social critique

Media Intervention

Pattern ID: 
427
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
132
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Version: 
2
Problem: 

Corporate media exists to make as large a profit as possible; responsiveness to the public interest is secondary at best. Like a drumbeat, its endless repetition presents an unremitting pulse to our lives. Corporate media is scripted by people far away from the "ordinary" people who spend their time with it. Alternatives to corporate media exist of course, but the audiences are substantially smaller; the alternatives generally have lower "production values" (due to fewer resources) and are much harder to find. Consequently they are enjoyed only by the more intrepid among us. People and organizations who struggle to interject alternative messages into the public consciousness via the media — even with paid ads — will be soundly rebuffed. For example, the AdBusters Foundation has repeatedly attempted to get their "Buy Nothing" piece aired on television in the US. only to be turned down by the major networks. MoveOn's "Bush in 30 Seconds" was also rejected by the networks. Environmental organizations have trouble getting their messages aired but corporate ads on the same themes are aired without questions.

Context: 

When access to media is blocked...

Discussion: 

Until fairly recently, it was a commonly held notion in the United States that "the people owned the airwaves." Although that notion has apparently vanished from the minds of many politicians and government regulators, people periodically reassert this right when other routes have failed.

With few exceptions, access to media is generally blocked to citizen and, especially, alternative viewpoints. The choices of media often boil down to state-run media (often propaganda) or purely commercial (or a combination of the two) or none at all.

In the US particularly but in other countries as well people are bombarded with images and ideas that are generally cut from the same cloth. Whether news, "reality" shows, police dramas, talk shows, or commercials television is a seamless and impenetrable wall that is assiduously protected from invasion. Media Intervention is one tactic to fight this particular and ubiquitous form of censorship. In this case, the media truly is the message: while the content itself is commercialistic, addicting, intellectually and psychologically (and emotionally? and politically?) stultifying (debilitating?), the sheer immensity and second order effects of the media as a societal phenomenon make it impossible to ignore. It's a problem for everyone when the "vast wasteland" grows vaster.

Media intervention comes in many guises and new approaches are devised fairly frequently. There are vast differences in the ways that this pattern is employed — all the way from the most polite and prescribed to the most overt and officially prohibited. This pattern is general enough to encompass Culture Jamming (Lasn, ____), Textual Poaching (Jenkins, ____), subvertisements, "disciplining the media" and "Billboard Adjustment."

Randolph Sill carried out a brilliant Media Interventio with aplomb in Seattle in the summer of 2003. He attended a televised Mariner's baseball game with a sign that was adorned with the number of Mariner star player, Ichiro Suzuki, and some writing in Kanji. Unbeknownst to the non-Japanese speakers at the game and, in particular, the people who were televising the game who captured Sill and the sign that he enthusiastically brandished whenever Ichiro was at bat, the Kanji on one side read, "President Bush is a monkey's butt" which was complemented on the other side with the claim that "Americans are ashamed of their corrupt president" (Jenniges, 2003).

In the late 1990's, the Barbie Liberation Organization engineered a similarly clever caper which ultimately was covered with bemusement on the television evening news in a number of U.S. cities. The intervention began with the purchase of several ultra-feminine "Barbie" dolls and the ultra-masculine "G.I. Joes" "action figures" (not dolls). Back in their secret laboratory, the BLO surgically altered the dolls, performing a gender swap (or "correction" as they called it) of the voice boxes of the two stereotypical avatars. Then the dolls were repackaged and placed ("reverse shoplifting") on various toy store shelves around the country where they were purchased by unsuspecting shoppers. Back at home, the young recipients of the dolls were surprised when the he-man Joe professed a love for shopping while the wire-thin Barbie newly masculinized wanted to "take the next hill" presumably with a hail of hot lead. One intriguing postscript was that at least some of the recipients of the transformed doll/action figure preferred the new version to the old.

Finally, the techniques of (1) trying hard to get one's issue injected into the media and (2) disciplining the media for content that people find objectionable (and, less frequently, praising the media for appropriate coverage), form the traditional "bread and butter" core of this pattern and are not expected to go away or lose their importance in the face of the other approaches discussed earlier.


NY Act Up Activists Make an Unscheduled Visit to the CBS Evening News.
More information can be found at: http://www.actupny.org/divatv/indexN.html

Solution: 

Sometimes it becomes necessary to intervene in the media to nudge it into new avenues that it might not have taken without the intervention. This can be done cleverly and effectively but it's not easy. The tactic and campaign should be carefully tied to the aims and the particulars of the situation — but it still might not work!

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Whether news, "reality" TV, police dramas, talk shows, or commercials, corporate media is a seamless and impenetrable wall that is protected from citizen intrusion. People and organizations who struggle to interject alternative messages into the public consciousness via the media are often ignored or rejected. By nudging the media into new directions, Media Intervention is one tactic to fight this particular and ubiquitous form of censorship.

Pattern status: 
Released

Tactical Media

Pattern ID: 
781
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
131
Alessandra Renzi
OISE/ University of Toronto
Version: 
2
Problem: 

Activist information campaigns and protests aimed at sensitizing the public to issues of social justice and politics often fail to reach an audience. In some cases, this is due to a reticence on the part of the mainstream media to tackle controversial issues. However, this can also simply happen because inadequate communication tactics prevent the public from identifying with or understanding the language used to convey the intended message. In other words, many actions organized by activist organizations go unnoticed, either because they do not succeed in showcasing their cause through means that cannot be ignored by the media, or because their lines of argument cannot be easily connected with the ways non-activist audiences experience the world.

Context: 

Tactical Media (TM) are a loosely defined set of practices that can be used by activists and community groups seeking to engage with the production of counter-information, as well as with its modes and possibilities of dissemination. In fact, the tactical circulation of information is a fundamental aspect of political intervention in the informational environment.

Discussion: 

"Tactical media are media of crisis, criticism and opposition. This is both the source of their power, and also their limitation. Their typical heroes are the activist, Nomadic media warriors, the pranxter, the hacker, the street rapper, the camcorder kamikaze..." (the ABC of Tactical Media)

Because of their ad-hoc character and their adaptability to different contexts, TM are hard to define. Hence, instead of “what is TM?” a more useful question is “how does TM work?” The following three examples are helpful to illustrate some of TM’s possible uses and outcomes.

Example one: During the last US presidential campaign Bush’s official website was cloned, with the alternative site featuring a critique of Bush’s agenda to become president. This site was set up by the Yes Men, a group of actors who impersonate representatives of important organisations at official meetings in order to subvert their messages in the mainstream media. Their stunt prompted Bush to announce on television that “there ought to be limits to democracy”.

Example two: Several labour activist groups in Europe, fighting against unstable working conditions use TM for their campaigns. The Italian group Chainworkers invented Saint Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers. His statue appears at demonstrations, public events and in public spaces, constructing “precarity” through familiar symbols, and leading the public to make its own connections between the procession, common people’s problems and today’s world market. Through San Precario and other similar games and actions, the issue of precarious labor has gained visibility within the EU and is now being discussed even outside of its borders--while more sustainable forms of social struggle against precarity are the background on which such actions rest.

Example three: Telestreet is a network pirate television stations run by activists and community groups who use free UHF frequencies and simple, low-cost technological devices to broadcast their video productions into Italian households. Telestreet programming is not solely aimed at counterbalancing Berlusconi’s monopoly on the mainstream media with alternative content, but also at experimenting with the medium of television as a space for cultural production and community building.

Generally, TM rely on artistic practices and "do it yourself" (DIY) media, created from readily available, relatively cheap technology and means of communication. A tactical medium is devised according to the context where it is supposed to function. This means that it is sensitive to the different sets of communicative genres and resources valued in a specific place, which may vary from street theatre and banner-dropping to the internet or radio. For this reason, TM actions they are very effective and can take on a wide variety of forms. For instance, they can mimic traditional means of information while circulating alternative content; they can subvert the meaning of well-known cultural symbols; and, they can create new outlets for counter-information with the help of new media.

In many cases, TM practitioners borrow from avant-garde art practices (e.g. linguistic sabotage and detournement), politics and consumer culture to trouble commonly held beliefs about every-day life. Such techniques–also called culture jamming–involve an appropriation of the language and discourses of their political target, which is familiar to the non-activist audience. Therefore, the subversion of the message’s meaning pushes the audience to notice where some strategies of domination are at work in a given discourse, raising questions about the objectivity of what is believed to be “normal.” TM actions creatively reframe known discourses, causing the public to recognize their limits. According to TM theorist David Garcia “classical TM, unlike agit-prop, are designed to invite discourse” (Garcia 2006), they plant the seeds for discussion by operating a fissure in what is considered to be “objective reality,” requiring a form of engagement to decode their message.

Despite many successes, TM practices like the Yes Men impersonations have often been criticized because their short-term interventions expose the weak points in the system but do not attempt to address them. However, TM should not be seen or employed as an isolated form of protest but as one tool for groups to reach wider audiences in a broader network of political struggle. In fact, even when they hijack the attention of the mass media, the Yes Men stunts and Saint Precario do not constitute an emancipatory practice in itself. Yet, they are a great example of how to bring topics to debate. As part of an organized campaign centred on a specific issue, such stunts can give resonance to voices otherwise unheard, and hopefully open up some space for a dialogue between minority and majority groups–or between minorities.

Moreover, TM practices can help make transversal connections between context-related social, cultural and political problems, and various organized sites of resistance. For example, the Telestreet network enables different activist groups and coalitions to use their space to support or showcase their own cause. Similarly, TM practices can be useful to create new memes that raise awareness of unjust social conditions, as in the case of Saint Precario.

Ultimately, it is important to maintain TM’s emphasis on experimentation, collaboration and the exchange of knowledge as part of a broader cartography of organized social struggle. For these reasons, there is a need to create more conditions where TM exploration of new possibilities for resistance can take place. Such projects can range from media literacy teaching to culture jamming workshops in schools, to festivals and temporary media labs where people can come together and develop creative ways to engage in protest and critique of the systems which govern their lives from an ever-increasing distance.

Solution: 

TM practices are marked by an ongoing attempt to experiment with the dynamics of media dissemination of information, searching for the most effective way to bypass the obstacles created during the diffusion of such information, in order to reach an audience. Thus, TM actions can help activists attract the attention of the mainstream media, as well as enable them to convey their message in a way that is intelligible to the audience.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: www.insutv.it

Verbiage for pattern card: 

The circulation of information about social struggles is a fundamental aspect of successful political interventions and deserves careful planning. Tactical Media are practices that engage with the production of counter-information and with its modes and dissemination possibilities. Examples of TM range from Do-It-Yourself radio shows to humorous pranks used to spark discussions about social issues.

Pattern status: 
Released

Whistle Blowing

Pattern ID: 
481
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
130
Tom Carpenter
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Version: 
2
Problem: 

Corporations may flaunt legal or ethical guidelines by, for example, ignoring safety considerations on the job, harassing employees, or dumping toxic chemicals. Governments also engage in a multitude of transgressions from the minor to the truly horrific. Many of these misdeeds are kept secret, cloistered within a strict organizational "code of silence." "Whistle blowing" is an American expression for exposing problems within an organization from within that organization. The act of whistle blowing is essential to correcting problems in society, yet the whistle blowers are often punished severely for their actions. Society benefits from — but does not adequately protect — the whistle blower.

Context: 

This pattern can be used by anybody who finds themselves in possession of knowledge that is being kept secret when it should be made public. People who aren't in this position — journalists and "ordinary citizens," for example — can also use this pattern to support the people who are in this position.

Discussion: 

Whistle blowers are often heroes of the modern world who undergo a mighty — and sometimes ultimate — sacrifice for the good of the rest of society. Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) wrote a thoughtful and informative book which contains useful advice on how whistle blowers can "blow the whistle" on wrongdoing — without becoming martyrs in the process.

Powerful (and not-so-powerful) institutions and organizations may engage in a variety of unethical or illegal activities to further their own goals — at least as perceived by the perpetrators of the activities. These acts are kept hidden from those on the outside until such time as they are uncovered by somebody on the outside or exposed by somebody on the inside. The pressures on an "insider" to keep quiet about the transgression are immense. Although society as a whole benefits from the new revelations, the whistle-blower is likely to be seen as a traitor to his or her community and punished heartily for his or her efforts; He or she could be shunned at work, fired, "black-balled" (denied employment in general in the future) , or, even, physically harmed. Of course, even after it's revealed to the world, the damaging evidence can be ignored by the media or spun into irrelevance by the institution and its allies.

In a section called "Blowing the Whistle Wisely", Devine discusses "basic survival strategies" which are listed below.

  1. Before taking any irreversible steps, talk to your family or close friends about your decision to blow the whistle.
  2. Develop a plan so that your employer is reacting to you, instead of vice-versa.
  3. Be alert and discretely attempt to learn of any other people who are upset about the wrongdoing.
  4. Before formally breaking ranks, consider whether there is any reasonable way to work within the system by going to the first level of authority.
  5. Maintain good relations with administrative and support staff.
  6. Before and after you blow the whistle, it is very important to protect yourself by keeping a careful record of events as they unfold.
  7. Identify and copy all necessary supporting records before drawing any attention to your concerns.
  8. Research and identify potential allies such as elected officials, journalists or activists who have proven their sincerity and can help expose the wrongdoing.
  9. Either invest the funds for a legal opinion from a competent lawyer, or talk to a non-profit watchdog organization about the risks and obstacles facing you.
  10. Always be on guard not to embellish your charges.
  11. Engage in whistleblowing initiatives on your own time and with your own resources, not your employer's.
  12. Don't wear your cynicism on your sleeve when working with authorities.

Whistle blowing arises within government institutions as well as commercial concerns and, as a matter of fact, has some degree of legal protection — at least in some countries. One of the most important examples of government abuse include corruption, violation of human rights (by allowing torture, for example) or by hiding decisions, such as a decision to start a war while publicly asserting that peace is being sought. Some connect the concept of protecting whistle blowers with free speech rights secured by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. Beyond a rights context, government transparency is necessary for a healthy democracy, in that accurate and timely information is vital for informed policy-making.

This pattern connotes the use of a whistle, as in the whistle of a police officer, to signal for help. Others have likened it to a train whistle, that sounds a warning upon approach to an intersection. In sports, the referee blows the whistle to stop game play.

The "whistle blowing" concept needs to be legitimized in different contexts, some of which are extremely hostile to the idea. In some cases it will be important to come up with new expressions in other languages to talk about the concept! In addition, the very term "whistle blower" does not translate well into other languages, such as Russian. It has been suggested that "truth-teller" may work better in that language than whistle-blower.

Solution: 

Support whistle blowing and whistle blowers. This is often done through support networks and by laws and media.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Corporations may flaunt the law or ethical guidelines by harassing employees, ignoring safety considerations, or dumping toxics. Governments of course are also guilty of various crimes. Whistle Blowers expose problems by making hidden incidents or documents public. Although society benefits from Whistle Blowing, whistle-blowers are often punished for their efforts. There are many ways, however, to prevent whistle blowers from becoming martyrs.

Pattern status: 
Released

Citizens' Tribunal

Pattern ID: 
610
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
129
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Version: 
2
Problem: 

Powerful countries — such as the US or the UK or others — are seemingly free to ignore international law and other recognized norms of acceptable behavior when it suits their government. If other countries and international organizations are impotent against such transgressions, NGOs and other civil society groups (who have even fewer resources) face almost insurmountable hurdles for legally challenging these actions.

Context: 

Non-governmental organizations or other citizen groups with few to no means by which to challenge what they perceive to be moral wrongs are the main users of this pattern. Unfortunately the use of this pattern is limited generally to democratic societies or other places where its confrontational approach is tolerated. There are countries, for example, where a tribunal directed at the United States could be convened, while a tribunal directed against the government of the host country would be strictly prohibited. Unfortunately there are few, if any, public or legal means where citizens of countries like North Korea, Uzbekistan and other countries that are isolated from the network of international relations, can challenge their government's policy without fearing for their life and liberty.

Discussion: 

Civil Society faced with what they perceive as serious crimes that are being perpetrated by governments, has devised the concept of a "Citizen's Tribunal." Part legal proceedings, part theater, part publicly speaking "truth to power", the concept has been expressed most strongly with the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI) condemning the invasion of Iraq by the United States.

According to Richard Falk, professor emeritus from Princeton University, "The WTI was loosely inspired by the Bertrand Russell tribunal held in Copenhagen and Stockholm in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War, which documented with extensive testimony the allegations of criminality associated with the American role in Vietnam. The Russell tribunal featured the participation of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and other notable European left intellectuals. It relied on international law and morality to condemn the war but made no pretension of being a legal body, and its jury contained no international law experts." The World Tribunal on Iraq had its specific roots in a session of the Permanent Tribunal of the People that was held before the war in Rome. The sessions of the WTI began in Brussels in March 2004 and finished in June 2005 in Istanbul. Sessions were also held in Berlin, Stockholm, Hiroshima, Rome, New York, and Barcelona.

The work of the WTI was divided into a Panel of Advocates and a Jury of Conscience. The role of the Panel of Advocates was to document the charges against George Bush, Tony Blair, and others through analysis and testimony. This body would then present the case to a Jury of Conscience which was "composed of distinguished moral authority personalities from around the world, to pass judgment on the actors and their actions from the perspective of international law."

One question is how does the "other side" participate — if at all? Can they submit evidence or provide testimony? In other words, how does a tribunal differ from a trial? For one thing, the U.S., for example, the U.S. would undoubtedly skip a Citizen's Tribunal since it has declined to appear before the World Court as a defendant. A Citizen's Tribunal is not a court (it obviously has no powers of enforcement, for example) and is not obligated to emulate one. At least in the case of the WTI, a Citizen's Tribunal "is self-consciously an organ of civil society, with its own potential enforcement by way of economic boycotts, civil disobedience and political campaigns." It is not designed to find the truth but to bring the truth to light. As Falk points, out, the WTI as an instrument of civil society: "proceeds from a presumption that the allegations of illegality and criminality are valid and that its job is to reinforce that conclusion as persuasively and vividly as possible.

Legitimacy, however, as in the legal system, is a very big issue. If the tribunal does not seem legitimate, it can more easily be portrayed as a charade. Legitimacy can be maximized by providing unimpeachable authorities and by providing strong corroborating evidence including documentation and expert testimony.

As a direct and public challenge to power and authority the Citizen's Tribunal faces numerous challenges in addition to difficult task of establishing legitimacy. One of the most important of these challenges is irrelevance. The unequivocal repudiation of the powers-that-be is unlikely to be covered in any serious way by the media. Additionally, the possibly marginal nature of the group sponsoring a Citizen's Tribunal places it far from the centers of power and is thus questioned about the legitimacy of its actions.

Since the power of a Citizen's Tribunal relies on its symbolic nature, publicity is important. One approach is to bring in a broad coalition to organize the Tribunal. It is important to get people to the event and to send out publicity afterwards (through, for example, the web and DVDs). The WTI submitted its report to the United Nations. On the other hand, exposure and publicity can be risky — counter demonstrations, arrests, intimidation and thuggery, in addition to media condemnation, might be in store for the conveners.

Many challenges present themselves while organizing and conducting the event: Who will participate? How is the agenda organized? Where will the funding come from? How will security issues be handled? And of course, the idea of multiple venues, however attractive the idea is, increases the magnitude of the logistical challenges considerably.

Although Falk's statement below (from a WTI press release) is associated with the World Tribunal on Iraq, the basic approach and philosophy of that effort can serve as a basic model (that can be modified) for another tool for people without extensive resources who are struggling with issues of state violence and other urgent issues of our times.

"The WTI is opposing aggressive war, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It is not opposing the governments or the United Nations. Indeed it hopes to create pressure from below that will encourage law-abiding governments and the UN to do their proper job of protecting weaker countries and their populations against such illegalities. And beyond this protection we are promoting a world movement of peoples and governments to realize a humane form of globalization that is equitable with respect to the world economy, legitimate in upholding the human rights of all, and dedicated above all else to creating the conditions for sustainable peace based on justice for every nation on earth."

Solution: 

In certain situations, civil society organizations are moved to protest perceived crimes of sovereign nations. The Citizens' Tribunal has the potential to become a powerful tool to raise issues to more visible levels than governments or the media are likely to do on their own.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Powerful countries sometimes ignore international law and other norms of acceptable behavior. NGOs and other groups face tremendous hurdles when challenging these actions. Citizens' Tribunals, such as the World Tribunal on Iraq condemning the US invasion of Iraq, are part legal proceedings, part theater, and part publicly speaking "truth to power." In spite of many challenges, a Citizens' Tribunal can be a powerful tool.

Pattern status: 
Released

Power Research

Pattern ID: 
435
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
128
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Version: 
2
Problem: 

Powerful people and organizations tend to abuse their power. Without understanding who has power, how the power is wielded, and how that power can be kept within legitimate boundaries, people with less power can be ignored, swindled, lied to, led into war, or otherwise mistreated.

Context: 

This pattern should be considered in any situation in which institutionalized power is a strong influence.

Discussion: 

The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. — C. Wright Mills

In 1956 sociologist C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite provided an in-depth examination of power in the United States. About a decade later, in 1967, G. William Domhoff wrote Who Rules America? which was followed by Who Rules America Now? in 1983. As one might expect, these books contained a detailed analysis of who has power, how the power is exercised and through what routes the powerful came to their positions. To some degree, the who of "who has power" is not as relevant as what they do with it and how they came to possess it. Their routes to power were so uniform as to suggest that specific, repeatable social mechanisms were at work to ensure that the same type of person, with the same ideologies would be elevated to these positions — and that other people from other circumstances would be denied entrance.

That social mechanisms are at play is of course not news to sociologists who make it their business to understand these mechanisms. The rest of us have vague suspicions but little concrete knowledge. Although the powerful may be visible to some degree the representations that we witness in the media are likely to be sanitized, scrubbed clean of improprieties, stereotyped and otherwise rendered useless for thoughtful consideration. This knowledge is vital to all participants in a democratic society. Knowing who and how people who occupy the seats of power wield the levers of social control is key to positive social change.

While the work of Mills and Domhoff have uncovered the processes of the maintenance of power in America, it is undoubtedly the case that similar processes are being played out every day around the world. For that reason, it's imperative that these studies be undertaken throughout the world. The point of gaining an understanding of these processes is not to insert different people into the process (although in many cases this is desirable). Nor do we gain this understanding in order to derail the entire system or to just "throw the bastards out." (After all, in some cases the people holding power may not be scoundrels!) An understanding of the process will help us adjust the system as necessary, know where the points of intervention exist and, in general, increase the level of awareness thus making it more difficult for the people with less power to be bamboozled by those with more.

There are many exciting examples of this pattern. One particularly compelling one is based on the Reflect theory. It combines adult learning and social change using the theories of Paulo Freire integrated with participatory methodologies. Their report on Communication and Power describes how written and spoken word, images and numbers can be used by villagers in India (see figure below) in analyses of caste power.

Solution: 

Research power — what it is, how is it organized and applied, who has it. Although it is important to make the findings freely available. It is at least as important to disseminate the ideas and techniques that help people initiate their own power research projects. This pattern particularly applies to government and corporations but other people, institutions, and groups (such as hate groups, militias or organized crime families) need to be thoroughly investigated as well.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Powerful people and organizations tend to abuse their power. Without understanding who has power, how the power is wielded, and how that power can be kept within legitimate boundaries, people with less power can be ignored, swindled, lied to, led into war, or otherwise mistreated. Research power — what it is, how is it organized and applied, and who has it. Make the findings available and share the techniques that help people initiate their own power research projects.

Pattern status: 
Released
Information about introductory graphic: 
Image: ActionAid

Open Source Search Technology

Pattern ID: 
431
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
125
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Version: 
2
Problem: 

People rely on search engines to find the information they need on the web. The motivation, however, of the groups providing search engines is securing profits for their owners; other motives necessarily and inevitably take a back seat. The negative implications of relying solely on commercial search engines, though vast, are generally not recognized. If the enormous gatekeeping potential of commercial search engines is not balanced with open and accountable public approaches, the ability to find non-commercial information including that which doesn't appeal to broad audiences or is critical of governments and other powerful institutions could conceivably disappear. The privatization of the means to access information could also lead to a situation where advertisements and other "sponsored" information could crowd out non-commercial information.

Context: 

People in their daily lives need, search for — and find — a tremendous amount of information. Increasingly, they are looking for this information in cyberspace. While Internet technology has opened up an unbelievably vast amount of information and opportunities for communication for millions of people worldwide, the very fact that we are relying on technology which is out of our control is cause for concern — if not alarm. Although the application of this pattern is relevant to any system that people use to find information, our immediate attention is drawn to the Interne which is poised to become increasingly dominant in the years ahead.

Discussion: 

Access to information can be made easier; barriers to obtaining the information that people need can, at least in theory, be anticipated and circumvented. But, like the chain whose ultimate strength is determined by its weakest link, access to information can be thwarted at many levels. Although non-public (commercial and otherwise) providers of information and communication services can be "good citizens" who prioritize the needs of their users, the temptation to become less civil may prove irresistible if and when the "market" suggests that uncivic behavior would result in higher revenue. In circumstances such as those, they may decide to relax their current high standards accordingly. Big web portals are, for example, becoming increasingly cooperative with the Chinese government, presumably because of the huge market which potentially exists there. One approach to addressing this problem, an open source / public domain classification system similar to that used in the public libraries in the U.S. and other places coupled with open source, community owned and operated search engines, is simultaneously defensive and forward looking. Defensive, because it could serve as a hedge against information deprivation and commodification. Forward looking, because this approach could help usher in an exciting new wave of experimentation in the era of access to information. As the development of the Internet itself has demonstrated, the "open source" nature can help motivate and spur usage in terms of the complementary tasks of classifying information and retrieving it easily. Existing classification approaches like the Dewey Decimal System also have limitations (Anglo-centrism, for example) and approaches like Dewey are not strictly speaking in the public domain (although Dewey is readily licensable). Nevertheless the Dewey system might serve as at least a partial model. Schemes that are well-known, such as the Dewey Decimal system allow everybody to communicate more quickly and with less cost. It is the open protocol nature of the Internet that has allowed and promoted easy and inexpensive ways to not only get connected, but to develop new applications that relied on the underlying, no license fee, protocols. Computing and the potentially ubiquitous availability of online environments provide intriguing possibilities that older approaches didn't need or anticipate. The Dewey Decimal system, for example, tacitly assumes a physical arrangement of books — the code assigned by the librarian or technicians using the system declares both the book's classification and the location it will occupy in the library. Although having a single value is not without advantages, an online environment opens the door for multiple tags for a single web page — or for finer-grained elements (a paragraph, for example, on a web page or the results of a database query) or, broader-grained collections of elements. A federated collection of link servers (Poltrock and Schuler, 1995) could assist in this. As far as search engines are concerned, civil society can hardly be expected to compete with Google's deep pockets and its acres of server farms. Yet, it may be possible to distribute expertise, knowledge, and computational capacity in such a way that a competitive "People's Google" ("Poogle?) becomes conceivable. The idea of a single organization within civil society that can even remotely approach Google's phenomenal computing resources is of course absurd. But so in general is the idea of civil society "taming" the most powerful and entrenched forces and institutions. The problem here, though chiefly technological, is very similar to the one that civil society faces every day: How can a large number of people sharing similar (though not identical visions) work together voluntarily without central authority (or centralized support), undertake a project and succeed with large, complex undertakings. The "answer" though diffuse, incomplete and sub-optimal is for the "workload" — including identifying, discussing and analyzing problems to devising responses to the problems — to be divvied up — as "intelligently" as possible — so people, doing only "pieces" of the whole job can be successful in their collective enterprise. This strategy is much easier to define and implement in the technological realm. One very successful example of this is the SETI@home project that employs the "idle" cycles of user's computers all over the world to analyze radio telescope data in a search for extraterrestrial intelligence. If, for example, one million computers working together on the people's search project, could devote some amount of processing power and storage to the project, the concept might suddenly become more feasible. Although it would be possible for every participating computer to run the same software, breaking up the tasks and distributing them across a large number of computers (thus allowing us to "divide and conquer") is likely to provide the most suitable architecture for a People's Search Engine. For one thing this allows dynamic re-apportioning of tasks: Changing the type of specialization that a computer is doing to make the overall approach more effective. At the beginning of "Poogle's" life, for example, half of the computers might be devoted to finding (or "spidering") and indexing websites while the other half might work on identifying which web sites meet the users' search criteria and presenting a list of pertinent results to the user. After a week or so, it may become clear that the first task (identifying and indexing sites) may require less attention overall while the second task (handling user search requests) desperately needs more processing power. In this situation, some of the computers working on the first task could be re-assigned to the second task. Of course this situation might become reversed the following week and another adjustment would be necessary. In a similar way, the contents of indexes could be shifted from computer to computer to make more effective use of available disk space more efficiently while providing enough redundancy to ensure that the entire system works efficiently even though individual computers are being shut down or coming online all the time and without advance notice. The People's Search Engine (PSE) would make all of its ordering / searching algorithms public. Google's page-ranking algorithm is fairly widely known, yet Google has adjusted it over the years to prevent it from being "gamed" in various ways by people who hope to increase the visibility of their web pages by "tricking" the algorithm to gain a higher page rank than the Google gods would bestow. Ideally the PSE would offer a variety of search approaches of arbitrary complexity to users. Thus people could use an existing, institutionalized classification scheme like the Dewey Decimal System or a personalized, socially-tagged "folksonomy" approach, a popularity approach a la Google, a social link approach like Amazon ("People who searched for X also searched for Y") or searches based on (and/or constrained by) "meta-information" about the pages, such as author, domain, publisher, or date last edited.

Solution: 

The development of "open source," public domain approaches to information access is essential for equity and progress among the people of the world. The possibility of credible competition will serve as a reminder to for-profit concerns that access to information is a sacred human right. It would also help to maintain and extend the patterns of innovation that open protocols have made possible. Among other things, researchers and members of civil society need to work on classification systems for Internet resources. It is imperative that civil society focuses attention on open source approaches to searching, archiving and other information access needs. For many reasons, this will help in the evolving process of opening up the world of information to people everywhere.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

If the gatekeeping of commercial search engines is not balanced with open and accountable public approaches, the ability to find non-commercial information or that which is critical of governments and other powerful institutions could disappear. Open source, public search engines using open classification systems could solve this problem. This could open a new wave of experimentation and remind us that access to information is a sacred human right. 

Pattern status: 
Released

Illegitimate Theater

Pattern ID: 
621
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
123
Mark Harrison
The Evergreen State College
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project
Version: 
2
Problem: 

Theater, viewing and participating in performances, is an ancient yet vital cultural force. Although "legitimate" or mainstream theater has traditionally been a gathering place for the exchange of ideas, it is largely irrelevant in today's world as a tool for social change. Forces which have contributed to this situation include economic factors, dwindling audiences, the talent drain to other mediums, the transformation of audience tastes and expectations as a result of film and television, and the decline of the avant-garde as alternative to legitimate theatre.

Context: 

Illegitimate Theater can be "legimitate" response in almost any setting of ordinary — and extraordinary — life. It can be practiced in any place where an "audience" might be found.

Discussion: 

"Legitimate theater" engages a paying audience sitting inside a theater with the expectation that they will watch the performance of a play or musical. These productions employ conventions normally associated with traditional theater: lights up and down, applause at the end of acts, a proscenium stage, professional actors working with prepared scripts, no significant interaction between performers and spectators.

Less than 2 percent of the population in the United States attends legitimate theater performances.

While legitimate theater has lost much of its relevance to our everyday lives, theater (or performance) in the broad sense is a fundamental human experience. As such it represents a reservoir of immense potential that a mediated experience can rarely provide: the potential for human interaction. Film and video provide a stream of images to watch, but no experiences in which the viewer can actually participate. Everyday life is often a sequence of ordinary, that is expected, events. One's life experiences easily become insulated from important world events — and the possibility of learning from new experiences as well. Ordinariness becomes a form of oppression and a steady dumbing down of society is deleterious to culture and to democracy as well. Performance provides an immediate human experience. Theater — particularly its "illegitimate" varieties — can also punctuate the ordinary and thrust new and unexpected experiences into everyday life. It has the power to bring a person into new, temporary realities in which the self is momentarily forgotten and submerged. Theater can empower the spectator with insight and possibilities.

Baz Kershaw in his insightful study of the British Alternative Theatre Movement over four decades explicitly addresses the role of theater as an instrument of "cultural intervention." His book (1992) "is about the ways in which theater practitioners have tried to change not just the future action of their audiences, but also the structure of the audience's community and the nature of the audience's culture." This pattern affirms Kershaw's observation: New theater should accompany a new society.

Other phrases — such as Theater Without Theater, Anti-Theater, Meta-Theater, The World's a Stage, Social Performance, Guerilla Theater, or Oppositional (or Radical or Provocative) Theater — are variations on the title of this pattern. Each of these alternative formulations focuses on some attributes and not on others. We use the term "Illegitimate Theater" primarily to highlight the differences between it and legitimate theater. Illegitimate theater can describe any performances in which one or more conventions of the legitimate theater are circumvented. For example, the convention of a single, discrete performance can be ignored in illegitimate theater. Thus, a "one-two punch" can be delivered, possibly anonymously: Half of the cast can "perform" — in Starbucks, at the zoo, or, even, a traditional theatrical venue — while the other half of the cast can "accidentally" encounter the audience afterwards and engage with them a second time, perhaps in dialogue, perhaps again as spectators, perhaps as actor / participants in a new performance that builds on ideas of the original one. The French group Le Grand Magic Circus devised a performance which gradually added the spectators (while withdrawing their members) at the "end" of their performance until finally the spectators were the only ones left "performing" (Bennett, 1990).

Performance is an extremely broad term that characterizes an infinite number of situations including sports, rituals, education, carnivals, politics and protest. It can encompass everyday social events such as shopping, eating in restaurants, going to parties or hanging out. Performance can be spontaneous or planned, obviously "staged" or masquerading as "real life," artistic, political, cultural. The advent of “performance studies” as an academic discipline which transcends the traditional notion of the theater has contributed to our understanding of these myriad forms.

Bertolt Brecht, the most influential artist/advocate of theater for social change, rejected Aristotelian drama (the basis of Legitimate Theater) in favor of the Epic or Dialectical Theater. His theories and plays, such as Three Penny Opera" and Mother Courage, blur the line between real life and performance, reveal the mechanics of production, present actor and character simultaneously, and employ a wide range of techniques designed to rouse the audience to social action. The venerable San Francisco Mime Troupe with performances such as Fact Wino vs. Armagoddonman, Damaged Care, and Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan, is a more recent incarnation of Brechtian rebellion. Augusto Boal from Brazil, a Workers' Party (PT) activist, pioneered "Theater of the Oppressed" and other forms of participatory role-playing theater that has helped audiences to explore and recognize their own predicaments while fostering cooperation and critical engagement.

Many public protests, especially those that include role playing, dramatic encounters, or masks, puppets and other props can be viewed as a type of performance. When Greenpeace's sailing ship "Rainbow Warrior" confronts a nuclear submarine or whaling ship, two symbolic worlds collide. Crosses symbolizing those killed in Iraq spring up in Crawford, Texas near the ranch of U.S. President George Bush; Argentine mothers and grandmothers clothed in mourning black stand before the president's Casa Rosa in Buenos Aires. More recently social activists employing techniques of illegitimate theater, have emerged to confront corporate globalization. These include the marching bands and giant puppets in the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Reverend Billy from the Church of Not Shopping who orchestrates chain store "interventions" to "unlock the hypnotic power of transnational capital" and the "Yes Men" who have "played the roles" (as they satirically interpreted them) of various corporate and organizational officials to unsuspecting audiences around the world.

As Clifford Geertz would say — and Shakespeare before him — the world is truly a stage and everything we do in public is a type of performance. This of course means in a trivial sense that everyday life provides a venue for exhibition and self-promotion. The media exploits people's desire for "fame" (or publicity — the desire to be made publicly recognizable) and exhibits the ones it considers off-beat enough for public display, in the modern day equivalent of a freak show.

Media is more easily commodified when it assumes rigid forms. When a "package" exists, it's relatively easy — and cost-effective — to replicate it again and again with little effort or creativity. And when commercial broadcast media defines what is "legitimate", the imagination of the people decays, their capacity to create is harder to draw upon, their tolerance for experimentation and "amateurism" diminishes. Illegitimate

Theater, like other patterns in this language, has unsavory manifestations as well: burning a cross in the yard of an African-American or other ethnic minority, militaristic parades and rallies, public intimidates. Since "performance" likely predates language, its effects on people can be deep; it can unlock hate as well as love, anger as well as reason and compassion. Theater, whether legitimate or not, can be driven by emotion and therefore less analytic than many other patterns in this language. Illegitimate

Theater blurs or even negates the line between spectators and performers. In its extreme version everybody, all the time, is an actor. And "actors" in public performances can also be "actors" in social life, actors who help make things happen — for good or for ill. Although our life "in public" is a series of performances, our roles are often construed as "bit parts." But every moment is a "teachable moment;" every public appearance is an opportunity to do something new and to experience something new. Thus anybody, at least in theory, can practice the craft of illegitimate theater. The "performances" that come from this practice can be simple or elaborate, impromptu or painstakingly rehearsed. The point is to cause ripples in the everyday stream of life.

Illegitimate theater, like is predecessors "legitimate" or otherwise, can be used to provoke emotional reactions, discussion or reflection. Practiced successfully and in a great number of venues, illegitimate theater could help foster positive social change and increased democratization of culture.

Solution: 

Illegitimate theater represents a intriguing set of possibilities for interactions between people that can lead to social change. Performance as a deeply human phenomenon can be explored by audience and performers alike in our quest for a better world.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Theater, viewing and participating in performances, is an ancient yet vital cultural force. Theater — particularly its "illegitimate" forms — can punctuate the ordinary and evoke new and unexpected experiences. Anybody can practice Illegitimate Theater that causes ripples in the everyday stream of life. It can be used to provoke emotional reactions, discussion or reflection. It can even help foster social change and the democratization of culture.

Pattern status: 
Released

Community Inquiry

Pattern ID: 
724
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
122
Ann Bishop
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Bertram (Chip) Bruce
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Version: 
2
Problem: 

Communities face a wide variety of challenges in areas of health, education, economic development, sustainable environments, and social order. But regardless of the difficulty of these challenges, a necessary condition for addressing them is for communities to find ways for members to work together. Too often, community members work at cross purposes and fail to develop what Jane Addams (1912, Nov. 2) called "the capacity for affectionate interpretation," resulting in what John Dewey (1927) called "the eclipse of the public." Community inquiry is what Addams and Dewey called their theory and practice for reshaping communities and, thus, society at large.

Context: 

The challenges for constructive communities are as old as humanity and there will never be an absolute or universal solution to them. One reason is that every member of a community has unique experiences in life and thus unique perspectives, beliefs, and values. This diversity can be a source of strength within communities, but it can also lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict, and even violence. Diverse institutions have been created to address community challenges, including public libraries, public schooling, procedures for democratic governance, and venues for free expression. Often, however, these institutions are reduced from their idealized conception. With community inquiry, diversity becomes a resource and institutions are knit together productively.

Discussion: 

As Jane Addams pointed out in founding Chicago's Hull-House, the first settlement house in the U.S. (Addams, 1912), and Dewey examined through the creation of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, democracy has been more realized in its political than its social expression. That is, even when formal procedures are established and maintained, meaningful participation is by no means guaranteed. For example, a public library might offer a large collection of books available at no charge to members of the community, but meaningful use of those materials depends also on available public transportation, broad-scale development of literacy skills, and a social organization that makes people feel welcome. In this and many other examples, it is clear that the problem goes beyond institutions, structures, and procedures, requiring instead the means by which every member of the community comes into the process of authority.

Community inquiry provides a theoretical and action framework for people to come together to develop shared capacity and work on common problems in an experimental and critical manner. The word community signals support for collaborative activity and for creating knowledge that is connected to people's values, history, and lived experiences. Inquiry points to support for open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement.

Consider the case of East St. Louis. Its widely noted dissolution and destruction (Kozol, 1991) resulted from many factors, both internal and external. The integration of housing in neighboring cities had the perverse effect of East St. Louis losing most of its middle class and professional workers. Racism, both within and towards the city, was a key factor that led to its failure to get the resources it needed to maintain a vibrant community. Problems compounded as elements within the city began to pull in different directions, often serving their own ends at the expense of the larger community. For example, companies dumped hazardous waste and landlords allowed buildings to become dilapidated and dangerous. From a community inquiry perspective, East St. Louis exhibited a failure for democratic, participatory engagement and demonstrated little evidence of people within the city or larger entities—state and national—coming together with shared values and goals.

At the same time, East St. Louis has survived and in some aspects has developed the capacity to thrive. Community members have come together to address the severe problems they faced. Substantial assets, such as the talent and dedication of Katherine Dunham, have taken enduring form in her museums and international dance workshops for children (http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/kdunham/). The community collaborates with other organizations, such the University of Illinois; their joint East St. Louis Action Research Project (http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu) has helped improve conditions in the city by setting up, for example, community technology centers, new housing, a light rail station, and a youth-driven community theater. At the same time, ESLARP has provided new opportunities for university students, staff, and faculty who have worked in the community.

A key element of the work in East St. Louis is that it reflects continuing inquiry by people who are invested in the community in a variety of ways. That is, successes to date have not come from outsiders dictating and delivering solutions, but by bringing together participants from diverse perspectives to work together. Moreover, this work, while it addresses very practical problems of jobs, environment, health, education, cultural preservation and enrichment, and so forth, does not stop there. Instead, local action becomes a means through which the residents and those outside learn more about the community and its possibilities. In that sense, inquiry is both action and understanding. The lesson from East St. Louis, and similar communities, is that the process of community inquiry is ultimately of greater importance than the solving a specific problem.

We see many additional examples around the world of the power of community inquiry. In the domain of community development and learning, for example, a National Science Foundation study carried out in rural villages around Bangladesh related the finding that material from well-worn saris supplied a filtering material that worked better in reducing cholera than the nylon mesh that microbiologists had developed (Recer, 2003). In Reggio Emilia, Italy, with few of the resources found in affluent and advanced communities, families and teachers developed an innovative approach to education, now heralded throughout the world, that recognizes the potential of all children to learn and grow “in relation with others, through the hundred languages of doing, being, reflecting, and knowing” (http://www.reggioalliance.org). Community inquiry can also be manifested in the development of information and communication technology. See, for example, the culturally situated design tools developed collaboratively between Renssalear Polytechnic Institute and its community partners (http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/csdt.html) and the Community Inquiry Laboratory software created collectively by the University of Illinois and its partners around the world, who come from all walks of life (http://ilabs.inquiry.uiuc.edu).

Solution: 

Therefore: When a community faces some problem, think of it not simply as something to be fixed but rather as an opportunity for the community to come together, to build capacity, and to learn about itself and its situation in a manner that can be joyful and intellectually stimulating. Recognize that every member of the community has knowledge that may be critical to solving that problem but can be discovered only if that individual has a voice and a say in what the community does. Recognize also that most problems are not solvable in one step and even when they are, may recur in the future. Thus, it is critical for the community to not only fix its problems but to become an organism capable of further inquiry. The community’s knowledge about how to deal with challenges is not in fixed procedures but rather in the capacity to learn through ongoing action, or what Dewey called experimental knowing.

We have created a diagram to represent this cycle of ongoing community inquiry (see below): a spiral of asking questions, investigating solutions, creating new knowledge as we gather information, discussing our discoveries and experiences, and reflecting on our new-found understanding.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Communities face challenges in areas of health, education, economic development, sustainable environments, and social order. But regardless of the difficulty of these challenges, a necessary condition for addressing them is for communities to find ways for members to work together. Community Inquiry provides a theoretical and action framework for people to develop shared capacity and work on common problems in an experimental and critical manner.

Pattern status: 
Released
Information about introductory graphic: 
Emily Barney

Everyday Heroism

Pattern ID: 
447
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
116
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Version: 
2
Problem: 

In popular media, protagonists are usually richer, stronger, and more beautiful (or handsome) than "ordinary" people. "Ordinary" people, even if they have names, are turned into stock characters. Many of the situations, moreover, in which the protagonists find themselves are extraordinary (e.g. horror, action, thriller, fantasy just to name a few genres). This approach has the effect of making people feel that their own lives are boring and unimportant. Indeed, many people feel that "escaping" into a mediated reality, whether it's television, video games or movies, is the only way to "live." This approach also distracts people from actually addressing real problems by directing their imaginations on to situations that are totally irrelevant to their own lives.

Context: 

This pattern blends fact and fiction. It addresses the stories of people and settings in fiction and non-fiction and in "real life" as well.

Discussion: 

There are no reasons why stories involving "ordinary" people in more-or-less everyday life can't be genuinely beautiful, moving and inspirational.

The Everyday Heroism pattern was inspired by this passage: "Lispector (1925-1977) is best known for short stories and novels that are structured around small, epiphanic moments in the lives of Brazilian middle-class women" (Sadlier, 1999).

Jean François Millet's evocative painting of The Gleaners (1857) shows the simple heroism of simply staying alive. Toiling under the social stigma of gleaning for their food, these three women scoured the fields after the harvest for the leftovers to which they were entitled under French law. The film "To Be and To Have" provides another inspiring example. Through a simple and unhurried portrait of a school teacher in a small French village, the viewer understands his concerns for the children in the one-room school house, his hobbies and his connections with the entire village. No matter what the movies tell us, most real heroes don't fight intergalactic evil or psychopathic killers. The real struggles are at the "human level."

Beverly Cleary, a Portland, Oregon author captures a great deal of the ordinary "dangers" that everybody must face with her wonderful about Ramona. In Ramona the Brave, when Ramona was just six, "She was tempted to try going to school a new way, by another street, but decided she wasn't that brave yet." In that same year Ramona enters a new classroom with a teacher that doesn't seem to understand her or her imaginative ways of seeing things.

Although there is no evidence that Ramona became an activist, she probably would have respected the tough position it can put people in. One takes an unpopular stand and insists that changes for the good can be made. Clearly there would be no social change without heroism — including the "everyday" kind. A small but significant piece of wisdom offers encouragement to those of us who hesitate when faced with this challenge: Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.

The Giraffe Project promotes "ordinary heroism" (or, rather, heroism by people who might otherwise appear to be "ordinary") realizing that no movement is due to a single "leader." The Giraffe project celebrates people who "stick their nose out" and has named nearly 1,000 "Giraffes" thus far who have a vision of a better world. These people have all taken personal risks to initiate an ameliorative project on a grand a scale such as replanting a country's trees or on a "small" scale such as building bridges between two hostile groups in a community.

The original introductory photograph was of Reverend Maurice McCrackin, who was still active in his 90's, is from the Giraffe Heroes Project. In 1945 Reverend McCrackin built the first interracial Presbyterian congregation in the United States. The second introductory photograph was of a young Russian man demonstrating for fair elections. The current introductory photograph is of Greta Thunberg who was just nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her critical work on climate activism. The summary graphic is of The Gleaners, now in the public domain.

Solution: 

Produce — and consider — more popular media that involves "ordinary" people and "everyday" lives. Celebrate the heroes among us and strive to be one yourself. Even an "ordinary" one.

Categories: 
orientation
Categories: 
engagement
Categories: 
social
Themes: 
Education
Themes: 
Community Action
Themes: 
Social Movement
Themes: 
Case Studies
Verbiage for pattern card: 

In the media, heroes are usually richer, stronger, and better looking than ordinary people. And the situations in which the heroes find themselves are not ordinary. This makes people feel that their own lives are unimportant. No matter what the movies tell us, however, most real heroes are ordinary. We need media that involves ordinary people and everyday lives. Celebrate the heroes among us and strive to be one. Remember: Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.

Pattern status: 
Released
Information about summary graphic: 

Gleaners, Millet. Public Domain

The Power of Story

Pattern ID: 
793
Pattern number within this pattern set: 
114
Rebecca Chamberlain
The Evergreen State College
Version: 
2
Problem: 

The truth about stories is that's all we are. Thomas King (2003)

Stories are fundamental to being human. How do they change as languages and cultures evolve through different communication technologies? In the age of cyberspace we often feel alienated from genuine stories, ones that we live with every day, that tell us how to become decent human beings and live meaningful lives. Corporate media exploit story patterns that evolved to pass on ethical codes, and we are trapped into thinking about products instead of reflecting on our lives. Traditional myths explored dynamic relationships between humans and nature. How can stories to help us adapt to our quickly changing world?

Context: 

This pattern addresses the concerns of organizations and individuals involved in: Education, Culture, Arts, Society, Mythology, Technology, Law, Philosophy, Humanities, Psychology, Science, Environmental Studies, Religion, Social & Political Science, and Activism.

Discussion: 

One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted "knowingly or unknowingly" in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives. Ben Okri, Nigerian storyteller.

Patterns in stories tend to reflect the environments we live in and the communication media we use. Indigenous peoples evolved patterns in oral traditions that resonated with the voices of the land and reinforced memory and meaning. The invention of writing and the phonetic alphabet played with the way language and images could be displayed as texts. The advent of the printing press offered freedom to experiment with new narrative and poetic forms, as well as restraints, as texts and language became standardized. The structure of stories changed as they moved from the places they were told onto the printed page.

Today, can words again become "winged" as they fly through both time and space in new forms offered by electronic media? Speech is communal; it exists only as it is being shared. As stories shift and change in response to new environments and technologies, who has access and jurisdiction to manipulate them? Can these new mediums offer opportunities to engage our senses and help us reconnect to the natural world? Can this enriched experience help us reflect on the deeper messages that stories contain?

Stories are conduits or vehicles that mediate our inner and outer worlds. When we tell stories, we are connected to live events and internal dramas. Modern cultures utilize technology to record ideas or performances, and tend to value the analysis of texts, recordings, and other artifacts of expression. We cultivate methods of reflection that reinforce our capacity to respond, think, and explore symbolic messages, but our objectivity makes us feel removed or alienated from authentic experience. We often yearn for the mystery of stories to deepen our lives. Oral cultures are immersed in ritual and experience; the time, place, and context in which a story is told is crucial to its meaning. Myths, which convey symbolic messages, are also repositories or living encyclopedias of practical knowledge and wisdom gained from sustainable relationships to the natural world. Oral traditions resonate with mnemonic patterns, poetic rhythms, tones, and inflections of local landscapes. 

Richard Louve points out that studies of the songs of birds and whales reveal many of the same laws of composition as those used by humans. New scientific methods have enabled humans to learn about the intricate patterns of human and animal communication, but have not given most children a deep or genuine experience of animals and the stories or songs grounded in the natural world. This results in what Love describes as the modern child's "hyper-intellectualized" perception of nature and other animals.

Technology gives us tools to analyze and preserve traditional stories, but also disrupts and alienates people from meaningful stories that connect them with sustainable patterns in the natural world. Modern myths are often caught up in the social, political, and economic systems that our new technologies have created. Those who control the stories, knowledge, and mediums of communication wield the power.

Marshall McLuhan explores the shadow side of technological and economic success by arguing that popular culture is a source for diagnosing the "collective trance" of industrial society. Ads are a new kind of storytelling; "a social ritual or magic that enhances us in our own eyes." Rolf Jensen says, "The highest-paid person in the first half of the next century will be the 'storyteller.' Many global companies are mainly storytellers, and the value of products depends on the story they tell." Advertisers proclaim freedom of choice as the foundation of the American way of life; however, they gloss over questions of power and control. McLuhan suggests that individuals break the hypnotic trance of the media through tough-minded evaluation that probes the collective myths of our industrial folklore.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell says, "not only have the old mythic notions of the nature of the cosmos gone to pieces, but also those of the origins of the history of mankind." He suggests, that to give meaning to life, the modern person cannot simply reproduce inherited patterns of thought or action, but must create their own stories. Since many people start with seeds provided by the media, how do they proceed?

Words and stories are active agents. Ernest Cassirer says that the "word," in early cosmologies, is the primary force from which being and doing originate. Likewise, the cause and effect of media and print "word magic" in modern cultures determines our political and economic systems, and can result in nationalism and colonialism. Traditional stories and myths that have evolved from oral, consensually shared standards and beliefs that value feeling and community interaction have come into conflict with technologies that value independence, analytical thought, and scientific or secular authority. Modern civilization is faced with a split between the head and the heart.

In the Greek myth of the phonetic alphabet, King Cadmus plants dragons' teeth (alphabetic symbols) that rise up as armed men. If the alphabet could have such effects, what is the effect of modern technologies? We face the problem of how to deal ethically with the power humans have manufactured through technology. Can we recover a sense of reverence for the word without fueling tribal or national myths that sow dragons’ teeth?

Thoreau anticipated these arguments in “Walking,” when he says, “There are other letters for the child to learn than those which Cadmus invented.” Rather than learning letters in dusty schools, Thoreau wanted students to learn from wilderness. For him, mythology came close to expressing the language of nature. He advocates a kind of “tawny grammar” that celebrates what is wild and free. Through this, he says, “The highest that we can attain is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.”

Perhaps McLuhan suggests a solution to our dilemma when he says, “two cultures or technologies can, like astronomical galaxies, pass through one another without collision; but not without change of configuration.” Are we ready for a transformation of this magnitude? Can we connect traditional stories and myths with new technologies in ways that don’t hypnotize us into a trance, but actually engage us more completely with community and the natural world?

Solution: 

Storytelling, an ancient art, needs to be rediscovered and updated. Stories help humankind to understand, reinterpret, and reframe the meanings that under-gird their existence. Can we use new communications technologies to weave together words and images, scientific information and poetic inspiration, and incorporate multiple voices (including the larger community of plants, animals, birds, and elemental forces) to tell multi-faceted stories of our earth communities? Can stories help us to weave together the communications and global challenges that face us as we learn to live co-creatively with each other and the natural world?

Verbiage for pattern card: 

The ancient art of storytelling needs to be rediscovered and updated. Stories help humankind to understand and reframe the meanings that undergird their existence. We can use new technologies to weave words and images, scientific information and poetic inspiration, and incorporate multiple voices to tell multi-faceted stories of our earth communities. As Thomas King tells us, The truth about stories is that’s all we are.

Pattern status: 
Released
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