A book by William Cronon
Nature’s metropolis : Chicago and the Great West
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis is a history of Chicago. A city that emerged in the northern Midwest against considerable odds; but nevertheless achieved in a very short period of time a position of dominance in trade, in particular for lumber and agricultural products. Chicago revolutionized forever the way marketplaces (i.e. stock exchanges) worked. Later it also became a hub for the revolution in transportation and communication that marked the explosive industrial development of the 19th century. Chicago is a city created around a commercial idea, not out of any settlers’ necessity or government expansion project to the frontier land. It is a quintessential American city, as described by Whitman: “They shall fully enjoy materialism and the sight of products, they shall enjoy the sight of the beef, lumber, bread-stuffs, of Chicago the great city.”
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Steganography is the art to conceal a message in plain sight, a form of “security by obscurity.” It can be as simple as the “spy ink” that kids use, the hiding of information in digital pictures, up to the complex cultural messages hidden in images and texts. It is a method not only of cryptography; it is a cultural tradition used since the writers of sacred texts inserted hidden meanings so that only the initiated would understand.
Steganography has become a common practice in online social networks, used by teenagers to communicate with their peers using a medium that offers little or no privacy. An article by danah boyd shows how this works.
A more forceful form of steganography in online social media is found in the political discourse, in the rhetoric used with the aim to manipulate public opinion and truth. The activists in cyberspace have found new rhetorical ways that border on steganography. Its form of the short message does not allow developing a structured explanation of facts and persuasion. The message in digital media works by making references to cultural images, events, urban myths and key persons. Some are the now well known “image-memes” that remix cultural references.
One has to be part of the new public discourse online to be able to decipher its meanings, and to be influenced by it. The activists are not the inventors of the form. They are using a new way of communicating and conveying meaning that has grown around digital media and social networks.
To be able to influence the digital natives, political groups need to learn this code. And beyond that, they will need to create their own set of cultural references and new tropes, their own structure of meaning around pointers of signifiers. It is like creating a new set of metaphors to be used in the new political prose of the digital media. A new prose, that builds its rhetorical force around steganographic methods of concealment and the power of consensual meaning.