Sunday, 11 October 2009

Plot replies... A not so pessimistic view of "the Geek!"

Although agreeing with Jack Ferguson on quite a number of points in his review of “Surrogates” (SSV; Friday 2nd October), I have a number of points I would like to add to with a lesser pessimistic view of new technology and the internet.

I agree that there are some people who are obsessive computer users - perhaps with bad skin and damaged eyes – but I cannot agree that this is the norm. An image of the “typical” Facebook user, or Second Life User has been adopted by lots of commentators on these phenomena – and I would argue that the media put across a negative view of these alternative media and the user because they threaten their income and they also threaten the “clearing house” represented by our twentieth century media houses. I agree that there are those who have placed their first life on hold and live their lives through these new media – but the reasons are much more complex than “obsession” or “geekiness” (perhaps one I will go into in depth in another article). Those who have placed their real lives on hold are, in my opinion, far outnumbered by those who use these tools to educationally enhance their lives/ activism etc.
As someone who was a regular user of Second Life (I have not been involved so much in the interface for most of this year, but still stay in touch with a lot of the people I befriended there through twitter, email or Facebook- all of which I can access on my computer and phone), I came to see the positive aspects of this “world”. Yes, it did have the porn aspects and the “flames” etc – people were able to say, “do” and act out fantasies – and still do, though porn has now been relegated to a parallel “Second Life” in which you must sign up with a credit/debit card in order to access – but there were other aspects of this media that were being used by friends, activists and business that were – and are less than “geeky” or sinister.

I won’t go onto ground I have already covered in The Scottish Socialist Voice, Red Pepper ( or Frontline ( ) about the Second Life group a number of us set up nearly three years ago – Second Life Left Unity – which is still going strong, with a women’s network that spreads across the real world and an activist base who meet up periodically to share ideas, links and articles from across the left spectrum. Although these groups – and the individuals involved, operate within this digital “world” – they are using this medium as an aid to their very real life – it is a tool that allows them to talk (Second Life can be used with microphones as well as type) to people involved in real life actions ranging from Palestine, through to indigenous peoples rights activists in North America, New Zealand and Australia and people involved in the recent Greek uprising and also the recent left victories in Portugal and Germany. The first hand knowledge these people can pass on to activists across the real world is invaluable – name a cheaper way for real life activists to meet and question each other on what is going on in Uruguay, Paris, the outback or Glasgow? I would say the only barrier to this medium to being much more popular and useful to activists is the length of time you need to take to set up and learn how to use it, though as time goes on and the technology is opened up to more developers etc, this set up time is reducing – and after a few hours of practise, it is an easy interface to use.

Facebook and other social networking sites can also be frivolous and entertaining etc; but I - and many others - also see them as ways to link up across the world with people of the left and share information about local/national/international campaigns. Through Facebook, I have spoken to people in Scotland I have never met in “real life” and they have, through reading my posts, become supporters of the Scottish Socialist Party, or have educated themselves on various issues. This is, of course, reciprocal, an almost Freirien educational experience, were everyone becomes teachers and learners.

I don’t disagree with Jack that there are people who “fetishise” phones/computers or the like, but I think there are as many people who buy these applications for something beyond the need to have the latest gizmo to impress their friends. New technology has made it cheap and easy to send messages to many people at one time – and this technology has meant that news of events happening in the now can be instantly transmitted across the world without the intervention of “Fox News” or the BBC. During the G8 Auchterarder demonstrations, I was able to pass on information from the news/ the web about why buses were being stopped etc to people on the buses who were not being told any information by the police manning the cordons around the village. Text, and now Twitter and internet phones have made this kind of passing on information easier and quicker. The authorities are panicking about this -this was recently, very graphically shown with the arrest of an activist involved in the protests at the G20 meetings in the US as he was “Twittering” on the spot reports of the demonstrations. Elliot Madison was arrested, along with a friend, in a hotel room in Pittsburgh for using computers and a radio scanner for tracking police movements and then passing this on via Twitter to activists on the ground with internet access on their phones. He is charged with “hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime” (computers and a radio).

The use of Twitter, blogs and Facebook, etc was also very graphically illustrated when on 13th October 2009, the waste corporation, Trafigura was forced to withdraw a gagging order it had slapped on journalists from reporting a routine Parliamentary question. Reporters were able to say in the Guardian, that they “were prevented from identifying the MP who asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found” – and that was basically all. Tweeters and bloggers then quickly tore apart the mystery and began reporting that it was a question tabled by MP Paul Farrelly on the dumping of chemical waste in the Ivory Coast. The activist who blew the whistle had published all the details of the gagging order, within 42 minutes of the original Guardian statement going up. Just over two hours after the Guardian statement was published, Carter-Ruck, Trafigura’s lawyers, contacted the Guardian to alter the gagging order and ensure the Parliamentary questions could be reported. It was a victory for new technology. The actor, Stephen Fry, who is a Twitter user – and who also became part of the “Twitteratti” who made sure the story of Trafigura became the biggest internet expose and “high trending” topic on the internet that morning, said, “Carter-ruck caves in! hurrah! Trafigura will deny it had anything to do with Twitter, but we know don’t we?”

Recently, a billboard advert had to be withdrawn from the streets of Northern Ireland after a group of Facebook feminists organised an online campaign. The advertising Standards Authority said it received a number of complaints about the advert, which featured the image of the cleavage of a woman wearing a white bra with the strapline: “Nice headlamps. What do you look for in a car?” The ASA said the poster “caused serious offence… and was likely to be seen to objectify and degrade women by linking attributes of a woman, her cleavage, to attributes of a car, the headlamps, in a way that would be seen to imply a woman, like a car, was to be selected for those attributes.” Glasgow online activist, “Ledoof Constantineau”, said of this victory that it was “totally magic!” She is a user of social networks and Second Life as an aid to her activism. She said, “Social networks afford a range of opportunities for activism for women. We can connect, engage and share information/ideas/strategies for action now on an international level, without borders.

Feminists in Second Life, for example, have worked to raise awareness of the situation for women in Iran during and after the recent uprising. Sharing information across networks such as Twitter, facebook, and blogs has also been crucial in letting the world know exactly what has been happening there. A coalition of feminists, activists and organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland are currently working together to organise an event for the 16 days of activism against violence against women. Using SL we break down the barrier of being on other sides of the world (The group comprises activists from Brazil, Mexico, UK, USA, Canada, Holland to name a few). We can collaborate synchronously, sharing ideas and common ground. Social media provides fertile ground for education and awareness raising on a scale previously impossible. As women, it is particularly important that we ‘take back the tech’; tech that often mirrors real world sexism (pornography, stalking, misogyny), and makes us reluctant sometimes to fully embrace what’s available and use it to our advantage.”

With access to the internet and in turn, social networking now possible through phones, how we communicate or self educate – or pass on information, has changed dramatically even in the last couple of years. Sitting here in a park (my son and his friend are playing) , I am able to access the internet to find information on Elliot Madison; access the news in order to see updates on the continuing MP’s expenses scandal, communicate with activists (arranging an SSP Campsie response to the Schools survey sent to all homes in East Dunbartonshire), type this article – and, oh – to arrange meeting a friend for a drink tonight. Only a few years ago, when I brought my son to this same play area, I was only able to read the paper or a book. This new technology has meant information on the go – a new world – and way - of education.

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