A Long Fight for Media Democracy in South Korea

North Korea has been much in the news lately, but, for an object-lesson in how to combat news management by the state, we may look south of the 38th parallel. For, during recent months, the legacy of authoritarian rule in the Republic of Korea (ROK) has once again exploded into public view – not as an ancient memory, but as a continuing abuse of democratic freedoms.  Media workers’ response to the South Korean state’s controls over free expression merit our attention.

Thirty years ago, a nation-wide democracy movement led by intellectuals, students, workers, farmers and various other groups drew a global spotlight on the Republic of Korea.[1] It led, in 1987, to the toppling of the country’s long-standing military dictatorship. This regime change opened up additional opportunities for Koreans to pursue the process of political democratization. These, however, did not succeed. While there were continued efforts to reduce economic disparity, curtail corporate power and improve social welfare, successive liberal governments weren’t able to deliver the political and economic reforms that they had promised. Instead, South Korea subordinated itself to a market-driven neoliberal system.[2] Regaining power, conservative administrations, first under Lee Myung-Bak and then Park Geun-hye – whose father, General Park Jung-Hee, had imposed a military regime on the country until his assassination in 1979 – have again undermined Korea’s democratic path.

The seesaw has now thankfully swung the other way. One year ago, millions of Koreans filled the streets for a period of six months: students, women’s groups, labor- and farmers unions, and the general public. The trigger was a corruption scandal that the president proved unable to contain. But the underlying factors included widespread anger about increasing economic inequality, rising youth unemployment, contingent labor[3] and the deteriorating conditions faced by public sector workers. This “candlelight movement” ultimately succeeded in bringing down President Park Geun-Hye in December, 2016. In the wake of historically massive protests, Park was impeached for her corruption and abuses of power.[4] A new president, Moon Jae-in of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, took office in 2017.

But the movement, the latest incarnation of South Korea’s decades-long struggle for a democracy that would include media reform as well as government- and corporate accountability and workers’ rights,[5] is still far from finished.

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Academic Surveillance Complex

A corporate-driven society overseen by a complicit state, the United States is being steadily saturated by surveillance tools and practices; indeed, surveillance studies is today a substantial field of academic inquiry, with research published regularly in Surveillance and Society, as well as in a growing number of books.[1] After Edward Snowden’s exposures of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s mass surveillance in 2013, thousands of academics rightly signed a letter condemning the US government’s spying program.[2] However, surveillance-sensitive academics have turned a blind eye toward academe itself.

Surveillance technologies have encroached far into the work-lives of students and faculty, to the point that we may speak of an Academic Surveillance Complex (ASC). To “improve” student performance and to “scientifically” smooth and speed student progress, “data driven education” programs are capturing, tracking, collating, and analyzing data on student learning and social behavior; on students’ interactions with teachers; and on the labor of teachers themselves.

The pretense is that this is all positive – an enhancement of the educational process. The emergence of an ASC, however, is better understood as an offshoot of a multifaceted structural transformation of higher education, which has been underway for half a century.[3] This metamorphosis is both technological and institutional. By enabling the social relations of learning and teaching to be revamped, networking technologies are driving forward a sweeping trend to commodification: they are helping to turn education into a profit-making business. Today’s emerging ASC is a part of this encompassing shift.

Wiring Education 

At its outset during the early postwar decades, robust US economic growth and robust state and federal support for public universities both stimulated and restrained the process of wiring education for profit. (A convenient historical marker is provided by an organization called Educom, which has tried since the 1960s to insinuate networking technologies.) In today’s context of chronic stagnation, by contrast, “disrupting” education in order to render it a site of capital accumulation has become a determining trend. As we write, for example, Purdue University has signed an agreement to acquire Kaplan Higher Education – a for-profit chain – and to re-establish it as a free-standing subsidiary of the Indiana-based university system.[4] All told, global education is estimated to be a $5+ trillion market, eight times the size of the commercial software market and three times that of the entertainment market.[5] Already prominent in South America and East Asia, for-profit educational institutions are today making additional inroads in Africa.[6]

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Counter-Power?

The presidential inauguration, and the Women’s March on Washington the next day, revealed the extent of the social and political polarization that exists in the United States: glimpses of the right-wing surge around Trump – and of counter-power, stoking a possibility of radical change.

The incoming Republican president’s inner circle of advisors and his cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires are committed to an authoritarian plutocracy at home, and an abandonment of multilateralism in favor of power politics abroad.[1] Only slightly distanced is a Republican-controlled Congress that is dead-set on cutting already-insufficient wages, benefits, and working conditions, and that is eagerly directing attacks against poor people, women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and the LGBQT community. Violations of the human rights of the US people are spreading:  Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven heavily Muslim countries does damage both domestically and internationally – and his support for torture presages more.

The new administration presides over a political party system that is in disarray. Trump’s candidacy came as a deep affront to members of the Republican Party establishment, whom he knocked off one by one.  Beginning his run for the nomination as an outsider, he climaxed it by taking over the Republican Party. The results of the election then blasted the Democrats into near-inconsequentiality. Trump’s presidency therefore did not emerge out of the party structures that shape – and strangle – US political life: He is a loose cannon, and this goes beyond his temperament.

Considerable contingency also suffuses the counter-power.  The overwhelming success of the Women’s March – people in the millions turning out, not only in Washington but also in hundreds of other US cities and around the world – made it the largest day of protest in US history.[2] Included were many who demanded an end to racist violence and gender discrimination, and who insisted that the United States be restructured in radical and inclusive ways. Many other participants wanted chiefly to vent their angst and fury at Trump’s ascendancy:  Socially and politically, it’s a complex formation.  The strategic question is whether it will become a bearer of “resistance,” as Angela Davis hopefully put it, that goes on to contest each violation perpetrated by Trump’s four-year incumbency.

It’s early days, but it’s already clear that the new Administration’s forceful threats to our public information system will figure in deciding this question.

Attention has aptly focused on “Alternative Facts”: the term with which Trump aide Kellyanne Conway attempted to deflect NBC journalist Chuck Todd, when he challenged her on the new Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie: that the audience for the Trump inauguration was the largest in US presidential history.[3]  More revealing was Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s intervention. Preibus told Chris Wallace on Fox News “The point is not the crowd size, the point is that the attacks and the attempts to delegitimize this president on day one – and we’re not going to sit around and take it…there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen.  We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.”[4]  Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, then declared that the media are the “opposition party”[5]; and, the next day, Trump himself echoed Bannon’s words.[6]

Some may compare these attacks on the press to those of the Nixon Administration. Remember Vice President Spiro Agnew, who cried out that the media were “nattering nabobs of negativism;” recollect Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications Policy, which became his Administration’s top-gun against commercial newscasters as well as PBS officials – for producing news and documentaries that it deemed inimical to the US war on Indochina. Even-keeled analysts, however, also need to recall a more immediate precursor, the Obama Administration, whose anti-press measures were considered the most extreme since Nixon and even garnered a report from the Committee To Protect Journalists.[7] That report quoted New York Times reporter David Sanger that “this is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”[8]  Obama’s efforts at media control persisted, furthermore, into the final days of his presidency. Before leaving the White House, Obama quietly gave the green light (buried in the provisions of the 2017 Defense Authorization Act) to create a Global Engagement Center (GEC) housed within the State Department. The purpose of the GEC is to “lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.” [9] The little known GEC will become part of a massive and longstanding US global propaganda machine.

Trump’s people are indeed indulging in innuendo and smears, and adopting Nixon’s preferred strategy of direct government intimidation to create a chilling atmosphere.  However, to take full measure of what is occurring requires that we move beyond journalism, to sketch a more far-reaching campaign to uproot and transform our overall system of public information. This many-sided endeavor is also, crucially, anchored both in ideology and political-economy.

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Big data may increase power disparity

Professor Dan Schiller was invited to deliver several lectures at the Global Fellowship Progam at Peking University October/November, 2016. Below is his interview on “big data” with Wang Jianfeng from Chinese Social Sciences Today (CSST) after his lectures. This interview was originally published in Chinese Social Sciences Today (CSST) on January 19, 2017.

Wang Jianfeng: How do you evaluate the trend toward what is called Big Data?

Dan Schiller: Big Data refers not just to the scale or volume and diversity of data that are now being created but also to the need to make sense of these data through data science, through network analysis, and through other specialized disciplines that are trying to grapple with this challenge. One problem is that this often accords a new priority to an old emphasis, which is empiricist. Anything can be data, so let’s just look for patterns. We don’t care if they amount to anything meaningful. Let’s just see what seems to be related to what. There is, however, a deeper issue. An instrumental purpose is typically encoded in the accumulation and subsequent analysis of Big Data.

Thus, we have a problem because we need to know whose instrumental purpose it is and what goals it serves. If the goal of Big Data is to preserve the fishing grounds of the people who have been fishing in some part of the ocean, maybe that is ok because maybe it can be used beyond that to preserve the fish as well as the fishermen. If, however, the goal of collecting and analyzing Big Data is to extract profit from any area of human interaction, direct or mediated by machines, then I am not so sure. Actually, I am sure: It is wrong. Because then Big Data is organized around the instrumental purpose of profit maximization, which is not only exploitative but also often carries what economists call externalities. It may have all kinds of other effects beyond the immediate goal of profit‐ making, but nobody pays for these—except the rest of us. Disease, environmental despoliation and inequality are primary examples.

So how do we build the system of organizing Big Data if we need Big Data? And I am not sure we do need Big Data, because much of the data collection that is happening should not be occurring. We need a process of what in Europe and Canada they call data protection. I am not sure that is the right term, but I am sure that we need a policy or a structure of decision‐making for data collection, as well as for data analysis.

And this poses wholly new problems of political organization. Who should be making the policy, and on what grounds? Big Data thus poses profound questions. Because on the one hand, it gives new power to the units of big capital that are learning to exploit it for profit‐ making, while, on the other hand, it takes away power from everybody else, often without anyone knowing what, specifically, is happening. So we have a really big problem of balance—a power disparity—and, looking ahead, of a need for political creativity.

The issue is partly about education. People know now that when they go online, they are giving up their data. They know that, but they don’t realize that when they turn on their washing machine, or when they open their refrigerator, or when they take a shower, or when they go to bed, they are giving data. We need a forum for the discussion and decision‐making about which data ought to be generated and collected, by whom and for what reasons. Until we have that, we don’t have an answer to the problem of Big Data.

Wang Jianfeng: Now that information is regarded as a commodity, could overcapacity in the informtion industry take place? Do we have too much information?

Dan Schiller: We have too much of the wrong information and not enough of the right information. So there continues to be a desperate need for more information on the environment, more information on workers’ safety and occupational disease, more information on epidemiology and public health, more information on the social conditions of working people and the inequalities that prevail across society. We don’t have enough information on any of these, and where we do already possess the information, it isn’t widely circulated. There is indeed a huge information deficit.

However, in some contexts, there is also too much information. There is too much information being extracted from the everyday interactions that people have as they use technology that is embedded not just in smartphones and tablets and computers, but in the Internet of Things. So I think the question needs to be reframed in terms of what information we need and what information we get.

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Silicon Valley Candidate

By refusing to release the transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton cast doubt on her independence from the crooks who run the financial system.  By contrast, Clinton’s program for “technology and innovation policy” has been an open book since June 2016.  What she publicized is as revealing – and as disturbing – as what she tried to keep secret.

Clinton paints her tech agenda in appealing terms.  She says it’s about reducing social and economic inequality, creating good jobs, and bridging the digital divide. The real goals – and beneficiaries – are different.  The document is described as “a love letter to Silicon Valley” by a journalist,[1] and as a “Silicon Valley wish list” by the Washington Post.[2]

On the domestic side, Clinton promises to invest in STEM education and immigration reform to expand the STEM workforce by allowing green cards for foreign workers who’ve earned STEM degrees in the US. The internet industry has been lobbying Congress for years to reform US immigration policy to gain flexibility in hiring, to ease access to a global pool of skilled labor, and to weaken employees’ bargaining power.[3]

Clinton’s blanket endorsement of online education opens new room for an odious private industry.  With buzzwords like “entrepreneurship,” “competitive,” and “bootstrap,” Clinton wants to “leverage technology”: by “delivering high-speed broadband to all Americans” she declares it will be feasible to provide “wrap-around learning for our students in the home and in our schools.”[4] Absent an overt commitment to public education, this is an encouragement to online vendors to renew their attack on the U.S. education system – despite a track record of failure and flagrant corruption. Still more deceitful is Hillary’s lack of acknowledgment of a personal conflict of interest.  According to a Financial Times analysis, after stepping down as Secretary of State in 2013, Hillary accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches to private education providers; her husband Bill has “earned” something like $21 million from for-profit education companies since 2010.[5]

Clinton’s proposal for access to high-speed Internet for all by 2020 would further relax regulation to help the Internet industry to build new networks, tap into existing public infrastructure, and encourage “public and private” partnerships. These are euphemisms for corporate welfare, after the fashion of the Google fiber project – which is substantially subsidized by taxpayers, as cities lease land to the giant company for its broadband project at far below market value and offer city services for free or below cost.[6] Clinton’s policy program also backs the 5G wireless network initiative and the release of unlicensed spectrum to fuel the “Internet of Thing.” (IoT). 5G wireless and IoT are a solution in search of a problem – unless you are a corporate supplier or a business user of networks.  This is an unacknowledged program to accelerate and expand digital commodification.

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Betting The Farm

Condescension toward farmers has been a bedrock historical fixture of urban middle-class understanding (In the United States, “clod-hoppers” is one of the more polite disparagements).  After World War II, U.S. social scientists incorporated this prejudice into what they termed “modernization theory,” which they developed as a rationale for compelling indigenous peoples to abandon “traditional” village life.[1] Walt Rostow’s formulation of the “stages of economic growth” became ubiquitous.[2]  In this conception, “development” took the form of a repeated sequence:  out of agriculture, into industrial manufacturing, and then on to the production of services.  In this scheme, the U.S. – conveniently – constituted a paragon of developed modernity.  Modernization theory was far from being merely an academic daydream.  The U.S. Government packaged its foreign policy toward the then Third World under the motto of “development” – and used it, among other things, to sell what was called the “Green Revolution.”  The Green Revolution pushed to increase agricultural productivity via “technology transfers.”  Fertilizers and pesticides and high-yield seeds from the U.S., alongside intrusive management practices, were the standard package.

Capitalist agriculture was thereby given a giant push. And the ratchet continues to turn:  capital has continued to transform agriculture. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that farming should increasingly exhibit some of digital capitalism’s trademark features.

Alongside the Green Revolution, industrial capitalist agriculture brought about massive land grabs, widespread destruction of biodiversity, climate change, environmental pollution, and unsustainable use of water resources. Heralding that the same social forces that caused the problems now will fix them, corporate capital is calling for a “digital revolution” and a shift to more information-intensive farming practices.

Drones, driverless tractors, sensors, robotics, mobile apps, global positioning system satellites, and cloud-based data storage are sweeping across the agricultural sector, as well as below and above, the landscape.[3] Farming is being digitized and data codified throughout the agricultural lifecycle – from the cultivation of soil, to plant breeding, to planting schedules, to pest control, to irrigation, to crop monitoring, to harvesting, to food production and distribution, all the way to ultimate consumption. Companies including Monsanto, John Deere, Cargill, and DuPont are at the forefront of this process. The public relations industry has been hard at work creating happy-talk names for what they’re doing: “maximizing crop yields,” “sustainability” farming, and so on. Broader social and economic ramifications are ignored, as is the fact that this initiative stems not from social-justice activism, or even from good-Samaritanism, but from a familiar drive for profit.

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