Saturday, July 17, 2021

What Does it Mean if We Look at Life as a Game?

It seems to have become something of a commonplace over the years to draw an analogy between life and a poorly designed video game. The lists of problematic features of said game typically mention such things as: the lack of a satisfactory tutorial, the fact that you don't get to design your character or choose your difficulty setting (with the randomness often massively and painfully disadvantageous), the abundance of minigames that are both mandatory and extremely dull (e.g. school, work, chores), the lack of a pause or save feature, and the player's getting only one life without reset being an option--with all this just for a start. (After all that come the incessant and frequently unwelcome updates, the profoundly unfair leveling system, the "pay-to-win" terms . . . and the lack of cheat codes for surmounting these innumerable annoyances.)

All this, of course, has mostly been a matter of humorous or ironic remark, but it seems worth remembering when we see yet another of those pieces about how young people are playing video games rather than working that the (exaggerated but still real) preference for video games is not just a matter of games getting more satisfying--but arguably the sense that the "game of life," bad enough as games go to begin with, has been getting worse, with the tutorial still less satisfactory, the difficulty setting ever harder, the leveling system less fair.

Indeed, if it does not make for quite so catchy a sound bite, the real story is far, far bigger--and in fact I found myself recently taking up a bit of it here.

On the (Alleged) Obsession With People's "Net Worth"

One of my (many) causes for annoyance with the results Google's search engine spews out these days is that whenever I type in a name--any name--its autocomplete adds the words "net worth" to the end of it.

Let us, for the moment, not concern ourselves with the way that word "worth" reduces a human being to the net market valuation of their financial assets in perverse inversion of the parable of the "Good Samaritan," and the associated linguistic stupidity attendant on it--much the same as with words like "deserve" and "entitlement." Instead let us focus on what the search engine's suggestion relentless appearance implies--that this is an extremely common search query for anybody even remotely close to being a public figure.

Is it really the case that all those idiots tapping away on their little devices are so monomaniacally Googling away in quest of the market valuation of the net assets of every last pseudo-celebrity?

I suspect that it isn't, and that "net worth" comes up so relentlessly bespeaks some profound failing of the algorithms generating the results--or the side effect of some hardly less profound tinkering with them.

The End of Self-Consciousness? (Remembering the 1990s)

Looking back at the 1990s from a generation on I find myself thinking that it may have been the last time when Americans had a sense of how ridiculous, and gross, contemporary culture was becoming. I think, for instance, of how films like The Truman Show and EdTV treated the idea of "reality television," and the idea of American society becoming obsessed with such a thing, as over-the-top satire--just before American society became obsessed with it to a degree that makes EdTV, at least, look like nothing, with scarcely a word uttered about the matter as such, and indeed the sycophantic entertainment press breathlessly cheerleading for the garbage. Indeed, two decades later the book and film The Circle, which shows this sort of pop culture-ified voyeurism in hyper-intensified form--with everyone the star of their own Truman Show and EdTV, watched by all the other Truman Show and EdTV stars comprising the rest of the population of the planet, the original concept multiplied by billions and billions--was regarded as already stale stuff by underwhelmed critics who did not give much sign of thinking about what its looking stale to their eyes said about the reality they were living in.

Still less did they seem to give any thought to how media business hucksters such as themselves were contributing to that reality.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Remembering "Science Fiction and the Two Cultures"

I remember how back when writing for The Fix I penned a piece titled "Science Fiction and the Two Cultures." As the title implies, it drew on C.P. Snow's famous lecture about the division of intellectual life in the modern Western world between "letters," and "sciences," and the disconnects, misunderstandings and other consequences of that division.

As I learned then (the forums at The Fix were rather lively in those days), and have never had much chance to forget when going anywhere near Snow's work, a great many people not only disagree with Snow, but even seem to bitterly resent his argument, vehemently contesting even what seem to me his most indisputable observations about the matter. This seemed to me to especially be the case with what Snow said about the differences in valuation and status between those intellectuals who work in letters, and those who work in the sciences, and specifically his observations about the latter being more remunerated and more highly esteemed.

After all, we hear endlessly about the importance of STEM--not the importance of the humanities, which are more likely to be the target of political attack (not least, for being "soft" and "useless" subjects, especially from those quarters which regard anything not obviously, directly, indisputably maximizing short-term corporate profits as a complete waste of time). Certainly the data on the earnings that a four year degree brings confirms that, in spite of the pious remarks of businessmen that they would like to have more "well-rounded employees" of the kind the humanities help make (an old game--William Whyte was writing about it back in the '50s), and even here and there the suggestion that the STEM workers would be more productive if they had a bit more of such subjects (if, for example, the people conducting and overseeing scientific research actually understood the philosophical underpinnings of, you know, science), their real hiring choices make it clear that the salary-minded (and who can afford not to be?) would be far better off majoring in engineering than in, for example, philosophy (so much such that while the right is more notorious for bashing the liberal arts a Democratic President not ordinarily regarded as a lowbrow was not above publicly deriding the value of an art history degree). And of course when people today speak (glibly, but they do it all the same) of the most intellectually demanding activities, and (foolishly) of the "icons" of intelligence at its most outstanding, they do not, as Thomas Malthus did in his day, even think of a Shakespeare or a Locke, but only a Newton--of the hardest of hard sciences, nothing else worthy.

Naturally, all those contesting this point had to say on behalf of their position was that stupid "Nuh-uh!" that I regard as a sadly unavoidable abuse of freedom of speech--while since that time the hard facts of austerity have made the conclusion far more difficult to escape. As Boris Johnson, Gavin Williamson and the rest of their vulgarian company mount the latest round in the longstanding Thatcherite assault on British higher education, they remind all and sundry that where unworthiness of the state's educational resources are concerned they regard the humanities as Public Enemy Number One.

Looking Back at "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television," Again

Some time ago I revisited the kind of writing I used to do for IROSF, in particular the big summary-type pieces toward which I tended--like the one I did regarding the early-'90s-through-early-00s "golden age of science fiction television"--and considered how much more difficult it would be for anyone to do anything like that these days.

At the time the main thing seemed to me to be the sheer mass of the output--and the colossal fragmentation of our viewing by the larger number of channels, the still larger number of streaming services. Already tough enough back in the '90s (I admit that even then there were big chunks of the landscape I scarcely bothered with--like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it was all too much for anyone to even try to keep up with in a general way.

Still, there was also a more personal side to the sense that I, at least, would not think of attempting anything like that now. As I acknowledged at the time I was getting weary of the same franchises telling the same stories over and over and over again--and in particular, the kinds of stories they opted to tell and retell. I was weary of apocalypses, and disaster, and dystopias; of Luddism and Frankenstein complexes and survivalism. I was weary of how so much of this stuff relentlessly "stacked the deck" in favor of the fascist's view of the world, where the right choice is invariably the bigoted, suspicious, violent choice, the brutal and cruel choice. I was weary, too, of the long arcs promising to go somewhere which again and again ended with a whimper. (I count among the multitude of sins of both BattleStar Galactica and Lost their exhausting what little readiness I had left to go along with such such promises.) And . . .

I could go on, but I think this will do for now. What matters is that the weariness has gone so far that, rather than no longer bothering to keep up with the general scene, I find myself not bothering with the scene much at all now as Hollywood goes on serving up more of the same dreck.

Am I alone in thinking all this?

Thursday, July 15, 2021

On Genres That Never Happened: The Blockbuster Superhero Novel

Looking back on the history of paramilitary action-adventure it seemed to me that one of the reasons why the genre declined in the 1990s as it did was that the associated themes had lost their salience in a changing world. Putting it simply, Vietnam receded into the past, the Cold War ended, and crime rates went down as those who once fantasized about Dirty Harry and Rambo saw their governments acting ever more like Dirty Harry and Rambo.

Certainly what has happened since, in media besides print, has only confirmed that for me. The Taken trilogy's Bryan Mills has his fans, not least because of the franchise's politics ("the film adaptation of an email forward from your uptight uncle who watches too much Fox News")--but as sheer pop culture phenomenon, his success paled next to that of Dirty Harry, or Rambo, as audiences by and large thrilled to the adventures of costumed, secret identity-possessing superheroes instead (certainly if one goes by the box office receipts).

Still, as I also acknowledged part of what was going on was the shift of action-adventure from print to other media. Action fans simply preferred to watch a TV show or a movie or play a video game rather than read a book--and now there was far more of that content conveniently available, streamable from any number of services to devices they were likely to take with them everywhere.

And the very success of the superhero genre seems to confirm that--with the same going for the exceptions to that success. While superhero movies again and again set new records at the box office, and if a less formidable presence on TV are quite evident there nonetheless, we do not see "superhero novels" on our bestseller lists to anything like the same degree. Novels about the Avengers, for example, do exist, and find audiences, but they are simply not chart-toppers here--so that in that sense the superhero phenomenon so evident elsewhere never happened in print.

Revisiting Middlebrowness

Those who discuss the idea of the middlebrow commonly trace it back to a letter Virginia Woolf wrote to the New Statesman deriding it, posthumously published in the 1942 collection Death of the Moth. Woolf's explanation was far from tidy and straightforward--or for that matter, fair-minded. Her crashing snobbery (with which her ostentatiously "woke" fans are, of course, entirely comfortable) was extravagantly on display as she hailed the lowbrow--when in their proper place--and the highbrow in theirs, but thoroughly disliked those who were a bit of each and somewhere in between. And equally obvious was her determination to defend her prejudices above all.

Still, one can salvage something from the muddle of her words. Taking the works of William Shakespeare as a point of reference, one can characterize the lowbrow, the middlebrow and the highbrow as follows:

The lowbrow knows little or nothing of Shakespeare and does not care to find out more because all that "culture stuff" is not for the "likes of them."

The middlebrow reads Shakespeare, but cannot give an intelligent answer as to why they do so. They just know that cultured people are "supposed" to read Shakespeare, because they have been told it is important by people whose claim to cultural authority they have accepted for reasons they also cannot explain. When they actually do read Shakespeare for themselves they do not get much out of it, but they still repeat what they are told about Shakespeare being the greatest writer the English-speaking world ever produced because that is what everyone is supposed to say.

The highbrow likely, but not necessarily, knows something of Shakespeare. Perhaps they read him and perhaps they do not. Perhaps they say they like him and perhaps they say they do not like him. What is more important than their exact position on Shakespeare is their reason for that position. They are neither categorically dismissive of higher culture like the plays and poetry of Shakespeare in the manner of the lowbrow, nor uncomprehendingly pious about it in the manner of the middlebrow. Rather they are capable of forming a considered opinion of their own.

Considering the matter in these terms my suspicion is that there are very few true highbrows in the world--most supposed highbrows actually just middlebrows practicing imposture upon the gullible. Otherwise the purveyors of the "Midcult" would not enjoy the status that they do.

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