Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Blame the Messenger: Ferguson and Social Media

I got a surprise today when a friend of mine, a United Methodist minister in Texas, told me that my name had appeared in the Washington Post. It turned out to be in an article on the criticism of social media by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, during his announcement of the grand jury decision not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager. I had reacted by tweeting, "So a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager six times, and it's Twitter's fault?” My remark was retweeted over 2,800 times and favourited over 800 times, so many people agreed with it.

I, of course, didn't mean that McCullouch had said that Twitter and its users were responsible for Michael Brown's death. I was reacting as the only blame he could find in the aftermath of the killing, the protests and the heavy-handed response of the police, was not with the police officer who fired 12 times; not with a militarized police force that treats citizens like subjects of an occupying power and acts as a fundraising arm of the municipal government by extorting money from black citizens through fines; not with the system that has seen police kill 461 people in the US in the last year for which statistics are available (compared to eight in Germany, and none in the UK and Japan) - but with social media.

McCulloch blamed the messenger as he tore into Twitter, saying that "within minutes various accounts of the incident began appearing on social media" and "non-stop rumours" followed, "filled with speculation, and little, if any solid, accurate information." Certainly speculation and rumours were part of the social media focus on Ferguson - as they were part of broadcast media coverage (listen to talk radio discussions of Ferguson, and TV panels, to hear more speculation, rumours, and inaccurate information that can be crammed into 140 characters on Twitter). I learned more about what was going on in Ferguson last night from Twitter than from the confusing CNN broadcast. Social media was most important in creating an alternative narrative that shone a light on injustice, and allowing black voices to be heard which would have been silent or muted in broadcast media.

Don't blame the messenger when a police force armed to the teeth with surplus military equipment uses state violence on peaceful protesters. Don't blame the messenger when the authorities keep tensions high and then release the grand jury decision at night, a move anyone could see would be provocative. Blame institutionalized racism. Blame the militarization of North American culture. Blame sin, because that is what this is.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

In Rural North America, the Future Looks a Lot Like... Now

I have read everything Vancouver-based author William Gibson has written, and remember excitedly watching his cameo in the 1993 mini-series Wild Palms (where he is introduced as the man who coined the term "cyberspace"). I even got to meet him at a book signing in Ottawa and have a signed copy of his classic Neuromancer - the book which introduced cyberspace.

So I'm excited about his new science fiction novel The Peripheral. His last few novels have been set in the present, or a facsimile of it, but the plot of the new book takes place in the near future and in a farther future, more than 100 years out.

A feature on Flavorwire interviews Gibson and describes The Peripheral. I was intrigued by the writer's description of the part of the novel set in the near future:

The Peripheral’s first future, which occurs a few decades from now in the rural American South, features mega-versions of Walmart, 3D-printed meth, and new, pernicious forms of post-traumatic illness that stem from ever more technologically advanced military combat.

Living in rural Ontario where villages and towns have lost many of their manufacturing jobs and there are few family farms left, near New York's North Country which is even less prosperous, I can attest that this near future sounds a lot like today: Walmart, meth, and PTSD. The New York Times said that “to read Gibson is to read the present as if it were the future,” so I'm sure that, like all good science fiction, The Peripheral will tell me a lot about today as well as tomorrow.