03 July 2015

Some thoughts on romance, monogamy and incest in Fallout Shelter

Just yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian tweeted that

As inevitably as the sun rising in the east, this led to complaints about her failing to understand the game, justifications along the lines of 'Well, yes, but it's satirising the 1950s' or 'How else would you survive a nuclear holocaust?' At this stage, Sarkeesian could tweet that 'Link typically wears green', and some people would find a way to complain (probably along the lines of 'I want to see photographic evidence from five independent sources that you have ever played a Zelda game'). But I digress.

I noticed the same thing while I was playing Fallout Shelter, but I had other issues with the 'romance' mechanics of the game as well. So let's take a look at them.

In order to increase the population in Fallout Shelter, you place two dwellers of opposite sexes in the Living Quarters, and allow them to get to know each other. At some point, based on their Charisma score, the prospective couple will start to dance together, and at shortly after that they will retire to the back of the quarters to become more intimate (it's possible that the dancing does not always occur; I couldn't say for certain). The will emerge a short time later with broad smiles, the woman already heavily pregnant. Several hours later, the woman will give birth, with a notification that looks like this:

Now, one thing to notice here is that the child takes the surname of one of the parents (either the mother or the father), but the two adults keep their surnames. You can edit the names of the dwellers, either at birth, or by finding them in the vault and clicking on their names. So the game does give you a way to make 'families', although it doesn't do so automatically, and doesn't explain that you can do so as you're playing.

The men are also frisky little devils, as I found at the very start of the game. I placed two couples in a room and let them pair off; one of the men was a rare dweller, with rather high Charisma, acquired through a lunchbox (the micro-transaction mechanic, although you don't need to buy any to play). He and a female dweller quickly decided to that they would like to get to know each other better, while the other couple in the room, with less Charisma score, took more time, exchanging compliments but not even getting to the dancing stage.

When our Casanova emerged from love-making, the woman of the other pair immediately left the man she had been romancing and sped over to him, and within seconds Casanova was getting intimate with the second woman. Once they emerged I decided that enough was enough, and sent him off into the wasteland to kill monsters and gather loot.

The romance mechanics of the game have absolutely no sense of commitment to them. The woman becomes pregnant, and can't have sex again until she gives birth; while the male partner can be as much of a womaniser (and I think the term is utterly appropriate here) as his Charisma score will let him.

There is, admittedly, a mechanic which will stop parents have sex with their children in the game, although it doesn't seem to apply to half-siblings (so a daughter and son born of the same father with different mothers). And because the names given to children can either take the name of the father or the mother, it can be difficult to keep them apart.

So: Fallout Shelter does, unquestionably, cast women as baby-making machines, and men as commitment-free studs. Furthermore, it is entirely up to you if you want to couples to form a monogamous relationship: the game itself allows dwellers to (effectively) sleep with who they want, and that is in fact the default state of play, especially for male dwellers. And incest is permitted, if not with direct siblings, at a level most people would be uncomfortable with if it wasn't packaged in a resource management mobile game.

Now, I'm not saying that monogamy is the only socially acceptable relationship, that 'open' relationships are bad, nor even necessarily that incest is categorically immoral (regardless of whether you agree with them, there are arguments concerning the issue of incest between consenting adults, for example).

But the point is that the mechanics of the game actually make it difficult for the player to have monogamous couples in the shelter, and also make a certain level of incest tolerable. And this is on top of the baby-making mechanics Sarkeesian tweeted about.

Let's return to the first of those responses to that tweet for a moment: the argument that Fallout is satirising 1950s America. That may be true; but, at best, only for one aspect of the romance mechanic. It may be true that women were largely perceived as baby machines (and homemakers) in the 1950s; but it is certainly not true that marriage was virtually impossible, nor that incest was largely acceptable, nor even that women were completely equal in the workplace when they were not pregnant (as in indeed the case in Fallout Shelter).

Here's the thing: you don't get to use an argument to support a mechanic in a game if the part(s) of the mechanic you're ignoring would completely undermine that argument. That's called cherry-picking.

Basically, the argument that Fallout Shelter is satirising 1950's America can't be used to justify the romance mechanics of the game, because a huge part of those mechanics have absolutely no connection to 1950's America.

Similarly, there's a problem with the argument that the romance mechanics would be appropriate in the even of a nuclear holocaust. Even if women-as-baby-machines was a plausible solution (which is by no means certain: a population explosion at a time when living space and resources would be highly limited would probably be a disaster), the other consequences of the mechanics are another question altogether. Would the need to have as many babies as possible lead to the dissolution of marriage, and the encouragement of incest?

And even if you're gearing up to say that it would, the problem is that none of these things are true of the Fallout universe. Fallout is not a world in which women have become baby machines, nor incest is accepted in order to survive. Yes, individual vaults and groups developed different societies, but if anything, the majority of the population of the Fallout universe came out of the vaults with the similar morals and social ideas that they went in with.

The romance mechanics in Fallout Shelter are mechanics, nothing more and nothing less. They do not mesh particularly well with the Fallout world, and they do not mesh well with the society the game is supposedly based on. They exist solely as mechanics, as ways to achieve a goal in the game, and nothing more. And since the only justification for them to be the way they are is because that is the way they are, it is perfectly okay to ask why they are not different. As I've pointed out, an approach to romance which was more consistent with the Fallout world and 1950s America would probably involve 'marriage' to one partner in the game, and incest being strictly forbidden. In fact, if you're listening, Bethesda, that would be a great way of adding an extra level of difficulty to the game.

Also, just in case you're wondering, I don't believe the romance mechanics in this game reflect the 'view' of the creators, because quite frankly they're not well enough thought out. That doesn't stop them being "troubling", as Sarkeesian points out; if anything, it makes them more troubling, because of how easily a game like this slips into ethically suspicious ideas, let alone sexist stereotypes. It couldn't be that casual sexism is so ingrained into society that the games' creators didn't even realise how sexist they were being, could it? Heaven forbid.

19 April 2015

A few thoughts on the Gender Pay Gap

As is so often the case, John Oliver has said a lot of what needs to be said on this issue.

However, I would like to add a few things.

As Oliver pointed out, one of the problems with the gender wage gap is how to quantify it. Different studies lead to different results. But no-one actually thinks that there is no gender wage gap (which explains tweets like this one.)

Even Christina Hoff Summers, who some feminists would consider to be a men's rights activist/apologist, does not say that the gender wage gap does not exist. Rather, she claims that most of it can be explained away by life choices and different work—exactly the views mentioned by Oliver— leaving a smaller 6.6 cent difference which could reduced "to a few cents" with "more realistic categories and definitions". If not even Hoff Sommers can bring herself to deny that there is a gap, but only say that the gap is smaller than most people think, then one thing is clear: the gender pay gap exists.

By the by, the gender pay gap deniers always put me in mind of the famous cartoon by Sidney Harris:

The next thing to mention is that, even though there is discussion about how big the gender pay gap is, to deny it exists you would have to question why pretty much every government in the world publishes statistics confirming that it exists. What, exactly, do governments stand to gain by stating that half of their populations earn less than the other half? (If you have to posit a feminist takeover of governments all over the world when the UK and Germany have had one female political head of state each, and the USA none, then see the above cartoon again.)

But, just for a moment, let's take the 'life choices' argument seriously. Women are paid less because of their life choices: having children, staying at home to look after them, and so on. Fine. Let's take childbirth. Only women are able to have children; this takes them out of the workforce for a certain period of time, and afterwards they have to play 'catch-up' on the men and women who did not have children. Economically, having children makes you a less desirable employee for a company, and this is reflected in lower wages.

There's two things I'd like to point out with this. First of all, until it was abandoned in 2011, young German men had to spend a year in military conscription, with an option to work in civil services (such as healthcare) instead. One of the most commonly citied reasons for young German women not having to do conscription was that they had to have children at some point in their lives. Regardless of whether this 'reason' was official or not, the fact remains: German men took time out from work for conscription; women took time out for childbirth. Did this affect the gender pay gap? Not. At. All.

If you're going to maintain that the gender pay gap can be explained away by life choices, you need to explain why women's life choices seem to impact the gap more than men's life choices—even if those choice are made for them by the government.

But there's another question that needs to be answered as well. While there might be a number of different ways of quantifying the gender pay gap, which implies that the are different ways of looking at one economy, it is still possible to look at different economies in the same way, using a single model.

The graph below shows the gender pay gap across the 28 countries of the EU in 2013:

According to this data, the average gender pay gap across the EU is 16.4%; the gap in Estonia is 29.9%, and the gap in Slovenia is 3.2%. Note that Germany (21.6%) and the UK (19.7%) are far worse than the average.

The point that I'm trying to make is this: even if you think that 'life choices' account for the difference between the pay of men and women, you still need to explain why there is such a difference in the gender pay gap between these countries. After all, women all over the world have children. Taking the most extreme examples of the pay gap above, the fertility rate in Slovenia is 1.58: in Estonia it is 1.56. In Germany, the fertility rate is 1.28; in the UK it is 1.92.

The fertility rate in Estonia and Slovenia is almost identical: yet the gender pay gap differs by 26.7%. Now of course, having children is not the only 'life choice' women make, although it is the most obvious and most widely cited. But if 'life choices' mean anything in this discussion, you need to explain why Slovenian women are either not as affected by those life choices, or why they are not making the same life choices than Estonian women are.

No matter whether you believe that the gender pay gap can be explained away by life choices or not, you still need to account for the difference between countries.

In other words, even if you think that life choices do account for the pay gap, you still need to explain how, and why, they are so different across the EU.

'Life choices' ultimately explain nothing: they just give you something new to explain.

22 February 2015

On Cherry-Picking

selectively choose (the most beneficial or profitable items, opportunities, etc.) from what is available
- Oxford English Dictionary

the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position
- Wikipedia

Cherry-picking is an extremely common fallacy which, as Wikipedia points out, is "a major problem in public debate". That being the case, it is extremely important to establish what cherry-picking is, and what it is not.

So first of all we need to be clear that cherry-picking is not the same as finding evidence to support your position. There is absolutely nothing wrong with "pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position," and I'll go into some examples of this later. If you claim that merely identifying evidence which supports your position is cherry-picking, then all evidence ever produced for anything would be cherry-picking. You would be undermining the very idea of evidence.

The important distinction with cherry-picking is the second part of the definition from Wikipedia: "while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position." The main focus of cherry-picking is not what you say, but what you don't say. It is a fallacy of omission. But it is also important to note that not all omissions will be significant, relevant, or amount to a contradiction.

All cherry-picking involves omission of data, but not all omission of data involves cherry-picking.

One black swan

In Europe during the middle ages, the proposition 'All swans are white' was considered to be more or less an absolute truth. Every swan which had ever been seen had been white. This was so self-evident that the very idea of a black swan was a metaphor for something which could not exist.

Then, in 1697, the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh became the first European to see what we would now call a black swan, whilst sailing around the Western coast of Australia. Thirty years later, two specimens were caught, which proved that they existed; but it was not until 1790 that John Latham scientifically classified black swans as actually being swans. For a hundred years after their first sighting by a European, the proposition 'All swans are white' was so powerful that black swans were not considered to be swans at all, but rather a separate species which looked similar to a swan, but was black.

I mention this partly because it clarifies the what is meant by 'significant' and 'contradiction'. The black swan has, for many years, been the typical illustration of Karl Popper's concept of falsification, which is (essentially) the idea that science progresses through disproof of theories, rather than attempting to prove them. No matter how many white swans you show me as evidence for the proposition 'All swans are white', a single black swan is enough to disprove it.

Of course, we first have to accept that the black swan is actually a swan; but once we agree upon that, a single specimen is significant enough to contradict the theory. Similarly, before the black swan was scientifically recognised as being a swan, its existence was irrelevant to the proposition 'All swans are white'. It wasn't a swan, so it had no bearing on the theory at all.

Significance, then, does not necessarily involve quantity. A single black swan is significant, if it contradicts the theory. Likewise, all of the white swans ever seen by human eyes are insufficient to prove the proposition 'All swans are white'.

Returning to the topic of cherry-picking, what I'm getting at is that how much evidence is presented or omitted is actually irrelevant. A single relevant piece of evidence can be significant enough to contradict a proposition.

At the same time, the relevance and significance of the evidence is determined by the proposition itself. 'All swans are white' posits precisely that every single swan is white; because it is so universal, the proposition can be undermined by a single piece of contradictory evidence.

But what if the proposition were not so universal? What if the proposition were instead, 'Most swans are white'? In that case, a single black swan is insufficient to contradict the theory. In that case, a single black swan is relevant, but insignificant. In order to contradict this particular proposition, we would need 50%+1 black swans. If three out of ten swans are black, the proposition is still true; if six out of ten are black, the proposition is false. In this case, because of the way the proposition is formulated, quantity is important.

We might also make another proposition about swans: 'Black swans exist'. In this case, we only need a single black swan to prove the proposition, no matter how many white swans there are out there. Notice that presenting a black swan in support of this proposition is not cherry-picking. Ignoring all the white swans in the world is absolutely fine, because the proposition says nothing, and implies nothing, about white swans. We might say that the white swans are relevant to the proposition—because they're swans—but no matter how many there are, they are not significant. In this case, only black swans are relevant and significant.

To summarise what I've said so far, significance and relevance are determined by what the proposition is trying to claim, and neither necessarily have anything to do with quantity. In terms of cherry-picking, it is cherry-picking to ignore relevant and significant evidence; but it is not cherry-picking to ignore evidence which is not relevant or not significant. Some further examples:

  • It is cherry-picking to say 'All swans are black', and only provide black swans as evidence.
  • It is cherry-picking to say 'Most swans are black', and manipulate your evidence so that this appears to be the case.
  • It is not cherry-picking to say 'Some swans are black', and only provide black swans as evidence.
As I said at the start, all cherry-picking involves omission of evidence, but not all omission of evidence is cherry-picking. Sometimes, evidence is omitted simply because it is irrelevant. The mere fact that there is evidence which is not being discussed is not enough to justify the charge of cherry-picking. That evidence must first be shown to be relevant and significant, and the only way to do that is to pay careful attention to exactly what the theory is claiming.

If all you're interested in is the theoretical part, that's over now. I'm going to turn to something a bit more controversial in the next section.


If you've been wondering what this has to do with feminism, I'll explain. Ever since Anita Sarkeesian released her first video on Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, one of the most common criticisms of her work is that she cherry-picks examples of sexism in games which support her argument. She thinks video games are sexist; she looks for, and finds evidence of this; but she only does so because she is cherry-picking, and ignoring all of the games which don't support her argument. I want to discuss this in the rest of this article.

As I said above, not all omissions of evidence are cherry-picking. To determine whether someone is cherry-picking, we need to look closely at exactly what the proposotion they are trying to support is, and judge on a case-by-case basis. While I don't want to go through every claim Sarkeesian has made (that would entire another article, or perhaps a series), I do want to examine the general criticism.

Note also that this discussion is entirely separate from any of the broader points Sarkeesian makes. Here, at least, I am not interested her in her analysis of the social implications of sexism in video games. The only thing I am addressing in this article is the accusation that Sarkeesian is cherry-picking, and then only in relation to her general propositions.

In the first three videos of the series, Sarkeesian discusses the 'Damsel in Distress' trope, which is the device in which a woman in peril needs to be rescued, usually by a man. The trope is nothing new, having been around since the earliest forms of story-telling, as Sarkeesian points out in her video, and having been written about extensively long before she addressed the issue. As you might expect, there's a Wikipedia page on the subject.

I said earlier that if your proposition is 'Black swans exist', then you are not cherry-picking if you do not mention that white swans also exist. Similarly, if Sarkeesian's propositions is 'The Damsel in Distress trope exists in video games', then she does not need to talk about all the games which do not feature than trope. All she needs to do is point out examples of it existing.

To reiterate, this is entirely separate from any discussion about the trope itself, whether about its sexism, or whether (as I have read elsewhere) it really oppresses men. This trope essentially consists of 'man rescues woman'; all that is needed as evidence for the proposition 'The Damsel in Distress trope exists in video games' is an example of 'man rescues woman' in video games. We'll talk a bit about the other stuff later.

Let's look at the three examples I gave earlier in the context of the Damsel in Distress trope.

  • It is cherry-picking to say 'All video games use the Damsel in Distress trope', and only mention games which do.
  • It is cherry-picking to say 'Most video games use the Damsel in Distress trope', and manipulate your evidence so that this appears to be the case.
  • It is not cherry-picking to say 'Some video games use the Damsel in Distress trope', and only mention games which do.
To clarify, if Sarkeesian is only making the claim that some video games use the Damsel in Distress trope, she does not need to mention games which do not, and is not cherry-picking if she does not.


The same point can be made of accusations of sexism in video games, as follows:

  • It is cherry-picking to say 'All video games use sexist tropes', and only mention games which do.
  • It is cherry-picking to say 'Most video games use sexist tropes', and manipulate your evidence so that this appears to be the case.
  • It is not cherry-picking to say 'Some video games use sexist tropes', and only mention games which do.

  • It is cherry-picking to say 'All video games are sexist', and only mention games which are sexist.
  • It is cherry-picking to say 'Most video games are sexist', and manipulate your evidence so that this appears to be the case.
  • It is not cherry-picking to say 'Some video games are sexist', and only mention games which are.
In other words, Sarkeesian can claim that some games use the Damsel in Distress trope, that some games use sexist tropes, and that some games are sexist, by only mentioning games which support those claims. She is not cherry-picking if she does not take account of games which do not support her claims in these cases, because those games are not relevant or significant evidence.

Final Thoughts

Note that the issue of cherry-picking, as I've presented it here, is in some ways an issue of semantics. Propositions about 'All' video games (or all swans) must be verified in relation to all video games (or swans). Propositions about 'Most' video games depend on a majority. Propositions about 'Some' depend only on some. The same is true of terms like 'common'—at which point do you decide that something is common? Does 'common' mean the same as 'all'? Does it mean 'frequent'? And what does 'frequent' mean? If something happens 25% of the time, is that 'frequent'? Most recent US Presidents have been elected on the votes of between a quarter and a third of the population: does that mean they are 'popular'?

This might seem like it is splitting hairs, and it is; but as I hope I've explained, in order to establish whether someone is cherry-picking, it is important to understand exactly what they are claiming. Not what you think they are claiming, but what they are actually claiming.

I also want to be clear that I am not saying that Sarkeesian has never been guilty of cherry-picking. That would take a detailed analysis of every claim she has ever made, which goes beyond the scope of this post. But as far as I understand her general claims to relate to some games only,  she is not cherry-picking. You may wish to debate whether, for example, the Damsel in Distress trope is truly sexism, but then the onus is on you to show that it is not (especially in the light of previous research on the topic, which almost exclusively does regard it as a sexist and chauvinist trope). You may wish to debate whether Princess Peach is truly a Damsel in Distress, despite her needing to be rescued so often. But these questions are about the meaning of the trope, rather than whether Sarkeesian's pointing out its existence in certain video games is cherry-picking.

14 February 2015

Googling Feminism

Yesterday I thought it might be interesting to Google various terms related to feminism, and see what quick search suggestions came up. It's hardly an original thing to do—I personally first came across the idea in English for Business Studies, the course book we use at university, and it's fairly common to see similar images around nowadays. Like all Google searches, these depend on your geographical location, language, and a host of other factors. But the results are entertaining, illuminating and/or shocking nonetheless. If nothing else, they give an impression of the context in which the fourth wave of feminism is taking its stand.

None of these images have been edited in any way, of course. I also tweeted the results (and added a couple more today); clicking on the various images should take you to the original tweet.

It might be interesting to do the same thing in a year's time, and see what has changed.

First of all, some basic terms.

Then some basic concepts.

Attitudes towards sexuality, mainly. 'LGBTQ' turned up nothing in quick search, btw.

Some forms of sexuality. 'Transexual' turned up nothing.

Miscellaneous. First time I've used the #GamerGate hashtag, as well.


08 March 2014

Why the GEZ is evil

Okay, since I'm ranting today, I'm going to explain why the German television license, the GEZ, is evil.

Until recently it was much like the BBC license in Britain; that is, you had to pay a license fee to support the state-run broadcasting networks. And similarly, if you didn't have a TV or radio which could receive those broadcasts, you basically didn't have to pay.

Since the start of the year, however, the rules have changed: now, anyone with a TV, radio, or internet connection, has to pay the license fee of about €20 a month. The actual fee for a TV owner is slightly lower than before, so many people are perfectly fine with the change, and haven't even noticed.

But the problem is the 'internet connection' part of the new rules. If you don't even have a computer, but have a smart phone - hell, if you even have a standard phone with a clunky, slow browser that loads at a snail's pace - you have to pay.

Why? Because you can access the websites of the state-sponsored broadcasters on the internet.

Let's get this straight: because you could visit the German ARD website, you have to pay a license fee.

And that's evil, because of the principle it establishes.

If you could visit the site, you have to pay, regardless of whether you actually do so or not.

I could also visit a porn site: does that mean that I have to pay for it even if I don't? Hmm, I could send a bill to everyone in the world asking to be paid for writing this post, because they might read it.

I could visit all sorts of sites on the internet, because, you know, the internet is a big place. Do I have to pay for all of the sites I don't visit, as well as those that I do?

Ah, you're pushing it too far, you respond. But I'm not. Because even if the German government does not intend that this model should be extended to the rest of the internet, then it must think that only it - or perhaps it and other governments - has the right to apply this model.

Either this model - paying for potential rather than actual use - can be applied to all websites, or it can only be applied to those websites which the government decides it can be applied to. In other words, while companies can't charge you money for something which you can only potentially use, a government can. On this model, the government can make the public pay for anything it wants, so long as it posts a website which anyone in Germany could visit.

While the GEZ is now basically an internet tax in everything but name, it sets up one of two principles. Either any company on the internet can charge you for its content, or governments can force the public to pay for whatever they want. Both are extremely dangerous.

Kant's first definition of the categorical imperative, which forms the basis of his system of morality, is this:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.

On the basis of that definition, the current GEZ is immoral.

24 June 2012

'Bild' and the Intention Economy

Yesterday morning, I went to collect my post and discovered a copy of Bild sticking out of my letterbox. So I threw it in the trash with all the other unsolicited junk mail.

Bild, for those who don't know, is a German tabloid which is not even allowed to call itself a newspaper. Although that's an urban legend, the very fact that so many people believe it tells you how the German public feel about Bild. Since 1998, its circulation has fallen from 4.56 million to 2.84 million (in 2011). And in March this year, it decided to remove the daily nude from the front cover (my incredulous emphasis). But my point today is not (only) to criticise Bild, but to discuss how it ended up in my letterbox.

Today, 24 June, is the 60th anniversary of the newspaper's launch, and in order to celebrate Bild sent itself to 41 million households in Germany (the Sunday edition of Bild is a separate publication and a couple of years younger, so that's why we received the anniversary issue a day earlier). In doing so it apparently set a world record for "the largest circulation for the free special edition of a newspaper." Except, of course, nobody asked for a free Bild to be shoved into their letterbox, which makes this achievement sound rather hollow. And let's not forget that the sheer expense of the event: the printing, logistics and waste generated could hardly be anything other than significant.

Unsurprisingly, when Bild announced its plan to effectively spam every household in the country, many people were upset—upset enough to launch a counter campaign which resulted in a legally-binding right to refuse. In the first twelve days of the campaign, some 200,000 people completed an application to not receive a copy of Bild. Naturally enough, Bild is claiming some kind of victory here as well, since only 0.6% of German households did not want to receive the free issue—surely, the reasoning goes, 99.4% were happy to join Bild in celebrating its 60th birthday.

No. The reason that only 200,000 dissented was because the whole approach was opt-out rather than opt-in. After reading about the plan months ago, my girlfriend and I considered joining the counter campaign, but decided against it since opting-out actually entailed sending our personal information to Bild. And opting out would still not stop Bild from feeding our letterbox with rubbish: instead, we'd receive an envelope containing a letter which said, more-or-less, 'Thank you for not taking part in Bild's 60th anniversary celebrations...' Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So after that I forgot about the whole thing, and only remembered yesterday when I was confronted by the offending article in my mail. And my response was the same as with any other junk: remove from letterbox and fling in the large cardboard box which stands behind the front door, specifically designed for collecting such trash. I probably didn't even break my step as I continued on the way to collect bread rolls from the bakery.

Actually going through the opt-out process seems to have met with mixed results: some people still received Bild (perhaps because they didn't click on the confirmation email they were sent), and some people received both a red envelope and Bild (perhaps because the postman/woman were not sufficiently instructed about what they were supposed to do). The counter campaign is now collecting evidence before deciding how to proceed.

Bild decided that the German public would all take part. Sure, we were able to refuse, but doing so required considerably more effort than just forgetting and using the trash when the day came. We were, without solicitation, opted into a campaign, with the choice to opt out if we could be bothered. Most people couldn't, and didn't. But what if the choice had been the other way around, if we'd had to ask to receive a free copy of Bild, rather than getting it automatically? Obviously, the entire event would have been a massive failure.

* * *

Serendipitously, a short while later the post delivered my copy of The Intention Economy, by Doc Searls. Now, I'm a slow(ish) reader, so I have barely started the book, but what I have read (and seen in his interview with Leo Laporte on this week's Triangulation) got me thinking about the Bild I'd thrown away.

In essence, the Intention Economy stands in sharp contrast to the Attention Economy, which Searls argues "has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising." In the Attention Economy, companies seek to deal with an over-abundance of information (or competition) by winning the attention of a customer. All traditional advertising is attention-seeking: even the modern, supposedly individualised online advertisements still do this by hoping to appear relevant. The first step of the AIDA principle of marketing (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), attention is a crucial part in achieving "a customer who is ready to buy," in Peter Drucker's words:

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy.

The problem with this is that it treats the customer as a subject to be studied, or a source of data to be collected. What it fails to do, and what modern technology could and should enable, is actually listen to the wishes of the customer. Instead of desperately collecting as much information about their customers as possible, in order to find the best way of attracting their attention, companies would be better off—in the long run—asking customers what they want, and finding effective ways of listening to them. Marketing typically places the customer at the centre of the operations of a company; but what it has not done is ascribe the customer agency or intention. Marketing has researched the customer rather than communicated with them.

This, I take it, is what The Intention Economy and Searls' ProjectVRM is attempting to address. And now, back to Bild.

* * *

The 60th anniversary 'celebration' of Bild is clear example of attention-seeking. Having seen its circulation fall by roughly a third over the last decade, the newspaper decided to force its way into the German consciousness like a petulant child shrieking 'Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention, damn you!' Bild did not in the slightest care what we wanted, and made it more difficult for us to object than to just let it have its little public tantrum.

Perhaps I exaggerate after the fact. But then again, perhaps we should not underestimate Bild's aggressive, cynical, opt-out-only attempt to increase its circulation. It is a particularly visible example of the Attention Economy at its worst. Bear in mind that the whole of modern advertising is based on similar principles; as are, necessarily, the advertising-supported internet and social networks. Do not forget that Facebook, with nearly a billion users, derives its (disappointing) market value from advertising and that it very much operates on a 'choose to opt-out rather than choose to opt-in' basis. Bild is far from being alone.

Yet neither are we. At the risk of sounding too inflammatory, I'll end by saying this: if we do not tell companies what we want, and what we do not want, they will never listen to us. Bild, Facebook and others like them are based on a model which, on the one hand, encourages consumer passivity, and on the other rewards whoever can make themselves heard over the attention-seeking masses, either by sheer volume, or by being the most intrusive and obnoxious. If that is not what we want, we need to find a way to gain their attention, and inform them of our intention.

23 June 2012

Digital Vertigo, by Andrew Keen

Without a doubt, @ajkeen is a fine writer. The only word I can think of to describe the introductory chapter to his latest book, Digital Vertigo, is 'intoxicating'. He led me through the rainy streets of London to the corpse of Jeremy Bentham and expressed his inner turmoil over the posting of a neo-Cartesian tweet with such skill that, when I paused to reflect at the chapter's end, I wondered if there hadn't been some literary slight of hand involved, if the quality of the writing was blinding me to some sophistry. But no, it is simply that Keen is a fine writer.

The style settles down somewhat after that, but the method does not. Keen sees connections everywhere, and the result is a heady concoction of philosophy, history, cinema, art, hippy culture and technological commentary. I will not attempt to summarise the argument in any detail: it twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Perhaps it goes too far sometimes—I was never entirely convinced by the relevance of Hitchcock's Vertigo (from which the book draws its name), although that may be in part due to my unfamiliarity with the film, which Keen would undoubtedly be horrified by. But there is a great deal that can be said about the modern sharing, public, digital world by taking a step back and looking at it from a wider historical / philosophical perspective, and I greatly appreciate Keen's efforts in drawing attention to such parallels.

One of the central arguments of Digital Vertigo is that the major proponents of the social web are those who stand to gain the most from it. It may ostensively be 'free' to join Facebook, but the consequence is that you are not actually a customer, in the traditional sense, of Facebook, but rather a product. And, as a product, the more you share, and the more social you are, the more valuable you become to the company. As such, it is no wonder that such the entrepreneurs behind such companies believe that privacy is dead, or that the future is social, or that humans are, by their very nature, social animals. It is no wonder because these technological gurus have a vested interest in encouraging you to be as social as possible.

Keen wishes to go further than that, however, arguing that we risk losing the essence of what makes us human when we succumb to the pressure of becoming hyper-social. Referring to Mill, he says that

our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves.

Or to put it another way, the digital narcissism implicit in today's social networks is dangerously dehumanising.

Keen is no Luddite, which is why it's a cheap shot to criticise him for inviting people to follow him on twitter (as the book cover playfully illustrates). If anything, he's interested in informed consent; people should be aware of what they're getting into, of the dangers of excess, and free to choose not to. And naturally enough, the default setting of the social network should be privacy: we should choose to be public, not choose to be private.

If I have concerns about Digital Vertigo, it's with the occasionally disingenuous argumentation. Needless to say, Jeff Jarvis and his recent Public Parts comes in for a fair amount of criticism, but Jarvis is generally more sophisticated than Keen's treatment suggests (that being said, Jarvis' unquestioning idolisation of Mark Zuckerberg began his book with a sour taste that I could never quite dismiss). But there are other points where the polemical narrative seems to take over: for example, in describing Josh Harris, the subject of We Live In Public, Keen suggests that Harris is now more-or-less living in isolation and disgrace in Ethiopia. Not so, according to Jarvis, who spends several pages describing 'The Wired City', a next-generation reality show planned by Harris (admittedly a kickstarter project which failed). Another example: Eric Schmidt's rather ridiculous comment that young people should be able to automatically change their names on reaching adulthood, which, as Jarvis points out, was intended as a joke. Keen is well aware of this, as I've seen him acknowledge in an interview, but it's not mentioned in the book, presumably because it would have weakened, or distracted from, the point he was trying to make. Also, I've always considered novelists less than reliable sources for philosophical arguments (because what they are writing is, by its nature, fiction), but Keen is more than happy to cite authors, novels, and films to illustrate his argument that we're heading in the wrong direction.

These points may well be pedantic, and I do, in principle, agree with where Keen is trying to go with the book; there were just times when I was sceptical about how he was getting there. And that is true of pretty much every mention of The Social Network, a (semi)fictionalised account of the birth of Facebook which Zuckerberg refused to be interviewed for. The film may have been Oscar-nominated, but that hardly grants it any credibility; and suggesting, as Keen does at the end of Digital Vertigo, that we should watch it in order to help make the choice "between being human and being an elephant or a sheep" is almost farcical. At best, this is preaching to the converted, because none of the 'proponents' of the social network will have any time for the film (think: hatchet job). At worst, it's a cynical deception: trust a Hollywood, old media, fictionalised cinematic account rather than seeking the truth. I don't actually think that Keen is being so manipulative; but if Jarvis' hero-worship of Zuckerberg is the sour taste in Public Parts, Keen's praise for The Social Network is the bum note in Digital Vertigo.

All in all, though, I enjoyed my time with Digital Vertigo, and my copy is enthusiastically dog-eared. It's a well-written, insightful account of the potential dangers of the social web we find ourselves increasingly caught up in. And if, at times, Keen gets a little too wrapped up in the point he's trying to make, it doesn't stop that point being any less vital or timely.

[Keen's recent opinion piece on CNN is worth a read to get the gist of what the book is about...]

17 June 2012

Kamasutra (o.s.t.), by Can / Irmin Schmidt (2009)

The Inner Space - KamasutraAccording to The Can Book, the band did not hit upon their name until December 1968; and music included in this soundtrack was recorded a month before that. And so Kamasutra is credited to Irmin Schmidt & Inner Space Production. Indeed, none of the musicians involved in the recording are mentioned in the sleeve notes, which instead summarise the contents of the obscure German film. Only Malcolm Mooney, and one Margarete Juvan, receive any credit, and only because they sing on one track each.

And in a way, that's fair enough. This is, after all, proto-Can, Can before they found their groove and identity. In some ways, the music here resembles some of the entries in their occasional Ethnic Forgery Series, but that's not quite fair, as the most of the EFS pieces which have been released are decidedly tongue-in-cheek—they're 'forgeries', after all—while the ethnic elements appropriated here are played more conventionally. Both the ethnic elements and the rock elements sound fairly typical of the sound of the late 60's, and so unrepresentative of Can themselves. That's not to say the album is of no interest to a Can fan; it's just a recording of the band in their earliest stages of development. And at several points I thought I heard references to later pieces, riffs or rhythms which would soon make their way onto record in a different form.

It's also interesting to hear David Johnson's flute playing here; if I remember correctly, there were only a couple of points on Unlimited Edition where we've heard it before. To be sure, that flute is what part of what makes the album not quite sound like Can; but this was apparently the only time when the six musicians of Inner Space played together, and it's a fascinating insight into the band's development.

Verdict: Much as I appreciate this release, it's hard to rate the album higher than Decent. Dedicated Can fans may consider this to be an essential part of their collection, but anyone else is not likely to be impressed.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Livemiles, by Tangerine Dream (1988)

Tangerine Dream - LivemilesUntainted by any hint of nostalgia, I've just listened to the album for the first time. One of the words often used in connection with Livemiles is 'warm', and that seems appropriate to me. In a way that's surprising, because all those keyboards and computers were typically thought to lead to soulless music (in part Kraftwerk's influence, no doubt). But warm this album is, while thankfully avoiding being too drippy or saccharine.

Despite that, Livemiles is still basically wallpaper, or coffee-table music. It doesn't challenge, it doesn't really excel, it doesn't excite. It does what it does well—and warmly—but it never even attempts to scale the heights of previous Tangerine Dream albums, live or otherwise. For its time, and its place in the band's discography, it's pretty good; but that's like saying it's the best of a bad bunch, or the lesser of many evils.

To be fair, I probably will listen to Livemiles again; somehow, I see the point. I wish it was a more interesting point, but at least it has one.

Verdict: Not really good, but not a total waste either. Still, the album probably represents the point at which I part company with Tangerine Dream.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Underwater Sunlight, by Tangerine Dream (1986)

Tangerine Dream - Underwater SunlightWay back when, I used to listen to a compilation of Tangerine Dream which, bizarrely, contained a single track from their pre-Phaedra records, and then material from nearly a decade later, skipping their Virgin years entirely. It made for a weird mix—krautrock experimentation rounding out a selection of 80's electronica.

In the early 90's, of course, the 80's were not so far away, and I had not yet come to a) despise the 80's as the worse decade of music in the entire history of the universe, and b) love early krautrock. And so I thought the two-part (and side-long) 'Song of the Whale' was pretty damn epic and pretty damn fine. Twenty years later, I decided to pick up the remastered edition of Underwater Sunlight, the original album containing that piece.

The problem is, in the end, that I've delayed so long in picking that album up because I've been testing how far my patience with Tangerine Dream goes. I love the pure krautrock years of the band, and I like most of the Virgin period a great deal. But by the time we hit the 80's, my interest begins to wane; there are just too many synths, too much New-Ageiness, too many soundtracks. Though I appreciate that the band were still capable of putting out side-long tracks on both studio and live albums, the overall feeling I get from them at this point is of pastiche rather than progress.

And so 'Song of the Whale', while clearly the best thing on Underwater Sunlight, is far away from what I really want to hear from Tangerine Dream. To be sure, after all this time, I still know the whole track note-for-note, and the Big Guitars™ which turn up about half way through each part of it do remind me of what my younger self liked about this, bombast notwithstanding. But it no longer captures my imagination—musical or otherwise—in the way it did, and I've never been very susceptible to nostalgia (in the sense of liking what I used to like because I used to like it).

The rest of the album is increasingly worse, gradually dropping the guitar solos and devolving electro-pop, with the bonus 'Dolphine Smile' representing just how far Tangerine Dream had fallen by this point.

Verdict: I considered being lenient towards this, given the nostalgia I said I wasn't affected by. But I can't. Underwater Sunlight is simply Bad. The only time I'm ever likely to listen to it again is on a Tangerine Dream marathon, and then only to make myself sad about how good they used to be.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic.]