We arrived at Heathrow airport this morning, 377 days after I left the UK. It’s good to be home. The next few days promise to be a whirlwind of catching up with friends and family. This evening began it all at a relaxed pace at home with family, watching Channel 4 News.
Monthly Archives: May 2005
I’d been meaning to pick up Dan Gillmor’s “We The Media” (amazon | read online), so the copy I received for my birthday last month was much appreciated. I’ve enjoyed reading Dan’s blog for quite some time and it was good to hear his thoughts expounded in longer form.
For those who are well versed in the intersection of blogging, journalism, and politics, most of the book will have a familiar feel. The first two-thirds of the book is largely a summary of events that have led to the current state of play with grassroots media, moving deftly through phenomena and events such as indymedia, ohmynews, bloggers’ reports following September 11 2001, the Trent Lott scandal, and many others. While initially I worried that the familiar material would be too much, it was a well paced summary and is certainly likely to be an informative read for anyone who has not been quite so immersed in the development of that key part of blog culture.
Similarly, Gillmor’s summary of changes to intellectual property law–primarily in the US but with implications far beyond–is a good one. He doesn’t go into the depth that can be found in the writing of Larry Lessig, but for those wanting an overview of the extension of copyright terms, the destruction of ‘fair use’ and the emergence of Creative Commons it is a good read.
Where Gillmor is most focussed is in his attempt to map out how “the mainstream media” could begin to learn from and positively interact with grassroots media and blogging. His plea to journalists to accept that their audience is usually better informed than they are needs to be taken to heart, to encourage humility, accountability and a raising of the tone of contemporary journalism, and is well argued, as are the concerns raised about the importance of checking sources for reliability that would be well learned in both the blogging and mainstream journalism worlds (he refers numerous times to the New York Times Jasyson Blair scandal).
We The Media is not a book which should be read merely by those of us who live-and-breathe emerging media. For many who have been reading blogs for some time, it is a worthwhile read but probably not one to prioritise, but for anyone new to that world or looking for a good summary it’s well worth checking out.
I’ve referred in the past to the wonderful websites They Work For You and Write To Them. Built by a group of volunteers, these sites provide search tools for Hansard (the British parliamentary record) that allow users to keep track of the activities of members of parliament, monitor the occurrence of topics in parliament, share comments on sections of the transcript, and then contact any of their elected representatives (at local, national, or european level) to initiate or continue discussions with them.
For the past few weeks I’ve been beginning to consider the possibility of similar tools for the United States. There are plenty of people working on tools to increase political engagement, and to begin to transform politics into a more participatory process. Particpatory Politics are a prime example, and so is the fantastic GovTrack. There are new tools such as Civic Space that are building tools for organising and managing campaigns (whether electoral or issue-based), and many 527s provide ways for their supporters to contact representatives. But so far as I can find, there isn’t anything that matches the facilities of the UK sites, or that places the tools in the hands of the general populace.
This post should be considered a call for participants. I’m beginning to pull together ideas on what might be involved in developing that US equivalent on this wiki. Ideas, feedback, participants, they’re all welcome…
Our introduction to the Decemberists was back in September on their last trip to Grand Rapids. Displaying a delightful eccentricity, deeply literate lyrics, and a panoply of instruments, they left little doubt that we’d be buying at least one album before too long. From Thursday night’s showing it’s clear that we weren’t alone in being impressed as 725 people flocked to the Intersection to catch the band out supporting their new album Picaresque.
It was more than apparent that the Portland, Oregon band were in the middle of a tour that’s been going very well. The theatricality of their stage persona was both well rehearsed and effortlessly playful, and by and large the songs came across well, particularly the more crowd-pleasing numbers from that new album (“Sixteen Military Wives”, “We Both Go Down Together”). With the strong Irish folk strain running through much of the material, it was at times easy to imagine that I was back at mid-90s Greenbelt listening to one of many Waterboys-influenced bands. But that sound has been filtered through the succession of indie sounds that the past decade has seen, achieving its own identity, and resulting in a sound and a set that was highly entertaining.
While we enjoyed the postponed Earth Day fair in Kalamazoo, the story that has dominated my blog entries of late came to its head and passed. I have yet to watch Bush’s speech in its entirety text | video, but most of those in attendance to whom I’ve spoken seem to agree it was uneventful. He began with some self-deprecating jokes about his own academic ineptitude, which some thought were in poor taste when celebrating graduates at an academically intensive institution. But it was not the crassly politicised speech that some of us had feared.
Protestors on the East Beltline got some television coverage locally, among them former Calvin faculty and staff. Calvin students, including Matt Ackerman, were scheduled to appear on NBC’s Today Show, and the event dominated the local press. Blog discussion includes this from Karl, a post last night by Jeff Veen, this from Ana, this one by James at metikos, and Nate offered his congratulations to graduates. The story unsurprisingly also made Christianity Today.
There is talk circulating that (college) President Byker (a staunch Republican) is furious about the press coverage that the protestors received (contrary to what he appears to be saying in this Grand Rapids press article), and the college’s admissions and development (fundraising) departments have talked of quite a number of emails from potential parents and financial donors who object to faculty protests — some suggesting that those faculty who chose to protest should “grow up” — though there have also been parents expressing their concern at the administration’s politicisation of commencement. It will be interesting to see what fallout the past few weeks’ events generate, or if any discomfort is quietly removed from sight.
On a personal note, perhaps the allegation that has irked me the most is that Christians who are called to respect those in authority (a claim whose application can be controversial, but for the sake of argument…) can’t marry respecting the office of President with protesting his appearance or policies. If the US President is really the figurehead of democracy, then can there be any greater respect paid to that office than to engage in vigorous civic debate and protest? Surely the greatest insult would be to quietly disengage?
And now to find something new to blog about…
When people ask me about the effects moving to the US has had on me, one thing that usually comes up is that I feel my appreciation of USian politics has become considerably more nuanced. In the circles I moved in in the UK, from the perspective of which the Democrats are generally a pretty right-wing party, it was hard to believe that any intelligent person would vote Republican.
Since moving here, I’ve met quite a number of intelligent people who are open to divergent viewpoints and vote Republican. Sometimes their headline reason is “the abortion issue,” but usually there are economic philosophies and a belief in “small government” operating behind the scenes.
While I believe that the modern Republican party (or at least it’s members in elected office) has moved a long way from its small government base, and on certain issues is rapidly accelerating towards being an agent of interventionist government, I’ve been trying to learn to respect that people do have good reasons for voting that way and to realise that people on the right vote for parties that they don’t 100% agree with just as those of us on the left do.
In the context of trying to maintain a nuanced, respectful approach, it’s even sadder to come across pieces such as calvin4bush.com than it might otherwise be. While members of Calvin faculty opposed to some of Bush’s policies have been attempting to tread a fine (and deeply respectful) line in such difficult territory as Fox’s “Hannity & Colmes” show (transcript), this site appears to ignore that, and repeats many GOP talking points without the critical analysis that Calvin so prides itself on.
I’m not going to mount a rebuttal of the points in this site’s main statement, tempting though it may be. I will point out that many Bush voters may need to take pause for thought before signing up to some of the site’s claims (I know many people who voted for him, but would disagree with some of the points made). But mainly, I just want to express sadness that the debate isn’t being treated with more respect across the board.
When it comes to vibrant social discourse and a search for innovative ideas of how participatory politics might progress, the global South is usually ahead of the more apathetic North. That was evidenced in The Take which I blogged about a couple of months ago, as well as being well documented in many other places.
Lately, I’ve been really enjoying Nick‘s observations about life in Bolivia, particularly the context he’s been providing on the disturbances that have greeted Bolivia’s new taxes on foreign gas companies. It is easy to observe that international trade regulations are of more immediate concern for those in the world’s poorest countries, but given how important they are to the lives of all of us, the level of awareness in South America puts many of us in richer lands to shame.
On last night’s edition of The World (an hour-long news programme co-produced by the BBC and NPR), Brian Byrnes brought a report from the world’s first Museum of Foreign Debt, located in Argentina. You can get audio here and see photos here. (The museum has actually been open for a while and Christian Science Monitor ran this piece back in July 2003).
Jim actually led two sessions at Calvin. The first was particularly focussed on the commencement speech, but we didn’t manage to get to that, favouring his main talk which was more in line with the rest of his book tour. As a result I didn’t get to hear any of his thinking directly about the commencement situation, but it was certainly on my mind.
From the latter appearance, it was clear that Jim was well into a lengthy tour. He had polished his talk and knew exactly when to pause for effect, how to word his soundbytes for maximum response, and how to target his content. Most of the stories had already been doing the round of blogs and sojourners mailings, and it was a little amusing to witness his transformation into Media Personality. As someone whose faith and politics are intrinsically linked (but not aligned with any party) it was also a useful reminder to remember the reality of the convictions of those on the other sides of political gulfs from me.
But I’m not sure that the talk really affected my thinking about the commencement very much. As someone who is neither staff, student, nor faculty at Calvin (the closest I come is some freelance work) I’ve had to think carefully about my involvement in anything that happens on the day, and have decided to limit my involvement to a little chronicling, commentary and conversation.
I’ve been glad to see the way that many of the debates I’ve been privy to have been conducted, and it certainly seems that those who are wanting to protest this event have been considerably more sensitive to the need to focus on the graduands than those who orchestrated the event. Press coverage such as this in the Chronicle of Higher Education (temporary URL not requiring subscription) has been encouraging and the whole thing retains a sense of dignity which is encouraging.
What has been clear, both from Jim’s talk, and the discussion around the commencement address, is how deeply insidious the co-option of political debate by the right has been in the US. The refrain that “poverty is a moral issue too” is becoming more and more familiar, but it remains hard to make such a statement in a non-partisan manner. It has been encouraging to hear from a few people who voted for Bush but don’t believe that the symbolism of his speech at Calvin is a good thing, but such nuanced points remain deeply difficult to make.
I’m trying to look at occasions such as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearings on John Bolton, and talk of a cross-partisan compromise to prevent “the so-called nuclear option” as signs of hope, but it’s hard to imagine how exactly we’re going to disentangle the present linguistic mess.
I’m well aware that I’ve been quiet here of late. In part that’s due to a desire to step back, spend a little more time reading and to pay a bit more attention to detail when I do post, but I had intended to intersperse that with more short posts.
The Image Shoppe is a Grand Rapids-based design and communications agency with whom I’m working a lot at the moment. Last week we launched an initial version of their site, with further developments to come as the work schedule allows.
Bazzani Associates are leading the way in sustainable building in the US and their construction sights will be familiar to anyone who spends much time around Grand Rapids. This site is also a first-phase launch and we’re working with their team to develop a lot more content exploring their diverse range of projects, their ‘triple-bottom line’ approach, and the great results they’re achieving.
I write a lot more about such things on my other blog.
Shortly after writing my previous entry on consumerism, I began reading Jedediah Purdy’s “For Common Things” and was reminded of an aspect of ‘our logo’ thinking that I had neglected to cover.
Purdy discusses the idea of the “Free Agent” (the wealthy individual able to entirely construct their own identity) extolled by Fast Company and Tom Peters’ corollary idea of “Brand You.” The concept of personal branding in the self-promotional sense has been around throughout history but, as Purdy highlights, its contemporary articulation involves building the fiction of the ‘autonomous’ individual, one whose pursuit of success trumps any concern for the public sphere.
Such a concept is a curious outworking of a form of consumerism that, in providing definition through consumption, loses track of the necessity of production. Jean Baudrillard made much of the fact that referring symbols have become detached from that to which they refer, and similarly in this “Free Agent” consumerism those things that we buy are neither results of a production process, or referent of anything outside of the individual purchaser’s intended message. When a Free Agent buys a pair of shoes, the question of whether they are mass-made in a sweatshop or a custom made in a fashion house has little relevance. What becomes important is the perceived symbolic value of those shoes within a particular self-contained network.
That is not the sense that I got from the original blog posts on Our Logo, nor that which I sought to convey. In order to be a successful surpasser of consumerism, the “our logo” concept needs to collapse some of the chasm between producer and consumer. In Jyri’s original post there was a sense of this being achieved through an extension of the production process. An acknowledgement that the items we buy aren’t finished items — the ways we customize or employ them will be part of their “production,” and when we buy it is with the intention of further building on that item.
We may hope that collapsing that chasm will begin to increase awareness of the parts of the production process before a product reaches us. If we’re involved in the production process, we are likely to scrutinise the products in more detail, and that may cast light on their existence before they reached us. There’s the potential for more solidarity (a somewhat outmoded word, but a concept we need to cling to) if we can escape the self-absorption that is an ever-present trouble.