Monday, December 1, 2014

Other things that are like bubbles

I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them.
Pauline Kael

It’s one of the charges brought to the left before and after the election: that too many of us live in the ‘Twitter bubble’, an echo-chamber of mutually reinforcing delusions about what most citizens think and care about. It’s an especially devastating charge to bring to the political side that claims to represent the people. It’s also, for the most part, utter nonsense.

Lots of things are like a bubble: your workplace is like a bubble; poverty is like a bubble; wealth is like a bubble. Mike Hosking lives in a bubble. Hell, Mike Hosking is a bubble. So in this respect there is nothing special about Twitter. Any social context has the potential to seal itself off from the wider polity. Conversely, Twitter and other social media can offer the means to reach outside of one’s context, and be exposed to a wider range of voices, opinions and experiences than one might otherwise encounter. It is the nature of electronic media. It is almost literally how the World Wide Web came to be.

The charge has both socio-technical and socio-political implications. As to the former, it feeds into a conservative discourse about the internet in general and social media in particular as degraded forms of being in the world. As to the latter, the totalising claim to have access to what people think across all social and political divides is most often used at the service of a fictional template – call it, in this country, Middle New Zealand or Waitakere Man – onto which to project conservative aspirations and reactionary politics.

As a matter of fact, a world without technology or with less technology is no more real than the alternative. And there is no way of being in the world that is socially neutral, free-floating, so that the experiences, opinions and sensibilities of others are all equally available.

The corollary to the ‘Twitter bubble’ argument is that social media are tools whose value depends on the use we make of them. This is certainly true but strikes me as a very uninteresting thing to say about social media. The alphabet is a tool, too. But a more important thing to say about the alphabet is that it is a technology for communicating across time and space. And communication is always a way of acting upon the world.

The mass workers' movement bubble

Italians vote often, so I grew up in what seemed like an endless, continuous series of recriminating post-mortems about the latest defeat of the left that everyone failed to predict and that we couldn’t explain, seeing as few in our social class voted for the Christian Democrats, even though many in our neighbourhood did. I felt their presence, sometimes, like Pauline Kael did those Nixon voters’ in her New York theatre: as people whom I knew existed (they had to exist) but were outside my ken.

Inside that bubble many of us lived, and inside that bubble we shared in solidarity and common purpose.

We had our meetings and our committees and our newspapers. We had our safe spaces (bubbles can protect you, too) and of course we tried to persuade others, and succeeded to a significant extent: but mass participation and a membership of nearly two million never quite translated into a majority.

It wasn’t a bad place to be. Living among our ken is what sustained our politics and our lives. We paid for it with the incredulity that followed each loss, or each time we failed to win.

Yet I cannot help but feel that our soul-searching was more honest. The ‘Twitter bubble’ argument irritates me partly because it is based on the notion that there are people who exist nowhere else but on a social network, and whose entire political output consists in drafting and repeating hollow statements of partisan kinship. If these people exist – let’s call them slacktivists, in the pejorative sense – I haven’t come across them, although I have met people who are frustrated by the lack of opportunities to be meaningfully political afforded to them, and who can do little else but wish it weren’t so. I wouldn’t hate on them or mock that feeling either.

After the election I wrote that one of the issues we are faced with is that John Key and the National Party know us better than we know ourselves, for they have the technology and the means to apply it. But I don’t want to suggest that society is unknowable except through opinion polling, nor that opinion polling is a reliable predictor of anything other than the consumer-like behaviour that voting in our limited democracy has become. In other words, we cannot reify the statistical construct produced by the pollster and allow it to become a national type and the model subject of our politics. That subject doesn’t exist in a ‘more real’ space outside our imaginary bubble: it’s the product of information that is too partial, of choices that are too narrow, of questions that are too loaded. If politics is to become a form of expression, we need to radically alter the nature of that conversation.

This was developed from the notes of a short presentation I gave at the excellent Step It Up conference over the weekend. 
With thanks to Matthew Littlewood for bringing up the Kael line when we discussed this months ago.