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The Weaponization of Language

Just a quick note to help people, particularly the Media in the United States, to better understand what it means when language is weaponized—and especially what it means in the context of connected digital communication networks. While these techniques have been refined over many years in Russia and the former Soviet Union, they are somewhat new to mainstream American politics. This is not to say that these techniques haven’t been used over the years, but generally they’re employed around the edges. It hasn’t been possible, until recently, to move them to the center of a political communication strategy.

Certain tools are designed as weapons, for example: guns, knives, clubs, brass knuckles, bombs, poison gas. Each of these tools is specially constructed to inflict a certain kind of harm on its target. Now here’s another list of tools: a cast-iron frying pan, a fireplace poker, a baseball bat, a car, a brick, and an electrical current. Each of these tools has a proper use—a set of uses that humans understand through habit. All of these non-weapons have been used to commit murder in some mystery novel. Part of solving the mystery involves a detective envisioning an ordinary tool expressing its potential as a deadly weapon.

When language is used as a weapon—it’s deployed to inflict the maximum possible damage. The usual response to language used in this way is to say that it is neither true nor proper. While this may be a reasonable approach to language used to communicate, it has no effect on language when used as a weapon. It’s the equivalent of saying that the blow inflicted by a frying pan to the head of the victim was not a proper use of frying pans.

Much of the effectiveness of advertising is due to the frequency with which it is broadcast. If you see or hear an ad ten times a day for three months, it’s likely you will remember it for the rest of your life. Most of us can recite ad copy we heard in our childhood even when the product has long since disappeared from the shelves. To maximize the effectiveness of weaponized language, it must have high frequency. In political campaigns this is usually accomplished through producing negative attack ads and buying lots of radio and television time.

In the age of cable news and connected digital social networks, another strategy is possible. An attack is constructed that will harm the target using metaphors, statements and images. In itself, this isn’t enough to assure the attack will be retweeted frequently and universally (by all sides) throughout cable news, newspapers and social media networks. Two elements must be added to the attack, the first is that it should be demonstrably false. This will cause many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack, and then explain why it is false. If the attack is on the veracity of the media itself, many will discount the explanation. The second added ingredient is that the attack must break with ordinary decorum, it must cross a moral line. This causes many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack and explain why it is immoral. Each of these media responses is the equivalent of decrying the improper use of a frying pan in committing an assault.

The media becomes complicit in the attack because it serves as the force multiplier that maximizes the harm. That’s how “playing the media” works. And as the media chases its tail on obviously false sensational headlines, it loses its credibility on the serious investigations it’s doing. When a President has immunity through Republican majority in Congress, a free press is needed more than ever. The attacks on the media have escalated and the media seems blind to its own role in amplifying the harm that is done.

Song of Finitude

The song about humans and non-humans on the earth is of an undetermined length. Undetermined, but finite.

It doesn’t go on forever, but the last note isn’t a set number of beats away.

Right now we’re playing so far ahead of the beat that the song is starting to lose its shape.

Tempo changes everything

Test Your Strength


Sometimes there’s just a little glint of something in the sand. A quotation is brought in to the stream of the conversation and it’s meant to provide support for some point being put across in an answer to an interviewer’s question.

In Tim Bradshaw’s Financial Times interview with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, it’s the moment when he pulls Milton Friedman into the conversation. The question has to do with whether or not ideas from Burning Man have entered the larger culture. Harvey responds:

I’d like to mischievously quote Milton Friedman. He said change only happens in a crisis, and then that actions that are undertaken depend on the ideas that are just lying around.

I don’t know the origin of the quote or whether it’s accurate or not. While I didn’t have much use for the rest of the article, I did find the Friedman quote intriguing. On the one hand we could make the case that the ideas we find lying around are the result of some historical process and therefore predetermined by their predecessors. The other case is that these ideas are lying around for a variety of reasons. Some are bought and paid for, others are the result of conspiracy theories, some are just random trends. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. As I look around me at the ideas lying around, that one seems to fit the bill.

When we consider Friedman’s idea about crisis and action and apply it to global warming, we run into a problem of scale. According to Friedman, action occurs when we perceive the crisis. As the crisis reveals itself, we humans look to the ideas lying around and hope to find something that might serve to blunt its force. Global warming is a large wave overwhelming the biosphere. While it may not be possible to pinpoint the exact moment this wave began gathering its force, certainly it’s a trans-generational event. The patenting of the steam engine (1781) serves as a useful marker of global warming’s beginning.

Objects of this size and complexity have been given the name hyperobjects by philosopher Timothy Morton. Even our ability to directly detect the crisis is limited. We require a global network of sensors, computer climate models and a good measure of inference. The size and momentum of the global warming wave begs the question as to whether the ideas we might find lying around could possibly counter something of this size.

We look for an idea to counter strength with strength. We might believe through the use of leverage, physics and ingenuity we can create a force sufficient to provide an answer. Our instinct tells us that size and momentum of global warming must be overmastered.

In addition to the word “hyperobjects” Timothy Morton also has given us an idea of the value of “hypocrisy, weakness and lameness.” When confronted with something as large and powerful as global warming, perhaps we should take a different tack. Dinosaurs were the most powerful animals on earth during another global climate event. Strength didn’t result in survival. Perhaps as we look at the ideas lying around, we shouldn’t assume that it’s strength that will get us out of this crisis. To evade the power of a hyperobject, we may need to reverse our instincts and get small.

The Trumpian Wager

This presidential election will test the maxim that there's no such thing as bad publicity. The Republican candidate is operating on the theory that policy and issues don't matter. If the candidate can dominate the news cycle, meaning that he is the topic of more televised conversations than his opponent, he will win the election. He believes he's doing very well, and by his measure, he is. He dominates the national news every day and every night. He's all anyone can talk about. He's confident he can continue to dominate every news cycle between now and the election. Every voter in the country will have heard his name more than any other. No one has ever run a presidential campaign on that theory.

The reason the Republican candidate doesn't need to know any policy is because he only uses a single measure for his relative success or failure each day. If he's the lead story on a majority of national and cable newscasts, then he's won the day. He's quite right in saying that people will be writing books about his campaign. Critics of his methods miss the point. The more outrage they express, night after night, the more he believes he's winning.

The wager he's making is that the winner of the election will be the candidate who has the best ratings.


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