Political Intermediaries – Translating Technological Advances Into Government Policy

February 23, 2010

Culture is a “soft” kind of power: it greatly influences and shapes society, but rarely makes the “hard” decisions that will immediately effect changes in how people live. Governments, on the other hand, deploy this “hard” power through the policies they enact, and as such can have great impact on the lives of citizens in the everyday sense. For this reason it is interesting to see what governments are thinking about new technologies, and how changes in technologies are affecting their overarching partisan philosophies.

In response to yesterday’s post on cultural intermediaries, a friend directed me to a 14-minute online presentation by British Leader of the Opposition David Cameron titled “The Next Age of Government” (thanks, Jeff!). Watch it here on TED.com, and if you haven’t spent much time on TED.com, this is also a great opportunity to look around a bit. It’s a fantastic site. Mr. Cameron, while no Benjamin Disraeli, is a thoughtful and relatively engaging speaker who seems to be able to abstract himself from the day-to-day granularity of politics and comment on a few “big ideas.”

He begins by asking how “we” can make things better without spending more money, and notes that there are many factors affecting “well-being,” including family, achievement, values, etc. that are outside of things the government controls (such as health care spending). He then posits that we are living today in the “post-bureaucratic age,” after many years of “pre-bureaucratic,” or local, control and “bureaucratic,” or central, control by the government or other powers that be. I was interested to note that advances in technology – primarily in the form of improvements in travel and communications – were essential in demarcating these ages. His point was that the role of government has changed – from overseeing and running all major programmes simply because it could, and was the only organization that could, to being in a position to give citizens information and let them make their own decisions.

His basic premise is that knowledge (brought by technology) equals power, and not just power for the government, but for ordinary people. He cleverly and seamlessly incorporates the benefits of technological innovation (transparency, choice) into the classic conservative mantra of personal accountability. His message is not, “The government is collecting all your information to be a kind of Big Brother and watch over you,” as Gordon Brown and Labour are perceived right now; it’s, “We are going to give you all this information so you can run with it and make your own choices. Go ahead: challenge our existing supplier agreements if you can do better. We’ll tell you which hospitals have the best wait times so you can go there. You’ll know where lots of crime is occurring – avoid those areas.” And he sums it all up with a classic quotation from JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It’s a masterful display of euphemism, because while he is giving all of this power to the people, he is simultaneously and deliberately not saying, “And if you don’t avoid the areas where crime is most frequently occurring, and you are assaulted, it is very much your own fault.” This, of course, is the flip side of less government and more “power to the people,” as he says:  responsibility of the people. It is also an inherently capitalistic idea, in that it encourages competition among government services like hospitals and police departments to be the safest, fastest, best at controlling infection outbreaks, whatever – another core tenet of conservatism. It’s remarkable how well these messages blend into Mr. Cameron’s presentation, which on the surface is all about intermediaries. Instead of government being the instigator of action, David Cameron wants it to be an intermediary; a broker between services and citizens. It’s a fundamental shift in how government is viewed. We will see later this year if Britons agree with this shift.

I suspect this is where Barack Obama is going wrong today. He is trying to fuse these two ideas – the oversight of government and the responsibility of the people – and in doing so is peddling an inconsistent message. His unprecedented spending on health care and stimulus measures is well known, and violently opposed by the Tea Party movement, most Republicans, and even many Democrats and Independents. Again and again his opponents call for smaller government, less public money being spent – in other words, how the government can make things better without spending more money.

It’s not easy. But many of the technological innovations and initiatives David Cameron pointed to as critical for the “post-bureaucratic age” (transparency, choice and most importantly, lots and lots of information) are already in place in the United States. Perhaps Mr. Obama should shift his message back to what he said in his November 2008 victory speech:

“[Change] can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”

What do you think? Is government’s role in the modern age as a provider and overseer, or as an intermediary? Do you buy David Cameron’s argument? Are we really living in a “post-bureaucratic” age? And if so, isn’t there a better name for it?

Cultural Intermediaries in the Wikipedian Age

February 22, 2010

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how technology has changed the way we communicate. It has obviously changed the tenor of our conversations:  they happen much more quickly now, and many at once, and in many different forms and forums.  We talk to more people, and different ones, with experiences different from our own.  But has technology changed the content of our communications? And has the level of quality changed?

Cultural intermediaries then…

I read a statement about culture in an article for a class a few years ago, and it has stayed vividly in my memory. The author was Pierre Bourdieu, an important sociologist and thinker from the past century, and he was discussing cultural intermediaries, those who fit between “legitimate” culture and mass-produced culture, the popularizers of the world. He wrote in 1984 but his perspective seemed much older: he described the petit bourgeoisie and their love of what he calls the “minor forms of legitimate culture” such as “light operas, science programmes, [and] poetry readings.” The intermediaries give life to dry institutional competence, as he puts it, but as presenters are devoid of any intrinsic value in and of themselves. They instead stage moderate cultural revolutions by canonizing “not-yet-legitimate arts” and masquerading as experts by surrounding themselves with a veneer of cultural authority in the form of (and this is worth quoting in full) “Academician contributors to painless history magazines, Sorbonne professors debating on TV, Menuhins gracing ‘quality’ variety shows.” (I had to look up Menuhin also; he was considered one of the twentieth century’s best violinists.) I like to think of this as giving street cred to high art, and vice versa.

…and now

I think of this passage often. I see its effects when I read web pages dedicated to collecting strange maps or entertainment blogs covering pop culture. I see it when I watch American Idol and note how it attempts to associate itself with the new “legitimate” musical culture (producers like Quincy Jones, judges like Elton John, and YES!, performers like George Michael). I see it when I watch YouTube videos or ze frank’s peculiar brand of comedy. It is exactly what Bourdieu means: everywhere today, individuals without the “standard cultural credentials” (whatever those may be) have essentially cornered the market on some small area of life in which there is great popular interest. (Interestingly, it is often themselves – think of most Internet memes and how they can come out of nowhere from an individual’s particular fancy writ large.) I read the writers’ comments about American Idol and Survivor on EW fairly religiously, all the while thinking that it is crazy that there are individuals out there whose livelihood is earned acerbically describing the proceedings of a variety show to an audience that mostly includes people who watched it the night before. How did this happen? And at least their subjects are real people: there is also extensive discussion about TV dramas, and comedies, and everything in between.

And what discussion of the canonization and genre-ization of life would be complete without discussing Wikipedia? Wikipedia is founded upon the classification and summarization of life’s minutiae, things like characters in popular movies, or levels in video games, or contestants on reality television shows. Approximately 45% of its content is Culture & Arts, or Biographies & Persons. (1% is Thought & Philosophy.) I’m guessing most of that is current pop culture. In order to gain entry, a topic must be “notable,” that is, it must have “received significant coverage in secondary reliable sources (i.e., mainstream media or major academic journals) that are independent of the subject of the topic.”  Consider: this is the veneer of cultural “legitimacy” that Bourdieu speaks of, this association with longstanding cultural pillars like the established news media. The irony is that old media are dying, and Wikipedia grows every minute. It has become a cultural compass in its own right.

Cultural legitimacy in the 21st century

Which leads me to ask what “important” and “legitimate” means today. Has technology changed the content of communication after all? Does it, by its nature as transient and inclusive, privilege the popular, mass-produced, lowbrow culture? And if so, is that bad? Are certain types of culture intrinsically better or more valuable than others? Bourdieu would likely say “yes,” in that his discussions of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” culture included an inherent value judgment. The debate rises to new levels of importance – and not just culturally, but politically – with so much more “out there” and accessible. Viewers can pick and choose what elements of culture they pay attention to, essentially filtering out all viewpoints that do not converge with their own. (The Atlantic ran a fascinating article on the shift to new media and how it has affected politics last month – check it out if you have a chance.)

But who are the culture brokers who determine what culture is good or bad, highbrow or lowbrow, worthy or not worthy of attention?

It’s relevant and interesting to me because posthistorical turns 1 month old today.  And I look at the most popular posts sometimes on the WordPress Dashboard and sigh that they are always about things like “the truth about Nicole Richie’s engagement ring,” or a “LOST exclusive” or a change in the top 24 of American Idol (full disclosure: I clicked on that one). There is no person deciding what is most popular in and around WordPress. Numbers are. Undoubtedly, because of today’s technology, culture is more democratized than ever before. And there are many, many more intermediaries than ever before because technology has played upon how fractured our culture can be. There are more and more people out there who don’t want to be mere consumers of information and culture, but producers of it as well. Many more people are finding their voices than ever before, and creating new forums to talk about culture. I am one of these people, and I love being able to be one.

New technology has made it easier to become a cultural intermediary, and in doing so has legitimized – at least in part – hundreds of new forms of culture. The content has indeed changed – significantly. It has caused a revolutionary shift in cultural studies as well, and changed the lenses through which we see and categorize the world for the purposes of analysis.

So who are the cultural intermediaries of the twenty-first century? Perhaps we might call them “aggregators,” either in their automated forms, or human ones. They are those who collect seemingly disparate bits of data and combine them into a coherent and meaningful whole.  I believe that all this technology makes cultural intermediaries – the trusted, popular, consistently competent ones – more important than ever. Career counsellors and management thinkers in the “information age” are constantly pointing out that with all of the information being thrown at us, the need increases for those who can rise above it all and provide an intelligent layer of analysis to help others sift through it and realize what is important.

So my focus as I move forward in life and with this blog is going to be to provide a lens through which disparate things make sense and are interesting. Wish me luck – and stay tuned!

I’m interested in hearing from you! Are you a cultural intermediary? If so, how do you see your role? Who do you think are the most significant cultural intermediaries of this new century? And what is “legitimate” culture now? Does it still exist?