Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of cri­sis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future gen­er­a­tions.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it hap­pen­ing?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: So I hear you’re on loca­tion, locked up in a car in Portland, Oregon.

Micah Saul: Indeed I am. Left San Francisco Monday after­noon, and I am tak­ing a two-week dri­ve to New York City.

Anderson: Where we are going to actu­al­ly be record­ing in the same room again.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: So our idi­ot­ic ban­ter is just going to degen­er­ate.

Saul: Oh, good.

Anderson: So, with that fore­shad­ow­ing aside, let’s talk about Jenny Lee from the Allied Media Project.

Saul: Yes. So, she’s based in Detroit. And we found her because we were look­ing for…well, some­thing relat­ed to media. And we found the Allied Media Conference, which hap­pens every year in Detroit. We were hop­ing that you were going to be able to get there in time to go to the con­fer­ence itself, but that didn’t real­ly hap­pen. But you did get to talk to her.

Anderson: Yes. The con­fer­ence is an amaz­ing thing, and we don’t talk about it a whole lot in this con­ver­sa­tion. We get into a lot of oth­er issues and we get into them fast. But the con­fer­ence is cer­tain­ly worth look­ing into more. We’ll put a link on our web­site. It’s large­ly designed by the par­tic­i­pants. There’s real­ly not a lot of stuff like this. So that’s what led us to Jenny. And the Allied Media Projects, which is the group that puts on the Allied Media Conference, they’re tied up with sev­er­al dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions in Detroit, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which has a bunch of oth­er lit­tle branch­es that is doing Detroit youth pro­grams and Detroit media pro­grams. So, Jenny and the Allied Media folks are real­ly busy year-round. The con­fer­ence is their big event, but there’s a lot of oth­er stuff they do.

In our con­ver­sa­tion, we spend a lot of time talk­ing about the big­ger pic­ture stuff. What’s a bet­ter media land­scape? What’s wrong with the cur­rent media land­scape? What is dig­i­tal jus­tice, any­way?

Saul: You then jump off from there and start talk­ing about much larg­er things. Class comes back in this con­ver­sa­tion in a big way, which I think is is real­ly cool. So, this is Jenny Lee.


Jenny Lee: Allied Media Projects as a orga­ni­za­tion based in Detroit that facil­i­tates a nation­al net­work of media mak­ers, tech­nol­o­gists, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, edu­ca­tors. And that nation­al net­work con­venes in Detroit every year for the Allied Media Conference. And since mov­ing to Detroit in 2007, the con­fer­ence has real­ly deposit­ed a lot of nutri­ents in the soil, so to speak, here in Detroit, both in terms of tan­gi­ble resources like radio trans­mit­ters that’ve been built, and just ideas around the pos­si­bil­i­ties of media as it inte­grates with social trans­for­ma­tion work. We belong to the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which believes that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a fun­da­men­tal human right.

Anderson: What is dig­i­tal jus­tice, and why do we care?

Lee: It’s not a term that I think is used a lot. We were the the sec­ond Digital Justice Coalition to form in the coun­try, that I’m aware of. The first one was in Philadelphia, and for them it meant some­thing spe­cif­ic to their con­text. For us in Detroit, there’s actu­al­ly like four core prin­ci­ples. The first one being access. And that’s access to, in a lot of cas­es, life-saving infor­ma­tion that increas­ing­ly is only avail­able to those who are con­nect­ed to the glob­al Internet. You can’t real­ly get a job, have the kinds of—you don’t have basic rights of cit­i­zen­ship if you don’t have access to the Internet. You know as a stu­dent, as a young per­son, home­work assign­ments that are giv­en, health­care admin­is­tra­tion, the admin­is­tra­tion of lot of pub­lic ben­e­fits and things like that. Increasingly online, every­thing like—the world is mov­ing online.

The sec­ond prin­ci­ple is real­ly impor­tant, too, which is par­tic­i­pa­tion. Our com­mu­ni­ties deserve the right to engage with the Internet as pro­duc­ers and not only as con­sumers. With this sort of pre­vail­ing frame­work around why the Internet is impor­tant, is that I think too often it can be reduced down to every­one deserves the right to apply for a job at Walmart online.” And for us that’s just like, such a lack of vision, I sup­pose, in what is pos­si­ble for the world. So we suf­fer from the absence of the con­tent that peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly mar­gin­al­ized on the Internet, from access to the inter­net, would oth­er­wise be pro­duc­ing.

Anderson: Gotcha.

Lee: And with­in that is this idea that those of us that have been most mar­gin­al­ized or most mis­rep­re­sent­ed by the sto­ries that get told through main­stream media should be pri­or­i­tized in cre­at­ing dig­i­tal jus­tice infra­struc­tures or pro­grams that fos­ter that par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Common own­er­ship is anoth­er. So, part of dig­i­tal jus­tice in Detroit is look­ing at dif­fer­ent struc­tures for the deploy­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture. So, not just assum­ing that we need fiber optic cable to be laid by Comcast and AT&T and then the peo­ple that own the cables are also the ones who own the major mech­a­nisms of dis­trib­ut­ing con­tent over them, and then there’s this total hand­ing over of pow­er and con­trol of the infra­struc­ture to those cor­po­ra­tions that most users of the Internet aren’t even aware of or think­ing about.

What the Digital Justice Coalition is doing is the con­struc­tion of mesh wire­less net­works. They’re real­ly pow­er­ful because they’re both a mech­a­nism to low­er the costs of Internet, low­er the bar­ri­er to entry to the Internet, for com­mu­ni­ties, because [it] allows neigh­bors to share con­nec­tions with each oth­er.

But what’s more inter­est­ing about them is that they can actu­al­ly become intranets. That’s what we’re exper­i­ment­ing with here in Detroit, is the idea that through these routers which allow sig­nals to bounce from router to router, cre­at­ing a mash, that com­mu­ni­ties can share infor­ma­tion that doesn’t even require them to go out to the glob­al Internet. It’s a process of build­ing out com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture that actu­al­ly builds upon and fos­ters more human com­mu­ni­ca­tion infra­struc­ture. They’re the same rela­tion­ships that would under­gird the con­struc­tion of a com­mu­ni­ty gar­den. The basic idea that like peo­ple want to col­lab­o­rate and share a resource and solve prob­lems togeth­er.

And the the fourth is healthy com­mu­ni­ties, which means a few dif­fer­ent things, but think­ing about our com­mu­ni­ca­tion envi­ron­ment as part of the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment, and not just anoth­er dimen­sion. So, aware­ness around where all of our tech­nolo­gies end up. Digital jus­tice does not mean a lap­top per child, which will be used for five years and end up in a land­fill that will poi­son that same child. Or just the con­struc­tion of all these tech­nolo­gies that neces­si­tate out­side expert knowl­edge to fix. We do a lot of stuff around recy­cling and sal­vaging com­put­er parts. It con­sists of a lot of dif­fer­ent kinds of exper­i­ments, with a vision for a healthy dig­i­tal ecol­o­gy.

And that’s, I think, Detroit through and through. That’s the eth­ic and the spir­it of so much of the com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing work here in Detroit. We do have rights and they need to be respect­ed. And there’s human rights leg­is­la­tion that exists in the world for a rea­son, and we actu­al­ly have very lit­tle faith that the insti­tu­tions of pow­er, be they cor­po­ra­tions or city gov­ern­ments or state gov­ern­ments, are going to pro­vide those rights or guar­an­tee those rights. And that in that loss of faith is actu­al­ly an affir­ma­tion of the faith that peo­ple here have with each oth­er to fig­ure out how to sur­vive, and beyond that cre­ate whole new ways of being togeth­er as com­mu­ni­ties and learn­ing togeth­er, feed­ing each oth­er, pro­vid­ing safe­ty for each oth­er. All these are just dif­fer­ent mech­a­nisms of infra­struc­ture that are right now emerg­ing in Detroit.

Anderson: We’ve just talked a lot about the ele­ments of dig­i­tal jus­tice, but I’d like to into to the why a lit­tle more. What does Detroit look like if none of this stuff changes? What’s our worst-case sce­nario? Like, why why pur­sue these things?

Lee: Well, the worst-case sce­nario for Detroit would be that the archi­tec­ture of the Internet as it is now con­tin­ues, and Detroiters’ sto­ries, voic­es, lives, are absent. And the New York Times sto­ry about the cre­ative class sav­ing Detroit, or the doc­u­men­tary about the aban­don­ment and whole­sale destruc­tion of Detroit that por­trays it as a waste­land and a blank can­vas ready for entre­pre­neur­ial exploita­tion, that those sto­ries are defin­ing the nation­al, the glob­al imag­i­na­tion of what Detroit is. And that those sto­ries, they don’t use influ­ence people’s desire to come here and do those things and live that life, though that’s part of it, but it also shapes the per­cep­tion of peo­ple inside the city. Because that sense, that real­ly vital sense of Detroit as home to all this rich­ness and cre­ativ­i­ty, deep-rooted com­mu­ni­ty, that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly held by every­one here who are part of the home. So it’s like, so much of the per­cep­tion for young peo­ple who are born and raised here is this is a place to escape.

And then to the extent that those nar­ra­tives, whether the waste­land nar­ra­tive or the cre­ative class nar­ra­tive, don’t include them, don’t include a young per­son who grew up here who’s now in high school or maybe dropped out I school or is oth­er­wise just sort of nav­i­gat­ing life. If they can’t see a place for them­selves in there, then to the extent that they’re engaged in media and think­ing about their life and their future, it’ll be a future away from the city. And then that’s just per­pet­u­at­ing that real­i­ty, that it is a waste­land, because all of the cre­ative, awesome—you know, the ener­gies of young peo­ple that could oth­er­wise be trans­form­ing it are leav­ing.

The Internet pro­vides this avail­able text through which to read the city. And if that text makes invis­i­ble the lay­ers of com­mu­ni­ty, and life, and fun­da­men­tal­ly the home that Detroit is, then it becomes this…something to be exper­i­ment­ed with and sold in dif­fer­ent ways, like with­out regard for long-term impacts. That would be the worst-case sce­nario, is that fun­da­men­tal mis­per­cep­tion and mythol­o­gy con­tin­ue to obscure the real­ly vital truth, and truths, about the city.

Anderson: It seems like there’s sort of an inter­est­ing ten­sion there, right? On the one hand you work and work and work and you cre­ate this ecol­o­gy of voic­es. And maybe Detroit is now well-represented. And yet, there are now so many voic­es that maybe peo­ple instinc­tu­al­ly go for just a few voic­es, because we’ve sort of hit the lim­its of what we can under­stand? I don’t know. That’s been some­thing that’s popped up in this con­ver­sa­tion series a lot, the idea that one of the inter­est­ing things about the time we live in is this mas­sive pro­lif­er­a­tion of infor­ma­tion that so far exceeds our abil­i­ty to com­pre­hend as these puny lit­tle bio­log­i­cal crea­tures that only have so much time in the day to read things.

Lee: But that’s where I think the process of media-making is trans­for­ma­tive. I think that’s why we pri­or­i­tize that so much, is because at the end of the day the goal of the the youth media that’s being pro­duced out of Detroit Summer down­stairs isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly to com­pete with The New York Times as far as shap­ing the nation­al imag­i­na­tion. It may do that, and of course our hope is that those videos trav­el far and wide, but that it’s the sense of agency that’s built amongst the peo­ple who pro­duce that video and had the process of con­struct­ing a truth out of their own com­mu­ni­ties’ sto­ries and expe­ri­ences, and being able to syn­the­size those dif­fer­ent truths into an inves­ti­ga­tion of a prob­lem in the com­mu­ni­ty, or a collectively-generated solu­tion to a prob­lem, and to be able to put that out in the world on the glob­al Internet, but also amongst their peers in their own com­mu­ni­ty, and use that piece of media as a jumping-off point for a dis­cus­sion.

I guess the hope­ful­ness in it and the les­son the Detroit offers in some ways is just the val­ue of rela­tion­ships, and how your authen­tic offline rela­tion­ships can actu­al­ly impact your expe­ri­ence of this online world. For me, I’ve recent­ly got­ten to this point where I just can’t even deal with fol­low­ing the rab­bit holes of arti­cles on Facebook or things like that. Or going to news sites every morn­ing and read­ing and just con­sum­ing the Internet. I can’t even absorb it all. And so I found, for the most part, if I end up read­ing an arti­cle online it’ll be because of this per­son that I know, who I have a rela­tion­ship with, emailed me and was like, Hey, this is real­ly rel­e­vant to the such and such.” Or it comes up in con­ver­sa­tion in offline space like, Yo, you should check out that.”

And then those rely on all of the peo­ple around me to be con­stant­ly scour­ing the Internet for rel­e­vant media to me. But there was just a real­iza­tion that that’s been how I’ve cho­sen to process the infor­ma­tion over­whelm that’s online. It’s sort of like a form of a local media diet, in a sense. With this obses­sion of local­ism of like, your food comes from the peo­ple that live down the street, or the chick­en that you know, and the val­ue in that. And I think sim­i­lar­ly with our media diets and what we are con­sum­ing, there’s a sense of…definitely a loss of a sense of self when you’re you’re so like, con­sum­ing the globe. And what you can con­sume is never-ending.

Anderson: So there’s almost like…part of dig­i­tal jus­tice is almost the process of mak­ing media to estab­lish some sense of who you are as a local per­son, some­where.

Lee: Yeah, in a place, in a com­mu­ni­ty, and in a set of rela­tion­ships. There’s a lev­el of injus­tice in the way that the dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion econ­o­my is posi­tion­ing com­mu­ni­ties in rela­tion­ship to each oth­er, and in posi­tion­ing indi­vid­u­als in rela­tion­ship to each oth­er.

Anderson: This is real­ly inter­est­ing, because this almost frames this whole con­ver­sa­tion as some­thing which is a ten­sion between the local and the glob­al. We talk a lit­tle bit about the cri­tique of the present. But I also like to get into some­thing that’s like, what does a good future look like. So, with media for instance, know what are some of the val­ues that the media con­fer­ence are going after?

Lee: It’s fun­ny, in tech­nol­o­gist realms there’s so much talk about how the Internet can solve dif­fer­ent prob­lems. Whether it’s the prob­lem of civic engage­ment, or the prob­lem of youth vio­lence. Or all these dif­fer­ent like, that the site of our prob­lems is locat­ed on the Internet, when the Internet is reflect­ing back to us all these prob­lems embed­ded in our bro­ken rela­tion­ships as humans to each oth­er or com­mu­ni­ties, or with­in city gov­ern­ment struc­tures like, oth­ers— Relationships are just…in sham­bles in so many ways.

And so what the con­fer­ence has real­ly strived to do is be a real­ly trans­for­ma­tive phys­i­cal space in which rela­tion­ships are formed. And they’re formed through the many-to-many trans­mis­sion of ideas. Because I think what is miss­ing from the kind of like, cit­i­zen jour­nal­ist, blog­ging cul­ture that was cre­at­ed on response to the one-too-many mod­el, is that there was many, but they weren’t many-to-many in the sense of like, I feel like the ear­ly 2000s blog­ging cul­ture was about indi­vid­ual voice, still not in actu­al dia­logue—

Anderson: Right

Lee: —in the ways that rela­tion­ships can form.

Anderson: Sort of shout­ing into the void.

Lee: Exactly. And so the con­fer­ences has been a space where peo­ple form these real­ly inti­mate rela­tion­ships. How does that inter­sec­tion allow us to under­stand a prob­lem in a more holis­tic way, and then ulti­mate­ly gen­er­ate a solu­tion that is the most real­is­tic thing?

Anderson: Do you think that could hap­pen in a dig­i­tal set­ting, or is this some­thing that has to use the dig­i­tal to cre­ate that phys­i­cal space?

Lee: We need to fig­ure out how to do that type of relationship-building offline in order for it to ever exist online.

Anderson: Oh, so you think that that doesn’t even hap­pen real­ly in an offline sense much.

Lee: No. I mean, I think that’s the chal­lenge, is that we can’t expect the online realm to do things as far as fos­ter­ing of human rela­tion­ships that we haven’t yet fig­ured out how to do offline. I can’t think of that many suc­cess­ful exam­ples, actu­al­ly. But when you’re ask­ing about what is the hope­ful future, is that…I guess that we had com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture that could real­ly fos­ter that sense of place and the inter­weav­ing of rela­tion­ships in our phys­i­cal places. And that I think would ulti­mate­ly enable us to engage with the tools avail­able now in the glob­al Internet with much more of a sense of pow­er and agency over what we want that space to mean to us, and how we want it to be a part of our lives, ver­sus kind of being swal­lowed by it.

Anderson: What is the world that we want to exist?

Lee: Well, I think it’s one that’s going to unfold out of the par­tic­i­pa­tion of every­one, but espe­cial­ly peo­ple who are right now most mar­gin­al­ized from the pow­er struc­ture, like the smooth func­tion­ing of the sys­tem as it is right now. The world that we live in right now is not work­ing for the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the plan­et and the fullest poten­tial of who humans can be. The most holis­tic solu­tions to most prob­lems are going to [be] ones that come from sit­u­a­tions of scarce resources and inter­sect­ing sys­tems of oppres­sion. That it’s actu­al­ly real­ly hard to see what is the world we want to live in, when we’re not the one being most harmed by the way it’s func­tion­ing cur­rent­ly.

So there’s ways in which the world needs to change that I’m not even aware of, because I can’t take in the full dimen­sions of the prob­lem that needs to be solved.

Anderson: So, class has come up just a lit­tle bit in this project. Race…gender…I don’t know if anyone’s real­ly men­tioned them. Not much. Which is inter­est­ing because I’ve been talk­ing to a lot of peo­ple about the future. And of course what you just said is that it’s kind of impos­si­ble to talk or even to real­ly ful­ly under­stand pos­si­bil­i­ties for the future until you have a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple in it, and that part of this media con­ver­sa­tion is know­ing that a lot of peo­ple aren’t hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion about the future. There are a lot of peo­ple who ben­e­fit from soci­ety as is. Who are already in con­trol of the one-to-many media. How do we start rem­e­dy­ing that? How do we work towards this future that we don’t even know how how to dream about yet?

Lee: I think it’s just see­ing it where peo­ple are involved, and where peo­ple are already chang­ing, enact­ing the solu­tions that they need. Whether it’s impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties that have been destroyed by indus­tries like the auto indus­try, com­mu­ni­ties of col­or that are bear­ing the brunt of envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion in most cities. And you know, the first most impor­tant thing is under­stand­ing that peo­ple with­in those places are already tak­ing action with­in their own lives to rem­e­dy those things. And in a lot of instances are using the media to do that.

I mean, the Allied Media Conference brings togeth­er and high­lights that real­i­ty clear­er than any oth­er thing in this coun­try. It’s the encour­age­ment for oth­er com­mu­ni­ties who have every rea­son to say, Oh, we’re so pow­er­less against these forces of oppres­sion,” to actu­al­ly be real­iz­ing their own pow­er. We need to do this whether or not it’s a viable sys­temic solu­tion, or some­thing. I think a lot of people’s approach to social change could be like, Well, if it’s not the per­fect plan and we have every­one on board and it’s all gonna work, then it’s not worth doing,” ver­sus we are doing this because we have to and, we’re going to do the best that we can with what we have. That may lead us into rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple who are doing the best they can with what they have.

Anderson: I want to start gath­er­ing some threads togeth­er from this con­ver­sa­tion. And we’ve talked about a lot of dif­fer­ent things that are good, implic­it­ly and explic­it­ly. Seems like a sense of self, and sense of place seem like they’ve both popped up as ideas of good. Relationships with oth­er peo­ple, and com­mu­ni­ty as a broad­er net­work of rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple. Seems like there’s a real sense of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism that’s come up as good. Why are these things good?

Lee: I guess it’s like the rela­tion­ship between sense of self and sense of com­mu­ni­ty is not just good for the peo­ple who are most oppressed by the cur­rent glob­al pow­er struc­ture. I think it’s for peo­ple… I guess like free mar­ket cap­i­tal­ists who are just like, Let it do its thing,” and like, You work hard, you’re good, you…” that that results in the loss of those people’s human­i­ty as well.

There’s just a cer­tain like a…a lie in that, in the sense that that atti­tude allows you to ignore the inter­de­pen­dence that’s at the heart of the species, and the species’ rela­tion­ship to the plan­et. Like, as long as your health and well-being exists at the expense of some­one else’s. And I think maybe for a lot of lib­er­tar­i­ans, their view of the world may be so seg­ment­ed that they don’t see a cor­re­la­tion between one’s abil­i­ty to just sort of thrive with­in cap­i­tal­ism and be suc­cess­ful, and that that comes at the expense of some­one else. I think that lack of aware­ness around the inter­de­pen­den­cy of all things results in a trun­cat­ing of your own sense of self to be…one isn’t real­ly ful­ly human in that con­text, I think.

Anderson: This makes me think of a con­ver­sa­tion I had with a guy who’s an econ­o­mist and a mem­ber of the Club of Rome, and when I was ask­ing him about the future and mak­ing it bet­ter, we were talk­ing a lot about sus­tain­abil­i­ty and eco­nom­ic and eco­nom­ic injus­tice. And he’s talk­ing about, You need to change the sto­ry. You just need a nar­ra­tive that tells peo­ple that they’re part of a big­ger thing.” And I thought that was a real­ly inter­est­ing approach to it. When he was talk­ing about that, I was think­ing, how do you tell the sto­ry with media? And here we are talk­ing about media, and in a way we’ve kind of come back to that sto­ry, almost, through the back door.

Lee: Yeah. There is that sto­ry that been part of so many dif­fer­ent cul­tures like, we are all rela­tions, that’s embed­ded in so much Native American spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and just cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, like we’re all rela­tions. Or like, in all kinds of dif­fer­ent reli­gious con­texts. So this leaves me to this year at the AMC, the open­ing cer­e­mo­ny was actu­al­ly about this con­cept of the Species Self. Species-level sto­ry­telling. The per­son who came up with that term is a woman named Thenmozhi Soundararajan. So, she did this pre­sen­ta­tion about this moment for the species, and this moment in the avail­abil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools and infra­struc­ture as a call for the Species Self as a new nar­ra­tive enti­ty that would not just do the things that this econ­o­mist you men­tioned was talk­ing about, but fun­da­men­tal­ly break down the idea that in order for my self to exist it has to be in oppo­si­tion to the non-self or the oth­er. And that that cre­ation, that con­stant cre­ation of the oth­er has allowed sys­tems of col­o­niza­tion, and glob­al cap­i­tal­ism, and enslavement…I mean, through­out the his­to­ry of human­i­ty has been root­ed in a sense of self that required an oth­er that both allowed its exis­tence and threat­ened its exis­tence.

Anderson: These ideas of the good, we are always talk­ing about these things. And this project is called The Conversation for a rea­son, the idea that at these dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal moments peo­ple have come togeth­er, there’s been a zeit­geist. And they’ve pulled apart the old assump­tions, and they’ve come up with new ideas. Do you think we are liv­ing in a time now that needs any­thing like that? Any sort of fun­da­men­tal cri­tique of where we’re going?

Lee: I think the thing about par­a­digm shifts is that you’re in the mid­dle of—you know like, we’re in the mid­dle of a par­a­digm shift. It’s not some­thing that gets called for and then some­one leads it. It hap­pens. It’s an emer­gent process.

Anderson: But do you think that peo­ple in them can rec­og­nize them?

Lee: I think there’s a lot of peo­ple right now that are aware that we’re in the midst of a par­a­digm shift.

Anderson: Do you think there is sort of a zeit­geist? Is there some­thing that peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly talk­ing about? Or are these just a bunch of frag­ment­ed groups, like these tran­shu­man­ists don’t seem like they’re talk­ing to these envi­ron­men­tal­ists, and they don’t seem like they’re talk­ing to these oth­er peo­ple, and…

Lee: Well, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to hear you tell the sto­ry about the econ­o­mist who basi­cal­ly is call­ing for exact­ly the same thing that we’ve been talk­ing about, as far as a nar­ra­tive that pro­pels our sense of our­selves, as humans away from indi­vid­ual pro­tag­o­nists to more of a col­lec­tive sense of us as pro­tag­o­nists with shared fates and… I don’t know. I mean, maybe it’s the idea of not just cap­i­tal­ism but cap­i­tal­ism as it’s paired with rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy, as a par­a­digm in which we’ve exist­ed for a long time.

In a lot of the places that I see this feel­ing of par­a­digm shift hap­pen­ing, it feels like there’s more… Like we’re mov­ing towards a par­a­digm that’s more par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, that involves par­tic­i­pa­tion of self in rela­tion to com­mu­ni­ty. There’s the sight of fig­ur­ing out there that it gets abdi­cat­ed in the rela­tion­ship with­in rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy, where you’re like, I just need to work at my job, and pay my tax­es, and I’ll receive these ser­vices, and I’ll vote for this per­son who will make the deci­sions for me,” and it’s more trans­ac­tion­al, and it accom­mo­dates the indi­vid­ual lot more. Versus what will hap­pen is, the fate of every­thing is up to me, or that I’m capa­ble and I’m an active par­tic­i­pant in the unfold­ing of the future. If there is a com­mon thread around how peo­ple are mov­ing through the world now that to me amounts to a par­a­digm shift, that’s one of the ways in which I see it.


Aengus Anderson: So. Media. It’s real­ly in the project now, in a sub­stan­tive way. It seemed like we real­ly actu­al­ly missed a lot of media-related con­ver­sa­tion when we were talk­ing Andrew Keen, but we’ve got it now and we’ve got it in spades.

Micah Saul: And we’ve we’ve touched on it in var­i­ous oth­er places, although not nec­es­sar­i­ly by name. You know, we talked to Cameron Whitten, who says that we…you know, how do you change people’s minds? Well, through adver­tis­ing. We’ve talked about chang­ing the sto­ry a lot, but now to actu­al­ly have it for real is awe­some, and I know fur­ther down the line we’re gonna get it some more.

Anderson: This con­ver­sa­tion seemed to be a lot about media and class. And I think lat­er we’ll prob­a­bly talk more about media struc­tural­ly as a tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tem.

Saul: Right. Again, as we said in the intro, class is anoth­er thing that we’ve sur­pris­ing­ly not had much of, and it was great to have two sort of under­rep­re­sent­ed themes front and cen­ter in this one.

Anderson: Yeah, and I mean let’s just start in with the idea of class and media com­ing togeth­er and how do you have the con­ver­sa­tion when a lot of peo­ple aren’t rep­re­sent­ed at the table.

Saul: Right. I real­ly liked her sort of rejec­tion of an attempt to define an ide­al future when everyone’s not at the table. As Cameron Whitten put it, most of the peo­ple involved in the project so far, includ­ing us, have it pret­ty alright.

Anderson: Yep.

Saul: If an ide­al future is a more egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety, you and I, the peo­ple you’re talk­ing to, don’t real­ly have any idea the needs of cur­rent­ly mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple. We don’t know what they need, they know what they need. You know, I think part of what Allied Media is try­ing to do is help them with the tools, give them tools, although they they already have their own tools, to start address­ing these ques­tions, and then just get the hell out of the way.

Anderson: And know that they’re hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion now, the more of them inter­con­nect the stronger their voic­es become, and the more they can real­ly join basi­cal­ly the elite con­ver­sa­tion that’s hap­pen­ing in most of the large media.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And then, then we can actu­al­ly talk about the future. Of course there’s an inter­est­ing egal­i­tar­i­an assump­tion under­neath that. I think most peo­ple pay lip ser­vice to that, but I don’t know how many peo­ple actu­al­ly are as deeply com­mit­ted to that or even believe that change can hap­pen from that sort of bottom-up, self empow­ered way. I think there are a lot of peo­ple who real­ly sup­port that ide­al, but feel that change comes from, often, the top down. That seems like it’s an end­less sort of con­ver­sa­tion that hap­pens in groups that are try­ing to change things. And it’s fun­ny that we actu­al­ly haven’t got­ten too much into a dis­cus­sion of top-down ver­sus bottom-up in our project here.

Saul: That is a good point. That’s some­thing that actu­al­ly you and I haven’t real­ly talked about much.

Anderson: No. Damn, we just ran across some­thing big.

Saul: Yes. Let’s make note of that and actu­al­ly real­ly get into that at some point. Although, you know in some ways it does relate to the ques­tions we’ve been hav­ing about the nature of the Conversation and how these major par­a­digm shifts occur, right?

Anderson: Yes, and that’s actu­al­ly a real­ly good tie-in because Jenny uses an inter­est­ing word, emer­gence” in here. And I don’t know if we’ve had a lot of peo­ple talk about emer­gence in the project yet. But the idea that for her the Conversation may not actu­al­ly mat­ter that much. There may be a mul­ti­tude of small con­ver­sa­tions that are hap­pen­ing con­stant­ly. And out of all of those emerges this big par­a­digm shift that maybe you can sense when you’re in, and I mean she thinks that peo­ple know that it’s hap­pen­ing now. But we don’t know quite what it’s going to do or what it’s going to be. It’s not some­thing where we can point at a cou­ple of Thomas Jeffersons and say, This guy’s at the helm.” I mean, that’s sort of a fal­la­cious cre­ation that comes from his­to­ri­ans look­ing at it in ret­ro­spect.

Saul: Exactly. There’s some­thing inter­est­ing about the idea of these shifts hap­pen­ing with no helms­man, because that sort of is a dis­missal of the impor­tance of the indi­vid­ual, in some ways.

Anderson: Maybe not a dis­missal of the impor­tance of the indi­vid­ual work­ing on that indi­vid­ual lev­el. Every lit­tle bit of con­ver­sa­tion you’re hav­ing with your neigh­bor mat­ters, mas­sive­ly, because your neighbor’s mind is changed and it rip­ples out. But, in terms of the indi­vid­ual as kind of a hero­ic char­ac­ter? and hav­ing a real­ly enor­mous quan­ti­ty of agency? maybe we do lose some of that. And that I think is borne out by a lot of her oth­er com­ments. I mean, the future that she’s inter­est­ed in is much more com­mu­nal, you know. What is good media? Well, good media fos­ters phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty. It fos­ters a sense of place. In our whole con­ver­sa­tion the community/individual ten­sion is real­ly lit up the whole time. I mean, that’s a big theme.

Saul: I think it goes even beyond com­mu­ni­ty. I mean, she start­ed using the same words that we use all the time. She start­ed talk­ing about the larg­er sys­tems. And that’s not just com­mu­ni­ty that she’s talk­ing about. I mean, I real­ly liked what she was say­ing about the indi­vid­ual that doesn’t rec­og­nize that they are in this larg­er sys­tem or even are this larg­er sys­tem, is miss­ing part of the self. That total­ly made me think of Carolyn Raffensperger’s quote that she is only her­self in com­mu­ni­ty.

Anderson: And it ties in with big strands of thought that you see from Timothy Morton, to David Korten, to Wes Jackson.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: To Frances Whitehead.

Saul: Yeah. We have anoth­er sys­tems thinker, who’s think­ing about it on a much more per­son­al lev­el, in some ways.

Anderson: But is def­i­nite­ly still fram­ing our actions and our sort of civic choic­es in that larg­er col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. And she does that in an inter­est­ing way, and I’m sort of curi­ous what you thought of this, but at one point she men­tions that very indi­vid­u­al­is­tic thinkers over­look essen­tial­ly what we are as a species, right. And isn’t that kind of call­ing on a bio­log­i­cal truth like, we are a social ani­mal, so just…individualism is false. It’s almost like there’s empir­i­cal grounds for throw­ing out our hyper­indi­vid­u­al­ism. Were you per­suad­ed by that?

Saul: Um…do I agree with it? Probably. Was I per­suad­ed by it? Like, do I find it to be a sol­id argu­ment? Less so. But that’s because it’s based on an assump­tion that, though I agree with it I don’t know what the proof is. Which is that we are fun­da­men­tal­ly com­mu­nal crea­tures.

Anderson: I real­ly think we need to actu­al­ly get some­one in this project who can make the case that that kind of indi­vid­u­al­ism leads to a cer­tain type of com­mu­nal har­mo­ny. We’ve seen that…eh, lit­tle bits and pieces of that pop­ping up and and David Miller. We’ve seen lit­tle bits and pieces of that in Max More or Robert Zubrin. But I think we can do a lot more with that.

Saul: I agree. Let’s put out a call to action here. If any of our lis­ten­ers can give us a sug­ges­tion for some­body who’s able to make that argu­ment in an inter­est­ing way, please let us know in the com­ments or shoot us email.

So let’s see, were there any oth­er any oth­er con­nec­tions worth bring­ing up here?

Anderson: I mean, there is sort of an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion and con­trast with Gabe Stempinski.

Saul: Ah, yes. Absolutely

Anderson: Both Jenny and Gabe are inter­est­ed in using the glob­al sys­tem of the Internet to fos­ter local sens­es of place and inter­per­son­al com­mu­ni­ty.

Saul: Right. But they’re going at it in very dif­fer­ent ways. So with Gabe, it’s pro­vid­ing the tools to direct­ly intro­duce peo­ple to each oth­er so that the community-building can hap­pen in the real world.

Anderson: So, the Internet’s the medi­um for that.

Saul: Right. With Jenny, there is more of an idea that the com­mu­ni­ty on the Internet is sort of a mir­ror of the com­mu­ni­ty in real life, and vice ver­sa.

Anderson: Maybe there isn’t exact­ly par­i­ty. It seems with Jenny that the Internet com­mu­ni­ty some­thing that will come after we focus more on our real inter­per­son­al com­mu­ni­ties. It seems more like Gabe is inter­est­ed in the Internet lead­ing to the real com­mu­ni­ty, where­as Jenny’s inter­est­ed in the real com­mu­ni­ty lead­ing to a dif­fer­ent type of Internet.

Saul: Yeah. And by exten­sion, a dif­fer­ent type of media.

Anderson: So there’s some inter­est­ing sort of causal arrows there, and we’ve prob­a­bly over­sim­pli­fied both of them. But that’s cer­tain­ly some­thing that I want to keep in mind more as we go fur­ther. And it actu­al­ly links us right back to the begin­ning of our con­ver­sa­tion here where we were talk­ing about top-down ver­sus bottom-up change.

Saul: Yup.

Anderson: In Gabe’s mod­el you can have a cou­ple cen­tral­ized devel­op­ers cre­ate tools. I mean, that seems like sort of an ana­log to top-down.

Saul: Speaking of top-down, I’m going to make an exec­u­tive deci­sion here and say we should wrap this one up.

Anderson: Sounds good to me. My next con­ver­sa­tion is with Patrick Crouch. It’s anoth­er Detroit con­ver­sa­tion. He’s with Earthworks, which is a farm there. As you would expect, we talk a lot about agri­cul­ture, but we also again bring up the ten­sion that came up in the con­ver­sa­tion with Jenny between the indi­vid­ual and the col­lec­tive. We also talk a lot about our old friend tech­nol­o­gy, and Patrick gives us a real­ly inter­est­ing tra­jec­to­ry, down the mid­dle between our peo­ple who seem more technophile and tech­nophobe. With that lit­tle bit of fore­shad­ow­ing, thanks for lis­ten­ing, and we will catch you next time.

That was Jenny Lee, record­ed August 13, 2012 at the head­quar­ters of Allied Media Projects in Detroit, Michigan.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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