Category Archives: The Automation Society

Reading Video Games

VIDEO GAMES AND JUNK CULTURE

Having largely ignored them for most of my existence, I finally came around to video games a few years ago and have since been exploring the canon, mostly with an emphasis on things made before the year 2000. My interest was initially academic-I’ve been writing a long manuscript on the history of TV for some time and it seemed like any manifesto on the nature of TV that didn’t acknowledge video games was going to be woefully incomplete.

The attention paid to video games is odd in comparison to other 20th century mediums-whereas everything from cinema to broadcast TV to comic books eventually found a community of people willing to discuss them intellectually, not much on that front has been done with video games. And while this is pretty common in what’s still a fairly early time for a medium considered to be disposable or low culture, this doesn’t help somebody trying to write about them. Or rather, its fun and exciting in the sense that there’s so much to cover, but that nagging insecurity is still there that any salient points I get to will just work as forgotten stepping stones toward a more developed or advanced theory.

Video games differ substantially from prior mass media forms in numerous ways. Unlike other media, you by and large are not in control of the level of engagement you need to have to get something out of it. I can put an old movie on in the background and the movie will play whether I’m paying attention or not. Presuming the mixing was done competently, the only buttons I need to hit are to turn on the TV and DVD player and then hit play.

This need for engagement stemming from the initial distribution model of quarters for play time makes the medium both more and less mentally stimulating. On the one hand, every game that can be beaten is, on some level, a puzzle game-even something like Super Mario Bros mixes large amounts of strategy with hand-eye coordination. And even a game that can be beaten without strategizing much can always be beaten better in some way. In this sense, games require more active thought than most things. On the other hand, this thought is confined to the arbitrary parameters of something designed entirely for immersion-video games as a medium have been more resistant to a “realism” movement than any other medium I can think of. Obstacles are simple and unlike in real life, one is assured they can be overcome with the right answers, answers that relate heavily to other video games but don’t interact much with the world outside video games. Like Euclidian geometry they are a set of rules that are internally consistent but untouched by nature.

Another appeal is the simulacra of unfettered movement and unimaginable power without consequence-the appeal of a dream where one is flying. The body is both immobilized and immersed-the eyes, ears and hands are all actively engaged in an activity that punishes you for letting your mind wander. Tellingly, my girlfriend who has little experience playing games always describes her frustrations with their difficulty thus: “It feels like one of those dreams where I can’t get my body parts to do what I want them to.” At the same time, this flying dream appeal is necessarily limited by the complications needed to establish an effective psychological rewards system to encourage people to keep playing. I can run as fast as I want to, but if I touch the wrong thing I die and am reborn. The world of speed running then becomes one of layered dreams; the fantasy of escaping better, of a zen merger of the inherent you-game duality.

The need for near-constant interaction also limits the extent to which games can function in a didactic role the way films and literature and even comic books frequently do. It’s far more obvious and feels far more ridiculous when a video game is telling me about saving the environment than when I’m watching a documentary that’s literally just talking at me about the same things. No one has ever made a successful “game polemic” and understandably, no one really wants one. A polemic implies a person speaking (or writing or whatnot) and a person or persons listening and the polemic’s power comes from the speakers position as not being the listener. A video game works on a collapse of that dynamic. Unlike any prior mass media form, a video game implies a breakdown of the consumer/producer dynamic, as is evident from the enormous competitive gaming and streaming scenes.

What is especially fascinating about the breakdown in this dynamic is that suddenly enormous numbers of people who would balk at say an art film making them work to get anything out of it will staunchly defend the difficulty of a video game, and people who’ve spent their time learning to read other forms of mass media in depth will frequently avoid the medium altogether for the same reasons in reverse.

Like the other major artistic mediums to come out of the 20th century going back to jazz, its early development being shielded from academic consideration may have been for the best, allowing it breathing room to go in its own direction. Thankfully, relative to other 20th century media, most of the early history has been preserved in some form, usually a form that’s pretty easily accessible, especially if you’re willing to spend a few dollars on a console and a flash cartridge (a thing that looks and acts like a video game cartridge but reads its data from an SD card instead of a flashed rom chip or optical drive). While I’m sure there are games that are lost (a few SNES Sattel, and prototype games on unlabeled cartridges from the 80s and 90s seem to pop up every few months, that’s not a bad track record compared to the 90% of silent film and probably 98% of early TV (and 99% of the early internet?) that are completely lost barring the introduction of a time machine. This spirit of preservation in the retro gaming community is one of the things that sets it apart. The fact that the vast majority of games were home releases and not broadcasts or performances helps matters greatly. Software can also be preserved in 1:1 copies and with advances in FPGA hardware emulation it seems likely that the hardware itself can live on in a similar fashion, the soul of the machine transmigrating every few years to a different system on a chip. The rapid advance of flash cartridges and FPGA based clone consoles represent one of the most important advances in cultural preservation in recent memory, given the highly ephemeral nature of computing hardware.

However, in preserving the experience, these also change the experience. Being able to pay $40 and have every Sega Genesis game at my fingertips is not the experience people who owned a Genesis when it was current would’ve had-games were very expensive, and having bought out peoples’ collections, on average the most intense fan of any given console still would only have 40-50 games at most unless they went on a buying spree when the stuff went on clearance. Games that seem to be difficult now were probably seen as having a good consumer value at the time since you didn’t want to pay $60 for a game then finish it in a day. This also added to the emotional attachment-to finish a difficult game brings that adrenaline drip of having accomplished something. You have to become familiar with each nook and cranny intimately or else you’re not allowed to move forward; in film you’re pushed forward in time regardless. It’s not that strange to attempt a video game level 15-20 times but its considered fairly strange to have seen any single film 15-20 times.

Games have a tendency to wander into what would be considered the extreme avant-garde in the film world. Making a film without content, a “pure film”, an obsession of the 60s structuralism movement, was achieved quite early in video games and with none of the attached friction. In the cinema, asking people to emotionally engage with geometric shapes devoid of context is seen as a challenge to the viewer and the norms of artistic consumption and production; in video games its just called Tetris.

And even in games that could considered to be at least somewhat closer to a traditional narrative, something like say Super Mario Bros, we’re still treated to a funhouse mirror version of the world ruled by what pleases the principles of industrial design. The introduction of consequences and a simple punishment/reward system makes it quite simple to suspend disbelief at a short plumber fighting over a girl with a deformed half-turtle half-dinosaur through a world of mushroom shaped things that either kill you on contact or make you grow to twice your size.

Like many former “low culture” media, there is a freedom that comes with a public’s inability or unwillingness to engage critically, and like prior “low culture” media, that capacity can be used for good or bad.

This makes games incredibly difficult to translate into film-the demands of each medium are diametrically opposed. The things that might make an interesting film tend to make a terrible game and vice versa.

Would I love to see a movie of Mario finally defeating Bowser and getting to be with Princess Peach only to discover getting the girl is the easy part-the true challenge is sustaining a marriage-that his true love was the pursuit and not Peach? Yes! Of course I would. There’s so much there. Mario seems like someone perpetually thrilled by conquest with no sense of the domestic beyond the pipes beneath a double decker ranch home.

Nintendo, if you’re reading this and looking to lose another $40 million dollars on a second Mario Bros movie, I would make that in a heartbeat.

But would I want to play a game based on that premise? No, I wouldn’t (though I suppose some of the more cynical among us might presume that’s the backstory to at least part of Super Smash Bros.). The video game understands that Peach is a MacGuffin.

THE ROOTS OF VIDEO GAMES

In trying to find what defines a medium in opposition to other mediums, its generally useful to go back to the maxims set out by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media. Particularly salient here is his assertion that “the content of the new media is always the old media”-the content of early cinema mimics the stage play and the point where cinema comes into its own is almost always defined as the point when it breaks off from those roots.

So what is the “old media” that provided the basis for the first video games? The most obvious answer would be childrens’ games and casinos. The “?” boxes in Super Mario have that randomized reward thing going on like a slot machine. The other mechanics of the game resemble tag, much like Pacman and the hundreds of clones of Pacman out there like Devil’s World. Even a game as story and narrative heavy as Metal Gear Solid takes its basic mechanics from tag and tag’s weird nephew paintball, and the narrative, while skillfully constructed and quite thoughtful by game standards, still has to act primarily as a laundry line between situations where you’re playing tag with an imaginary gun; any substance to the narrative outside the experience of game play itself is gravy.

And then of course, the first 5 or 6 years of home consoles were dominated by what are called “dedicated consoles”, i.e. consoles with the games built in and no tech included to run other software-similar to contemporary “plug-n-play” devices like the SNES of NES classic editions that came out a few years ago. These consoles invariably contained simplified simulacras of tennis, ping pong, and other popular sports like hockey or basketball. Sometimes these weren’t even separate games but the same game with different transparent overlays you’d put over your TV to make it look more like ice hockey even when the gameplay is still identical to Pong. The earliest games then were defined by a combination of what was considered athletic leisure at the time and the severe limits of what early computers could do.

In the next generation beginning in the 80s, the lightgun game becomes very popular to the point many consoles included one as a pack-in. The most famous example is Duck Hunt-you take a plastic “gun” that shoots infrared light and it detects by the light bouncing back whether you shot at the TV in the right place. One wonders how the vibe in Graceland’s basement would’ve changed had Elvis lived to buy an NES console, being that he was probably the first person to pioneer using firearms in conjunction with CRTs. Maybe we would’ve gotten a hot pink Zapper.

Duck Hunt’s simplicity makes it a good one to analyze, though most of what I’m saying here could apply equally well to other early light gun games like Hogan’s Alley or Bill Barker’s Trick Shooting. Despite the more direct antecedent to the light gun game being mechanical pre-video game arcade machines that used guns that shot light (these date back to the 1920s), the gameplay of Duck Hunt is still centered around 19th and early 20th century ideas of bourgeoisie leisure-you go out with your faithful basset hound and shoot ducks or clay targets in the woods. The others take pains to resemble carnival shooting galleries. That the light gun was so integral to the normalizing of game consoles in the home is even more interesting when considering the first prototype ever made of a TV remote had the form factor of a pistol.

What is it exactly about TV that makes one want a gun so badly? Why did the inventor of the TV remote, forced to respond to the novelty of his discovery like it was a Rorschach blot,  immediately think “pistol”? Perhaps the threatening qualities of the new technology might be mitigated in the minds of viewers by the repeated ritual of their staring down their sets at gunpoint-what could better reinforce that the TV is your subordinate? Like Joe Pesci, you point and say “dance”-it dances and doesn’t ask questions. You are authority-you bring law and order to the living room. He who has the remote becomes the sheriff of the home.

The lightgun is also the simplest of all video game controllers. The relative simplicity of even the normal NES controller required 8 input buttons-the lightgun only has one. Even the classic Atari 2600 joystick still theoretically has a whopping 5 inputs by comparison (up-down-left-right-fire). While this accessibility factor doesn’t help me too much in my theorizing, it should be acknowledged. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar, and sometimes something is just fun and accessible for reasons of mechanics that transcend cultural context. The relative failure of consoles with far more complicated controllers like the Mattel Intellivision would support this.

The Intellivision controller also highlights how important understanding McLuhan’s maxim was in the dog-eat-dog world of early gaming. For those who’ve never seen one, the Intellivision controller most closely resembles a very very early mobile phone like you’d see built into the back of a limo in an old time movie. It’s a Rembrandt-brown rectangle with a 9 digit number pad. This number pad has weird mushy membrane buttons sort of like some electronic cash registers or a debit card reader/ATM. The directional control is a circular cardboard wafer you spin around with your thumb sort of like how you’d dial a rotary phone. But the old media the new media was feeding off of wasn’t the telephone. Nintendo understood that, Mattel presumably thought making the thing look old and muted would appeal to the largely untapped market of adults because it looked so little like something a kid could give a crap about. They were mistaken, and it died a slow lingering death. Furthermore, Nintendo knew the way to the adults was through their children, not by making them feel like they were running an errand at the bank. The woodgrain finish almost made the Intellivision look too serious and dignified-it looked as if it had a full time job and no time to have fun with the user.

And while I would argue the roots in sports and leisure activities of the past was the primary “old media” games cannibalized for their vessel, the urge to include or adapt aspects of narrative commercial cinema arose as soon hardware was capable of doing so. I’m not talking about game spin-offs of films, but rather cut scenes (which at their pinnacle are usually described in the game press as “cinematic”) and point and click adventure games which would usually contain the plot of something that could’ve been a movie, wrapped in sprites with token bits of movement. While most of these were released for PCs and not consoles, they were still an enormous part of the mid-80s game market and mark a departure from earlier forms of gaming; these represent games shedding the necessity of their being defined in the negative-i.e. “it’s a game (at least in part) because I can lose.” Playing something like Snatcher for the Sega CD or Treasure of Monkey Island or the dozens of other games done in that style, you’re forced to solve a few puzzles but there’s no real threat of dying, just the threat of stalling progress within the game. You’re mostly just pushed through the plotline as if a DVD had merged with its menu. The limited motion in the images also suggests early 20th century comic strips before the universal adoption of speech balloons, Choose-Your-Adventure books marketed at young adults and their early digital counterpart: text adventures which developed contemporaneously with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. Both owe much of their structure to early tabletop roleplaying games like Alan Calhamer’s 1954 game Diplomacy and of course the various revisions of Dungeons and Dragons which even resembles computer processing through its use of unusually configured dice to add a mathematical element of chance and spontaneity to the game.

 

TOYS VS FURNITURE VS APPLIANCES

The earliest TVs most resembled vanity cabinets and were meant to be integrated into the home as attractive pieces of furniture. This was due to the fact that you needed a large volume of electronics to run a fairly small screen and needed to put them somewhere, but also due to the fact they rose to prominence at the same time as US home ownership skyrocketed due to the GI Bill and the post-war boom. But as time and tech advanced toward using smaller or integrated components, and TV ownership became a given of the home as opposed to a status object, the aesthetics of TVs drifted from display piece to functional object meant to be as invisible as possible. The ideal TV of the present moment would be all screen with no chassis; the power trip of the remote control no longer registers as such and feels more like another technological hurdle before doing something in a world overrun with such hurdles. With some power comes some responsibility, and who wants that when you’re trying to watch TV?

Game consoles however, didn’t quite have a furniture phase, having emerged too far past the home ownership boom. Some manufacturers thought they were toys and marketed them as such-Nintendo famously sold people on the NES console after the great video game market crash of 1984 by selling it through the giant plastic Trojan horse of ROB the Robot which made it look like a toy more than the video game consoles everyone was pissed at after ET for the Atari 2600 came out (along with a lot of other unplayably bad 2600 games.) The US version of the console, the famous “toaster” model, was redesigned from the Japanese version to more closely resemble a VCR.

Further emphasizing their unusual hybrid nature, while every other appliance made in the period of the game industry establishing itself and its norms would strive over time for fewer and fewer buttons, culminating in the eventual complete elimination of buttons from the Apple Iphone, game consoles trended towards more and more buttons and joystick components until the most recent generation where I think most of the companies realized that people are confused and frustrated by anything with more buttons than a PS2 Dualshock controller.

Game consoles, due to their general parameters not having been defined yet through repeated practice, also serve as a fascinating study in the economy of stuff vs. space, which has been one of the defining cultural issues of our time. In less than a generation, the indication of status moved from having stuff to having space, and notions of physical size or volume of an object correlating on a scale with perceived consumer value flatlined. Being  rich “the right way” went from Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu of boxed random stuff to Steve Jobs and his famously empty apartment, empty except for, of course, an incredibly expensive Tiffany lamp. In their time of flux, game console design went after both approaches with varied success-the NEC Turbografx 16 was so small that when a reissued “mini” version of it was released last year, they couldn’t get it much smaller than the original model. Toward the other extreme, the Atari 5200 infamously takes up more space than a full sized surround sound home theater amplifier despite containing not much more in terms of hardware than the 2600 did.

An analysis of the size of game consoles should also take into account hybrid abilities-while the first model Playstation 2 is enormous, it also played CDs and DVDs, so for non-audiophile consumers, despite its large size, the console actually saved space by sparing the person from buying a separate DVD and/or CD player. This integration of the home media center from a division of labor through things like component hi-fi systems to the current standard of “a TV with the cable box, internet and sometimes even gaming capabilities built right in” would seem to be a positive thing. Less physical volume of industrial production means less waste. But at the same time, it greatly increases hardware failure and makes it increasingly more and more complex to repair and salvage these pieces of hardware, increasing the quantity of eventual e-waste. Every Iphone X produced right now will eventually be unsalvageable e-waste because they’re designed to be completely proofed against user servicing down to putting in booby traps that will brick the phone if you make the slightest error try to do something as simple as changing the battery. This should be illegal and a massive issue, but doesn’t seem to be outside of right-to-repair circles.

Video games are also odd in that they thrive on constant format wars that would hobble most other industries. If there was an HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray war every 5-7 years, would people still be purchasing home videos or would consumer confidence be shaken to the point they’d take a tech downgrade in favor of market stability? This is a rhetorical question of course, as that was what happened when VHS and Beta went at it. Similarly, it should be noted that the cliche that pornography determines the outcome of format wars is less true than the rephrasing game console integrated components determine the outcome of format wars. DVD rose to prominence because of its inclusion as a feature in the Playstation 2, and like many people, my first and only DVD player until I got to college was my PS2 slim. Blu-Ray probably vanquished HD-DVD because Sony sided with Blu-Ray when they designed the PS3. Sometimes these integrated components were good enough to eclipse the systems themselves. I have a PS1 that I exclusively use to play music CDs because it sounds substantially better than my other more high end CD playback devices. My only tablet computer is my Wii U gamepad.

Moving forward, it seems more and more likely the game console as a separate device meant specifically to play games will probably phase out. This however puts console manufacturers in a good place, as it gives them the opportunity to expand and seize market share from other large sectors of the home entertainment industry. The tendency towards people living in smaller and smaller spaces on less and less money makes the obviousness of the appeal unbeatable. There will still probably be a few guys like me with hanging-garden-of-babylon level cord tangling behind their media centers, but we’re a dying a breed.

 

CONCLUDING STATEMENTS (FOR NOW) :

Video games, at least older ones, are less dangerous as propaganda vehicles than the commercial cinema since they require your conscious input; the subconscious elements in a film that reify ideology and norms aren’t rendered especially legible. You aren’t supposed to forget your social impotence through abstract identification with a figure of power the way Wilhelm Reich described the psychological appeal of fascism and, inadvertently, the appeal of cookie cutter Joseph Campbell style action/adventure narratives in the commercial cinema. Their consideration is necessary for any comprehensive exploration of TV as a vehicle or medium; the way they work creates incompatibilities and bugs with existing methods of criticism for more established media formats that will need to be patched in a later update.

They’re an enormous part of the culture that isn’t going away, and the longer theorists of pop culture ignore them in favor of a narrow focus on the things that more closely resemble prose literature in their construction, the further said critics will slip into niche irrelevance. The hardware gives a palimpsest history of the most important private space of the 21st century-the living room, and present fantasy and escape in novel modes that will further illuminate just how those tendencies work.

Mediocrity, Propaganda and Trump

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THE INTERNET IS ITS OWN ECONOMIC SYSTEM AND IDEOLOGY

History seems to move faster at certain times than others. Now is one of those times.

Karl Marx, thinking about industrialization, claimed that a newly emergent economic force/system was actually revolutionary in the sense that it reshaped all the territory and politics it touched. 100 years later, Marshall McLuhan claimed similar powers for the emergence of technology. The internet differs from prior economic revolutions in that it seeks to reshape the current geographic layout of man in order to completely replace it. It literally recreates itself by writing itself on the landscape-anyone who’s ever used Snapchat or even Pokemon Go could tell you as much. The internet, at this point being both a new technological and new political formation, presents a two-front war with all of us unfortunately trapped in the middle.

RADICALIZATION IS A FEATURE, NOT A BUG

A library science professor I had in college assigned an academic paper whose author and title I forget. It dealt with the “bridging” vs. “bonding” elements in how internet communities were shaped. A “bonding” community was one that tended to increase homogeneity and insularity-it brought together people with a specific set of interests/demographics and isolated them from the outside world over time. A “bridging” community brought people together across demographics/interests. Internet communities were found to be almost exclusively “bonding”, while groups organizing on the physical proximity of persons were shown to fall more evenly across a bridge/bond spectrum.

The alt-righter thinks by himself: “If I feel wronged about anything, no matter how stupid or  illegitimate, I’m sure I can find people willing to indulge or enable me, and the more wronged and isolated I feel about the thing, the more time I’m willing to spend on the internet with these people enabling me. Because these people are now my real friends, they hold disproportionate social influence over me and my initial attraction to them doesn’t suggest strong independent thinking skills to begin with.”

The vernacular of internet discourse has centered around increasingly shocking content and progressive desensitization to extreme materials for nearly as long as the internet has existed. This is how the neo-Nazis and ISIS both recruit. This is how Gamergate happened. Etc. Etc. Etc.

The thing after neoliberalism is shaping up to be equal parts dialectics and The Producers-the far right parties have realized the worse they govern, the more terrorism they allow to happen, the more they’re rewarded under the current system.

THE SHIFT IN PROPAGANDA:

1)

It’s very important to remember there is always an external and an internal propaganda system. The external propaganda system legitimizes the group/regime to those outside. The internal propaganda system legitimizes and normalizes the group/regime to its members. These two systems often seem to work at cross-purposes and most propaganda doesn’t make its intended audience entirely obvious, especially to its intended audience. Why would it? Things always seem much more enticing when you’re not the person who’s supposed to be seeing them.

2)

Let’s use the Nazis and particularly Nazi cinema to illustrate this point.

Internal propaganda systems: The Nazis were the first modern political party to use street graffiti and a large part of how the rural population was sold on Hitler was through traveling screenings of short news reels. In many of these rural German communities, access to movies of any sort was rare. These newsreel films looked partly like ones that would be shown in US theaters at the time between cartoons and features. However, the repeated visual symbols were mostly morphed copies of ones in the classic USSR silent films. Further cases of internal propaganda include the numerous lesser known Nazi features. Films like Hans Westmar, a fictionalized version of a false story of Nazi “martyr” Horst Wessel, or Jud Suss, Der Rothschilds: Aktien Auf Waterloo, etc., were sold as entertaining historical melodramas. Hans Westmar in particular broadly resembles recent sentimentalized “martyr” films like American Sniper.

External propaganda: Hitler attempted to normalize and bring prestige to his movement/country abroad the same way many state governments do-by making fancy movies and sending them abroad to festivals. These include Triumph of the Will and Olympia. While both were screened in Germany, their intended audience was abroad. The continuing public perceptions that the Nazi government was meticulously well organized (they weren’t, many high up officials including Hitler were on meth for extended periods) or that Triumph of the Will was what sold the Germans on Hitler speak to the enduring power of this strategy.

3)

How does the internet change things?

Per Ernest Becker (by way of Otto Rank) : Man needs to be able to feel as though he is the hero of the narrative of his life.

Per Ray Kroc: Why wait 15 minutes when I can have it now?

Per Neil Postman: If you don’t think the medium of communications biases what can be communicated, try translating Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” into smoke signals.

Per Twitter: 140 characters or less.

Per Marshall McLuhan: The content of the new medium is always the medium it’s replacing.

Trump’s rise is inconceivable without the internet. Memes are graffitti/propaganda writ large and reduced to their simplest form. TV and cartoons were more effective than any propaganda medium prior because of their immediacy; looking at a comic strip or single panel lacking words, by the time you think “do I want to read this?” you’ve likely already read it. A meme is even more immediate-it lives or dies on the extent to which we can already predict what it’s going to say. At the same time, it creates a fake sense of community built around knowing who “Scumbag Steve” or “Bad Luck Brian” is. The sense of inclusion is created by removing all communal standards beyond the basic self-referential acknowledgement the “community” exists. It allows a sense of familiarity to push out critical judgement.

I got some shit for writing about Elliott Roger’s “manifesto” more than a year ago, but in retrospect, it seems to pretty accurately reflect what can be understood about the psychology of Trump voters-how many people in this country based their self-esteem and sense of specialness on how many Pokemon cards they had? How good they were at video games? The very fact that video games seemed to offer a clearly delineated meritocracy, however meaningless? How horrible was it when they saw on the internet there would always be someone with more Pokemon cards or a higher score; who made the commonplace banality of their struggles obvious; who pierced through any notion they were special? The internet of course also had little tribes and klans collecting these fresh malcontents; sometimes they were already assembled and simply soured when they felt angry enough on realizing however ironically they were not the special snowflakes they accused everyone else of idealizing themselves as; they were just waiting to be scooped up on bodybuilding forums and other pits of the internet.

And as with toxic narcissism in all its forms, the playground taunt “I know you are but what am I?” isn’t just the mature response but the necessary one. Much has been made of the fact that the districts most reliant on subsidized health care and welfare programs overwhelmingly voted for a man promising to eradicate these programs they depend on. Much of this discourse has unfortunately taken the closed discourse of self-satisfied liberalism-“What idiots!”-instead of investigation into the mechanics of self-loathing.

4) 

How do the internal and external propaganda systems of the US work?

Internal Propaganda Systems: These consist largely of the tendency that people are reaching at when they refer to “the mainstream media”. All the major news sources, particularly those on television, work first to legitimize the current political system by overemphasis on chaos and terror, by reporting on everything from tornadoes to mass shootings to the “inherent scariness” of non-mainstream ideologies. Their first priority is to legitimize the current system in whatever form it takes, both forwards and backwards in history. This is why all the reporting when Reagan died, even from ostensibly liberal outlets like NPR, was focused on his “great statesmanship” blahblahblah, while never mentioning Iran-Contra or his exacerbation of the drug or AIDS crises. Their second priority is partisan. MSNBC is already broadcasting stuff about how “presidential” Trump looked on Tuesday night because he…took advantage of the widow of a Navy Seal he sent to die for literally no reason for a photo op. Without the prestige of the government, the banal careerism of the many reporters employed by these institutions collapses. A popular war helps the media as much as it helps the president. The internal propaganda system also places a heavy emphasis on popular media-everything from the boring politically empty celebration of civics in something like Parks and Recreation through to the superheroes-as-Blackwater Wagner-lite of the Avengers/Iron Man movies to the sleight of hand use of martyrdom to cover a broken ideology in films like American Sniper to the use of hundreds of drones during the Super Bowl to normalize their use all feed into this larger ecosystem.

External Propaganda Systems: These would involve a much larger article. Ross Snider has written about them pretty extensively on this website. Overthrowing elections, exported versions of the propaganda vehicles mentioned above, etc etc etc.

5)

How do we innoculate ourselves and rebuild media into something humane that serves society?

Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it….

Radio Without Money Episode 2: The Fall of Anonymous

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In this episode, Daniel Levine and Ross Snider discuss cyber security, the government infiltration that took down the Anonymous hacker collective, and the future of the media. And more stuff on walking dogs! This one’s got it all folks…

<-Check out our first episode!

Check out the next episode!->

Cargo Cults, US Fascism, and Where We Go From Here


The 2016 elections centered around how to interpret the post-WWII history of the US. A mixture of panic and nostalgia produced a bizarre confluence of memes in the time leading up to November 8th. Conservatives shared warm memories of Saddam Hussein because “at least he killed all the terrorists for us” and endless memes were spread among the center-left optimistically praying for the second coming of…Dwight Eisenhower? 

On all sides except for the Hillary camp, there was a sense of an order collapsing-nostalgia without any countercurrent is the fork society sticks in an era to confirm that it’s done. Like the infamous Cargo Cults, they fixate on the external trappings of the US post-war boom as a way to avoid confronting the larger set of events that made it possible. The Sanders followers grew from a progressive left that had been saying since 2011 or so “If we bring back the New Deal tax code/financial regulations, everything will be back like it was.” The Trump followers said “If we go back to being as racist and sexist as we were then, the post-war boom will return.” 

Of course neither of these options will actually bring the boom back, even if a return to New Deal checks would be welcome. The US economic miracle was a result of being the world’s only uncontested superpower and having endless contracts to rebuild Europe for 20 years and those circumstances coinciding with the peak of Fordist manufacturing. Those conditions aren’t going to happen again. 

Hillary Clinton’s projected nostalgia, being for the last 8 years/the 1990s, was even less convincing and added insult to injury by using tired tricks on an increasingly politically aware population. Clinton was perhaps the most pragmatic in that she saw the 1950s weren’t coming back no matter what. However, she also offered a fatally unconvincing vision of what to do going forward.

The stories of election tampering taking root in the digital hive mind  serve as proxies to speak about 3 primary suppressed anxieties shared by the majority of the population:

1) If advertising analytics/data crunching voodoo actually works then it by nature can’t coexist with actual Democracy. Our individual fantasies of being master of our own destiny, built up for decades by trying to label whatever it is we’re buying “the alternative” don’t hold. We know that our decisions are no longer entirely or even substantially our own. This isn’t a result of Russian etc. interference but simply a fact of surveillance capitalism/web 3.0.

2) Everyone knows that the wealth gap is increasing and will continue to increase due to the basic math that Thomas Picketty laid out: the rich getting richer and everyone else being left out to dry is what capitalism is. Capitalism as we imagined it up to this point is a withered carcass; all that’s left is the accumulated money at the top. No one besides maybe a couple die hard Hillary hold-outs seriously thinks capitalism can continue much further. The whole border wall thing is a ghost dance for a capitalism that isn’t coming back.

3) Climate change is real, and furthermore climate change is something we’ve done to ourselves and that we could conceivably rein in. I believe the part in italics is what actually scares much of the population and particularly the wealthy/religious as it punctures the idea a God is watching over us or an invisible hand is strategically grabbing the market by the pussy.

The upper middle class and aspirant classes beneath them been circling these tire fires for the last 9 years since the 2008 crash. Trying to “detoxify” ourselves and the uglier parts of our way of life by buying more expensive groceries and/or obsessively revisiting the markers of youth and trying to get double equity on them by reselling them as important political events (this is as true of the right wing ad campaign for the Seth Rogen vehicle The Interview as it was for the new Ghostbusters). These campaigns advertising everything from cars to movies to vegetables all had a heavy shaming element. This was because their actual social function wasn’t primarily to “save organic farming” etc etc but to preserve the social markers telling people as their wealth shrunk that they weren’t actually poor, that their college educations still made them meritocratically superior and not just deep in debt. Artisan hamburger restaurants and craft beer were similar manifestations. Of course, eating the right vegetables and other acts of symbolic ethical consumerism won’t pay off your student debt.

These 3 anxieties correspond with the death of an economic system, the collapse of the primary controlling social narrative (Horatio Alger etc), the rapid cold decimation of an entire way of life that existed before computers, and the potential deaths of hundreds of millions of people/loss of all of the world’s coastal cities. Everyone going crackers at the same time is a predictable if dispiriting response.

The way forward from here can’t be a nod backward. Automation’s arrival leaves two paths open for the US-either an equitable and liberal welfare state, or a society obsessed with ignoring/removing society’s “disposable” elements-the migrants, the poor, minorities, and anyone standing in the way of the disposal (the left basically.) The US is currently heading down the latter path. 

We need to aim big if we’re going to have a future. We can’t simply shoot for reforms. The tools and infrastructure for a futuristic, equitable and sane society are in front of us. Automation’s impending destruction of the global jobs market could be a positive thing if the tools of automation were seized for the general population. Many platform economy systems could be replaced by open source software updated with tax payer money. There is little about Uber’s app that couldn’t be replicated fairly easily and certainly nothing about it that warrants the size of the single company. Austin Texas already has their own replacement app just for Austin that’s been working fine.The e-commerce platforms could become a dynamic unified e-communism without too much tweaking.

These are the sorts of demands we need to be making. This isn’t the same world it was 10 years ago. And this time we can’t just make demands-we need to be willing to fight for them.

Has Humanity Jumped the Shark?

 

Women_holding_parts_of_the_first_four_Army_computers.jpg

The Earth was once considered to be the center of the universe. We now know it isn’t the center of anything besides, perhaps, the activity of our species. And who knows how long that will last.

The world we live in is increasingly drifting from what was once considered “the real”; man’s powers over his/her surroundings, or at least their appearance, have never been stronger. I’m a fairly poor individual and yet I still have, with a little elbow grease, access to high fidelity copies of nearly any sound or video recording ever commercially released and millions of others besides. For anyone who isn’t in my immediate physical environment, by clicking a couple buttons, I can effectively erase their existence. I don’t work in an office but for those who do, while there’s the physical office, most aspects of their actual work space, the computer, can be customized to their whims. Part of what the employer is actually buying for the price of your wages is your option to ignore their communications on your mobile device.

The robot/android, which was so often a metaphor for the fear of a slave or servant uprising in fiction (David Harvey discusses this in his chapter on Blade Runner in The Condition of Postmodernity), while still a slave or servant, is rapidly losing its metaphorical distance. There will soon be sex dolls that can convincingly imitate both men and women. The reason your Uber and Lyft rides are currently so cheap is because both companies are betting their current labor forces are simply a necessary inconvenience until they can roll out fleets of self-driving cars that only require the wages of their upkeep and maintenance. Amazon is already utilizing almost front-to-back automation to offer free two day shipping with their Prime service and offering cheap voice recognition technology for the home that dwarfs what was possible in the most advanced and exclusive settings only ten years ago. From a Guardian article on the Amazon “smart” speaker Alexa:

One of the top Echo reviews on Amazon calls the machine “the perfect spouse” and features a picture of the reviewer, who identifies as E M. Foner, in bed with the device.

“If I knew relationships were this easy, I would have married thirty years ago, but now that I have Alexa, there’s no need,” Foner writes. “This morning, I asked my love to order me a replacement water filter for the faucet.”

There are already firms developing automated therapist simulations for Alexa. The mother and the whore. And the thermostat. And the coffee maker…who will fight with their partner over who gets to hold the remote control when the partner is the remote control?…

When there’s an even partially developed market for machine intelligence/companionship (I don’t think we’ve hit the tipping point yet), if the mechanisms of capitalism as we experience it now are still in place, there will be massive advertising campaigns touting the danger, disease, and disappointment ridden nature of human relationships. Feminist Marxists have analyzed history through the lens “The dominant ideology of the time period exists to regulate the means of (re)production”; the cultural archetype of the witch was a means to corral sexual energy away from older woman and toward the ones who could become pregnant with new agricultural workers, etc. etc.

When the most profitable future for capital is to create a platform based model for the release of sexual energies (imagine a platform style service like Uber but with self-driving sex-bots), who is the competing market? Humans in the broadest sense.

And when I say the broadest sense, I mean exactly that. The current fear is that artificial intelligence/virtual reality can convincingly replicate the current realities, economic and sexual. But for a populace raised on platformed sex-bots as a given, there’s little reason to believe traditional “human” experiences as an aesthetic style will take up much more market share in the long run than resurgent nostalgia items like vinyl records.

How would people be sold on giving up on people? The skeletal outline of this type of social feedback loop that would act as a commercial anti-humanism already exists in the dramatically dulling repetition of local news programs which, somewhere along the line, realized that if they told their viewers every night that everyone who lives near them is a secret murderer or rapist it would convince them to stay inside watching more local news.

If history remembers furry culture at all, which I think it will if not for the reasons we’d want, it will be as the moment when the dynamics of the para-social interaction managed to transcend their human delivery agents. When Robert Crumb found himself sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny in a dress he was glimpsing (living?) the future. What is the purpose of celebrity but to create the comforting one-directional familiarity with people we don’t know who represent abstract qualities? The Trump phenomena shows the extent to which branding and soft behaviorism work. When the population has been trained (disciplined?) to believe the reality of their entertainment over the peripheral discomfort felt in their own senses from the time they were born, the Trump phenomena is almost inevitable. And by that token, the idea that humanity could be talked out of privileging itself only seems ridiculous now because we haven’t reached that stage yet.

Maybe it’s already happened. I remember most vividly a Marie Callender microwave pie commercial that played before a movie I saw two or three years ago. It showed the typically steamy food porn-y images of the pie coming out of an oven and taunted us in the multiplex:

“Your grandmother never made sure each pie was perfectly warm throughout…”

“Your grandmother never made sure to crimp the crust exactly that way you liked it…”

On one level, they want me to buy a microwaveable meat pie. On another level, they recognize that their competition in the marketplace is whatever fond memories or buried resentments I might have regarding my grandmother. Marie Callender wanted to sell me a pie, but they also wanted to replace my grandmother.

Isn’t most American advertising centered around positioning the product as the key to the lost sense of belonging, family, community, or home?

And similarly, if the para-social relationship can be exploited to the extent it could take over the most powerful office in the world through a human avatar like Donald Trump, who’s to say that future public simulacra of leadership need a human avatar at all? In the Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment”, writer/show-runner Charlie Brooker shows an obnoxious animated bear named Waldo (based loosely on Boris Johnson) taking England by storm and eventually running a successful campaign for prime minister. Brooker has frequently joked that he hates writing new episodes of the show because they all come true and recently said that he thinks Trump will become president of the United States because Trump basically is Waldo.

However, this assessment seems not literal enough. If someone can only half-jokingly romance an Amazon smart speaker, who’s to say a cartoon character undergirded by a machine learning algorithm couldn’t eventually lead the country? Perhaps it could be named Giant Meteor or Deez Nuts

Perhaps more linear than the progressive accumulation and concentration of capital in this society has been the transformation from science fiction as metaphor into science fiction as the actual heir apparent to social realism.

The machines still have the advantage of novelty. When a hitch-hiking robot was beheaded it made far more waves and received far more sympathy and Facebook shares than many police executions of black men or probable murders of Canadian female hitchhikers.

As a species, our polling numbers are way down in polls where we’re the only ones allowed to vote. That’s not a good sign.

robot-overlords

Hedging my bets…