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response to episode 096 of mandatory redistribution party

tuesday 12th july 2022

mandatory redistribution party is a radical left podcast by jack evans and sean morley which critiques and discusses contemporary society. you can find it on all good podcast delivery systems.

i love mandatory redistribution party (henceforth referred to as simply 'mandos'). it’s one of the only podcasts which doesn’t leave me feeling a bit hollow and empty about the world, the state of things, which is quite impressive considering the subject matter it deals with. when i saw the latest episode drop into my Podcasts Application i was, for the first time maybe ever, genuinely hyped to see the words "culture wars". i spend a lot of time thinking along the lines of 'ohhhhh my god why the hell is it LIKE THIS' and it was nice to listen to other people who also clearly, spend a lot of time thinking about that.

Culture Wars as a thing is so tied into the ways in which algorithms have shaped how we see other people. the podcast does a good job of citing its sources and talking about research on the facebook algorithm, and internal twitter comms which confirm that these platforms do actively promote outrage-inducing, fascist and far right content - something i think is quite obvious if you’re someone who has ever contemplated those platforms in a meta way (not that meta). this whole deal is also the current focus of my research practice - i’m doing a talk at summer school ⧉ called 'should data expire? entropy and permanence in a digital landscape (alt title: how can we navigate forgiveness and growth in a landscape of fixed points?)' which will probably fall quite short at getting into the meat of things in such a limited format, but should hopefully start to make these ideas i’ve just been carrying around more clear, coherent, and relevant to our real actual lives - so it's been very very nice to see another ship on the horizon, waving a flag of 'wooooow fuck this' and drinking from home-brewed barrels of empathy.

there’s a scheme going on in my local area right now, where a bunch of children and artists and community groups have been instructed by the charity break ⧉ to decorate a huge fibreglass dinosaur which is then displayed around the city in a public art trail for the summer months. they started doing it probably almost a decade ago, and i hear there is now an epidemic of fibreglass based community arts trails in cities around england (i really hope i am wrong here and it is confined to the greater norwich area), littering our streets with giant feel-good jokes that make everyone feel like they are living in a cool, creative, and connected place. not bad aims! but sometimes the execution…… well. it can fall a bit flat. one dinosaur in particular which has been driving me absolutely nutty is this one (and yes i promise i have a point here):

it’s called the Remembersaurus. it has poppies, and fields, and soldiers, and planes dropping bombs inside this poor little dinosaur’s brain. what level of unironic british shame-island-plague-island-self-fetishising-patriotic-needs-suppressing-self-harm mindset is this! there is no dialogue accompanying this. the only info on the plaque is about the dinosaur trail itself, and the school that made it. this was made by primary school children. the concept of capital R remembrance has become simply a memefied icon of britishness which can be trotted out with no critical thought, no second guessing, to celebrate the artistic nature of our schoolchildren.

EDIT: i went back to check they didn't say anything about why they had decided on this particular dinosaur theme on the little info plaque and it turns out that a veteran of WWII 'supports' the school to 'help the children remember' and that's why. so it's not as entirely random as it felt like on first look - but it's still wrapped up in all kinds of Help For Heroes nonsense like it's trying to score points somehow to be untouchable by all critique - and anyway, the way it's painted makes it look like it's crying

the moment i saw this dinosaur, i knew i needed to think on it. to keep it. to critique it. how did it get made? why did it get made? what does it say? and honestly, the conclusion i keep coming to is that it kind of says nothing. it’s as innocuous in its intent as a cup of tea. it’s purely a signifier, divorced from its meaning, but familiar enough that you see it and go 'oh yeah, that. what a sweet art project'. and it’s this massive divorcing of CONTEXT from absolutely anything that i feel is so emblematic of the culture war world we’re living in/under/around/beside now! we’re a group of terrified monkeys traversing a climbing wall of loose pegs which all say [insert your signifier of choice here] on them, kissing the pegs as they pull from the structure, falling but not caring because at least we have our little patriotic/transphobic/MOGAI/shitposting/etc/etc/etc pegs.

in the mandos episode, sean speaks about context collapse in online spaces. context collapse refers to the removal of any meaningful signifiers which could go into helping us understand where someone might be coming from, or just whose living room we just walked into unannounced to take a big shit on the floor (and therefore the ability to discern if they might like that we’d done that, or think it was very rude and weird). this of course links to the centralisation and commercialisation of the web - or as ben tarnoff (author of internet for the people) puts it - its transition into "an archipelago of shopping malls run by slumlords". through moderating our behaviour for an unknown general audience (which could be formed of everyone from our boss to our six year old cousin to our Officially Designated FBI Agent) we've mall-cop-ed, algorithm-ed, bot-moderat-ed and sanitis-ed our way into stripping language, imagery and even basic concepts of the very things that make them meaningful. we’ve left ourselves rattling around a big box of loose signifiers, none of which are ever good enough to meaningfully describe the things we need to talk about collectively - because there is no coherent collective understanding of what each of them means.

due to context collapse stripping us of any kind of unified understanding of what even the most basic of words means (try tweeting about chips for a transatlantic audience without using qualifiers), we’ve found ourselves embroiled in a massive fight over semantics. to me, semantics is the very essence of the culture war. and because language does, unfortunately, shape our entire worldview - semantic misunderstandings very, very quickly veer into a world of hatred and vitriol. one of the places i feel this is most transparent is in the 'transgender issue' (not shon faye’s book ⧉, though it is very good) - people with very fundamentally different understandings of what gender, sex, woman, man, liberation, social construct, etc, mean have decided to base their entire mode of being on trying to tell people with a different understanding of that that they are not only incorrect but actively threatening their way of life. and… that’s not really true? if we approach it holding in our heads that people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different social structures will have different understandings of what every single word used in those discussions means, even if they appear on the surface to be in the same language, then we approach it with a level of empathy pretty much never seen on the front lines of 'gender critical' discourse. if we approach it accepting that others may have an entirely different construct which informs their thought patterns, and that they may have terms which overlap with our world which are applied in different ways, and crucially it’s absolutely fine for people to have different perspectives on this - then maybe we could spend more time working out what materially changes by e.g. having a gender neutral single stall bathroom in a public space (spoiler alert: really not much). i feel like we got stuck on how shocking it can be to have someone clearly hold a different viewpoint to you, and never got to 'other people can disagree with us and that can be okay'.

the crux of it is that context collapse has caused us to lose a grip on our apparently very human instinct to trust those who are the same and distrust the 'other' (in that we now find ourselves constantly inflamed by making the wrong 'call' about where someone lands - same or other). there’s no structure within which to self-curate our social circles on platforms which are purposefully neutral - we don’t have any clear indication of where someone is coming from if they’re just another username with a sparsely filled bio and blurry abstract selfie. even the most densely filled profiles have no sense of travel to reach them, no sense of place in the way they’re decorated. on centralised, corporate social media, everyone lives in identical white-walled apartments, with just a different door number and maybe a doormat if you’re lucky and the building administrators aren’t too strict about things cluttering up the hallways. there’s no neighbourhood ambiance to push the subtle ~vibes~ that give you a clue about what kind of place you’ll find inside.

when i first started spending time on federated social media, i compared it to twitter with the following metaphor:

twitter is like an infinite plane, where you can make direct eye contact with anyone from anywhere with any understanding of the world at any moment. federated socials are like a hilly valley - you set up camp on your home server (which you presumably picked because it looked like a nice spot and the people there seemed to have something in common with you), and only hear tell of other communities through people you know, at least loosely. if you want to go a long way from your chosen base, you have to go through real people. you have to go through mutual friends.

federated social media is much closer to a more human way of socialising - something which forms slowly, naturally, with work, and through shared connections. it’s non algorithmic. you don’t suddenly find yourself with thousands, millions of eyes on you in the infinite plane because you said something particularly spicy - even that kind of attention has to build gradually, and spread somewhat physically as it federates to more and more distant servers. crucially, there’s also usually at least a tiny crumb of context - be it the instance domain name which appears as prominently as their user-chosen username, the theme that displays when you click on their profile, the length of their post or some unique formatting features which tell you which software their server runs, or plainly the very fact you’re seeing it at all, which usually means someone you actively trust (and know!) has chosen to see it for themselves. this reintroduction of context allows for a much more reliable shared glossary of terms - if a server was moved to, they could even literally create one. you can deduce by the company someone keeps and where they choose to make their home a little bit about who they are, and where they might be coming from. and that allows us to once again grasp a little more firmly to our signifiers, knowing they’re rooted in something tangible, and also allows us to talk about the things which are materially impacting our lives rather than getting caught in the weeds of semantic discourse.

in a world where only the most outrageous things meet even 1% of their intended audience, where everything is suppressed unless it’s good for clicks - all we’re left with is brains which only know how to fight, optimise, and consume. there’s no space left for critique, or to receive critique - partly because that critique has also been optimised to be scathing, witty, and click-able. we trust no-one, and only care to make the numbers go up.