We need to talk about ‘Stranger Things’

I finished watching Stranger Things during the week, it was very enjoyable; even if the ending felt just a little downbeat. Max is a great character – eminently relatable – so it sucked to see her end up in such a bad way [sorry – SPOILERS!]. I loved the fact that a new generation has been turned on to Kate Bush. For those who want a little more Kate Bush fire, check out Cloudbusting and the far less renowned ‘Hounds of Love’ – equally timeless and fantastic songs.

I found a fox caught by dogs
He let me take him in my hands
His little heart, it beats so fast
And I’m ashamed of running away

I also liked the way the long-format TV on Netflix is playing on episode length, with the last three episodes essentially being feature movie length installments. That sort of ability to play with the ‘beats’ of a story is a really interesting innovation in long form TV and must be a boon for storytelling.

But, at the same time, there are elements of the ‘Netflixification’ of storytelling that I think really let Stranger Things down, in some ways. There remains a clear desire to appeal to literally everyone that sometimes undermines the actual impact of the story.

The thing I enjoyed most about Season Four was the way in which it managed to play with the ‘DnD is corrupting our kids’ trope, which was a real thing in the 80s.

not subtle, but well played nevertheless.

The series nostalgically confronted how social fears about kids using their imaginations (instead of just playing sport and watching TV) could lead to a moral panic on behalf of witless adults and cool kids made uncomfortable by difference. The showrunners did a decent job of highlighting that the geeks aren’t just ok – their ability to comprehend the danger of ‘Vecna’ and their ability to organise against that danger was clearly enabled by their ‘geeky’ behaviour. Moreover, the fear expressed towards the different created more problems than it solved. It’s a good message that is almost timeless.

But really, at a point where Elon Musk and Mike Cannon-Brookes are generally seen as superheroes by the zeitgeist, is it really that interesting to suggest ‘the geeks are alright? The whole series is nostalgic, and I get that, but it also tries to make that nostalgia relevant for a younger audience that didn’t experience the 80s. And it’s a lot less cutting edge to stand in 2022 celebrating geeks than it was back in the 80s.

But I get it, Netflix production is dominated by attracting large numbers of viewers and achieving cut through across broad segments of potential audience. Hallinan and Striphas talked about this in ‘The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture’. Netflix use their unbelievably large set of data points about what audiences do and don’t like to curate content (such as Stranger Things) that they know will draw in guaranteed audiences – and the very data driven business model means that a show that fails in this regard and loses viewers can be axed very quickly indeed. So, yeah, I get it – Stranger Things blends its horror with humour, its bellicosity with banality because it needs to hit those audience numbers. (I wrote about this phenomenon – the ‘norming’ created by algorithmic culture in my article ‘The big data public and its problems‘).

But pandering to audiences should never mean that you lose opportunities to tell your story. And in the case of Season 4 of Stranger Things, the showrunners lost me when they – repeatedly – featured ‘gun porn’, particularly in the last few episodes. By ‘gun porn’ I mean scenes and shots of protagonists ogling, praising and fondling guns.

like this scene:

I have the power because I hold the gun

and this one…

killing things… orgasmic

and this one…

This is for being a real jerk to Max!

Now the relationship between media depictions of violence and actual violence is long and complicated – ‘direct’ effects are unverifiable. However, I’m a huge believer that the norming of themes, formats and, well, norms is one area where we certainly do see effective media. One example of this is Laura Mulvey’s concept of the ‘Male Gaze’. The ‘Male Gaze’ is the privileging of the heterosexual masculine eye in the construction of media.

Male gaze much?

Mulvey argues that this construction has been so privileged and prominent in media production that it has become its own social meaning system – it ‘norms’ a way of looking (and displaying) that we all take for granted/agree upon/see as somewhat unproblematic. The dominance of the Male gaze means that it is now unproblematic for TikTokers and Insta Influencers to see displaying for the ‘male gaze’ as something intrinsically valuable, whereas earlier generations would have viewed this behaviour as somewhat problematic. In fact, the ‘male gaze’ has become so unproblematic that males that have also internalised this way of seeing and displaying themselves, although they often ‘hide’ the gaze behind some other display of ‘utility’ [the capitalist gaze being the real power behind the throne].

Thirsty? FWIW I do enjoy both of their content.

The important thing to recognise about this is that this way of viewing has become so broadly accepted that it effects people’s behaviour. While it’s difficult to prove a ‘media effects’ type of causality in cases like this, it’s also clear that media plays a prominent role in ‘norming’ particular social meanings, understandings and [therefore, necessarily] behaviours.

One thing that US media/film/TV production consistently does is ‘norm’ the veneration of guns as being just great. To return to Stranger Things – which we love because of its accessible take on alt/genre culture – in Season Four guns are used as plot devices to give people power, to solve otherwise intractable problems and to be a sort of ‘democratising force’ for good (allowing the physically disadvantaged to stand up to stronger foes). Just like the Male gaze, these messages about guns have become so unproblematically internalised by US audiences that they are used consistently by US storytellers in these ways. We all see it, understand it and – more or less – accept it. But in my case, not so much.

But with the way gun reform is going in the US, and with a nod of the head to the ‘moral panic/won’t anyone please think of the children’ vibe , I found the gun porn in Season Four of Stranger Things to be pretty gross. In my world, guns create problems – they are used by teenagers to shoot innocent protestors, commit armed robbery and shoot up schools. There are clearly a lot of ‘good’ uses for guns but I see a lot more evidence that they create more problems than they solve. Wouldn’t it be great if media started running storylines that reflected this – the presence of the gun makes everything more dangerous, more lethal, and allows a vigilante to overpower and control a situation where they would otherwise be powerless. And people without guns, working together, can overcome that villainy through using cooperation, courage and candour.

In the case of Stranger Things, Season Four, I think the showrunners missed a real opportunity to make the ‘lessons’ a little more relevant and less nostalgic by finding interesting ways to solve the problems the protagonists’ faced. To be fair, they clearly illustrated that it was only in the case of the Russian side story that a weapon proved to be effective (the flamethrower on the mindflayer). In every other instance – the shooting of Vecna, the use of the gun in the plane hijacking, the fight between Lucas and Jason – the guns were pretty much useless.

So, maybe the writers are trying to be subtle about that what really ‘helped’ was the teamwork, the creative thinking, the solidarity and the bravery of the protagonists. But they missed a chance to feature that in a more direct way. I mean, they were creative enough to suggest that the upside down was a symbiotic system of evil and that Eleven could piggyback through time and space on other people’s memories… so why not use this sort of storytelling license to come up with reasons and ways to defeat Vecna without going into gun porn? They managed to NOT use guns earlier in the series to fantastic effect.

I mean Vecna could have probably been beaten by eczema

I’m not one who argues that all media needs to be politically correct – it is completely understandable that these gun porn beats are placed in these contexts. It is also useful to acknowledge that this is how guns are thought about in US culture. But if you ask me, the show does betray the very essence of what is wrong with the way the US thinks about guns (that they are a solution, rather than a problem), and I also think the otherwise savvy show runners missed an opportunity to tell a far more interesting story about how evil actually creeps into our lives, and what it takes to defeat it.

And the reason that they make these decisions is because gun porn, and violence in general, play well in the US market, and so we have ‘gun gaze’.

All of these are used to kill people.

What I thought of ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is one of those books that I’ve seen being read everywhere. As in, every time you’re on public transport or at a beach, someone seems engrossed in it. There have been a few of these books in my time, such as The Celestine Prophecy, The Secret, Bohos in Paradise, Sophie’s Choice and everything by Alain De Botton and Dan Brown. Sapiens was elevated above simple cult status by being recommended by John Hartley and my Hons student Rebekah Barnett. It was a worthy read in the sense that it was a beautifully crafted story; it didn’t answer all my questions about the history of humankind but it did make a few points that I found provocative and/or interesting, which I’ll spell out here without any commitment to  authorial fidelity.

The argument I found most interesting in this book was that the ascendancy of humans has been, to some extent, a result of their ability to get more energy out of the biosphere than previously possible. This theme is dealt with a number of times throughout the book but made particularly salient at a few points, such as when Harari decribes the wheat plant as a colonising force. Humans, he argues have come to serve the needs of wheat and rice in a manner that those genomes can actually be understood to be the colonising force; using humans like parasites to spread their seed and propogate their species. What is interesting about this for me is that the suggestion that this sort of thing does happen in evolution points toward a sort of ‘divine law’ of production that always sees greater production as an inherent good.

The precise nature of that production is not particularly clear – wheat and rice became the staple diet for humans not because it was a healthier choice – life spans actually shrank as nomadic foragers became stationary farmers; humans reduced the variety of their diet and the amount of exercise they needed to acquire food – which were unhealthy choices. However what was gained from the shift to staple crops was a concentration of calories. More energy could be produced more efficiently (and thus feed a growing, sedentary population).

What fascinates me about this topic is the ‘parasitic’ influence upon human evolution. Elsewhere Harari discusses memes and cultures in a similar way:

 A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the pice of death. The human dies, but the idea spread. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them. .. successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts. p.270

Another interesting point that Harari makes is that while the ‘arrow of history’ seems to suggest that Human ascendancy was somehow a foregone conclusion, deep anthropology makes it clear that we have actually succeeded through a variety of happy coincidences. For instance:

All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:
a. Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices,
declare that it is a final and absolute truth. This was the method used by Nazis
(who claimed that their racial policies were the corollaries of biological facts)
and Communists (who claimed that Marx and Lenin had divined absolute
economic truths that could never be refuted).
b. Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth.This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings – a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the scientific study of Homo sapiens. p.282

What this quote is discussing is the flaws of over determinism but what he’s summarising n the latter point is that the idea that ‘humans’ are in some sense ‘blessed’ or ‘unique’ is an error of judgment; an opinion which does fly in the face of a lot of the history of European philosophy, from Aristotle to Arendt. I don’t necessary agree with this very materialistic perspective; but Harari makes a strong argument for why it is the correct perspective from that materialist position.

Harari’s other great contribution in this book is to provide a quite bare bones analysis of capitalism. Capitalism, he declares, is the reason that Europe became the source of the scientific enlightenment (rather than many other sophisticated cultures that existed at the same time) (p. 349). I find this analysis quite reductive and his ignorance of scientific progress and approaches in the Islamic world prior to the European enlightenment seems a little Orientalist. However he makes a clear point about how capitalism – as the reinvestment of profit into improving the efficiency of production – has become a hegemonic system in the contemporary age. Simply because capitalism created the stable legal and technological systems to continuously improve production. The role of currency, banking and credit in this system is well explained and I feel one of the more useful contibutions of the book. The requirements of commerce, he explains, meant a similar need for freedom of commerce, stable government and tolerance of difference (p.354-365). Capitalism rewarded these systems because they were good for profit, good for growth and essentially good for production. He even points out how this system eventually eroded the relative strength of the community and family:

Parents are obliged to send their children to be educated by the state. Parents who are especially abusive or violent with their children may be restrained by the state. If need be, the state may even imprison the parents or transfer their children to foster families. Until not long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand as ludicrous and unworkable. In most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect of and obedience to one’s parents
were among the most hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted, including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying off daughters to men more than twice their age. Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to get off in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial. p.404-405

This erosion of family and community has come with the elevation of the state systems necessary for capitalist growth; the production of a neo-liberal subject.

I’m going to end with two more lengthy quotes that impressed me ; the first a binary about how we imagine ‘progress’ that shows the flaws in each argument; and the second a reflection on what brings happiness which I feel is again, very worthy of repeating.

Though few have studied the long-term history of happiness, almost every scholar and layperson has some vague preconception about it. In one common view, human capabilities have increased throughout history. Since humans generally use their capabilities to alleviate miseries and fulfill aspirations, it follows that we must be happier than our medieval ancestors, and they must have been happier than Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

But this progressive account is unconvincing. As we have seen, new aptitudes, behaviours and skills do not necessarily make for a better life. When humans learned to farm in the Agricultural Revolution, their collective power to shape their environment increased, but the lot of many individual humans grew harsher. Peasants had to work harder than foragers to eke out less varied and nutritious food, and they were far more exposed to disease and exploitation. Similarly, the spread of European empires greatly increased the collective power of humankind, by circulating ideas, technologies and crops, and opening new avenues of commerce. Yet this was hardly good news for millions of Africans, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians. Given the proven human propensity for misusing power, it seems naïve to believe that the more clout people have, the happier they will be.
Some challengers of this view take a diametrically opposed position. They argue for a reverse correlation between human capabilities and happiness. Power corrupts,  they say, and as humankind gained more and more power, it created a cold mechanistic world ill-suited to our real needs. Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers. The transition first to agriculture and then to industry has condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts, and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings. Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt. Every new invention just puts another mile between us and the Garden of Eden.

Yet this romantic insistence on seeing a dark shadow behind each invention is as dogmatic as the belief in the inevitability of progress. Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it’s not all bad. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33 per cent to less than 5 per cent. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only of those children who would otherwise have died, but also of their families and friends?

A more nuanced position takes the middle road. Until the Scienti􀉹c Revolution there was no clear correlation between power and happiness. Medieval peasants may indeed have been more miserable than their hunter-gatherer forebears. But in the last few centuries humans have learned to use their capacities more wisely. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example. Other unprecedented achievements include the steep drop in violence, the virtual disappearance of international wars, and the near elimination of large-scale famines.

Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. Firstly, it bases its optimistic assessment on a very small sample of years. The majority of humans began to enjoy the fruits of modern medicine no earlier than 1850, and the drastic drop in child mortality is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Mass famines continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the twentieth century. During Communist China’s Great Leap Forward of 1958–61, somewhere between 10 and 50 million human beings starved to death. International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new threat of nuclear annihilation. Hence, though the last few decades have been an unprecedented golden age for humanity, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history or an ephemeral eddy of good fortune. When judging modernity, it is all too tempting to take the viewpoint of a twenty-first-century middle-class Westerner. We must not forget the viewpoints of a nineteenth-century Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict or Tasmanian Aborigine. Truganini is no less important than Homer Simpson.

Secondly, even the brief golden age of the last half-century may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades, we have been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet in myriad new ways, with what seem likely to be dire consequences. A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless

Finally, we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the vaunted material wealth that shields us from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans. (422-424)


Huxley’s disconcerting world is based on the biological assumption that happiness equals pleasure. To be happy is no more and no less than experiencing pleasant bodily sensations. Since our biochemistry limits the volume and duration of these sensations, the only way to make people experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time is to manipulate their biochemical system.

But that definition of happiness is contested by some scholars. In a famous study, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, asked people to recount a typical work day, going through it episode by episode and evaluating how much they enjoyed or disliked each moment. He discovered what seems to be a paradox in most people’s view of their lives. Take the work involved in raising a child. Kahneman found that when counting moments of joy and moments of drudgery, bringing up a child turns out to be a rather unpleasant affair. It consists largely of changing nappies, washing dishes and dealing with temper tantrums, which nobody likes to do. Yet most parents declare that their children are their chief source of happiness. Does it mean that people don’t really know what’s good for them?

That’s one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’.2 As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is. (p.437)


What I thought of ‘The Memory Code’ by Lynne Kelly

Honestly, this was a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year and it did not disappoint me.

It presents a basic argument that the odd structuring of various ancient monuments and artwork is actually attributable to the fact that these once operated as technologies to encode cultural memories.

Kelly’s book speaks about quite a few of my longheld interests in history, oral cultures and indigenous cultures. It also discusses a number of places I’ve visited, such as Stonehenge, Maeshowe, Skara Brae, The Ring of Brogar and Machu Pichu. So possibly I loved it because it related specifically to my interests… but I think it also makes a profound contribution to thinking through how communications technologies shape our humanity.

Let’s get into it.

Kelly starts with an engagement with indigenous Australian memory practices and identifies how in these cultures, the movement within certain spaces was fundamental to inscribing cultural memory (through songlines). She refers to a rhetorical practice of loci used by the ancient greeks to aid memory retention. I had never come across the term ‘loci’ but I do remember this memory practice from Silva Rhetoricae

Orators were encouraged to envision where they would be speaking as a preparation for memorizing their speech. Then, having completed the speech’s composition, they were to divide it into manageable portions, each of which they would assign, in turn, to a different part of the room where the speech was to occur. Thus, by casting their eyes about during their speech, they would be reminded of the next part of their speech to give.

And she also refers to the ‘memory palaces’ that contemporary memory champions and card sharks use to, well, remember things. In each one of these scenarios being in a particular place (or imagining a particular place) is the first step to being able to recall the information.

Kelly was fascinated by the notion that oral cultures used these practices to encode cultural information before writing – and the sheer volume of information is staggering. She points to the Matses people of the Amazon as having recently created a 500 page encylcopedia of medicine based upon cultural memory that was previously passed down through oral traditions. Indigenous cultures need to remember the location of food and water, which plants you can eat when and the various geneologies of everyone in the culture to ensure that inbreeding does not occur. This is far more than most of us could remember in contemporary society but of course, for people without writing, remembering this stuff was integral to survival.

So, in the first few chapters of the book she recounts how she  tested the ‘loci’ system by developing her own memory spaces in her house, on her dog-walking route around her neighbourhood and then using abstract pieces of art, an object or a deck of cards as a further memory aid.

I have divided each room and every garden segment into ten locations as is suggested in the anonymous ancient Greek textbook on the topic, the Rhetorica ad Herennium… every fifth location is marked in some way… that ensures that nothing is missed as there must always be four locations between a marked spot. p.66

By doing this she has been able to memorise the events of world history, the different species of birds in Australia, details about the world’s states and capitals and so on. One location can be used to inscribe any number of types of information

Information may be in either of the songlines. It doesn’t matter. The links started happening from my first ventures into creating the songlines. The term I had used so often when talking about indigenous cultures was emerging. I was creating an ‘integrated knowledge system’. p.67

So she found that these pieces of information would start to relate to each other and take on their own inherent meaning.

After a year or so, I was starting to see patterns in the information even though I was not actively searching for them. I found my stories starting to take on the form of indigenous stories I’d read from all over the world. I was seeing familiar knowledge in a different way – vivid, visual and emotional. I gained insight and pleasure from the process. (p.xvii)

I don’t understand why I am never confused by drawing information from a whole range of memory spaces, but I am not. After a few years of adding data and commentary, stories and mythological characters, I cannot explain it to friends when they ask. It is too like hypertext and too little like the linear flow of a book. p.69

for these reasons:

Trying to separate indigenous practical knowledge from mythology is a process doomed from the start. The two are intricately interwoven. Rituals in non-literate cultures need to be considered on their own terms without trying to find an equivalent in literate cultures. Such an equivalent does not exist. p.6

So after she establishes how important place is to memory, and how places must have been important for storing cultural memory in pre-writing cultures, Kelly then has a revelation while at Stonehenge with her partner. She realises that a possible explanation for the arrangement of the oldest henge – as a huge circle of distinctly different stones – was probably an attempt to recreate songlines once communities had started to settle in one place. Because cultures were no longer nomadic, she argues, they needed to come up with a way to represent the memory spaces they had once used. Monuments such as the oldest henge at stonehenge would have provided the spaces necessary to recreate the traditional performances of songlines, without having to return to the scattered locations throughout the countryside.

Related image

(this is actually an image of nearby woodhenge – but you get the idea) – the outer ring of stones are uniquely different and everyone of them would have served as a ‘memory space’ to recall particular pieces of cultural information. The ditches around the henge, Kelly Argues, are for performances of the information. The ditch serves the twin purposes of amplifying the sounds and effect of the performance, and obscuring the view of anyone who is not permitted to share the knowledge.

Restricting knowledge affords power to those who have been taught and deemed competent by the elders who control that information. But there is another critical purpose. It is all to do with what is inappropriately referred to as ‘the Chinese-whispers effect’. Lots of people repeating the informaton in an uncontrolled way will inevitably lead to corruption of the facts stored within the songs. Distortion cannot be tolerated in information [vital to collective survival]…. the knowledge is not varied, it is sacred. p.9

Having already White and Ong and a few others on orality I had previously held a view that one of the great virtues of oral cultures was their flexibility – that they had the capacity to alter their knowledges as needs and perspectives evolved. Kelly does restate this advantage, but she also made it more clear that storytelling and knowledge itself was the locus of cultural power.

Kelly goes through a number of archeological marvels such as Chaco Canyon, the Ring of Brogar, Newgrange, Maeshowe and even the lines of Nazca and explains how they operated as memory spaces. It made me think of our guide at Machu Pichu, who explained that the purpose of certain rocks and cavities around the city had never been truly understood. Well Kelly came up with a pretty compelling explanation for these things as memory spaces, used to store the cultural memories ofa people who had settled and no longer visited the natural spaces they once did, but still needed to remember the knowledge associated with those spaces. Hence the reason why each of these cultures invested millions of hours of work into building monuments and structures with no discernable productive purpose.

However, her argument is that these stand-in monuments only operated as such during a particular ‘transitory’ phase between nomadism and civilisation.

It was only as societies settled and population centres grew large that heirarchies became established, with those at the top becoming wealthy and their world protected using guards, soldiers and warriors. It is from this time that individual burials with grave goods appear in the archaeological record. The knowedge specialists became the servants of the chiefs. From then until today, the power of knowledge was subjegated by the power of wealth and violence. p.33


As specialists emerged in the increasingly large and complex communities, no single group could control the knowledge system. Powerful individuals gained wealth. Egalitarianism was a thing of the past as a high staus warrior class emerged. When knowledge had been the prevailing source of power, the memory spaces were the predominant sign of the culture. Once wealth and violence replaced knowledge as the determining factor for control, the massive labour required to build megalithic monuments could no longer be justified by the community… [136] Knowledge specialists were still needed, and probably still powerful, just no longer at the top of the heirarchy… When knowledge was power, the Neolithic peoples built a memory space still unparalleled today. When wealth and violence became power, Stonehenge was abandoned. It had simply lost its purpose. pp.135-136

Increasing city populations, the emergence of specialist experts and the introduction of writing would have eroded the ability of the elders to control information. The elder who could memorise a thousand songs and all the knowledge of the culture was now long gone. p.251

Following the growth and specialisation of knowledge, keeps and fortifications became the dominant public architecture, which I find simply fascinating.

I guess I find it all so fascinating because Kelly is presenting a vivid picture of how practices of encountering and storing cultural knowlege have a direct and profound effect on the culture. My current research is looking at the effect of smart phones and big data upon culture and it isn’t hard to have your mind blown by thinking through the differences between the sort of cultural knowledge of nomadic people, compared to the cultural knowledge and practices imbued by smart phones and Google.

Consider her description of the connection the indigenous cultures have to country and place, (which helps me reflect on our contemporary lack of connection).

Nungarrayi, to use her Warlpiri title, described the catalogue of sounds which are ecoded as far more extensive than just the calls of the birds and other animals. For example, she described the way her people were able to identify trees and bushes and grasses by the sound in a breeze. I found this hard to believe but was assured that if I gave it a try I would discover that it is possible. That afternoon I sat in the bush and listened. What I would have described as silence, on a day which had very little wind, was anything but. I became aware of the bird sounds fairly quickly, but before long I became aware of the sounds of the plants. The eucalypt to my left, the acacias at the fron, and the grasses to the right all made distinctly different sounds.  I could not accurately convey these sounds in writing. In subsequent sessions, I’ve been able to distinguish between different species of eucalypt… p.6

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of place names, a seemingly unemotional task…. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extrordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For the elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embeded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense. p.15

One element of the change is the lack of connection with the natural, or even the viscerally real in contemporary culture; another is the lack of appreciation of wisdom (or knowledge that crosses disciplines) as opposed to knowledge within a specific discipline:

We store our books in neat categories: science on one side of the library, ethics on the other and mythology somewhere else. These silos of generic information are an artefact of literacy, where so much is written and research is so focused that much of the interconnectedness of the human experience is lost. The extraordinary depth within each genre has come at the cost of the intergrated format of oral tradition. p.29

And of course, there is also the issue of pleasure. It seems to me that gaining knowledge used to be intimately tied to experiencing pleasure (forgive the play on words).

…gatherings serve the need for tade and to find marriage partners, as well as being for pure pleasure. Gatherings are also the forums to teach and trade knowledge through ceremony. p.12

While movies about US universities make me think this link between learning and pleasure hasn’t been completely forgotten about, the trend toward digital delivery and ‘blended learning’ in my own university suggests that efficient information transmission is now seen as the sole purpose of communication. But what is the price of the cultural, natural and ritual knowledge we lose as a result of always being online? Kelly doesn’t enter into any of this but that’s just as well, it is my interest, not necessarily hers – but I intend to ask her what she thinks of how digital technology is reconfiguring these memory practices.

And throughout all of this, Kelly has made an indelible contribution to my thinking through communication as ritual, not just information transmission. The songlines and structures she describes are not just about the information but also about the process of coming together to make meaning. The relationality experienced by building these monuments, and then using them to store cultural memories must have made this aspect of people’s communicative existence incredibly meaningful, not to mention the performative and aesthetic aspects of singing, performing and displaying ones knowledge and relationships.

On the use of abstract motifs on art as memory aids:

It was the process that mattered, not the product. I gradually understood why so many indigenous ‘art’ words were simply erased or left to rot after ceremonies and rituals. They had already served their purpose by the very fact that they were made. p.47

So finally, and I know this has been a long one, but I feel that this really has been an important book (and is well worth the read), I’ll finish on Kelly’s reflection on her own experience with training with memory places, which reflects my engagement with her work.

It has been a revelation to learn to think differently. It has also been the most wonderful fun. p.63

Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ – musings on comedy, stories, art and connection

Hannah Gadsby and images of thought

So, I went to see Hannah Gadsby on Saturday night. It was one of the best hours of entertainment I’ve ever seen… but not because it was funny.

It was raw, emotional and incredibly thought provoking. It was obliterating comedy and I’d like to think through some of the issues she raised. So *SPOILERS* below for Gadsby’s show ‘Nanette’.

The show starts innocuously enough, some pretty typical gags following Gadbsy’s typical self-depricating style. For those who don’t know Gadsby is a non-identifying lesbian of literally immense stature and these aspects of her identity have typically provided her with comedic material. This show began with her quite typically recounting how others react to her presence, or discussing how her sexuality, quiet disposition and physicality alienated her from various communities; then making jokes about how that process resolved.

Straight white men did not come off well throughout. But it was funny, and honest observational humour – she did a lot here to establish the relative meaningless of the various identities she is ‘ascribed’. ‘I don’t identify as Lesbian, I identify as “tired”, she says, and at another point ‘Did you know, men and women have more in common with each other than they don’t? Men and women are more alike than people and dogs; so stop separating us in to separate teams from day dot.’ And finally ‘I would not like to be a straight white man. It’s the worst time in human history to be a straight white man right now. I wouldn’t be a straight white man if you paid me; although the pay would be substantial’. Good, funny stuff – observing social malaise and commenting on it with laffs.

Towards the middle of the show she started discussing the process of comedy. All jokes, she maintains, are composed of the two parts ‘set-up’ and ‘punchline’. The set-up, she argues establishes a tension in the listener audience. It makes them feel uncomfortable about something, or many things, by painting a picture of an absurdity, an injustice or an apparent contradiction. The set up ‘artificially inseminates’ the audience with an anxiety or dissonance that makes them uncomfortable.

The punchline is the thing that defrays that tension. The comedian comes riding to the rescue of the audience by saying something that allows a laugh to remove the tension. Everyone laughs, feels better. But Gadsby spent the rest of the night exploring what resolving that tension is doing to her, and justifying her decision to quit comedy as a result

Gadsby’s success in comedy comes from an intensely personal tension. Because of her ‘situation’ (as she describes it) she has been defraying tension all her life; ‘I didn’t have to invent the tension, I was the tension’. This has equipped her for comedy as she has become expert at making people feel at ease with her and the tension she creates. However, she has found that what actually happens during comedy is that when she dissolves the tension in the room, the audience feels better but she does not. As a marginal figure, she argues she is constantly using comedy to make people feel at home with their prejudices and their contradictions. ‘Self-deprecation from the margins’ she says, ‘is not humility, it is humiliation.’

After spelling this dynamic out in the middle third of the show, the final third is a harrowing, brilliant and relatively humourless exploration of how this comedic mechanism relates to art and story-telling. Gadsby maintains she can’t do ‘angry’ comedy, because she understands the intellectual pointlessness and moral danger of using the ‘set-up’ to create tension and identify a category of villains that can be used to resolve that tension. She points instead to storytelling as a mechanism of power and change. And in some great riffs on art history, she also identifies that the powerful have always been attracted to artists because they understand the importance of stories. Stories are different to jokes because they have three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end. (A set up, a complication and a resolution). It is the resolution that differs from the joke because it fully considers the aftermath of the events. It tries to relate what happened in the story to what is happening now and in this way, it does not necessarily resolve the tension.

The last few minutes of the show consisted in Gadsby relating the ‘real’ non-joke endings to a number of the stories she had used to establish tension in the first third of the show. Whereas in the first part of the show, Gadsby expertly relieved the tension with one liners and humour, in these final minutes she retold these stories including details of her molestation, rape, bashing and associated self-loathing. These revelations of jokes as stories was the end of Gadsby’s time on stage and, despite a standing ovation, she would not return to relieve our tension and make us comfortable again.

So, it was a hugely powerful experience. And as well as the central argument about what is happening in comedy/stories Gadsby also did great work on the various myopias of art criticism, individualism, reputation, identity politics and straight white men. All of it was intelligent, passionate and the end result was highly compelling. It’s probably the best piece of ‘comedy’ I’ve ever seen; but not because it was funny.

And when I say it was compelling, it compelled me to want to get drunk because of the force of Hannah’s exposition (although IRL I didn’t/couldn’t). It also had me convinced she was on to something about an inherent problem of comedy. However, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to disagree with the premises of her argument about quitting comedy, while admiring the hell out of it nonetheless. I agree with just about everything else she said, particularly on the unheralded importance of humanity and connection in all stories.

Things get a bit wordy below, so only read on if you’re into philosophy or critical theory.

The basis of my disagreement with Gadsby’s position lies in a Deleuzean argument about (against) the ideal image of thought constructed by Hegel. That is, categories and ideals pre-exist our consideration of those things, and our deviation from them always involves a dialectic reconciliation back toward those ideals. Gadsby refutes this categorisation throughout most of her comedy and yet she maintains that the ‘defray/resolution’ always gravitates back to the preconceived categories i.e. I’m always and invariably understood as a minority. She spells this out particularly when she discusses a conversation she had with her mother that helped her decide to quit comedy.

 The thing I regret is that I raised you as if you were straight. That must have been so confusing for you. I knew well before you did that your life was going to be so hard and I wanted more than anything in the world for that not to be the case.  But I now know that I made it worse, I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.

Here, Hannah, her mother and the world and their roles are cast as impervious to change. These things exist as categories that always have primacy over experience, that will always drag experience back toward their centre.

I’d argue that this is a misunderstanding and while I don’t begrudge Gadsby her perspective I’d advance a different model of thought, where the realisation of difference opens up a space for connection and ‘becoming-other’… of escaping from the category that you’re in and becoming something new. Gadsby, I’m sure is aware of this possibility, even if she doesn’t name it, possibly because she doesn’t want to let the audience ‘off the hook’ of thinking through how their ‘categories’ are defined. Gadsby’s resistance of identity tags is one indication of her resistance to the Hegelian image of thought. She also betrays this philosophy in some of her more powerful concluding comments:

To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. To render someone powerless is what destroys that humanity.

I do believe we can make a better world if we tried to see if from as many different perspectives as possible.

And of course, as a straight white man, I’d prefer not to think that our categories are non-negotiable and that an engagement such as ‘Nanette’ can indeed be productive of new perspectives, new connections and a redeemed humanity. Thanks to Gadsby for a real piece of art.

‘Zombie Capitalism’ by Chris Harman

Wow, this was a long and sometimes arduous read.

Zombie Capitalism is an orthodox marxist account of the repeated crises of capitalism. Written by Chris Harman, who is a maxist of some repute, I read the book hoping to see how the Zombie trope was employed to explain/confront capitalism.

In 360 odd pages, Zombies were not mentioned, not once. Vampirism did cop a mention in the final chapter, and there was quite a bit on the ‘organic composition of capital’ and ‘dead labour’ – but nothing explicitly on Zombies. This makes me suspicious that the title arose as a marketing gimmick as Zombies were hot at the time of publication (2009).

Anyway, I read the whole thing which took me ages because I knew enough about marxism and historical materialism to be somewhat uninspired. This was a book that – at least until the last third – I could not maintain an interest in. In the last third, the manner in which Harman dealt with the financial crisis of 2008 did become more interesting and new… but for the most part this felt a little polemical, even if it was generally consistent as a result.

Anyway, it was healthy for me to reacquaint myself with Marxism before engaging in my own ‘zombie history of everything’ in my upcoming book, so I pushed through and here’s a few of the things that I will take away from Zombie Capitalism.

  • When you write as a historical materialist, you locate the source of every social and cultural change within changes within the means of production. Harman explains every moment of crisis in capitalism as arising out of the pressing need for capital to find profit in a system where the rate of profit actually decays as an inherent part of the system of competitive accumulation.

To explain the issue of decay, I find thinking about managing a factory to be helpful. If you’re a factory manager then investing in a better widget maker, or a bigger workforce, or digitising your records will all operate to increase your efficiency and therefore your rate of profit. However, this advantage only lasts until all your competitors copy your innovation. Moreover, if one of your competitors does something else to innovate or economise, the actual profitability of your product on the open market decreases (because on an open market you need to be able to value match your competitors in order to sell, so your profit margins are actually reduced by competitor’s innovations/gains in efficiency.

So the system is not just a system of commodity production; it is a system of competitive accumulation. This creates limits to the action possible not only for workers, but also for capitalists. For if they do not continually seek to exploit their workers as much as is practically possible, they will not dispose of the surplus value necessary to accumulate as quickly as their rivals. They can choose to exploit their workers in one way rather than another. But they cannot choose not o exploit their workers at all, or even exploit them less than other capitalists do – unless they want to go bust. They themselves are subject to a system which pursues its relentless course whatever the feelings of individual human beings. p.37

The problem for the system as a whole is that the ‘real value’ (that is the value accumulated in the process of producing a thing) remains constant, while the opportunity to profit from producing things decreases. So Harman points out that falling rates of profit are endemic to the capitalist system and also points out how they have resulted in the need for both war and increasingly ludicrous financial speculation as a source of profit.

(for e.g) Vast expansion of military spending has been a crucial ‘solution’ to various crises in capitalism (US/Germany in the 1930s). But as a non-productive investment (Harman describes it like advertising, a waste of productive capacity that nevertheless helps to secure markets for real production), this creates inflationary pressure on the economy which mandate a need to return to actual productive investments (such as rebuilding or colonising after a war). So Harman views ‘total’ and proxy war as a direct outcome of the mechanisms of capitalist accumulation.

A more recent solution to the falling rate of profit has been to focus on making profit out of speculation, rather than actual production. The promotion of various sort of spot market and derivative trading schemes has arisen, according to Harman, because the mega-rich can no longer make great money off simple production. The GFC is explained as a direct result of the failure to anticipate the falling rate of profit that Marx predicted. Harman is delightfully droll in his critiques of economic theory in missing this.

  •  The state plays an inherent and central role in maintaining existing capital. This argument flew in the face of much of what I previously felt to be true (i.e. the state is no longer useful for much at all) but Harman makes a fairly compelling point about how the state serves two crucial purposes in capital accumulation.
  • Firstly, a strong state creates all sorts of public goods that capital relies on to increase its rate of profit. A well educated and innovative workforce with good health care and policing is a significant and immutable advantage for profitability. Even if such a workforce might demand a higher wage, the fact that another bright, secure and disciplined worker can be found locally is a significant advantage for capital.
  • Secondly, the state has played an increasingly important role in maintaining the profitability of capital. As mentioned above, Harman details the significant increase in government spending as a share of GNP since World War 2. This seemed almost counter-intuitive to me but is apparently clear enough. The state plays a more central role in diverting public money into productive or non-productive investments in order to maintain some profitability for capital. This includes facilitating mergers and subsidies to increase competitiveness of capital ventures within a state (the US state played a central role in consolidating its microchip and aerospace industry in order to maintain a profit advantage over international competitors (p.254-257). Similarly, when crashes come about, the state is the only entity with the capacity to bail out the system (i.e the recent GFC)… so the state is essentially the curator and guarantor of the capitalist system.1 This linked nicely back in to Agamben’s point that all struggle is now struggle against the state.

So given the orhtodoxy of his approach, it is probably unsurprising that Harman identifies the solution to the problems of capitalism in the paradoxes of the system itself. He bravely rejects the ‘autonomous’ moves of Western marxism which have been eminently fashionable since Empire was released by Hardt and Negri in 2000. In its place he identifies a very particular sort of ‘intersectionality’ of the working class that should supply capitalism’s grave diggers. It is in the large aggregations of exploited workers, who will be facing increasing systemic failures in the coming years that Harman locates the source of change. 2  It is (still) the working class, and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system, which will produce change.

So, reflecting on the book as a whole. It was interesting in the final third and I suppose I learned some things about the marxist approach to materialism that I had forgotten in my long exposure to critical theory. However, I found Harman’s approach to be slightly doctrinaire and rooted, still, in a sort of deification of productive process. Yes, that is both the strength and the weakness of the work.

As a challenge to the paradigm of historical materialism, for instance, how is it possible to reconcile the view of digital capitalism that is advanced in move fast and break things with the model that Harman perceives as integral to capitalism? Specifically, the decay of profit takes place because of competitors actions, or the mobility and organisation of labour. How then, does this analysis relate to Google, who absorbs all competitors and thus actually has no competition? Similarly, when profit is no longer related at all to use value but rather the perceived value on the market, the issue of ‘productive vs unproductive labour’ seems to become very muddied. Harman clearly believes that ‘dead labour’ (commodities produced in the past that contribute to production -i.e. the labour invested in a hammer) and constant capital still play an integral role in the production of value. I’m just not so sure that’s true in a post-scarcity economy. Whether ‘real costs’ are at all important in contemporary economics is inherently questionable (although I certainly agree that they ought to be).

Despite these minor issues its clear that Harman is (was) a decent academic and a strong critical reader of economic theory. I have my reservations about focusing on production, when I see very little opportunity to alter that relationship without also focusing on consumption (which I believe is the more pressing symptom of contemporary capitalism – not that our workers don’t get enough to eat, rather that they are encouraged to eat too much in order to generate higher rates of profit). But what Harman has reminded me about is that a strong materialist philosophy is another solid way to escape relying on philosophies of consciousness to create a better world. It was refreshing to see a marxist ‘stick to their guns’ and point out why capitalism might eat itself after all.

I’ll finish this rather long post with some of my favourite quotes from the book.

on the inherent immorality of the capitalist system:

in every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Apres moi le deluge! [After me, the flood] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the outcry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? [Marx, The working day, Capital]

on the need for class consciouness rather than ethnic consciousness:

…there are two different directions in which the despair and bitterness that exist among the ‘multitudes’ in the great cities of the Third World can go. One direction involves workers struggling collectively and pulling millions of other impoverished people behind them. The other involves demagogues exploiting the sense of hopelessness, demoralisation [346] and fragmentation to direct the bitterness ofone section of the impoverished mass against the other sections. That is why the working class cannot simply be seen as just another grouping within ‘the multitude’ or ‘the people’, and of no intrinsic importance for the struggle against the system. p.345-346

on the inherent contradictions of the system:

As the runaway system lurches from boom to slump and tries to boost profits and write off debts in a wild attempt to lurch back again it dashes the very hopes of a secure life that it has encouraged in the past. It insists the mass of people have to work longer for less, to accept they must lose their jobs because bankers lost their heads, to resign themselves to hardship in old age, to give up their homes to pay the repo men, to go hungry on peasant plots so as to pay the moneylender and the fertiliser supplier. p.350

on the rise of finance in the economy:

Global financial assets were equal to 316 percent of annual world output in 2005, as against only 109 percent in 1980. p.278

Quoting Engels on private interest vs public interest and failure of process perspective:

The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions… In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominately concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character. [Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, in Marx and Englels, Collected Works, Volume 25, p.461] p.83


Continue reading “‘Zombie Capitalism’ by Chris Harman”

‘The Comming Community’ by Georgio Agamben

Because of the need to return the book to the library, I spent yesterday reading ‘The Comming Community’ by Agamben.

Translated by Micheal Hardt, who worked with the other prominent recent Italian theorist Antonio Negri on ‘Empire’, I  initially started reading this book because I felt it might be useful for one of my PhD students, but then thought that it might have something to offer in terms of a different understanding of both community and communication.

Well, the book did have some vague ideas about this which I will bastardise as this:

  1. that understanding truly occurs through the occupying the position of the other.
  2. that commodity fetishism is a continuation of the idol worship (and deferrence of judgement) implicit to religion
  3. That we remain in  fascistic system of meaning through representation.
  4. That emancipation is no longer possible by seizing  control of the state but rather all community must exist in opposition to the state.

So these are important points and, to be fair, these points are made among some very detailed and historically interesting arguments about representation, meaning and community. There were a few passages that struck me as somewhat profound:

In regard to some recent thinking I’ve been doing around AI, ethics and zombism:

‘The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realise. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible – there would be only tasks to be done.’  P. 42

In regard to the paradox of representation:

‘If the word through which a thing is expressed were either something other than the thing itself or identical to it, then it would not be able to express the thing.’  P.73

and on the issue of the meaning of communication/ communication as information exchange:

‘What hampers communication is communicability itself; humans are separated by what unites them. Journalists and mediacrats are the new priests of this alienation from human linguistic nature… There is nothing of God, or of the world, or of the revealed in language…

…Even more than the economic necessity and the technological development, what rives the nations of the earth toward a single common destiny is the alienation from linguistic being, the uprooting of all peoples from their vital dwelling in language’. P. 82

Did I love the book? Well it was easy and quick to read and it generated quite a bit of associated knowledge on my part, such as the discovery of Swiss writer Robert Walser and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould both of whom seem incredibly interesting. The quotes above really gave me a bit of a thrill as well.

However, overall, this was philosophy and not really critical theory. As philosophy it seemed to treat religious ideas and texts as sacrosanct and while there was also some interesting meditations on the various mathematical/biological and philosophical debates about individuation vs transcendentals I found it weird that there was always a deferrment to the religious perspective.

Overall, while reading this was a nice break from the Marxist history I’ve otherwise been progressing through, I’m not really sure that I comprehend how to ‘use’ these arguments; possibly that is Agamben’s hope.

‘Disconnected’ by Carrie James

I’ve just finished reading ‘Disconnected: Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap’ by Carrie James. James has taken a ‘glass half empty’ approach to how the internet is reconfugiring ethics in this crazy, mixed up world.

I have to say, the book is largely empirical – James directly describes the ethical dilemmas and work around that their research subjects – preteens to young adults – are generally employing from 2008-2012. James writes clearly and confidently and the real strength of the work is in its observation of how ethics is negotiatied (or not) online.

A few things struck me while reading it. Firstly, there is some really putrid behaviour online, and the nature of the internet seems to actually be eliciting putrid behaviour offline. Two cases that struck me were the Stuebenville rape case and the rise of ‘creepshot’ sites/pages/subredits. In each case the possibility of sharing degrading images seems to have actually provided the incentive for committing acts of assault and molestation. I won’t go into detail here but what I found weirdest about this was that the tech (anonymous, or psudo-private sharing) seems to be opening up ‘new’ ways of victimising people.  I guess that sounds like a ‘duh!’ statement, considering the breadth of information about cyberbullying that is out there. However, I’d previously considered these instances to be simply ‘amplified’ versions of offline behaviours. Here we’re seeing the development of specific bullying to suit the media d’jour.

James explains how this has become possible – there is a growing gap between how we understand ethics in our ‘real life’ and how this is understood online. Teenagers (and others) tend to regard online ethics and morality only in terms of personal consequences; a problem exacerbated by education programs and parents that are focused on protecting ‘the children’. This doesn’t encourage thinking of others and there is a tendency for the internet to appear as a distinctly different space to real life. Given that it is a pretty vile place for most people – they develop a view that it is completely ‘virtual’ (in the traditional, not Deleuzean sense) and thus don’t necessarily approach it as moral agents.  James finishes up the book by naming a few things that can be done to force a reconsideration of online actions as an extension of real communities and relationships (and also constituted by real ‘others’ who deserve respect).

This brings me to what I see as the key oversight of the book – that it brackets and disregards a lot of the broader normative arguments that surround this research program. For instance to what extent are horrid ethical (and moral) choices a sign of the broader social and cultural times and not something directly related to technology use? At a few points James raises this question, or at least points out that this is a possibility which she is not focussing on. But for me, she could have well reflected on this more meaningfully. She clearly states that it is difficult to know how much of the ‘self interest/self concern’ attitude that dominated her research group was a consequence of technology and how much was a pure reflection of the parents pre-existing attitudes. Because she does state that this attitude of self interest was the defining feature of parents approach and educational explanation of ethics. So, the book left me wondering how much we can blame technology for declining ethical standards, when the same decline in care for others has been evident in the voting patterns and social attitudes of the last few generations.

and finally, a note on realisability:

James’ solutions all involve getting the online ethical world to relate more directly to the offline world. Here she is challenging the fundamental problem of ‘disconnect’ as described in the book’s title. In an engaging passage in the last chapter she describes a ‘conscious connectivity’ and ‘roles and responsibilities’ thinking which can help people think through the real world implications for their online behaviour.  The roles and responsibilities angle (that you should consider the ramifications of your online actions in light of all facets of your character) was particularly provocative for me, as it seems to imply a semi-repressive disciplinary subjectivity which would be the opposite of other-regarding or connective ethics. Surely, one of the things that makes the internet interesting is that you can escape your ‘roles and responsibilities’ and experiment with different subject positions? It seems to me that doing so (experiencing something like being someone else) is actually one of the best opportunities to broaden your ethical perspective.

In the face of this, I’d like to advance the concept of ‘realisability’. Its actually an idea developed by Elliot Delys in his 2010 Honours research which he did with me. ‘Realisability’ is an added dimension to digital ethics which describes the possible implications of an online action. Simply put an online action which has direct and clear offline effects has a high degree of realisability whereas an online action which has no clear effect on an other has a low degree of realisability. With this concept as a moderator upon ethcial judgement, it possible to judge the actual moral and ethical implications of online behaviour without completely restricting the experimentations that online space offers.

So, for instance, posting hate speech on a marginalised group’s facebook page has a high degree of realisability – the hatred is subjectively experienced by a large number of people who each internalise the message with specific ramifications. Compare that to trying to inhabit a different subjectivity in an online chatroom where the only possible ‘realisable’ effect is the discovery of your disengenousness… well while the latter may be unethical, it could be considered only so if the effects are realisable.

And for those of you having trouble with the notion that there are always implications for online actions, you can think of ‘realisability’ to think through those implications (and the other assumptions you’re making about our relationship to the virtual). To what extent is any online action realisable and why?

What I thought of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin

When Jon Taplin appeared on ABC’s Nightline a couple of months ago I had a string of recommendations to engage with his work – notably from my mum and Joe Hutton – as well as colleagues at UWA. After reading his latest book “Move fast and break things” I understand why.

Taplin explores the effect of digital monopolies on cultural production throughout the book. Some of the arguments were painfully familiar to me; I’ve also written about ‘The big data public and its problems’ in an upcoming issue of New Media and Society. My argument being that the network benefits of sharing one particular system (Google, Amazon, Facebook) actually creates a tendency towards homogenisation and the loss of difference.

Taplin explores this phenomenon through music – outlining how the prevalence of YouTube as a music streaming service has eroded regional and stylistic differences in musical styles. But where Taplin really added to my understanding of the digital media ‘ecology’ was in the description of how the internet behemoths act as monopsony – creating a market situation where there is only one ‘buyer’ of cultural goods – specifically YouTube for music, Facebook for news, Google for information and Amazon for books.  By being the only place where artists can effectively sell their material online, these vendors can issue demands about pricing and distribution that are essentially noncompetitive and unfair to the artists… What this means is that unless you’re at the very top of your game (whatever that game is) it is becoming harder and harder to survive through producing things.

Taplin does a great job of exploring the libertarian philosophical underpinnings of these industries and also equating what is going on in the digital world to the increasing economic stratification within late industrial economies. In this world you’re either flourishing because you’re riding the tech wave and are either enjoying or employing a digital monopoly or you’re sidelined and becoming increasingly powerless.

The book is not without its weaknesses, Taplin paints an overly rosy picture of the A&R culture of music labels and it’s clear that he is writing from a position where – as a producer of cultural commodities – he has been undercut by digital tools.

However, his intimate experience of seeing his friends, colleagues and family struggle in the new media world adds passion to his writing. More importantly, his research into how Google has infiltrated the upper echelons of the US democratic system is really illuminating. He also points out how ineffective the judiciary and legislature has been in trying to curtail the noncompetitive practices of these digital giants.

He presents a re-decentralised, local and competitive vision of a better digital future, which I also feel has to be the way forward. However, he doesn’t really outline how we would get there, with some of his ideas seeming to be based upon the collective will to disengage with the ‘masses’.

I feel the problem with this optimism is that we are all too concerned with what ‘everyone else’ is thinking to have the will to break away from that and seek more local and subjective experiences. However, I do think these local and subjective experiences are still, actually, more rewarding, so maybe that’s the field that digital media can open up.

TL;DR It was a fascinating book and well worth a read.

What I think of Ryan Holiday’s ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’

I’ve just finished what I have to get done before tomorrow and both my kids are still having their afternoon nap. Gold.

After the last post about identity politics I have reflected more on that topic and decided that I’d like to write more about it, as a way of exploring my own ideas and also as defense against anyone who might think I’m not a consistent feminist and/or defender of the marginalised. However, that will have to come later. In this post what I want to do is talk about the work of Ryan Holiday, which I’ve been reading lately as part of my research and teaching in digital media.

In his two books I’ve read thus far Trust me – I’m lying, confessions of a media manipulator and Growth hacker marketing Holiday discusses his own experiences as a strategic communicator for American Apparel and various other brands, authors and movie producers. The former book ‘Trust me’ is a sort of tell all mea culpa that describes how easy it is to leverage status and page hits into the media stratosphere for contemporary media manipulators… it is by far the better book and includes some nicely cynical insights about the state of online news and publishing at the moment. The latter book is more of a ‘how to’ guide for people who want to grow their online presence. It is much shorter, much more ‘instrumental’.

So yes, Holiday has, in one book, decried the easy and lasting corruption of digital media platforms and in the other, he’s written about how to make the most of it. He doesn’t come off as too hypocritical, in Trust me, he goes out of his way to identify the actual harm that comes from media manipulation and owns up to damage that he himself has caused… but as he himself notes in the introduction to the updated edition, his exposure of everything wrong with digital media hasn’t changed a thing.

So I think that book is a worthy read for anyone interested in moving into ‘strategic digital media’. It has enough reference to media theory and actual instructive lessons to make it valuable. It is not as good on media theory as something like Pariser’s ‘Filter Bubble’ and it doesn’t really explore the full ramifications of the problems Holiday is uncovering… (which you can read more about in my New Media and Society article on ‘The big data public and its problems’) but it does present some pretty insightful and easy to understand lessons about the digital media industry.

The top thngs I’ve learned from Holiday? That RSS and other syndication models are being phased out of new browsers and operating systems because publishers and editors want you to have to check back on their site all the time (rather than receive notification when something you are interested in has been added – in this way, you create more pageviews and more revenue for the site owner). While this probably won’t seem remarkable to anyone else, I find it a really interesting shift… I’ve always thought Aaron Schwartz (inventor of RSS and reddit) was a visionary and if there is a hope for the internet it comes from the deliberation that engaged communities can generate. The book was also great for outining the economies of supply and demand on websites, which generate the banal and baffling content that you find therein.

It’s also clear that the tail is wagging the dog of public interest and debate… but that’s been true for some time now. Reading Holiday made me more fond of public broadcasting systems and more determined not to use tauel.com to chase traffic but rather to explore important ideas that do not get explored elsewhere.