Wednesday, 4 February 2004

MIND AND NATURE by Gregory Bateson Chapter II

The thinking of Gregory Bateson would have no problem with the changes that are happening in the media. For him, there would be no newsmakers and newsgatherers, but living agents engaged in the exchange of information. Indeed, this exchange would be, in his revisioning of life processes, one of the main things that makes them alive in the first place, a key behaviour of a living system.

"In fact, wherever information – or comparison – is of the essence of our explanation, there, for me, is mental process. Information can be defined as a difference that makes a difference (my emphasis). A sensory end organ is a comparator, a device which responds to difference. Of course, the sensory end organ is material, but it is this responsiveness to difference that we shall use to distinguish its functioning as "mental." Similarly, the ink on this page is material, but the ink is not my thought. Even at the most elementary level, the ink is not signal or message. The difference between paper and ink is the signal.

It is, of course, true that our explanations, our textbooks dealing with nonliving matter, are full of information. But this information is all ours; it is part of our life processes. The world of nonliving matter, the Pleroma, which is described by the laws of physics and chemistry, itself contains no description. A stone does not respond to information and does not use injunctions or information or trial and error in its internal organization. To respond in a behavioral sense, the stone would have to use energy contained within itself, as organisms do. It would cease to be a stone. The stone is affected by "forces" and "impacts," but not by differences.

I can describe the stone, but it can describe nothing. I can use the stone as a signal – perhaps as a landmark. But it is not the landmark.

I can give the stone a name; I can distinguish it from other stones. But it is not its name, and it cannot distinguish.

It uses and contains no information.

"It" is not even an it, except insofar as I distinguish it from the remainder of inanimate matter.

What happens to the stone and what it does when nobody is around is not part of the mental process of any living thing. For that it must somehow make and receive news."

Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Concentration and fragmentation in the media

The dominant and primary process in the mass media market is currently one of centralisation; a concentration of journalistic activity under the aegis of just a handful of mega-corporations. But every primary process generates the seeds of its opposite within itself, and for journalists, that secondary process, often experienced as disturbing and difficult when it begins, is one of fragmentation.

The fragmentation that is generated comes as a reaction to the powerful forces which are currently homogenising our world view in the form of more and more news, but more and more of the same news. It is already visible in the concept of market differentiation, whereby the consumer is offered more and more choices. The only problem with this is, unless the products step outside the unifying and petrifying energy of the urge to centralise, they will not bring true difference, only more sameness.

These processes are represented at every level, within the current U.S.-centric world order at the level of geopolitics, within the mass media market and the corporate conglomerates which make it up, and within individuals. The primary process has the effect of alienating the consumers of news who aspire to any sort of wider consciousness of what is going on in the world, and also many of the providers of news, the journalists themselves.

Both journalists and consumers are dealing with this tension in their own way, and strangely, their attempts to do so have blurred the boundaries between them. 'Consumers', now re-imagined as intelligent voters and political activists, have set up their own alternative Web sites to look at views from outside the primary process (U.S. power, centralised media, the urge for a unified perspective, which after all, is simpler and more reassuring than a complicated and messy one.). Journalists are doing the same, blogging, going freelance, no longer happy to churn out news stories which suit their paymasters' limited requirements. It seems that over-centralised cultural and economic processes require consumers, and that's why there is a patina of virtue over the idea of consumption. But a heavy focus on mass patterns of consumption forgets the complexity of the individual. Even the most dedicated and uneducated consumer can rebel, suddenly and apparently inexplicably.

The new breed of information users overlaps in many areas with the new breed of information providers, to provide news and perspectives which are bottom-up, rooted in a sense of community (wherever that is found, sometimes on-line), and interactive. The sense of loose and flexible cohesion in these groupings of intention is reminiscent of a model of group behaviour of agents, part of the new sciences of complexity, called Boids.

The mode is anarchic, yet organised. Anarchic in the sense that there is no patriarchal top-down command structure which regulates behaviour, but with a handful of simple rules about distance and closeness relative to one's neighbours. A horizontally connected peer validation system. Journalists in this environment are increasingly aware that their audience is also their peer group.

Unfortunately, while there is quite properly a large amount of life-force invested in the secondary process, there is not yet much money. The new breed-let's call them informers, because they not only provide information, they also in some sense are the information; they in-form the secondary process-these informers are having instead to bear the fragmentation in their personal and economic lives, for example by disconnecting their 'real' job of helping this evolutionary process, from the money that puts food in their mouths and clothes on their back, and a roof over their head. Cross-subsidy is a hallmark of their enterprise.

What are the implications of this concept of informer? It's not a thing in itself, but an attempt to re-imagine the boundaries of news and information. Under this paradigm, the personality, experience and knowledge of the informer becomes a virtue, because it is no longer outlawed by the collective bias of a large corporation or even country. Informers come out of the closet, in a sense, as the people they are doing the job that they do. If money is to flow into this process and give it the vivification and appearance of legitimacy that it needs, it is likely to happen in a granular sort of way, using cooperative or micro-credit models.