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Slow Startups

Remember that time is money.
Benjamin Franklin

If there are two concepts that seem exactly contrary, it’s “Slow” and “Startup”. On the one hand an emphasis on quality, good living, carefully crafted products and relaxation on the other hand a focus on growth, traction and speed. But as we will argue in this post, the two can go hand in hand. Our vision is something like a “craft startup” that can be meaningful and disruptive at the same time. But first, let’s step back into history for a while:

It was Karl Marx who unfolded Franklin’s laconic “Advice to a Young Tradesman” into a theory of money, “Das Kapital”. And not even Hayek was able to argue away the disastrous idea of money being frozen time, when he advocated that economics was much more about negotiating value, instead of trading labour. Two hundred years after Marx, we still accept that taking a rush would stand for efficiency. Of course, you can’t spend a minute of your life twice. Thus, wasted time is irreplaceable, as Arnold Bennett describes in his wonderful “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day”. It is however much more than just a philosophical question, what wasted indeed means.

The startup world is full of time-saving concepts. We have incubators to grow newly founded businesses like mushrooms, accelerators, to speed up everything, from building the product to getting financed, we make our products an MVP, a minimum viable product, not really good, just good enough to see how much traction the startup idea can generate. And we’re doing all this based on the time-saving-philosophies of “Getting Things Done” in a “Four Hour Work-Week” mimicking the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. By the way, the only really successful startup-related business in Germany is named Rocket, and true to their brand name, Rocket is proud to get a business up and running in less than 100 days.

On the other hand, the typical pitch decks presented by startups to potential investors tell a story of world domination by efficiency. Industries have to be disrupted. Nothing less than a revolution has to be delivered by your MVP; a revolution of just-good-enoughness. And one of the best points for convincing investors is that your startup enabling people to perform more tasks in less time or to not even need humans anymore.

”I think people in Europe are generally pessimistic about the future. They have low expectations, they’re not working hard to change things. When you’re a slacker with a pessimistic view of the future, you’re likely to meet those expectations.”

Peter Thiel is right. In Europe, we give our workers more than 25 days of paid vacations. All countries have paid maternity leaves, mandatory employer-funded health care, strict cancellation ruled for employment contracts, and reasonably powerful unions. This is hardly compatible with the glorious frontier, as which Silicon Valley celebrates itself.

But can we think of a startup culture reflecting our values of quality, social responsibility, and lifestyle? How could we slackerish Continentals sustain our businesses against the presumably overwhelming industriousness of founders, who are willing to totally exploit themselves and work 24/7?

“Work hard, play hard” is usually said about people who use drinking to attenuate the unbearable requirements of their work. If you found you own business, this is regarded as tough. The logic why it has to be seems to go like this: If it wouldn’t be incredibly hard, why would anybody still accept the boredom and humiliations of being an employee?

The idea of having to earn something instead of just being given it as a present is the core of the protestant religion. It is an ideology, a dogma, rather than a theory supported by empirical evidence. So maybe it is sufficient to just overcome this notion? Maybe we can just start to work self-determined, at our own speed, according to our own values instead?

This is where our Slow Media concept can translate into the idea of a Slow Startup:

1) Attachment instead of obsolescence

‘Getting things done’ is just the opposite of doing things. This is not just some shallow Zen truth. ‘Getting things done’ expresses explicit contempt for the process of making that leads to planned obsolescence. “If it works, it’s obsolete”, as McLuhan put it. Attachment is a feeling that is formed over time. To feel attached to your work and the products you make is in itself gratifying. Industrialization severed the workers from their product, disenfranchised them; Entfremdung, alienation, is Marx’ term for this. Maybe attachment is the first step to making your startup slower.

2) Craft instead of intellectual property

The value of a Prada bag does not originate in the fact that it is protected intellectual property. In fact, it is easier to buy a pirated copy of most luxury goods than the incommensurably more expensive originals, which are often only available in very few stores in the world. Of course it is necessary to defend your work against fraud and denigration, but this is certainly beyond the idea of guarding some obscure legal titles that draw their value rather from the ability of your lawyers (and the size of your legal’ budget), than from what you really created. Let’s sell our craft, let’s create goods, not commodities. Let’s create things that people would by because they are genuine, not because they fear prosecution.

3) Don’t lock-in your customers

The so called network effect is perhaps the most important reason for startups to do their business in such a rush. The network effect occurs when a company can set their solution as a standard, and then secure exclusive economic utilization. The curse of digital media is that they tend to support winner-takes-it-all games. When one service manages to gain enough advantage to its competition, the market tends to concentrate on this service. When everybody is on Facebook, costs of abstention are unbearably high, and spending your attention to a smaller competitor feels increasingly like a waste of time. If you choose Apple to run your things, there is hardly room for variety anymore. We don’t want to lock our customers in our products. We don’t want to force people to use a product we offer, just because they once decided to buy another product from us without realizing the consequences. We want to collaborate, to be part of an environment, not to pretend to be able to create the whole ecosystem on our own.

4) Be democratic, avoid brand fascism

We want to provide versatile tools, not totalitarian take-overs. We want to respect people’s privacy. We need to process data. We don’t want to take ownership of people’s lives by doing that. Our brand gives you trust that what you bought is worth its price.

5) Algorithm ethics

Be aware of value judgements. Just because you decide that a feature of your product seams logic they way you do it, doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way it could work. Everything that is designed contains value judgments, arbitrary decisions made by the designer. Let’s make our decisions visible, let’s make our motives transparent. Let’s show the levers and set screws that govern the behavior of our product. Let’s invite people to hack our tools. Only what gets hacked eventually gets secure.

6) Accept no slavery

It is hard to imagine that any citizen of the 21st century would willingly accept others to be enslaved. Apparently, however, most gadgets are manufactured by sweatshops under unacceptable conditions. And lots of startups deeply depend on these global “bads”. Whole industries have offshored their manufacturing. Instead of valuing the production, the product itself gets commoditized. The manufacturer is just a random fab that was able to get the tender because it would undercut the competition. Let’s keep our product clean and bright, let’s not contaminate our work with the exhaust of those black satanic mills.

7) Be slow

“Those who live by disruption will die by disruption.” Our answer will be: “Go, disrupt yourself, while we are building something valuable.”

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Slow – the open alternative to platform capitalism

Uber is the new Google (which was already the new Microsoft, that was maybe the new United Fruits, or the new Standard Oil). And while we hear that “Software eats the world”, we learn with how little control we are left with. Like shopping malls, the walled gardens of the Facebook’s and Google’s Internet exclude the public, and the political. 

With the Internet of Things, the business model of forcing use and services into silos and protected property starts to contaminate the very physical parts of our reality: smart cities, connected cars and homes. Uber’s aggressive omittance of social rules has become synonymous for what is called platform capitalism.

Dystopia of corporate oligarchy

Contemporary science fiction often tells about this world of winner-takes-it-all markets. From the DEAMON, placed in the now, to Windup Girl, in a more distant future, where every plant life is extinct except for patented grains from American crop conglomerates. What most of these writers get wrong is how contingent the conditions are, that lead to such oligarchies. Just like the trusts before World War 1, Google, Uber, or Monsanto nourish from inefficiencies of the slowly changing legal system. Nothing that couldn’t be changed by the voters. The ongoing protests against the US-European free trade treaty TTIP show, that there indeed is an alternative to just give in to the status quo.

Slow

José Bové, the French agro-revolutionary, became famous for “deconstructing” a McDonald’s branch, going to jail for that, but not without being decorated with high honors by the French president for his epic fight against the malbouffe, the bad-eating. “Le monde n’est pas une marchandise.” And as much as I love this quote, it is aiming way too short. It is the same argument by which Naomi Klein at the same time fiercely ranted against the marketing driven corporate culture of Nike, Apple, and their like – “No Logo”.

Slow Food, the Italian answer to malbouffe, came finally to resolve this dialectic of economy versus culture, that made the ecological movement so repelling for the bourgeois mainstream.
Slow Food is a brand. The products under its label are distinctly branded as well. Certified regional origin and testified raw products are the legal backbone of Slow Food. The process of production however is totally transparent. No trade secrets – everybody can learn to do Slow Food by just reading the cookbooks.

Net culture?

I have seen the rise and fall of the Pirate Party. I had put great hope and personal effort in reinventing politics with internet wit. It failed. We failed. In other parts of the world this failure was more dramatic. The Arab Spring that had the power to overthrow authoritarian regimes without a chance to replace them. M5S in Italy, who not even bothered to hide their right-wing libertarianism. The German Piratenpartei is on the best way to follow this path (however without much hope for success in the elections). What was missing was rooting the system into culture.

Make in Italy

Five years ago, we wrote the Slow Media Manifesto. We were convinced that there would be an alternative to malbouffe also for our industry. How would slow but still internet-driven culture look like?

Open source is usually criticized by advocates of the culture industry like Jaron Lanier as to be the lever to fully disenfranchise the creative class. José Bové saw it right in the opposite way. He blamed patents and intellectual property to be the main cause of trouble for the peasants in Europe, together with state subsidiaries which (like patents) tend to only support big business without helping small producers. Everyone can try to grow wine or try to make cheese. Good wine and good cheese are not sold with a price premium because they are patented. We pay to get something that would cost effort not to invent, but to produce.

Kano is a computer for kids based on Raspberry Pi. Kano was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Although it has a full scale Debian Linux system running on it, the Kano’s user interface is designed for young children who can learn to code on the Kano as easily as they build things with Lego.

Raspberry Pi is an open source computer that comes from England and Wales (depending whom you ask you’d get the one or the other response …). The Pi is the most versatile tool for any kind of computational task, be it streaming media, be it kid’s computers. More than 2 million Pis have been shipped. Arduino is an open source circuit board from Piedmont. If you want to see what the Internet of Things will look like, just check Arduino based projects.

Pi and Arduino are laying the groundwork for a new kind of design and manufacturing: The Maker movement. The Maker movement fits nicely into the small-scale cultures of Italy, which has for centuries been artisan rather then industrial.

Open source luxury

My Prada satchel. Of course every maker of leather goods could make a satchel like that. It is not the copyright-protected design that makes the genuine product valuable.

Bruce Sterling sketches “Make in Italy” as the natural extension of “Made in Italy”. He argues that people will always pay for the value of artisan manufacturing. What Slow Food did for agriculture and cuisine, Maker Movement could do for design and luxury goods, which are the primary assets of the Italian economy. ‘Open source luxury’ is not a contradiction. Italian food is not precious because it cannot be legally copied. Fashion is not special because it is protected intellectual property; in fact you can buy all sorts of counterfeited Italian fashion brands, but this does in no way diminish the value of the genuine thing. Bruce Sterling’s possible future economy of open source artisan household goods and accessories is truly beautiful. I strongly encourage watching his plea in this video on the ‘Casa Jasmina’.

Bruce Sterling’s version of a benign open source economy would also perfectly fit the German manufacturing culture. I am sure, my friend Ibo Evsan is right with his plan to leverage maker spaces into the heart of German manufacturing which is mid-sized, family-owned factories.

We started Slow Media because we already saw that there were things happening to change the game – Slow Fashion, Slow Furniture, and a whole Slow Industry we hoped we would see evolving. Five years later, I am sure that we were right to join the idea of Slowness.


Links:

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Remembering Ulrich Beck

[German version]

beck_70_lmu

Somehow, we had lost sight of each other.

For 12 years, the theories and ideas of Ulrich Beck had become a kind of significant other for me. Ulrich had even been the reason, I abandoned my chemistry studies in 1997 and changed to sociology (oddly enough, from one Professor Beck to the other). His lecture on “Social Structure of the Federal Republic of Germany” in the Great Hall of the University of Munich was my first encounter with sociology. And what a furious encounter it had been!

While other professors opened their lectures with explaining the simplest basic concepts and statistics that you could also learn from reading a newspaper, Ulrich’s lecture started with an elaborate argument on why the basic concepts of “first modernity” – nation-state, social structure, social change – were already obsolete and able to survive only as a kind of “zombie concepts”. Many freshmen left the lecture with their heads spinning, but for me this was exactly what I needed. And a maximum contrast to chemistry.

My diploma thesis then focused on his concept of “internal globalization”. At the core was the idea that our world was much more globalized and hybrid on the inside as it appeared at first glance. To prove Ulrich Beck’s hypothesis that corporations had undergone an intensive process of inner globalization, I typed line by line from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development statistical yearbooks and statistically analyzed the resulting dataset. The result then even became a nearly full-page footnote citation in his book “Macht und Gegenmacht im Globalen Zeitalter”.

The theory of “inner globalization” then slowly metamorphosed into a theory of Cosmopolitanism during the DFG Research Centre 536 on “Reflexive Modernization”. Once again, Ulrich demonstrated how quickly he and his ideas could evolve – while many of his peers only gradually understood and accepted globalization theory and Reflexive Modernization, he was already one step ahead and had again discovered a new dimension of social theory. Doing research together with Ulrich always meant: sociological theory in the fast lane. But when you were getting into it, it could quickly become the most exciting and rewarding experience.

After the end of the SFB in 2009, I left academia and joined a private research company. But this was never meant to be a final good-bye. Still, I was tracking the development of Munich sociology only marginally for the following five years. Until September 2014 when Ulrich Beck invited all his former assistants and staff for a reunion meeting by email.

The group met – somewhat decimated due to the German rail strike – in the Faculty Room of the University Munich. I told Ulrich that although not working in science anymore, there still were a lot of connections to his theory, in particular the theory of Cosmopolitization in my practical work. My impression was that he was quite delighted that his cosmopolitan project increasingly came to life outside the academic world. In addition, we discovered that we had a common theme again: the question of the immense contribution of the Internet and Social Media to the Cosmopolitization the world.

Suddenly, we were back again in a lively and productive exchange with many phone calls, emails and discussions about Big Data, Twitter analysis and memetic communication in his new office in the Schellingstrasse. In December we met in Paris at the workshop of his new EU research project at the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme. The participants came from Brazil, England, France, China, South Korea, Canada and Denmark. It was very inspiring to see how Ulrich’s ideas had evolved into a global research project – and he really seemed at home in the middle of this truly cosmopolitan research community.

I said goodbye to Ulrich with the good feeling that this would be the beginning of an exciting new phase of cooperation. In early January we wanted to meet again to continue working on “cosmopolitan data”. Unfortunately I was wrong. Suddenly learning that this should not be the beginning of a new phase, but just a final flare, still hurts a lot. But at the same time I’m grateful beyond words for the last two and a half months.

-.-

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Ages of Life

[Original German blog post]

Daniel 2,31-36 aus der Merian-Bibel
You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
Daniel interprets Nebukadnezar’s vision. The colossal statue symbolizes the course of history, starting with a ‘golden age’, the paradise, deteriorating epoch after epoch. Until the messianic event – the world revolution – which stands at the end of this ‘historic materialism’.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.1. Cor 13

.והיית אך שמח Devarim 16,15


Hours, days, or weeks repeating, that is a useful illusion. In reality we live through each moment of our life only once; thereafter it has passed. What we experience as relatively homogenous over certain time spans in our lives, is ourselves. We have the impression of uniformity, because we are one person, indeed more or less the same every day.

Over longer time periods, our person however changes, and in fact not continuously, but at specific points in our life very rapidly, while it appears almost constant over years or decades. It is a not completely arbitrary conclusion, to divide our life into sections: childhood, youth, adulthood, senility – or something similar.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) has written a remarkable book on the life’s ages, their ethical and pedagogical meaning, Lebensalter, Ihre ethische und pädagogische Bedeutung (as is the original German titel). On some thoughts therein I want to further dwell here.

Every section of age is based on specific needs, faculties, and motivations. The necessity to satisfy these needs, to develop the faculties according to one’s age, and to follow one’s motivations, entails the appropriate ethics -what is good and important for children, is hardly by itself the right thing for adults.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, as Qohelet says. This concept of targeted, progressing life is typical for our Judeo-Christian Weltbild; death is the point, where life is completed, and where every goal has to be reached – in opposite to cyclical systems of rebirth, our occidential life spans an arc.

A central aspect in progressing from one age to the next, are crises, even dramatic discontinuities, through which we (should) live, when we e.g. change from the age of the mature adult into senility; things that went seamlessly as an adult, we have to learn to let go, to give room for others; if we manage to get old in dignity depends not least if we are able to make that step, or if we try to perpetuate our youthfulness, long lost in reality, into eternity, as a fop like Thomas Mann’s protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice. These crises constitute how we devide our lives into ages, as mentioned above.

Each of the ages has a correspondent way to comprehend the world. This comprehension corresponds also with a certain way to express ourselves in language. Children experience the world in a sort of mystical way, all the enchanted, that for adults lies at the edge of kitsch, is experienced as real part of the personal world. For children, metaphors are not paraphrasing of reality, but reality itself.

Here we leave Guardini, who mentioned the idea of rhetorical figures just marginally in his context of ages. We move back two hundred fifty years to Naples, where Giambattista Vico had published his philosophical magnum opus Sciencia Nuova, the New Science in 1725.
Vico had been pondering on history for many years, in particular on Greek and Roman antiquity, and he had studied the literature of those times intensively. There he recognized a fact, that went totally unnoticed before: The “high cultures” he investigated, were not homogenous over time, but they appeared to him as a temporal hierarchy, a coming of ages, maturing, and decaying -Corso and Ricorso. Each of these epochs, so Vico deduced, brings specific properties of culture and society to the people living in it, that we could compare with Guardini’s ages of life.

Especially one thing came to Vico’s attention: Every epoch had specific tropes, that shaped its literature and presumably also the whole thinking of its time. From this observation he unfolded an original system. The earliest literature of some culture expresses a mystic way of comprehending the world – everything is incorporated by metaphors. In these times, people belief in gods steering fate directly, until they finally get replaced by heroes. Now it is men, that define destiny, however supernaturally advanced and legendary figures. Metonymy is the figure of speech in the age of the heroes. Finally comes the actually historic epoch, the Polis or republic, with real humans as acting subjects. Legal texts and political speeches now make the most part of literature. Metaphors or figurative meaning hardly have room here. Irony is the trope of the age of the humans. After that decline comes – empire and dictatorship, worshiping heroes again, and at last decay into the mystic epoch of the Völkerwanderung, the early medieval age.

If we compare Vico with Guardini, it is obvious to combine the ages of life with the epochs of history – and thus we get an appropriate rhetoric figure for each phase of our lives, too. Children comprehend the world in play. As in mysticism, everything can be “the normal thing”, e.g. a plank, and still something different, say a spacecraft. Children make no difference between fairytale and non-fiction. Adolescence brings hero worship, exaggeration of role models, the projection, the hyperbole. For adults, everything is achievable, scientific, regular. In their dealing with each others, irony helps adults to demonstrate distance to their own positions, “take it with a pinch of salt”. With dwindling power in older age, growing feelings of anxiety, a desire for security, fixation on solid structures, and the longing for strong leadership in a society, that is increasingly sensed as threatening, are the consequences. As a doter we end unable to differentiate reality from fantasy – senile paranoia, depression, or “mystic wisdom”.

Age of Life Epoch Trope
Childhood mysticism metaphor
Youth heros metonymy
Adulthood humans irony
Seniority Ricorso metonymy
Senility decay metaphor

As mentioned frequently before, we can describe our current history as a sequence of turning points in communication culture. First, the Linguistic Turn makes an end with the dark medieval times, with its allegoric thinking, the childhood of our culture. The Iconic Turn lifts us into the age of global mass communication, with irony, not to say cynicism as the leading figuere. and finally we are living through the next turn, the Memetic Turn, falling back into the pictorial. This history of turns I have elaborated on in its own post: Memetic Turn.

***

A world as inexorable sequence of progresses has underlying something sad. That to say, everybody always dies to early. There is probably no agreeable way to part from life. Goals unmet, things that remain unsolved at the end of life, they even appear tragic. Thus the angel of history has with wide open eyes to see “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet”; progress as sequence of tragedies. Instead however to grieve about our certain end, I recommend now, to read Nachman of Breslov, that great mystic, who taught twohundred years ago, in what today is the Ukraine, as chassidic zaddik; his morale rule: “Mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid” – It is the great commandment to always be happy..

Further readings:
Qohelet – Time and Happiness
Memetic Turn
Walter Benjamin: Über den Begriff der Geschichte IX

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Welcome

“Slow Media is a blog with a manifesto”, someone said and that is true. Here’s our english blog with the translation of our slow media manifesto which we originally wrote in german. You will find some translated (or written in english) blog posts – but not all of them. For a broader picture you are welcome to join our german blog and our slow media intitute’s site (google translate will assist if necessary).

International recensions, reactions and responses you will find on http://www.slow-media.net/resonanz

A nice illustration of our manifesto’s preamble I recently found  at The Future of Britain

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Collapsing Moments. Failure-driven Debugging of Intuition

by Regine Heidorn, Bit-Boutique®.

[Original German Post]

In our consciousness of the everyday grind we are mostly aware of thoughts, feelings and actions for a moment or a longer timespan like days or weeks. We try to do the Right Thing™ at the Right Time™ to keep us in a flow to reach our goals. Frequent self-reflection on this consciousness enables us to tell if we have managed to do right.

I am using the terms right or good though they are not easily defined without getting in a mess of philosophical ethics and morality. Since I am speaking about intuition and failure in our biographies, I prefer to stay on a more subject-related level. Feel free to fill good and right with your own content. In case you don’t believe in these categories at all or don’t value them somehow: they are not playing a really important role in this post.

read more …

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Another divide.

[Original German Blog Post]

A chasm runs through our society (if we would stay with this 19th century term anyway). The Digital Divide is usually attributed to the problems of “digital illiteracy”, the fact that a portion of the world’s population is kept outside the Internet by poverty or stubbornness.

In truth, however, and I am convinced about that, the fault of the digital divide is cutting on a much more elementary level though our so called occidental culture. And I take this reactionist term as fully adequate, as Oswald Spengler would have done, because we are talking about nothing less then the complete upheaval of the order that we took for granted at least during the last 200 years. Why would I write such lofty stuff? Because it fits!

Fifteen years ago, I had read a witty article in Wired: : Net-Heads vs. Bell-Heads. Bell-Heads is derived from the Bell Telephone Company, the world’s first telco and direct predecessor of AT&T. Over a hundred years, the Bell-Heads had been the architects of the global (tele-)communication. From the Bell Labs in New Jersey many of the most important inventions of the IT-age originated, not least the transistor. The Bell-Heads had been the heros and prophets of the connected world.

The end of the Bell-age bears legendary traits in the meantime: how John Draper in 1972, with a whistle from some cereal-promotion would have seized the whole US telephone system. When the decentralized net-logic of TCP/IP was more and more established, it became clear to the mentors of Net culture: centralized, bureaucratic systems like that of the telcos would in the long run be inferior to the distributed chaos of the Net. The Net-heads, the evangelists of an anti-hierarchic communications architecture became the apocalypticists revelating the dusk of the old telephone world.

***

The Net without fixed hierarchy, with mere local organisation is the metaphor for a new model of society. The degree of freedom from force, of freedom of speech and the sheer unlimited possibilities of personal evolvement and creativity that we could experience since the 90ies in the Internet, has shown to us, how we also could live. The communications network became an Utopia. Reality outside the Net however looked different: 9/11, “War against Terror”, banking crisis, economic slavery, refugees that our own border patrol would drown in the Mediterranean, and the fight for “intellectual property” – just to chant a short part of last decade’s litany. Thus it is no wonder, that the Net would sometimes take downright messianic shape in our view, the place where everything shall be better. Today however I do not want to dive into deconstructing these – as always – questionable promises of salvation.

Suddenly there is disturbance in the world. People stand up and go down into the streets. But it is not ideologies, neither party platforms or union speeches that set people into turmoil. The occasion for insurgency is not the same for all events. From the Maghreb to Spain and to the US, there are definitively different coercions, against which the people rise.

What unites the demonstrators from Tahrir Square to Wallstreet, is the disire for self-determination and self-organisation. And the model is the culture in the Net.

Thierry Lhote had twittered: “like in may 68 in France a whole generation is learning meme manufacturing for their next Media VP job #occupywallstreet”; and what might read cynical at first sight, turns out to a remarkable observation. In the same way as 50 years ago, a generation has grown up, for whom a consensus about the values of the “old world” can no longer be reached. Thereby the dived cuts right through the middle of the old political wings. Right, left, green – all these groups are dominated by a generation that stays foreign to the Net culture emotionally and intellectually, even, if they do not position themselves openly hostile. And when the Net-heads try to get involved with the old structures, this does only work as far as nothing gets changed and the Old is accepted unconditionally. This was demonstrated in a tragic-comically way recently, when a case of Twitter-censorship shook the German green party.

The rise of the Pirate Party is often compared to the rise of the green party in the late 70ies. And much of this comparison fits. Some enemies of then remained the same: nuclear energy or monopolistic corporations. Some parts are even strikingly parallel. What the Notstandsgesetze, the “Emergency Laws” would have meant for our parents (this role would have played the draft for the US), for us today it is Internet surveillance, three-strikes-out, bail-out, and FRONTEX. The meme #ozapftis (the uncovering of the government malware) is the Watergate of our generation.

Damals, als wg. Sachen wie #Bundestrojaner noch Bürger auf die Straßen gegangen wären.
Those were the times when citizens would have gone into the streets on occasions like that

might @videopunk lament – but I am convinced that this is exactly what happens.

Further reading:
Disrupt politics!
Memetic Turn

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Public relations after the memetic turn

I don’t like the term PR 2.0. It suggests an improved version of something that has been around a long time. Some bugs have been removed, some new features have been added. But all in all, it’s still public relations as we know it. I think this is not the case.

Why? Because we went through something that can be called the “memetic turn” or “memetic revolution”. The concept of course refers to Richard Dawkins memetic theory in his “Selfish Gene”. Basically, memes are bits of information (images, metaphors, jokes), that are spreading through a network. Originally, Dawkinsian memes are encoded in genetic material, but here I will not refer to the evolution of behavior or species, but to the evolution of media. In a nutshell: Memetic communication is destroying society – mass society to be precise. This is because the meaning of memes seldom can be decoded by everyone, but is only available to members of one distinctive community. Think of a picture of a LOLcat “I iz eating your GTD folder”) in comparison to a headline such as “USA declares war on Germany”. The first is memetic, the second isn’t.

Usually we think media evolution interdependent with social evolution. Mass society created mass media and so on. But it is exactly the other way around. When we look at the origin of the nation state, media such as national newspapers, national traditions, national novelists came first. With Benedict Anderson, we can argue that national newspapers created the first nations.

At the beginning of the 21. century, we can clearly see the demise of the national newspaper, national Television or national politics (e.g. the Volksparteien in Germany). At the same time, there is a distinctly non-national medium on the rise: the Internet. In the beginning, we framed this medium in terms of the ascent of the global age and the first iconic representations of the Web always has been the globe.

But the more we look at the Web, the more we discover that it is no global medium, but a tribal one. Ideas travel through the various social graphs not the way global mass media would do, but their path resembles the way information was distributed in the various accounts of classic ethnologists. A large part of online communication is memetic – using strong icons for communications, that can only be deciphered by relatively small tribes, and no longer considered newsworthy for the general public.

And finally, I come to the role of public relations. The bad news is that one of the first casualities of the memetic revolution has been the general public. This is a quirky situation for an industry that has been mostly about telling stories to the general public or to journalists (that in turn translated the stories for the general public).

The good news for public relations is, that after understanding the implications of the memetic turn, there are not fewer but more opportunities to tell your stories. A lot more. But the skills are changing. Public relations is no longer about writing press releases that are attractive to the general public or some vague sociodemographic audiences (e.g. “Entscheider”).

The work of a PR professional resembles more and more traveling shamans wandering from tribe to tribe and delivering their highly special and individualized services to different communities.

The skills include:

– getting to know the relevant tribal audiences and identifying the locations and communal boundaries of the tribes with the help of tools such as social media monitoring

– learning their dialects, rituals, social structure by participant observation at community gatherings online as well as offline (netnography)

– translating the story to be told for the lifeworld of the community

At the moment, the first memetic PR shamans are already mingling with their relevant communities. They are mostly self-taught practitioners, but I am very optimistic, that the skills will be sooner or later be part of the regular curriculum for public relations professionals.

As matter of fact, the memetic turn can also be understood as an appeal to practitioners to return to the forgotten task and original promise of public relations: Go and create relations! Today, one should add: And let them be sustainable relations.

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Disrupt Politics!

[Original German Blog Post]

“You will never be happy with strangers,
They would not understand you as we,
So remember the Jarama Valley
And the old men who wait patiently.”
Alex McDade

“Er sagte, es krache im Oberbau, und es krache im Unterbau. Da müsse sich sogleich alles verändern.”
(“He said, it cracked in the superstructure, and it cracked in the base. Thus everything would have to change at once.”)
(Bloch über Benjamin)

Communities persist by their members taking tasks within the community, fulfilling duties and profiting from the communally achieved successes. In the state’s society, the citizens delegate parts of their tasks and duties to the state’s administration. Over the last two hundred years, the citizens of the so called western world had handed over more and more even of some of their very intimate responsibilities to the state – care for the sick and elderly, birth and death, social security, education of children and much more.

How these delegated tasks would to be carried out, is defined by the process of representative decision-making of the parliamentary democracy. Elected representatives are mandated to take care over the span of several years. To fulfil these tasks, skilled persons have to be paid for and provided with their working means. And that those specialists would use their assigned means just about as planned in the society’s decision-making, an administration is needed on top.
***

Facebook is regularly compared to a nation that, regarding its population, would rank third in the world, after China and India. What makes Social Networks (and first of all Facebook) so nation-like?

In Social Networks, people affiliate with each other to communities, communicate and exchange. In most cases the exchange is rather personal; even when thousands of Arab women gather at the Persil Abaya Shapoo Facebook page, under the roof of their favourite detergent, it is at first sight all about the small things of every day’s business.

But not always things would stay to the small and private. Egypt, Tunisia, Libia, Spain, or the demolishing of Stuttgart’s main station – during the last months, huge groups of people came together, at first, to share their views, but then to form a common will – the common representation of no longer willing to accept the state of things, and finally to get organised and to jointly protest. And because the Networks it was always transparent, in how far others would join the movement, the protesters can be sure not suddenly be left out in the rain.

The protests’ content is always the getting back of responsibility and influence, that have – depending on the society’s shape rather or rather not be given up voluntarily. This calling “We are the people” is thus not without problems. Just because it is many that gather and articulate around some issue does not yet mean that a majority would share this opinion. Often the majority’s will is totally unclear, like with the Stuttgart main station. And even if it can be taken for granted that in deed a majority of those concerned would support the protest, important corrective features of democracy like protection of minorities and other, indisputable rules are lacking, that in our understanding of statehood should not be subject of change even by majorities of votes.
***

Politics will less and less work by delegation. The election terms appear to us completely inapropriate in length – but shorter terms would likely just lead to permanent campaigning and not to better representation of the will. Party platforms appear to us as irrelevant and inadequate, as the shallow content of mass media news. By the new communities and the preassure they can build through Social Networks, political decision-making is shaken. However it is not the case, that just a new variety would step alongside the established channels of representative democracy, just as Internet usage would not be additional or substituting to newspapers or other traditional media of the society.

Initiatives trying to somehow get “Net Politics” into parliamentary processes are necessarily longing to short to really stop the distortions. The speed, flexibility and intransigence that is demanded by the protesting people (attributed by mass media sometimes as angry citizens), are hardly to be balanced with whip, delegates’ conferences or presidential councils, without which a parliamentary-democratic system cannot be organised. As a stand-alone movement that is formed for realising a model for the entire society, like e.g. the Green Party in the eighties, the rather loose and spontaneous communities of interest are neither really suitable.
***

It will happen; for party politics, the newspaper’s fate is imminent. It will not help to tinker with politics 2.0 like with the symptoms of some illness. Openness in mind, admitting that even a system could fail that has been for centuries, should give us free sight of the alternative, that may lie before us. Only giving many options a try and allowing errors will bring us into the position to transpose what we treasure in the old world into the new. This change does not happen by itself, not due to nature’s law. Especially the technological infrastructure that enables the new, is shaped. If we care about how politics in future should look like, we have to take things into our own hands, not at last on the technological development and shaping of the new communal systems, like e.g. the culture in the Social Networks.

On Techcrunch, Semil Shah, regarding the uprising in North Africa, had reflected, to interpret the revolution as a new Social Media product. If therefore – like he says – start-ups would be needed, that would transform some political function into Social Media, I cannot really see. I think the infrastructure of existing Social Networks, Smartphones, video and photo networks would probably already be sufficient. In one thing, however, I totally agree:

Politics – there is no greater market to disrupt.

Read more:
Memetic Turn

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Memetic Turn

[Original German Blog Post]

>
“The Hanged” from the Tarot Deck of Charles VI., Paris, early 15th century.

The symbolism of Tarot – similar to that of alchemy – forms a pre-modern memetic system. Tightly knit into other more or less esoteric programs of meaning, like Qabbalah or astrology, its images are at first illustrative – they picture very well, what can be seen on it, at second they bear an arbitrarily assigned symbolic value. The particular with memes as well as with metaphors is there creating a common space of meaning between several human beings, by which these different beings identify with.

“Literacy, the visual technology, dissolved the tribal magic by means of its stress on fragmentation and specialisation and created the individual.”

“The tribalizing power of the new electronic media, the way in which the return us the the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought, is little understood. Tribalism is the sense of the deep bind of family, the closed society as the norm of community.”
Herbert Marshall McLuhan

“Everything is divisible, thus there cannot be an individual.”

“The meaning of such symbols [of letters] is largely independent from colour: a red or a black “A” mean the same sound. […] Thus the current explosion of colours points to the tending to loose importance of unidimensional codes like the Alphabet.”

“History begins with the invention of writing, not because text keeps the processes, but because it transforms scenes into processes: it creates the historic consciousness.”
Vilém Flusser

ממטית המהפך

Writing and Society are tied together in an immediate way. With text, particularly the newspaper which shall become the first real mass media in the 19th century, people are able to get informed homogeneously over large distances. However, it was of course not before the advent of the railroad and telegraph that this would have been of any importance. These are the fundamentals on which for the first time a truly supra regional economy – the national economy could develop. The local community, the village, at the same time decreases in its aspect of being the common destiny, like already been declared by Tönnies.

“Newspaper is the glue of society”, as exclaimed recently by Helmut Heinen, president of Germany’s Newspaper Publishers’ Association.

But some aspects seam to resonate no longer with this proposition, like Daniel Schulz had also replied to in Der Standard by responding to the newspaper man: “Not the paper, but the images of cats are the glue of society!”

Daniel was not correct, although – I am convinced about that – did mean the right thing. Images of cats are not the glue of society but of communities! Thus they are not only to the least extent the glue of society but even more, what I will explicate in the following, they will even corrode society.

These images of cats - in my own community’s case it is more images of fowl, especially of runner ducks – are very special signs, closely related to metaphors, allegories or emblems. Although not fully in the mind of its inventor, it is now common to call this kind of image-signs memes. The meaning of memes is often hermetic, not to be understood outside the community in which they are shared.

Within memes – which are usually hardly iconic but rarely abstract signs – is often concentrated a complete universe of meaning and relationships, by which the members of a community are connected to it. Memes are common spaces of projection of our unconsciousness: “In the darkness of an exteriority I may find, without recognising it as such, my own interiority or the mental.” (C.G. Jung on the allegories in Alchemy).

Memes thereby take the function that in the pre-modernism the metaphor and especially the allegory would have held:

With metaphors things can be made visible, that could not be told explicitly. “Metaphoric imagery broadens the horizon of the thinkable by shattering the boundaries of mental rationality and thus opens essential spaces of possible articulation for speculative thoughts.” writes Jörg Zimmer. By equalising non-identical terms, it makes manifest the connective attributes; metaphors generate identity between the otherwise differentiated. Metaphors, though, express at first those images in the mind of the speaker (“sender”); the receiver of the metaphor will initially not hold the identical image in his mind, but populate the metaphor with his own associations. In the same way, in which the meaning attributed to the metaphor by its sender becomes similar to the meaning, the receiver puts into it, the metaphor generates identity between different persons; metaphors generate communality.

Memes act contagious. You are infected, if you have once identified yourself with.
***

History of Turns

The Linguistic Turn, like described above, was the consequence of a population growing together and becoming increasingly well educated with high literacy and the technological infrastructure of mass transport and mass communication over large distances. With the Linguistic Turn of modernism the ancient communities get dissolved, societies – nations and states form and newspapers, resp. mass media are the glue of these societies. The metonymy removes the metaphor as leading trope in rhetoric: “Berlin declares war to Paris”.

With the illustrated magazine and in particular with television, the 20th century brings the Iconic Turn – images transmitted by mass media. Going with the merging of the once competing national societies to supranational blocks of NATO, Warsaw Pact or European Community, the visually powerful media deliver an internationally valid repository of images. These technologically mass distributed images are mostly non-metaphoric; they show mainly, what can be seen on it.

The News-at-Six become the nation’s camp fire and the utopia of solidarity between people far above the narrow space of a community seams to become reality.
For the coarse grid of the political and economical contexts of the second half of the 20th century, these mass media are able to supply an audience of millions daily with the little relevant intelligence, necessary for national cohabition: the wood-cut party policy in the parliaments, the interplay of ones owns nation with other states, the crude news of a constantly growing economy, always held in plain language, comprehensible also for “people with moderate education”. Irony is the figure of the Iconic Turn – often however in form of cynicism.
***

Since the 1980s there are visible signs of corruption on mass media, although at first concealed by the enormous success of private television resp. after the fall of the iron wall by the backlog demand of former Soviet sphere of influence.

At once it was no longer so important to read what would have happened on the international theatre on the previous day. The glue of society began to become brittle. And the Web just came handy for this development. No longer getting informed – but arranging yourself the things you take as necessary. Like the famous German social researcher Renate Köcher had realised in horror from the longitudinal surveys of her Institute for Demoscopy at Allensbach: people do not get informed differently now – strictly speaking they would not let themselves get informed at all! Mass media do not get substituted in their function, it is more that they vanish away. And not physically – people still watch television – but in their effect.

Our social graph, the network of our communal relationships supplies us with the things that we would want to know about. This is the filter that before was formed by the editorial teams of the media. We organise our relationships by the Net, like in former times we as the citizen of the state would get oriented by mass media. “The end of the Grand Narrative” by which post-modernism is often described, means history becoming a collection little stories. This is “Atemporality“, where “literature collapses before our eyes“. Mass media’s standard language gives way to the vernacular dialects of Net culture. “New media are new archetypes, at first disguised as degradations of older media.” (McLuhan)

The membership in these new memetic community is not to be compared with the “being born into a community” of pre-modernism. Those are relatively loose structures, partly only temporarily stable and we are rarely exclusively at home in just one of them. These communities are kept together symbolically by Memes.

This Memetic Turn marks the transition into the post-modern age. The dwindling influence of the national structures with at the same time dissolving international political structures leads to also to their medial tools becoming dull.

Thus it becomes clear how the revolutionary movement in Spain is related to the overthrow in Tunisia and Egypt. It is fascinating to see how the seemingly lacking of formulated common goals and any form of constituted organisation swamps the old media, still thinking in terms of society. It is the Hash-Tag that brings people together, the #spanishrevolution-meme as projective space, above which people synchronise on their longing for a different form of living together in a post-social communality, no longer controlled by ineffective party policy.

Further reading:

Modernism is our classical antiquity

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