October 14, 2011
October 14, 2011
The stage and big screen are ready and waiting in Ramallah’s Clock Square on September 23. Workers unload plastic chairs from a truck. Banners bearing the slogan “Palestine 194” hang from nearby buildings.
Preparations are almost set for the public viewing of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech at the United Nations, which will begin at noon New York time, 7 P.M. here in Ramallah. The address—broadcast live on big screens in cities throughout the West Bank—will follow the submission of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s request for UN membership for a Palestinian state, with the 1967 lines as its borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. If successful, Palestine will become the United Nation’s 194th member state. One hundred and ninety-four also happens to be the number of the UN resolution that enshrines the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
Reporting on the event from rooftops overlooking the square, the Western media will count everyone who attends the rally as a supporter. It makes for straightforward news: flag-waving Palestinians cheer as their president takes on Israel and America. On the ground, however, the story is much more complicated.
Confusion is common among ordinary Palestinians because no one is sure what the request for statehood will lead to. Will it be successful? If so, what difference will recognition make, if any? And if it’s unsuccessful, will the PA collapse? Will Israel reoccupy the West Bank?
Some Palestinians say that the move is meaningless—“ink on paper,” as one Palestinian puts it. Others reject the statehood bid outright, because it doesn’t address Palestinian refugees or equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many deny that the PA represents them at all.
The presence of Palestinian legislator and activist Mustafa Barghouti at the festivities is surprising. Barghouti is an advocate for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for an end to the occupation, respect for Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many BDS supporters oppose the PA’s statehood request, but Barghouti sees benefits.
“[UN recognition] will not change facts on the ground, but it will help facilitate the process of change,” Barghouti says, in English. “Even if a state is not created, it changes the thinking.”
No matter the outcome, the move has once again put Palestine and its plight front and center on the world stage. President Obama showed his hand—and the influence of the Israel lobby—when he announced that the United States would veto the resolution. While Palestinians were frustrated and angered by this, Barghouti says, they were not surprised. Obama just confirmed, yet again, what many Palestinians have felt for a long time: this is an American-Israeli occupation.
‘There is an old Arabic saying that when you are hungry, a small bite will be enough for you.’
The UN bid holds the potential for “something bigger,” Barghouti says. “The creation of a popular, non-violent resistance—a strong international campaign to sanction Israel.”
What Palestinians are looking for in the meantime, Barghouti adds, is for Abbas to be “steadfast,” to hold his ground in the face of American and Israeli pressure.
“My hope is that the people will come out of this fight with bigger hope. What we need more than anything is hope and confidence in ourselves…”
On Nov. 18, I used the enormously popular news aggregator Google News to search for information about the Russian alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout, recently extradited from Thailand to the United States. The top story was a dispatch from the state-controlled newswire RIA-Novosti, which essentially transcribed a statement from the Russian foreign minister demanding that Bout receive a fair trial. The other top results were a mixed bag, including Western sources like CBS News and Agence France-Presse as well as other Russian state-funded sources like ITAR-TASS and the television network Russia Today. (Typical U.S. headline: “Alleged ‘Merchant of Death’ Pleads Not Guilty.” Typical Russian headline: “Bout was psychologically pressured during flight to U.S.”)
Two weeks earlier, a search for “Myanmar Election” would have returned dispatches from U.S. sources like UPI and the Los Angeles Times, describing Burma’s just-concluded poll as a highly rigged sham, but also an opinion piece from the Global Times, an internationally focused publication produced by China’s People’s Daily titled “Myanmar’s Election a Step Forward.”
Of course, offering news from different international perspectives is the whole point of Google News. The service was developed by Google’s Krishna Bharat shortly after the 9/11 attacks with the goal, as he later put it, of “helping people understand multiple points of view, and hence becoming wiser for it — whether they agree with it or not.” But those points of view are often coming from state-sponsored news sources in countries, like Russia and China, where independent journalists are either harassed and persecuted or outright banned. Could Google News’s level playing field be enabling authoritarian regimes to more easily get out their message?
“The web gives us the possibility to reach an audience who cannot watch us on TV, and who are more used to getting news online,” Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of television network Russia Today, told me in an email. RT, as it’s more commonly known, was founded five years ago, partly by RIA-Novosti, and is widely seen as an effort to improve Russia’s image around the world, though it denies having a pro-Kremlin bias.
Nonetheless, others detect a strong pro-Russian slant in the network’s coverage of international events. During the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, RT accused the Georgian forces of “genocide,” but reportedly instructed its reporters not to report from ethnically Georgian villages that had been attacked by Russian troops. The network has also been criticized for giving airtime to fringe anti-American political figures and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Some mainstream Washington analysts — including this author, once — do appear on the network’s broadcasts, but sometimes find it difficult to get their views across.
“It’s a little hard to go back on a TV show that has ‘mechanical difficulties’ every time you’re supposed to speak,” says Council on Foreign Relations Russia analyst Stephen Sestanovich.
Judging by the results for Russia-related queries, however, RT’s website seems to be succeeding in spite of its editorial slant.
Google doesn’t disclose the complex algorithm by which it ranks search results, though that doesn’t stop news outlets (including this one) from trying to figure it out. “Search engine optimization,” or SEO, has become an obsession for media outlets looking to gain an edge on the competition in the new journalism landscape created by Google.
In an extreme example of this trend, some new online news outlets such as Associated Content and Demand Media generate content purely based on Google search queries rather than any sort of journalistic value, and newspapers are beginning to experiment with the formula.
Simonyan wouldn’t speak on how her network seems to perform so well on Google News, saying, “Only Google can explain how it works.”
According to Google spokesman Chris Gaither, some criteria include the “freshness” and “localness” of the story. The site also judges the reliability of different sources by a number of criteria, including the number of repeat visits from users.
One reason state-sponsored media often rank so high in response to specific queries might be that they’re often the main source of original information from the countries they cover. Informal studies have observed that Google tends to prioritize original reporting over re-reported content. With either shrinking news budgets or government restrictions preventing Western news agencies from covering events in countries like Iran and Russia, that gives state-sponsored outlets a clear edge. A search for the latest news on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to turn up so many stories from loyal state-sponsored outlets like PressTV and Fars News because they spend a lot more time covering him and have much better access.
But some analysts wonder about the unintended consequences of this preference. “If no one’s covering the story but a news wire, a bunch of sources copying the newswire, and a state broadcaster who’s basically there to refute the news wire, is Google News doing the right thing for us by prioritizing that state broadcaster?” asks Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-founder of the international blog aggregator Global Voices…
Mesmerized by the otherworldly glow of Vladimir Bonacic’s mysterious photograph “IRB 8-9,” or stunned by the pulsating swirl of Bridget Riley’s dizzying “Blaze 1,” you might not know, or even care, that you are looking at art.
Peering into Helga Philipp’s intricate “B2,” or trying to get your eyes off Walter Zehringer’s hypnotic “Objekt Nr. 1,” you’d be forgiven for overlooking their persistently numerical titles or missing the weird items that keep popping up in their materials. Oscilloscope? ALGOL? Methacrylate? Whatever those things are, they don’t sound much like art supplies. And if you fail to recognize the artists’ names – even memorable ones like Marina Apollonio or Dieter Hacker – don’t worry. That was part of the program.
From 1961 to 1973, a loosely organized group of artists and scientists coalesced around the radical idea that the emerging technology of the computer could be used to make a different kind of art. Known simply as the New Tendencies, this heterogeneous movement included dozens of men and women from the far reaches of the industrialized world. Often working under collective monikers such as Equipo 57 or Grupo Anonima, most of them were as ambivalent about individual fame as they were about the artistic status of their activities, which they preferred to call “research.”
However they saw their own work, their visual innovations were quickly recognized as cutting-edge art, and in a matter of years began appearing in landmark exhibitions at venues such as the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Almost as quickly, however, these early experiments were overtaken by what they made possible, and the idealistic foundations of computer art got hidden beneath the more elaborate operations that followed.
Fortunately, this pioneering work has now been beautifully collected in a hefty book from the MIT Press, “A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961-1973.”
It’s hard to predict how history will judge artists that we have already managed mostly to forget, but confronting their work half a century later gives us a unique and bracing glimpse at our early interactions with a now-ubiquitous technology. Seeing these artworks and writings today can sometimes feel like looking at your own baby pictures, or even your own ultrasound. Certain details are strangely familiar, but it’s the unrecognizable aspects that really give us pause. Looking at the first instances of computer art, you can’t help but wonder: Was that how the whole thing got started? Is that really us?
Curiously, the first worldwide movement of computer art focused many of its forward-thinking activities in a city not particularly known for technology, in a country that no longer exists. Beginning with the 1961 New Tendency exhibition mounted by Matko Mestrovic at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, hundreds of artists, critics, and curators started gathering regularly in what was then Yugoslavia, united in the belief that you could generate visual art using this strange, almost philosophical new machine. Like-minded experimenters flocked from all over Europe, and from as far away as the Americas and even Japan, to organize a groundbreaking series of exhibitions and symposia while also publishing an influential magazine called Bit International.
Curiously, the first worldwide movement of computer art focused many of its forward-thinking activities in a city not particularly known for technology, in a country that no longer exists. Beginning with the 1961 New Tendency exhibition mounted by Matko Mestrovic at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, hundreds of artists, critics, and curators started gathering regularly in what was then Yugoslavia, united in the belief that you could generate visual art using this strange, almost philosophical new machine. Like-minded experimenters flocked from all over Europe, and from as far away as the Americas and even Japan, to organize a groundbreaking series of exhibitions and symposia while also publishing an influential magazine called Bit International…