Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sunday: The Dark Side of Democratic Media

Bruce Sterling, best known as brilliant science fiction writer, is also concerned student of modern media. I've mentioned the democratic potential of the intersection of cheap digital media (cell phones, movie quality consumer video cams), sophisticated editing on commoditized computers (page design, web design, iMovie...) and of big, cheap broadband media distribution to let much, much larger numbers of people tell their stories. That's still a good thing, or so I think--one of the most potent political events of the fiber referendum last year was the taping and subsequent digitization and wide dispersal of the push poll via email blasts and internet stories.

But Sterling points to a dark side he illustrates by examining a series of technology-enabled scandals in India:
Viewed in this light, India's woes are just the colorful Bollywood version of a global story. In a world where cheap distributed media is cached on the Net, there are no truly local problems.

Ready access to the means of digital communication is a force for democracy. It gives voice to ordinary citizens and disseminates vital information that those who command power and status would rather bury. More power to the heroic, censor-busting bloggers in China and Iran! But the ability to capture private images and conversations and deliver them worldwide also empowers dark cabals of wiretappers and blackmailers. These people are no friends of liberty and free expression: They aim to destroy public figures while remaining safely hidden in obscurity.
It's worth thinking about. Things that used to be easily hidden from public view are going to be made public. The only real solution is to become more tolerant of people's foibles. We've got a tradition of that down here. Both Long and Edwards' famed personal lives received a pass. Nobody down here thinks public figures are perfect. But in a lot of places this is going to be a bit of a shock. It'll be a little stomach-turning to watch it mature.

Seeing Sterling's name reminded me of a book he wrote back in 1999 that was partly set in Louisiana in the 2040s: Distraction. It's a sort of hallucinatory bio-cyberpunk piece and a really great example of the book and the man's work. (A longish review) But the Louisiana part is a lot of includes a Huey Long style character and some fairly realistic Cajun's ... for 2040s and is set in world where global warming is putting the Netherlands under water. It's an entirely different read in 2006 than it was in 2000....

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