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Technological determinism and convenience bias

Yesterday I was trying to make a point about information search costs, and I don't think I ever succeeded in making it clear. I'm hoping the ideas in this Boston Review article by Evgeny Morozov will help. Morozov argues that cyber-optimists who think of the internet as a medium inherently spreads freedom because it creates a public sphere that's harder to control and because it lowers the costs of disseminating information are being somewhat myopic. "Cyber-utopians’ biggest conceptual mistake is treating cyberspace as some kind of anarchist zone, which the authorities dare not enter except to shut things down. Media reports encourage this view of authoritarian governments as technophobic Internet censors." But as he points out, authoritarian regimes (and the media interests that collude with them, perhaps) don't maintain power and oppress people merely through censorship, through the stifling of the information flow. Rather than also maintain control by (1) flooding the public sphere with disinformation or trivia, drowning out or diluting subversive communication and (2) by encouraging egocentric apathy in the population so that they don't develop an interest in political protest or collective action.

The internet, for all the possibilities for semi-spontaneous group formation and communication it offers -- making it, as Morozov writes, "cheaper, faster, leaner" -- is ultimately neutral as a medium; it can facilitate those authoritarian big-brother communication strategies outlined above just as easily as it can be used to circulate samizdat and allow resistance efforts to coalesce in the interstices. The main problem for resistance efforts is that samizdat becomes harder and harder to differentiate from among the cornucopia of information proliferating exponentially online as each hour passes. "While the new digital public spheres may be getting more democratic (at least quantitatively), they are also heavily polluted by government operators, making them indistinguishable from the old, tightly controlled analogue public spheres," Morozov writes. Repressive governments may have reason to encourage us to produce reams of inane personal information online, as this contributes a great deal to the data smog that then shrouds state malfeasance. Blogging is not necessarily disinfecting sunlight; it is just as often provides a smokescreen or a sideshow.

Morozov cites this telling fact, that "East Germans who could not tune in to West German broadcasting had higher rates of opposition to their government than those who did." This implies that access to Western style lifestyle accoutrements -- the apolitical modes of identity cultivation -- quells dissent. The point: "digital natives are as likely to be digital captives as digital renegades" -- captive to a happy and prosperous marriage of the culture industry with an authoritarian regime. Habituating ourselves to consuming trivia about celebrities and one another assures that developing a political consciousness will remain an unnecessary bother for most of us. That social networks produce reams of self-confessed information highly useful to a state-security apparatus is gravy.

The idea of information pollution is also a matter of information costs. The internet makes it seem as though it is easy to collect information on most subjects -- just type it into a search engine, and there you have it. But this seemingly straightfoward process is anything but, because there is no guarantee that what a simple search yields is unbiased or undistorted. It may in fact be deliberately misleading -- the product of information management efforts or shrewd marketing. Search results, in short, are subject to the same possibilities of manipulation as any other information source, only the ease with which the information comes to us conditions us to trust it. A sort of convenience bias, combined with the apparent surfeit of data that a search yields, makes what we discover seem self-directed and therefore credible -- inflected with our interests rather than someone else's, since we picked any particular needle out of the haystack. We grow accustomed to information on demand, guaranteed and certified by our own instant gratification and apparent freedom of choice among readily available options. But this easily harvested information is the most easy for authoritarian forces, or alternatively, oligarchical forces, to manipulate. Thus an ideal synthesis can be achieved by the powers that be: Internet users end up consuming the information that the Man wants them to consume while believing the Man has been circumvented. We think the information has been set free by the apparent limitlessness of the medium by which it is conveyed, and is therefore more likely to be "true" for our intents and purposes. But instead the ease with which information is available is just as likely to make us lazy and complacent about its veracity and about the complicated amalgam of ends it in fact serves.

As information costs plummet, our investment (in terms of mental energy) in challenging that information also drops. Information, as a commodity, becomes too cheap. It no longer pays to worry about our standards while making more of it or in sorting through it. In fact, we have an incentive to consume as much information as possible and sort out at some later date what the utility of it should have been. Convenience goes hand in hand with consumption acceleration.

In short: Thanks to the internet it has become simple for us to produce and disseminate information -- creating information pollution. It has become simple for us to gather information -- creating convenience bias. These offset the gains for freedom that the internet affords.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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