Because yesterday’s executive order signals a monumental change in US policy, nay, identity. Because many are attacking the decision to read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which has surged in popularity in recent days. Because the ideologies popping up lately are not always easy to talk about.
Every person north of 16 with access to an internet connection has heard the term “big data” thrown around, beaten with a stick, and roasted on a spit in the past decade or so. The social media era has introduced, from the standpoint of a cultural critic, a new set of texts that we can look at to sketch out models of human behavior. There’s a really great piece on Antidote Zine published recently that deals with a new take on this “big data” phenomenon: Trump Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself tells a tale of a fact-avoiding demagogue, a data-harvesting psychoanalysist, and a population almost completely unaware of the digital footprint each microtransaction online leaves behind.
I talked to my Freshman composition students about this article today (I don’t know why; it isn’t relevant; I just do things sometimes, okay?). The idea is this: Facebook and other networking sites turn many or all of your online actions, ie. likes, friendships, geotags, conversations, hashtags, etc. and turns them into profit by selling that information to globe-spanning, multi-national corporations. These companies then, in turn, use this new data that’s been harvested to augment and intensify their grip on the consumer marketplace. They can effectively penetrate the socious deeper than ever before. This Foucaultian, Negri-esque conundrum has proven difficult to police by governments because, well, it’s not always seen as a problem. It might not be (but it is).
Grassegger and Krogerus, the authors of the big data piece, attribute its harnessing by the 2016 Republican campaign as a primary reason for their outstandingly effective rhetorical pitches to the vulnerable voters in America’s heartland and rustbelt. It’s a problem when you look at it in light of current political discourse. We’re one week in to an administration everyone, and I mean everyone, is likening to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
This morning, walking through my local public square at the Ithaca Commons near Cornell University, I found a small group of about one hundred citizens gathered to protest, but not really discuss, the varied policies of our new Entertainer-In-Chief. They held up signs; they chanted; they demonstrated solidarity with underrepresented and oppressed groups that have been targeted by the Doublethink-administration in the past week.
A few questions need to be asked. Exactly how and when is protest effective? Do protests turn people? Do they educate? If they’re celebrations, that’s fine, but we should recognize them as such. I’m not arguing that protesting in the Ithaca Commons isn’t effective; I think it is, or at least can be. But exactly how is it effective? Would a Facebook status from the same 200 people, perhaps using a unifying hashtag, be just as effective, if not more so? My point: more people see your Facebook post than hear you chanting in the street. But only people in the street make the evening news. A combination, it seems, is in order.
What is a protest?
Individual rebellions, no matter how small, contribute a difference. Every act is a statement, and in fact contains many, many unintentional statements. I advise protestors to examine exactly how their actions, chants, and signs act rhetorically- because I’m not sure they’re always as effective as those “already-turned” believe them to be.
On the topic of social media: recent reports from Politico and others out of JFK and other airpots indicate immigration officials, acting off of yesterday’s executive order, have been demanding incoming travelers from “ban list” nations turn over social media information, passwords and login information. This gross overreach of power infringes state control into realms of personal identity, domestic communication and citizenship. This is the NSA controversy from a few years ago, which many consider one of the defining issues of our times, intensified with the tempers of fascism, xenophobia, nativism, propaganda.
With every public statement, the Doublethink administration tries to amend, slant, camouflage its own history as it’s being written.
How might one respond?
I, like many composition professors I’ve spoken to, am introducing Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to my students this semester. It’s not the best example of dystopian literature, nor is it the most original or most thought-provoking, but my hope is that because of its mainstream and easily-understood thematic qualities, it will be the most easily talked-about novel we have to choose from. Orwell’s greatest accomplishment with the novel is the creation of a universal language to talk of dystopia, and I want my students to be introduced to this language. I want them to talk to their friends, their co-workers, their online networks and their parents about these issues, in this language.
Orwell’s novel seems to facilitate quality conversation most effectively. And that- effectiveness- is the goal, right?
I joined in with the protestors I encountered in the Commons. I sang with them, I spoke briefly to some of the gathered people, and I posted a few small videos online for others to see. I’m just not sure I challenged anyone, even myself, to think differently. Orwell, when no one else did, challenged us.