Saturday, March 24, 2007

George Orwell, Campaign Strategist?

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
— George Orwell

The "Vote Different" video is raising lots of questions about campaign ethics (did Obama's people commission the video; is this a new low in smear campaigning) and the growing role of new media in politics. But I'm not seeing much discussion of "Vote Different" as a mashup, or of mashup/remix culture, per se. That surprises me because it seems like a perfect illustration of what mashup/remix is for and what it can accomplish.

"Vote Different" is a good mashup, and not only in the sense of being skillfully produced. It's also good in the sense that it does what a mashup should: combine and juxtapose elements of existing works (and the meanings encoded therein) in such a way that the new, derivative work contributes something new to our understanding of that subject or item or concept. The point of using existing material isn't just to be lazy and avoid producing one's own work from scratch. Remix culture seeks specifically to activate the audience's systems of association and cultural knowlege — the messages we've already received and internalized and incorporated into our own "maps" of the world — and to then take that whole cognitive package and tweak it (recontextualize the familiar) to elicit new meaning.

I think the "Vote Different" video is a truly excellent example of how that works. The original Apple ad used imagery from an existing work, George Orwell's novel 1984, to evoke a sense of liberation from an oppressive world of bleak conformity and lack of choice. It did this very effectively, but not for the purpose of illuminating anything or anyone: it was just an ad produced to create a brand, not stimulate or express thought. The "Vote Different" piece takes all of the meaning crammed into the Apple ad and redirects it: now we aren't looking at consumers bored with the range of computers available to them, set free at last to buy stuff from a cooler company. Now we're looking at the public, the culture, ourselves, dully gaping as the latest Big Brother figure drones on at us — it almost doesn't matter who it is, the point is we get that it's the face of the state, of entrenched power, of a system too big and old for us to know how to change.

In this sense, I think "Vote Different" actually helps recover the meaning of the original work. Orwell created Big Brother as a way to talk about government and power and hegemony and coercion — not what color of plastic you want your computer to be. Apple trivialized that meaning in its ad (and faced similar criticism for its Think Different campaign, which capitalized on images of people like Cesar Chavez, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi. "Vote Different" restores Orwell's original meaning and refocuses attention on something relevant to the original work. That isn't something required of all mashups or remixes, but it's an extra little bonus that I appreciate in this one.

As for whether "Vote Different" is an ethical kind of campaign material, I have to admit I don't see it as significantly different from most campaigns. Aren't they all using the same emotionalistic, button-pushing, id-activating, critical-thought-squashing, propagandistic message-pushing strategy? Why is it any different for George W. Bush to stand on the White House lawn or on the bridge of a naval carrier spouting slogans and catch-phrases and sound bites — isn't that just as manipulative? If someone out there sees a connection between Hillary Clinton's speech and Orwell's world of permagov and doublespeak, why shouldn't he manifest that idea as a video and put it out there for discussion? Honestly, I think that Philip de Vellis (who called his work a "citizen ad") has contributed something incredibly valuable to this campaign cycle: something intelligently conceived, clear in its message and intention, that calls for discussion of things we really ought to be discussing, not just now but all the time.

And while I personally felt some dismay at seeing Hillary get that treatment — I like the principle behind the video, not necessarily the content of the message — I wouldn't want to squelch remix culture or keep it out of the political realm because then we might never have been given "Imagine This" (video at right). It's another great example of a mashup/remix making full use of the encoded meanings in the original work, and recontextualizing the familiar so that new meaning emerges. In this case, the derivative work further illuminates a subject/theme/concept which it shares with the original — not always or necessarily the case, but done rather nicely here, expanding and refocusing rather than just repeating the original message.

And while we're talking about Orwell, here's a video of a guy getting arrested for asking Texas governor George W. Bush a question at a campaign appearance. Not removed from the event — arrested. The cameraperson gets roughed up, too. A disturbing look at very early signs of how our free speech and freedom of the press were going to go. As a remix or mashup, though, I have to rate this one very low in concept and quality: it's hard to tell whether the music and CG text are supposed to be ironic, scary, or silly. And the guy, Alex Jones, doesn't seem aware of how his behavior might be undermining his message; I'd think a smart conspiracy theorist would try to avoid triggering all those stereotypes of the paranoid loudmouth with no social skills. Too bad — I love conspiracy theories and hate to see them wasted like this!

"Vote Different" by Phil de Vellis, who says his message was that "the old political machine no longer holds all the power."

Here's the original Apple "1984" ad.

Here's the original Hillary Clinton video announcing her intention to run for president in 2008.

Mashup of George W. Bush singing "Imagine"

Alex Jones getting arrested for asking George W. Bush a question at a campaign appearance.

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