In 1937, Mayor La Guardia’s Committee on City Planning produced a small book for children, titled The ABC of City Planning, intended to instill understanding and enthusiasm in children for the city’s built environment. CHPC has preserved a copy of this adorable text, which for modern audiences is more than just an amusing diversion: it offers a unique insight into a New York City of a different era.
How a propaganda war by the private sector led to a decline of trust in government.
As part of a month-long campaign called the Purple Project for Democracy, OTM is using its podcast feed for a series of conversations about an alarming loss of trust, faith and devotion by Americans for American democracy — and what to do about it. Bob himself is one of the Purple Project organizers. We recommend that you listen to this four-part mini-series in order. In this third episode he explores some of the causes for disaffection.
One of the reasons so many Americans have lost trust and faith is democratic institutions is simple misunderstanding about how the system is designed to work. Another, however, is familiarity with how the system does work— which isn’t exactly of, by and for the People. Anand Giridharadas is author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. He says the founders also didn’t plan on politicians constantly trash-talking government itself and that a decline in trust in government is the result of a concerted, private sector propaganda war waged over the last four decades.
This talk was delivered at OEB 2019 in Berlin. Or part of it was. I only had 20 minutes to speak, and what I wrote here is a bit more than what I could fit in that time-slot.
I've been thinking a lot lately about this storytelling that we speakers do -- it's part of what I call the "ed-tech imaginary." This includes the stories we invent to explain the necessity of technology, the promises of technology; the stories we use to describe how we got here and where we are headed. And despite all the talk about our being "data-driven," about the rigors of "learning sciences" and the like, much of the ed-tech imaginary is quite fanciful. Wizard of Oz pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain kinds of stuff.
An important message pointing out that many (particularly corporations) are operating on fear and not facts within the EdTech spaces. Some simple fact-checking will verify that vos veritas liberabit.
I’ve been working on a thesis lately relating to some simple ideas with relation to memory that make me think we should be looking backwards instead of forward. Part of the trouble is that as a society we’ve long forgotten some of the basic knowledge even indigenous peoples had/have, but somehow there’s more benefit and value in the information imbalance to some that we no longer have or use some of these teaching and knowledge techniques. We definitely need to bring them back.
Agitprop is a portmanteau — a combination of “agitation” and “propaganda,” the shortened name of the Soviet Department for Agitation and Propaganda which was responsible for explaining communist ideology and convincing the people to support the party. This agitprop took a number of forms — posters, press, radio, film, social networks — all in the service of spreading the message of the revolution, in the service of shaping public beliefs, in the service of directing the country towards a particular future.
Might be fun to mix up some agitprop art for various modern things. Perhaps for social media so as to frame IndieWeb as the good?
Although agitprop is often associated with the Soviet control and dissemination of information, there emerged in the 1920s a strong tradition of agitprop art and theatre — not just in the USSR. One of its best known proponents was my favorite playwright, Bertolt Brecht. Once upon a time, before I turned my attention to education technology, I was working on a PhD in Comparative Literature that drew on Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, on the Russian Formalists’ concept of ostranenie — “defamiliarization.” Take the familiar and make it unfamiliar. A radical act or so these artists and activists believed that would destabilize what has become naturalized, normalized, taken for some deep “truth.” Something to shake us out of our complacency.
Now, none of these stories is indisputably true. At best — at best — they are unverifiable. We do not know what the future holds; we can build predictive models, sure, but that’s not what these are. Rather, these stories get told to steer the future in a certain direction, to steer dollars in a certain direction. (Alan Kay once said “the best way to predict the future is to build it,” but I think, more accurately, “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release,” “the best way to predict the future is to invent statistics in your keynote.”) These stories might “work” for some people. They can be dropped into a narrative to heighten the urgency that institutions simply must adapt to a changing world — agitation propaganda.
Many of these stories contain numbers, and that makes them appear as though they’re based on research, on data. But these numbers are often cited without any sources. There’s often no indication of where the data might have come from. These are numerical fantasies about the future.
Another word: “robots are coming for your jobs” is one side of the coin; “immigrants are coming for your jobs” is the other. That is, it is the same coin. It’s a coin often used to marshall fear and hatred, to make us feel insecure and threatened. It’s the coin used in a sleight of hand to distract us from the profit-driven practices of capitalism. It’s a coin used to divide us so we cannot solve our pressing global problems for all of us, together.
In the aftermath of white supremacist attacks in New Zealand, there's a tension between reporting on the shooter's motivations and not amplifying his message. This week, On the Media examines how the press can navigate that persistent dilemma. Plus, the debate over whether online archives of jihadi terrorist propaganda should be open to the public.
1. Joan Donovan [@BostonJoan] describes the way the press has evolved in its responses to far-right terrorism, and argues for continued caution in coverage of white supremacists. Listen.
2. Kathleen Belew [@kathleen_belew] describes the White Power roots of the Christchurch attack, and argues that to effectively fight this hate, we must understand the movement in which it grows. Listen.
3. Dan Feidt [@HongPong] of Unicorn Riot [@UR_Ninja] on what alt-right groups are discussing in their secret online chatrooms, and what we learn by reading them. Listen.
As I was listening to the last two segments I was thinking that there are some interesting bits of user interface and ethics hiding in here for the IndieWeb community to examine. They’re definitely worth a listen and some thought for how we design public versus private and what we archive or don’t. Some in the academic arena may want to consider how we make research facing sites that don’t create more harm than good.
There was a spark of recognition on my part as I was listening to the Unicorn Riot segment, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I looked at the episode notes just after. The interviewee is Dan Feidt (aka HongPong) a member of the IndieWeb community whose Drupal work relating to webmention I’ve always been a big fan of. His work here is far more interesting and valuable however (and that’s really saying something because I LOVE webmention).