sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘cults’ Category

stop saying ‘ATM machine,’ and other exhortations of a participatory culture theorist

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 21, 2009

I hate grammatical redundancy. Some of the best examples of this are:

  • ATM Machine (Automated Teller Machine Machine)
  • PIN Number (Personal Identification Number Number)
  • ISBN Number (International Standard Book Number Number)

There’s actually a term for this: RAS syndrome, or Redundant Acronym Syndrome syndrome.

“But,” said my buddy Dan, with a look of pure glee, “you say ATM Machine like everyone else, right?”

“I do not,” I answered. And I don’t.

“That’s a dilemma,” Dan said, still gleeful. “The English major part of you conflicting with the participatory culture theorist, who says that whatever the people decide is right.”

He was ribbing me, but in truth it’s a fair enough critique. After all, some of the most influential books on participatory culture and the social revolution include the following titles, all of which intentionally fly in the face of common attitudes toward morality, ethics, and human progress:

Here Comes Everybody (Clay Shirky)
The World is Flat (Thomas Friedman)
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Don Tapscott)
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (Seth Godin)

And, I’ll just admit it, my blog is absolutely peppered with sweeping declarations: Print journalism isn’t viable. Young people are leading the social revolution. The question isn’t ‘is it moral?’, but ‘is it popular?’

Why, after all, isn’t the question ‘is it moral?’ Simply put, most of the time when people ask that question about aspects of the social revolution, what they’re actually asking is more along the lines of ‘is this better or worse than the experiences and culture I’m used to?’ This is a matter of personal preference, and there’s no accounting for taste.

Some of my friends think wearing a wristwatch makes it easier for them to make it to their meetings on time; some of my friends think watches just make them more time-conscious and anxious. If suddenly a critical mass of people started wearing watches and pressuring the rest of their culture to wear watches too, some of my friends would be thrilled (everybody will have to be on time now!), some would be upset (we’re all going to start caring more about the time than about each other!), and some wouldn’t care at all (*shrug* it’s just another tool to help me get through my day.).

Some people think online social networks signal the decline of community. Some people think new, valuable community structures have emerged around these networks. And some people just think online Scrabble is a fun way to spice up a boring work day. All of these people are right, but arguing about whether we’re better or worse off (or the same) is pointless, because is a wristwatch-bearing culture better than one that uses sundials? Your answer depends on a lot of things, like: whether you make your living off of sundial manufacturing; whether you can personally afford a watch; whether you were someone who cared a lot about keeping track of the time in the first place; and whether you think a watch looks good on your wrist.

Please don’t accuse me of absolute moral relativism, though; even participatory culture theorists have their limits. It’s wrong to force everyone to wear wristwatches, for example, just as it’s wrong to ban sundials. If democracy, freedom of the press, or free speech falter when print journalism hits its death throes, I will be among the throngs calling for social change. Participatory media platforms tend, as all previous platforms have, to silence certain groups (nonwhites, nonstraights, older participants, less educated [formally or informally] participants); this is painful and wrong.

And RAS syndrome will always be wrong, no matter what percentage of the population adopts the phrase “ATM machine.”




Footnote upon the construction of the masses:
some people are young and nothing
else and
some people are old and nothing
else
and some people are in between and
just in between.

and if the flies wore clothes on their
backs
and all the buildings burned in
golden fire,
if heaven shook like a belly
dancer
and all the atom bombs began to
cry,
some people would be young and nothing
else and
some people old and nothing
else,
and the rest would be the same
the rest would be the same.

the few who are different
are eliminated quickly enough
by the police, by their mothers, their
brothers, others; by
themselves.

all that’s left is what you
see.

it’s
hard.

(Charles Bukowski, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, 1969)




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Posted in Clay Shirky, collective intelligence, cults, culture, journalism, language, participatory culture, social media, social revolution | Leave a Comment »

one thing I’ll miss when print journalism finally dies

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 21, 2009

what will we do without really good exposés of cults and such, like a recent shredding of the Church of Scientology?

Aside from skimming the occasional story about Scientology’s hold on celebrities or following the campaign of the civic protest group Anonymous, I really don’t pay a lot of attention to the day-to-day workings of the Church of Scientology.

A recent three-part expose of the Church of Scientology’s leaders, including its head, David Miscavige, caught my attention. The piece, published last month in the St. Petersburg Times, points to a long history of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse codified in the tenets of very religion itself. Members of the church are pressured to confess, in writing, all transgressions, and these documents are held in order to be used against defectors. According to the piece, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard

wrote a policy stating that a person leaves as a kind of noble gesture when he can’t help himself from injuring the church. To justify leaving, Hubbard believed, the person thinks up bad things to say about the church.

Anyone who leaves has committed “overts” (harmful acts) against the church and is withholding them. The church is obligated to make such people come clean, Hubbard said, because withholding overts against Scientology can lead to suicide or death by disease. They must write down their transgressions to remain in good standing when they leave.

The story hinges on the word of four former executives in the Church of Scientology, all of whom paint a picture of extreme dysfunction (regular beatings, cruel and avaricious deceits, and the death of one emotionally troubled young woman while in the care of the notoriously anti-psychiatry church) and all of whom have suffered ongoing smear campaigns in an effort to discredit their accusations and their motives. The campaign, like so much of what this particular religion sets its mind to, is incredibly run–so well run, in fact, that though I’m predisposed toward suspicion of organized religion and especially cults like the Church of Scientology, I still wonder about the veracity of the defectors’ accounts.

Particulars aside, this series is about as thorough, intricate, and detailed as you can get. It’s the product of countless interviews and weeks of poring over legal documents, transcripts, and complicated news reports. The journalists, Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin, have done fine work that represents the best of the journalistic profession.

It’s one thing we’re likely to lose, at least for a good while, as the profession continues its steady decline. Citizen journalism is good for an awful lot, but it can’t offer up a detached, professional, and multi-perspectival story like this. At least, if it can, I haven’t yet come across a good example. I hope someone out there can prove me wrong.

Posted in cults, journalism, religion, zombies | Leave a Comment »