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Reading the Map By Annabelle Bonebrake

We deploy the police for so much. We do it so easily and so casually and so habitually. And the only thing making me feel somewhat good about this moment is going back to this concept of a neighbor. It is quite clear that in cities around the country, there is at least a critical mass of people who look at George Floyd and say, “That’s my neighbor and this is intolerable. This can’t continue.”

Ta-Nahisi Coates

Don't hate the player, hate the game


Reading the Map

Lately, when I think about the state of America, I feel as though I’m running full speed against the edge of a video game map. I know I’m inside this system; I know I’m playing the game. But when I reach the edge of the map, I hit the invisible wall and can’t break through. Businesses have begun to reopen despite rising COVID-19 cases in California, and after the murder of George Floyd, protests are breaking out against our country’s continued racism and violence towards black people. Every day the tension increases between the system I live in and the person I want to be.

I live in the Santa Monica Mountains where I have the luxury of hiking. These patches of scraggly nature are the only places I really feel sane. There are squirrels darting wildly through the brush, burping quail on morning runs, unpredictable shifting breezes, vivid scatterings of red ants, and slow undulating views that change only in the seasonal shifts of light. I hit the edge of the map— run up again against the invisible wall— when I remember I’m on a trail maintained by the state park and limited by the encroaching neighborhoods, suburbs, and city of Los Angeles. But the maps we play in aren’t just physical. I turn on my phone and I’m faced with theoretical realms, all constructed by human hands and minds. The limits of online realms have been surfacing. As my friends make daily #BLACKLIVESMATTER posts, they also share infographics about why we shouldn’t photograph protesters, why we must avoid planning protests on social media, and how we can avoid getting scammed by fake donation links. Meanwhile, advertising executives and app CEOs continue to rake in outrageous sums. They are buying our attention, even as we share memes that call for the dismantling of racist, sexist, and capitalist structures.

Television and Visual Media

In his 1978 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander, a former public relations and advertising executive, politicizes Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” suggesting that the nature of television limits its usefulness in humanitarian politics. In fact, television has had a significant role in homogenizing the public, limiting the range of human experience, and bolstering the ruling class. In his systematic analysis of television, Mander considers the troublesome effects of visual media on the mind, including confusion between lived experiences and viewed content. He also makes early speculations about how watching TV forces people into extremes of dulled sensitivity and hyperactivity. Perhaps most interesting in the current political climate are his comments on the use of television for perpetuating autocracy, and the limits of television for activism. That said, he recognizes that the civil rights movement was one of the more successful at using television as a platform (pg. 38).

American adults still watch anywhere from eleven to forty-six hours of traditional cable or satellite TV a week (1) (older viewers watch more than younger viewers), and we spend an additional average of twenty-four hours a week on our smartphones (2). The Internet, in many ways, has become like glorified TV, providing freedom of choice in some contexts, and the illusion of choice in others. Consider how the internet was homogenized as we were ushered away from the egalitarian expanses of the world wide web and fed into monetized and pre-determined structures created by Google searches, social networks, and ad-happy algorithms.

Although Jerry Mander warns of the dangers of confusing personal experiences and media experiences, in an increasingly virtual and global world, perhaps we need the wake-up call of bearing witness. What white people have had the privilege of not seeing in their everyday lives is now being forced into consciousness. In the 2016 Netflix film 13th, scholars, politicians, and activists discuss America’s history of mass incarceration and racial inequality. At the end of the film, several of the interviewed suggest that visual representations of violence against black people have had a significant impact on anti-racist activism. In the 1960s, television depicted white people shoving and beating black Americans on the street and showed police blasting protestors with fire horses. In recent years, smartphones have accelerated the transmission of visual evidence of racial injustice, violence that, according to Van Jones, “the whole world has to deal with”. He continues, “That’s what’s new. It’s not the protests. It’s not the brutality. It’s the fact that we can force a conversation about it.” Jones also suggests that a “distributed model of leadership” in Black Lives Matter makes the movement less vulnerable to pointed attacks because there aren’t any figureheads or major leaders to attack or take down.