Harnessing emerging media:
Let’s make, like, really cool propaganda. 

by e whitney buck

When one thinks about the future of media, it’s hard not to imagine the “walls” in Fahrenheit 451: futuristic, interactive, immersive, with the high potential for propaganda. In the real world, this is so-called “emerging media.” Basically, emerging media is anything beyond, or in addition to, traditional media- not just the written word, television/video, music, etc., on its own, but any/all of it layered, in innovative ways, and usually interactive. Examples of emerging media range from smell-o-vision and art installations to virtual reality, geo-located self-guided tours, and crowd-sourced art. Innovations in emerging media supporting accessibility, can also just serve to make media more engaging overall.

Each form of emerging media relishes in the moment of delight when something’s novel concept emerges- when the idea behind the innovative format becomes clear- and the play can truly begin. 

There’s the groan-worthy moment in playing Bandersnatch- the choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror episode on Netflix- when we realize that the main character is screwed no matter what decision the viewer makes. There’s the moment when we find out a social media image, or even a music video, is 360 degrees, and can be navigated throughout. Or when a clue is solved correctly in an escape room, unlocking a whole other room. 

What is the radical potential in emerging media? I believe it exists in harnessing that spark of novelty, because liberatory politics should do the same thing as emerging media does quite effectively: it reveals to us what’s possible, both in terms of the medium itself and in our own human experiences. How delightful to be surprised, to be proven wrong, for the possibilities to expand beyond what we’d known. There are wonderful examples of interactive art we can take as inspiration, and some potential ideas of where we can take our media into the future.

Inspirations: Storytelling Video Games

In the digital realm, games offer an intriguing platform to elicit radical thoughts and feelings in a player. Having a game’s story detail a character’s experience, say, of social movements, can help build empathy in the player for activists, seeing firsthand, through the game, the situation that gave rise to the character’s radicalization. 

The game 1979: Black Friday does this, for instance, by showing real-world events in a documentary-style game about the Iranian Revolution. The main character, Reza, is a photographer, and part of the game is taking pictures of the movement, which the game then connects to an actual picture and description of that phenomenon from real life- secret police brutality, the conditions of poverty in pre-Revolution Iran, the state-closed movie theater used as secret protest headquarters. 

video game scene of Iranian Revolution

Reza then goes from observer to participant in the Iranian Revolution as a result of what he sees. The documentary aspect of the game brings the player into the game and then out of the game to remember that this is the story of many, in all of its complexities.

Inspirations: DIY Installation Art

Of course, making interactive media should not be constrained by high budget requirements, nor by any means the digital realm. I’ve been inspired in this by the spiders of mutual aid, solidarity, and direct action, wherein organizers in Portland, Oregon built 3 rolling spiders out of chicken wire, pvc pipe and shopping carts. In the words of the organizers, 

“Portlanders are fascinated by their own love of art and “wacky” stuff as well as the commodification of protest as “funtertainment.”

Organizers decided to capitalize on this as a form of outreach during a May Day protest. Those driving and accompanying the spiders, all in black bloc, were equipped with literature and talking points to share with curious folks who approached them to learn more. The symbolism was thoughtfully done, and so interesting to share:

“The idea of using the spider as an icon of resistance is that spiders are always there watching, waiting, and keeping the environment free of pesky insects and other parasites that consume resources without supporting their fellow beings. While we may look scary, we’re here with you and for you. We are the spiders, and the insects are the societal ills that we fight against.”

Regarding the success of the art installation, according to organizers,

“Our tactical art enabled us to… challenge narratives that the black bloc is an “othered” or “othering” tactic. Whether this separation is intentional or not, the fact remains that the general public is often hesitant to engage with us…[but a] lot of people walked up to ask what the spiders meant!” 

These organizers used the spark of novelty- how unusual it is to see giant rolling spiders on the street- to draw people in to learn more about and connect to the concepts behind antifascist and anarchist organizing. The spiders are an expansion of the long legacy of radical puppetry as an accessible way, for both the makers and the viewers, of turning protest into performance and vice-versa.

Possibilities: Trouble in 4D

The app eko is trying to create a platform for the arguably new form of media, the gamified video, offering interactive tv series in sit-coms, music videos and more. Most of them take a choose-your-own-adventure structure, which works well for non-fiction instructional realms, like travel (would you like to stay in a fancy villa or a city apartment?) or cooking (would you like this recipe to be non-dairy, or perhaps you’re cooking for a crowd?). What could such a platform, and an audience that is fluent in interactive media, do to further leftist goals?

The interactivity could be used as a tool to help pinpoint what a viewer would like to learn. I’d like to imagine is an interactive version of the wonderfully well-produced show by sub.media, Trouble. Each half-hour long episode gives a clear explanation of a topic in current leftist organizing, like the militarization of the US-Mexico border or the legal journey of the Trump Inauguration Day arrestees. Episodes are meant to be accessible, digestible, and viewers are encouraged to watch in groups and discuss afterward.

How could digital interactivity enhance something like Trouble? Sub.media’s (the parent org behind Trouble) goals are to “aim to promote anarchist and anti-capitalist ideas, and aid social struggles through the dissemination of radical films and videos.” Perhaps a multi-level Trouble video, where those who want to learn more about something can click for a more in-depth explanation. Or making a way to curate the viewer’s experience based on the kind of activism they’re able to contribute, like initiatives to donate to, language to learn and use, direct action tactics and learning from history. 

All of this could come together into a media experience that encourages participation, curiosity, and learning, with a bit more agency for the participant to involve themself in both their own learning and, perhaps, into activism writ large. 

Possibilities: Police Tycoon

For those who aren’t initially rooted in leftism, interactive media could point a path towards radicalism using cold hard facts and logic. I’m thinking of how radical leftists use their politics as a form of prescience: anyone with any experience with policing will tell you that police reform is highly ineffective towards even the bare minimum goals of reducing extrajudicial police killings of BIPOC. Well, can we prove that in some way that’s faster than real-time and shows the real effects of police reform/”reform”?

I’m thinking about a sort of Police Tycoon- a version of Rollercoaster Tycoon or even Animal Crossing, but, instead of making a cutesy theme park or cartoon island, you’re the police chief in charge of a force in a fictional place. Real-life scenarios come up, and it’s up to you to react appropriately how you deem fit.

roller coaster tycoon social media is doing its best

In this game, say, an officer is caught performing an extrajudicial killing of a young black person, and the video goes viral. What do you do with the officer, with the whole force? If you put the officer on leave, protests emerge about how he’s getting paid time off after killing someone. What happens if you mandate anti-bias training- is there any difference in the killing rate? What happens if you partially defund to make a community fund? Or if you double down and increase funding and arming of cops- and how do you react to protestors? 

A game like this would be particularly useful targeted towards liberals, who know that racism is wrong and policing is a troubled institution, but need a push to land on abolishment as a way forward. The research already exists that, for instance, increased police funding results in increased violence by police and that anti-bias training is wholly ineffective. However, these measures continue to be implemented by or with the blessing of liberals who need to know better. Putting them in charge of a simulation where they see the tragic results of these decisions could help.

In Conclusion

This is all not to give more work to those producing radical media- good job, you, if that is you!- but rather to offer thoughts of ways to jump in on the likely direction of media into the future of more interactivity and gamified interactions, both digitally and in-person. Harnessing something so new can offer exciting ways for folks to engage with new-to-them ideas. Exposing people to radical ideas can and should come from as many forms as possible. 

I’m not sure whether emerging media is a gimmick, where a particular kind of interactivity is explored once and then the audience is done with it, or if parts of it will coalesce into its own silo of media format, like video has with its streaming vehicles like Netflix or Youtube. But, if the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be a cross-promotion for the US Military, who have also created first-person shooter video games as recruitment tools, and get constantly dunked on for their cringey eSports league, then we can and should certainly create accessible counter-narratives that drive home the theories and practices of radical politics. 

We have lots of music, zines (obviously), books, movies and more. The stories of justified rebellions permeate mainstream media already. As media continues to expand, we should be sure to also be creating leftist virtual reality scenarios, collaborative digital media, and really anything interactive at the forefront of new media design. 

Special thanks to Kamal Sinclair whose work and talks on inclusive emerging media inspired this line of thinking and drew me to some of the examples. And, if you’re POC emerging artist and inspired by these ideas (or want to do something completely different!), you should apply for this grant by April 5th, 2021!