Book Report: Virtualpolitik by Elizabeth Losh

By: Jan Bajec
On: September 14, 2009
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About Jan Bajec
Visual thinking has always been the way I responded to my environment. It engaged my interest in arts and eventually led to my enrollment in Visual Arts and Graphic Design studies. From 2001-2002, I had an unique opportunity to be a part of a creative team at S Team Advertising in Belgrade associated with SAATCHI&SAATCHI. From 2002-2003, I worked as a Graphic Designer at Ovation – BBDO. In 2003, wanting to pursue my studies further and get away from advertising I enrolled in Design Art program at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduation I decided to stay in Montreal and work as a full-time freelance graphic designer and web design consultant. I favor an exploratory, investigative approach to design. As I have been in the situation to design for specific cultural environments, I have felt how much of a social construction design really is and how cultural values, tools and technologies specific to each social milieu are reflected in it. This kind of experience demanded broader research ‘routine’ and triggered my interest in many other subjects: sociology, psychology, pop-culture, television, politics, new media. As I was switching my area of interest from print to web design I became more involved in this new platform for visual communication…

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Elizabeth Losh is the Writing Director of the Humanities Core Course at U.C. Irvine where she teaches courses on digital rhetoric and public communication. Her research specialty is digital rhetoric and the discourses of information culture, especially the study of electronic ephemera that expresses themes of nationalism or globalization.

The book Virtualpolitik: an electronic history of government media-making in a time of war, scandal, disaster, miscommunication, and mistakes by Elizabeth Losh examines the government’s digital rhetoric and its dual role as media-maker and regulator. The author claims that the Western rhetorical tradition is the source for the ideologies from which political strategies of virtualpolitik claim their legitimacy. Since the current political policy is dominated by regulation, virtualpolitik, as a new form of traditional Realpolitik, tries to contain and fragment competing digital communities in order to protect the short-term interests of the state. The book is also a theoretical work that explores what is behind the basic philosophical objections that lawmakers and other stakeholders may have to the new social media. They are aware that, “although the Internet can be deployed for hierarchical command and control activities, it also functions as a highly efficient peer-to-peer distributed network for disseminating the commodity of information”. This use of the distribution networks is seen as a modern form of oral tradition, as an unregulated lateral communication among social actors who are not authorized to speak for nation-states or to produce legitimated expert discourses, and is marked as potentially destabilizing to the existing political order. For example, legislators in the U.S. identify web logs as a particular area of concern because they can potentially destabilize authoritative print sources of information from established institutions. The state supported experts argue that authority structures depend on the work of published authors, which the oral tradition threatens. On the other side, Siva Vaidhyanathan, cultural historian and media scholar, argues in “The Anarchist in the Library” that powerful interests who would like to control intellectual property are fostering fundamentally undemocratic practices of litigation and legislation through oppressive copyright law. These interests are controlling the exchange of information in democratic public spheres. “ Vaidhyanathan documents patterns of discourse from an informal culture oriented around a communal secondary orality, which is sending a very different message about free culture and copyright than the one in the formalized ‘rhetoric’ of policy makers about illegal downloading that gets translated into the print media”.

There are many alliances between the “Virtual State” (that the author defines as – “the systemization of post-Weberian bureaucracy in cyberspace, organized predominantly around the maintenance of ‘files’”) and the advertising and marketing industries that create and coordinate messages. Four specific 21st century fields in government rhetoric (public diplomacy, social marketing, risk communication, and institutional branding) occupy different niches in this larger alliance between government and the persuasive industries. The author emphasises that:”Without a serious commitment to institution-building, the virtual state is given little to do but surveil its citizens.”

This is a book about public policy but the research done on it was intended to combine several fields that address the study of contemporary electronic communication. These disciplines include: rhetoric, Internet research, game studies, web design, information science, fair use and intellectual property law, and the study of popular culture in the way that relates to political discourse. The book is divided in ten chapters, each following a specific digital media example that explores political discourse. Losh examines, analyzes and places into context government’s digital rhetoric through fan made videogame film that was mistaken for a terrorist recruit video, virtual reality simulations made for US soldiers leaving for Iraq, institutional websites, and electronic slideshows, email as the Internet channel for whistle blowing, digital artworks and digital libraries.

Elizabeth Losh states that digital rhetoric is especially important now that so many citizens rely on official websites as sources of information. She had hypothesized that visual media represent potential sites for popular activism and resistance rather than merely serve as the exclusive stage for state-sanctioned rhetoric. She argues that institutional websites should do more than just be extensions of a public relations apparatus:”They can present controversial speeches, damaging reports, public apologies, declassified documents, and even certain compliance statistics mandated by law.” The author concludes that as a result of development of global networks and informal communication it can be expected that the role of state in policy making will become weaker. However, its role would be still important in two important fields, on one side as media-maker, and on the other as regulator. According to Losh in its regulating capacity government should not focus on destructive criminality as the chief characteristic of digital culture. Piracy or hacking also informs about peoples’ need to manifest their personal politics and interact with the “virtual manifestations of the state.”

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