Apr/May 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

Streaming the Revolution

Commentary by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Now that I have decided to roll the dice and take up freelance writing without a net, I keep my Facebook and Google News feeds streaming pretty continuously behind whatever manuscript is in progress. Should the work begin to bog down, due to the endless stream of words passing before my eyes for hours each day, I just click my browser icon and check out what's new in the world.

Actually, a delightful aspect of this way of taking a break is that it is also an important part of the new job. As I make my way through the manuscript of Autism and Genius (now about 2/3 complete, by best estimate), the research is simultaneously underway for a book on the mania of today's world (all I can reveal about the project for the moment). It makes perfect sense: when you are working against time, in order to get out enough text to eventually make a bit of a living, every resource must be mined for ore.

So then, when I switched to Facebook, last week, a bit tired and blurry, I was immediately snapped awake to see a revolution happening, replete with two live video streams. Kiev was on fire.

Seeing the center of a major city in flames is a rush, at first. Within seconds, of course, it dawns on one that lives are in danger. This is not an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster movie, no matter how much it might appear to be. The apocalypse is real. Real people are dead. At the foot of the screen, in a makeshift morgue, ambulances are driving away with real wounded. Real anti-government protestors are scavenging at every hand to find fuel for the firewall they have built to keep away the armed security forces.

If the live stream made me feel like the security forces—lurking just beyond the wall of fire—were the storm troopers of an evil empire, short breaks to check out earlier recorded video, of the events that precipitated the immediate uprising, made the good and evil of the situation less clear. It was difficult not to feel for the police unit totally overwhelmed at the parliament building, being beaten with sticks and bats. Some inventive protestor was even wielding a fire hose, the heavy nozzle terminating a kind of half-comical, half-deadly flail.

The police did not fire or wield any weapon but only formed a shield-wall. They did use pepper spray in an entirely defensive attempt to hold the protestors at bay. Eventually the huge crowd began to capture the front line officers, beating some of them into bloody submission in order to escort them away. The backlines retreated as best they could, then made a run for it.

Truth is, however, that the revolution had been brewing almost from the end of the last revolution. The Ukrainian President had taken the opportunity of his people's hopeful docility in order to execute a power grab, supported by Russia, and predictably went too far. As usual, each faction will blame the others for having started the present violence.

But, all of this said, Kiev was on fire. Eastern Orthodox priests and nuns were reciting prayers from a sound stage at the edge of the mayhem. In a truly macabre touch, a huge outdoor screen, over their left shoulder as they prayed through the booming loudspeakers, was playing the same live stream I was watching. There, in living color, was an oversized scene of Maiden Square involved in flames. The audience was intently watching it as they listened. Those who were manning the firewall were taking smart-phone videos that would momentarily be available on YouTube.

Among the tens of thousands of people who were almost immediately viewing the smart-phone videos were the various media, minor and major, who were embedding them into the quick turnaround reports they were posting on their network sites. In the new "flatter" world, in which mainstream media compete with amateur YouTube "news videos" and tens of thousands of amateur "news blogs," media companies are up against hordes of new competitors. It all costs so little on the amateur scale, there being zero payroll and overhead expenses, and Internet ads don't pay at the same levels television and print ads used to. The real money goes into the hands of the mega-hosts, not of news, but of functional platform space. It is they who make the lion's share from each ad—pay-out a small portion, in some cases, to content providers—multiplied by almost unimaginable numbers of ad views and/or clicks per second. Google was clearly having a particularly profitable day (or, as it turned out, several days).

(Sorry, just popped over to Fb to see the latest headlines and friend-posts. I see, at the ShakesVere group page, that some organization called the "Oberon Shakespeare Study Group" will be conducting a residential summer school in Urbino, Italy. World News Now is displaying the headline: "CONDOMS REIMAGINED: New line of products appeals to environmentally conscious women." A Colbert Report teaser suggests I'll have some hilarious video to watch tonight, after watching the next episode of Almost Human, via Hulu's free-stream, as I eat my supper.)

Now, where was I? Yes! When I wrote, "Google was clearly having a particularly profitable day." I didn't mean to imply in the least that the tech giant was in any way complicit in the revolution, or even profiting explicitly from death and destruction. They just came up with a great idea—or, more precisely, took it from a number of other much smaller tech start-ups, and did it a thousand times better. I'm a great fan of YouTube and have assembled about a dozen playlists of favorite and curious music and television programs whose producers have not chosen to complain and have their copyrighted material removed.

(Of course, the copyright holders of the old Kung Fu series—whose deeply wise main character later accidentally hung himself, in real life, in a Bangkok hotel room, while engaging in an ancient Shaolin style of enhanced masturbation—did demand that YouTube pull the user-account bootleg before I'd even gotten through the first season's episodes. All of this I also accepted as different stake holders—with the exception of the YouTube "user" who posted the copyrighted material—acting quite properly in accordance with their financial interests and the law. When the second volume of Locatelli's Art of the Violin disappeared, I was stunned.)

So, where was I? Yes! Google profits! YouTube is just a privately-owned public square of sorts (especially so in the case of revolutions). Lots of people love it and spend lots of time there. Each loves the access to the millions of others. So much so, in fact, that advertisements can be attached and large amounts of money can be made. In fact, the ads often run as many seconds as the content—content that costs Google nothing to create and nearly nothing to host. The number of paid ads that run per unit time is enormous. It isn't difficult to see that the site is a virtual goldmine.

Google created YouTube to make a profit. The users choose and/or create the content. Media sites, struggling to make a profit in the Internet age, can only avail themselves of compelling footage that they could not hope to develop within their dwindling organizations—footage that can no longer be vetted or verified beyond the best spot judgment of some editor in a shrinking cubicle on a short-term lease—thus generating more "views" and more advertising revenue for Google. Voila!

(Voila! That's French for "There it is!" Just in case I need to look it up in order to be sure, I keep my free Larousse six language dictionary up in another window to quickly pop over and verify. The sizeable language library, directly behind me, as I write, gets a lot less attention than it used to. If I need to investigate an older word, I search on my five centuries of free dictionaries, in a wide array of languages, at Google Book Search—at least I do until they choose to monetize that multi-million volume library.)

Anyway, I am absolutely sure that, behind the ramparts of Google, the recent uptick in profits is even spoken of cavalierly. What else could be the case? The police drink coffee and joke around while scraping the latest pedestrian off the roadway because it is the only way to remain sane in their circumstances. Google employees surely speak of the Ukrainian revolution (or whatever has swum into their YouTube view) with the occasional smile, perhaps even a bit of pride and celebration. They need to make profit. They need to distance themselves from the content that makes the profit in order to remain viable. Of course, don't ask their PR-types to verify as much. Refusing to say counter-productive things is, after all, how they make their living, and there is recently a virtual explosion of professional PR-types out looking for jobs for some reason.

What is still more disconcerting, though, is the fact that we all are cavalier about the Ukrainian revolution and numberless other matters. The authorities placed snipers above the crowd in Maiden Square and shot scores among the crowd while I was no longer watching. I had decided, by that point, that I could not afford to give any more time to the stream and get my own work done. I missed it. I cannot help but wonder what it might have looked like. What would I have been able to bring to my life and work from the experience?

Well, it's time to get back to work, time to wrap up all the details here into a convenient overview. But then, there is no closure anymore. Just the end of these pages of observation upon some few of the facts that profoundly drive our lives, the revolution going onward through all the manifold relations, beyond our understanding or control, any attempt to give it a shape apart from its technologies and profits simply outdated.