Having a new PC installed, which has delayed this week’s post – it’ll be ready next week, and takes a sceptical look at the idea of a player’s Bill of Rights. Stay tuned!
We currently have social networking media, but we do not yet have social intelligence media. Existing social media is effective at building networks based upon familiarity or common interests to deliver simple diversions (for the users) or paid, targeted promotions (for the sponsors). Conversely, that other staple of digital culture, the Wikipedia, is neither social nor intelligent, and is apt to represent the collective trivia of the internet and the prejudice of nerds. I dream, perhaps idly, of something more than this – an online communication and knowledge aggregation tool that could not be ideologically dominated, and that might allow our intellectual resources to be effectively pooled.
How would we go about designing a social networking tool for leveraging intelligence? We would first have to avoid the obvious pitfalls. My purpose here is to suggest what these might be, and to propose possible solutions that could allow for the creation of something like a social intelligence network (SIN).
Pictures of cute animals spread easily on Facebook but challenging ideas do not and cannot. Similarly, among the most commonly propagated materials on Google+ you will find a great many pictures from the Hubble space telescope. Because these systems are based on Like or +1 (i.e. “I agree!” or “Interesting...”) tallies and motivated reshares, social networks thrive on the concurrence of interests at the lowest common denominator. This is precisely what you want for entertainment and petty diversions – not to mention advertising. But it is not a way to leverage intelligence in problem solving, nor to aggregate knowledge.
If problems are identifiable nodes linked to conceptual labels, solutions can aggregate around these nodes for discussion and refinement. Let's suppose that one of the databases at the root of a social intelligence network is a wiki-esque keyword tree. Each keyword has linked to it clusters of related thematic discussions, perhaps grouped as questions. Some machine curation is possible with such a system, but it might also rely on users being willing to connect their posts into the existing knowledge infrastructure.
However, they would be motivated to do so by the requirements of discoverability – if you don't link well, nobody could find what you wrote!
Related to this, the system should be set up to iterate on the material, so content can become refined through successive stages. The Wikipedia does a reasonable job with this, but it may be better for a SIN to actively encourage iteration by asking users if they would like to issue a revision – or put out a community call to revise and synthesize discussion on a given topic or problem.
Such an aggregation and iteration system needs more that a one dimensional response mechanic if it is to make the best value from user contributions. Users need to be able to tag content as (say) “Agree” or “Disagree”, as well as marking some content as “Interesting”, to show desire for further engagement. The robot curation system would need to process agreement and disagreement in respect of claims in order to tackle the next pitfall.
The Wikipedia runs aground on Platonic metaphysics: there is one truth, we must discover what it is and enforce it. This, as I observed in The Mythology of Evolution, is precisely the mistake medieval Christianity made – and today it can just as often be found among those who have a non-religious commitment to Science. Similar fault lines occur around moral and political positions, as I outline in Chaos Ethics – such problems are widespread within contemporary culture precisely because it is not a unified culture at all, but rather a ‘multiverse’ of competing worldviews. We cannot eliminate this issue and we must therefore plan a way around it if we are going to avoid fostering the empty argumentation that occurs between those with opposing worldviews. How could we prevent time and information from being wasted by irresolvable disputants conversing with each other?
Rather than fight over singular claims, an alternative is to collect competing or related claims in their own network nodes, which would be crosslinked. Thus wherever there is substantial disagreement, the competing claims would form their own cluster under the relevant concept. Undisputed information can then filter through into a bridging node, with the alternative perspectives clustered around it. In effect, ‘rival’ clusters around a node represent shared worldviews (or at least, elements of shared worldviews), and thanks to the “agree/disagree” tagging can offer insights into these worldviews. This is more promising than self-identifying a ‘faction’ since only religious individuals have any skill at doing so.
Consider the age of the Earth as one example of a topic that is contentious. The main positions within scientific orthodoxy will likely fall out as a dispute within the same worldview (one likely to agree with 'measurement is a reliable route to truth' or some such claim or cluster of claims). Conversely, Young Earth Creationist claims will be united in agreement with ‘the Bible is true’, while more moderate positions can be subsumed into the orthodox clusters on this topic, while deviating on specific claims concerning evolutionary theory. It will be possible to see from such a system that disputes within orthodox scientific positions (e.g. over group selection) are more varied than contesting views from other sources. However, all knowledge claims would be collated in such a system – as indeed they should be. Even if you are dedicated to scientific process and are absolutely convinced all forms of Creationism are wrong, Creationist knowledge claims are still a part of human information as a whole: it would be perfectly plausible, for instance, for an anthropologist to study Creationism.
Suppression of disagreement is suppression of knowledge, and the ideological assumptions that are deployed to do so always assume the worth of a claim is to be judged against some conception of knowledge as a single coherent whole. Yet you could not, for instance, study Palestine without examining the framework behind the competing positions on this national claim. The same is correct of all disputed knowledge. Only by avoiding premature conclusions about what might be potentially of interest, irrespective of context, can you be sure to record everything of possible value to any hypothetical individual. “Disagree” yet “Interesting” is a whole category of discourse suppressed in conventional internet media.
The above discussion makes it sound as if the primary role of situated perspective is to separate out religious and non-religious background contexts. But actually, it would be just as useful for dividing up content via its technical content since not everyone is equipped to read every piece of written material. To put this another way, the idea that everyone speaking (say) English is using the same language is woefully misleading since each specialisation has its own special language.
Nothing could be easier for a robot than distinguishing popular and technical discussions, and this could be fantastically useful in SIN. It would allow users to be differentiated into subcultures just on the basis of the words used. As before, everything is cross-linked and accessible – but content tagged Technical can be ignored by those without the requisite lexicon, and content tagged Popular ignored by those more interested in the more complex discussions. This also suggests a role for those ambassadors capable of bridging between the two.
When nerds accumulate in a sealed ‘room’, they get into arguments that devolve into flame wars and noise. This was the blight of the old Usenet forums and it persists wherever the forum or mailing list model of internet discussion is dominant (e.g. Google+ Communities). The essential problem is that there is no way out in such a dispute: both parties claim membership in the shared space, and no third parties are as able (or, for that matter, willing) to intercede in such fights as they would be had it occurred 'in the flesh'. The result is unpleasant for everyone involved.
If the automatic curation system sidelines arguments between two parties so they are less prominent, this problem could be lessoned. It could even enforce a 'cooldown' period on willing users to prevent 'posting in anger' – and allow users to mute flames from users with no cooldown, as well as branching content by worldview by default (e.g. few want to read about a theology or atheology they do not hold!). Some experimentation would be required, but a comfortable balance is possible, and all the information would be accessible to anyone by voluntarily defining conditions for exploration.
I am confident this problem is manageable because during the height of the blogosphere, before the social networks drove it to the point of extinction, it was far more possible to avoid flame wars than in the Usenet era. The reason was that your violent disagreements occurred on someone else’s blog, and returning to writing at your own blog was far less likely to escalate conflict than pushing on with the same vehement dispute. Similar techniques could make SIN arguments more civil – or at least, less volatile! – and they could do this without automatically closing down discussions. Two disputants can keep at it - if they want - and the results of their argument could be resurfaced if they managed to reach an accord. In the meantime, they can fight in private since anyone not interested will not be shown the most heated exchanges.
Some online discussions are too long to be widely read (blogs), and some are too short to have substance (Twitter). Is there a way to get the best of both worlds?
Solution 4: Variable Spaces
The benefits of a word limit on Twitter are that it shapes content for quick and easy consumption – to do it well requires careful construction, but either way it's quick. Setting limits like this control the depth and complexity of discussion – so why not explore this phenomena further by striating discussions into (say) Essays (2,000 words – about 10 minutes reading), Discussion (500 words – 3 minutes reading), Thoughts (100 words – a minute to read), and Blips (25 words – about the length of a tweet).
Now because of machine curation you could choose to launch discussion at any point in this scale, and equally choose to examine any problem or topic node at any scale. And of course, each scale is independently tagged – so you could go to look at “Rainforest preservation” (say) and find the best Discussion-length piece for someone with your approximate worldview based solely on the most valued Blips about it. Indeed, you could monitor Blip-feeds, or Essay-feeds, on any topic you liked, according to whatever filter criteria you liked.
As an additional suggestion to enhance this experience, replies to posts into the SIN can default to one step down. If you wrote an Essay (2,000 words), people's replies would be co-or donated as Discussions (500 words) by default. Nothing stops someone writing their own Essay in reply and linking to you (the equivalent of blog Trackbacks), but the system can make it easier to support shorter replies to help discourse remain fluid.
We live in a world where large organisations can literally buy attention and, ironically, already possess a share of our collective attention by being well-known. This is a benefit (of a certain kind) in conventional social media, since wealthy organisations bankroll free usage through paid advertising. But this might not be so desirable in a social intelligence network – you would not want a tobacco conglomerate dominating discourse on smoking, for instance.
The solution here must be to permit access solely to individuals. Large organisations will still get in by sending representatives, but could not plausibly buy attention in such a set up. However, this does not solve the question of how a SIN would be funded. The brutal truth is that every social network depends upon corporate involvement for its funding, and it might be difficult to pursue a project of this kind without such involvement. Even the Wikipedia doesn't get by without advertising – admittedly, the PBS-style ‘begging’ adverts rather than anything from the commercial marketplace. Perhaps the codebase could come about through open source means, although I doubt it. This problem is one I shall have to leave open.
The above assumes a social intelligence network that is a combination of distributed human intelligence and robotic automation – a cross between social networks and the Wikipedia. But to end this blue sky discussion, I want to look at an entirely different way of leveraging collective intelligence.
What I shall call a virtuous social network (VSN) is predicated on the idea of communities, linked only by common interests. These communities would be capped at a certain number of participants – something between 20 and 50 – so that anyone involved might plausibly get to know the others in their cluster. Each individual would be encouraged to belong to several clusters, thus allowing the collective intelligence present in each community to be leveraged on a grander scale, should it be appropriate. This is a much simpler idea than the SIN fantasy described above – but that makes it radically easier to implement, since at its core is only the idea of linking individuals into potentially productive clusters.
The pitfalls described above – and perhaps some of the solutions, too – would still apply to a VSN, but such an approach would have the added value of being more than just an abstract space within the depths of the internet. It would be a path to creating transnational communities on any topic imaginable. I wistfully like to think that this could be even more valuable than the techno-utopian vision that motivates my description above of a hypothetical network for social intelligence.
Do you think a Social Intelligence Network is plausible and desirable? Do you think Virtuous Networking is something we need? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
In Part II: Allen Wood on Tolerance, Professor Allen W. Wood argued against my concept of ‘intolerant tolerance’. This final part explores the contemporary political situation in the United States, and asks what hope there might be for peace.
Chris: One clear difference between us is that, in resisting political injustice in the U.S., you are on a ‘war footing’ – and as I argue in this book, we need people to take such positions to defend against what is indefensible – especially in your nation at this perilous time. But as is well known, a warrior cannot make peace. I have my eye on a future peace, one perhaps beyond your horizons. We could not afford everyone to be on my path... evil must be resisted... but we cannot afford nobody to be on my path either.
Allen: ‘War’ is being used metaphorically here, I assume, and also hyperbolically. But let's be literal for a minute. When it comes to literal war, my position is not different from yours. And I want to be among those who are on the side of peace when it comes to literal wars. Of course I am not going to go out and murder Republicans (except in my fantasies). I want them defeated (decisively) in political terms. Unlike Obama, I do not want to compromise with them, or tolerate them, because I think their position on most issues, and their modes of political conduct (buying elections, gerrymandering, voter suppression) are intolerable – beyond what may justifiably be tolerated. So in that sense, I do not want to make peace with them. But we are talking here about politics, not violent slaughter. (The gun-carrying faction of their side wants to intimidate with weapons, but I do not.) To want to defeat someone politically, and not compromise (or that sense, make peace) with some people, is not wrong, if their views and actions are beyond what can be justifiably tolerated. But do not confuse this with war in the literal sense, or a refusal to behave peacefully, in the literal sense. I am, when it comes to literal violence, a pacifist. This dates from the Vietnam War, and even before it.
Chris: Just to clarify that I of course meant ‘war’ figuratively, politics-as-war, and I am in no doubt that you are a pacifist at heart. It is politics-as-war that I hope to find a way to move beyond... I am uncertain it is possible – perhaps, as Kant has it, it is “merely possible”. But such is my hope.
Allen: I dearly wish I lived in a country where the range of potent political options never exceeded the acceptable. I think it probably was this way for a long time in the US during the twentieth century. But it no longer is. The other side has claimed that we are now at a stage comparable to before the U.S. civil war. I think that is an exaggeration, but it is an exaggerated version of a truth, and what is more frightening, it is the way some of them definitely see it. Republicans will be the first to tell you that ‘peace’ (in your sense) is not possible. They are the ones who declare this not an option, and refuse to compromise or to accept the will of the majority, the interests of the majority, even the rights of the majority.
Chris: Indeed [the political options do exceed the acceptable in the contemporary US] – and its troubling that the situation seems to have become far worse in the last thirty years or so. I always think it disturbing that the citizens of the US were able to get outraged over Watergate, and now seem to take in their stride all manner of horrors perpetrated in their name...
Allen: I do not think that peace in your metaphorical sense is a realistic option when dealing with such a party. My honest conviction is that if the U.S. is to survive as a country worth living in, the Republican party in its present form must cease to exist as a potent political force. The party must either fundamentally change – go back to being something like what it was about mid-20th century – or it must lose its capacity seriously to affect our political life. But mid-century Republicanism (of Eisenhower, for instance) is as much an enemy of the present day Republican party as anything. At the time, Eisenhower was accused of being a communist by the direct ancestors of today's Republicans.
Chris: I do not believe ‘peace’ in my sense can be attained in the US by the current politicians – Democrat or Republican – it must begin elsewhere, at the grassroots, perhaps, anywhere but Capitol Hill where peace is perhaps already impossible under the current conditions of political practice. As I suggested before, it is not something I see attainable in the short term – but it must be something we see as at least possible in the future, certainly if the Kantian Realm of Ends is to remain “merely possible”.
Allen: There is no moral equivalence here. Democrats and Republicans are not equally to blame for the present metaphorical state of war. Indeed, regarding the point on which you are focusing (and without denying that there are many other things on which I’d be the first to criticize Democrats), I don’t think the Democrats are to blame at all for it.The mentality that now dominates the [Republican] party is one which for most of the 20th century (even as late as the Reagan era) was that of a tiny marginalized and fanatical minority that was out of touch with basic realities and believed whatever suited its ideology and its quest for power. ‘Peace’ (in your sense) with such a mentality is not possible on mutually acceptable terms, because the only terms acceptable to them would be their total domination and the total acceptance of their delusions, which would preclude dealing realistically with the world as it is, and preclude even recognizing the basic rights of the vast majority of society.
Chris: Something is required to restore politics to governance in the United States, but I do not think this is a problem solely for the Republicans. It disturbs me that Obama has felt it acceptable to pursue drone assassinations with fearful loss of live to innocents, or at the very least has been unwilling or unable to intercede against these attacks. Your nation has fallen far from its ideals – and this, we can agree, is a tragedy.
Allen: I criticize Obama too, for perpetuating the wartime policies of the previous administration. This is literal war, and it is not about the political conflicts within our system. On that subject, I fault Obama only for thinking naively that he can treat Republicans as if they were reasonable people and expect them to respond in kind. He began his presidency this way and learned the hard way the high cost of it. Even now, he has this tendency more than is desirable. Obama is himself a decent, reasonable man; this is not always optimal in a politician, though it is refreshingly rare among American presidents, which is why I have a hard time condemning him even where I disagree with his positions or actions.
Chris: It may be that Obama’s political hands are tied, but this only serves to emphasise the terrible problems in US politics at the moment. But I do not know if I can forgive him for letting the CIA rain death upon innocents... what can be done when the President cannot stop the institutions of his own nation from doing evil?
Allen: Regarding drones, deportations and other acts of the current administration that we on the left deplore, I think Obama is politically boxed in on these issues. Even as it is, Cheney and McCain accuse him of being "weak" in foreign affairs, and people still listen to that crap. The way the US is positioned in the world now, when you elect someone President you are essentially electing them to be Darth Vader (or whatever metaphor one wants). It’s not a question of forgiving or not forgiving a given individual. It is a question of what the world is going to do about an empire out of control that increasingly is being run by a party, which, even when it is supposedly out of power, is quite literally criminally insane. The insanity is even increased when the party is out of power, because then its members feel they are not responsible for what happens. They can force the government to do or not do certain things, or to continue policies and actions inherited from the previous Republican administration, and then the government (in this case, Obama) takes the blame. This dynamic explains a lot of what is going on in American politics right now.
The opening image is Red by Matthew James Anderson, which I found on his website Abstract Art Sydney. The artist suggests this painting “represents peace and innocence”. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.
Chris’ first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, is out now from Zero Books, while Allen Wood’s twelfth on the subject, The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy is out now from Oxford University Press.
In Part I: Against Chaos the conversation focussed upon Professor Allen W. Wood’s arguments against my association with liberal movements and chaos. In this second part, the discussion switches to tolerance, and the political implications of intolerance.
Allen: I resist your criticism of intolerant tolerance [in Chaos Ethics]. Tolerance is a virtue, but by its very nature, it must have limits. Tolerance is the willingness to permit what you regard as dubious or even wrong to go on unhindered. Clearly there have to be limits to this, and good judgment is required in deciding what may be tolerated and what not. One obvious limit is that practices that make tolerance itself impossible cannot be tolerated. Unlimited tolerance leads only to chaos, which is bad. Tolerance must be intolerant of some things or it is not only not a virtue, but it is nothing at all (it is even self-undermining).
Chris: Here I am indebted to Isabelle Stengers, and probably should not fight her corner. But her point, that I support, is that there is a risk with 'tolerance' that we have not fully appreciated, an ability to destroy the hope of equality by dismissing other people's practices for living as 'mere belief'. In doing so, we are saying 'we know better' and in so doing the conditions for the Realm of Ends are lost because autonomy is undermined. As a Kantian, even a heretical Kantian, that is too great a price to pay.
Allen: Tolerance implies disagreement. It is like forgiveness, which implies grounds for blame. If you think the other should not blame you, you will be insulted if you are forgiven. Analogously, if you think the other is required to agree with you, you will reject their tolerance. But I think we should take it for granted that people disagree, that what some do or think will not be accepted by others. And then tolerance is what we should hope for. To disagree is, in one sense, to put yourself above the other, since you must think you are right and they are wrong. But we have to accept that others will think this too about us, and (always within limits) that it is OK for them to think that. To be tolerant is to invite tolerance in return. Those who are offended because you are tolerant (and therefore think you are right and they are wrong) are already being intolerant. Unless your position here is intolerable, that puts them and not you in the wrong.
Chris: Yes, perhaps I wasn't clear that 'intolerant tolerance' is a specific risk – it is not necessarily inherent to tolerance, although whenever people relate to each other through toleration rather than mutual respect, the risk can manifest as a kind of bigotry.
Allen: I find it odd to contrast ‘mutual tolerance’ with ‘mutual respect,’ since I think tolerance is precisely the way you do show respect for those with whom you disagree. How else could you show respect for them except by tolerating them? I think the cases you are thinking about (where "tolerance" becomes problematic and begins to look objectionably intolerant) are those in which there is something important going on that is well beyond the question of disagreement and tolerance. If an economically, politically and militarily dominant colonial power is engaged in minority rule over a foreign population, with different beliefs and practices, it may describe its attitude toward them as 'tolerant'. But in such cases that may be a euphemism, distracting from the real issue. If the colonial power is imposing its way of life on the native majority, and says it "tolerates" it (but only at those points where its capacity to dominate has given out), then this is not an admirable or even an acceptable attitude. (I don’t think it is even a form of genuine tolerance, though it may feel like it from the self-deceptive standpoint of the dominators.) It masks the unjust domination that is really the basic fact about the situation.
Chris: This is an extremely salient perspective on the issue I am raising, although it applies not just in the colonial situation – it can happen anywhere that there is a power imbalance, which is to say, everywhere. The intersectionality critique within feminism is an example of coming to terms with what I am calling 'intolerant tolerance'; the gradual recognition that in fighting for 'women' the feminists have inadvertently been enforcing ideals of white, middle-class women in developed nations. The clearest and most disturbing sign of this for me was those feminists willing to support war in Iraq on the grounds that the military action would be 'liberating' Muslim women... To my knowledge, none of the politically active women's groups in Islamic nations asked for war – nor, it might be added, was it wise to think that liberty could flow effortlessly from the barrel of a gun.
Allen: I think before I can decide what you or Stengers object to is something I would defend, I would need to know which cases you are talking about in particular, and I would have to decide what I think about those specific cases. I think if our only choices are tolerating the abuse of women and invading (with the aim of dominating) other cultures, then so far we have been offered no acceptable alternative.
Chris: This is undoubtedly a wise response, and both Stengers and I have somewhat different targets, although we are working on similar ideals and our goal is little more than to invite a pause, a hesitation, a scruple, whenever we are tempted to place our values and culture above those of others whose actual values and experiences we know very little about beyond our own ragged assumptions. This is what she calls 'the curse of tolerance', which is very close to what I mark by 'intolerant tolerance': the risk that our toleration is actually masking an unrecognised attempt to have power over others, to pre-empt the discourse or respect necessary for equal partnership, because we are sure that 'we know' and others 'merely believe' (i.e. are mistaken).
Allen: I think the issue we are now discussing illustrates a point I tried to make earlier. It is always a mistake to turn your justified reaction to common rhetorical abuses of certain moral concepts or principles into a general objection to those concepts or principles. This is what I fear may be happening in the case of your objections to tolerance.
Chris: Although I may oversell this point in the first chapter [of Chaos Ethics] for dramatic effect, I am not arguing against being tolerant. I am only trying to warn that we are unable to fairly judge whether we are tolerant when the only people we speak to share identical values to us – and even more so when the only people we will accept as part of our world are those who share our values. That, in essence, is the risk.
This discussion continues in the final part: Against War. The opening image is The Canary Test: Levels of Tolerance by (and copyrighted to) Nicola Moss, and is used with permission. I found it on her website, Layers of Life.
Chris’ first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, is out now from Zero Books, while Allen Wood’s twelfth on the subject, The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy is out now from Oxford University Press.
Earlier this year, I exchanged emails with Professor Allen W. Wood after sending him a copy of the page proofs for Chaos Ethics which I described as “the least Kantian book of Kantian ethics thus far written”. To my surprise, Professor Wood got back to me with some interesting challenges to my ideas. This is the first of a three-part edited version of our exchanges.
Allen Wood: I haven't had time (nor will I) to read all of your provocative, lively, engaging, and erudite book. But I have looked at parts of it. I am pleased by the way it engages with Kant and Parfit, as well as my own work. I appreciate your quotation from Anscombe, with whose moral and political views I generally strongly disagree. But her quoted remark about consequentialism seems to me right on target.
[The 1958 quote referred to is as follows:
...the point of considering hypothetical situations, perhaps very improbable ones, seems to be to elicit from yourself or someone else a hypothetical decision to do something of a bad kind. I don't doubt this has the effect of predisposing people - who will never get into the situations for which they have made hypothetical choice - to consent to similar bad actions, or to praise and flatter those who do them, so long as their crowd does so too, when the desperate circumstances imagined don't hold at all.]
I have made a similar (analogous) point myself about something else (which may be related): I think that most instances in which people invoke the true proposition that moral principles have exceptions are cases in which they are trying to rationalize violating a moral principle in precisely a case where they should not be violating it. More generally, moral truths are more often used to justify wrongdoing that moral falsehoods, because if they are misapplied, they make good rationalizations for bad conduct. The most important truths are often the most easily abused. It is a common mistake made by non-philosophers in reading moral philosophy, especially the moral philosophy of the past, to react only to the rhetorical force that some assertion might have for us (for instance, the way it might be abused in some present-day political context) rather than considering what it actually means, and whether it is true. Thus to argue that some principle P is a bad or false principle because it has been used by Nazis, terrorists (or whoever your bugaboo happens to be) is in general a bad form of argument. This point might even be turned against Anscombe, if she were to use the common abuse of consequentialist reasoning as an argument that consequentialism is false.
Chris Bateman: There are definite problems here, and difficult ones to iron out! I learned a lot thinking about your "ends justify the means" argument [i.e. that all means are by definition justified by the ends they aim at], which is indisputably correct – and indeed, I had a go at refining this particular objection. My alternative "the goodness of ends cannot justify the immorality of means" seems to me an improvement (and obviously Kantian), but I feel it could be snappier!
Allen: I note that you even read my footnotes, to the extent of having caught me in one footnote from 1999 - a dismissive one about Lévinas – that I now regard as hasty, regrettable and based on insufficient engagement with his thought. It may be that further acquaintance would lead me back to the same dismissive conclusions, but I now think there is more to his views than I appreciated in 1999 and that I shouldn't have written what I did. My consolation over the years is that this was buried in a note in the back of the book, which few people would read. You have, at least to a degree, deprived me of that consolation. Some people will have the persistence to seek out my precipitous remarks, and even report them. I am at least glad that you do so in a way that makes me look moderate compared to Badiou, who himself is flatteringly presented in your book.
Chris: I always read footnotes – and yours are far more interesting than many philosophers! I have found a wealth of treasures hidden away in the back of your books... Although you may not appreciate this particularly ‘find’, I was glad of finding someone who would say aloud what many analytic philosophers think when facing Lévinas. I have to say, I dread to think what is going to be thrown back at me in the years to come! Perhaps it is best not to think about it...
Allen: I don't want to try to engage with all, or even very many, of the deliberately controversial things you thrust at us in this book. But I do want to dispute – as not only mistaken, but also too easy – the association of law with conservatism or the right and chaos with progressive politics or the left. I think we leftists have the correct take on law, seeing it as arising from reason rather than tradition, and capable of correction without relinquishing its authority.
Chris: I may need to stress that this association is more complex than a simple 'conservative = law' and 'liberal = chaos', since many aspects of the liberal political traditions (and especially in the U.S.) are deeply engaged with Law. Although this is how I introduce the concepts, the complexity of the concepts build slowly across the chapters so that it is only by the end that what I am gesturing at with 'Chaos' (and 'Law') is clear.
Allen: I am myself not in favour of chaos at all. I see chaos as simply the result of confusion and error. I do defend uncertainty and an awareness of our own fallibility. But that is not chaos. Conservatism can easily lead to chaos. Of course I may be taking the term ‘chaos,’ in your use of it, too literally. You are defending chaos in order to be provocative, and when someone does that, they usually have a more complex thought than the provocative word would normally suggest.
Chris: I am well aware that you have no truck with 'chaos' of any kind – but again, I think the concept of moral chaos I am defending is defensible, and actually inherent to virtue ethics. But key to my argument is that an excess of either Law or Chaos is always problematic, and one needs to be conditioned with the other.
Allen: 'Conservative' itself is a problematic term, especially in this period and in the U.S. One might associate it with a tendency to caution, taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, believing according to the evidence, reluctance to embrace untried solutions too hastily, and wanting to preserve things as they are if they have proven to be the things that work best. But none of these traits characterize our self-described political 'conservatives' at present. Our self-described conservatives are really impetuous radicals, who substitute a simplistic dogmatic ideology for evidence and use it to rationalize any kind of corrupt or unwise scheme that seems to fit it.
The only things associated with the word that do characterize them is a stubborn tendency to defend unjust privileges and a bigoted and dogmatic defence of traditional superstitions. Conservatism in the present day U.S. sense leads directly to chaos, and this is not good. Conservatism leads to chaos when it confronts conditions under which traditional superstitions, entrenched privileges, and even excessive or misplaced caution or what you erroneously think of as responsible behaviour, result in "blowback" and conditions the conservative cannot have contemplated.
Chris: I believe I discuss the problems of 'conservative chaos' under the discussion of drone assassinations and recent unjust wars, in which I recognise a highly immoral chaos emerging from conservatively-motivated foreign policy... My goal is to recognise some forms of chaos as moral and some forms of law as immoral – not to give a free ride to either, and also to suggest that the Realm of Ends is unobtainable without this recognition.
This discussion continues in Part II: Tolerance next week. The opening image is Turmoil by Vitor, which I found at his site, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implicit permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.
Chris’ first book of moral philosophy, Chaos Ethics, is out now from Zero Books, while Allen Wood’s twelfth on the subject, The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy is out now from Oxford University Press.
Over on ihobo today, a new blog letter addressing Miguel Sicart and Douglas Wilson. Here's an extract:
Treachery has long been an important aspect of competitive boardgames, but in videogames there seems to be far less betrayal between players. When treacherous play occurs in digital games, it is more likely to occur between the game designer – who presumably enjoys imagining the schadenfreude they would experience if they could watch their future player! – and the eventual ‘victim’. Except, as the two of you stress in your wonderful paper Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, certain players will actively enjoy and seek out the challenge this represents. There seems to be something of a paradox here, since not every way of increasing challenge will be welcomed even by those players who happily endure betrayal of this kind. Is it solely the pursuit of victory that makes treacherous play entertaining, or is there a strange pleasure to be taken from the act of being betrayed? My sense is that this goes beyond the desire to pursue conventional challenges and into the social dimensions of play.
It's official - Chaos Ethics is in the warehouse, and the ebook has also been digitally issued. That means even though the release date is still a little over two weeks away, the book is already available to buy as both a paperback and an ebook.
This completes my three year mission to write a trilogy of books on the philosophy of imagination for Zero Books, and it's been one hell of a ride - before this last book had come out, I'd already used the first (Imaginary Games) to get a doctorate! My infinite thanks to those of you who have come along on this journey with me, and to everyone who explores these three books in the years to come.
I'd like to take this opportunity to once again thank everyone who has helped me with this book, which has been a far greater undertaking than I ever expected. Here's an extract from the acknowledgements:
Then there are the hordes of people who have helped me on either the manuscript itself or the long process leading up to it (many of them unwitting accomplices in my crimes!), including Neil Bundy, Peter Crowther, Ben Cowley, Nick Elliott, Jack Monahan, Jon Rouse, Wayne Thompson, translucy, Kelly Waldrop-Briggs, everyone at Chorlton Unitarian Church (true agents of chaos!), and a host of other people who, via my blog Only a Game, helped shape my views on all manner of ethical issues over the past decade. Especial thanks are due to everyone at my blog who discussed the trolley problem with me, including Bezman, Tom Camfield, Duoae, Corvus Elrod, Darius Kazemi, Marc Majcher, Duncan Monro, John Peacock, and Foster Nichols. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Cathy Bryant for getting me interested in philosophy in the first place, many moons ago in a very different life to the one I am living now. If it were not for her, the course of my life would have been very different indeed!
Lastly, but certainly not least, there are those who provided invaluable feedback on the draft manuscript including Vitor Bosshard, Gary Jones, Theo Malekin, Matt Mower, Michael Pereira, Sushma Sahajpal, and Oscar Strik, many of whom have been great friends of this project - some from as far back as the germinal 'Ethics Campaign' on my blog! The final version of this book is greatly improved by virtue of their contributions, although it goes without saying that any remaining mistakes are mine and mine alone. Michael and Oscar in particular went above and beyond the call of duty in providing assistance, and for this I am forever in their debt.
Well, what are you waiting for - go order a copy of Chaos Ethics right now!
Suggest Jesus was just another human and you horrify orthodox Christians – suggest Galileo wasn’t heroic, and you horrify orthodox Positivists. How do disputes over historical facts possess this power to induce horror?
The inability to bear contradictory conceptions is called cognitive dissonance by psychologists. Recently, we have made watching other people endure dissonance into entertainment – amateur ‘singers’ who become enraged when their lack of talent becomes exposed, or low-income lovers reacting violently when a lying partner is revealed. The experience is disorientating, and can invoke rage in certain cases, yet we all experience minor dissonance on a daily basis in pursuit of a consistent sense of self: the story we tell about ourselves has to be maintained against the ambiguities of life. We expect to encounter a single consistent story about the world – history – and when this is threatened by rival accounts, dissonance occurs.
In Chaos Ethics, I use the term moral horror to describe cognitive dissonance in the context of ethics – the unsettling or fury-inducing response to incompatible ethical conceptions. Moral horror can be seen in the context of abortion, gay marriage, and many more cases of contemporary political disagreement. My additional claim in this piece is that because we possess moral values concerning truth, clashes over historical questions also evoke moral horror, and this is the reason that contrary historical claims can bring about dissonance. When positivists express outrage at the idea of creationism, for instance, it is because this suggestion transgresses their deeply held moral values concerning truth (see The Mythology of Evolution for this discussion). What on the face of it seems to be a factual dispute becomes a moral conflict: ‘you should not believe this (because it is not true)’.
We need moral horror – it is not something we should wish to eliminate. It is one of the few things that will motivate us to take action against that which we judge as morally wrong. But there is also severe danger any time cognitive dissonance is involved, because we are at the greatest risk of acting unreasonably whenever it affects us (just recall the poor victims of those ‘shocking’ day time talk shows). In the grip of moral horror, we are certain we are right, and cannot – quite literally – imagine how the other view of the world that horrifies us could be in any way reasonable. At most, we can tolerate the other perspective, which is a polite way of saying that we look down on these foolish others and patiently endure their being so obviously wrong. A key part of my purpose in exploring moral horror in Chaos Ethics is precisely to move past this intolerant tolerance, and to achieve this requires a deeper understanding of the role of imagination in morality – and history.
To unravel the moral horror of clashing histories we need to appreciate that our access to the world is mediated by certain imaginative patterns. Joseph Campbell referred to the mythic systems that are tied to lived practices as ‘living mythologies’ and it is the nature of such things that they are indeed lived. Often, this entails a relationship between the practitioners’ ethics and the stories of their mythos (i.e. a specific cultural vantage point, see the chapter on ethics in Imaginary Games for more on this). We cannot, as Jean-François Lyotard and others have suggested, break out of seeing the world through these ‘grand narratives’ – judging them as if we could get completely outside is simply, as Charles Taylor observed, yet another mythic point of view (what might be called the postmodern or relativist mythology). No, I’m afraid we all must imagine in specific ways if we are to imagine anything at all (whether fact or fiction), but as both Campbell and Raimon Pannikar drew attention to, we all have great difficulty in understanding our own mythologies as anything other than truth – and this is the root of the problem to be explored here, because it is this that sets up inevitable cognitive dissonance.
For the purpose of explaining the phenomena under consideration, let us treat any mythos as comprised of two elements – mythos stories that are recognised as stories by those who share them, and mythos histories that are taken as factual. Mythos stories have as their focus their moral content – Jesus’ parables are a great example, or Homer’s Odyssey as a guide to how a Greek warrior must be tempered before he can become a good husband. Conversely, mythos histories are read as informing chronology rather than morality, a key archetype being Jewish genealogies in the Torah (“Abraham begat Isaac” and so forth) that organize the passage of time. Indeed, the Abrahamic traditions are sometimes taken as having ‘invented history’ in the way it is often understood – perceiving time as both passing and consecutive, and also as heading somewhere (see, for instance, Jacob Neusner’s The Christian and Judaic Invention of History). Homer and (later) Herodotus developed a concept of recording the past narratively, but it is only after Christianity brought Jewish practices to Rome that the mythic dimensions of histories became fully-fledged.
Now the problematic part of mythos histories is that the transition from ‘story’ to ‘history’ implies a move from an infinite space of possibility to a finite space of definite facts. There can be (it is assumed) only one history, or rather there can be only one true history. In those traditions partly descended from Plato’s Greek philosophy (especially Christianity and its offshoot atheisms) this is an especially likely habit, but via the sciences (which grow out of Christianity and Islam, and hence Platonic thought) the trend is now everywhere. What is more, wherever the prevailing assumption is to demand a single true history, there is a temptation for people to treat mythos stories as mythos histories. For example, orthodox Christian sects may recognize parables as ‘just stories’ but the Garden of Eden will be taken as history. This is by no means a given, of course – the majority of Christian groups draw their lines here very differently – but the point remains that the presumed line between fact and fiction becomes blurred within an individual’s mythos.
This phenomena is not constrained to religious traditions, as is usually assumed, but happens just as readily within non-religious contexts. For example, for many positivists Galileo is presented as having defended a suppressed yet true description of the arrangement of the planets (heliocentrism) against the erroneous dogma of the church. However, the records of the same event offer multiple alternative accounts - including that the clergy at the time were the sober scientists in this affair and that Galileo's techniques were not sufficient to prove what he had nonetheless correctly intuited. Similarly, the usual positivistic mythos history requires Galileo as a valiant hero maintaining the truth against the errors of the church – but this account is somewhat undermined by the cynic’s observation that Galileo’s offending manuscript brought trouble for him primarily by portraying his then-ally, Pope Urban VIII, as a simpleton. Woe betide anyone who suggests to an orthodox positivist that Galileo’s downfall was his own arrogance!
We can see in this example why a mythos history is more than just a neutral chronicle of events, and why it is sometimes difficult to separate ‘story’ from ‘history’. To hail Galileo as a scientific ‘martyr’ requires a mythos history that presents him as heroically resisting religious oppression, and bringing forth the world-changing power of empirical observation that is the ‘sacred’ value of positivistic non-religion. This particular episode comes across radically differently from the viewpoint of (for instance) the Chinese, who were never so invested in any specific cosmological arrangement, and who readily adopted Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmos when exposed to it by the Jesuits – and without the significant seismic upheavals attributed to Galileo’s ‘heroism’. This is directly contrary to what is claimed by, say, Luciano Floridi, whose mythos history (presented at a TEDx talk in Oxford) essentially requires Galileo, along with Darwin and Freud, to acquire the grand status of epoch-making scientific iconoclasts fighting religion (a mythos Bertrand Russell helped lay the groundwork for). It is not that this role does not match ‘the facts’ in each case, but rather that the account of these individuals purely as revolutionary is radically incomplete – as would be the case for any history presented solely from a single point-of-view. As the philosophers of the twentieth century never tired of emphasizing, all history is mythic history.
Rather than taking this situation to mark the ‘end of history’, I want to offer a slightly different approach. In Chaos Ethics, I draw against William James and (later, and independently) Michael Moorcock’s image of a multiverse, rather than a universe. This is not the multiverse of quantum physics, however (although Moorcock also helped inspire that), but rather the idea that beings and things experience their own separate worlds, and that none of these worlds can claim to be ‘the true world’ when taken alone. Thus while in an (imagined) universe there is only one true version of events, in an (also imagined) multiverse the facts depend upon the world you are in: it is false in most Christian worlds that ‘Jesus was an ordinary human’, but this is true in any positivist worlds. Crucially, no world-independent account is available in a multiverse, even though there is substantial agreement (at least between humans) about all manner of things. All facts always depend upon the world they are perceived from, but these diverse worlds are congruent in the majority of cases for any given species or entity provided the necessary translations can be performed accurately. Where they diverge, however, is precisely at the fault lines between contrary mythos histories – and these thus become a locus for unresolved cognitive dissonance.
This multiversal perspective is not something that can be expected to attain widespread acceptance since it requires a strong imagination to envisage. But it may only take a sufficient volume of intellectuals to adopt it (or something like it) to radically enhance our diplomatic power, and thus our capacity for effective, peaceful action on a whole host of pressing issues. Orthodox theists and positivists are unlikely to be able to talk to each other effectively – but their moderate colleagues could cross this bridge, and securing that dialogue would go a long way towards motivating substantial moral action in the developed world. By substituting a mythos superset for a singular and exclusive mythos history, the possibility of harnessing moral horror as a transformative influence can begin to seriously emerge. This is a powerful option since, as mentioned previously, it is moral horror that helps motivate reform on ethical matters – but only when it is properly aligned. Up until now, the potentialities of the multiverse have been used mostly for ‘spin’ – to obfuscate and deceive by using the gap between events and the mythic histories that record them solely for partisan gain. We can only speculate at what might be achieved if we began to use it instead as a tool for peace.
For more on moral horror, intolerant tolerance, and how to be a traveller in an ethical multiverse, check out my latest book Chaos Ethics.
Been doing a spot of servicing here on Only a Game, mostly just updating the sidebar, which hasn’t significantly changed for two years. If anyone has any suggestions or requests for changes in the layout or referenced content here (e.g. missing articles, allied blogs etc.), do let me know.
The Daleks, the most feared race in the science fiction universe of Doctor Who. But is their terrible warcry of "Exterminate!" just a chilling historical reference to the Nazi's 'Final Solution', or is it also a horrific reflection of our own willingness to let our technology distort our ethics when it comes to violence?
There is an incredible scene in the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in which the military strategist Kongmong (or Zhuge Liang) commiserates with his enemy, the barbarian chieftain Meng Huo. Putting aside the radical differences with the historical personages these characters are based upon, what is striking about the scene is that two warriors who might be considered brutal by today's moral standards do something we can no longer countenance: they share in the grief of an enemy. Meng Huo's forces have been using rattan armour, a lacquered wood that is proof against the swords and spears of the invading forces. Kongmong reasons that if this mysterious defense is proof against both metal and water (the battleground being around dank forests), it must be vulnerable to fire. He thus sets an incendiary trap - but it is too successful. The laquer ignites and the soldiers are all burned to death. But rather than boast of his victory, Kongming weeps with Meng Huo over the terrible loss of life. Despite the savagery of this era, it is still devastating to Kongming to have caused death on such a scale. And so he weeps both for, and with, his enemy.
By comparison, the fictional Daleks shed tears for no-one. They are absolutely assured of their racial superiority, and thus have a mandate to eradicate all other species except when their own plans require enslaving the lesser races instead. Terry Nation, who created both the Daleks and the dystopian science fiction show Blake's 7, modelled the Daleks upon the Nazis, a theme that is most explicit in the final Dalek story of the classic era, Remembrance of the Daleks. Although extermination was a thematic element of the 1960s Dalek stories, it wasnt until 1972 that "Exterminate!" became their de facto warcry, an outcome that owed as much to British newspapers popularizing the phrase in connection with these cybernetic murdererers as anything else.
Fiction is the mirror of our moral selves and we can learn a great deal about ourselves from how we relate to ethical situations portrayed in stories. In the cases described above, we have two odd extremes of a some kind of ethical scale: war is an accepted tool by both Kongming and the Daleks, but the former aims not at the eradication of the enemy but in fact hopes to make them allies, something the aliens from the planet Skaro could not possibly contemplate. We cannot, I suggest, see ourselves in the Daleks, who are as close to absolute examples of moral wrongness as we are likely to find. But we also cannot see ourselves very well in this particular Kongming story - since when do we commiserate with our enemies these days?
The chilling fact of contemporary warfare is that we are far closer to Daleks than we are willing to admit. The familiar 'pepper-pot' shape of the Dalek is a machine (a 'travel machine', as it is called in Genesis of the Daleks) intended to house the mutated descendants of a dying race of humanoids on the planet Skaro. The scientists who make this device have in mind only their ability to continue as a race, but the twisted genius Davros adds a weapon to the casing and genetically engineers the organic occupants to have greater aggression and an absence of empathy and pity. There is a sense, therefore, of the Daleks being destined towards extermination. But in many respects, it is the addition of the weapon to the travel machine that transforms the Daleks from a means of survival to a means of extermination - and this parallels contemporary usage of robotic drones.
UAVs, as the military penchant for acronyms renders them - 'unmanned aerial vehicles' - are also a kind of 'travel machine'. They allow telepresence in remote locations, such that an operator in the United States can fly a drone (as I shall insist on calling them) on the other side of the world. Technology, our Enlightment mythology assures us, is morally neutral, and we should only be concerned about the ways we use our tools and not the tools themselves. Yet for some reason, we are not on the whole significantly concerned about the CIA mounting explosive missiles upon these drones and using them to strike at targets in Iraq and Pakistan. I suggest this is because we think of such deployments as being used 'against terrorists', despite an endless array of evidence that these drone assassinations have resulted in many hundreds of deaths among civilians who simply have the misfortune to be neighbours of those who have been marked for death by military bureaucracy. The facts of this horrific practice are not in dispute. Yet still, we do not weep for the enemy, nor even for the innocents slain in pursuit of the morally reprehensible goal of mechanized extermination.
I'm saddened to report that not long ago I discovered that someone in my circle of acquaintance was working on autonomous guidance systems for military drones. I am reluctant to force my moral values upon others but I had to confront him on this. "They only use drones to kill terrorists" was his shocking reply. Even if that were the case, which it manifestly is not, are we now so far from critically challenging our technology that we would walk into developing not mere Daleks, which after all are still vehicles, but autonomously murderous machines? Never mind the mythology of Doctor Who, this is the nightmare future of The Terminator we are sleepwalking into!
There is an oft-quoted comment from one of Heideggar's lectures that is usually quoted with horror:
Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.
Excluding militant vegans, who value non-human animals radically more than most people, this line is taken as a sick conflation of the moral value of a chicken or cow to that of the Jewish people. (I have never seen the lives of the Japanese civilians slain by the hydrogen bombs brought into this expression of outrage, however.) While Heideggar's remark was certainly ill-chosen, at its heart is a recognition of the risks of pursuing death as an automated process. The Daleks and the Terminators are science fictional expressions of this concern. Drone assassins are its horrific manifestation in contemporary war. If we cannot recapture some scintilla of the remorse Kongming shows in accidentally exterminating enemy combatants when we face down our intentional extermination of innocent civilians, we must urgently ask those who serve in our armed forces to find new moral values for the battlefield. For today, it is our own forces whose warcry has unknowingly become 'exterminate!'
You'll find more detailed discussions of drone assassination, the relationship between science fiction and ethics, and other contemporary moral problems in my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.
It is worth being clear that generating a character - valorised in the Western cRPG culture as an expression of agency - was not essential to the tabletop games. Some game systems (e.g. TSR's The Adventures of Indiana Jones), and even more individual scenarios, allocated specified characters to players, inviting players to take on that clearly-defined role. This may seem to resonate with the Japanese lineage - except in those games the developer did almost all of the role-playing when they sketched out the narrative during the early stages of the project. The players of the Japanese RPGs are left with limited opportunities to play as the roles given to them. And ironically, in the Western lineage the dominance of agency as an aesthetic value means that you can do 'anything' as long as it doesn't involve expressive character interactions (the quintessence of 'role-playing'), which cannot be easily modelled on computers. So neither lineage takes up the torch of the 'role-playing' aspect very effectively, and instead both follow on directly from the 'game' aspect of early RPGs.
You can read the entirety of The Echoes of Genre over at ihobo.com. This is my eighth blog letter since December, so I am more or less on target to deliver my target of twelve before the close of the Gregorian year.
In an interview, the legendary film director John Ford made this remark:
It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises - the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations.
Even though it is a dangerous mistake to think of games designers as architects given the necessarily iterative aspects to software development, this idea applies equally well to commercial videogames. What we still seem to lack, alas, are visionaries like Ford or Kurasawa who can marry the challenges of the technologically-yoked commercial games industry with Ford's creativity-within-limitations.
Cross-posted from ihobo.com.
Over on ihobo today, a blog letter on what makes someone an expert, particular in the context of games:
On the whole, ‘expertise’ is a fascinating concept – and particularly because I, like most ‘game experts’ am self-proclaimed as such. I was arrogant enough in my youth to think that my tiny corner of knowledge was brilliant enough to make me an expert and just started writing as f I was one. In later life, I have had this ‘officially certified’ by claiming a bckdoor doctorate (a PhD by Publication), which is a nice endorsement of my smugness – but it doesn’t really change the fact that my expertise is only really my willingness to be identified as an expert. Honestly, it is quite different to ground the concept of an expert these days in any other way!
Suppose there were a certification programme for media that declared itself ‘independent’, parallel to organic certification in food. To be labelled ‘organic’, produce must be grown under certain rigorous conditions – no chemical pesticides or fertilizers should have been used for up to three years at the farm in question, for instance. It’s tough to get organic certification, because the conditions are so stringent. Let’s say our imagined ‘independent certification’ requires only that the media in question has been produced without the involvement of any organisation with a hundred or more employees. That condition would ensure that essentially nothing made in Europe, the US, Australasia etc. could be certified ‘independent’. There certainly could be no certified independent videogame, since no computer has ever been manufactured independently.
The word ‘indie’ is oft used these days to valorise (often self-valorise) certain media. Short for ‘independent’, the term originated in the UK sometime during the rock and roll years but became cemented in music during the 1980s, when musicians (often those being played by offbeat DJ John Peel) began to appropriate indie as a branding to help sell their records to those teenagers and young adults eager to set themselves apart from the corporate-dominated mainstream. Since then, the term has gained currency in all forms of media – comics, movies, games and so forth will be identified as ‘indie’ whenever the creators want to draw a line between what they do and what the perceived commercial middle ground does. The label is heavily disputed, for a variety of reasons, but it is not usually doubted that there is something that warrants being called ‘indie’. The trouble is, little to nothing made in the cultures that use the word is genuinely produced without corporate involvement.
The defence of ‘indie’ as a meaningful term relies upon an aspect of contemporary mythology intimately connected with the desire to assert this form of imagined independence. It rests on our capacity to ignore tools as ‘neutral’, and thus focus solely upon the usage of those tools (irrespective of the circumstances of their manufacture). This perspective directly descends from the Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which also gives us the split into ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’. Because people are subjects and tools are ‘merely’ objects, we largely ignore them except when they come into clear focus for some reason. Heidegger gives us the classic example of a hammer, which only comes to mind when it breaks. Otherwise, it is just taken to be a seamless extension of the skills of the person wielding it, unnoticed in itself.
Rather than ‘independent’ media being produced quite apart from corporations – like organic food that sets itself quite apart from agribusinesses with their chemical and genetically-modified arsenal – the situation is much more intimate. We could use the iceberg, with only 10% of the frozen mass visible above the water, as a (familiar) illustrative metaphor. The indie is the tip of the iceberg, but sure enough the corporate ‘ice’ is still what they are firmly standing upon. Corporate media stands out because there is more ice above the sea to be seen – it looks far more monolithic at first glance. But under the waves, the vast slab of frozen water remains just as large in either case.
A viable objection here is that we don’t care about corporate production of tools, we only care about the quality of the media produced. Purportedly ‘independent’ movies, games, comics, and music have certain aesthetic qualities that we value, and this is the reason for valorising independent media-production. In other words, it doesn't matter that corporations underpin indie media because its still ‘better’ than corporate media. (I could and may yet challenge this claim, but let's accept it now for the sake of argument).
Now the question arises whether we actually care about corporate power and influence when we valorise ‘indie’ media – because on the face of it, this is what independence is supposed to connote. Perhaps there are people for whom concerns about corporations are solely about the aesthetic effects they have on media – but I find this unlikely. A key part of my doubt here comes from the stories of the prevailing shared mythology today, namely science fiction. For positivists, it tends to be their main or only mythic system, whereas for Christians, Muslims, Hindus etc. it is a supplemental mythology. Either way it is the only widely shared imaginative system today, for all that individual instances can be wildly different.
Over the same period of time that ‘indie’ was gaining currency as a term, the cyberpunk movement (i.e. Bruce Sterling, William Gibson etc.) and its associated media (e.g. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Alien films) changed the focus of science fiction away from far future space opera and impending or recent apocalypse (although these never went away...) and towards a new kind of near-future paranoia about the growing power of the transnational corporation. Today, the evil future corporation is so familiar as to be passé, primarily because we all share these concerns about what corporations might become – or have already become.
My claim is that the evil corporation mythology could not have become a cliché unless the majority of us accepted its premise. This would mean that we all share concerns about the power and influence of big commercial organizations, although of course our actual concerns may be different. Some might be worried about wealth inequality, others about environmental impact, still others about political distortion caused by the concentration of influence corporations create. Different values create different perspectives on the nature of the problem – but few see no problem at all with the rise in both the power and the ubiquity of major corporate interests. If this is the case, then the Enlightenment philosophy of ethical subjects and neutral objects isn't going to be enough to render the so-called independents conceptually disjunct from the corporations whose tools and infrastructure they are undeniably reliant upon.
Despite what the mythological implications of 'indie' are supposed to entail, the people claiming this label are entirely dependent upon the giant commercial organisations they use as a contrast case to justify the claim to independence. And this isn't even a surprise, once we examine these issues, because no-one is independent from the corporate world, not when they live in the world of cars, computers, and telecommunication. I do not make this point to condemn indies but to provoke thought on an issue that is not honestly considered – especially by those who invoke the ‘indie’ label. To be sure, such creative groups are submitting to slightly less corporate involvement in their lives – but they are not truly independent, and could not be given their actual practices.
We are all wholly dependent upon corporations now. ‘Indies’ simply operate with a lesser degree of corporate dependency – perhaps we could more honestly call them ‘lessies’? If the concerns raised in science fiction are more than just anticipated risks, we had better begin discussing in earnest how we would like our relationships with corporate organisations to develop over the decades to come.
For more discussions such as this one, check out my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.
I’m pretty sure you know that the original Republic of Letters was made up of men (yeah, mostly men) with expertise in some subject - philosophy, law, natural science, history, whatever. This Republic of Bloggers is made up of… who? Experts in games? What then is an expert in games? … You’re clearly an expert, if any such thing exists. Do you feel like one? How do you think you became one? And do you think there are necessary things to be an expert?
I’ll be replying shortly, I’m sure other replies would also be welcome!
This is the argument I mounted in a piece entitled DNA as Destiny? that ran in On Religion magazine late last year. Since I'm not quite ready to post new material, I thought I would share this in lieu of a post this week. Here's an extract from the article:
To be prejudiced against a black woman because she is black or because she is a woman (the argument runs) is irrational, but to be prejudiced against a black woman because she is Muslim or Christian is not to be bigoted towards her but rather to pursue rational criticisms against those faith traditions. The tacit basis for this kind of claim is that those aspects of our selves that are not subject to change or choice are the fixed points of reference for our identities, whilst everything else is open to appraisal and can be rejected if it is irrational. While rationality is certainly part of the ideal being applied here, beneath this sort of argument lies a dependence on genetics to resolve questions of diversity.