Monday, March 4, 2013

Turn off your computers

I am not sure that this has quite sunk in yet, so I’m going to say it one more time, slowly. At the national election held in Italy last week, a party that is less than three years old gained over 8 million votes, equivalent to one quarter of all votes cast. This party didn’t pay for a single advertisement on television or in the print media. None of its members appeared on television or gave interviews to the Italian press. The party didn’t put up a single hoarding. All of the party's candidates were complete unknowns, whilst leader Beppe Grillo – who didn’t run for office – hasn’t appeared on national television since 1994.

This is not just new. This is something that wasn’t supposed to happen. Not in Italy, where the Left has spent the last twenty years blaming its inability to defeat Berlusconi on his at times near-total control of television and the press. Not in the United States, where the two presidential candidates last year spent USD1billion on television ads alone. Not in New Zealand, where political leaders are chosen on the basis of the media narrative that can be constructed around them, and must undergo extensive and seemingly unending media training as soon as they assume said leadership. Not in Australia, where the former leader of the Labor party defined viable policy as policy that could be explained on the current affairs show Today Tonight, and the supporters of the current leader make a virtue – and a shield – of the attacks she is subjected to from the conservative media. Not, I suspect, in any other country you might care to mention.

We have been taught for decades that political reality is framed through the mainstream media and by the mainstream media, a lesson often delivered in hectoring terms to the naïve idealist. Now, this. Not just the unlikely but the impossible has happened. The eight and a half million people who voted for the Five Star Movement belong to a country that nobody thought existed. A country whose reality is not defined by the press nor, more importantly, by television.

Even as I write this I realise I’m making it sound like a good thing, which perhaps it is. I happen to think the Five Star Movement is an anti-democratic and anti-progressive force, and have said so in my post-election analysis for Overland, but there are greater odds than usual that I might be wrong: we’re all scrambling to make sense of something that is quite explosive and new. However today I just want to talk about the existence of this other country: a country of over eight million people that has stopped believing in television.

When Beppe Grillo last appeared on television, in 1994, he made a joke about sounding like Howard Beale, the character played by Peter Finch and scripted by Paddy Chayefsky in the film Network. He asked his audience to warn him in case he lost control and crossed the line into mad prophet. He would then put on a clown’s red nose, to remind himself as much as the audience of who he really was. This was long before Grillo discovered blogging and the internet, a medium on which he could play Finch’s character without living a contradiction. Say ‘I’m mad as hell’ and mean it. Say ‘Turn off your television sets’ and mean it. There is in fact one little contradiction, if you look closely: that Grillo first became famous as a television comedian, in the early 80s. But at that time television reigned supreme and there really was no alternative to its hegemony. Now however you could imagine somebody like him becoming a famous entertainer without ever needing to court television. With a little more effort you could even imagine a movement similar to Five Stars growing without its charismatic (and despotic) leader.

We may be at the threshold of a new age, many times announced and yet only now finally materialising. An age in which the internet has surpassed television and print media as the primary means of framing the social and the political.

And still I realise I make it sound like a good thing, which perhaps it is. But we are not lacking for clues that it could go either way. The internet, even more than television or print, invites its users to think that it is all there is. And if the internet is all there is, then we should expect it to redefine what it means to be a person and to have a personal history; to erase class and race, purport to remove all social barriers; to define progress and equality in its own terms. (Hence the talk of digital citizenship, whereas nobody ever talked of television citizenship.) In its apotheosis, this line of thinking leads – as it has – to people planning not just to spend their life on the internet, but their afterlife as well. In the beginning was the medium, which was the message, which was the word. And that word was God, or the internet.

This particular brand of posthumanism has been foreshadowed and theorised for some time, both as the existential concern of individuals and in its social extension. Donna Haraway taught us to think of it creatively as a tool for progressive gender politics, while Katherine Hayles described in more sombre tones how information lost its body. But this is a new phase, and a giant leap from theory. This last election in Italy has given us a concrete glimpse of the potential of the internet to organise and mobilise consensus, no longer as an adjunct obeying the logic of older but still more powerful media, but rather as the single source of all discourse.

For elected members of the Five Star Movement, to appear on television is a crime punishable with expulsion from the organization. This is not a merely strategic stance; it is a quasi-religious one. One medium leads to the truth. Another leads to untruth. Thus the internet becomes its own grand narrative, one capable of reassembling and restructuring the social. Its politics is one of necessity: to do the things that make the internet less constrained, more pervasive. Progress and equality will follow, filling in the grooves traced by the social networks.

Then if one day in this country a new Howard Beale should come, there may no longer be literal windows out of which to shout: ‘I’m mad as hell.’ Or: ‘Turn off your computers.’