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Paris and how we get breaking news now

On Saturday night I visited Paris in Second Life, joining the impromptu gathering of people from all over the world.

Paris Nov 14 2015

Avatars wore pins and held candles or signs showing their support for the people of Paris. Many dressed in blue, white, and red. There was also one avatar in a party hat, bathing suit, and rubber ducky float… but it is Second Life, after all. I stayed for a while until someone tried to pick me up. (I know it’s hard to open conversations — I stink at it, which is why I wandered the grid alone after this though I would have liked some company — but ffs, it was completely inappropriate to pull out cheesy opening lines in virtual Paris the night after the attacks.)

Remember Paris

When news about the attacks broke on Friday, my husband and I were finishing dinner. I glanced at my phone before we went up to our home office for an evening of listening to music together and playing separate games. I flipped by a headline about attacks in Paris in feedly; we live in a world of unrest, and I thought nothing more than, “I’ll read that later.” Just after that, my husband got a text from his mom asking if he was watching the news about Paris. I tried to load CNN.com on my computer and got an error. Fine. Tried BBC.co.uk and found a short video that we watched. Eventually I arranged three windows on my side monitor: a subreddit of Paris attack news, Twitter open to hashtag #ParisAttacks, and the live feed from France 24 in English. The Twitter feed gave me information before the anchors and the subreddit provided other sources, but the France 24 coverage was competent and non-alarmist even in the midst of tragic uncertainty.

I tried different TV news channels the next morning. BBC World News and Al Jazeera America had consistent informational coverage. CNN had a report from Christopher Dickey as I flipped by — my path crossed with his 20 years ago at a magazine site I managed and he’s still helping Americans understand Paris — so that piece was good. Then I went to Fox News. Oh holy hell. Instead of “Attacks in Paris” and “Breaking News” , which other networks had used as identifiers, Fox had a big yellow “ALERT” banner like police tape and the headline “Bloodbath in Paris”. I only watched for a few minutes as speculation and opinion were presented as news, with the ticker at the bottom of the screen pulling out the most explosive, ridiculous quotes. It was disturbing, especially since that’s the channel my husband’s mom and many other Americans watch for news.

When I was a kid, a crisis like that would have meant a breaking news alert interrupting the TV program that, most likely, my whole family would have been watching together. They probably wouldn’t have cut away completely, but offered regular updates through the Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas as the night continued. By the time the first Gulf War started, we had CNN and 24 hour coverage. Now there are more news sources accessible all the time from almost everywhere, but many have tried to be competitive with sensationalism, pandering, and divisive opinions presented as fact. It takes some savvy and self-awareness to choose a mostly neutral source or one that challenges our own view of the world.

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Posted by on November 15, 2015 in In the News

 

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Finding peace without ignorance in a hyperconnected world

Winter sunset in Friesland

Once upon a time, our ancestors knew little beyond the events in their clan or tribe or village. News from the outside world came with the danger of travel and trusting others. Later with improvements in transportation, the growth of cities, and communication technology, when a crisis occurred in a land far away, they still might not hear about it for days, weeks, months, or ever.

It’s now possible to see a global array of horrors and indignities while sipping my morning coffee. I am not compassionate by nature. I am, however, quick to feel outrage at injustice, cruelty, and ignorance. Combined with a love of learning, this creates a personality type that can get quickly overwhelmed. In the past couple years, I’ve found myself breathless with anxiety and rage about some topics. This builds upon the past 15 years of increasing political animosity in my country, which I’ve felt as a stressful tightness in my chest. It doesn’t seem that I’m the only one in this situation. How can we deal with this? How can I?

The easy solution would be to allow myself to be uninformed. When I avoid the news for a while, I’m certainly less anxious and the world goes without me. Yet, that’s unsatisfying. I care about what’s happening to other people in other places. I care about what is being done in my name as an American citizen.

I could choose to be selectively informed. When I talk with my family and some acquaintances, I see what this could be like: to be very knowledgeable about network TV competition shows and local news scaremongering, but almost entirely clueless about the world at large. Many of these folks have favorite supplemental news sources that reflect their political beliefs — NPR or Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh or Fox News. They share things on Facebook that make my jaw drop in amazement. Racist, stupid rants. Cluelessly idealistic things. They post something ignorant to Facebook, then go back to sharing clickbait quizzes. What type of oatmeal are you? I got Maple Walnut!

There are good and bad things about my current approach. I can be terrier-like in trying to make sure I’m informed. It’s not enough for me to see a headline about events in Ukraine. I start there, but then I talk with friends from Europe, I read Pravda online (both English and Russian versions), I study maps, I follow links from Wikipedia to learn more about Russian thinkers and philosophers, I read passionate essays from both pro-Russian and anti-Russian thinkers, I dig deeply into Russian nationalist writing that allegedly inspires Putin, I read summaries of Russian history to refresh my memory of books I’ve read in the past. I look through photo galleries and watch YouTube videos from Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, and Chechnya. I think, talk, and write until I’m pretty sure I have a reasonable opinion. I can usually put a topic aside then. I can be content keeping up with the news and I don’t need to go digging again.

But sometimes, when the topic is something closer to home, I have a terrible internal struggle. There is a radical revolutionary inside of me. She wants to protest, riot, overthrow! However, she’s surrounded by the rest of me: introverted, shy, mobility-impaired, middle-aged, suburban. My husband and my SL partner add to the voices of reason, reminding me that I’m not much use in a march when I can’t walk a mile without pain. I might want to volunteer to organize protests, but when push came to shove, I’d collapse into guilty shyness. True and true. I have a revolutionary spirit. In another life, I’d be waving a flag atop the barricades. In this life, I use an app on my smartphone to turn up the furnace because I’m a tad chilly. I’m cozy and complacent on the outside, much to the endless disgust of inner me.

I thought about this when I read the essay Orwell’s World from the current issue of Intelligent Life magazine. It inspired me to reread Huxley’s Brave New World; I don’t think I can stomach 1984 again.

“We thought, after the year 1984,(interest in the novel 1984 and Orwell) would flatten out and disappear,” Bill Hamilton says, “and it would all look a bit old-fashioned. After the Wall came down, we thought even more so, he’d look like a creature of history.”

The vision of the future Aldous Huxley had conjured up in “Brave New World”, of a society rendered passive by a surplus of comforts and distraction, seemed more prescient. In 1985, the cultural critic Neil Postman argued in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us while Huxley feared that what we love would ruin us. In 2002 J.G. Ballard, reviewing a biography of Huxley, said that “Brave New World” was “a far shrewder guess at the likely shape of a future tyranny than Orwell’s vision of Stalinist terror…‘1984’ has never really arrived, but ‘Brave New World’ is around us everywhere.” …

THE OPPOSITE TURNED out to be the case. As Bill Hamilton says, “It all came roaring back with a vengeance.” At the Q&A with the cast of “1984”, I asked the actors what they had researched in terms of everyday life in 2014 to help them understand the world of the play. One answer was Edward Snowden on YouTube showing how the National Security Agency (NSA) snoops on ordinary Americans, another was news footage from the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and a third—from the actress playing Julia…—was that the most useful research for her had been living in New York in the wake of 9/11. It wasn’t the horror of the two planes going into the twin towers: it was the fear and paranoia that followed.

Personally, I think we live in a blend of the two. We are observed, manipulated and controlled, but we choose to sate ourselves with bread and circuses. It isn’t selective artificial breeding and childhood Pavlovian training that condition us to spend our time on Dancing With the Stars and Call of Duty, or obsessing over the perfect local organic kale or posting photos to Yelp of our Fiery Doritos Locos Taco Supreme. There are so many ways to distract ourselves. (I would also argue that we use those “trivial entertainments” to build identity, socialize, and connect. They are not meaningless. However, they are choices we make in how to spend our limited time.)

I’m saved from a spiral of despair by a few things. I’m an optimist and I find small pleasures and reassurances daily. I read enough to know that many things are getting better. Quality of life has improved for billions of people during my years on this planet, despite inequality and violence. Segments of our environment are much cleaner and species have been saved. It’s a great luxury to fight for less sexist video games rather than fighting for the right to vote, which was granted to American women after my grandmothers were born.

Perspective is easy to lose and I think that’s one of the risks that comes with having unimaginable quantities of information at our fingertips. If I’ve been wallowing in the horrors of ISIS and the CIA and NSA and other assorted acronyms for a while, I can find some positive news for balance. It doesn’t diminish my outrage but it helps me see the bigger picture again. When my blood comes down from a roiling boil to a simmer, I rationally consider if there is something I can do about the issues troubling me the most. Writing letters or essays, signing petitions, donating money/items/time, or making changes in my own lifestyle — there is often an action I can take, even if it is small.

And sometimes, yes, I take a break. I don’t wake up to BBC World News on the television while skimming the headlines on several major newspaper sites. I read comics and look at pretty pictures instead.  That’s life, too.

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A side note: The image at the top of this post was one I took last night after reading the useful trio of Getting more out of Flickr articles by Caitlin Tobias. It inspired me to set up another account there for Second Life snaps, which then inspired me to stop being lazy about learning how to use the built-in photo tools. I don’t do any post-processing on my images beyond cropping, because I want to provide a realistic view of what you can see inside the virtual world, but I do tweak a lot of settings in the viewer.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Side Topics

 

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Technology and the Hong Kong protests

Have you been following the Occupy Central protests? Political questions aside, I find them very interesting.

umbrella

The Hong Kong protesters give the impression of being prepared, organized, and incredibly polite. They faced tear gas and pepper spray wearing laboratory-style goggles augmented with plastic wrap and using the ubiquitous umbrellas as shields. They moved off Internet-based chatting applications — because of network traffic, though they had anticipated government intervention — to an app that can communicate in a limited radius, passing messages through the crowd. FireChat doesn’t protect against surveillance by nearby police, but it does allow messages to be passed when they otherwise could not be.

Occupy Central with Love & Peace seems to have studied the US Occupy Wall Street protests and taken away some very useful things. Before the protests, they prepared a Manual of Disobedience that emphasized non-violence, solidarity, and responsibility. Masks and tents were discouraged. The Manual clearly explained the goal of the protests, what laws they would be breaking, and what legal and police action consequences they should expect to face. It also advised protesters to prepare SMS messages with their full names in English and Chinese, as well as ID numbers, to be sent to the OCLP hotline in case of arrest. A New York Times story had this quote, where the participant’s attitude can be starkly contrasted with the drum circles and disorder of Occupy protests in the US:

“If we take rash actions, we may lose people’s sympathy,” said Niko Cheng, a recent college graduate and protester in Mong Kok, a densely populated area of Hong Kong on the Kowloon Peninsula. “But if this drags on — it’s already turning into a carnival, with people dancing, singing and all that — people may forget what they’re here for.”

The group has some branding confusion: umbrellas, yellow ribbons, code numbers, black shirts, etc. Not as clear as “the 99%”, and actually quite important in a time of social media hashtags and keywords. The multitude of icons associated with the protests could be cultural; Chinese citizens have had to develop and evolve crafty ways to talk about the Tienanmen protests, which is forbidden by the government. I can sit in my living room in Michigan and know more about what’s happening in Hong Kong than a Chinese citizen in Shanghai, thanks to Chinese government censorship. I’ve read vague reports of up to 20 mainland Chinese people being detained for showing support for the protesters, but so far I’ve only seen detailed information (in English) about two detentions.

As I write this, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has agreed to meet with the protesters although there is no schedule for that meeting. The protests have gotten smaller, but the crowds are surrounding the two main government buildings and both the protesters and the police appear to be making preparations for conflict. Let’s hope for a peaceful outcome for everyone, protesters and police alike.

Update: I couldn’t resists sharing a couple images from Hong Kong artists, via the Hong Kong edition of the South China Morning Post. The first shows proper umbrella position for dealing with pepper spray vs rain and is by an artist named Lin. The second, from artist Car, is a comic-style illustration of current events. The contrast of the pose of bold defiance and the humble, uncool compact umbrellas is an irresistible image. Most media are using the Xaume Olleros photo showing the face of the protester. I like the inversion that Car makes, so we as viewers are standing behind him, looking at the police riot shields and flying tear gas canisters. Perhaps in our own rain slickers and backpacks, clutching our own nylon bumbershoots.

lin-net

car-illo-net

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in In the News

 

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