I have seen wildlife documentaries in the past, where some of the animals have names. That has nothing to do with mama meerkat naming her children, but with the filmmakers trying to connect us closer to the animals shown – hopefully we might not switch to something more interesting. The weirdest example was a computer generated “documentary” on the lives of some dinosaurs, were some of the pixels were named. The thing that made it especially weird, was the fact that this film tried hard to appear like a documentary. And that was the claim it was making. Of course, the whole thing was following a scripted storyline and so do these other “documentaries”. Very often in these films, the “main character” animal, that is being shown, is in fact a series of animals that look alike and whose combined actions make for a nice narrative. But I am wandering off.
Naming an abstract character makes it easier for us to connect. We feel closely related. We seem to know it as a being. We really hope that meerkat Robert isn’t going to be eaten by this hungry looking hawk, otherwise we would be devastated.
At the moment of writing, there is a big media frenzy in Germany, about the murder of a young women. She was fourteen when she was killed and the male suspect in the case happens to be a refugee. A Muslim refugee. Especially the last snippet arouses politicians and pundits on right. Name and image of the victim are all over the news and I find that troubling.
When these things happen to children or teenage girls, the media keeps repeating the victims name and the age, very often accompanied with a cute image and other details, that make the story more relatable. The victims seem so pure and so innocent, so the crime must be especially outrageous.
But this creates different classes of victims. Let’s assume the victim in the case was not fourteen, but forty. Not cute, but slightly ugly. Not relatable, but a drug addict with mental health issues. Would she then be less of a victim? Unfortunately, society would treat her that way. Her killing would cause less of a public outrage. Police might not invest the same amount of manpower and media would hardly find time to report her death. It turns out there is a whole hierarchy of victims.
But there is a second element, that determines the value of a victim. It is the perpetrator. This is very similar to the cultural makeup of the victim (but reversed). Male or female, old or young, attractive or ugly, these determine how the case is perceived. If it is perceived at all. There is also a cultural trend involved. Different eras value different traits in perpetrators differently. For some time, it was drug addicts that apparently made the worst of the worst. During the Nazi era it was Jews. And today, the young male Arab makes the perfect boogieman and therefore creates the victimest victim.
But the fact that not all victims are treated the same way can be very dangerous. When frontpage after frontpage is filled with the names of certain victim and their images, society becomes excited. Few members of the society start looking for statistics to see, how a certain crime is reflected in the broader trend within society. They rather feel encouraged by the outrage machine and follow the pack. And politicians try to gain sympathies with constituents by demanding immediate actions themselves.
Looking at the way different victims are treated, one can conclude a lot about what is wrong with society. For the longest time, sexual crime was in part blamed on the victim – this is still the case in many parts of the world and quite certainly in many minds in the west. This was reflected on the way these crimes were reported and still are. Racial prejudice and prejudice against minorities as well can be derived from the way victims are treated. In the US, for instance, crimes against African American is certainly underreported, while crimes against whites fills the news far more extensively. In some cases, like the killings amongst poor blacks in and around Chicago, the lack of presence of these crimes indicates that part of the media is entangled in active victim blaming. If spoken out aloud, or merely believed silently, the believe seems to be that many of these victims are to blame for the crimes they have fell victim to. This leaves out the wider social picture completely. Why are these people poor? What makes them to resort to violence? And so on.
Overreporting certain events is always dangerous, since this can easily shape the way things are perceived within society. Not the real events count, but the perceived ones. And when this serves as the basis of our actions. If most of the focus is on few instances of violence and crime, little action is taken to address the bigger issues. Maybe we are not any longer living in an era of enlightenment, but an era that is defined by outrage. The louder someone yells, the more real things seem and the more action they demand.
So, what could be done? Do we really need to know the names of crime victims? I think it depends on the crime. When the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews, these were not random victims of violence, but rather their identity made them the target. It is important therefore to show the extend with which they were victimized. It wasn’t just banker or capitalist, artists or communists, but rather ordinary people like you and me. Like you and me and everyone we know – that is the important part. And that is precisely the thing that makes the scale of the Holocaust so unbearable. Focusing just on the Anne Franks of the Holocaust would be the wrong approach to come to this conclusion. With Anne Frank, people relate to her, since she seemed to be cute. We would love to protect her. Maybe the thing that has the more lasting effect would be, if we’d all find someone we could relate to, since he or she is like us. The sheer number of victims makes these easy, when looking at the Holocaust as a case study. Six million individuals? Certainly, everyone finds his or her older twin.
When talking about regular crime I can not see the reason, why we should know too much about the victims. It is clear that media will always focus on some “prominent” cases. And therein always lies the root of a new form of injustice. There is always going to be bias in reporting crime and this bias utilizes the identity of a victim to promote a certain agenda.
The way certain crimes are reported can make us complicit. I have talked about this before, when discussing the way executions by ISIS and the like are covered by media. Western victims get a special treatment, both by ISIS and by Western media. ISIS victims get a “VIP treatment”, where their deaths are staged in the most elaborate manor possible. This is precisely done to gain the attention of media outlets. And they fall for it. There are background stories on the victims published, they are named, family and friends are interviewed, and so on. The full packet. Local victims are rarely named, neither by ISIS nor by the media – if their deaths are ever covered in the media at all. They are seen as mere numbers and – the lack of coverage gives the impression of putting at least some blame on the victims. Being killed is what you ought to expect, when living in a war zone. Right? Wrong. A victim is a victim.
I really appreciate projects that try to find a way to present all victims of a certain form of violence equally. This can be seen around police violence in the US, for instance in the “Police Shootings Database”, that is being maintained by the Washington Post. This project tries to list all the known instances of people killed by police in the US. It does provide some background information on each case – if this is available – but it gives each case the same amount of attention. This enables us to see the scope of the whole issue and not merely one individual tragedy.
From a database like this, we could really come up with actions to take to tackle the real issue. Of course, each family suffers and to many the death of a child might cause more pain than the death of an adult. To society, both deaths should have equal value and if there are four children killed in any given year, but four hundred adults, the two demographics should not be judged equally.
As long as we accept the treatment of some victims as special cases, there is plenty of room for populists to instrumentalize these cases for their political gain. This is precisely what happens in Germany at the moment. Young beautiful girls and children have to be protected from crazy men from the east. That sounds all too familiar and it seems as if these prejudice stem directly from the teachings of Goebbels. The death of these women is terrible, and their families suffer, yet the way this is being instrumentalized is so much more dangerous for our society as a whole.
The attention given to this form of violence against a certain category of women feels somewhat like these old stories about the damsel in distress, that needs special protection from a white knight – in these cases the white knights on the right. Some of them even call themselves “knights”.
I feel a bit sick to my stomach. No, it has nothing to do with the stuff I ate, but rather with the weird stuff on the Internet.
I just watched a few videos by white nationalists / conspiracy theorists / whatever. The happiness with which they present their racism is amazing. Of course, they would not call it racism or even fascism and that is precisely the point. In the videos I was watching the different people all seemed to agree that “oh it is good to meet other cultures, but gosh, you really need to protect your own identity”. This is precisely the BS you can hear from politicians and rights wing activists here in Germany as well.
Identity. Sure, we should protect our identity. That sounds reasonable. Just, what exactly is identity?
I had to laugh out loud, when two young women from the US took Thanksgiving as something worth protecting. They consider celebrating Thanksgiving as a very fundamental thing that defines their Americanness. But Thanksgiving is a perfect example for the way different cultures mix and the way it evolves over time. Everything here is an amalgamation. Even the food that is being eaten. And many of the changes are quite recent. If you go to the US now during the weeks before Thanksgiving, everything is commercialized in a unique fashion, that is relatively new. And so is pumpkin-spice-latte.
Thanksgiving isn’t such a big deal here in Germany. There is the original pagan festival, that slipped into Christian liturgy, but that is very different and only regionally important. The example that is being used here, when people try to argue about the loss of identity, would be Christmas of course. It is the same set of issues people seem to have. Yet, Christmas, just like American Thanksgiving, has always evolved. And it did so in every generation. My nieces and nephews celebrate a different thing that what I celebrated when I was their age. Long gone are the days, when oranges where the present of choice for children.
Yet, the Nazis from the AFD and the enablers from the CSU and CDU in Germany, call for the protection of these fundamental traditions. These are traditions merely in a sense, that 200 years ago, people did something special on the same day of the year. Most of the stuff they did has changed since then.
All these people always sound as if different cultured would mix, there would be no room left for identity. Instantly everyone would act precisely the same way.
Maybe, when talking about the wonders of meeting other cultures, they actually think of something that has more resemblance to the “Völkerschau” (or human zoo) idea of the late 19th and early 20th century. Where different cultures were presented in zoos. In cages.
I doubt that most of these people have a historical knowledge that dates back that far and most of them might not be aware of these terrible displays. What they are asking for, and that is my argument, is not for cultures to meet, but for them to experience once in a while a safe (zoo-like) experience with another culture. Please, as little direct interaction as possible.
I have no doubt, that most of the AFD politicians enjoy a nice trip to Italy, Turkey or, God forbid, maybe even Egypt.
Identity is a construct and in our consumerist society, much of the construction is done by others with financial interests. Japanese society has happily adopted their version of Christmas. Makes sense, if your culture lacks a festival with nice lights, fancy trees and massive amounts of gifts.
I am not saying, that we should go back to the original spirit of Christmas. No one knows what that might be. And in general, it feels dangerous to go too far back in time. Especially, if you might end up with pyres for witches that might, in the past, have represented the “true spirit” of the festival you are trying to revive.
We could easily overlook stupid videos like these, if they did not just prove the danger the pose. From the positions these people take, it is merely an incremental step to call for some cultures to be “special”. I have heard hints of that in some of these videos. Some made references to sports “clearly, in sports we can agree on the fact, that someone wins, and someone is better than others.”. The steps towards open racism and fascism are always incremental ones. And I guess that in these videos many of the presenters hide the fact that they have already made these incremental steps.
It makes me so angry, when these idiots come out and pretend they merely wanted to protect people like me. Yes, I am a white heterosexual male that was born and raised Christian. But fuck me, I don’t need protection. My culture has changed daily or weekly or monthly from the moment of my birth. There is nothing in it that needs protection. If it is influenced by outside forces to the point that it changes. Well good. It means that I have adopted to the world I live in. Am I always going to be happy the way things are going? No. Of course not. But that has very little to do with the way other people forcibly are trying to alter my identity.
I am far more afraid for other people, that are getting in touch with me and my culture. I come from a position of power. I did not choose this position and I did not fight to reach this position. It has to do with the society I was born in and the power structure that surrounds me. I think it is quite easy to me to hurt people, whose position is weaker than mine. I try to be careful, but to be honest, I guess I have failed on some occasions in that respect. I have never done something that was criminal, or even a clear violation of moral norms. But still I have hurt people out of a position, where my role was more secure than theirs.
I am quite sure, that Angelina Jolie exists, and I hope she is doing great. I pick her as an example for all these random celebrities whom we all seem to be very familiar with. I try to address a bigger and more general issue though and she merely serves as a placeholder. A convenient placeholder nevertheless, since there is quite a lot of material for me to illustrate my point. This here is not about gossip – I have very little knowledge in that field -, but rather it might be about images, media and identity.
I mentioned the program DeepFake earlier this year. This is a piece of software that enables the user to exchange the face in one video with the face of a different person. Depending on the quality of footage used, the power of your computer and the time you allow the algorithm to calculate, the results can be quite convincing. Especially considering the fact that this software is pretty much still in its infancy. The key point one has to understand is that this is different from Photoshop or the like. The software isn’t merely pasting one picture over another. It rather produces a fictitious new image that replaces the old one. The gestures, facial expressions, lighting and colors are matched.
This is quite a big leap and I guess like with all big leaps this one is here to stay. So, we might try to figure out how to react and cope with it.
I think about this quite a bit, which certainly is noticeable by the fact that I this is already my second text. Please excuse if I, in part, repeat myself, but I am just intrigued.
The most prominent way this software is still being used is to produce porn with the faces of celebrities. I should issue a caveat here. The fact that this software is used for this purpose has created the most uproar and gave this issue some visibility. At the same time – and that is somewhat odd – is the fact that this software is used to produce porn, somehow seems to be sign of quality. Or something, the creators find worthy pointing out. There might be some porn out there, that claims to be “real” footage, when in fact it is produced with DeepFake. That would be hard to find, since you can not prove a negative – so you can not prove that there is no fake hiding between the real stuff.
Now please don’t get me wrong. I am not a porn connoisseur. But the fact that DeepFake porn is out there is quite obvious. And that is the odd point I am trying to make. There is a number of sites that have the DeepFake label in their name – and even on sites like 4chan or 8chan these videos are labeled as deep fakes. Maybe it is for legal reasons, something I doubt, taking into consideration, that the way these sites appear, the whole thing looks shady enough. Maybe it has to do with something else. Since this technology is so new, it might generate more excitement, if you claim to show something that is a high-quality fake, than pretending to show something no one would believe anyway.
The question what exactly arouses people online isn’t interesting to me though. What is interesting is the fact that this brings up the issue of identity. And not just identity of Hollywood stars, but identity in the 21st century and how it is being curated.
Much of the outrage that is being caused by these videos has to do with a violation of rights of the famous women. (Very little is said about the porn actresses, whose faces are removed and whose work is therefore invalidated, but that is another story.) The outrage goes so far that sites like Reddit work hard to take these videos down. But of course, stuff like that will always find its niche online.
What exactly is being violated here? Let’s forget for a moment that most of these videos seem to be labeled as fake. These videos seem to claim to show someone who isn’t really present in the videos. Someone who did not participate in the production.
Who exactly is Angelina Jolie?
I find it fascinating to look at her in this respect. Oddly enough, her Hollywood career was kicked off, when she played the lead character in the first Lara Croft movie. She did earn her living with acting before and was quite successful at it, but Lara Croft made her especially famous. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” from 2001 was the movie version of a quite successful game franchise, that had started in 1996. Back then, video graphics were not what they are today, but that didn’t keep the computer-generated figure from becoming a sex symbol.
When Jolie played Lara Croft, her appearance was made to match the figure of the video game character. Especially the enormous boobs in the game, that had gained some notoriety, had to be matched. Wikipedia tells me, that this was done with the help of padded bras.
But the role then defined the public image of Angelina Jolie for quite some time. And her appearance in the movie had an influence on the way the character Lara Croft was depicted in later versions of the game. Jolie had to match her appearance to the game character, which in turn had to match its appearance to the way it was portrayed by Jolie. Also, Jolie and Lara Croft were then intermingled in the public perception of what Angelina Jolie is as a human being.
The way Jolie was presented in this movie and its sequel from 2003, certainly helped to strengthen her public image as a sex symbol.
In 2007 she starred in the movie “Beowulf”, which was entirely 3D generated. Here, Jolie might have acted in from of a greenscreen or in another way to track her motions, but her entire appearance was recreated with the help of software. Not as elaborate of a setting as a program like DeepFake would allow, but still not really real. Like makeup and lighting alters the appearance of an actress in a movie, here too did the CGI create an image that matches our expectation of what the actress should look like.
When Full-HD TVs became common, I read an article somewhere that was talking about issues some actresses had, with the high resolution. Until then it was possible for them to hide imperfections in their skin with makeup. Now, the article claimed, this would no longer be possible, since the makeup would be visible. I am quite sure that our media environment is fucked up enough that these concerns were valid. It is interesting though, since an actress, this might have affected, always had these imperfections. These were just not an issue, since they could be hidden. Someone could make the decision to hide them. Our perception could be controlled. The lack of controllability seemed to frighten people.
The same could be true here. Jolie and/or her agents try to control the way she is being perceived. But isn’t perception something that should be under the control of the person who perceives?
As I have mentioned, I am not really following gossip, yet Angelina Jolie and her PR department still have managed to leave an impression with me. Part of it has to do with her acting career, but then there are also snippets of “news” about her. I am not going to talk about these news stories here, otherwise Daniel J. Boorstin is going to rotate in his grave (I love this guy and I have written about him here http://blog.simonmenner.com/?p=54 ). Still, a person, I have never met, and know only through highly edited and manipulated works, has managed to create an image of her in me. And now it seems important to keep the editing in the control of the people who did the editing in the first place.
Maybe Angelina Jolie is the nicest of people and does wonderful aid work – more of the stuff I was told -, but to me, there is little difference between her and let’s say Mickey Mouse or Nike. To me, she is a brand. And I guess to her PR agents too. And brands are about money and therefore they must be protected and controlled. Yet to me, the more important issue with DeepFakes is one about identity and whether there is something like that, that could survive the developing digital age. I believe that the key question is not, whether it is OK to produce fake porn of someone. To most people the answer here seems quite obvious, since the material created easily breaks many common norms. But what if the material created would be truly creative? What if it would be something new? Or a work of fan fiction? What if someone was trying to extend his or her image of the figure of fiction “Angelina Jolie” to something amazing?
There is a person Angelina Jolie somewhere out there. But this real person has little to do with the work of fiction I know as Angelina Jolie. Who owns the rights here? And how much am I allowed to work with this fiction as found footage? To use a term commonly used in contemporary culture. When these fictions press hard into our daily lives, through movies, interviews, adds, news articles, to what extend are we allowed to push back? When stories are told over and over again, it is a normal human response trying to change these stories or to add to them. Famous characters in history have constantly been reinvented and not only by their respective PR department, but by individuals who turned away from their role merely as members of the audience.
Sure, when talking about the changes made to earlier famous characters, much of this reinvention took place posthumously. But that had to do with a limited bandwidth for information in earlier societies. It took time to process new characters and knowledge of stories spread slowly. Things have changed quite drastically. We need to be able to respond to these artificial figures we constantly encounter. And I think it does not really matter, if a person is dead or alive. When Angelina Jolie plays an historical figure in one of her movies, I am equally disconnected from her, the real person, than from the figure she portrays.
Thinking about this, it seems quite absurd to see the outrage that is caused, when actresses seem to be misrepresented by some other entity. Representing other characters is pretty much what defines being an actor. I am quite certain, that most historical figures might have a hard time recognizing themselves in the way they are portrayed in movies and TV. When Jolie acts in a movie that is loosely based on the life of Alexander the Great, the way she acts has very little to do with the person she depicts. Using a Mideastern sounding accent does not really help – she is still speaking English. Someone like Alexander the Great was at least as careful, when it came to the way he was publicly perceived than most celebrities today – heck, he named twenty cities after himself.
Identity is always a construct. Even if it comes to the way, we ourselves perceive our own identity. And identity is never something fixed. If money or power is involved, the whole thing becomes an issue of branding. Caesar Augustus, preventing busts of him being produced, that show him in old age, and Adidas going after Chinese companies, that produce sneakers with four stripes, are at their core similar attempts to control the outside image. But too much control by a few who enforce it on many, quickly becomes an act of expropriation. If I am not allowed to respond to images I am faced with, by taking these images and alter them the way I seem fit. The potential image, I would have created, is taken away from me. My creativity is hindered with the excuse to “protect” the creative output of someone else.
I said that I was going to push aside the issue with stating clearly that a work is a DeepFake, but maybe this is too important. DeepFakes are works of fiction – whether we like this kind of fiction or not. And even though an algorithm does the work, there are still creative. DeepFake still needs humans to make many of the decisions, but this software is in a very early stage of its development. From all we have learned in human history, tools like these are not going to go away and they just become more and more advanced.
When people started understanding the full potential of photo editing software like Photoshop, the reaction felt quite similar to what we are having now with DeepFakes. It seemed as if things are going to get downhill from here quite quickly. This did not happen. There had been the hope in the beginning, that every last edited image would be marked as such, for the audience to easily distinguish. This did not happen, and few people seem to mind. Why?
More and more I have come to believe that this has to do with a changing attitude towards images and maybe even reality as a whole. No one expects images, shared on Instagram for instance to be authentic. Everyone is aware of the filters that come with the app and with the fact that people tend to share the more flattering images. Not capturing reality does not seem to be a glitch, but rather the main goal. The whole thing is about curating the narrative you are trying to develop. Maybe photography was always merely a tool to illustrate our stories and never really able to capture them. Maybe we were just living with the hope that photography might help us getting a connection to the world, that certainly must hide out there – somewhere beyond our reach.
With the raising artificial intelligence, there is less and less of a refuge left for humans to feel special or chosen. It seems as if every profession is going to see a fundamental change, once AI enters the workspace. We must get used to the idea of AI being creative. That might be especially hard for people like me, who define much of what they are in society through their creative work. Ignoring the development doesn’t help though. I get it, ignoring stuff seems to make it disappear at first and seems to delay its onset. When it becomes too evident to be ignored, we might just not be prepared, and the realization comes as a shock.
For most of human history, there had been general agreement that humans are special. We were the chosen ones and therefore we had to rule the whole world. Apparently, our ancestors were the ones that had eaten the forbidden fruit, that had enabled us to distinguish good and evil. This, today, might be understood as consciousness. How else could God punish us for our decisions, if they were not made consciously? If we were mere puppets, without free will, punishing us, would be unjust, since our decisions would have been made by something outside our control.
When René Descartes wrote his “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), he determined that consciousness might be the crucial part in our understanding of being and reality. We might be able to question every detail in the world around us, but the fact that we notice our consciousness, gives us evidence of our existence. But the reach of this evidence is very limited. I think, therefore I am, has to do with me and my own realization. How would this enable me to come to the conclusion that you are conscious as well? It does not. Descartes took the humancentric view and determined that consciousness is something that is unique to humans and that no animal shares this ability.
I have a hard time following Descartes here. I always understood his sentence in a more radical way than he did. To me, “therefore I am”, was not so easily extended to “therefore you are” as it apparently was to Descartes. I always felt, that all I could be certain of was my own existence, extending it, was lacking the “clear” evidence of existence my consciousness provided me with. Of course, I am not saying no one besides me is conscious, but finding evidence for consciousness outside myself seems hard to find.
With or without evidence, we can see from Descartes reaction, that it is an easy step to see fellow human beings as being conscious. That might have a lot to do with our understanding of a common nature. The humans around me might be different beings, but they are a lot like me and therefore share most of my traits. But it seems much harder to find consciousness is something that is very different from myself.
To Descartes, animals could never develop consciousness and therefore could not suffer.
In the last decades, science has worked hard, to find some evidence of conscious behavior in other species. Most of us might have seen some video of apes recognizing themselves in a mirror, but there are other cases. Yet, most of these examples are focused on our own understanding of what it is, that makes us conscious. Recognizing ourselves in a mirror is closely related to recognizing our self via thinking. We expect animals to repeat our own tricks to determine, whether we are conscious or not.
But I think, that there is an issue with that. What makes us believe, that this is the only way to being conscious? What if – as a thought experiment – the nerve cells in my stomach have developed consciousness but they and I are not able to communicate, since there is no common language between us? We might never realize that the other side exists as a conscious entity as well. This is a mere thought experiment and I am not trying to start a new New-Age-movement of people who are trying to communicate with their other inner being. I am rather trying to address the issue of Artificial Intelligence and consciousness.
There is a big debate ongoing on what might happen, if computers ever develop consciousness and what the implications might be. The range of scenarios goes from paradise for everyone to instant doom. My guess would be, that we are not going to notice. Or maybe we might take notice, but only after quite some time and even then, the result might be inconclusive. To paraphrase our approach with apes – we might place the computer in from of a mirror and wait to see, whether he notices the green smudge on the case. But if his consciousness differs a lot from ours – something that would to be expected – his reaction would be unintelligible to us. Something might just seem odd. Or maybe everything just seems to be normal.
More interesting to me though, is the reaction of the conscious AI. Would he in turn consider us humans conscious? Or would the lack of understanding work both ways? Maybe the AI comes to a similar conclusion to Descartes in that it and his kind must be the only ones conscious. And then? How would we convince it otherwise? Communication can be a bitch. We have had thousands of years of side-by-side evolution and yet, we are happy if we understand that our dog needs to take a shit. Maybe that is the absolute extent of what can be translated between our two species. I am quite certain that our two cats are conscious, but that might be a romanticized idea. Could I give you a clear evidence? No, I couldn’t.
I am not saying that the outcome of a conscious AI is going to be good or bad. I have no idea of what might happen. I am saying that there might be a self-conscious AI already being out there, happily calculating π and dreaming of electric sheep and wondering why the hell it is the only conscious thing in the universe. I jut hope that religion and God are not the conclusions it is going to come up with. Religion is too messy, and it should stay out of the hands (?) of AI.
The Me Too movement, which enabled women to make case of sexual harassment public and question the role of men in superior roles, has been one of the most positive developments in the last few years. I would hope, though, that the energy and attention created here, would enable us as a society to question other aspects of power as well.
The issues addressed by the Me Too movement have a lot to do with the intrinsic power structures within our society. Here it is about the way men in apparent positions of power treat women under their influence. But the systemic issues here, can be found in many other places as well. Naturally, the fact that the Me Too movement addresses forms of sexual violence and intimidation, makes it quite hard to compare these issues to others, without sounding apologetic. That I don’t want. People like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, who have become the poster children for what has been going on, should suffer for what they did and yet, we should be able to look further into the topic. Otherwise this would be a missed opportunity.
Fortunately, I have never been in a situation, where sexuality and power intermingled in a way that felt uncomfortable to me. Yet, I have experienced plenty of situation, where power and power structures prohibited an open and free discourse. This was the case in pretty much every job I was working in. Most commonly this was an issue I was having with people in superior roles to my own. I guess that seems to be quite normal. Of course, your boss has more saying in how things have to go and in the decisions that determine the inner workings of a company. Right? But is this the only logical way to go forward?
I am not calling for a communist system, where everyone (in mere theory) has the same saying, but rather I wonder whether we might not be better off with a more open and honest debate culture? I am quite sure that most people have experienced a boss who has made bad decisions. But the fear created by hierarchy prevents people around him or her to speak out. The lack of opposition is then seen as silent agreement. I have experienced that frequently. Opposition is seen as something that is trying to undermine one’s authority. And that, I believe, is not the way things should be.
But we come to accept it, since we all seem to accept the game of power and hierarchy. Critique, very often, seems to aim at the position someone is holding, rather than something constructive. And the moment we are criticizing someone, another person might see this as an invitation to criticize us and therefore our position. Naturally someone has to make decisions, but to make the best decisions, the best and most open feedback might certainly be beneficial. Sure, sure, many companies try to implement ways for their employees to give feedback up the hierarchy ladder, but I think that this might work only in the rarest of cases. Power needs fear to work – one might call it “respect”, but in the end it is fear.
The fear we might feel in the presence of our boss might be the fear our colleagues experience when encountering us. And we ourselves might be as well guilty as charged.
Yet, the game is not an open one. Most positions are not reached through merit, but rather through the inner workings of the power structure, where many people promote those that suit their needs and wants best.
Maybe in the coming years the debate that has started with the brave women who have come forward to question the roles people with power play, might enable us to ask questions that go even further. The way I see it, is that an open discourse should be beneficial in most situations. But this, we would have to learn first.
It keeps to leave me baffled to watch the visual world envisioned by different groups of Islamist propagandists and to notice the lack of any female characters. It is truly a world without women. I might have mentioned this before, but this – the non-existence of women – is harder for me to cope with than the brutal depiction of violence against men. I know that there exists every disgusting form of violence against women, but it seems as if this isn’t even worth mentioning. Please spare me with “but they are not allowed to depict women”. Bullshit. They are not allowed to permit any of the violence acts presented in these videos. Not showing women just makes it more evident how fucked up their whole ideology is. Women are considered the lowest of the low.
That makes the rare occasions, when women are actually visible, even more outstanding. From the ISIS-sphere, there is just a handful of videos, I know of, where black clad women are to be seen somewhere in the distant background. The closest to a female character you can get is a small girl of maybe 8 or 9 years old.
But I just stumbled upon a video I had collected last year but overlooked till now. I think it did come out in September of 2017 and it actually shows a female figure fighting. That is the only video of this kind I know. It might have to do with the notion that these battles might be part of a final struggle, that led the propagandist to use this “desperate” material. Of course, there have always been women amongst the fighters or serving as part of the security apparatus, but it has never been shown that openly.
The propaganda is full of heroic male characters, yet this short, 30 something second snippet is the only video I know of that not only talks about fighting women, but “shows” them. But it stops short of giving the figure a face and therefore an identity.
Space flight finally makes the big news again. That certainly has a lot to do with clever PR from new private space companies. There seems to be a renewed space race and people are thrilled about it. I am too. Launches can be watched live. Cameras show every absurd angle of the rockets mid-flight. The whole stuff just seems to be extremely cool and many people want to join the hype. It has been a while, since the last person set foot on another celestial body, so it seems to be about damn time to aim higher than just the moon. A manned trip to Mars finally seems to be in reach and beyond that merely a question of time and stamina. And, of course, these trips must be manned, what would be the point of it otherwise? Here, I guess, we are touching a field I am extremely interested in: authenticity.
When looking up to the moon, it gives a warm feeling imagining that someone – a real human being – has been up there. Touched it – at least to the extent that is permissible by the surrounding vacuum. Has set his eyes on it. That makes one dizzy and proud. How far has humanity come? But why the hell should I personally give a fuck? It wasn’t me that had been up there, and if it would have been me, the same problem would arise for you.
The pictures brought back by astronauts from Apollo missions, are stunning. And to some extent they let us picture ourselves in these situations. It is great PR work and enables us to dream, even though almost none of us will ever set foot on another planet. And here is the key point I am struggling with. Why should anyone ever travel to another planet and if they do, what exactly is it, that we as humanity are sending to outer space?
Don’t get me wrong, I am entirely for an expansion into space. It sounds like a logical step to me. I am questioning some of our ideas behind manned missions though.
What exactly is it, that we are trying to send to space?
Is it a way to gather information? Well, with the increasing pace AI is developing, why would we need “real” human beings for that? Sure, astronauts take the nicer selfies on the surface of mars, but other than that, the information an astronaut sends back to me, is on some very basic level indistinguishable to me from the information sent back by a computer-controlled rover. Both sets of data rely on my imagination for me to be thrilled by it. It is both equally abstract to me. But we remain social beings, that easily feel as if the actions and experiences of others are our own. That might be the key point here. Technology outpaces our little monkey brains, but we still expect that the stories about far and distant places are told by hunters and gatherers who travelled there in person. So, oddly enough, a picture taken by a fellow human being still feels more authentic than a picture taken by a camera that controls itself.
It seems as if we only value events and things that are perceived by ourselves. This is understandable, since our own horizon is always limited by our perception. Things like language and writing are so important because they extend our reach. Yet there always has been so much more going on than anyone was aware of. The frustration this has created is quite old. At least as old as the question whether a tree that falls without anyone around makes a noise. We tend to need our perception in the equation for things to really take place.
Let’s face it though. This was never the right way to look at things – maybe the only one we could fully understand – and things are changing drastically. If we are looking at the amount of information that is being processed today without any human interaction or attention, we come to realize that we are already being left behind. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but rather it now becomes merely more obvious. It came as a shock, when we realized that there might never be any polymaths again. Polymath as someone who has a understanding of all available knowledge a certain era could provide – an idea that was especially popular during the renaissance or maybe during our romanticized view on the renaissance. But I wonder if someone like Galileo would have survived on his own on a desert island. Could he have fed himself? Or did his knowledge not include basic concepts of hard labor?
Even Galileo would have missed almost everything around him. Humans just work that way.
Even if Galileo would really have had a perfect understanding of everything, how would other people have benefited from that? Galileo did write books, sure – and some of his texts got him into deep trouble -, but most people did not read them and the information they were containing was quite limited. If you know something I don’t, you might teach me some aspects of your knowledge or you might make me benefit from your knowledge in indirect ways, but your direct experience can never be shared.
So, if you land on Mars, your own experience of the situation is limited and even more limited is your ability to share your experience with others – even with fellow astronauts who join you on your journey.
But maybe the key reason for manned space travel would be to save humanity from looming doom, by expanding out to space and therefore, limiting the chances that all of humanity might be whipped out by a single catastrophe on a global scale.
What exactly is this “humanity” mentioned here?
The most basic understanding of humanity might be “all humans”. Sending everyone to space would leave Earth empty. Maybe we should, instead, select a few ambassadors to represent what humanity is – I wonder how that might go. When the US sent 20 white men to the Moon, they thought of them as ambassadors for humanity. That selection makes little sense from today’s perspective.
So, if we try to be more careful, who choses these representatives? And what would be the characteristics they should fulfill? Sure, after some decades, the group of people living somewhere other than Earth might be big enough to be a good enough representation for human society, but that is not the argument I am trying to make.
We have long reached the point, where “humanity” has little to do with actual humans. Humanity might be the knowledge we have accumulated, rather the genes we carry. This move away from humans as the key factor for society and global culture is certainly going to accelerate in the future. The stuff we would like to preserve might in fact have little to do with people like you and me. Why then should we care so much in sending little me or little you to the stars? Might not a hard drive and a jar of random genetical material be the better choice?
Again, when we say that we are afraid for the fate of humanity or life in general, most of us actually mean that we are afraid for our own life’s. Maybe the ones of our children and pets. But beyond that it becomes utterly abstract. I am not saying that humans are not worth preserving, but if we want to send intelligence and life to other planets, for them to being colonized or fertilized, maybe sending a couple thousand humans might not be the most reasonable choice. Sure, preserving my own genes would be the decision I would make – that is what my genes ask for. But would that be the best way to move forward? I doubt it.
Like so many generations before us, we are witnessing the future from the point of a spectator that won’t participate in the fun stuff. I guess that this is OK. I don’t like it either.
Things are changing all around us. Technology has become part of evolution and this accelerates the pace at which things move forward. We might feel left behind, but that is not new in the cycle of life and death. Maybe we are going to reach the point, when we – as human individuals – are just not a key part of future developments anymore. It must have been a terrible sight for early humanoids in the African savannah, when they were witnessing the next evolutionary step in the form of other humanoids carrying sticks.
Recently I went to an exhibition opening. There were some video projections, the content did not really matter. While holding a glass of wine, I came to talk to an elderly man. He mentioned to me that the videos did remind him of some Fluxus works, he had seen in one of the earlier Documenta shows in Kassel. Back when he was a student there. He went on to complain about Fluxus and the new work he had just encountered. I found that interesting. He could still describe the Fluxus works in great detail, after so many years. He was talking about him not understanding what he had encountered back then. But still, the works had left such a deep impression with him. I questioned him, if, in a week or two, he might still be able to remember any of the content of the new work on display at the place we were just visiting. He was absolutely certain that he would not.
That is quite important, I guess. I am struggling with folks like Joseph Beuys and Fluxus as a whole, but maybe these works did fit the time they were created in. They have been powerful enough, that after fifty-odd years, someone might still be confused to the point of talking about it. They must have been extremely authentic. Maybe this gets lost on me, since I am born many years later and the circumstances, in which I have encountered them is all so different. To him, they certainly had a huge relevance. He did not seem to like these works all that much, but even from disgust might come something deep.
But what would be the relevance of the new work then? I am not mentioning the show, nor the artist, because it would be unfair to boil it down to it being just a reference to some Fluxus piece. But it seems as if it nevertheless misses relevance to today. It did not leave me baffled, nor did it make me feel the slightest bit inspired. The conversation I was having with this nice man, easily outshone the art presented.
There are plenty of “new” works that copy the struggles fought by old ones. The revolution we might need to fight today, would look different than the revolution that was fought by Beuys and CO. So, when young artists create works that copy other people’s struggles, the work might be easily recognizable, but it’s relevance is at least questionable. At least.
I was at a conference recently, that dealt with questions around visual culture. During the discussions, quite a few people were talking about the way new developments in communication or image creation change us. That made me think.
Humans, on a biological level, have been quite slow to change. Our lifespan is too long to enable evolution to push us forward at a very high pace. That did not really matter, since the environment in which we are living was relatively stable, if looked at globally. Sure, there have always been plaques and catastrophes that brought humans to the brink of extinction, but these, almost always, were quite local events. As far as we know it, only once in our common history (70.000-80.000 years ago), was humanity as a whole very close to vanish. But it didn’t.
We were able to compensate every change around us with the size of our brains and our ability to function as a group, rather than merely as a collection of individuals.
Now, it seems, that the world that surrounds us, has gained speed, when it comes to change. But that change in technology, science, communication, is a change that happens to us, rather than something that emanates from us. We are affected by these changes, but the question is, whether we are changing ourselves. That I doubt.
I believe that we are getting to see our own limitations, when the world around changes drastically, and we notice friction, when we are not able to adapt at a similar pace. The growing friction could be understood as us changing. We are basically still these fearful creatures, that are hiding in a cave, afraid we might get eaten any moment now. And sure, we know how to make fire by now, but the whole thing is still deeply troubling and from time to time feels like magic.
I am currently applying for a research position. I am not going to get it – why should I? I am just an artist. Part of the requirement though was to send in some writing samples. I took this as an excuse to write some stuff. Part of it might repeat some of the ideas I have already mentioned here. But much of it is new. So I just post it.
If you wanted to film an execution, how would you go about?
The boundless Stage
If the question in the title of this text would not be about how to film an execution, but how to film a birthday party for a small child, the answer might apparently be easier to answer. We might go and check how others have done it. We visit sites like Facebook or YouTube, we check our personal archives, we ask others. We remember how Hollywood does it. In general, we try to remember our common visual language, which in return might give us guidance on how something like this is properly done. Certainly, the key shot has to be, when the child blows out the candle. People in the background do a countdown and then, oh joy, the happy moment. We all know how this looks like. Even those of us, who have actually never attended a single birthday that had been celebrated in this fashion.
There are two sides to that. There is the ritual. The fact that we celebrate a special day for each person, once a year. The cake. The presents. The songs.
And then there is the visual aspect. Try to picture a birthday party and we all can agree on a basic appearance. But many of these images that come to mind, are actually not of events, you have been participating in. They have come to you through the broadest variety of media. From the picture albums of friends and family, to movies and TV.
In our visually driven society, the image has become a key element in the ritual itself. Pictures must be taken and shared for the event to be valid. The ritual is set up in such a way to be easily photographed or filmed. And all too often, the images seem to be more important than what had originally been the key aspect of the ritual.
Recently, I had been invited to the birthday party of a one-year old child, whose parents had to flee the civil war in Syria. Once the decoration was up, the food was on the table, the candle lit and the child in its seat of honor, there was a ten-minute frenzy, when everyone was trying to get the right shot. Many of the images were instantly shared online. Relatives were connected live via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. The adult guest queued to get their picture take with the toddler. The candle was lit multiple times, to be blown out repeatedly. Once all the pictures had been taken and the food was on the plates, the toddler was put back into its play pen and mostly ignored for the rest of the evening. His job in the ritual was done, even though, originally, the ritual was meant as a celebration of his birthday.
The pictures had been taken and the event was a full success – maybe especially since the pictures looked like ones from a successful event.
Not only do the pictures become part of the ritual, the taking of the pictures too has become a key element. We all remember “Uncle Herbert” taking pictures on certain private occasions. And there were the professional photographers during public events. This is why we know how to pose in front of the camera. And we know how to do this differently in different circumstances.
So, the ritualized aspect of image taking isn’t new, yet the reach of the medium is far greater today than ever before and I would argue that photography and video certainly help to ritualize our lives even further than before. More and more moments in life are photographed constantly and more and more of these moments develop a “correct” look.
With the omnipresence of cameras, we have come to expect pictures to be taken in every imaginable situation. Parts of private life, that had remained private before, become public. But this might also create another feedback loop. Since more and more things, events, places become potential interests for the camera, it becomes crucial to be photogenic. Like the table at the birthday party, many things and events around us, are set up in such a way to easily create pleasing images. This seems to be dictated by the images already associated with a certain object or situation. So, the visual language of images is being transferred into the real world. Not long ago, food photography was a sub-genre with a very limited application. Today, many people replace the short prayer before the meal with a picture of the way the food is served. And this certainly has a big influence on how the food is served – and maybe even what food is being eaten.
In the setting of a TV studio, this seems natural, since everything is created for the camera. But the cameras today point in all directions. The stage has lost its boundaries. But on this boundless stage, everyone becomes an actor and every moment in life part of the play.
This is evident in almost every public event today. There always seems to be a multitude of cameras pointing at every little detail.
It is even true, when looking at many of the public executions shown in Islamist propaganda videos. Of course, to the audience that (quite often forcibly) attends these, they are a spectacle and we have learned that spectacles need to be recorded visually. Filming and taking pictures during the suffering of fellow human beings seems to be a sign of an evil and perverted culture, but I believe that the lack of such images from our society only has to do with the lack of public executions, and not with higher moral standards. During the public lynchings in the US of the early 20th century quite a few photographers made good money by taking pictures of members of the crowd. Even postcards of these events were produced and sold.
Today, almost everyone carries a camera and many people are inclined to document almost everything they encounter. If there would be public executions in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, there would certainly be images of them on Instagram.
How to die the right fashion?
I always wonder, how far our visual training has taken us. With a smartphone in easy reach such a huge chunk of humanity, almost all of us have become image creators. But far longer have we been consuming and reading images.
Hundredandsixtysomething years for the medium of photography might be a short period of time in the big scope of human history, but on a personal level, we do not work like this. Not a single person alive has met someone that has not grown up in the age of images as a form of mass communication. (I am ignoring those rare encounters with remote tribes made first contact in the last few decades.)
Movies try to recreate human interaction and behavior. But they also teach us interaction and behavior.
It has always been true, that most of a person’s knowledge is not based on his own experience, but on experience that others have made and that has been shared. That was true in the age of the hunter-gatherer and it is true today. What has changed is that, today, more and more knowledge comes with images attached. The hunter-gatherer might have heard the tales of far and distant lands, but we feel we have been there, since the images we have encountered have become part of our own memories.
My mother has never been on a plane. And she has never traveled outside Germany, Switzerland and France. But as an avid TV consumer, if you’d ask her, she would certainly have an apparent knowledge of many places around the world. Hell, I know what a volcanic eruption looks like. Have I ever seen one in person? Well no, but I have been taught how it looks and I am quite certain to recognize one, when I see it.
It might be relatively evident, which things we know, that we have never really encountered ourselves. I am phrasing this slightly vague, since our visual knowledge of things we have really encountered is also a mixture of personally experience and tales told. I have seen the Eiffel Tower on several occasions, yet the picture I have in mind is most certainly not one that is solely based on my personal gaze.
But it becomes really vague, if we talk about behavior and interaction. How many of the soldiers that die on the battlefield, unconsciously recreate in their last moments stuff they have learned through movies and TV? Like, “tell my family….”. Maybe I am completely misguided and there is something in our genes, that makes us act this way, when we die. But I highly doubt it. I think it is cultural training and much of that, today, comes to us through media.
So, what should be the most personal event possible, also becomes a ritual. Thinking back, when visiting my later father-in-law at his deathbed, I almost expected theatrical last words from him. Of course, he was too sick. And at the time, I had other things to think about, then the botched movie ritual. But later I came to realize that something had been missing.
The glitter Taliban
When comparing three or four year old Islamist propaganda from sources connected to ISIS and sources connected to al Qaeda the differences were somewhat striking. Even back then, ISIS propaganda was extremely posh and fancy. Yet, the al Qaeda propaganda was somewhat lacking behind.
Not the cool special forces outfits. Not the paramilitary drill. Not the action scenes normally found in Hollywood blockbuster movies. And exactly that might the point. What seems off with this propaganda, is the fact that it barely resembles the propaganda we normally encounter, when watching TV or going to the movies. This certainly has to do with the fact that much of this kind Western media has never reached the religious parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it is precisely here, where many of the recruits for al Qaeda and the Taliban come from.
They have not come to expect the propaganda to look the way a Hollywood movie would depict a powerful group of fighters.
It looks as if local traditions and fashion are far more important to them than the latest style of military gear. Certainly, as deadly as ISIS fighters, sometimes it is difficult not to chuckle looking at these images.
On the other hand, ISIS media operatives apparently have seen a ton of Western propaganda. So much so, that their visual language is mostly indistinguishable from what the West might produce. Of course, there were many Western fighters amongst their ranks that brought along their visual culture. But Iraq and Syria themselves were not disconnected from Western media, the same way, a remote and religious area of Afghanistan might have been. People, growing up in the 80s or 90s in Syria and Iraq, most certainly know their way around in Hollywood.
But from this difference in appearance, we can read how much Islamist propaganda is actually a response to the prevalent visual language. Many ISIS videos could be classified as music videos without music – since the use of music is prohibited. Others appear more mundane and boring and better resemble documentaries. But the genres in general seem quite clear and well known.
Over time though, the propaganda emanating from the Hindukush (and in lower quantity from Yemen) has changed drastically. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seemed to have faced a dilemma. On one hand, making the propaganda look to Western would be a kind of moral defeat on the other hand, they were losing the war over global attention against media outlets associated with ISIS. And more attention means more recruits and more money donated to the cause.
It is still relatively easy to say which side of the struggle a certain video comes from. Especially looking at the way graphic violence is depicted (ISIS) or is not depicted (al Qaeda) and looking at some cultural hints, like certain ways to dress and so on. But they are much more similar than before. Both sides now show SWAT team like military training. Both sides show off military gear and equipment. And both sides pay more attention to fast cuts and appealing action scenes.
An interesting case is the use of remote controlled video drones to document suicide attacks with cars (VBIEB for vehicle-borne improvised explosive device). The drone flies some distance away from the car and records the explosion. Quite often these videos also show the unsuccessful attempts to stop the car by opposing forces. Many attacks fail, but naturally, these failures rarely make it into the final cut of the propaganda video. If you want to see the failed attacks, you have to look for the successful prevention of these attacks in the propaganda of the respective opponent.
The first use of remote controlled video drones – without the suicide attack – I have seen, was from Russian “journalists” operating embedded within Assad troops. These videos were showing the destruction the war has caused and successfully liberated neighborhoods and towns. Very quickly though these drones were adopted to document attacks and in this way, they were mostly used by ISIS. The first encounters with these videos left me pretty speechless. The image quality was brilliant, and the footage was something I had never seen. It really gave the impression of a true birds view on an actual battlefield. With this brutal clarity, the attack seemed even more cunning than if it were filmed from the ground.
That must also have been the reaction of Islamist forces in opposition to ISIS. Because quite quickly, other groups in Iraq and Syria adopted the same kit to document suicide attacks. And quickly more of the attacks shown were filmed by drones than from the ground. Maybe because drones are hard to find in Afghanistan or maybe there were some resentments against the use of these cameras, but it took the Taliban almost a year to visually catch up. But in the end, they did. And now even in Afghanistan attacks are filmed using drones.
So, propaganda, it turns out, has become a fast-paced arms race. Technology changes very quickly and the needs and wants of the online audience forces propagandists to adopt. That way it is not different from other forms of advertising. It is interesting to me to see, how the Internet dictates even the inner workings of Islamist propagandists. Even though they wish to promote an unchanging religious set of values, that is 1400 years old – at least that is their claim -, they have to change the way they transport the message constantly. The audience demands it, or otherwise it is going to click on another link.
Most of us might know Robert Capas famous image of a dying Spanish soldier during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. I am aware that there is some debate on the authenticity of this image, but let’s just – for the sake of my arguments – assume that the image does show the precise moment this soldier is being killed. Robert Capa, in his role as a war photographer, was certainly hoping to take images like this one, but the image itself wasn’t something he was able to plan. He was just at the right place at the right time to document this event.
Even the images of the attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York were more or less results of chance encounters. The al Qaeda operatives, involved in the planning and execution, would certainly have hoped to create images, but they relied on cameras already filming (tourists and surveillance cameras) or news crews gathering to record the aftermath of the attack. They did not set up their own cameras. Nor was this the case for most of the other terror attacks of the early 2000s that made the headlines.
The conflict in Syria can be seen as part of the Arab Spring series of popular uprisings. In these struggles social media like Twitter and Facebook played an important role from the very beginning. When people went to the streets in protest, the took with them their phones to share images and videos with the world. The same happened in Syria. When the peaceful struggle became the Syrian Civil War, people kept recording and sharing. And when protesters became combatants, the filming of protests became war photography and propaganda. Maybe two years into the conflict, there was a noticeable shift. For quite a while, suicide attacks had been filmed with cellphones and the propagandistic use of images of executions was quite limited.
More and more, cell phone cameras were replaced by more professional equipment. And the filming of attacks was planned more carefully. It became clear that the production of images for the use in propaganda videos had become a crucial element in the planning of attacks. Cameras were not aiming in the general direction of the oncoming attack, but many videos were carefully framed. To an extent, where one might wonder, whether some targets might have been chosen not for their military value, but for their visual appeal.
Images are not a by-product anymore, but rather a key element in the struggle. This changes everything.
The dramatic shift is especially visible in videos that show the work of snipers. These videos are one of the many sub-genres of propaganda that come out of the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These videos pretend to show the successful work of snipers from their own point of view. Of course, these videos are part of the propaganda and therefore their authenticity can never be fully trusted, nor will they ever be impartial. But it is quite clear that at least some of these videos in fact do show the “successful” killing of people. Whether these are enemy fighters or innocent bystanders is not important here.
People are killed to produce images. Of course, the sniper waits for the person with the camera to tell him that the camera is recording. Of course, he waits for the victim to enter the field of view of the camera, before he pulls the trigger. This is not the view of a person like Robert Capa, who tried to document the brutality of war. Here, the only “successful” kill is one that produces an image that can be used for propaganda purposes. It does not matter, whether the person killed really poses a threat or not.
The same is true for videos that show executions. Many people are killed for their deaths to be used in propaganda videos.
It is interesting to see this drastic shift so clearly in organizations (ISIS and al Qaeda), that historically were extremely negative towards the use of images altogether. Not long ago, Islamists in Afghanistan actively prosecuted photographers for breaking aniconic rules. And now, they themselves are producing propaganda videos and release them to the public. This might be a hint, that it isn’t necessarily the propagandist who decides on the way propaganda evolves. Maybe it is rather the collective audience that pushes certain developments. With view counters and user statistics, the Internet makes it possible for the viewer to leave a feedback to the creator of content, whether he is aware of that or not.
The Problem of the new
When YouTube celebrity Paul Logan shocked parts of the internet community by filming and mocking a dead person in Japan, this seemed to cross the line for many people. He and his team had been roaming a forest in Japan, that has gained some notoriety, for the high number of people going there to commit suicide. Clearly, he was hoping to find a corpse, and in the end, he was lucky in that respect. YouTube tried to counter the outrage, this video caused, by briefly restricting Logan’s ability to monetize his content on their platform. Only briefly though. Did this hurt Paul Logan? Not really. Especially not amongst his key audience. The video that caused so much outrage has now been viewed over 50 million times and the number of subscribers of his channel keeps growing.
Logan is following one of the simpler rules of the Internet. You want to be noticed? Then break the rules and make that public. Do something that shocks people and they will watch and listen. It is the same set of guidelines that is followed by ISIS in many of their most brutal videos.
But this also creates some problems. The audience, that is eager to follow you, expects you to constantly repeat your stunts with more and more audacity. It is not your amazing set of skills or your magnificent creativity that makes people watch your videos, but rather it is your ability to provide something that appears to be new and bold.
After the outrage over the mocked corpse had settled down and a short while after a show of public apology, Logan released another video, in which he tasered two dead rats. Bad taste? Certainly. But neither all that creative nor all that bold – maybe mostly desperate. But how would one go about to surpass the hype created by you mocking a corpse? To Logan the options are quite limited, since killing someone seems to be not an option. Ending up on death row or on a life sentence would certainly make the news, but keeping up the hype and benefiting from it afterwards would be rather tricky.
ISIS on the other hand can kill people. It is quite normal for this group to kill. So why not film it and make it a propaganda thing? When these videos appeared at first, they were extremely shocking. They were showing real murders on camera, something our mass media normally would not show us. Videos like these might have been found before already in the deepest depths of the Internet. On some gore sites like theync.com and maybe someone managed to sneak something into a 4chan /b. But these videos always appeared to be shot on accident or by someone who was having other priorities than to film someone being murdered.
The ISIS propaganda came as a shock. And it became an instant blockbuster on schoolyards in many Western countries.
But the Internet dictates, that the new does not stay new for long. Your audience might admire you for the furour you create, but most of them are very loosely attached to you and your cause. You have to keep them entertained for them to stay focused.
The propagandists of ISIS and Co face a dilemma. They created an audience by producing videos that were deliberately violating social norms, by showing violence in a taboo braking way. This has created a lot of response, both from other media and the audience. Hype is gone as quickly as it comes, yet hype is addictive. And the Internet works by its own set of rules. It does not matter, whether you are a YouTube star, that dreams of a bigger house and more women, or a group of Jihadi fighters, trying to promote a social agenda from the 7th century BC. You want to be noticed and want to enjoy the short high only hype can provide? Than follow the rules of the online community.
I must say, that I find the thought very soothing, that even jihadi fighters have to agree to the terms and services of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
This might explain, why execution videos changed over time. More attention is paid to the setting. The camerawork has become more professional. More shots from different angles. Etcetera. But most astonishingly, the violence itself has changed. In the beginning, the decapitations were a relatively swift matter, shootings were done quickly. Later, the whole thing turned to butchery. Sometimes quite literally, by hanging the victims upside down from hooks, cutting their throat, letting them bleed out. Just like a butcher would do it. These videos constantly try to reinstate the feeling terror, that caused people to talk about them in the first place.
Shooting a hostage just does not cut it anymore. Nowadays you have to shoot in groups, burn, blow up, use shotguns and slow motion. You have to deliver something unseen before, to make the news. To the victims, of course, this is terrible. They become objects of perverted content creators. Much of this increase in violence is driven by an urge to create something new. And it appears to me that there are even persons killed, whose death normally would not be justified, unless someone needed some victims to create a video. If you constantly need to create new shocking videos, featuring the murder of your opponents – well maybe you become somewhat desperate to find opponents that are really worthy to die in the most terrible fashion. Maybe you let your standards slip slightly, just to be able to declare more people enemies of the level.
That is not to say that all there is to ISIS propaganda are the killings. That isn’t true. But many of the most brutal ones share some traits with viral advertising. Viral ads try to make us listen to an extremely bland message of “buy this”, by wrapping the message in an outer shell that is unexpected or outrageous, funny or just amazing. ISIS videos are, at the core, as bland as the sales pitch for a car insurance. Maybe even blander, since many of the ideas propagated are extremely old and remote from a reality in which the Internet exists and in which every imaginable content is just a few clicks apart.
The brutality is the shell, that makes to message easier to swallow. Many of the mayor jihadi video productions are truly wrapped in viral content. At the beginning, you see some flashy intro, maybe some fighting and some battles, then comes the boring part, where you someone explains the boring details of the world view of the group and the execution at the end serves as your reward for staying focused. Really, not that different from a sales pitch for a car insurance.
But once the appeal of the facade wears off, it becomes all too clear how desperate the middle part sounds. This would not necessarily affect the true believers, but the propaganda tries to recruit new people and that becomes much harder, once people lose interest.
If we compare the two images on the previous pages, we can see two persons playing the same role. One is working for ESPN, a big US TV station that focusses on sports, the other an operative for a group that associates itself with ISIS. But both act in a similar fashion and even though, he might lack the standard business suit, the ISIS guy even has the ISIS logo on a small cube attached to his microphone. Over the course of the two videos snippets, both men perform very similar looking interviews.
The ESPN journalist talks to an American Football player and the ISIS guy to a group of people in cages, that are burned alive after the interview.
The last detail makes the whole thing fall apart. Why would someone clumsily act like a journalist, just to perform some mock interviews with a group of men that are killed in such a horrifying way shortly after?
How should he do it otherwise? If we turn on TV, we can see that it is really difficult, to come up with a unique visual language, that is still comprehensible. Some people try, and almost all of them fail miserably. To play it safe, it is easiest to just reuse the codes and sings already in use. Everyone does it. The ISIS guy isn’t influenced by the guy from ESPN, rather both follow the same lead. Neither is truly authentic, but that might not matter.
Not everyone that uses spoken language has to reinvent it constantly. Why should that be any different, if it comes to images? The media dictates how a story is best told and therefore the jihadi journalist or the Taliban-made TV studio actually make sense. It feels absurd though, to watch Islamists call for the “death of the West”, while at the same time following stereotypes invented by and for Western media. A typical example would be an attack in Kabul by a group that associated itself with the Taliban. The attack was aimed at a TV station and four people working there were killed. Shortly after the attack a press release was issued by the Taliban, claiming responsibility for the attack. The press release, of course, was aimed directly at media outlets like the one that had just been attacked.
One might call for the destruction of all media, but to reach the public, this call should best go through as many media outlets as possible. It is very similar to populist politicians, that seem to complain about “fake news” every single time, they are being interviewed on TV.