This article is excerpted from The Media Ecosystem: What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice, recently released by Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books.
Scan any major news website for information about the environment and you will likely be led to two places: the science and weather sections. Even if there is an area solely devoted to environmental issues, in most cases the topic is treated as distinct from media, culture, or society (unless it impacts business, travel, or sports). This contrasts with an emerging view that sustainability, ecological awareness, and environmental consciousness need to be integrated and holistic. This mediasphere's particular landscape view, if you will, has its origins in the Western division of knowledge. In 1873 the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology, basing it on the Greek word oikos, meaning "house, dwelling place, habitation." Likewise, oikos is also the root of economics. That ecology and economics were initially associated makes practical sense. As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs pointed out, both are intimately linked to the idea of household management. This concurs with the notion that sustainability is essentially how we approach the allocation of resources so as to not endanger future generations, but in a globalized world, the household must be conceived of on a planetary scale.
Households are primary sites of mediation. For example, the house is where we often work on the computer, watch TV, use our phones, share meals, and socialize, and all of these activities are mediated through language, metaphors, and economic practices. Economic globalization is intimately integrated into our homes through the goods we consume, the power we use, the food we eat, the waste we generate, and the culture we share.
If we look at household as a planetary concept (akin to Buckminster Fuller's Spaceship Earth), it is vastly more expansive than the meaning assigned to it by the Greeks, given that such a global worldview is facilitated by electronically disseminated media or air and space travel. Maps, images from space, books about travel to remote places, film, pictures in National Geographic, 24/7 news streams, and the internet are all aspects of how many of us picture and hold an image of Earth. This is not to say other cultures at different times in history did not have a holistic or comprehensive understanding of Earth. Indeed, home for many ancient cultures extended to the cosmos. But their perceptions were also grounded in their immediate surroundings, and their ability to survive depended on an intimate knowledge of the land they dwelled in (for what it's worth, many in the world still live this way today).
In many ways, then, mass media have facilitated "planetary" awareness, best symbolized by Marshall McLuhan's aphorism that we all now inhabit a global village. Though we know in practice that there is no such thing as a global village (the scales are contradictory), or that "global thinking" is problematic (we can't know how everyone thinks), the increasing view of our planetary interdependence and connectivity is clearly apparent and necessary. After all, no matter who pollutes the atmosphere, we all breathe the same air. The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas is not a disconnected event; it has a cascading impact on water supplies, food, migration, economy, and regional conflict that reverberates globally. Additionally, events like the Icelandic volcano ash cloud, Indian Ocean tsunami, or the Haitian earthquake highlight the global character of calamity. The impact on global weather by the proverbial butterfly's wing flapping in Brazil should be less an abstract mental exercise in chaos theory, and more of a graspable metaphor for the daily interconnected lives of all of us.
Awareness of global issues, whether we like it or not, is mostly mediated. Such networked mediation should enable us to grasp the matrix connecting a locally grounded reality with its international strands, such as when we buy food (choosing when possible whether it is local, fair trade, or biological/organic). We can also analyze the production stream of our shoes and other consumer goods, connecting them with the culture industry and globalized production stream in order to build a heightened awareness of the interconnected lives between consumers, workers, and the nonhuman world. Finally, the very electronic equipment we use has global implications in terms of energy consumption, mineral extraction for precious metals, water usage for chip manufacturing, and the massive trade in toxic waste that results from the built-in obsolescence of our "cheap" electronics ("cheap" because we don't factor in the external costs that are borne by unequal labor conditions and the material cost of the environment).
Consequently, one of the primary sites of contact with the larger global system is through media. Globalization, consumerism, industrialization, and information economy are accelerating the ecological crisis, and media helps facilitate this process by masking its dangers and touting the benefits of this system through the uncontested warship of growth, technology, progress, and consumerism. Critically engaging media — whether it's advertising, new, or popular culture — provides opportunities to connect our daily perception with the bigger picture (a media metaphor!).
As modern subjects we occupy a hybridized conceptual space that blends firsthand and mediated experiences. Our lifeworld is simultaneously "here" and "there." The trouble is finding the right terminology to describe the reality of our multidimensional experience that eschews the normal dichotomy between natural and unnatural, real and simulated, or organic versus synthetic. Our experience is simultaneously natural, electronically mediated, interdependent, and global.
Meanwhile the nonhuman world is in communication with us in every moment through multiple channels. We are always negotiating this communication in some way, albeit mostly unconsciously. There are multiple cues from the environment telling us that our living systems are sick and weakened by our behavior, whether they be mass die-offs from birds, beached mammals, collapsing bee colonies, or crazy weather. The art of reading snowdrifts, wave swells, cloud formations, dune formations, and plant pollination are just some of the various skills that could help us communicate better with living systems. Unfortunately most of us either ignore these signs or have diminished sense perception.
One way to reconcile this is to borrow from the school of socioenvironmental thought that looks at integrating our concepts of "world system" and "Earth system." From this perspective, economics and ecology recursively impact each other. For example, researchers found an important correlation between the Sony PlayStation 2 and the decline of the gorilla population in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In year 2000 speculation on the price of tantalum, a key precious metal used in microelectronics such as cell phones and gaming devices, was driven by the impending release of the PlayStation 2. This led to a massive mining boom in the Congo's Kahuzi-Biega national park, severely impacting the population of many animal species, including elephants, tortoise, birds and small mammals.
The park is home of the Grauer gorilla, which represents 86 percent of the planetary population of lowland gorillas. As a result of the tantalum rush, the Grauer gorilla population declined from 17,000 to 3,000. Fueled by consumer demand for gadgets and market speculation driven by online trading, this tragedy reflects the problem of an economic paradigm that fails to account for living systems. The inability of media and gadgets companies to incorporated an Earth system ethic into their design leads to a loss of biodiversity. Not only is it immoral to create systems that disregard life, such a loss has huge implications for the climate, for as we decrease biodiversity, regional ecosystems lose the ability to thrive and adjust under conditions of extreme ecological disruptions that are increasingly commonplace.
Climate change is the single most important issue of our lifetime, which cannot be addressed except from a thoroughly holistic perspective. In this sense, we need a wide-angle view to bring the larger awareness of global ecological and social systems into the discussion of media (without it being "ghettoized" by the specific polemics of environmentalism or globalization). It is my contention that relegating issues of ecology and globalization to their normal professional and thought divisions means missing an opportunity to confront the problem where we come into contact with it on a daily basis — through our communication systems — and denying that they are intimately linked.
Viewing media outside the context of sustainability is part of the problem. The relationship between them is twofold: ecological footprint (material impact) and mindprint (mental impact). Material issues include the toxins used to make gadgets and their impact on the health of workers and their communities; the CO2 emissions of fossil fuels needed to run our electronic networks (which is now equal to the global aviation industry); and the e-waste generated from overconsumption. The ecological mindprint of media includes their impact on our perception of time, space, and our sense of "place"; the enabling of a destructive globalized growth economy via a symbolic architecture of brands, stocks, and money; the perpetuation of consumerism through marketing; the spread of disinformation and propaganda that hinders efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change; and the maintenance of a destructive symbolic order through culture industry products like television programming, music videos, film, and video games.
While it's true that social media and the internet enable us to "amplify our minds" (as Howard Rheingold suggests) or accumulate "cognitive surplus" (as Clay Shirky argues), unless we reintegrate a sense of ecological well-being into our media practice, we will not be able to enjoy the benefits of technology that we celebrate. To put it in stark terms, when it comes to the internet, the imagination is limitless, but when it comes to living systems we have to obey the laws of nature. Civilization and all its wonderful media gadgets will not thrive or exist if the current treatment of our living systems does not change.
As Einstein famously said, we cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them. The shift to an ecologically oriented media requires that we look at our mental model of the world. The root of the problem is that we privilege mechanism over ecological intelligence. Mechanism is a machine metaphor for nature and forms the primary knowledge paradigm of the Industrial-Scientific Revolution. It is expressed by the beliefs that minds are programmed by symbolic representations (i.e., a mind is a machine with language as its software) and that humans are disconnected, autonomous beings independent from their living habitats. In terms of media, the logic of mechanism leads to the "thingification" of information and communication.
Ecological intelligence is based on the concept that people are part of "thinking systems" that extend beyond their bodies into the spaces they embody. The internet gives us a good model for visualizing this: Since we define ourselves based on the cues of our environment, the feedback system of our extended mind on the net constantly impacts our self-definition. The way that we connect and share ourselves with others on the net influences our behavior and understanding of who we are. Because of our mirror neurons, we have the capacity for empathy, or what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence. In a book he co-authored, Primal Leadership, Goleman argues that the limbic system has an open loop emotional center that depends on connecting with other people to stabilize our emotions. If this is true on the internet, why not forests and deserts? Didn't our ancient ancestors similarly define themselves via their environments, since communication with animals and living systems was necessary for survival?
Ecopsychologists, who argue that our disconnection with nature actually makes us psychotic, would concur with Goleman but extend his reasoning to our need and capacity to connect with animals and living systems. Ecopsychologists argue that when we abandoned our "ontogenesis" with nature — a coming into being through bonding with the world spirit — we took a turn from sustainable Neolithic cultures that thrived for thousands of years to ones dominated by murdering and misogyny. We no longer have coming of age rituals that enable us to enter into a deep union with our inhabited landscape.
Traces of our ancient past can be found in how children are allowed to play as if animals, plants, or spirits can talk to them. But by confining these behaviors to childhood, we treat our ancient selves as just childish versions of our adult, modern identities. This is best exemplified by animations targeting children. Often the neonatal representations that depict cartoon animals with big heads to resemble toddlers reinforce a hierarchy of relations in which animals are represented as undeveloped humans. Furthermore, Disney's cultural monopolization of "magic" demonstrates just how far we have transitioned from living systems to a technocratic environment where our primal connection with Earth is infantilized by Disney imagineers. Contrast this with the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose respectful tales of nature spirits in films like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke serve as ecological allegories of connection. Or FernGully's effort to tackle deforestation. While it's true that Disney did serve up a powerful salvo against the consumer culture with Wall-E, one has to wonder if Disney's business model of mass merchandizing and outsourced production walks the talk.
Communications theorist James Carey argues that we have a public self — that is, it is socially constructed and cannot exist without mutually shared reality. For example, our thoughts are shaped through language and feedback from our social networks. His error — as is the case of most communication theory — is that the environment is absent from this context. In fact, one of the greatest problems and challenges is the "symbolic annihilation" of the environment from practically any discussion of social theory. Gregory Bateson was one of the few who could see beyond this problem. Bateson argues that each of us is an "organism plus environment." Consider the simple fact that we can't live without breathing air, drinking water, or eating food. We are composed of and depend upon the environment. As Bateson says so succinctly, if you destroy the environment, you destroy the organism. Never mind the technological fantasy of the singularity in which we can upload our consciousness into computers. It will never happen because our consciousness cannot be separated from living systems: they coevolve, coexist, and are codependent. Even computers depend on natural systems and resources to exist. The singularity is a badly conceived waste of human intelligence and probably the best example of mechanistic thinking gone haywire.
Disney's Wall-E exemplifies how less unsustainable media practice doesn't necessarily lead to sustainable cultural production. Thus, we should guard against approaches to ecological intelligence that are solely aimed at lessening the impact of mechanistic economic practices. For example, Goleman failed to apply his own concept of open loop emotional intelligence when he penned Ecological Intelligence. Here, Goleman argues that if products were made more transparent, people would change their buying habits and therefore make the system more sustainable. An example of this would be a smartphone app that can scan product barcodes and give consumers transparent information about its supply chain. Apps tailored toward green consumption could enable buyers to determine which products meet the highest ecological standards. While this kind of transparency is a step in the right direction, it also assumes that changing an unsustainable paradigm is a matter of changing information. In other words, all we need to do is reprogram our mental software to become sustainable.
Unfortunately buying sustainable TVs (an oxymoron) will not lead to a deep breakthrough in how we as a culture relate to the world. Goleman's "ecological intelligence" is a technological solution to a spiritual/worldview problem, one that needs to be addressed through reconceptualizing the autonomous self. Changing consumer information as an environmental solution is putting the cart before the donkey. Goleman's approach is more like an ecological version of the CIA than a change in how we perceive the world. Furthermore, his glee for monitoring consumer habits through brain scans is too weird to even consider viable. It takes the technological solution too far, reducing the notion of ecological intelligence to a matter of brainwave patterns, and not one of an embodied connection to the world. I'm not deriding the concept of transparent business practices — it is in fact one of the best by-products of networked media. I just object to the idea that intelligence can simply be "upgraded" as if it were an operating system made by Microsoft.
An expanded concept of the self would not only be part of a larger system (as opposed to competing with it), it would revitalize the important emotional qualities that products are marketed to replace. Advertising often appeals to a desire for authenticity and community, but rarely delivers. It's the emotional equivalent of eating empty calorie food produced by industrial food corporations. The well-intended appeal for transparent corporate practices is based on the essential "urges" described by ecopsychologists — it comes down to a desire for connection, which is part of our inherent evolutionary need to bond with nature.
A society based on a mechanistic worldview is inherently exploitative: it treats the world as a collection of objects. You can trace a straight line from this mode of perception to enclosure, colonialism, uninhibited growth of corporations, and media monopoly. Mechanism is tied to exploitation because when the world is composed of things, living systems are reduced to disconnected resources that exist for the purpose of human use-or inhuman, as is the case of corporate entities taking over the cultural commons and planetary living systems.
Lessons from the First Occupation
The systematic destruction and globalized marginalization of ecological intelligence is expressed more clearly by the process of colonization. We can start by looking at how this unfolded during the European conquest of the Americas. When Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico, he said it was because he was afflicted with a disease, and that gold was the only cure. For the past 500 years this disease has spread around the world and afflicted many cultures. The Australian Nunga call it the Invader Dreaming: the dominator complex or collective psychosis that drives conquest and colonial parasitism in the name of "progress." The Nunga, who have lived on the Australian continent anywhere from 40,000 to 125,000 years, believe groups have their own particular belief system — "dreamtime" — be they ants, sharks, or European settlers. To them the Invader Dreaming is a weapon of mass cultural destruction.
The conditions of North America's European occupations were a violent disruption of time and space that few of us can comprehend. The consequence of this historical condition — modernity — is an upside-down world in which this disturbance is normal. But when Native Americans — or First Nations — first contacted the Spanish, the European way of being in the world was alien to them. Recall how in the film Avatar the human culture was completely unworldly to the native inhabitants of Pandora, the Na'vi. Just as we saw the human culture in that film as disastrous and strange, just as we view Earth invading aliens in sci-fi movies as disastrous and strange, to the original inhabitants of the Americas European colonists were childlike incomprehensible monsters.
One of the most ancient cultures of North America are the Hopi, who have occupied their lands in what is modern-day Arizona for thousands of years. They first came into contact with the Spanish in 1540. Back when the Hopi initially gathered to discuss the Castilians' intentions and how to deal with them, they looked closely at the Spaniard's dominant symbol, the crucifix, and interpreted it as a sign of great engineering skills and angular thinking. From this symbol, they understood the Spanish to be masters of the material and mental realm. But they were concerned about one thing, and it was a big worry. Where was the circle? The medicine wheel, a common emblem of North American first nations, comprises an encircled cross. It represents an integral system that maps the cosmos from the macro to the micro levels, a kind of mandala for psychological and spiritual orientation. With both linear and holistic elements, the cross and circle together represent the four directions and the continuity of life. It's also the modern astronomical symbol for Earth.
As a symbol, a cross alone lacks holism. To the Hopi, this meant that the Spanish were very dangerous people. Indeed, at the time of the conquest of the Americas, Spanish invaders were at the cusp of the Industrial-Scientific Revolution, pushing the boundaries of European subjectivity by embracing a Cartesian sense of space, a kind of perception that maps, plots, and reigns in three-dimensional grids. They could "rule" at a distance through the technology of writing, which bureaucratized colonization and instituted hierarchical systems of control. Against weapons, logistics, and disease, the first nations of the Americas had little chance of defending themselves. Despite the violent revolt against Spanish rule in what is now the Southwestern United States, little could stop the impending invasion of American-style capitalism and its insidious tools of control: education and media.
The Hopi's insight into the European's invader mentality derived not just from direct experience with the consequences of the system imposed upon them, but also from their ancient ritual practices and connection with the land, which enabled them to defamiliarize themselves with the Spaniard's prevailing symbol and its attendant ideology (ideology being the totality of taken-for-granted assumptions about how the world works). Now, with the Hopi's air poisoned and springs dried in order to power casinos in Las Vegas and sports stadiums in Phoenix, it's imperative that the rest of us understand intimately the machinations behind the destruction of ecosystems and those cultures that evolved within them.
The Hopi's initial deconstruction of the crucifix came from their outsider perspective. The lesson for us modern folks is for us to see our symbolic reality with fresh eyes. We must make our world strange in order to see it anew. One way to do this is to borrow from bioregional activists who locate their work within specific ecosystems. Peter Berg, a leading activist of contemporary bioregional philosophy, says that a bioregion is "a geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness." To land-based cultures — or "biocultures" — like the Hopi, land and culture are part of the commons, because both are shared by everyone. In their pursuit of remote control and extraction of other people's resources, colonialists survive by destroying the commons and those cultures that evolved within specific landscapes.
The goal of colonization, and its key implication for media, is that people have to be trained to take on an alien perspective as their own. In one example, the great anticolonial writer Frantz Fanon described this psychological condition as having black skin with a white mask. We adapt the mentality and belief systems of colonization as a mask, with media encouraging us to accept exploitation as normal and even desirable. We may not call the modern system of savage capitalism and primitive accumulation of resources colonization, but the very practice of contemporary economics is in all but name the takeover and extraction of the wealth of Earth and its majority inhabitants. The increasing disparity between the so-called 1 percent of wealth holders and the other 99 percent reflects how colonization has extended to average middle class people. Few are immune to its effects, and corporate media do their bit to ensure that we accept this absurdity as normal. Not only do they encourage us to take on the mask of colonizer, it makes it so normal that it becomes invisible.
In terms of the media's ecological mindprint, an important lesson from the Hopi encounter with the Spanish is the indigenous insight (as in being of a particular land-based tradition) of the importance of symbolic environments. Symbols act like sigils, which are used by alchemists to access knowledge and magic. In the case of the cross, one of its most potent powers is to define what is and isn't sacred. If the altar inside the church is the access point to the sacred, then everything else is not. Isolating and narrowing the space of the revered to a confined, controlled, and human constructed hierarchy of divinity facilitates the exploitation of the Other. If you are not sanctioned by this tightly controlled system, then you might as well go to hell.
Our gadgets act as magical devices with symbols that give us access to certain kinds of knowledge, such as corporate brands, stock quotes, and entertainment. By contrast the Native American medicine wheel offers an alternative model for understanding the world and holistically integrating our communications and technologies into a more sustainable vision for the future.
Bridging the Ancient Future
I learned the story of the circle and cross from Thomas Banyacya, an elder of the Hopi, whom I had the privilege of staying with when I was fifteen as part of a high school program. In 1992, ten years after my stay, Thomas accompanied a group of Hopi spokespeople to warn the UN's General Assembly about the consequences of perpetuating business as usual. In his presentation to the General Assembly, Thomas described the meaning of an ancient inscription etched into a rock at Hopi that depicts two distinct directions for the future of humanity:
"This rock drawing shows part of the Hopi prophecy. There are two paths. The first with high technology but separate from natural and spiritual law leads to these jagged lines representing chaos. The lower path is one that remains in harmony with natural law. Here we see a line that represents a choice like a bridge joining the paths. If we return to spiritual harmony and live from our hearts we can experience a paradise in this world. If we continue only on this upper path, we will come to destruction…It's up to all of us, as children of Mother Earth, to clean up this mess before it's too late."
To young people such as myself, Thomas liked to tell the story in more mythopoetic terms, about a time when white people and the Hopi were brothers that canoed together in the same river — until a certain point where their journeys forked. Though whites followed a particularly dangerous path far from their roots, they would someday rejoin and continue down the river as before, alongside the Hopi. Given how the Hopi have suffered over the years at the hands of Euro-American civilization, this is a rather hopeful story that belays the more apocalyptic vision presented to the UN. But it also shows their willingness to see people not for their skin color, but for what is in their hearts.
Banayacya warned of the danger that civilization without a proper moral compass will transform the biosphere into a "buyosphere." This is achieved through a mindless embrace of communication technologies that are designed exclusively for consumerism. Technological progress, the Hopi warn, becomes a tautology, or self-justification. In the form of corporate media, these attitudes and beliefs synthesize into an all-pervasive ideology. As media consumers and producers we depend on gadgets to communicate and connect. As tools to think and connect with, they should also be instruments that serve living systems. If we use technology without heart, we begin to think and act like machines. We become gadgets for what the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein calls the "world system" — a networked form of capitalism that increasingly pervades and cannibalizes the regional cultures of the globe. Under such conditions, we praise clever design interfaces and media content without regard to their impact on the workers or the health of living systems. Media designed for such a system then become disconnected from humanity's interdependence with living systems and ultimately serve one purpose: corporate colonialism of the cultural commons.
The Spanish cross has long since been replaced by the world system's master tropes: "technology," "progress," "growth," "freedom," and "democracy." These concepts permeate the mediasphere via visual and rhetorical referents, embedding our lifeworld so that we can no longer remember how the land or animals speak to us. The kind of world these symbols include and exclude should be of grave concern to anyone concerned with the health and well-being of global ecology. Thus, as we move forward in our efforts to bridge our ancient heritage with our future potential, we'll need to hack these systems to make them more friendly and amenable to the rhythms of nature and the immediate needs of the cultural commons.
Spirit of Earth
Now, let's do a gut check. When you hear or read Gaia, how does it feel in your body? When you see the photo of Earth from outer space, what emotions does it generate? If there is any feeling remotely like the sensation of beauty, compassion, empathy, or love, then your soul has not been completely devoured by the world system.
Unlike the alien-like mentality that permeates the world system, as earthlings we have an innate ability to empathize, feel love, experience beauty, seek connection, and desire wholeness. Our capacity for war, greed, destruction, and delusion is not unnatural, but also is not normal or inevitable either. It is the result of conditioning, manipulation, and trauma. The world according this mentality is a scary and dangerous place, as evidenced by any random sample of the evening news. Rarely are we reminded that murder and terrorism are actually rare occurrences. Most of us have internal restraints against committing acts of violence. After all, mobilizing people for war requires more than a simple command. Even in battle, as was documented during WWII, many soldiers shoot to miss.
Ancient cultures, and in particular in the European tradition, believed in the anima mundi-world spirit. It is common for indigenous cultures to view the universe and all its creations as alive. So instead of the modern Euro-American cultural assumption, "I think, therefore I am," they believe, "It all thinks, therefore I am." They live in a participatory and reciprocal cosmos as opposed to a vertically controlled, hierarchically structured system of reality. For many brought up with a scientifically oriented view of the world, this requires a conceptual leap. But if you can, try to suspend disbelief and play with the idea that because we as humans are of the world, we are connected to the planetary spirit that lives in everything, as was symbolized by the Na'vi in the film Avatar. Recall how the Na'vi could connect to a kind of planetary internet that allowed them to communicate with animals and plant spirits. This is not just sci-fi fantasy but a glimpse of our ancient past and the present reality of many peoples on Earth.
Such an awareness is actually dangerous to the status quo. It means great responsibility because a cultural environment where everything is shared implies reciprocity. Not surprisingly, in the Buddhist tradition one of the first skills to be cultivated in contemplative practice is generosity. The act of volunteering and gifting helps us acknowledge that there is no boundary between people when connected through the heart. Give twenty dollars to someone you never met before and see what happens. It is quite magical.
Now, as it turns out, in 1997 ecological economists did the math and estimated that annually Earth "gives" us over $33 trillion of "free" services that we never pay for, which at the time of the study was about twice the gross national product of the world's economies. This is greater than the net income of the global economies combined. The spirit of generosity that is part of many traditional spiritual practices serves as restraint against wanton exploitation of our living systems. Many Native Americans, for example, set aside a small portion of every meal for their ancestors. This kind of practice instills a mindfulness that helps us remember that every meal is a gift and food shouldn't be taken for granted. We have to give back and not just take from the earth whatever pleases us.
We take for granted the generosity that actually holds our whole system together. The official economy would not survive without the contributions of nature, homemakers, government expenditure, and social economy. We don't charge people to hold the door open or carry the groceries up the stairs. We don't ask to be compensated for recipes or learning the alphabet. Cooking, growing food, acquiring languages, literacy, and a host of day-to-day practices exist within a cultural commons that is directly responsible for the evolution and maintenance of human culture.
That sharing actually comes "naturally" to us indicates that at some point in our ancient history it was a necessary part of our evolutionary survival strategy as a response to the environment. Could it be that we actually learned reciprocity because it is a natural aspect of living systems in which cooperation and adaptation, rather than competition, are really the norm? Let's suppose this generosity of spirit, then, is intrinsic to who we are, and therefore it makes perfect sense that such behaviors are actually quite common in the realm of online media practice. Consider that the emergence of open source, Creative Commons, shareware, and open access are actually a built-in response to the cartelized media environment, and that "nature" actually abhors monopoly. (Keep in mind that corporations that drive monopolization are not "people" or "natural," despite their legal and ideological status under world system dominion.)
As the history of media and technological evolution has shown time and time again, early human uses of communication tools tend toward open systems, but once economic interests figure out how to fence off "freeloaders," these systems close down. Thus as we move from printing presses, telegraphs, radios, TV, and film to the internet, we seesaw between the free spirited anarchic appropriation of communication tools to their closure and privatization. All too often the world system strikes again. But we can be heartened with the knowledge that communication — the ability to speak and be heard — is a fundamental right and an integral aspect of human evolution and learning. An ethical framework based on open systems in both personal practice and social policy is actually an expression of anima mundi, the world spirit.
To reiterate, colonialism is predicated on closed systems and hierarchical control. It extracts and accumulates resources from the commons and privatizes them. Closed systems lack participation and democracy. Open systems invite participation and citizenship. The former requires that people act like consumers, while the latter means engaged cultural citizenship.
Consumerism versus Green Citizenship
In 1934 Walter Benjamin outlined the concept of "author as producer," an argument that cultural producers such as professional writers are also cultural workers and should be conscious of whether or not they engage their crafts as part of a larger project of criticism and political activism. "Cultural work" was primarily seen as a politically progressive activity and distinguished from the kinds of production for profit that media monopolies engaged in. Similarly, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the idea of the "organic intellectual." He argued that all humans were intellectuals, but not all were granted the role of intellectual by the dominant society. As such, the governing economic class produces native intellectuals who tend to reproduce the interests of its class. He theorized that working class intellectuals would play a revolutionary role.
During the era dominated by one-to-many mass media (roughly 1880-1990) it was easier to distinguish between the producers and consumers of information, and also between the "good guys" and "bad guys" of media production. During that time, as new media technologies emerged (such as telephony, film, radio, and television), the openness of media systems quickly gave way to closed media monopolies. Predominantly there were relatively small groups of media companies producing the majority of media content, which was distributed in a linear (top-down) fashion with very few feedback mechanisms. The concept of "independent" and "critical" media was clearer and easier to distinguish because marketing and corporate media had yet to incorporate the aesthetics, practices, and politics of alternative media into their offerings.
With the advent of postmodern media and the internet, these boundaries have become less clear. Corporate monopolies are now much larger, but aesthetically they have incorporated avant-garde aesthetics and the language of irony so as to co-opt the traditional tools of critical media. This includes the appropriation of environmentalism and sustainability rhetoric, which enables media makers to "greenwash" their organizations and practices. Such a climate makes "cultural work" more confusing.
Nonetheless, like the early days of telephony, radio, and film, with the rise of the internet, media's distribution and feedback structure has changed so that many more people can actively participate in the creation of media. Currently there is a rise in participatory culture, which is defined as a set of practices that includes easy access for creative expression and political engagement, a desire to share and connect with others, informal learning in which people freely share "how to" knowledge, and an atmosphere in which people care about what they do and care about what others think about them.
Participatory culture represents an extremely positive development in the evolution of media democracy, but it also needs to be problematized when its tools are also instruments of profit for large media platforms like Google and Facebook. Some critics argue that with the internet, we commodify our consciousness for the private companies that own the internet platforms we use. Again, this complicates the notion of "cultural work," since the spaces that a lot of political activism and civic engagement take place in are often privatized. How would this scheme fit in terms of Benjamin's concept of author as producer or Gramsci's idea of the organic intellectual?
A media practitioner is both a cultural worker and an organic intellectual of the contemporary media environment, whose role in new media's political economy is negotiated and ambiguous. Everything we do with new media involves a practice of some sort (whether conscious or not) and cultural production, whether we are reproducing the status quo, creating new culture, or a mix of the two. When we engage participatory media tools, we are products as much as producers of media. Additionally, with participatory media we also engage various communities of practice, be they LISTSERVS, online forums, or discussion groups.
But in terms of sustainability, does the average media practitioner relate daily activities of media engagement with his or her impact on living habitats? One way unsustainable cultural patterns repeat themselves is from a lack of awareness/consciousness of how our personal practices are connected to our living habitats. Consequently, inattentiveness and lack of awareness are why media users probably don't engage in sustainable cultural practices.
A media user who engages in sustainable cultural practices is an organic media practitioner. The behaviors of such a practitioner are ecologically intelligent responses to media practice that include the ability to reconnect an awareness of one's media usage with its physiological impact on the environment; to recognize media's phenomenological influence on one's perception of time, space, and place; to understand media's interdependence with the global economy; to be conscious of media's interaction with one's cultural beliefs; and to develop an ethical framework in order act upon these understandings and to make wise choices.
From Kivas to Slam Dancing and the Up Rock
During my winter stay in Hopi in 1982, as part of the annual ritual cycle of their complex ceremonial structure, I encountered a coming-of-age ritual that involved the so-called "whipping" kachina, Angwusnasomtaka, Crow Mother. In Hopi ceremonial life kachinas are nature spirits that reside in the nearby San Francisco Peaks. During their ceremonies Hopi transform themselves into kachinas to perform various religious functions. The Angwusnasomtaka, donning a woven kilt, wooden mask, and fists full of yucca, chases and whips kids who behaved badly during the previous year. The Angwusnasomtaka also likes to torment tourists. I, too, was hounded and terrified by this entity. At the time, being a young punk rocker from Los Angeles, the whole thing seemed very alien to me. Yet, to Hopi traditionalists, I was probably equally strange.
During one crisp winter night filled with galactic explosions of starry light and sweet cedar smoke, I entered into the earthen chamber of the kiva to encounter one of many all-night ceremonies taking place. Here different clans perform specific dances, so for the ceremonial cycle to be complete, every clan must participate. The kiva's underground circular design is a direct umbilical cord to the ancient spiritual practices of the Americas.
That night I witnessed wave after wave of kachina dancers entering and exiting the ceremonial womb via a hand-built ladder, shuffling on the dirt floor to steady drumbeats pounded by men with bandanas tied around their heads in a sidewise bun. During the all-night hypnotic blur of the dances, I began cross editing the circular motions and repetitive beats of the kiva with my own experiences at punk gigs. Slam dancing had a similar circular quality, and our furious punk riffs had a parallel monotony of the pounding drums that were now pulsating steadily like a heartbeat. What mattered was not so much the simplicity of the form, but the participatory and organic character of the experience. Just as the Hopi in the kiva passed around colored popcorn as acts of reciprocity, in punk we, too, shared our wares and culture to those who joined.
Punks inadvertently repurposed the ancient traditions at the core of communication by embracing the spirit of commune, commonness, community, and communion. We were part of a lineage of Western cultural rebels that tapped into ancient human traditions. Seeing the parallel gave me an insight to the resilience and desire for authenticity within my own cultural realm. Despite living in a car-dependent, shopping-mall-paved landscape, punks were anti-colonists. We didn't want corporate culture, militarized politics, and Ronald Reagan's ilk dictating our reality. We were just teen skaters who knew nothing about the world except from our direct experience of living within it and its mediation through mass media. Yet there was something within us that pulled us toward creating an organic, authentic community. Rather than elements from the natural world, our subcultural reality was built with media and technology. Whether it was unconventional fashion, experimental art, guitar amplification, or photocopied zines and flyer, we had a simple philosophy: do-it-yourself. Becoming "more than a witness" was our means for channeling the spirit of our age. In our cut-up collages we didn't have corn or cloud motifs like the Hopi, but we did have the material of our lived reality to repurpose in order to create something participatory and real. We reoccupied our lifeworld, staking a position in opposition to corporate overlords.
Just as importantly, punk offered a bridge for diverse cultural groups that didn't have an outlet for creative expression in mainstream society. In the UK, working class white youths and black immigrants found commonalities, best exemplified by the hybridization between punk and reggae heard in the music of bands like The Clash. In Washington, D.C the African-American hardcore group Bad Brains interspersed reggae with a tornado of guitar riffs. As I experienced it in California, punk was a multicultural refuge for weirdos and rebels from a variety of backgrounds. It was one of the few places where disenfranchised — such as Latinos, Asians, African Americans, gays, and women — had a safe space in which such distinctions didn't matter. Unfortunately, after punk became more widely represented and interpreted by sensationalistic mass media, bigots, racists, and jocks invaded the scene by donning punk fashion, but not its laboratory attitude. Subsequently many punks migrated into hip hop, as was the case with numerous chicanos who embraced hip hop's broader multicultural expression of art and culture. Many chicanos nurtured in the anarchist punk movement, like the members of the band Aztlan Underground, incorporated hip hop's call to connect with cultural origins by embracing their indigenous heritage and using their music and art as a platform for rooting their modern identities within the soil of their ancestral being. Thus, their cultural revival becomes a kind of educational mediation.
Indeed, more than any subculture, hip hop has been adapted by oppressed groups around the world as a means of reconnecting with their ancient traditions, revitalizing that which had been eroded by the various diasporas resulting from global migration, while at the same time tapping into a planetary youth culture of rebellion. As such, like punk hip hop in its more grassroots, noncommercial variety represents a kind of organic media practice. In particular it revitalizes the spirit of ritual, communion, and community. As the artist Mike (360) Ipiotis argues, hip hop has five dimensions of expression that, when working fluidly together, form the basis for holistic alternative cultural practice.
For example, the hip hop community is composed of four major elements: writers (graffiti artists), DJs (turntabalists), B Boys and B Girls (break dancers), and MCs (rappers/poets). Equally vital but not always recognizable is the fifth element, the element of "building" (raising consciousness). In hip hop all these components work together cohesively, like when someone wants to throw a "jam" or party. The graf artist makes the flier, the DJ provides the beats, the MC creates the context and narration, and B Boys rock the house.
Instead of being a subculture, Ipiotis considers hip hop a surrogate culture. Be it punk or hip hop, belonging to a vital movement is in essence being part of a tribe. For global youth whose traditions and cultures become marginalized, hip hop becomes a school of life. Literary and linguistic skills are taught through rapping; visual art and geometry skills are learned through graf art; mathematics and computer skills are learned through the musical forms (DJing and beat production); and break dancing is a de facto form of conditioning that can be likened to kung fu or the Brazilian capoeira, which combines martial arts and dance developed be West African slaves. Break dance's "up rock" can even resemble Native American fancy dancing or salsa.
DJs, also called turntabalists, are master technicians. Though it has been said that jazz was the African appropriation of European instruments, it can also be argued that hip hop is the re-appropriation of Japanese technology for the art of awakening universal truths within us. Producers and mixers master the computers and audio technology, skills invaluable in a world that is increasingly divided by the information haves and have-nots. Yet, hip hop is not technologically dependent. For example, in the absence of turntables or drum machines, one can accompany the free-style improvised poetry of rappers with beat boxing (vocalized percussion). As an oral culture hop hip disseminates information just as Spanish troubadours of old when they sang of current events in plazas, or like West African griots who told old stories and spread news through song and music, or the Puerto Rican plena drummers whose periodico cantado (sung newspaper) informed the illiterate poor of regional events and news.
To hard-core members of the hip hop community, each of the four components is to be mastered, while the fifth element of building consciousness arises from the skilled combination of all these elements. This raised awareness is not an end, but a means to access a deeper level of self, to cultivate universal truths within. Media corporations have colonized the idea of hip hop by profiting on misogynistic gangster rap, but this denies the grassroots nature of hip hop, which developed organically on its own in New York's ghettos outside the purview of corporate media or traditional social institutions. Its cut-and-paste aesthetic and artistic innovation presaged the remix and mash-up that has become the dominant motif of internet culture. Despite corporate appropriation, hip hop is still a thriving underground that speaks a poetic language discernable to those who practice its ethics and artistic expression.
Punk and hip hop are among many cultural expressions that model for us an organic approach to a living, transformative media practice. But we now must step up to the planetary emergency that calls upon us to become Earth conscious mediators. The very nature of mediation and the capacity to reach across networks around the planet mean that we can become world bridgers. Such a role already exists among indigenous groups. In the mid-1990s an amalgamation of indigenous elders met in Guatemala to organize a concerted response to the world system's encroachment on their cultural survival and living systems. In order to maintain an internal integrity among themselves they agreed that rather than communicate directly with corporations or governments, they would work with chakaruna to liaison with the outside world. Chakaruna, "bridge person" in Quechua, is someone with a foot in different worlds, either because she can speak different languages, or because he is technically proficient in how the system operates. Chakaruna can be lawyers, activists, artists, politicians, teachers, scholars, media makers, or those who engage any activity that directly links the worlds of indigenous people and the system they work in. Chakaruna can also be shaman.
An inspiring example of a kind of wizard that bridges tradition and technology is the Andean yachachiq. Over the past five thousand years the Quechua of the Andes of maintained and developed highly successful agricultural systems, with yachachiqs serving as the technical experts who disseminate and innovate knowledge. The Quechua culture, which doesn't distinguish between art and technique, assigns special status for those who combine technical and creative skills. Through DIY they serve their communities, helping them remain resilient and self-sufficient. They maintain an indigenous perspective of land and community while also adapting and working with appropriate technology. The yachachiq models a kind of organic media practice, because technical skills are shared through teaching and communicating in different communities in order to promote cultural resiliency.
In our quest for media solutions and futuristic communication strategies using the latest technologies, it behooves us to also tap into those traditions that have excelled under the most dire and genocidal policies of colonization. Whether it's the Hopi maintaining their ancient ceremonial traditions, chakaruna bridging with the world system, yachachiq engaging appropriate technology, or modern youths seeking authentic cultural expression, these kinds of activities are all part of the same sacred hoop that ties media practice to the ancient future.
Organic Media Ethics
Combining the insights of indigenous peoples with organic subcultures like punk or hip-hop results in an ethical framework for media practice that calls for a new kind of accountability that eschews colonial values. Indeed, the DIY ethic that arises organically within subcultures is an effort to empower communities and promote self-determination in response to the domination of corporate media and popular culture. Whereas the corporate colonial paradigm tries to enforce dependency and passivity through the promotion of consumer culture, claiming a space and producing media that expresses the interests of our communities is a necessary step toward building vibrant, resilient, and alternative cultures that no longer feed the carnivorous desires of the corporatocracy. It's heartening that increasingly the daily use of internet media and social platforms has DIY and community making as its default practice. What now needs to happen is to make that engagement ecologically conscious so that these activities extend to the concerns of living systems. In short, this calls for a kind of green cultural citizenship.
In order to engage in green cultural citizenship, it's important to follow several key principles:
All life is sacred. This universal cultural ethic transcends the imperatives of world system that sees life as an instrument of commerce and wealth accumulation. Media can no longer disassociate humans from this principle. This is a core attitude of green cultural citizenship.
We are all interconnected. The idea of the autonomous individual disconnected from nature and culture is a modern invention of the Industrial-Scientific Revolution. Such disconnected reasoning has led to the dangerous concept that corporations are also individuals with rights above the interests of the global community and living systems. In reality we learn, evolve, and grow through a shared cultural commons accessible to everyone. Private media monopolies, enclosure of intellectual property, and the promotion of individualism are unacceptable behaviors in a planetary commons.
As interconnected beings, we depend on functional communities. We live and participate in communities of scale — from the local to the planetary. At each level we are responsible for our actions, which means engaging the world as citizens instead of mere consumers. Media designed solely on the principle of consumption and markets has nothing to contribute to the evolution and survival of planetary communities.
Communities require healthy communication to function well. The key to successful relationships is transparency. Humans need to communicate with each other in order to solve problems. A decolonized media represents diverse voices and egalitarian principles at its core. It respects interhuman essences — such as freedom of expression, dignity, social responsibility, gender and racial equity, and human rights — and honors the sacredness of all life.
For healthy communication to work we need trust. Accountability, truthfulness, respect, authenticity, and integrity are essential qualities for decolonized media.
Trust requires credibility and reciprocity. An attitude of generosity is the underlying spiritual posture of decolonized media. It means encouraging sharing, openness, cooperation, and nonviolence, and discourages fear and the enclosure of the cultural commons. Genuine reciprocity builds credible and authentic relationships.
Teaser photo by laurakaufmann54, courtesy of Creative Commons license.