Saturday, July 09, 2005

On London: The End/Beginning of the Everyday

On his Current blog, Robin Sloan notes the quality and quantity of citizen journalism generated around the London attacks: in particular, the use of cameraphones and first-person accounts to supplement or even replace traditional media sources.

Also, watching television and listening to NPR, I noticed that both the mayor of London and the President of Australia pointed out that the victims of the terrorist attacks were ordinary men and women of all ages, races, and social classes, but mostly working-class Londoners, just trying to ride their bus or catch a train.

At WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio's mood is oddly celebratory. I think he's right -- this is a revolutionary moment. But I wonder whether there's more than an accidental connection between the citizen-journalist and the citizen-target. The decentralization of authority may mean that anyone can make and record history, but to no small extent that process is both driven and overshadowed by the still-emerging reality than anyone can wind up on history's slaughter-bench. Hegel was right about history after all, only now heroism is democratized.


Gavin said...

I don't know that I can make too much of the "citizen journalist"-"citizen target" link. I'm sure that there are millions dead through history that would object that it was never the case that the powerful, the heroes, suffered most.

Besides, as many good ideas as Robin has, he also has a tendency to use terms in a way that I'm not convinced really has any meaning. For example, the "we are all historians" line. I don't really understand how this contrasts the past or creates a condition for the future. Individuals have always created their own narratives. Whether the cell phone photographs will make their way into the history books remains to be seen.

I play baseball, but what happens at Comerica Park is different than what happens on my local diamond. I play baseball, but I am not a baseball player. We all live history, but we are not all historians, mostly because very few of us want to be historians, in any meaningful sense of the word.

Tim said...

To clarify: ordinary citizens have always been victims of violence and warfare. But in the modern era, they have rarely, if ever, been the
principal practical or symbolic targets of those attacks.

The symbolic aspect may be more important, or at least more distinctive. The typical terrorist attack of the nineteenth century, for example, would be an anarchist killing a king or president, or trying to blow up Parliament. The Oklahoma City bombings and attacks on the WTC and Pentagon still have something of this aspect. These terrorists are indifferent to or even welcome civilian deaths, but so were the Allied bombers of Germany and Japan. The goal is still to strike at a visible, centralized target that plays a powerful symbolic and practical role in the lives of one's enemies.

Maybe I'm wrong about the London and Madrid bombers -- maybe they thought they could blow up the British Museum, or catch Tony Blair riding the tube -- but the targets of these attack have less any real symbolic weight. Rather, they're attacks of convenience: chances to kill large numbers of civilians while still remaining anonymous.

In the long run, such attacks can cripple a society just as if not more effectively than bigger ones: just ask Israel. But at the same time, the principal that an attack can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere, without any real warning, seems to be analogous to that of the citizen journalist: not that we are literally *all* journalists, but that anyone, anywhere, at any time, can contribute in a critical and creative way to the official or unofficial recording of events.

I guess my point is that decentralization isn't always peachy.