11 February 2007

Talking pictures: General Motors robot ad

Going back through 2 years' worth of writing (have been adding tags to the old posts, a new feature of Blogger v2!), I've realised how this blog has shifted from cultural theory to critical theory and policy criticism. Sometimes, though, it's easier to comment on the world through allegory, to take things unseriously, or to make serious what is for entertainment. Today, instead of direct political or economic commentary, I present a new (old) way of doing things, of finding the truth through examining fiction, of tackling the base through the superstructure.

Talking pictures 1: General Motors

A robot at a General Motors car assembly plant drops a screw, a mistake that results in its firing. It subsequently sinks into a series of more humiliating and underemployed forms of manual labour, and ends up jumping off a bridge, depressed and suicidal. It is a cute ad, made to sell GM's commitment to quality control (its 100,000 mile warranty).

Its cuteness is its downfall, for the cuteness invests the metallic machine with human characteristics, to evoke the "awwwww, poor thing!" reaction from viewers. Yet the anthropomorphic strategy is a convenient fiction that masks the opposite truth: in the world outside the ad, human labour is mechanised (a calculative process) into nothing more than productive automatons. White collar or blue collar, labour is infinitely expendable, flexi-timed, subject to contractual hiring, minimal benefits, and no-cause firing.

In an age where corporate profits soar while labour wages remain stagnant, all labour undergo a series of automatising. We worry about hitting key performance indicators, whether we will receive a favourable review by our peers, whether the next mistake we make will be our last. In an age where our qualifications become obsolete a month upon graduation, we worry like the robot about getting underemployed. Will we be reduced to the call centre, the roadshow, or any odd job that has absolutely nothing to do with what we were trained for? And will we end up depressed and suicidal, jumping into the path of a train?

And then we remember Karel ńĆapek and his play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots). This is the first recorded usage of the word, because the writer and his brother invented it themselves. But really, what they intended robot to mean is merely "work". And from the original Czech roots, robota=drudgery and robotnik=peasant, serf.

Hence, a robot: a person who works, or slaves. A person who toils away, who lives in order to work. By understanding the genealogy of the word, we now understand the true meaning of the General Motors ad: it simply describes - not the humorous and fictional plight of anthropomorphised machinery at a factory, but the real plight of dehumanised people at their workplaces.

Links: A full translation of the play

04 February 2007

Minilee's keyboard kommandos

A few months after last year's General Elections, I had a private conversation with a few friends about the state of the local blogosphere. Despite its vaunted, almost mythical and most certainly mythologised role in provoking interest in politics and the elections, it was really in a vulnerable state. Without the election-fueled controversies, the blogosphere had no strong common focus. With comments on blog posts written increasingly by anonymouses interested in one-liners and non sequiturs, the blogosphere's power to serve as a clearing house for ideas and a broker for honest, sustained and serious discussion was diminished. (This would be partly why I stopped blogging for a time)

We concurred that it was high time for a power grab, with both major political parties establishing easy beachheads in the blogosphere. It's not that there's anything wrong with cabinet ministers and opposition members blogging, but we expected both parties to operate through proxies instead this time round. Perhaps they would set up a groupblog or an online magazine, then solicit members or guest contributors to nurture talents - without announcing in public about who is behind the blog/magazine. Actually it's an open secret amongst members of the Young Republic that a certain opposition party has done exactly that. Comparing it to the public efforts of the P65 blog, we thought the PAP had the cleaner hands...

Until now.

Li Xueying puts it this way in today's Straits Times:
PAP moves to counter criticism of party, Govt in cyberspace
The People's Action Party (PAP) is mounting a quiet counter-insurgency against its online critics. It has members going into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and putting up postings anonymously.

Sources told The Straits Times the initiative is driven by two sub-committees of the PAP's "new media" committee chaired by Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen. One sub-committee, co-headed by Minister of State (Education) Lui Tuck Yew and Hong Kah GRC MP Zaqu Mohamad, strategises the campaign. The other is led by Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Baey Yam Keng and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Josephine Teo. Called the "new media capabilities group", it executes the campaign.

Both were set up after last year's General Election. Aside from politicians, some 20 IT-savvy party activists are also involved

We're flabbergasted. Surely they don't mean to say that all bloggers are insurgents?

Insurgent, according to the Webster
1. Person who rebels against civil authority or established government
2. One who acts contrary to policies and decisions of their own political party.

Onelook has it even better:
3. a member of an irregular armed force that fights a stronger force by sabotage and harassment

But there's only one meaning of insurgent that is implied when you use "counter-insurgent", really. The member of an irregular armed force one... And how one takes action against insurgents (i.e. guerillas) is simple: you dispense with all rules of war and adopt a black ops manual. Adopting unconventional warfare is a must. Against the Vietcong, napalm their forests. Execute them. Against local bloggers, take on anonymous identities and destroy the blogosphere through disinformation and ghostwritten propaganda.

Black Ops

There is thus no less suitable phrase to describe the PAP counter-insurgency campaign. Party operatives posting anonymously in forums to advance the views of their party is every bit as covert and ethically questionable as a black op.

Elsewhere in the world, the revelation of party operatives infiltrating forums and blogs would be cause for the expulsion of several party leaders. One remembers the fury that was barely averted when Atrios disclosed his connection to the Democratic Party's campaign in 2005. One remembers the furore that resulted in the expulsion of one Jeff Gannon from the White House press room when it was revealed the journalist was hired by Republican Party operatives to ask easy questions for the administration. Closer to home, one remembers that a certain NKF trial alleges a whole slew of major ethical problems at the charity - including the practice of getting NKF staff to rebut anti-NKF views through ghostwritten letters in newspaper forum pages.

We wonder if Ng Eng Hen is so unaware of world affairs and the biggest trial to occur in Singapore that he happily authorises a campaign that essentially has PAP's party operatives masquerade as the ordinary blogging public, in order to propagate their party's views. Of course, that IS the intent of the counter-insurgency campaign, no?
One activist who is involved said that when posting comments on online forums and the feedback boxes of blogs, he does not identify himself as a PAP member.
We call upon Ng Eng Hen to come clean with this dishonest campaign; to identify all MPs, Ministers, and PAP party operatives involved. We want to know if they were paid by the State to masquerade as ordinary people to post anonymous comments on blogs during working hours. For their role in this fraudulent campaign, impeach Ng Eng Hen, Lui Tuck Yew, Zaqy Mohamad, Baey Yam Keng, and Josephine Teo! Impeach them now!