Previous month:
September 2019
Next month:
November 2019

Phone Mazes

Phone Maze"If you want to listen to short loops of popular music interspersed with insincere reassurance that you call is important to us, press 1." Of all the uses we put our robots too, perhaps the most banal is the phone maze. It serves one purpose: to prevent you from talking to a human if at all possible, and - all to frequently - to ensure that if you do, it will be someone far from any kind of influence inside the organisation. The phone maze is a Chinese Wall intended to keep you out.

Now it might be objected that the phone maze is necessitated by the volume on of calls corporations have to deal with... in other words, the phone maze is necessary because corporations are necessary. This is effectively an admission that we have created the circumstances where wealth and power can accumulate, and thus that we live in an effectively feudal arrangement where our fealty to large organisations need not be affirmed because it is always assumed. It is always at the very least possible, however, that organisations could be more widely distributed, that instead of shareholder profit, superior wealth distribution could be pursued. If this is accepted, the phone maze is not some dismal inevitability but rather a cost-saving mechanism that allows fewer or cheaper systems to substitute for the more expensive alternative: more humans and fewer robots.

Alas, this is not even the most tragic aspect of the phone maze, for in a great many cases (especially those involving international outsourcing) even the humans are forced to be robots. The use of programmed flowcharts and pre-scripted messages makes even the human cheese at the centre of the phone maze robotic in its function, robbing workers of their autonomy and reducing them to mere cogs in a grand machine meant to keep the outside world disconnected from anything an organisation is doing. Even if we do not want to distribute wealth less inequitably, we can scarcely claim to hold humanity in respect when we are complicit in inflicting terrible working conditions upon strangers - and in this regard, working in a phone maze is not even the worst form of wage slavery being inflicted.

In terms of its effects upon humans, the phone maze has the same behavioural influence we encounter in so much bureaucracy - it installs either irritable anger or bored submission. The only plausible defence for these labyrinths of tedium is to argue for their inevitability, a rhetoric I reject as lacking in imagination. If corporations genuinely respect their customers, as they all publicly claim to do, they must learn how to treat them with respect. That might begin by treating those condemned to work inside the phone maze as the human beings they are.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #63


Phone Upgrades

Smartphones"I have to upgrade my phone" is something we hear a lot these days. A telephone, strictly speaking, only needed upgrading once or twice over the entire century of their operation: to get a standardised connector, and to add touch tone noises. But the phones we talk about upgrading now are not just devices for communicating at a distance, they are the robots that convey the greatest volume of cyborg capacities upon us, for the link us into a vast global network of computers - the internet, and with it 'the cloud', myriad banks of computers offering remote computing and data storage capacities.

If we pause to ask about the moral and behavioural effects of upgrading, we are likely to be misled with shallow claims of utility. New phones are 'better', we assume - an assessment based entirely upon our personal desire for power and convenience. They are certainly not better for the environment... in their manufacture, in the construction of the radio tower infrastructure required to support them, in the ever-growing power requirements of the servers working behind the scenes to make each upgrade effective, each upgrade does more and more damage to our planet, all quietly unnoticed as we goggle at so-called Live Pictures (merely 3 second videos that increase our data usage further) or radar gesture controls. New technology is impressive when viewed through the eyes of its marketing story, and horrific if we look instead at the environmental impact of acquiring the lithium that makes claims like 'longest ever battery life' possible.

And we are habituated to upgrades, we view them as at the very least inevitable, if not also highly desirable. Any concept of maintaining our smartphones to keep them in service is off the table. I am writing this on an iPhone I have managed to keep in service for about seven years, despite Apple's best efforts to force me into replacing it... but it's dying. Its charging port barely functions and it is close to senile as the ever-rising expectations for computing power mean it can barely display 'upgraded' webpages on its antiquated operating system. My Twitter app still uses the 140 character limit, and can no longer show the threads of conversation. A great many other apps have stopped working entirely. But it is still my phone, my responsibility, and I will not abandon it prematurely. I already have a replacement, a hand-me-down handset I hope to keep going for many more years, but I will hold off making the exchange as long as I can. I feel a duty to my pocket robots, not because they're alive but because my decision to adopt them affects everything that is alive.

When we meet someone who has just 'upgraded' their phone, we might idly remark "that's a good phone", meaning it has ever-more capabilities, while ignoring the ever-growing costs entailed. Frankly, I do not think we have any conception yet of what a 'good smartphone' might be.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #62


Surrogate Knowledge

Zelda 1926.croppedWe live in a world of cyborgs, combinations of beings and things with capacities augmented by those partnerships. You and your smartphone or computer form a cyborg with amazing capabilities, so much so, that you could easily miss how your robot companion not only enhances your powers and abilities, it also risks reducing your capabilities as well. Such is the risk posed by treating the internet phenomenon that we might call surrogate knowledge.

To possess knowledge of something entails more than being able to cite trivia. Your robot can look up the release date of any film ever released, but it has no knowledge or understanding of what a movie is, nor a release date. It is more akin to a cross between an idiot savant and a parrot: it has the power to repeat what others have recorded. When we tap into this ability, we have surrogate knowledge, which is to say, we lack any actual knowledge and instead have the capacity to look up what others who may-or-may-now know have claimed.

The trouble with surrogate knowledge is that it gives us the feeling of 'knowing the answer' while robbing us of any actual competency. Worse, we can never be sure that what we are given is correct unless we already possess some knowledge of the subject and are merely 'brushing up' an answer. My iPhone has told me that The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was released in 1926, fifty years before home computers, and that Tom Cruise is five feet tall (he's 5' 7") - these raised a chuckle with me because I was aware they were errors. How many smartphone cyborgs have simply swallowed nonsense that was thrown at them from random corners of the internet?

Surrogate knowledge is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. If you are merely repeating an assertion, you cannot claim to possess knowledge. Indeed, the crisis about what it means to know is the essence of our contemporary cultural catastrophe - a morass of misunderstandings now glossed under 'fake news' and 'post-truth' that marks the culmination of a disaster expertly foreshadowed by Nietzsche centuries before its impact was felt. We are cyborgs who, even now, trust in cybernetic networks to deliver answers they lack the knowledge to interpret, and still feel, undeservedly, that we know more than people in earlier eras, as if knowing more was akin to collecting stamps.

If Newton was able to truthfully claim that he had seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants, we now risk seeing nothing for we have asked the blind to see for us. Although even this is unfair of blind people, who perceive the world with an understanding born of the struggles inherent to authentic knowledge. Our robots on the other hand are unknowing, unfeeling, and unseeing. It is only my becoming a cyborg with us that they become capable of being in a world. And even this is only a kind of surrogate knowledge.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #61


Scorsese vs Marvel Studios

Scorsese vs ThorVeteran film director Martin Scorsese could scarcely ask for better publicity for his new film, The Irishman, than picking a fight with the box office powerhouse that is Disney's Marvel Studios. In an interview for Empire magazine, Scorsese was asked about Marvel movies and replied:

I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

This is a much more interesting statement than it might first appear. Before delving into it, however, it is worth acknowledging that Scorsese would never have had anywhere near as much coverage for his new feature if he had not decided to position himself against one of Disney's two big-ticket purchases both of which were acquired to fill a gap in the media corporation's portfolio, which was always lacking in action franchises. I don't think it greatly matters if this is a planned PR manoeuvre from the 76-year-old director, or a lucky striking of gold by one of Empire's writers, either way it's a win for both parties since the battle line it draws guarantees more attention for both of them, and mobilises the legions of Marvel fans for free publicity, since negative reactions online – especially those guaranteed to travel far – have nearly the same effect as ploughing millions of dollars into marketing.

But I do not mean to suggest that Scorsese is disingenuous in his remarks – indeed, as critic Jed Pressgrove remarked to me on Twitter, there really is nothing enormously surprising about these comments in terms of the discourse surrounding films. That's because it has long been a tenet of what might be called 'serious' cinema that there are two competing forces in the movie theatres. This 2016 blog post by filmmaker Rob Hardy poses this divide in terms of 'films' (Scorcese's 'cinema') and 'movies' (Scorcese's 'Not cinema'), and there are hundreds of similar claims spanning decades. What is at heart here are implicit aesthetic values and the practices that those aesthetic values belong to. Representatives of cinema or film are claiming the artistic high ground – often falling just short of outright saying "we are art, you are not", but always implying it – and contrasting their craft against 'movies', which are not actively represented by anyone in this argument but merely the mass market shadow of the practice that Hardy calls 'filmmaking'.

When film critic Roger Ebert declared that videogames could not be art, or when disgruntled gamers declared Dear Esther was 'not a game', these claims were undergirded by specific aesthetic values and, along with this, participation in the practices that sustain and embed those values. Dear Esther was 'not a game' to anyone for whom 'games' were either the aesthetic pursuit of victory or of problem-solving, an aesthetic camp explored beautifully by game scholar Jesper Juul in his book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Coming at the matter from this territory in the aesthetic landscape all but requires the erection of a barrier: the Chinese Rooms ingenious usurpation of the components of first person shooters for something radically novel had to be 'kept out' of games because of a felt need to valorise different aesthetic values, those associating games with challenge where something like Shadow of the Colossus might be pointed to as an exemplar. This is the videogame mirror of Scorcese's 'not cinema', which is also Hardy's 'film versus movies'.

Writing centuries before either films or videogames, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant made a crucial point about our aesthetic values: that when we assert them, it is because we expect our judgements to have universal assent, or rather we behave as if they should be capable of garnering such agreement. As a result, when something transgresses our aesthetic values – when a Marvel movie is claimed to be cinema (for Scorsese) or Dear Esther is claimed to be a game (for certain gamers), there is an aesthetic transgression, and just as we would baulk at a moral transgression, there is potential for outcry, opposition, and argument. The disagreement, however, is usually hollow since two positions divided by distinct values never connect in any meaningful way. As Kant observed: it is a 'commonplace' that everyone has their own taste, and also that 'there is no disputing of taste'.

Thus there is no need or purpose to Marvel Studios' myriad fans stepping up to the plate to try to defend the Marvel Cinematic Universe by pointing to examples of movies in that corporate megatext that meet Scorsese's apparent definition of cinema in terms of conveying psychological experiences... as Hardy puts it, the question goes to intention not outcome, and I would further suggest that what lies at root here is participation in a particular tradition, a distinct practice of making and engaging with films that is not rooted in entertainment, for all that it is frequently marketed successfully as that. Besides all this, Scorsese is surely correct to compare everything that comes out of Disney's corporate process to theme parks, since this is the practice that the House of Mouse pioneered and is still engaged in: an applied psychology of commercial entertainment rooted in meticulous brand management. In this regard, Scorsese's point is nearly impossible to rebuff and comes down to a claim about the limits of authorial intent: whatever filmmakers might achieve in a Marvel Studios movie cannot change the fact that what has been made is the result of a tightly-managed corporate process of engineering both brand and entertainment value on an industrial scale. Our only choice is whether this matters for our enjoyment of what results – and this depends upon which practices we ourselves are engaging in when we go to the cinema.


Silk is About... The Designer's Notes

Silk Notes

Silk is About... was a Designer's Notes serial in five parts that ran here at Only a Game from August 27th to September 24th 2019. It examined the thematic influences behind the game Silk, and pondered the game from a historical, personal, and political perspective. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the five parts:

  1. Silk is about... 200AD
  2. Silk is about...1984
  3. Silk is about... Glorantha
  4. Silk is about... Religion
  5. Silk is about... Brexit

Silk is out on Switch, Windows, Mac, and Linux in October 2019.