Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 3 – “By redefining connection we find we can make eye contact online”

Click picture to view movie trailer

The door to the mind is open. Imagine a machine that records Sights … sounds … sensations … thoughts …feelings …emotions … Even your dreams and nightmares. Then at the touch of a button transfers these personal experiences from one mind to another. Any person. Any experience. Anything you can imagine.

Text from the advertising poster for Brainstorms (1983)

When I profess realism about possible worlds, I mean to be taken literally. Possible worlds are what they are, and not some other thing. If asked what sort of thing they are, I cannot give the kind of reply my questioner probably expects: that is, a proposal to reduce possible worlds to something else. I can only ask him to admit that he knows what sort of thing our actual world is, and then explain that possible worlds are more things of that sort, differing not in kind but only in what goes on at them.(David Lewis, Counterfactuals, 1973; p.85)

Somewhere there is some place, that one million eyes can’t see,
And somewhere there is someone, who can see what I can see
Someone, Somewhere, In Summertime…

Simple Minds, ‘Someone Somewhere In Summertime’ on the album New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84) (1982)

I am watching a grainy shaky explosion in a cityscape. The context is a televised news programme showing conflict in Syria. What is exploding? Who blew it up? Why did they do this? Is that good or bad, are they right or wrong? The video has been shot by ‘an amateur’, but this amateur, or some other intermediary, clearly had access not only to the war zone, but also to the internet. He or she also clearly has access to Associated Press, and they do to global news, and by extension, me. They connect and convey this event to me. I make eye contact with something remote and abstract, I do not make eye contact with he or she that witnessed this.

What I have seen and why I have seen it forms something of a reflexive debate, by media, on media, regardless of itself regardless of the ‘struggle for freedom’ or the pain, trauma and suffering of the ‘civilians’. sI canlt help but keep thinking that the category ‘civilian like those other massed faceless emotionless, depersonalised biography- lacking others – viewers, consumers, users and experimental subjects. But then I focus a little on their unimaginable horror.

In a world of ubiquitous communication some news agencies offer tips on how best to produce content. But it brings to bear what has been a significant debate regarding the nature of knowledge at least from the time of the empiricists and rationalists [overview here]. we have to know more than what we see to live in a knowledge age, don’t we? Is it not part and partial?

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

This was a statement made by the then United States Secretary of Defense in February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, at a press briefing where he addressed the absence of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. This sums up not only what intelligence agencies and their governments know, but what we know.

The Vietnam War, is known as being the first televised war, opened to the American public an unrestricted access to how graphic and horrific war truly was. The propaganda newsreels of smiling soldiers and stereotyped enemies of WWII were replaced with the photographs, videos, and reports of intrepid ‘in the midst of battle’ journalists, parading for us as they crouched behind cover terrified young faces of American soldiers and copious chaos, and death and mutilation. Such coverage in the field, and the sombre sight of stars and stripes draped caskets being unloaded from planes at home, is considered pivotal in shifting domestic public opinion regarding the war and leading to the withdrawal of troops. It was fairly clear and unambiguous what people were seeing on television, even though their lives could be relatively untouched and business as usual – if they had not suffered personal loss. But this war, for all its accountancy efficiency and computerised technology was hardly any different from previous bloody accounts of battle. When over centuries thousands would walk or travel by ship for hundreds and even thousands of miles and clash with an opposition without the safety catch net of proper medical attention, sometimes without proper food or water. Bacteria, infection, and the need for life support were entities and afflictions as rife and potent then at least as they are today- more likely worse, much, much worse.

Wars are very newsworthy and have been since the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) when the war correspondent and photographs were used to connect those at home with those in the distant battlefield. I remember watching the British Falklands war unfolding on television daily. I was slightly annoyed that there was lack of clarity, lack of close-ups, lack of ‘proper panning’ in fact lack of any kind of cinematic professionalism in its production. It was easy and was done that one days footage melded with another day’s, probably because they were cuts of the same footage, primarily due to heavy censorship. In fact the heavy censorship made any sort of ‘story’ telling very difficult for television. They had to use imagination. The action footage was supplanted with copious amounts of speculative expert opinion from a range of experts; mostly retired military proffering their rationalised but non-contentious synopsis of ‘how to read’ developments, of course they were privy to the same censorship as everyone else. That didn’t stop them being hired, and a few may even have personalities suitable and personable enough for being asked by the networks for some repeat performances. After retirement they were not being asked for memories, but made active or commissioned again.

In some irrational and impossible manner, and in short, privately perhaps, we would have preferred if Francis Ford Coppolla or Stanley Kubrik had directed the action. It was not any more aggravating than wishing for better video quality in the moon landing of 1969, which would have been more dramatic if it looked like the visual feast of 2001; A Space Oddysey, which was being shown in cinemas about the same time as the landing and the Vietnam war.

Many years later, in a controversial piece, blasted by the political left and right, the French social commentator Jean Baudrillard (he of ‘Simulation’ fame) remarked that “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.” It was the last of three short essays published in the French newspaper Liberation and British newspaper The Guardian between January and March 1991. Baudrillard does not deny the horrors but rather views the war as a media event that went far beyond the visceral experiences of civilians and soldiers involved.

Bombs had been shown to be dropped, precision Tomahawk Cruise missiles was watched by BBC correspondents as they sniffed their intelligent ways through streets making left turns at traffic lights before hitting targets, people presumably died, corpses were lifted from wreckage, buildings were destroyed, many suffered, traumatised etc. But we have no idea of this really, its beyond our ken, even with the rabid use of media.

I was living in London in January 1991 and was relaxed, watching a late night movie when war broke out in real time. I never saw the end of that movie. It cut to footage of the attack on Baghdad broadcast live by CNN journalists stationed in Baghdad. The television showed little else for days more than that most startling and yet monotonous footage of grainy tracer bullets in the night time cityscape punctuated with building and street lights from a semi-static hotel roof tops locations. Proximity to the “events” and coalition personnel is thought to ease the passage into the real by providing a kind of contiguity, authenticity, situatedness – an experiential anchor in the very thing upon which one is reporting. These images came flanked with these retired military experts again, and a hunger for more footage better shot from better angles, more graphic and more intimate with the horror of being there and unable to protest your innocence, lack of complicity, or anti-establishment sentiments. No these families bombed out, raped and murdered in the marauding are merely depersonalized subjects which only on survival and reflection have their terrible stories told. Stories that make us never want to leave the safety of our bungalows ever again. Douglas Kellner relates the kind of tone which was adopted to from narratives and polarities deemed necessary for infotainment.

“The media framed the war as an exciting narrative, providing a nightly mini-series with a dramatic conflict, action and adventure, danger to allied troops and civilians, evil perpetuated by villainous Iraqis, and heroics performed by American military planners, technology, and troops. Both CBS and ABC used the logo “Showdown in the Gulf” during the opening hours of the war, and CBS continued to utilize the logo throughout the war, coding the event as a battle between good and evil. Indeed, the Gulf war was presented as a war movie with beginning, middle, and end… The winnability and justification for the war were stressed and the narrative was oriented toward a successful conclusion that was presented as a stunning victory.” (Kellner, 2004; pp.144-145)

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Depictions of violence that once shocked the audience of the Vietnam era is a potentially 24/7 phenomena now, distributed, melding with protest and public discontent in the U.S. and Europe, games after all are available in which you can deal drugs, kill prostitutes and nuclear third world populations and engage in geopolitics. We can sign up for breaking news updates on our mobile phones, so we never miss a live car chase or a police standoff with Occupy, a Spanish or Greek protest against austerity measures, or the Chinese protesting Japan over a set of islands.

Take your very own pic[k]

The point of the matter is, I do not know what I am seeing in that grainy picture allegedly from Syria. It is a Rorschach inkblot – little more. I do not have a view, and even if I did, does it matter? Am I going to go out on the streets with others to protest in the rain, and fight with police if necessary with consequences of losing my job, family and home? The question ultimately arises regarding conformation. Are we with ubiquitous media living in a world sliding into opinion, maybe even weakly held opinion, and even if it is held at all, opinion based upon which grounds?

“In the 21st century, that news is transmitted in more ways than ever before – in print, on the air and on the Web, with words, images, graphics, sounds and video. But always and in all media, we insist on the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior when we gather and deliver the news.

That means we abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions.

It means we will not knowingly introduce false information into material intended for publication or broadcast; nor will we alter photo or image content. Quotations must be accurate, and precise.

It means we always strive to identify all the sources of our information, shielding them with anonymity only when they insist upon it and when they provide vital information – not opinion or speculation; when there is no other way to obtain that information; and when we know the source is knowledgeable and reliable.

It means we don’t plagiarize.

It means we avoid behavior or activities that create a conflict of interest and compromise our ability to report the news fairly and accurately, uninfluenced by any person or action.”

While it may be that AP is rigorous and thorough in its claims and efforts to produce information and to adhere to its news values [worth reading through and thorough], other previously respected and well-thought of institutions such as the BBC have made ‘mistakes’. In a case where they did not “check the sources” It appears as “willing to publish any picture sent it by anyone: activist, citizen journalist or whatever.” It published a picture “proving a massacre that happened yesterday in Syria and instead it’s a picture that was taken in 2003 of a totally different massacre.” It showed a mass of body bags which they claimed showed ”the bodies of children in Houla awaiting burial”. It was in fact, a 2003 picture of skeletons found in a desert south of Baghdad. Is there a difference? The defense for the BBC was: “We were aware of this image being widely circulated on the internet in the early hours of this morning following the most recent atrocities in Syria. We used it with a clear disclaimer saying it could not be independently verified… “Efforts were made overnight to track down the original source of the image and when it was established the picture was inaccurate we removed it immediately.” Could it be that That Putting Social Media At The Heart of The Newsroom is not as Nadja Hahn of the LSE has it, necessarily a good thing?

As I turn my channel from a shot of Moammar Gadhafi, shamed, beaten, supposedly reamed with a stick or bayonet and desperately pleading for his life, I am transported to a global Hollywood movie channel censored according to Thai broadcasting regulations. They are blocking out, with dynamically placed smudges, obscuring from sight, a woman’s cleavage, a man’s cigarette, his gun, and a bottle of booze sitting on the table lest it inflame or incite me. As he raises the cigarette to draw upon it so the smudge follows his hand.

I have not chosen this ludicrous censorship, I was given no choice, I am subject to it merely because I reside in a country that shares satellite media resources with its neighbors. It is not even the regulations of this country. And for the life of me I cannot understand why I see atrocity upon atrocity piled upon each other in the daily global news, but not only sex and nudity is banned on movies, but objects and actions which one can see in everyday life. What happens when you go into a Thai supermarket nowadays, is the alcohol locked away out of sight of the public and you are given a catalog of different smudges? Thailand is A Buddhist country and so that social-culturally does not have the kinds of tradition of banning alcohol that Muslim countries are renown for. In the next scene, a bar full of gangsters, smoking and drinking with their molls, would culminates in an almost entire mosaic of smudges on a screen. As this is in place in every single broadcast movie 24/7 it must surely be done by automated image processing software… In hindsight the last minutes and shaky images and glimpses of Gaddafi somehow very different to these grainy pictures of tracer bullets. It speaks of the ‘god’s eye view’ that air-force pilots or global media journalists have of battle zones, compared with the ground troops and hand-to-hand combat, locked in the irrationality of sights, smells, sounds and chaos of brutality. It is somewhat fitting and jarring against the Hollywood production embellished with additional glosses of censorship protecting moral values..

The assumption that televised accounts turned public support and opinions against the war in Vietnam motivated the British to place heavy restrictions on television during the Falklands war, and is one of the major reasons the American media in the Gulf faced military censorship for the first time since Korea. The news teams, on the other hand, try to ‘fill in the gaps’ and make a story that they believe will entertain and inform, be compelling to their publics. This potent mix leaving people living within, and without, conflict none the wiser to what is actually happening, what they should do or what they should think.

Under the orders of the European Union 19 Iranian satellite channels have been blocked, coinciding with the latest and the toughest round of sanctions yet. This melds with other ongoing debates whether Wikileaks are ‘traitors’ or acting in the global public’s interest by whistle blowing just what is going on out of view, in the name of maintaining stability, of something somewhere.

Even in interpersonal communication we are, in a sense both government and news channel in our conversations. We edit what we say, we present or produce in a certain style and, probably because of this, and we think it natural and expect the same behaviour from those we communicate and interact. Eye contact is everything, in making people feel confident and comfortable, it can show you have no overriding internal agenda like telling fibs, and it can show conviction and strength of belief, clarity of vision and certitude. Consider the efforts in grooming the presidential candidates. One word, one serious self-conscious stumble, one welling doubt shown, one blunder with the facts and stats, one single breakdown in performance could cost the presidency.

Battle for eye-contact getting that connection

Moreover, having never been presented with all the facts, all the information regarding what exists, or what happened and why, we have very delimited ranges of choice upon which to base our opinions and reports, over and above, the gloss lent to them by expert analysts and those who opportunistically or strategically take videos with their iPhones. We can, as usual, only agree or acquiesce in the face of available choices. This does not indicate approval. As Daniel Kahenman indicated in a TED talk:

“Our experiencing self and our remembering self. These two selves are very, very different, acting almost as opposites which are “made happy by different things.” The core difference is that all decisions are made by our remembering self. Our experiencing self “has no vote whatsoever….”

No eye contact

There is much more graphic, factual, explicit content here.

To be continued…

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