Friday 28 February 2014

Left-Brained Vs Right-Brained Activism

The other day I spoke on the phone with Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, an organization that uses "culture jamming" to achieve positive social change. TV appearances made by Lasn can be viewed here and here. Adbusters campaigns to correct what it sees as severe systemic and cultural issues with the Western world.

Culture jamming is loosely defined as something like a grassroots act of passionate political rebellion aimed at exposing the unjustness of the capitalist system. Usually, it uses the mass media to subvert, expose, or otherwise bug major corporations and institutions. The most common form of this is through subverting advertisements. But culture jamming is broader than that. Other campaigns launched by Adbusters include the viral "Occupy Wall Street" and "Buy Nothing Day." Lasn told me that he also considers the activism of Pussy Riot and the recent political uprisings in Ukraine and other countries to be good examples of culture jamming. It seems that using the mass media as your weapon is not a requirement in order for an activist to be considered a culture jammer.

I called to ask about Adbusters's process of monitoring the impact of its media campaigns. As someone that's been looking into the effectiveness of various media uses for improving the world, I wanted to gain information on the relative potential of culture jamming (namely, subvertising) as an act of do-gooding. My suspicion based on reading Lasn's book Culture Jam and looking at the Adbusters website was that they had no real interest in measuring effectiveness and were more concerned with making things happen, catching attention, fuelling dissent, and provoking conversation.

When I began questioning Lasn, he immediately explained that he didn't think measuring effectiveness and optimizing your tactics was a valuable use of time. He claimed that really successful revolutions aren't based on these cold calculations but on passion, anger, and energy. Good activists already have a sense of what's wrong, what nobody will say, and what everyone's thinking - so they'll just say it and shock everyone around them. Maybe, he thinks, doing experiments and surveys can have some value but it's by far not the most important part of the process. He seems to think activist campaigns can possibly be boosted by optimization flourishes but not that marketing can drive a campaign toward success. At any rate, the real successes are not dependent on micro-optimization.

This outlook might seem to be the exact opposite of effective altruism but the two views are actually compatible. I didn't take Lasn to be arguing that research, strategy, and evaluation were inherently stupid or irrelevant. It's just that he sees them as playing only a tiny role in improving the success of your campaign while he sees passion and energy and courage as absolutely critical. As a result, people wanting to use media to improve the world are better off, according to Lasn's view, rebelling against capitalism than trying to optimize "good" messages.

The difference here seems to come down to what Lasn called "right-brained" and "left-brained" activism. Left-brained activists are strategic, scientific, and precise. They meticulously test the effectiveness of various messages and campaigns before applying them. They are marketing micro-optimizers. In contrast, right-brained activists don't bother with such micro-optimization, as they see it to be narrow and beside the point. According to right-brained activists, the most important factors are great ideas, passion, determination, community, and other factors. If you have these things, your campaign will be successful whether it is micro-optimized or not. If it lacks these things, your campaign will fail whether it is micro-optimized or not. That is the stance I understand Lasn to be taking. He favours the right-brained stuff because it's radical, exciting, passionate, and belligerent. The left-brained stuff might be a somewhat useful add-on but it isn't really important.

It's possible that the right-brained activist is completely right up to this point. My issue is when this argument is given as a reason to not measure effectiveness at all. Lasn told me that Adbusters does not do any formal monitoring of how many people are persuaded by their campaigns and subvertisements. They have no interest in this. They're more interested in going full speed ahead with all the . But the decision not to bother with maximizing the effectiveness of your campaigns should not translate into indifference as to whether your campaigns are even working. To Lasn, it's apparent that Adbusters is changing the world based on the media attention some of their campaigns get, the responses and emails they get from people, the subscriptions to Adbusters magazine, and the spread of the Occupy movement to other countries. But do those things actually translate into the world getting better? It isn't obvious to me that the notoriety of an activist campaign is correlated with its effectiveness. Maybe the Occupy movement fuelled a lot of dissent and passion but played no real role in yielding any specific changes.

Further, if we want to compare the effectiveness of culture jamming to other uses of media, we need information on how effective culture jamming really is. We don't have that because the people behind culture jamming aren't interested. They aren't interested in modifying their approach based on experimental evidence or on changing their focus (e.g. to health communication) based on what's been documented to work. If your prior is that a charitable organization is non-outstanding until proven guilty, which mine is, then I think this eliminates culture jamming from consideration.

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