symbol of resistance.

Gloria Steinem, who may be considered the avatar of feminism – with her life, look, and values symbolizing that movement – is still a visible presence now in her eighth decade, changing and morphing with social and cultural trends.

And Snowden, unable to return physically to his home country, finds himself only able to advocate in the digital environment.  He is forced (or free, depending upon how you look at it) to communicate through online services like Skype and Google Chat.  Yet despite his exile, he is omnipresent, his visage duplicated, downloaded, and memed thoughout the digital environment.  Very fitting for the avatar of the free and open Internet movement.

A Call for Nonprofit Social Media. Or, How to Maintain Free Speech in the Digital Environment

I am currently trying to  learn a little bit about hate speech laws and how they are applied in the digital environment.  My main reference here is a great introductory book on the laws that govern new media by Ashley Packard, entitled Digital Media Law.

Here is what I (think I) know so far:

  • The First Amendment protects speech, expression, and group assembly from government suppression.  You can say almost anything.  Of course some forms of speech can and will be suppressed by the government.  For example, speech can be restricted if it interferes with military plans, is obscene, or is meant to incite a violent overthrow of the government.  But by and large, restraints on speech are very narrow.  And, as Erik Bleich’s book about free speech The Freedom to be Racist  details, American courts have repeatedly reinforced freedom of speech over the course of the 20th century.  The situation is very much the opposite in Europe.  As an example, since the mid-90’s it is criminal to publish anything that incites racial hatred in the United Kingdom.  Meanwhile you can see a Klan member on Jerry Springer every third Thursday here in the states.
  • Packard writes that, when judging whether or not a government regulation constrains free speech on public property, the Supreme Court adopts a forum analysis.  There are three types of forums, each requiring more or less protection.  A traditional public forum is one that has historically been a venues for free speech.  Picture John Adams holding forth on street corner in Colonial times, sidestepping horse manure, holding forth on the essence of liberty.  These traditional public forums have been given the most free speech protection.  People standing on street corners, assembling in front of town halls, or handing out pamphlets to passersby are generally not bothered by government.   Some forums are not traditionally public, but are forums designated for public use.  These forums, like a school auditorium open for a debate, can be regulated by the government.  However, this regulation cannot be discriminatory – a city government cannot hold a public forum and only allow Republicans to speak.  A third type of public property, nonpublic forums are integral to the maintenance of society, and government has the right to restrict speech there.  These would be bridges, polling places, and subway stations.  Packard writes that although the Internet has been given full First Amendment Protection, the Supreme Court has not recognized it as a public forum.

There are a few things about these basic foundations for free speech that are troubling to me, and lead me to believe that we as a society should consider supporting nonprofit forms of social media.  Let me explain….


We have strong protections of free speech in the US.  This is a good thing...even for Klan members who go on Jerry Springer.

We have strong protections of free speech in the US. This is a good thing…even for Klan members who go on Jerry Springer.


Betwixt and Between The “I” and the “Me”: Straddling the Physical and the Digital

What if you are walking through a leafy neighborhood in, say  Atlanta Georgia, while using Facebook to message your friend living in Ames Iowa.  Where are you?

The answer at first glance seems simple.  There are the houses with the wrap around porches.  There are the trees, and the humidity, and the sounds of twigs under your shoes, and the cracks in the sidewalk.  And there is you.

But being human encompasses much more than body sensations. We have a mind that is constantly generating and evaluating symbols, especially social ones.  It ‘s that social side that separates us from other animals.

So with that in mind, we have this:  There are the images scrolling down the white background of Facebook.  There are the letters and the emoticons, and the ads.  There is the image of your friend, a rich image built up through years of social interaction.  And then there is you.

So again, you are walking through a leafy neighborhood in Atlanta while talking to your friend living in Ames.  Where are you?

Up until recently I would have privileged the physical and and  I would said: “well yeah but still you would be in Atlanta”.  But I think the answer is a bit more complicated.  I thank sociologist/philosopher George Herbert Mead for muddying the waters.


The Age of the Infographic

In Ancient Rome each male citizen had to register with the state every five years.  He had to list his holdings – money, slaves, and wife (yes, wives were “possessions”).  This Census, as it was called, was a way of the state knowing, among other things, who constituted the populus and how to tax them.  This list of citizens could get very long.  When needed, the list could be presented in a way that extracted useful information quickly.  Maybe the 100 richest citizens and the amount of gold they possessed.  It was an infographic.

Things have gotten a bit more complex since then.  But we’re still counting and still needing to make sense of all that is counted.  And we are producing more infographics than ever.  I would say we live in the age of infographics.  Nothing symbolizes our current era of computerization and networking quite like it.