Monday, March 2, 2015

La vie en bleu: Life lessons from #thedress

By now we’re sick of the dress, but permit me a little late digression. At first, I had written and lengthy and quasi-academic review of the sociological ramifications of the color-based hullabaloo: some high-minded stuff about the nature of narratives and how they mess with our perception. I had a decent thesis, which I still believe is accurate and useful, and I still think this line of reasoning is interesting and worthy of exploration. But right now I think I’m much more interested in some real talk.

Like most, I started off seeing the dress as white and gold. I couldn’t fathom how it could be anything else, and I was sure the blue and black sorts were strange. It was clearly white and gold and there was nothing for it. I rejected claiming to prove blueness out of hand: the comparison photo was much too dark and saturated to be the same article as the one in the “ambiguous” pic (a belief I still hold—I think it has faded somewhat). I thought it was a prank or a hoax, because when I looked at the picture I still saw white and gold.

Then, later, it changed. It took me by surprise—I thought people were now passing around an altered image from what I had first seen. Asking Crystal to confirm, I was shocked when she said this “new” image was a white and gold dress. It was just as confusing as the Blue Team had been to me when I was looking at it the first time. I have never been able to see it as white since.

This mirrors a lot of ways my opinions have changed over the years. In 2004, I voted for George W. Bush as “the lesser of two evils”. Today, I somewhat regret my 2012 vote for Barack Obama on the grounds that he has not proven to be sufficiently liberal. I remember when my political opinions changed, but they changed like the dress did. One moment, I saw white and could not even make a clear case for blue. While not paying attention to those opinions, they changed radically, and I could no longer even remotely defend the ones I had just held.

There are plenty of other positions I have held in the past that have changed like this, completely and without warning. I can’t imagine what effect this must have on the people who love me most; I might turn out to be a different person tomorrow morning, and for good. It’s scary to me.

But then I realize that most people are equally difficult to understand for a number of other, different reasons. Crystal sees white and gold, has read the articles “proving” that the dress is blue, and will not budge. When I tell her that the owner of the dress says that it’s blue, she counters that we don’t know that that’s the real owner, or that it’s not a hoax. Yet, in the end, she reaffirms that the Blue Team has valid reasons to believe their claims and that she’s not sure her position is the only possible correct one.

And yes, of course, there are other stories. There are dozens if not hundreds of different ways to view this stupid dress, and each of them reveals a little something about us that is scary, inconsistent, or laughable. Even what might be the most straightforward possible story—someone who saw the dress blue, argued that it was blue, saw the articles, and feels vindicated—betrays something a little out of sorts. Remember that most people originally saw the dress as white. With hindsight, that looks like bold individualism and bravery. But in the first, it seems like the man who claims the earth is flat because he can’t see the curve, or at least a jaywalker crossing a busy street against the light.

So the thrust of all this jabber must be that we’re all ludicrous. Which is true. But beyond that, let’s also consider how all of this folly connects us. We may not be very logical on the whole, but when we learn to drop our “serious business” act for half a second, we might find that there are more important things in life than whatever you own individual “blue dress” may be.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Haterlandia: Enemies of "Portland Culture" Culture, Ascendant

Let me start this with a disclaimer: I am a transplant. I'm not even one of these long-term transplants who carries a deep secret on his birth certificate, having scraped the California-related bumper stickers off his car, and is making up for it by living in some fuschia bungalow in Sunnyside. No, I'm a monster of a transplant, having moved from the deep suburbs of Phoenix to the rehabilitated part of Aloha, then to a newish apartment in a well-liked neighborhood of the city proper. I work in tech, and I'm so very white. I like Voodoo Doughnuts, Salt and Straw, and the Waffle Window. My family has a membership to OMSI, and we don't have a car. I like "Portlandia". If you're a Portlander, and you don't hate me by now, well, good for you. If you do, this is the piece for you.

CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr user wiredforsound23

Recently, I was reading Willamette Week (online edition, natch) and found that the theme for the issue was the new "health goth" movement, which is something that struck me as hilariously hip, worth talking about in a publication like WW, and all-around good silly fun. The comments section was having none of it. "Gosh, aren't we just the kookiest!" exclaimed one exasperated commenter, in a rare case of sarcasm coming loud and clear over plaintext. The pointed response called them "hyper-aware and self-impressed kids from rich homes". Note that I have the "them" in italics. I don't know what the antecedent is here—ostensibly it's health goths, but I believe it's much deeper than that. (That is, a couple of years reading WWeek and Mercury comments and having been subscribed to /r/Portland—sigh—have taught me that "hip gets shit" is the iron law of PDX online.) Comments on other articles in the same issue are similar or more vitriolic.

And I get it. Really I do. Hating on hipsters is a national pastime, and if it weren't for a certain amount of hate, there could be no humor in things like Portlandia. But the depth and clarity of this antipathy are remarkable, especially for The Thing that Makes Portland Famous. I don't have any good explanations for Haterlandia, but I offer up the following as my best theories:

  •     Concerns about privilege. Portland is swimming in white privilege. If privilege were a form of precipitation, it would be more plentiful than the rain. Some Portlanders despise the fact that the relatively wealthy are willing and able to engage in bizarre trend-seeking as a display of status.
  •     A "Fall from Grace" Narrative. Oregon was a pretty rural place before the Baby Boom, and even after that, it wasn't in the national consciousness until hippies moved in. It wasn't really a national curiosity until a generation later, when the Northwest music scene took off. The town got a reputation for being conscientious, artistic, and youthful, and the transplants started rolling in (bringing economic development and high real estate values with them). To some, this represents a fall from a previous state of purity, where "purity" can be epitomized by any of the following: pre-boom times, the Hippie movement, the Grunge movement, or the pre-Fred Armisen times.
  •     Xenophobia. We think of xenophobia as a fear of foreigners or other races, but without much twisting, the term could cover the fear or hatred of any type of "other", even "transplant from the Bay Area". As the city expands and the lines between "us" and "them" are being blurred, anything that smacks of the Other is shunned or despised. And truly, what is hipsterism if not the appropriation of the cultural tokens of the Other to intentionally create an outgroup? It's especially disturbing when so many items of hipster culture are appropriated from white, rural America (which may trigger emotional responses in those who value rural ideals).
  •     Culture War Sentiment. Related to the above, conservatives in the area may feel voiceless and powerless, and hipsterism is liberalism. Having seen the extent of gun culture as a relative liberal in suburban Phoenix, I am familiar with the other side of this coin and the vicissitudes of feeling that everywhere you turn, you are being made into an undercover Other, unable to voice your opinion for fear of being ostracized. It sucks.
  •     Confusion as to why Portland has a meta-culture. This is the summum bonum of Haterlandian rationales: people are shocked and upset that Portland has joined the ranks of the very few towns in America with the image of its culture embedded in the national consciousness. I think it’s handy to call this phenomenon meta-culture.

    And the meta-culture confusion has legs. New York has one. So does LA. As far as meta-cultures for cities go, there's only a handful: I can think of San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and DC offhand as other cities with meta-cultures, and cases could be made for Detroit, Miami, and Seattle and maybe a few others. (States and regions also have meta-cultures, but that's not the topic.) Portland's meta-culture has surpassed that of its northern neighbor for certain, and appears to be rocketing past the lower-tier meta-cultures at a significant fraction of lightspeed, becoming as associated with hipsters as San Francisco is with venture capitalists or Chicago is with political corruption.

    To some this is undeserved. The reasoning is: I don't wear skinny jeans or line up to watch twee indie films, and no one I know does that either. That's for noxious transplants trawling Mississippi Ave on a Friday night. Unfortunately, like an honest politician in Chicago or a real-estate developer in Detroit, the meta-culture has run you over, and there's nothing you can do about it.

And eventually, it's likely this meta-culture will fade away and pass on: certainly there have been other American cities that were well-known for a thing, but for whom the time has passed, leaving them back in the comfortable pool of "eh, a place you might live" cities. (Pittsburgh's industrialism springs to mind. "Hotlanta" springs to mind.) Until then, well, I don't know what to say.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Rocket Boys and Jet-Pack Girls: Let's Throw a Golden-Age Sci-Fi Revival

Talk to nearly any adult who grew up reading SF and they'll probably tell you: they just don't make 'em like they used to. The Golden Age, with moonbases and robots and perhaps slightly shaky grasps of advanced physics, is over. And that's sad. They shake their heads and maybe suck their teeth, as if discussing a particularly grisly car accident. It'll just never be the way it used to.

CC BY 2.0 license, by flickr user pasukaru76

There's no interest in it, they'll say. We used to be so naive, and now that we know better, science fiction is becoming an arena for cynical cash grabs, gaudy shoot-em-ups, maudlin space operas, and—ugh—dystopias. Besides, the Space Race is over. We figured out just what the ordeal was about after Apollo 17's command module splashed down: jingoism and TV ratings. Only a few true believers at NASA and some powerless voters actually bought into the "exploration" thing, and we never went back to the moon. It's truly a bleak time to be around if you don't want to live on this planet anymore.

Well, I'd like to counter with the following: Whatever.

Modern SF is at a crossroads. On the one hand, cynical filmmakers take an excessive plot from the Action genre, put hackers or nanobots or spaceships in it, and sell it as speculative fiction. On the other hand, the best modern SF practitioners tend toward the desperately bleak "20 minutes into the future" dystopia trope. And that's necessary, to some degree. I would hardly tell William Gibson to stop doing William Gibson. But I agree with Neal Stephenson's take on the power and complete absence of optimistic science fiction. (Full disclosure: I cannot read Stephenson. I've tried three of his books; they are just too gigantic and out of control for me.)

Sure, the "Project Hieroglyph" that came out of that effort feels a bit contrived (but he got some fantastic authors to sign on, and of course I'll be reading the first installment). But the principle is sound—get people excited about new technology, especially young people, and you'll get more interest in building new technology. And while I laud the effort, Hieroglyph is mostly about the practical magic of positive SF, when the pitch could actually be: Let's stage a full-scale revival.

But, you say, people won't read it. And I say again: Whatever. People are reading YA lit about wizards and vampires, why not about rockets and Mars colonies? People watched Moon. People watched Gravity and Interstellar. People read The Martian. Why would people not read stories about the perils of great human achievements in science?

But, you say, you can't repeat the past. Of course you can! Like any other artistic revival, it won't be a strict repetition of the naivete, the pie-eyed nonsense factory that was the Golden Age. But the themes of solving mankind's largest problems with good science, of moral people trying to better the planet (and beyond) and resisting the cynical and the corrupt? There's still tons to be done there.

And we'll make it better. Every artistic revival in history has taken as its article of faith the patching of moral and aesthetic bugs in its original source. And the Golden Age Revival will have to do the same: responsible politics, minority representation, sex issues (looking at you, Heinlein), and other seriously concerning trends of the state of the art in the mid-20th century will be addressed. And if the recent trends in comic books and video games are any indication, it can be done without sacrificing a ripping good story.

But, you might still be saying, it's not the right time. We did wizards, then vampires, and now we're on dystopias. We can't go to space today. Or maybe ever. Well, that's literary trends for you, especially in YA, which seems to have become the barometer for what's coming up in pop culture. For all the good that's come out of YA-land's penchant for fantasy—and I think that one cannot overstate the benefits of Harry Potter on young readers—it feels like it's time to leave the trolls and head for the stars. Hopefully the next generation's hero will emerge from the bedroom under the stairs to hear, "Yer an astronaut, Harry."

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Last Smartphone in John Stoian's Front Closet, Part IV

This is the final part of the first of two short stories I've written which take place in the same "universe": one possible near future, in which a collective consisting of technologists and creatives has carved out a niche for themselves in a world of diminishing opportunity.

The screen flashed and a bright, busy background appeared. Geometric shapes floated into the framed, then zoomed past. Chaotic text said, "PLAY ICE. PRESS ANY KEY TO BEGIN." Never mind that the keyboard wasn't displayed. Lucy tapped the screen, and that was good enough. A bubbly pop up window gave instructions.

"So you've decided to risk it all to play a game you've never heard of to access a phone you've never used before. Brilliant. Please insert the headband jack into the bottom of the phone and place the headband on your head."

Nonsense, thought Lucy. She tapped the screen.

"No, really, do it. It will be fun, promise."

"I can't believe I'm taking orders from a phone."

"Audio sensors indicate that you just expressed your frustration. If you wear the headband, you will be better equipped to vent in the future."

"Fine! Gah!"

Lucy fished the device from the cardboard box in her bag, inserted the headband jack into the long thin slot at the base of the phone, then fitted the vinyl band on her head, from ear to ear.

"Thank you. For best results, use headphones. Tap the screen when ready."

Lucy grabbed her earbuds from the computer desk. She plopped them into her ears and thrust her thumb at the screen.

"Welcome to the tutorial. Pay attention or bad things will happen."

"Clear a space on a wall or a floor that is roughly one meter by one meter, and stand back. Focus your mind on the center of this space."

The screen blanked again and white text slowly appeared. "Good." An arrow cursor emerged in the center of the screen.

"Now focus on the upper left corner of your cleared space."

Lucy looked at that corner of the cleared floor, and the arrow obediently jumped and skittered to the corresponding space on the screen. As she moved her gaze back to the center of the space, the cursor obediently followed.

"That's incredible," Lucy said aloud.

The tutorial continued. Apparently, the goal of the game was to break through a landscape of multicolored, neon ice. Mountains of it rose from the black ground. Glaciers rolled, huge bergs calved. The tutorial had given way to the full game seamlessly. Lucy quickly learned to position the phone in front of her—she set it on the back of Chungy’s cardboard chair—and look past it (a gesture which quickly turned into the simple act of thinking past it) as she navigated through the jagged landscape. She soon learned how to break into the ice with a certain looping mental gesture.

She continued to fly, and eventually the scope of her vision was confined to a tiny screen, as if the world were a vessel and the only porthole were two inches by three. She gasped as sheer walls rose up, and twitched her head when the gap between her and a virtual trauma was too small. The room closed in around her, then faded out of existence. Occasionally, as the game permitted small stretches off calm, she darted her eyes to each side to be sure the real world was still a thing.

Soon, she mastered looming landscapes and glistening cliffs, gaining access to incredible secret areas, and, frankly, racking up the points. Soon, a tremendous, ornate ice castle appeared, unlike the smooth, simple forms the game had thus far offered. Lucy sensed this would be the final level, and that it would present a challenge otherwise unknown in the game. She approached a brilliant alcove near the center, above the drawbridge. She entered it and the phone gave a small buzz of haptic vibration. Something was approaching on screen. A human figure, proportionally a giant, considering the castle walls. Perhaps this was a boss?

Lucy hesitated, then bored on into the castle space, toward the giant. It was a featureless mannequin of a monster, male and without a face. The beast whipped its arm from behind its back to reveal a glowing, outsized sword. The monster slashed a few times for show. Lucy very briefly registered fear of the creature, then remembered she was playing a simple game, then remembered yet again that if she lost to this beast, she might lose her navigator and fail to impress her two potential clients and one potential partner tomorrow. With a burst of adrenaline, she surged for the monster, and saw the screen go white for a moment. She was sure she was dead.

In fact, the whiteout was one part latency, one part time dilation due to nervousness, and one part the slash of the glowing sword. She thought a hard right, then turned around and barreled into the figure again. She was again bathed in light as she passed through him. She whipped around another time, and saw the monster still slashing and prowling. It hadn't even been damaged. Time to regroup, thought Lucy. The one time I wish I had played more of Chung's stupid retro games.

As the enemy reared up once more, Lucy caught a glimpse of something dark on its wrists: deep blue diamond shapes that appeared to serve no purpose, and that absorbed the light as well as its skin reflected it. She pointed herself back toward the creature, who for a brief moment faced off to Lucy's side. Catching the wrist of its empty hand, she bored with her mind into that diamond. The hand shot off and disappeared in a puff of smoke. The sword flashed over her head again, and again Lucy thought it was all over. The spinning room jarred her back into action, and she managed a long dive away from the beast, spun around, and fired off toward the enemy's blade, breaking toward its feet, then rising to the target. She swerved into the diamond, the sword rebounded off of the floor, and the beast entered overdramatic, programmed death throes.

The chamber transformed before Lucy's eyes, elongating and becoming brighter and more crystalline, glassier, simpler. A full-length mirror appeared at the end of this new, live great hall. Lucy's modest gaming experience told her this was the end reward. She approached it, and saw a short, black-haired, olive-skinned woman in its reflection. When the image finally came into focus, Lucy stopped thinking directionally altogether. It was her, in a mirror inside a smartphone, inside a game she had only just started playing. She covered the front camera on the phone, but her image still stared back. The hell, she half-thought, half-muttered. She pulled out the headphones.

She looked at the clock. Well, maybe not "just started", she thought. Tinkling music came from the phone, and a message flashed. A slow, soothing chiptune melody played as a victory message displayed on the screen. Lucy shrugged off her tension like a cloak. Then, a voice came. It jarred Lucy, but gently, and at first she didn't understand it. Mercifully, it didn't mind repeating itself. It was clearly not the miserable 1980s synth voice from earlier. It was almost human.

"Hi, Lucy. You did a great job there."

"Hi. I'm really not sure what's going on here, but I'm clearly in over my head. So forgive me when I ask: Who in the actual hell are you?"

"My name is Spearmint, and I'm a friend of John's."

"Are you some kind of intelligent agent?"

"Uh...well...something like that. I will tell you that I reside on a neuromorphic architecture at John's house."

"Wait, do you know my boyfriend, José Chung? He'd flip if he knew John had a neuromorph."

"I know of Chung, but he doesn't know me. John's keeping me secret until he can fully vet members of the society and get permission from the team that programmed me."

"Should I not be asking questions?"

"No, you absolutely should. I'll let you know if there's something I shouldn't answer."

"What's the point of the game? Sorry to be all business, but that's the biggest question."

"Ok, except that question."

Lucy looked thoughtful. "Why not?"

"I was planning my, 'You lose, Charlie, you lose' speech. You don't happen to have half a top hat on you, do you?"

"I'm not sure I get that, but it sounds like you're behind all those crappy retro references."

"Guilty as charged. What can I say? I have an old soul."

"So, how'd I do?"

"Let's just leave it at 'well enough to talk to me'. That's pretty good."

"So, why are you talking to me?"

"You've heard of the Society, I take it?"

"Chungy won't stop talking about it. It's like his Promised Land. He says they're going to buy some land in the Valley and build houses for everyone."

"Hopefully we can get some good plagues going before that happens. Gotta love the locusts.

"Anyhow, enough beating around the burning bush. We have identified you as a potential recruit for the Society. You have the right connections, you're in a field that isn't already overrepresented, and you're plucky.

"Here is the offer: you join us, we essentially ensure that you get work. Resources, internal contacts, technical shortcuts..."

"Shortcuts? You mean, like cheating?"

"I mean, like, competitive advantage. If you feel uncomfortable with illegal advantages, we won't offer them. If you don't feel good about damaging the prospects of little guys and freelancers, we'll focus on wrangling work from the big fish. The point is you get first dibs on opportunities that you want."

"Whoa whoa whoa, there. Hold on, Robot Dude. I got here from hard work. I got here from starting from scratch. I didn't get here from cheating, or hacking or short cuts. If that's what you're offering, then thanks but no thanks."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I'm not ready to make a deal with the robot devil in order to kick start my career. That's like baseball guys taking steroids, or doctors cheating on their med school exams."

"I'm not sure I understand, Ms. Fernandez. I told you we wouldn't do anything illegal if you didn't want to. Are you saying you don't want every rational and ethical economic advantage available?"

"Well, Mr. Spearmint, maybe you're used to dealing with buck-the-system hacker types, but I'm perhaps a little more old fashioned. I play in the system, sometimes I just play the system, but I don't cheat the system. It's just not who I am."

"Everything you said is acceptable, except one thing."

"What's that?"

"You put a little 'a' in Spearmint. Spear-a-mint. Makes me wanna vomit, which as you can imagine is a problem on account of I don't have a corporeal form."

"Gee, thanks for the life tip, Professor Higgins. I'll tell you what you can do for me. I've got a big day tomorrow. Can you tell me how to get to my appointments and keep track of my docs for me?"

"Like a normal, dumb old smartphone?"

"Seems like a perfect fit."

"Lucy?"

"What?"

"Has anyone ever told you you're a smartass?"

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Last Smartphone in John Stoian's Front Closet, Part III

This is the third part of the first of two short stories I've written which take place in the same "universe": one possible near future, in which a collective consisting of technologists and creatives has carved out a niche for themselves in a world of diminishing opportunity.

She found the power button, an abnormally long, white bar just above the bright red LED at the top. Pressing it made the screen burst to life, going straight to an unfamiliar start layout. This must have been some flavor of Linux for mobile. It looked intuitive enough, but after a couple of seconds staring at the screen, a password interface popped up. She tried a few obvious possibilities: "benevolent", "password", "opensource", but eventually the system locked her out with a screen that said, "Naughty human, trying to break into someone else's personal property. In the event you're not a naughty human, you get one call to get your password straight. Make it count." A dialer interface appeared.

Lucy considered her options: call Chung or dial the map service. If Chung had gone to the conference already, there was a possibility that he wouldn't answer. If the GPS on the phone wasn't connected, Google might not be able to give her directions. As she stood deliberating, she heard a shout over the distant noise. "Hey, anybody need more gas? You wanna come do a pump jump?"

Lucy had no idea what a pump jump was, but she was clearly a lost woman in wild territory and she didn't want to stick around long enough to do any anthropological surveys. She opened the backup phone and meticulously copied the numbers for the map service to the smartphone and hit the Send button. A roar from the sidestreets emerged and approached. From a street to her left, Lucy could see a flood of light in the air, and soon spotted individual headlights growing brighter and larger. She could barely hear the artificial voice repeating, "Please wait while we determine your location." She would not be waiting while they determined her location. Mounting the scooter, she could feel the electric zing of her motor and of her nervous system. She didn't have time or access to pair the headset to the new phone, so she steered with one hand and held the phone with the other. It was dangerous and, under certain interpretations of the law, illegal, but probably worth it.

Lucy parked the scooter alongside the bike rack and in what amounted to a very rare moment of security-mindedness, fished the long lock out of her bag and secured the little vehicle. Maybe this phone is more trouble than it's worth, she thought briefly. She was instantly reminded of Chungy's frequent complaints that she wasn't scientific enough about these sorts of things. One experience is not a trend, he used to say, ad nauseam, until one day she informed him that she found it insulting.

If she was going to give the phone a chance, it would be nice if it used her number, so she pried open the back of the smartphone's translucent chassis and grabbed the dumbphone to get her SIM card. A piercing beep erupted from the phone, so she turned it over to see what was the matter. Bright red text flashed WARNING, with the following message: "I'm afraid I can't let you do that, Chief. You see, if you stole this phone, and I think you did, taking out the SIM card means we'll never catch you. And we so want to catch you. So, no pulling out the card, or I'll fry it up nice. Kthxbai."

"Damn it!", Lucy shouted again. She hopped on the computer and sought out Chung again. Somehow, he was connected to instant messaging.

hey chungy, hows it going?

Pretty good Johns about to start his pres. You?

not great, honey. stupid phone locked me out. password plz?

Well, I don't know it, but I bet John does.
Hold on...
aw, crap
Hold on again...
Yeah, john is up now. I'll see if I can get Dan. I bet he knows it.

k

Nope, Dan's in a different session.

seriously?

I'll see him right after John's talk, ok? If you can't wait till then, there’s a backdoor. I’m not sure I recommend it.

what is it?

It’s a game, or at least that’s what Trish says. She’s telling me that Dan puts a backdoor on each of the phones, it’s some sort of game. They call it “Project ICE”.

a game?? what kind of demented psychos are you guys? i neeeeed this phone nooooow. i’m soooo tired
literally and metaphorically

Well, the game is apparently really fun, but also really hard.

iiii dooooont waaaaant toooo plaaaaay a gaaaaame. i just want this damn phone to work now

I just asked Trish and she said that if you’re good, the game only takes 15 minutes.

and if i suck? then the game takes what? 3 hours? and then i don’t get any sleep and botch all my interviews and die poor and alone
and you run off with trish
wait
its just you and trish in the session right now isnt it?
don’t run off with her - she’s hot, but she’s trouble, ok?

Trish laughed at that, and said you have nothing to worry about.
Kinda hurt my feelings :)

good.

Well, you can wait or you can play. That's basically the whole list of options.

i'll let you know which one i pick. thanks love, gonna go cry now.

Aw come on baby, it's not as bad as all that. You're gonna do fine. If you need me to, I'll stay up all night and be your personal map service.

thanks, chung, you're the best. love you.

I love you too. Goodnight.

Lucy clicked the bar button at the top of the phone. A screen popped up that said, "ENTER PASSWORD OR HOLD POWER BUTTON FOR OTHER OPTIONS."

Let's do this, thought Lucy.

She depressed the button for three seconds, then the screen blanked. A light gray terminal font showed the following message on a black background, "Would you like to play a game?" After a brief moment, a sound terrified Lucy. It took her mind a few seconds to register that it was a truly awful speech synthesizer, reading the text back to her. She knew it was some sort of joke she didn't understand.

Sure, she thought. Let's see what you got. She typed "yes" with the onscreen keys. More blocky text rushed from the top of the black screen. It said: "Available games:

Tic-Tac-Toe
Chess
Global Thermonuclear War
ICE"

> Global thermonuclear war

"How about a nice game of chess?" The terrible synthesizer croaked again.

Fine. ICE.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

“You are the Special...and so is everyone”

The Lego Movie as a manifesto and blueprint for collaborative economies


The Lego Movie was a hard sell. I saw the trailer in the theater waiting for Monsters University to be screened, and I did laugh, but I also worried just a little bit. I had played the Lego co-branded video games a little (at least Lego Star Wars and Lego Harry Potter), and I had seen a couple of the Lego cartoons, and I was generally pleased but not overwhelmed—and I’ve never been a fan of the “scraping for a tie-in” film genre either. Two things put me over: Will Arnett’s delivery as Lego Batman, and the fact that I have a five-year-old son.

I wasn’t able to find much commentary other than standard reviews (NPR called it “a cash grab with a heart”), but Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress took a solid crack at interpreting the movie as a critique of American popular culture. It could very easily be so much more than that. (Important Note: I don’t believe that the following is the authors’ intended interpretation, but it is one interesting way to view this strangely great film.)

Let’s start with the villain. Will Ferrell’s Lord Business steals a superweapon called “the Kragle” in the introduction. Soon we find him as the ruler of a moneyed empire, including the city of Bricksburg. President Business is a very obvious face of the real capital-government alliance (the so-called “military-industrial complex”), for which Fox News attempted to take the movie down a peg. The world of Bricksburg is a case of what Marxists might term “late-stage capitalism”: there’s monolithic production of culture, threats of violence to those reject conformity in meaningful ways, widespread corruption, and bait-and-switch incentivization tactics like Taco Tuesday.

Emmet is an everyman, a full consumer who derives his social identification from the consumption of mass culture, the willful stifling of his own creative impulses, and the joyful acceptance of his own wage servitude (overpriced coffee! yes!). He is so successful at complying with the institutionally-sanctioned sociocultural norms that he lacks even the minor aberrations that make a personality, and he is unsuccessful at making friends. It’s important to note that consumption, even when done in a community setting, is insufficient common ground upon which to build a relationship. Emmet is not rejected because he is weird—he’s rejected because he has suppressed his humanity, becoming one with the state which has produced his culture.

Emmet’s journey begins when he comes face-to-face with Wyldstyle, one of the rogue, individualistic Master Builders. Diverse, largely youthful, artistic, spiritual, and independent, this class of creatives lives separate from the institutional worlds dominated by the strict organizational forces of Lord Business. For such a brick in the wall as Emmet, simply meeting someone this unique causes his personal narrative to fracture, and this fissure only widens upon being forced by fate to take up the Builders’ cause. The mass culture participant attempts to find a pigeonhole in which to shove the creative (“Are you a DJ?”), but forced to a crisis by his exclusion from the economic system, his only chance at forming lasting social ties lies in the Creative Class itself, the only social stratus that will accept him.

Though it is savvy to the fact that mass culture is a front for Lord Business’s stasis-inducing, rent-seeking rule, the Creative Class cannot succeed on its own because it rarely presents a collective front. When it does, it unwisely chooses frontal assaults on capital itself, or runs away to communes (see Cloudcuckooland). Ultimately, the Creatives can never gain the numbers or the organizational strength to defeat the corrupted corporate state without connecting the machinery of collaborativism to the engine of capitalism, and this only as a last resort suggested by a participant in the normal wage-economy. Emmet assumes a leadership role both as a liaison and a double-agent in planning against the state. The last thing President Business expects is that we follow the instructions, building collaborative trojan horses with the skins of mass culture and state-sanctioned consumer products.

The Master Builders are by themselves far more capable, gifted, and talented than the regular schlubs in Bricksburg (of whom Emmet is schlub prime), but can neither work together nor with the schlubs. Previous attempts to subvert Business have failed precisely because the Creative Class is outnumbered and their attitudes toward popular culture are offensive to the average blue collared minifig. There needs to be a gentle conversion process, by which a loving evangelism of sharing and peer-to-peer exchange turns workers away from capital-funded goods and services, by turning them on to the community.
As such, even the most canny creative-class plan with everyman guidance cannot succeed. The masses need to participate, and cannot do so until 1) they are threatened with violence (the Kragle is apt—it freezes the masses in their place, much like the modern elite's systemic refusal to raise pay) and 2) they have the support and guidance of the creative-plus-enlightened-everyman alliance. As the micromanagers descend and the cyanoacrylate death looms, the masses’ initial reaction is panic, then solidarity as the collaborativist Creative Class leads the resistance.

After that, the wheels come off the film. Emmet becomes a super-powerful Gandalf-the-White type leader, President Business makes a heel-face turn, and it all becomes nonsense. It’s clearly a fantastic way to end a Hollywood movie. Redeem the bad guy, everyone feels better, there's a fun ending joke, and the curtain falls. But if there were ever a political victory by those who want to moderate the influence of capital, the task ahead would not be to do battle with robot drones, but to ensure that the next generation of Presidents Business could never come to power.

We're still quite a way off from that, though. In the progression of the film, we're just entering the building trojan horses stage. I say this because we've just come out of the "get our asses handed to us after trying a frontal assault" stage that was Occupy Wall Street. I would love to argue that The Lego Movie itself represents a first crack at this, but this ending makes me question this assertion. It may just be that the writers of the film were expert lampshade-hangers, not sociopolitical subversives. "Lampshade hanging", a phrase well loved by the TV Tropes community (whence also the term "Cloudcuckooland"), means open self-awareness. The Lego Movie is about 50% lampshade by volume, from Emmet's jumping jacks, to "Are you a DJ?", to the meta-meta-meta mindscrew that is "Everything Is Awesome". Clearly, nothing was too subversive, or it would never have gotten Lego's nor Warner's imprimatur.

But allow me a little extra indulgence for just one moment, because the counter-capital economy always needs permission from the capital economy to operate. (See the recent crazytimes in re: the Uber car service.) By creating a largely inoffensive piece with truly subversive themes, perhaps the film acts just like the space freighter built to The Instructions, which carried Benny and Batman through Lord Business's gates. When fostering alternatives to the gigantic behemoth that is capital in the 21st century, it pays to be a little cynical.

This narrative may make a little more sense when one considers exactly how inoffensive the movie actually was. When opportunities to crack jokes at the expense of actual media icons arose, the writers demurred, and the parody television show “Where Are My Pants?” is not a clear sendup of anything equally banal in the real world (e.g. the reality genre). The aural confectionary “Everything Is Awesome” was cooked up by professional pop writers, sweetened by Tegan and Sara, and made silly by SNL staple comedy troupe The Lonely Island. While Wyldstyle originally makes fun of Emmet for liking it, eventually even she, the hippest and toughest of all the creatives, eventually succumbs to its beats. Perhaps its inanity is a disguise—hiding the anthem of the revolution.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Last Smartphone in John Stoian's Front Closet, Part II

 This is the second part of the first of two short stories I've written which take place in the same "universe": one possible near future, in which a collective consisting of technologists and creatives has carved out a niche for themselves in a world of diminishing opportunity.

Part 2 of 4

 The streets were as familiar as the faces of loved ones. Here, an abandoned liquor store, still completely empty, and the rest of the strip mall awaiting redevelopment that may never come. There, a fabbed apartment complex, brightly colored with unnatural geometries, in the modern style that Chungy liked to call “Rio favela chic”. He also liked to remind her that they weren’t really fabbed. Just the concrete infrastructure and the drywall. Everything else was still put there by a worker. Just so you know.


As she headed north, the main drags became less familiar, and more residential. The old strip malls had largely been replaced by flag lots with new, modest-sized houses and shops, some of which adopted the favela chic, toned down slightly for the discriminating palate. All of them looked happy—physically happy somehow, and though the paving in the lots was a bit haphazard, the miniature neighborhoods seemed so much more healthy and alive than the older homes on the sidestreets.


She popped off the scooter on one of these sidestreets, in front of a large, cookie-cutter house that appeared to have been built during the 00s housing bubble. Beige, tan, gray. Stucco everywhere. Rounded corners. It was a sight. She never thought someone as edgy as John Stoian would live in a house without, you know, edges. She called Chung again.


“Hey, I’m here.”


“Alright,” then in a muffled voice, “John, Lucy’s at your house. Can you buzz her in?” then back to Lucy, “OK, you should be in.”


Lucy tried the door. “Perfect, thanks love.”


The inside of John’s house was spooky, silent, gray. Lucy found a light switch that revealed an intriguing (to her, at least) lack of decor. Directly to the left of the entrance, there was a door which was likely a walk-in closet. She opened the door to find jackets and a small bookcase, which held a wide variety of technological artifacts in various states of repair. On the top shelf, there was a lone brown cardboard box.


The phone on the inside was very odd looking. The body was uncolored, translucent and matte-finished. There was a small sticker with a serial number near the top, by the front camera, but there were no logos, or branding of any kind. It looked like it must be a prototype of some sort. There were various unfamiliar accessories in the bottom compartment of the box, which Lucy decided she would explore when she returned to the apartment.


“Hey, Chungy, I got the new phone. This thing is so...badass,” she said, “Do you not realize how much money you all could make just by selling these things? It’s like I’m holding some kind of secret government phone or something. Anyhow, I love you, and I’ll let you get to your conference. Call you tonight your time, while I’m on my way to the meetings. Bye!”


Lucy hopped on the scooter, and forgot about dialing Google Maps again. She got herself out to John’s house; she could certainly get back to the apartments.


Soon enough, Lucy was lost, ducking behind a defunct gas station in a terrible neighborhood. She could hear the reports of backfiring gas engines, mixed with what sounded like either fireworks or guns discharging. It must have been drag night in one of the nearby slums.


This is just how things had shaken out in parts of LA and across the country. Politicians had tried, but not very hard, to prevent the massive unemployment and poverty inherent in last decade or so in technological advance, but they fought all the wrong battles. In the end, no one seemed to be able to explain why things had gotten so bad, and no one seemed to be able to turn it around. Those who could freelance did so, and those who couldn't retreated rather desperately into what became suburban slums.


Lucy stood by her scooter, and picked up the old backup slider phone, trying to get the Outboard phone service to pick up on her location. After the third failed attempt, she pocketed the phone and reached into her bag to grab the cardboard box. The translucent body of the device caught a glint of the streetlight.