Culture is our Weapon

AfroReggae is a Brazilian NGO that empowers destitute youths through cultural empowerment.  The organization was founded in 1993, right after Rio de Janeiro police massacred twenty-one civilians in the Vigario Geral favela (the Portuguese equivalent of slum).  The founders of the organization recognized that young people in these favelas were given no cultural reference points aside from pervasive violence and the drug trade.  Because they are given no alternatives, many of these impoverished Brazilians become tied up in narcotrafficking gangs at a very early age and are unable to ever escape.  AfroReggae’s mission is to promote development by bringing culture to these people who have lost their culture.

The organization’s efforts have been a model of success, as its founders used their connections in the local favela communities, the Rio government, and even the narcotraffickers, to gradually expand AfroReggae’s operations to more of Rio’s impoverished favelas.  At a recent event in Washington D.C., Damien Platt, the author of a recently-published book about AfroReggae called Culture is our Weapon, detailed the full extent of AfroReggae’s efforts in Rio: several bands, five culture centers that offer classes, a samba group, an all-girl percussion group, a theater group, a dance and procussion group, a circus school, a TV program, a magazine, and two to three radio programs.  Damien first encountered AfroReggae while working for Amnesty International in Rio, and later worked as AfroReggae’s International Relations coordinator from 2006 to 2008.

The experience of AfroReggae shows that targeted cultural development programs, carefully tailored to the local environment, can have transformative effects on impoverished communities.  Clearly, AfroReggae’s efforts should be encouraged by the local government in Rio de Janeiro so that they can spread to the city’s other destitute favelas.  However, this organization’s successes raise the question of whether similar efforts can be undertaken elsewhere in Brazil.  For example, Brazil’s Tri-Border Areas, particularly the triple frontier with Paraguay and Argentina, have received considerable international attention in recent years, due to allegations that Middle Eastern terrorist groups have profited enormously from the illegal drug trade in these loosely-governed border areas.  Could Brazil improve its efforts to undermine the drug trade in the southern Tri-Border Area by promoting efforts similar to AfroReggae’s in Rio?

In his talk, Damien Platt highlighted that race relations have played an important role in AfroReggae’s success in Rio: not only are AfroReggae’s Afro-Brazilian clients socioeconomically marginalized, but they are also racially marginalized.   AfroReggae addresses both of these social problems, giving their favela clients specific Afro-Brazilian cultural reference points.  If similarly marginalized minorities exist in the Tri-Border Areas, Indian tribes and Middle Eastern immigrants for example, AfroReggae’s development model could be put to use elsewhere within Brazil.  AfroReggae’s development efforts in Rio have taken over a decade to grow their current stage, and fostering this kind of grassroots development in the Tri-Border Area will take time – all the more reason to get started soon.  If any of you know of any studies indicating whether this model could be successful in Brazil’s TBAs, please send it our way.

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Dance, Dance… Revolution?!?

Who says revolutionary struggle can’t be fun? Not Colombia’s FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army).  Latin America’s longest running militant Communist revolutionary organization hadn’t been having the best of luck, what with the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and the death of the group’s leader, Manuel Marulanda. The long years of wandering in the jungles, despite the FARC’s impressive record of kidnapping and sowing chaos, hadn’t brought Marulanda’s cadres any closer to taking Bogota and power. The FARC needed recruits and new wind in its sails.

How did the group plan to do this? More bombings? More kidnappings? Asking for help from Chavez’s sympathetic socialist Venezuela? No. Instead, the FARC chose to reach out to its would-be new recruits in a much more cunning and indirect way: by making a smash hit dance record.  Before dying, Marulanda set his senior commanders a bizarre task better suited for Simon Cowell than for a brutal guerilla commando like his second in command Mono Jojoy. He ordered Jojoy was to create a dance record so successful and popular it would induce a new generation of young Columbians to join the revolutionary struggle. Jojoy and Felipe Rincon, another senior commander, were so enthusiastic about the idea the Rincon chirped in an email “We have to get the guy who makes merengues and we have to offer him a big budget!”

Thus, Guerilla Dance was born, a slickly-packaged and highly-produced dance record complete with lyrics and publicity shots. It wasn’t a cheap birth, though. The FARC reportedly spent $150,000 U.S. on production as well as importing professional musicians from the Dominican Republic.  The finished product was posted on YouTube. The lyrics mix pure revolutionary rhetoric with beats to make you bump and grind. “Taca taca taca, the government will fall,” “carry the grenades and the rifles,” “enemy to the left, enemy to the right,” similar to the traditional merengue instructions to always “move those hips!” Sadly for Marulanda, not only did he die before seeing his dancefloor dreams become a reality, the song did not smash the charts, and only attracted attention as a strange changeup from the FARC’s usual maudlin ballads with little production value.

This odd tale of a Marxist/Merengue mashup reinforces how clearly new media and Pop Culture are wedded to things once considered to be only political. Revolutionaries and insurgents alike are keenly aware of the political and military uses of music, film, video, dance, and gaming.  Many terrorist organizations have theme songs to rally their adherents, but it will be interesting to see whether Hizbullah, given Beirut’s vibrant club scene, will pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the FARC and come out with a song as catchy and well produced.

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Kitsch Meets National Security

Different age groups adapt to and use new technology in different ways. While the study of age-based demographics for new media is far from revolutionary, there are some interesting considerations for how decision makers in the federal government choose to implement new technology.  We will use language acquisition as a metaphor for technology adaptation to understand the limitations and tendencies for each generation.

The Youth are Getting Restless

The idea of the restless youth usurping the status quo is hardly new.  For thousands of years, a younger generation waited for a chance to prove its worth while the older generation implemented ideas and made decisions.  This is not necessarily the case with new media. Older decision makers often believe themselves to be, and sometimes are, unable to fully grasp and understand how to use emerging communication technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.  As a result, Subject Matter Experts in these fields are far younger than their peers advising on other issues.  Imagine President Kennedy calling in a 27-year-old Harvard PhD student to advise during the Cuban missile crisis. It would be virtually impossible for a neophyte to have an understanding of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the political machinations behind how the U.S. government makes decisions.  But new media often works differently.  Substitute Cuba with New Media – that 27-year-old advisor IS the “Cuba” expert, because “Cuba” (New Media in this case) came into being in 2002, while the decision makers only knew it existed 2 years ago. The number of younger Subject Matter Experts overseeing various new media activities throughout the U.S. Government illustrates this point.  This phenomenon forces a heretofore unknown cooperation between organizational superior and subordinate “flattening” elements of even the most hierarchical organizations.

The Graying of the Luddites

For each “kid” who has implemented a communication platform using Facebook, Twitter or Second Life, there is still a decision maker who authorized the effort. It is useful to consider who these decision makers are and how their early life experiences with technology alters their perceptions and ability to adapt to technology. The graphic below illustrates how these technology users are different based on similar life experiences.  For simplicity’s sake we will consider 3 groups:  Generation Jones (the Post Baby Boomers like President Barrack Obama), Generation X, and the Millennium children. Keep in mind that no group is monolithic, and that early adopters and innovators abound in each. However, the behavior of the whole demographic is consistent enough to allow for some generalizations.

First, consider the Generation Jonesers, who are currently the senior decision makers in the Federal Government.  These decision makers once looked at this image on a screen with awe and wonder:

pong

The “Joneses” had televisions with 4 channels: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS.  They turned the “knob” on the television to change channels, before being  exposed to the idea of paying money for additional television channels, an idea many people said was doomed to fail when HBO first debuted in the 1970s.

The speed of technological innovation and evolution has left the Jonesers behind in many ways. Think of technology like a foreign language: foreign language acquisition is virtually impossible for adults, while native fluency is easily achieved by a 9 year old. Technological assimilation seems to run in the same way. The adult life of the pre-generation Xer was busy enough without the addition of New Media social obligations and distractions. The “language” of technological sophistication for this group ended with the first TV remotes, surfing the Internet and using email, and setting up the answering machine.  This lack of “fluency” means that “translators” in the form of younger advisors are needed. The use of a “translator” should not be interpreted as a negative trait. A diplomat may have some great ideas for a Russian counterpart to consider, even if the diplomat relies on a translator. In fact, the non-native can often see problems those immersed in the problem cannot.  Nevertheless, the Jonesers will always speak “technology” with a heavy accent, they will refer to things in a manner that makes younger, more astute users chuckle at the foreigner speaking “our” language.

The Bridge

Generation Xers are the transitional generation between the child who builds a multi-redundant communications suite with 15 friends for an online collaborative video game (that one was the sole job of a specialist at the Pentagon), and the 60 year old who finds Facebook horribly complicated.  Generation Xers understand the world of the Joneses and the world of the Millenium children. They played video games and often had computers growing up, but are the last generation who went outside to play because there was “nothing else to do.”  They mastered their parents’ remote controls and often had to get up and manually change the channel on the TV.
Generation Xers can mostly figure out satellite TV remotes and may not intuitively understand their cell phones, but after a quick bit of help from a Millenium child, can use the technology as intended.  The Gen. Xers became the gaming addicts obsessively playing video games like Doom or Quake.

The Gen. Xers, and those above and below them, should better understand and utilize this transitional generation for new media communication.  They are old enough to understand the organization, and they are young enough to grasp the technology for planning and policy purposes, though execution should be left to their subordinates, even when a delegation of authority is not commonly used.  In ten years , Gen. Xers will be the power brokers, and while not able to keep up with the dizzying evolution of technology, will at least “know what they don’t know.”

The Masters(?)

The Millennium Children section really cannot be written yet, as time will tell in many respects. Perhaps no one fully assimilates technology, and the Millennium Children will be bridge for a later generation. Who knows what form the next revolutionary media will take or if anyone reading this post now will intuitively understand it as well as their children.

We would appreciate your thoughts and comments on these ideas  – please post in the comments section.

timeline

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Iran’s nascent, government-controlled video game industry

People the world over have become well acquainted with the Iranian government’s draconian censorship policies regarding domestic use of the internet.  In the wake of the country’s most recent elections, the international press heralded the use of Twitter to mobilize opposition to Iran’s authoritarian government.  Rightfully, a considerable amount of attention and analysis has since been paid to how effective the use of social media can be for domestic opposition groups

Lost in this storm however has been one of the most popular uses of computers among young people: video games.  When most people in the United States think of video games, they picture games like World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, or sports games like Madden football.  Iran, under the government’s careful supervision, has developed its own video game industry.  According to True/Slant, some of these games are actually pretty good.

A few years ago, Fox News reported on the development of the Iranian video game “Rescue the Nuke Scientist,” which “simulates an attempt to rescue two Iranian nuclear experts kidnapped by the U.S. military and held in Iraq and Israel.”  The game was developed by the Union of Students Islamic Association, supposedly in response to a game designed in the United States called “Assault on Iran.”  Mohammad Taqi Fakhrian, a leader of the student developers, explained, “This is our defense against the enemy’s cultural onslaught.”  The group has very close ties to the Iranian government and hosted the infamous 2005 conference where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously called for the destruction of Israel.

This kind of video-game-as-propaganda is unsurprising.  It mimics the Iranian president’s belligerent statements towards Israel and the United States and promotes an anti-Western political discourse.

However, the Iranian government has also used video games to promote traditional Persian culture.  By far and away, the most popular Iranian video game is the Quest of Persia series.  These games draw strongly from Persian history and culture.  According to a regional gaming website, Quest of Persia is “100% Persian” and was developed by Puya Arts.

Despite its draconian control over the Internet and social media, the Iranian government for several years has used the country’s domestic video game industry as a tool for both political and cultural propaganda.  It is likely that video games will continue to be used as a tool in strategic communications because of their interactivity and popularity the world over.

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