Awareness is not a substitute for action

2020-07-19 20:20:26 UTC

There’s a pernicious, though well-meaning, sort of mindset around “raising awareness” of various evils in the world.

The idea—such as it is—is that it’s vitally important to raise as much awareness as possible of whichever evil, and important as an individual to “stay informed”, which is to say, tuned into some daily dosage of news coverage.

I have a couple of problems with this.

First off, moment-to-moment news coverage, such as you typically see on TV/radio, on most news websites and newspapers, and indeed in all major news outlets regardless of medium, is extremely bad for actually being informed.

Moment-to-moment (often, but not necessarily, “breaking”) news coverage only tells you what just happened. This is insufficient in three ways:

  • what: but without much delving into who (or who else, or who didn’t) or when (or when else, or when it didn’t)
  • just: only the most recent event/act, with little to no history
  • happened: agency may be subtracted or actively denied (language such as “officer-involved shooting”, as well as more generally reporting on events rather than acts)

Truly informative coverage provides history, context, and depth—the sort of information that requires time and work and knowledge to assemble into a coherent and informative story.

Moreover, “staying informed” is only beneficial as a means to an end.

The opening cutscene to “Watch_Dogs 2” bothers me particularly because of this. The player character describes a system of corporate-administered mass surveillance—a system whose name is emblazoned on numerous hackable in-game objects, at least for the player’s convenience but seemingly diegetically as well—and concludes that the hacker group he belongs to, DedSec, needs to expose this system, its nature, and its ramifications to the world.

The problem I have is: That’s a start.

Playing that game in 2019*, I felt like there would’ve been at least four news articles about the fictional system in question already. One in WaPo, one in ProPublica, two in Reason magazine, and assorted reblogs and other coverage on Boing Boing, HuffPo, and various other sites. Plus innumerable tweets and Facebook posts.

And yet the system persists.

It persists because everyone is vaguely aware of it already—it’s directly involved in their lives; part of the problem is that they functionally can’t escape it—and they have accepted it.

Dig into the ramifications of such a system—enabling discrimination; enabling unwanted disclosure/privacy violation; etc.—and most people will go “Wow. Sure hope that never happens to me.”.

We are trained—mostly by news media themselves, passively, as a side effect of how stories are selected, reported, packaged, and delivered—to regard news coverage as spectacle. That thing happened, over there, apart from you, apart from your life. It happened without you, and so you have no influence upon it.

I haven’t played far enough into “Watch_Dogs 2”’s main plot to know whether this spoils a twist or not, but I feel like if it happened in real life (arguably it has; the game’s reflections of its inspirations are not subtle), the consequence to DedSec blowing the lid off the story and revealing ctOS’s true nature to the world would be a worldwide collective shrug.

Not just because that particular story is about a computer system and most people’s eyes immediately glaze over when you start talking computer shit, but because it is a part of their lives already, and such an exposé, with the implication that the system being exposed is bad, in turn implies that a part of their lives is bad.

For each individual person, the response to this is as follows:

  • Wow. So what can I, individually, do about it?
  • Well, I need to be in this system to get hired, to pass credit checks, to rent an apartment, etc. So, I can’t opt out of it, even if such a thing were theoretically possible. And I cannot personally destroy it, even though I wish it didn’t exist.
  • So… nothing. I shall do nothing.

So, what did that exposé accomplish?

Here in 2020, look at the mask thing. It’s so hard to get people to understand that even a mask that only protects other people protects everyone when everyone wears them. Americans don’t grasp collective action and the importance of it.

We really need to fix that. We need to start to see ourselves as part of a society, able to take actions that affect more of that society than just ourselves and able to choose actions that improve rather than harm.

We can’t just stop at awareness forever. It’s exhausting to be aware of problems and just watch them happen. We need to choose some subset of the problems and take action, and encourage others to take action along with us.

As long as we do nothing, nothing will continue to be done, and we’ll all be very aware as it happens.


*It’s now 2020 and I still haven’t finished it. I got distracted by side missions and driving around the fictionalized version of the City. And now there’s a pandemic, so “Watch_Dogs 2” has become the Going Outside In The Before Times Simulator.

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