Manufacturing Dissent (Henry Jenkins)

(Updated again: Jenkins’ own notes on his presentation are here: part one and part two

(Update: The recorded videos from the conference are now available).

Beyond Broadcast 2007 kicked off with a keynote by Henry Jenkins, which was by turns entertaining, upsetting, and thought provoking.

Much of the material was drawn from Convergence Culture in which:

Jenkins argues that the debate over convergence will redefine the face of American popular culture. Industry leaders see opportunities to direct content across many channels to increase revenue and broaden markets. At the same time, consumers envision a liberated public sphere, free of network controls, in a decentralized media environment. Sometimes corporate and grassroots efforts reinforce each other, creating closer, more rewarding relations between media producers and consumers. Sometimes these two forces are at war.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as a sign of how good the talk was?) I was so busy paying attention most of what I got into my notes were the examples, rather than the questions Jenkins used them to raise – but I’ll try to recreate the as much as I can of the context and the argument here.

He began with the “Bert is Evil” scenario, which lead to the image of Bert sitting with Bin Laden made its way into actual printed posters waved in real-world anti-US demonstrations. (I though Jenkins said the site’s creator took it down, saying it was getting “too close to reality” – but there is a site up now – perhaps resurrected by others?).

In a more explicitly or deliberately policitized example, the film This is What Democracy Looks Like which distributed cameras to protesters in the streets during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

But is that the only thing democracy can look like? He pointed also to Velvet Strike, in which people graffiti anti-war slogans inside the game CounterStrike, and the single by the legendary KO – “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.”

Finally (or at least those are all the ones I managed to scribble down while he was talking), he talked about Vote For The Worst, which is a kind of mass participatory hack of American Idol – and in the process debunked the whole “more people voted for American Idol than in the last presidential election” – pointing out that more votes were cast, but people were allowed to vote as many times as they wanted.

The question, really, is what happens when mass participation meets mass media. Traditionally mass media meant broadcasting – the few speaking to the many – but now we have (again – this isn’t the first time it has happened – more on that below) the potential of the many speaking to the many.

What Jenkins points out, rightly, is that the media reform movements too often fall into the same set of tropes and metaphors as the popular, mass, commercial culture they hope to work against. In trying to negate the commercialism of modern mass culture, they accept its very premise: that the populace is powerless in the face of popular culture, and can only passively consume.

This means ascribing enormous power to popular media, but without ascribing any power to the “audience.”

What, he asks, would a reform movement look like which took popular culture seriously, as something to be leveraged rather than overcome?

(Pointed to Stephen Duncombe’s book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy – looks like a kind of Learning from Las Vegas for contemporary left/liberal/progressive politics).

We need to learn to manufacture dissent, he argued, echoing and responding to Chomsky’s notion of manufacturing consent.

Some examples of gestures toward manufacturing dissent:

  • When V for Vendetta was released as a film, though based on a screenplay about England during the Thatcher era, it had clearly updated to reflect the contemporary US. A variety of amateur videos sprung up on YouTube explicitly connecting the film to the Bush administration. (This one, for example).
  • Republicans for Voldemort – t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc., drawn from the comic strip goats.
  • Billionaires for Bush – a group which would often show up at Bush rallies – check out the photo gallery

But the challenge is not to make culture interactive – interactivity is a property of technology – participation is a property of cultures.

Jenkins traced amateur publishing back to pre-civil war US pamphleteers, and covered amateur radio in the early 19th century.

In both cases (print and radio) what began as a relatively populist, amateur and youth culture got transformed through commercial intervention into a closed, broadcast, few to many, passive medium.

What could kill participatory media this time?

The use of fear as a mechanism for shutting down free speech. Ted Stevens (“He of the Tubes”) and the DOPA act – which Stevens has reintroduced as the “Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act.

The combination of anti-free-speech regulation and the attack of over-zealous copyright protection – it is these two things which can kill participatory culture.

What else stands in the way of a truly democratic, participatory culture?

The digital divide has been somewhat effectively combatted – though it is still an issue on Native American reservations. But there is still a great difference of participation – it’s different to have 30 minutes on a public computer with filters and such, than 24/7/365 broadband connection.

Jenkins uses the Save the Internet coalition – bi-partisan, leveraging popular culture, including participatory culture, as a strong example of what is possilble. (See, for example, the “ask a ninja” video on net neutrality).

I worry that the example works only because the issue is not devisive for the audience it targets – not to say there isn’t controversy over net neutrality, but it isn’t an issue like marriage rights or reproductive rights where the audience is divided.

One question from the audience was about the access kids get to the internet (and new media / digital literacy in general) at school – Jenkins talked about the “mass de-skilling of the kids when they enter the schoolhouse gate” with respect to technologies of participation and interaction.

So how do we educate educators? How do we teach digital media literacy to those in secondary and primary education, so that they don’t feel threatened by it?

(David Weinberger liveblogged the same presentation)