Monday, 9 December 2013

I am no man

Scattered minor spoilers.

At the end of the summer, I posted a piece arguing how terrible the movie industry was at doing good female characters. I listed all the films I'd seen over the summer which exhibited this terribleness; they were legion.

But summer's end is inevitable, and the movie industry ebbs and flows in the opposite direction to the seasons - after summer comes a rebirth and vitality that renews one's hope for the future. Looking back at the films I've seen recently, I am struck by how awesome they are at female characters. And not just female characters but female-centric story lines, with real women acting as actual people who make choices and stuff! Revolutionary! For me, the story is always paramount, and often the least well dealt with in terms of gender. This autumn has made great headway in reversing that trend.

Just recently we've had two French films about young women exploring who they are via their sexuality: Jeune et Jolie, and Blue is the Warmest Colour. Both of them are slow, boring and pretentious; the first failed to bring it's main character to life at all, and the second, while extremely powerful in parts, ended on a bleak note where the main character failed to resolve any of the issues or problems she was dealing with.

A friend who I saw it with said that he liked this - real life doesn't always resolve nicely and it's more effective to show us the brutal truth than some neatly wrapped-up plot line. Personally, I find this poor story-telling - catharsis is a key element for me, although maybe the director, Kechiche, intended the film more as a parable than a story. Not my cup of tea, at any rate.



Another film noteable for its directorial finesse and masterful techniquery but ultimate ineffectiveness of story was The Counselor. I never really felt I knew who any of the characters were. Just like Prometheus, each scene seemed to be an island of breathtaking self-contained drama, without ever joining up any of the dots. While Cameron Diaz was probably the worst actor of the five, her character was probably the most exciting - a dazzling femme fatale who revelled in her exquisite ability to manipulate and control everything around her. 



Then there were my favourite films of the post-summer season. Short Term 12, a story of young people with issues who care for even younger people with issues, was rightly called a masterpiece: the story is dizzyingly multi-levelled yet achingly simple and direct. I love the way it transcends gender to get right to the core of exactly who each of the characters are as people and why they make the choices they do.



Katniss Everdeen continued her coming of age in part two of the Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Where the story in the first film was predictable and unimaginative, and frankly very slow, the second film was completely engaging. The key lies in making other characters just as interesting as the heroine if not more so: when Peeta has a personality that we care about, it means he can have relationships with Katniss and others that we can also care about. I particularly liked that they took time to develop the character of the strange PR girl who manages the district 12 team. That kind of thing adds a new dimension that really brings the story to life, and allows us to relate to the main issues faced by all the characters a lot more potently.



In a less mainstreamy kind of way, How I Live Now did a similar thing. The protagonist, Daisy, has to deal with the apocalypse and in doing so, face down her own demons - a tried and tested forumla that is just wonderful when done right. By the end of the film, Daisy has survived the apocalypse and has become a well-adjusted and less insecure woman. The film was only let down by a tepid and empty love interest, but this was made up for by the other supporting characters.


I adored Gravity - not because of the epic visuals, but because of how they feed into the epic story. It's hard to tell a story with just one real character for most of the film, but they completely achieved it, simply by going back to basics. It's a very paired-down three-act deal, in which a woman struggles - yes, again - to survive against the odds and in doing so comes to terms with personal issues. The magic of this formula becomes apparent at the key moment at the end of act 2 when she halucinates the guiding hand of George Clooney's character, pep talks herself into turning the oxygen back on, decides to stand and fight for her own life, and blasts off to meet her future, as the music swells. Now THAT was masterful.


But perhaps my favourite story of all could be found in Carrie. Goodness knows why they chose to remake this work of staggering genius, especially as the new film sticks to the original to the extent that almost every scene is identical. The new version did cut some bits, however, in a worthy effort to deal with the slow pacing of the original; while this did lead to a better structured and more streamlined film, it also sacrificed, if only slightly, some of the longer character-building sections in the middle, which is a shame because I felt you didn't get as full a sense of who Carrie is pre-prom. The prom scene itself was, needless to say, nowhere near as masterful as the original, but it's always going to be a great scene however its done.

I have few words to express how much I love the Carrie story. Again, its success completely rests on the supporting characters - the repressive mother, the hateful Chris, the guilt-wracked Sue and the other caring kids and teachers at the school. It is these latter who nurture Carrie along her journey, who take her from the timid and adoreable creature, so full of kindness, and help her make the transistion to womanhood. The mother is the chief obstacle, and in overpowering her, Carrie makes the all-important choice to be a full person with all the agency this entails. Yet it is only really the first step on this journey out of repression, and before she can take another, she has all her worst fears about the world confirmed at her exact moment of triumph. At every stage is the aweful presence of blood - the showers, the cupboard, the prom dress (which the mother calls "red"), the bucket and the cruxifiction. The new film intorduced one more bloody episode right at the beginning: the birth.

What's great about this story is that, despite being really quite a simple coming of age tale, it still reaches staggering highs and lows - Carrie starts completely humiliated and alone, works her way up to the ecstasy of love that is prom queen, and is immediately returned to the humiliated loneliness, the lowest of the low, reducing her from serene joy to abject frenzy. Just as the blood on the mother's nightdress at her death mirrors that at Carrie's birth, so the blood on Carrie's hands at the ball mirrors that in the showers at the start.

But in another sense, Carrie's greatest triumph is still to come - after the conventional coming of age transformation is destroyed by the pig's blood, the true realisation of Carrie's darker self, and mastery of her real powers can take place. After all, when she puts her mother away the first time, she escapes. When she deals with her the second time, it's a finality. Carrie has completed her second journey - the one neither she nor the audience was looking for - at the exact moment when she fails to complete her first. She can now burn happily in hell, her story utterly resolved, her character fulfilled at a more fundamental level than she even knew to look for.

So those were the films I've seen recently with fully-fledged female characters. I've seen some other good films too - Captain Phillips was brilliant despite not featuring a single female face after the first couple of minutes. I also very much enjoyed Thor 2, which did much better with its supporting cast this time around, although it still didn't properly invest any of the female characters with their own stories or agency. Sigh, Marvel.

The point as ever is not that you need strong women to have a good film, but merely that its equally possible to do so. This is something the movie industry is slowly waking up to, if this autumn is any indication. Hurrah!

***
Update: Just before I published this, I happened to see Disney's Christmas film, Frozen. It is superb, and has a fantastic handling of strong female characters. I feel it should be the subject of its own post, but suffice it to say: see this film!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Vote/Revolt? *blink cursor*

Time for the classic “this thing that lots of people like and lots of people hate, and that other thing that equally large numbers of people agree and disagree with: THEY’RE BOTH WRONG AND ONLY I KNOW THE RIGHT ANSWER”. Love that one.

Russell Brand wants a revolution, starting with people not voting. Robert Webb wants to change the political system for the better with greater engagement.

Brand pros: I loved his writing, and I’m very open to outside-the-system solutions. I do find it depressing how little your vote achieves. I do find current politics depressing and boring and I am obviously in favour of Marxist utopias.

Brand cons: Slightly insane. Unrealistic. He makes wild claims about revolution’s inevitability, like we haven’t heard those before. Needs more evidence for his views and his proposed solutions (not that he has any of the latter). In fact, I found Brand’s ideas quite unoriginal. It seemed fairly straightforwardly Marxist, which is great, but it’s not bringing anything new to the table.

Webb pros: A solid, sophisticated case for engagement, especially the very true point that the political system isn’t always entirely useless – it has been put to good effect in the past.

Webb cons: Smug and patronising. More realistic, but also not exactly promising lots of great change for the better any time soon. Inane belief that revolution always causes death camps. Praise for Orwell on this point.
Here’s my problem, and it’s cropped up before on this blog:

I love government, or at least the theory of government. It is therefore troubling for me that in practise the government has for the last few decades consisted of a spineless bunch of corporate shills.

Why do I love government? Because it represents people coming together, recognising their common work as one big happy society, our joint engagement in the common effort of improving the world, and the need to regulate this work. It is (theoretically) the best way to harness the human ability to achieve more than the sum of our parts.

What else fulfills this exact definition?

Wikipdia.

The government should be like Wikipedia, but for everything in life, not just encyclopaedia-writing. How does this relate to Messrs Brand and Webb? It both supports and undermines their views.

Wikipedia abhors voting, much like Brand. For Wikipedians, if you can’t come to a good decision that everyone agrees with through fair and rational discussion, then it’s not a decision worth coming to. Voting is crass – it suggests that some people’s views won’t be taken into account, which in turn would suggest that there is more than one group at stake. This is anathema to Wikipedia’s open-to all credo. Wikipedians see themselves as one big group, collectively working towards one big project – there’s no room for tribalism or parties. If we had this system in government, it would solve once and for all this terrible situation of multiple groups with different interests – corporate shills vs common people vs badgers.

Now, do Wikipedians actually all fit into one big happy group? No. They squabble and rant and insult each other endlessly, because they all have opposing views, just like any group of people. Plenty of Wikipedians are unhappy with decisions which are supposedly based on consensus. But what they don’t do is meet up in little conclaves, form alliances and base their strategy on things like money or staying in power. They never even meet each other.

In my view, this is so much more civilised. What government hasn’t realised yet is the very very important fact: WE HAVE THE INTERNET NOW. For me, this should be the central pillar of our Brand-Webb revolution/non-revolution.

When we invented the internet, the first thing that should have happened is the immediate sale of Parliament’s premises and offices. The palace of Westminster could have made a great party venue or museum. Politicians, like Wikipedians, should never be allowed to meet each other – that way, they’re forced to interact solely through the medium of discussion, rather than alternative media such as dinners and committee rooms and PR consultancies.

The internet also removes much of the need to have money, as it is so cheap, as well as most of the vanity issues, ie politicians seeking office because of the power-rush of sitting in front of a box with a gold mace on it. Admittedly, the mace is very cool, but this is precisely the problem. Politicians should be forced to use anonymous user names, like _cammerz01_ or millybillyband.

Thirdly, another good lesson from Wikipedia is that the people who discuss what should be done about things should not be the same people who make the decision about what’s been decided. On Wikipedia, administrators are the ones who implement decisions, but they do so based on weighing the arguments made by the mob of editors in log debates, paying special attention to how many editors support each side and to what degree. The admin themself should not get involved in the debate; they should merely end the discussion when consensus is reached (ie, when they think it’s been reached), and implement the appropriate action. And obviously, with the end of voting goes the end of whipping. How great would that be?!

So on the one hand, an internet revolution in government would be huge in scope, and would encompass massive changes to the way we’re used to doing things, just like Brand wants. But on the other hand, it’s by no means a crazed free-for-all. It still depends very much on intelligent, reasoned engagement with the system. And a system it would be, with all the glorious bureaucratic trappings. Wikipedia is MAD for bureaucracy. It absolutely loves it. Because it works. Everything still has to run by rules and codes – that’s the whole point of what consensus is trying to achieve. Bureaucracy, in its ideal form, shouldn’t weigh you down; it should make your engagement with others more efficient and productive.

Imagine if 70 million Brits engaged with a practical, work-focused bureaucracy like Wikipedia. A few thousand of those guys managed to produce an absolutely vast and revolutionarily useful resource in just a few years. Think what could be achieved. If we applied that kind of tool for good, we could end world hunger in months.

The take away message: neither voting nor revolution are good things in themselves. Voting is good because it encourages people to get involved and contribute to the work of the greater whole in which they live. Revolution is good because we have a crap system at the moment. But there’s no reason why it has to get messy or involve anything other than software development. Also, revolution shouldn't end government, as some anarcho-marxists seem to think. Government is awesome. Revolution should improve it. And if you can improve it without a revolution, then there’s no need to go to the barricades just for the sake of it.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Two reasons why that Gen Y article is stupid

A response to that Huffington Post article about Gen Y that’s going around - read it first or this won’t make sense.

One

Describing the emotional state of an entire generation, defined as the decade and a half between the late 70s and early 90s, is entirely futile. Talk about generalisations. The author is literally saying that millions upon millions of people (even if we assume he/she’s only talking about the “West” or even just America, which he/she doesn’t specify at all), who range in age from – say – 20 to 35, and who cross every conceivable demographic, all have a common experience of frustration, disappointment, excessive ambition, self-delusion and manipulation at the hands of technology and society.

Everyone knows generalisations are bad. But why? What’s wrong with just assuming that obviously the author is talking about just “protagonists and special yuppies” (WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!?!?!), so we don’t need to worry about pesky ethnic minorities, poor people, people who don’t live in cities and who dropped out of school, or even just those who have alternative lifestyles and upbringings? If we assume this, then surely the author is still making an interesting and valid point?

Not necessarily. Generalisations aren’t arbitrarily bad, they’re bad because they mislead and they marginalise. You can’t just take a massive group of individuals out of any context of time or place, and expect to come up with anything meaningful. Even if we allow all the lazy assumptions listed above, the so-called GYPSYs are extremely flawed as a concept. It’s not being pedantic to ask what exactly is a protagonist – or a special yuppie for that matter. They sound like middle-class urban white people, but how can we be sure? It’s important to know, because for the author’s argument to be of any use, we have to know the context in which it works. For example, did the GYPSYs feel the same way about their satisfaction in life in 2007 as they did in 2011? What about the ones who got started with their careers before the financial crisis as opposed to those who were still at uni or school? What about the GYPSYs whose parents were able to give them lucky breaks in good jobs starting age 22, as opposed to ones who began working at their local cafe when they were 16? I’d imagine these kinds of differences within the vast GYPSY mishmash are more interesting than anything that you could possibly say about the huge horrible group as whole.

One longitudinal study at the University of Michigan found that Gen Y was (loosely) much more concerned with money and much less with things like philosophy of life and improving the world, when compared to both Gen X and the baby boomers.[i] Surely this is the reverse of what we’d think from the delusional, be-yourself attitudes described by the HuffPo author. In the research of another sociologist, GYPSYs turn out to be optimistic, engaged and team players – all qualities that correlate strongly with happiness.[ii] More counterevidence can be found here. My point is not to disprove the argument with research, but merely to point out that if you write a piece that’s basically one massive generalisation with no statistical evidence, you have no ground to stand on when someone goes to the numbers and finds a different story.

Two

Gen Y is not unhappy. On the contrary, I would argue that it’s the happiest generation that’s ever lived, with the possible exception of whatever we’re calling the generation that’s coming after (Z?). Gen Y is not self-deceived, envious of each other or frustrated, and most of all it is certainly not unrealistically ambitious. The very idea is laughable.

Of course, when I say these things, I’m engaging in exactly the generalisations I just moaned about. In what follows, I’m not actually trying to prove these points as facts, but rather show a different side to the story that further underlines how flimsy the original argument was and how foolish it is to generalise at all.

I’m merely speaking from experience, being as classic an example of a GYPSY as they come. Among my white, middle-class, extremely well-educated and privileged friendship group, there are many emotional problems. I would say cynicism and despair at the state of the world are fairly prevalent, but only in a fairly abstract kind of way. More of an issue is insecurity, both in terms of one’s material situation and also feelings/sense of self. Everyone is constantly worried about their future, where they’re going in life, about the fragility of their social world, the ever-present possibility of failure and so forth.

What they are not, is surprised. They are not in the least disappointed or frustrated that they aren’t doing fabulously well – disappointment would imply a prior expectation of doing well that simply doesn’t exist. When I was at uni, we spent practically all our free time talking about how screwed we were going to be when we left. Everyone knew the job market was horrifying - it was a constant source of woe and fear. Since leaving uni, basically all my friends have spent their time looking for jobs, mostly with little success. Eventually, most of them have got low-level, basic jobs that just about cover the rent. I myself have followed this pattern and been acutely conscious how similar my experience has been to that of everyone else. No one boasts on facebook about how great their life is. If anything, the experiences of my friends have made me value my very-slightly-superior-in-certain-respects situation more than I would have otherwise.

These days, no one expects to be successful. But we’re still by and large happy, precisely because we don’t expect it. Success is not something that motivates us or give us happiness - it’s reached the point where we’ve just given up on it. Instead, we derive happiness from the multitude of amazing cultural artefacts of the modern world. The internet - especially the social vistas it opens up. The best film, TV and music there’s ever been. An unimaginable plethora of brilliant and affordable hobbies and interests that have never been available before. Food. Memes. The wit and wisdom of Stephen Fry. Great social lives facilitated by easy transport links and communication technology. Travel abroad.

Your average GYPSY lives in a world where, after heading home from their unfulfilling day job, they can head out to whatever bar or restaurant they feel like, hang with friends discussing Mad Men, Made in Chelsea or each other’s love lives, encounter several illuminating or entertaining articles or videos on twitter, and chat by live video feed with family on the other side of the world, all before the evening gets started - and without blinking an eye. This is a world where boredom has been all but eliminated, where the possibilities for general daily enjoyment of oneself are insanely abundant and cheap, where (by historical standards) everyone is ludicrously happy all of the time (for more on this point, see Caitlin Moran).

It’s not a perfect world by any stretch, but its also not a world that’s conducive to unhappiness, especially not when you have pessimistic forecasts forced down your throat at every juncture (low expectations mean you’re always pleasantly surprised). And let’s be honest - our society is as madly pessimistic as it is madly happy. It’s not just the news media and the constant dinner table conversation about how everything’s going to pieces and there ARE NO JOBS EVER NOT A SINGLE JOB. Worse than this - it’s the way we constantly read how things are GETTING WORSE, how TECHNOLOGY is making society collapse, how WE ARE ALL MISERABLE. GYPSYs feel that if they’re not miserable, which they’re not, then they’re doing something wrong. I thought this would end when I left uni, but it hasn’t - there’s still a palpable peer pressure to appear to be more miserable than you are. If you tell people you’re happy, you somehow feel guilty, because how can you be happy while everyone else is OBVIOUSLY SO MISERABLE.

The HuffPo article, of course, is a perfect example of that. And it’s wonderfully ironic, because in its tone and style it’s obviously the work of someone who is extremely happy, and who subconsciously knows he/she is talking to equally happy people - it’s an article where someone has put in the love and dedication necessary for making cute drawings and graphs with unicorns, yet which is effectively saying EVERYTHING IS AWFUL. And the article is also a great example of the kind of thing in our modern world that GYPSYs encounter all the time - a fun thing on the internet which they love reading and that makes them happier.

So there we have it. The amazing state our world is in, where everyone is happy and we constantly talk about how unhappy we are - and where talking about how unhappy we are only makes us happier. You couldn’t make it up. Oh hi Lucy, I didn’t see you there BECAUSE YOU’RE THE FIGMENT OF OUR CULTURAL IMAGINATION.



[i] Healy, Michelle (2012-03-15). "Millennials might not be so special after all, study finds".USA Today. Retrieved 2012-05-07.
[ii] Furlong, Andy.(2013)Youth Studies: An Introduction. New York, NY: Routlege

Monday, 19 August 2013

When not to forget about Buffy the Vampire Slayer


This post is a response to this brilliant, BRILLIANT article in the New Statesman about Strong Female Characters. I agree with every word in that article, but I also have problems with large sections of it.

To summarise, the author of the New Statesman piece points out that many female characters these days are apparently “strong”, in that they know kung fu and don't need to be rescued that often, but are nevertheless much more simple, one-dimensional and boring than their male lead character counterparts. Moreover, there are still many fewer female characters of all kinds, including lead characters, villains and smaller parts, and they tend to represent a much smaller segment of possible character traits and are generally less interesting overall. Just having a few token “strong” characters is no substitute for proper equality. Plus, to even establish their “strength” in the first place, they often have to do crazy stuff that a man would never have to do (a point made with reference to the Captain America movie).

I couldn't agree more. It's so frustrating to watch film after film where the token love interest has a scene at the start where she beats up a few bad guys to establish her “strength” and then does nothing else for the rest of the film other than serve the plot requirements of a story entirely about the male lead. Take the new Wolverine film, where that happens with both the female leads. Or Pacific Rim. Or Despicable Me 2. Or Now You See Me. Or the latest Star Trek. I'm literally just naming the last films I've seen in the cinema (other than Alpha Papa and The World's End, which are both about men), and they all fit that mould.

Still, I couldn't help feeling like the New Statesman article was aimed at these mainstream films more than at pop culture spheres where anyone actually cares about concepts like Strong Female Characters. The SFC term itself is most closely associated – at least in my mind – with the works of a certain J Whedon, who has created dozens of brilliant and multi-dimensional women characters. It was a little irksome, truth be told, that the New Statesman piece used one of them – Buffy Summers – as its accompanying image, when it could easily have chosen a much more apt faux-strong character. Buffy is genuinely strong - not just in that she knows kung-fu and has super-strength. She's also strong in every other aspect of her character, including in her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which are manifold. She's a cult hero not because she kicks ass, but because her fans have followed her for seven series (nine if you read the comics) and are deeply invested in her epic and fascinating character development and story arc. Unlike the useless kung-fu princesses of the big screen, Buffy is the main character in her show – she defines the world she lives in rather than vice versa.

My point is not to disprove the rule with a rare exception, but rather to suggest that the New Statesman piece has perhaps redefined the Strong Female Character concept in order to make a different – if completely valid and useful – point. The redefinition is useful for making this point, but it's perhaps unintentionally counterproductive in other regards. “Strong Female Character” was a term that Whedon fans adopted in order to rave about Buffy Summers (and Willow. And Cordelia. And Fred, Zoe, River, Echo and everyone else from the Whedonverse) – it was a term used to express the radical and exciting idea that female characters could be just as awesome and amenable to fan-obsession as male ones. It was never supposed to be used to praise the simple, one-dimensional "strength" discussed in the New Statesman.

And this Buffy-inspired SFC idea has had a lot of success. In the geek circles in which it has currency, it has had a huge amount of influence. Writers inspired by Buffy and similar characters have gone on to create a proliferation of *real* SFCs – each as wonderful as Buffy. Take comic books. To read post-Whedon X-men comics, for example, is to dive into a magical utopian parallel universe where character gender parity has been utterly achieved. Leads, supports, minor characters, villains and everything in between are just as likely to be female as male. The current cast includes heroes such as Storm, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Husk, Psyloche, Emma Frost, Danger, Danni Moonstar, Magma, Wolfsbane, Karma, Magik, Jubilee, Polaris, Domino, Armour, X-23, Mercury, Dust, Surge, Hope and Rachel Summers and more (to just scratch the surface) – every one of whom represents an extremely well-developed and unique SFC who fits into an important part of the X-men story. Together they cover the whole spectrum of possible character traits. Christ, there's even one X-men title that's an entirely female line-up, and it doesn't feel weird at all!

Proper SFCs have appeared in all kinds of (mostly nerdy) media, from TV to webseries to videogames to novels, and they are beloved by fans at comic cons across the world. The problem is not that SFCs don't work, or that they inherently represent inequality. The problem, as the New Statesman piece shows, is that they aren't yet in Hollywood. Marvel's cinematic universe is still completely SFC-free, which is insane considering the range of characters it could draw on. DC almost made it with Anne Hathaway's Cat Woman, but lost it again with a rubbish Lois Lane.

What's needed is not a dismissal of or hatred towards SFCs, but a call for mainstream films to embrace them  and to properly understand what they entail. Yes, we must hammer home the point that knowledge of kung fu alone does not qualify. “Strength” in a female (or any) character was never about physical power, it was always about the depth of a character and how much the film made us care about them. It's time to take the Buffy revolution to a wider audience.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

For a law against meanness

The other day, I realised there was a massive contradiction in my worldview. On the one hand, I'm generally opposed to mindless free speech or tolerating other kinds of behaviour that are detrimental to people and to society. I've written about that elsewhere on this blog.

On the other hand, I believe that people should be able to try to become the kinds of people they would like to be, and pursue the interests and kinds of behaviour that seems most appealing to them - free from any interference from society. I think free speech in excess is a bad thing, yet the idea that social interference in people being who they want to be is anathema to me.

For about 50 seconds after I realised this I plummeted into a mental crisis. Then I worked out the solution, which is one of those things that to start with seems exciting but which you soon realise is relatively straightforward. My dilemma can be restated in terms of two different ways in which "freedom" (and I hate using the word like this) can be restricted:

1. Freedom restricted by a democratic government.

2. Freedom restricted by ephemeral or unspoken social conventions and disapproval.

What is the key difference here? For me, the key difference is that when a government restricts your actions, they tell you specifically and in detail exactly how they are doing so. And they take a long time with much careful deliberation before they pass the laws that restrict you. To me, this seems entirely fair. It's still an individual being restricted by society (after all, the government is technically supposed to enact the will of society), but it's restriction in a clear way that everyone has agreed one via the democratic process. If the people vote for a government which then declares that it's not OK to make a speech inciting violence, then this is a perfectly valid limitation on freedom of speech. Right?

At the other extreme, we have peer pressure. And I don't mean 16-year-olds explicitly taunting each other into smoking. I'm taking about the deeply entrenched conventions and widely held opinions of society that prevent people from doing things they like and being their own person. Sexism and racism are largely enacted via such restrictions. No (modern western) government would explicitly forbid women from, say, wearing gender a-typical clothes or pursuing a-typical careers. Society does this, mostly unconsciously, by the way it treats the different sexes. Or by the way it treats other sub-sections of itself.

For me, this kind of restriction on freedom is entirely unfair, because no one has actually agreed to it. And when prompted, most people may even disagree with it. It's never made clear exactly what is forbidden (or rather, it's rarely made explicit - it's often made clear to those who suffer), nor why it is forbidden, because in most cases there is no reasonable justification.

But there's no reason why such social restrictions couldn't become just laws, if the government passed them. After all, there are plenty of unspoken social conventions that do a great deal of good. The codes of politeness being some of my favourite. Doing things that are mean and unkind to other people is normally met with social disapproval - such actions are forbidden in the kind of way I've described above. But these are actions that should be forbidden, because there's a very good reason to forbid them. The world is a better place without them.

So why doesn't the government pass a law against meanness?

I'm serious. The government should be used as a tool for improving people's lives. If democratic, it does and should have every right to restrict the freedoms of the people it governs by passing laws to prohibit or encourage certain actions.

But we've been too unimaginative in the kinds of things we target with our laws. Consider theft. We have a law against theft because when someone steals your stuff, it makes your life a bit worse. The bigger the theft, the worse your life suffers from it, and the bigger the penalty under the law. This is a sensible system, surely, and very just. So why don't we have a similar system for other actions that also make your life worse.

Consider bullying. Years of psychological abuse, often much more harmful than any burglary, can be met with discipline from school teachers or disapproval from peers - but not the police or the courts. Why doesn't the government ban bullying explicitly in a law? After all, it bans physical bullying, in that beating people up is illegal. But emotional bullying is usually much worse and longer lasting. There should be a law against it, so we can all be clear about where the line is between something that we've all openly agreed to prohibit for good reasons, and those things that we implicitly forbid with no good reason. The clearer this line is, the more people will feel confidant about defying the implicit side while abiding by the explicit side.

Of course, many of the laws against meanness that you might want to pass would be woefully hard to enforce. But that's a poor reason not to try. We have laws against other things that are very hard to enforce (rape being a tragic example), because we all believe that these things are bad enough that they deserve laws, so we can all be clear that they're not OK. It's time to do the same for everything else that's not OK but that doesn't yet have a law.

People may argue against me by saying it's a bit harsh to get a criminal record and a sentence for just being a little bit mean once or twice - but I reply that the law doesn't have to be a harsh one! It just has to exist, to encode our disapproval. The penalty for meanness can be as small as we deem appropriate. I suggest a light tap on the knuckles with a ruler would be fine, or perhaps a sternly worded letter from the Queen.

Who's with me?

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A green and pleasant land.

George Monbiot wants to rewild Britain (and everywhere else). As Caitlan Moran just pointed out: what's not to love about this plan? You just deregulate the green bits and let nature transform conservations into wildernesses. With elephants. And mastodons. Hell yes.

This is all well and good if you care about this sort of thing, but for those of us who never go anywhere that's not within 20 minutes walk of a Sainsbury's, the thought of real wilderness right here in the UK is actually a bit scary. I mean, the whole point of England is that you don't have to worry about this kind of thing - we got rid of any creature capable of more than a light scratching centuries ago, so we don't have to ever stay up at night with dreams of being trampled by buffalo or bitten by toxic critters with more than four legs. This is one of the best things about Britain, and it makes the prospect of going abroad all the more exciting. In other lands, according to our imagination, you can hardly move for vicious reptiles and unpredictable large mammals. They're there to visit if you're ever curious. Thank god.

Indeed, if such beasts were to return to our shores, the populace would be so unprepared to deal with them that mass panic would surely ensue. 99% of headlines would instantly become something like "baby dragged from crib by giant sloth, found badly licked" or "elk beaten to death by confused mob". Unlike those of America or Australia, British children are not raised with a working knowledge of how to react to bear or crocodile sightings. The presence of these creatures would only make us a danger to ourselves.

The other thing that concerns me about the rewilding idea is that it implicitly attacks the kind of nature we already have in the UK. Personally, I love Britain's nature - it's boring enough to be a) not remotely dangerous and b) not something you feel you have to visit very often, and when you do visit, it's the perfect kind of nature for brooding and feeling cynical - a vital part of maintaining our national psyche. The British idea of a good bit of countryside is a featureless expanse of moorland with nothing but ugly, gnarled heather bushes across some scraggy contours. Maybe throw in a few large boulders if you're feeling excitable. Either that or some featureless rolling hills with short, wispy grass and a nice view over a bleak grey sea and biting, gale-force winds assaulting you from every direction. This is the kind of nature we all know and love. So it's distressing to see Monbiot's followers explicitly attacking it, or Monbiot himself insisting that it needs to go.

While elephants and sabre tooth tigers are undoubtedly awesome, so are giant death robots. My point is, some awesome stuff is better experienced at a distance, preferably from another continent. Keep Britain tame and miserable, please: that's the way I like it.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

On privacy

I have a confession, something embarrassing in the context of the nominally liberal intelligentsia-type thinkers with whom people like me are supposed to identify.

I don't understand what's so great about privacy.

I've just been forwarded yet another article about how the internet is taking away this ephemeral sense of personal secrecy and isolation that we worship under the holy name of privacy. In this case, it's the glorious Julian Assange himself who bemoans the obliteration of our cherished right to inscrutability - something I found a tad ironic given that he's (allegedly) wanted by various governments for infringing this exact thing.

The argument appears to be that a supposed conspiratorial conglomeration comprising military-industrial tycoons, evil government bureaucrats, Guy Fawkes-cultist hackers and Mark Zuckerberg (and his attendant harem of social media demonspawn) is scheming to learn the most intimate details about you - yes, you - and use them to... well... you know. They're scheming to do something pretty nasty, obviously, because they're faceless goons who we fear purely because we don't know anything about them and we always fear what we don't understand because exploiting me - yes, me - in horrible ways will clearly bring them vast personal gain and untold power with which they can further secure their vice-like grip on world domination.

Call me new-fangled, but I simply can't see how if you experience more than mild concern over the issue of privacy, you are not basically just engaging in conspiracy theory.

I realise that the picture above is petty and facetious, so let's be serious: can we answer the following questions in any sensible, properly researched way that doesn't rely on pandering to our primal fears more than it relies on actual facts?

  • Why would any massive, power-obsessed government or corporation care about you? And if they do care about you, why would they want to do you harm?
  • Given that the rule of law still pertains (I imagine) - what exactly are governments and corporations going to be able to do to you based on any private information they ruthlessly prise from you?
  • How will more targeted advertising affect you and your quality of life?

You'll notice that none of these questions ask about whether online data-mining (spying, panoptic micro-disciplines of the self, "parasitical surveillance state" - whatever you want to call it) is really going on, nor do they doubt such practices' extraordinary scope. These things I am happy, for the sake of argument, to admit. It's not beyond the realm of belief that everything Assange claims about the extent of domestic cyber-spying is true.

The scaremongering articles on this topic, appear, indeed, extremely well researched on the minute details of all the operations and technologies being deployed to achieve such spying. These articles are rich, nay, saturated with juicy facts on this subject. But often the shock and awe they attempt to arouse by barraging the reader with these amazing data is used to mask their extreme deficiency in similarly well-researched facts when it comes to showing what the government or other such agencies really plan to do with the illicitly-acquired information they amass by invading our privacy so dramatically. The article linked above doesn't even say what's so bad about all this spying, it just takes it for granted that if  spying is happening, something awful will follow. (If anything, surely our detailed knowledge of all the spying methods and facilities is comforting. I for one think it's awesome that the NSA is so open and accountable.)

Honestly: what are these agencies going to do to harm you once they've taken your private info? What actual negative consequences have occurred through loss of privacy?

As far as I can see - barring a few very rare exceptions - these faceless agencies of which we live terror have only ever wanted, and could only ever want private info for one of two reasons: making money via personalised advertising, and preventing crime.

To be sure - undermining personal privacy to achieve either of these goals is a major ethical issue which is worthy of much public debate. What it is not, however, is a cause for panic. It is not a "threat to humanity", as Assange would have it, nor is it a good reason to complain that the internet is in any sense a bad thing. At worst, it's a moral conundrum on the level of political correctness or health and safety - to what extent are we willing to give up privacy for better services and increased safety? The answer is debatable, but it's not the end of the world if it's decided either way.

That is, unless you hold privacy itself to be something which is - fundamentally - a massive deal.

Just as a libertarian might say freedom is simply important in and of itself, no matter whether it brings any actual benefits to our life, many people argue that privacy is simply important to maintain no matter what.

To these people I say: you are deluded, unthinking followers of Enlightenment dogma who are equally as guilty of pandering to irrational fears and ideological blindness as the conspiracy theorists. But then, you're entitled to your beliefs, same as anyone else.

As a culture, we desperately need to move beyond the Enlightenment if we're going to make the most of the technologies of the future. Seriously, guys - things can't just be bad or good for no reason.

This whole obsession with privacy and freedom, started by all those celebrated 18th century fops, has been super-super-super-reentrenched by continuous years of cultural and academic concern with governmental and political systems that expired around 1916. I love Foucault (and Hollywood) to pieces but guys - even he got bored of prattling about panopticons and discipline by 1966, probably because he realised those things don't exist. Orwell was dead by 1950, so at least he had the excuse of the Nazis for his deranged belief in dystopia that has fuelled Western culture ever since.

What I'm trying to say is: governments don't want to hurt people these days. No one has any desire to see harm done to Average Joe. It's in nobody's best interests to initiate dystopia.

Look into your heart. What is the actual worst that could happen if people knew private facts about you? Once you acknowledge that the realistic answer is "basically nothing", the machine has won. your life will become so much less stressful and the future so much more exciting.

Friday, 1 February 2013

On Wikipedia

At uni I wrote my final-year dissertation on Wikipedia - by which I mean I wrote it about Wikipedia (on a word processor), and not that I wrote an unrelated thesis using the self-publishing medium of Wikipedia.

The idea for my subject matter had evolved in the previous years as I had become acquainted with the processes involved in editing Wikipedia. I had noticed that when I explained these processes to others who were unfamiliar to them, they normally elicited extreme interest and amazement, so I thought it would be cool to explain them formally in a thesis and hopefully provoke the same fascination in the examiners (it didn't work, if you're wondering). As one does for such tasks, I wrapped my explanation in thick layers of academic bluster, quoting a range of social scientists and over-complicated theories to support my ideas.

Several months after leaving uni, knowing that there was a considerable amount of research being conducted in similar areas, I decided to stick my dissertation online, in case anyone fancied reading it. It was subsequently picked up by a few bored souls, including one of the academics who the paper itself critiqued. Since I feel that some of the points I made in the paper are in fact quite interesting, albeit written in a "tedious and jejune" fashion, as someone rightly pointed out, I thought I would take a moment to explain them briefly in a more straightforward fashion.

Firstly (and this isn't actually in the thesis), it's very easy to edit Wikipedia. Most non-editors are scared of doing so, but this is because they forget that everyone else on Wikipedia is just as underqualified and moronic as they are. Thus you have just as much right as they do to edit. My advice is to take one of Wikipedia's most quoted (and misquoted) maxims to heart: Be Bold. Make any and all edits you see fit. If anyone removes or disputes your edits, then you must argue with them to convince them that your version is right. You can do this either by stating your argument in the "edit summary" box just above where you click "save page", or if you need more than one sentence, then make your case in the talk page for the article concerned, which you can access via a tab in the top left which says "talk". When making a case, use references and links that support your argument to prove scientifically that you are right, and also show how your version meets the standards of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, which you can find by searching for policies and guidelines.

On Wikipedia, regular editors are constantly defending their actions and attacking those of others. Everybody thinks that they have the right version and that everyone else is in the wrong. As xkcd just pointed out the other day, Wikipedians are perfectly capable of using over 40,000 words in debate over the capitalisation of Star Trek: (i/I)nto Darkness (and I've seen more pedantic discussions go on much longer than that). Of course, most arguments concern more substantial changes, so editors try to show that their versions adhere closer to the key, eternally worshipped Wikipedian values of neutrality and verifiability than their opponents'. If you can do this, then the much-proclaimed power of consensus would side in your favour, or more likely, a visiting admin would be more likely to rule that your version should be instated.

In my thesis, I showed how Wikipedians used certain discursive tactics to try and make themselves appear more neutral and right. They would use language that was calm and terse to seem like they were academic, detached and generally wise. If they were provoked or challenged by others, their language would become even more emotionless, in order to make their opponent appear opinionated and rash.

This is the bit where I made a fairly obvious but academically "insightful" (ie over-dramatised) point. In  order to know how to use the right kind of language to make themselves appear neutral and verifiable and thus more "Wikipedian" and thus more right, editors had to have experience. They had to be familiar with the way other experienced editors talked. They had to know the forms to take and facades to present that would bring them the greatest success. They had to develop this kind of familiarity and experience in the same way that one becomes familiar or experienced in any community of interacting humans. You simply learn it over time. (In sociology, there's a fancy word for this: habitus).

This helps to explain the point that is always made about Wikipedia - it is hostile to newcomers. This isn't because newcomers are picked on, it's just because they don't know how to operate in a way that allows them to make successful edits. With their work constantly deleted or altered, and their arguments always failing to gain support or consensus because they are presented in the wrong way, new editors often become disillusioned and stop editing.

This picture of how Wikipedia works is admittedly a little bleak. It's kind of like the way economists stereotypically view human motivation as entirely profit-oriented. This is unfair, and if I were doing the dissertation again, I would try to make it more balanced. In fact, Wikipedian culture is rich, collaborative and mostly not at all self-serving.

The reason I gave a lot of space in my paper to explaining the more combative side of Wikipedia was that I wanted to dispel certain myths that have surrounded the site. Many regard the site as a utopian paragon of human collaboration - everyone working together to achieve great things. Some also see it as an absolutely astonishing and unprecedented social configuration - 1) there's no central leadership or coordination (people are just working at random!), 2) everyone's a volunteer (why would they bother?!) and 3) abuse of the free-editing policy hasn't lead to anarchy and collapse (how do they beat the vandals?!).

So I wanted to point out that actually, all these things are perfectly normal, and are common to most societies around the world. On point 1: most of us aren't lead or coordinated in our daily activities, but together we participate in and generate vast and successful economies and nation-states. That's simply what a society is - leadership has never been required. On point 2 - if you're participating in any old community, let alone a communal project that's making a difference to the world, you don't need to be directly motivated by things like money or success - you participate merely because it's your community, and that's where you feel comfortable.

Thirdly, vandals and other evil-doers on Wikipedia are easily defeated, mainly because the software is built so that any destructive edits can be removed basically instantaneously. In fact, I argued in the paper that there was just enough destructive editing on Wikipedia for it actually to be a good thing - it was serious enough that the community noticed it and rallied around it as a common enemy, giving themselves much-needed self-definition as a group, but it wasn't serious enough to actually harm the process in any significant way.

So: there's nothing wonderful or visionary about Wikipedia that isn't already present in most normal real-world communities. People don't magically work together. They argue and insult each other and use tactics and appearances to their advantage - it's a political system, just like any other.

This doesn't mean Wikipedia is flawed, however. It is still the amazing achievement that many say it is - they've created a database of all of human knowledge, for christ's sake. In fact if anything, my argument is even more uplifting and optimistic than those who merely say Wikipedia is a utopian dream-come-true, an anomaly that can never be repeated. In my version, the glory of Wikipedia is entirely to be expected - creating vast common enterprises that benefit everyone is what human societies have done for the last 6,000 years and what they will continue to do for the foreseeable future. This doesn't mean humans are nice or inherently good - it just means that society is wired so that out of the bickering and the infighting, the personal attacks and the demented vandalism, amazing things can still be built.

So it was a little ironic to be congratulated on my thesis by a couple of anti-Wikipedia groups - Wikipediocracy and  Wikibuster, who are among the many who feel that Wikipedia's systems are too elitist (hostile to newcomers), too anti-elitist (hostile to experts) and too easily abused. While of course there are improvements to be made, and genuine issues to worry about, there is no call to criticise the project as a whole. It basically works extremely well. And Wikipedians themselves are the first to agree that there are problems to be fixed - they're their own harshest critics, constantly debating with each other about how to improve things and voting on new measures.

Wikipedia has had its doubters from the start, and every day more people proclaim that the whole thing is doomed to wither away in a matter or months. But in truth there are no signs that it is likely to fail any time soon. The community of editors is too robust. And what they've achieved is too awesome.