Archive for May, 2012

The silence of others

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

A review in The Economist touches on one role of silence in government:

“In 1988 General Augusto Pinochet organised a plebiscite that he was confident would grant him another eight years of absolute power. Ricardo Lagos, a hitherto little-known Socialist leader, used a live television programme—the first to feature opposition politicians since Pinochet’s military coup of 1973—to defy the climate of fear that was the dictator’s most powerful political weapon. Pointing his finger at the camera, he addressed [Pinochet] directly, saying that it was inadmissible that he sought to remain in power. Ignoring the presenter’s attempt to cut him off, Mr Lagos said ‘I am speaking for 15 years of silence.'”

Dictatorship is the pure case, when it comes to silence, but the powerful usually love, or at least are happy to enjoy, the silence of others.

PS. AL notes, however, their similar love of surveillance.

Literacy and citizenship

May 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I thought I might share here the chalkboard notes from the first day of a new class on Literacy, Social Media, and Active Citizenship. here goes:

Chalkboard Notes, Day 1

What do we know about literacy already as we start the course?

Literacy involves reading, writing, and interpretation. Visual forms may be a partner or cousin, and have many of the traits of print literacy, such as the need for interpretation.

We must learn to recognize letters and from letters, words, but this process continues beyond the mechanical recognition until it reaches understanding (ideally). Literacy is not, in that sense, particularly similar to handing a coin over to another person. Contexts are involved, interpretations are required, persuasion is necessary.

Literacy is a practical art of communication, as in a stop sign. Yet our experience with stop signs shows that even the simplest, most direct communication involves judgment, human weakness and character, possibilities for error. See the behavior of Michiana residents at four-way stops, for example.

Literacy can be found at many different levels of skill and sophistication. Different cultures and cultural groups have, to some degree, their own literacies, their own ways of interpreting, and this poses problems in communication. It may also create opportunities for stretching one’s understanding of the world.

Literacy can become a profound part of a person’s life, something loved and cherished. Or not. Literacy may be a direct clue or link to some forms of intelligence.


Discussion of the election blogger, Benjamin Franklin, and the Singlejack mission statement. What issues are raised by these three short readings? What clues do they give us about the nature of a strong public voice?

There are times when some individuals and groups feel alienated, cut off from the promises of their society, or the system may not seem to work on their behalf. They admire the spirit of hope in their society, and feel some of it themselves, but they also feel alienation. They may, in fact, feel that they are essentially silenced.

Alienation may come in part from a society that promises equality but produces a substantial amount of hierarchy—class divisions and rewards that may or may not be open to all. We recognize the role of individual responsibility—taking the “get over it” advice of Dear Abby, a person strives for individual accomplishments. But we also encounter structural divisions that seem to solidify the hierarchy.

The writers call for representation of two kinds. We want to be represented in government—we want our votes to count and our elected officials to speak on our behalf. But we also want our stories to be told in the wider society—we want our lives to be represented in journalism and the arts, to become a recognized and valued part of our culture.  In an age of multiplying media platforms, there is a difference, too, between telling one’s story and having it be heard. In an age of big-money government, the structure may be unresponsive to voters, too.

There is a “but / yet” tension in many of these ideas. We feel hope and recognize its importance but we also recognize legitimate reasons for alienation, perhaps. We recognize some openness in society yet we might not be persuaded that opportunities are equally presented to different groups of citizens. It is a mistake to insist upon one side of the paired terms when both contain some truth. The path to understanding probably requires, at times, the tension of knowing that “both x and y contain some elements of the full truth we’ll need to arrive at understanding,” even though at first glance x and y seems contradictory.

One theory about healthy democracy involves a social structure that widens the fruitful opportunities for speech and breaks down any parts of the structure that encourage or enforce the silence of different groups of citizens. What kind of speech, though? We tried out the terms “positive” and “proactive” in a brief discussion that questioned a certain passive model of citizenship based mainly on complaining rather than acting. Perhaps those two terms didn’t quite clarify the issue but we hope to keep them in mind and see if we can do so. The question lurking here is whether a good number of citizens have a pretty faulty model of citizenship, thus undermining, perhaps, both their own chances and the quality of democracy? What model of citizenship should / could replace that one? And how might that change be accomplished?

That better model of citizenship is, we imagined, a constructive one. But looking ahead to Frederick Douglass, whose account of literacy in slavery we read for next class, the question arises: what does it mean to be constructive in bad times? What kind of public writing or speech is constructive when challenging injustice? A question for next time, perhaps.

One trait of a better model of citizenship seems to be the opportunity for affiliation—for joining with others in public speech and action. A contrast was made between simply grouping together in shared interests and grouping together in ways that produces structures and groups that endure. We will see examples of lightning-fast affiliation on the Internet, which may or may not endure, but a classmate shared an example of a group that created a magazine to give continuity and focus to their efforts to follow out their values in caring for the diet of their pets. Affilation, enduring or not, virtual or worldly, seems central to a more far-reaching model of citizenship.

Many of the elements of literacy and citizenship in the discussion returned to the question of social structures that endure. The person, alone, the solo voice, the private life—conceived of in this way, the citizen does not contribute much to the quality of democratic exchange, and this might even be a sign of unhealthy democracy. That idea would need to be tested.

Structures do seem to reflect the quality of democracy. In growing up before the Internet, a person living in a big city might get news from one or two newspapers, a radio station or two, a handful of tv stations representing national networks, but these media broadcast to masses of people; they do not make much room for conversation with different groups or among different groups. In the broadcast age, people with tv stations and printing presses had strong public voices, and others had very little public voice. The citizen’s most likely way of speaking was to vote, and more people voted then.

But in the Internet era, people can affiliate and converse without relying on broadcast media. The new media are social, and this has produced a structural change that seems to be changing the quality of democracy. We will investigate these structures more closely in some of the units of the course. The new model of citizenship may take special advantage of social media, but how will that work?

Examples of the new social media will be worth our attention, such as KONY videos that have gone viral. Just the idea that someone, not a large media organization, might be able to make a video or blog post that goes viral, indicates a structural shift that we need to think more about.


What about the “Silence is the basic mode” handout?

This handout suggests that one model of citizenship undermines democracy. This model focuses on a citizen who is unable to shape a strong public voice and who therefore lapses into a focus on the private life. It was suggested that an additional reason that this might happen is fear, and that the idea of fear should be added to the model.


What about Twitter? Everyone is required to set up a Twitter account, but what is Twitter for?

Social media connect people on their own terms; social media are about affiliation, sharing information, promoting ideas and movements. We are trying out Twitter as a form of investigation of the role of social media in active citizenship—once again, literacy, evolving in new social structures, influencing citizenship, a central topic of our course.

Twitter is good for lightning-fast publicizing events, things you or your group has published on its website, and worthy articles or resources you’ve found elsewhere. These three things make your Twitter feed a useful resource for people interested in your issue, and so they “follow” you (subscribe to your Twitter account) and read your posts, and maybe they choose to join with you on your issue—they affiliate.

Twitter also supports a certain amount of fast-paced conversation and exchange between people who care about an issue.

Twitter has two forms of search function. If you enter a word in the search box, Twitter behaves more or less like Google and gives you a computer-driven set of related entries. Machine-driven search has its advantages of speed and completeness, but it can also swamp you in material.

If you use hashtags, you get involved in human-driven searching. When a Twitter post has a “#” sign in it, that means that the writer wants to participate in human-driven searching of the key term that follows the #. If you click on a #hashtag, Twitter will deliver all the recent postings that other people have marked with the same #hashtag. In this way you share in the judgments and commitments of those writers, who are telling you, via Twitter, that you share an interest in the particular term.

For example, this tweet (single Twitter message) contains one hashtag that will probably lead you to other kindred spirits writing on the same topic:

New #animalrights laws under consideration in several state legislatures. (link to article)

Please notice that the #hashtag words need to be grouped together without spaces, so #hashtags are usually short. Notice, too, that links to resources are vital on Twitter.

It is important to see what #hashtags are being used by people involved with your issue. It is possible to invent a new #hashtag and have it catch on, but if you use one that is already popular your postings will be found much more quickly by people who care about your issue.

The assignment for Day 2 calls for everyone to try some searching on an issue you care about, to see where the action is on Twitter on your topic and, importantly, to see what #hashtags are in use. What happens when you click on those #hashtags for your issue? How good are the human-driven search results?

Alienation 101

May 14, 2012 Leave a comment

I had no television in my college apartment, so I walked a couple of blocks to Iowa City’s Hilltop Tavern to watch the national election results come in. Very early in the evening one of the networks “called” the presidential race, announcing, based on voter surveys and early eastern returns, that one candidate could already be projected as the winner in enough states to guarantee victory in the electoral college. A patron seated further down the bar was also following the news, and he was outraged. “I voted less than thirty minutes ago,” he said. “Polls in Iowa aren’t even closed yet, my vote hasn’t even been counted, and they say it’s over. My vote means nothing. I will never vote again.”

It’s one example–kind of classic in its focus and clarity, really–of alienation. Rightly or wrongly, a person comes to believe that institutions do not function on his or her behalf.