Panic America

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment


It’s not highly original to invoke a pathological metaphor for describing a nation. But panic is different. Because it contains a threshold between individual and collective forms of asocial behavior. Take the example of the highway. As I have claimed before, America is organized around the highway as a means of transportation, a means of communication and it may also serve as a general metaphor of sociability. Each auto-nomous unit traveling on the highway tries to stay in motion, and reach their destinations with the least troublesome effort. There are only a few rules and separate lanes make orientation easy. But as soon as there are too many automobiles, erratic drive patterns begin to increase, as many start looking for their own advantage by changing lanes frequently, accelerating and breaking more often, thereby disturbing the otherwise smooth flow of vehicles. Although all are oriented in one direction, the disturbance in the pattern of flow creates ripples way beyond the congested zones. I think of panic as something like this rippling of disturbances that occurs for no immediate reason, but that has real effects elsewhere.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes individual forms of panic as anxieties that are not shared or even perceived by others. Clues of the environment are interpreted in only one direction – to increase panic, threat, helplessness – which can amount to becoming a sense of self (perception). Panic as a collective behavior is most often associated with natural disasters or economic panics. Watch the holiday videos made in Southeast Asia during the 2004 tsunami, where the same big wave that was great fun at the beach tips over to become a lethal threat. This moment of changing perception describes panic. Similar in economic panics. A small number of  investors begin to see a threat, a decline in returns, and begin to sell unprofitable assets. Like the driver on the highway changing lanes quickly, they cause disturbance in the usual behavior of others by disappointing chiefly the expectations of others as to what constitutes ‘normal behavior’. They signal a change in the very ‘normalcy’ and contribute to a collective rethinking of procedures among all others. This, in turn, makes the situation worse. Whatever the decisive factors in a panic situation, each has a moment of passing a threshold from normalcy to emergency.

Created by and A-.M-.

Panic America in Words: c/o and A.M.


When a crowd gets into a panic, it is unable to look for the source of its unease, unable to change the situation or even analyze possible solutions. Panic breaks out when a certain number of people gets uneasy at more or less the same time. As they see the conditions of ‘normalcy’ dissolve, they start violently defending their own self-interest against the interests of others. When a large crowd of people, at concerts or demonstrations, gets into a bottleneck situation, a long time will pass before individuals start to protest or move out of the situation. It’s the time before the threshold and the level of tolerance seems to be very high, assuming that anyone will prefer a state of normalcy – even in distress – to a state of emergency.

Yet, after passing the threshold of realizing panic, the cycle of self-interest eating up social norms begins. Panic breaks out. Defending one’s own self interest against all others, in turn, provokes the exact same reaction. In a panic situation, help can only come from the outside or through a sudden change of the situation. Panic is a defense mechanism and will subside as the threat that caused it disappears.

By breaking the thin tissue of normal social conduct and interaction panic questions the assumed normalcy of our environment, of our sociability and brings up a residual anarchic element in human psyche that is all about survival of the fittest. The pursuit of self-interest suddenly becomes apparent in its asocial consequences during a panic situation:

“[T]he usual rules according to which individuals adjust their behaviour so as not to work at cross-purposes are nullified. In the more dramatic instances of collective panic, people trample on one another in vain efforts to reach safety.” [A panic situation] “encourages the intensified pursuit of individual rather than collective goals.” (LMK (Lewis M. Killian)/NJS (Neil J. Smelser) “Collective Behaviour” (pp. 556-567). The New Encyclopeadia Britannica, Macropedia, vol. 16, 15th edition, 1988, Chicago: Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc. p. 561).

Panic describes the moment of the threshold, not its cause or effect. “Panic America” then neither postulates that America is panicky, nor that it’s more prone to such disorders than other nations. America is the testing ground for the limits of the threshold of panic, constantly shifting the balance between productive self-interest and disastrous self-interest.

Modesto, California 2012


Taming the Land

July 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

When the settlers on the Mayflower first approached the American continent nature was unexpectedly hostile to their civilizing efforts. The land was strange and the dangers were legion. Bill Bryson has remarked that the first pilgrims to arrive at the East Coast were unfit and badly equipped for the new circumstances on the continent.

They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. (…) They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigours ahead, and they demonstrated their manifest incompetence in the most dramatic possible way: by dying in droves (Made in America, 5-6).

Unlike the politically hostile climate in Europe, the new continent was an even more existential enigma, a challenge to established customs and norms because it was so very barren, so devoid of any sign of European style habitations. And still today, the European traveler marvels at the disorienting maze of freeways, highways and thru-ways, which seem to go on for miles and miles before a ramp branches off into a neighborhood that was around the corner from the point of departure. THRU TRAFFIC MERGE LEFT. RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT. Safe guidance in an uncertain environment.

Likewise, Americans are disoriented in European towns of medieval layouts, where no apparent pattern guides the explorer from A to B. Layer upon layer of historical upheavals and consolidations has been cast in brick and mortar to form an agglomeration of buildings and passages which only time spent wandering can render transparent. The experience of space differs distinctly in both environments and that might be a good reason for the mutual attraction of Europeans to the vast expanse of the North American continent and of Americans to the whimsical mazes of European capitals.

Fortunately enough, the traveler today no longer faces the hardships of past times because the land has been tamed. In its experiential quality, the space of America depends on the reliable functioning of its automobile  and communications infrastructure. While it is an often encountered snobism of Europeans to mock the American reliance on cars – and indulge in praise of the virtues of sustainable public transportation – the car and the land it has created still mark an exceptionally interesting feature of American society. And just as tame and predictable as the highway rolls across the land, ubiquitous information online allows for a tame and predictable experience of this very same land. The American habitat is exceptional in its expanse and yet even more iconic of the two taming trends of modernity – individualized transportation and communication.

American Habitat

In his essay “Babel in Europe” (1957) Lewis Mumford bemoaned that European architects and landscape planners were constantly imitating American models. Architects planted skyscrapers in French towns as a sign of modernity (e.g. the incredibly misplaced Tour de Bretagne in Nantes). Urban planners laid out grids of centers and suburbs connected by highways modeled on the American metropolis (and Le Corbusier’s special visions of the future). Mumford especially criticized the destruction of urban centers, in America and Europe alike, for enhanced auto-mobility.

We still habitually sacrifice all the special values of the city to the function of motor transportation, as during the nineteenth century they were sacrificed to the railroad and the factory. In many of our expressways and viaducts and cloverleaf intersections, our highway engineers, in defiance of the lessons the past should have taught them, are butchering good urban land as recklessly as the railroad builders did in laying out their terminals and marshalling yards. (reprinted in The Highway and the City, 18).

This is a familiar lament. One of the recurrent features in descriptions of America is to juxtapose the agricultural farmland of the Mid-West with the density of the big coastal sprawls. But especially in the many dwellings between these two extreme types we find a typical structure of residential developments interspersed with freeways and shopping centers. Whereas public transportation works more or less in urban centers, a city like Los Angeles is already too widespread to offer any useful service of that kind. Although the disastrous effects of individual auto-mobility are becoming more and more apparent, starting from Mumford’s ‘butchering’ of cities to climate change and dependence on fossil fuels, a defining feature of the American landscape remains its automobile infrastructure.

Despite the vast heterogeneity of local identities and the broad spectrum of climates across the land, all these forms are equally available through individual transportation and a repetitive infrastructure of consumption. The land may change but the freeway and the brands posted by the roadside assure the traveler of a stable and predictable environment.

The American habitat is built around mobility which bridges the discrepancy between individual aspiration and collective cohesion. Empowered by the steering wheel, individuals can dash out any minute to drive wherever they please. But as soon as they enter the road, others will block the way. In a spatial and cultural perspective, this infrastructure of mobility is reassuring. Wherever you go, there will be Chevron and Esso, Baskin Robbins and Wendy’s, Subway and Taco Bell, Wells Fargo and Chase, Rite Aid, Lowe’s and Home Depot, Bed, Bath and Beyond.

The land is experienced through the man-made divisions of geometrical state borders, interstate junctions and food courts. The brands of civilization obliterate the vast expanse of space, which is unnameable and untamable. The warning signs near the desserts “last gas for 150 miles” are the definite limit of tame land.

American Mobility

“CARE4EM” [petlovers], “N2OPERA” [opera fans] or “RVR_BUMS” [fans of Mitsubishi’s RecreationVehicleRunner?]. Individualizing license plates is to communicate, and to communicate in turn is to reduce insecurity. When there are no more plots to organize life, a life told in bumper stickers is at least a temporary structure. Transportation and communication are those two areas of modern life where America has left its indelible mark on the world. Communication reduces insecurity but increases complexity. Around the corner unknown chances are waiting – a better life, a better bargain – existential parts of the American Dream.


In America, you don’t own a car, you drive a car. The aim here is not to possess, but to acquire the right to partake in mobility. Buying cars on a lease plan is similar to a subscription service for mobile phones. The phone may be an object of possession but its function is crucially to allow access to the network of other users. Cars and mobile phones open access to networks and both embody the vision of an individual subject empowered by technology beyond the limits of collectivity. Arguably, the prominence of individual spatial mobility as a crucial component of the American Dream obscures the diminishing chances of social mobility because it places responsibility of success in individual hands. YOU CAN MAKE THAT CALL.

In a recent article and interview for The European, Winfried Fluck argued that the notion of American Exceptionalism was still a form of “national glue” which accommodated many conflicting ideals and ideas of America. Even in a time of crisis (financial, economic, political), American Exceptionalism was still the dominant national idiom which could instill a sense of superiority and national unity. And even in times of crisis, this idiom remains strangely immune to criticism from outside.

But such international comparisons are still rare in American discourse, because nobody wants to be the messenger who brings the bad news. Things will therefore drag on for the time being in the same way in which they do right now: on the one hand, constant discussions about whether American society is still Number One, on the other, bitter disagreements about what makes it Number One, or what could make it Number One again. Only when the idea of American exceptionalism should lose its imaginary power, will it be time again to ask the question what it actually is that holds American society together. (Winfried Fluck in his Article “American Exceptionalism as National Glue“)

One such glue is the almost dialectic relation of individual mobility and communication which at once tames and exploits the land’s vast expanse for personal improvement. Despite diminishing chances of social mobility, both of these components of the American Dream still have a real and empowering effect. It may be more common in cultural criticism to follow the Adorno line of arguments and dismiss this very reality of experience of the land. But the tame land has an incredible attractiveness across the globe – from Konstanz to Kobe, from Beijing to Brasilia. With communication technology at their hands, the pilgrims today would be arranging accommodation beforehand, pack clothes appropriately and visit only those famous landmarks that the guide book recommended. It’s no longer an adventure but instead of “dying in droves” they would be dining in the groves of tame land.

All photos by the author. Please use the comments section to request hi-res copies.

The Fallacy of Social Media

July 25, 2011 § 5 Comments

I. Intro

The age of mass media ended when its most avid users converted to producing representations of the social world themselves. Whatever your semantic preference is in association with “mass” and the media, an individual seems somewhat preferable to an atom in a mass. But the emphasis in the beginning on “most avid users” shall be my starting point to argue for a fallacy in the term “social media,” in spite of the many accepted benefits of this development, which include the basis and readership of this post and this blog. The underlying thesis here is that those avid users of mass media were and are the first to jump at the even more enhanced possibilities of the new social media – multiplying their options of further connections endlessly.

The point does not need emphasis that social media are a new social formation on the basis of the widespread integration of electronic media in everyday life. As the communications scholar Mark Deuze puts it, a “life lived in, rather than with, media” marks a turning point in our perception of subject and object, in our concepts of communication and its role in social life (“Media life” Media, Culture & Society. January 2011: 137). But what are the implications of this turn in the use of media for those social relations (with people) if such relations are literally managed in similar ways that large corporations use to “address” or “target” their customers, contacts and partners? Are we only socializing with strangers, rubbing shoulders with giants, and crowdsourcing the wisdom of the world?

The electronic media revolution has certainly transformed information from hard copy to carbon copy to endless copy of a copy of a copy … at your fingertip. Welcome to the network, stage 2.0. Or we have reached phase 4 of hyperreal accumulation, the circulation of value in its pure form as the option for further value creation. Well a decade into this transformation of information into a purely circulating value, it’s time to ask the nasty question. What is social about “social media”? Where does the value of information intersect with social relations? And finally the nasty critical question: Does that transformation really change a thing?

II. What’s Social about “Social Media”?

The notion that media are now somehow social is interesting for the fact that it thrives on the obvious distinction from an age of “asocial media” – the dark ages of mass media. In hindsight, the last efforts of the mass media moguls to capture the attention of millions with ever more scrupulous methods of investigation to provide titillating daily fare (News of the World), will look like the final showdown between two very different media ecologies. “Thank you & Goodbye.”

But what is asocial about this waning age of mass media? Aren’t there also people working day by day in newsrooms, editorial boards, in front and behind cameras, microphones and anchor desks? Aren’t journalists digging into the fabric of social relations in order to find out what makes the world tick? Isn’t the benefit of having no personal interest in some other person’s matters yet reporting about them a great service to a public of viewers, readers, and listeners?

Mass media in their form of organization are heirs to the form of industrial production popularized in the nineteenth century when muscle power was replaced with steam engines, bureaucracy and accountancy became management, and centrally managed paths of distribution optimized the principle of scale to maximize profit. The mass in mass media remained a managerial abstraction for the purpose of reached an undifferentiated number of people with at a minimal cost for the greatest possible profit. Even by statistical analysis of audiences, popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century, the analysis of audience behavior and preferences remained rough and fairly undifferentiated.Through Gallup polls and similar measures, public opinion became a chart, a graph, a sum total of heterogeneous expressions. In his study News for All, Thomas Leonard succinctly remarks that “reducing the public to a chart may be the most arresting change made by the press of the twentieth century” (1995: 221). Markers like age, gender, place and income are only four out of thousands of possible variables, in socio-psychologic profiling of human behavior. But just because audiences fell into more or less finely marked socio-psychological clusters, there is little reason to believe that they were anything less differentiated than people are today. The fallacy of mass media then, entailed the conception of an audience that was addressed as a mass, because the channels of distribution followed the rule of scale.

III. The Value of Information in Social Relations

This economic principle of scale, in turn, yielded higher profits to investors (or moguls) than to their employees. Yet there are just as many social relations in mass media organizations and their environs as in any other bee hive of more than ten individuals. And on the other side of the screen, audiences are a lot more diverse and interactive with media content, then manager may be willing to admit. Against the abstraction of a mass, “social media” thrive on a positive connotation of media exposure, because now these media are no longer perceived as agents of a “false consciousness” – consumerist ideology, capitalism, patriarchy – but retreat behind the creative potential given to anyone willing to expose him or herself. But this euphemism of “social media” as a positive outlet of creative (self-)production hinges on the fallacy to mistake a form of production in the sense of value maximization (4th phase of simulation) with a form of interaction, which was already part of the mass media age.

While production remains within a value maximizing idiom, couched in neo-liberal jargon of flexibilization, interaction through media messages is and has been part of public communication ever since the first printed newsletters. We are not discovering that media are now suddenly social, but we are beginning to realize that media were always used to structure interaction among people. Only on the basis of a statistical abstraction like an audience, which emerged simultaneously with a particular regime of production, does this mechanism of media in interaction retreat behind the managerial logic of maximizing profits.

“Social media” platforms and similar reloaded enterprises are not opposed to this logic, but have modified it for the endless options of the network age: Consume at “no cost.” Yes, it’s free, it’s really free. Now, even from an amateur’s perspective on economics that sounds pretty revolutionary. In light of the development of network media this logic, however, loses much of its magic. Driven by enterprising investors and smart programmers within a quite short time, free simply means to acquire the right in return to buy more of each consumers time for exposure to advertising. It a trade-off between offering a free resource in exchange for your time. Likewise, the principle of scale (number of users, number of links, page views, etc.) continues to drive the development of these media (or provoke a sudden 404 error).

The hypothetical question today is: What if Google started charging a dollar for every search you perform, ten for its mail service, fifty for access to its online book collections? What if (excuse the Zizekian syntax), facebook started to charge a 100 dollar monthly subscription fee? 500 billion times $100 should yield more venture capital than an uncertain IPO. The consolation is of course, that such rates are far from realistic but that does not mean that they are not possible. Ironically, the age of social media has been accompanied by even fiercer concentrations and conglomeration than the old age of mass media. There used to be hundreds of newspaper companies (!) in the United States, putting out well over 1,300 different papers. Canceling subscriptions for daily papers is just one result of the ubiquity of information circulating “for free” online. Yet in this logic of free production, free circulation and free access, there is as yet no equivalent of exchange for those engaged in the actual production – except shorter attention spans. If there is something social about these new media, it’s their “socialized cost” to everyone, which in turn drives the necessity to become a producer of oneself in certain respects (Castells: “mass self-communication“).

The remodeling of the entire information ecosystem (aka the digital divide) creates an adverse network effect. Those engaged in networks – per se a social affair – profit from online networks a lot more than those, formerly not acquainted with such forms of technology-dependent private communication (ie. letter writing). Such indirect costs of media change – you could speak of social externalities of media change – are rarely measured in account sheets of individual enterprises since they can only figure in the productivity and creativity balance sheet of a given society/community/people-who-hang-out-together-and-do-something-cool. Whole areas of the world disappear from perception once connectivity becomes the gold standard of communication.

Map of communcative ties on Facebook (TM)

In a perceptive article, Harald Mahrer points out that “online social networks” change little about the power of social networks. If power is understood as the product of resources and social relations, so called social networks exemplify only that relations as such can only become a resource once they are applied to some concrete task. But the value of the “social network” is of first of all created as an option for further connections. The value creation of the network is not its extensiveness but its eventual application to an enterprise, a task of venture. The strong ties of networks (family, company, organization) and the weak ties of “social networks”  also differ in their dependence on technical network, tools of contact management and the statistical abstraction of converging spheres of interest.

While the technical network is still comparable to the grid of telephone lines (although enhanced, decentralized, accelerated), a network of statistical coincidences is a mathematical chimera. “You bought shoes, you might be interested in shoe laces.” What a surprise. However, I might not be interested in hiking shoes for a trip  to Absurdistan, savoring shoe-de poo puffs on a strawberry parfait or commit my savings to Shoemaker Financial (whatever their merits are).

These random examples just illustrate that semantic competence is a minimum requirement to understand the power and limits of network coincidence. But adversely, this competence creates what I call “search term inequality.” The  dominance of search as a tool to gather knowledge (aggregate form of socialized information) puts power in those hands, which tamper with outmoded forms of storage, of confidential data and eventually those who distinguish between a “social” and a “symbolic” relation.

Information is neither raw nor free. If the age of mass media has taught us a lesson on the benefits of free information, then it is the embeddedness of such raw data in social interaction. The chat about the latest news draws people together, strengthens and maintains ties. The confidential transmission of non-public material creates symbolic ties that last. The dream of the crowd as a corrective to clientelism is charming but underestimates the benefits of such ties for anyone involved in fostering symbolic relations through the exchange of links, recommendations and resources. Tapping into the acknowledged trust of close ties as a marketing instrument through free access creates “the consumer” as a volatile object of exchange between data brokers. While feeding the private exchange of information (in public), the symbolic relation starts serving the logic of scale. For whom?

IV. Redrawing the Boundaries in the Convergence Age

The age of convergence culture melts the cultural, technological, and social divisions of information and interaction into a global information ecosystem, to which some still refer as the Internet. In this ecosystem, many forms of information such as text, music, images, and video are no longer separated by different technologies, as in the age of print, radio or television but are now represented and enabled by the same digital technology. However, although we can access these forms of information by a click on a link, does not mean that the cultural conventions used to create or communicate about these forms have molded into a homogeneous bubble of identical information. Rather the opposite occurs. Now, that so many forms of public communication online have become equally accessible, the boundaries between these forms are redrawn in interaction. The network society today is marked by a struggle about the definitions of these boundaries.

In this transitory phase between the age of mass media and the new age of network media, some forms of public communication are only accessible as a form of practice: blogging, twittering, “social networking” are all modeled after existing cultural forms of expression, but are digitally remixed and altered for the demands of the network age. The benefit of such practices is that they create continuity in times of change. They work through repetition and gradual adaptation. The repeated transfer of existing cultural forms to new contexts enables us to cope with rapid change and development. Practices create a new certainty through simple repetition; they create continuity even if they are illogical, irrational or haphazard.

If social media mean anything, than it’s the realization, that practices of media use and production were never an “asocial” affair. The crucial difference between symbolic social relations and “social relations” as an outcome of statistical coincidence is that you can forget your best friend’s birthday but you can’t avoid the “Happy Birthday”-button on your control screen for social management. Insisting on the redrawing of boundaries in the convergence age is an urge against the unquestioned inclusive logic of networks. Just because there are cables between your home and my desk, I never thought of calling you. But, who knows, maybe one day we run into each other in … and realize, we were living next door. Pure chance. Years ago, the German super-sociologist and systems theorist  Niklas Luhmann coined the iconic phrase: “You may be dealing with systems all day in your office, but once you go out into the street, there are only people.” And these people may be enjoying a chance acquaintance. Just for this very moment.

Too many options and not enough focus?

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