Saturday, 30 April 2011

Ta Ta For Now

I'll see you all in June. In the meantime, I leave you to witness the awesome power of Girlschool:

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

New Dawn Fades

One of the most important, though relatively obscure, books published in the 1980’s was the American archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s academic treatise The Collapse Of Complex Societies. The book was published by Cambridge University as part of their "New Studies In Archaeology" series, which included such page-turners as Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process and Prehistoric Farming In Europe.

In this book Tainter looked at various previous world civilisations that had collapsed, from the relatively small Easter Island colony, through the more sophisticated Mayans, to the great Roman Empire. Tainter believed that the trends that destroyed these societies, despite their variations in scale, had a common pattern, and this formed the crux of his theory, which he called the declining marginal returns of complexity. In essence, every human society, as it expands within its ecosystem, is forced to confront and solve the problems that the ecosystem presents as barriers to that expansion. These solutions, which are initially often ad hoc and provisional, eventually concatenate and require ever-greater levels of socio-political complexity and increases in energy and cost per capita in order to operate and maintain. Eventually the effort required to maintain these systems begins to outweigh the benefits of maintaining them, and the society then abandons them and returns to a lower level of complexity. In societies where the declining rate of return has become particularly pernicious, this abandonment is experienced as a collapse.

What was troubling about Tainter’s theory was his formulation that once the process of collapse has begun, it is almost impossible to reverse. Even more disturbingly, the collapse process can proceed so slowly that it is almost imperceptible to the members of that society until the final days. Tainter demonstrated that the Roman Empire’s collapse unraveled over a period of 400 years, with its undulations being demarcated by the progressive adulteration of the standard Roman coin, the silver denarius. It was possible to live a long and full life in Rome during this period, and not even notice that anything was amiss, let alone comprehend that your society was irretrievably doomed. The most that could be perceived, over periods of decades, would perhaps be slow but steady declines in available employment, wages and living standards. Public life would also steadily degrade, as the unity that was forged in the project of empire fractured into narrow sectional interests.

At the end of the book Tainter took a measured view on the decline of our own civilisation, seeing the oncoming challenges of resource depletion and environmental degradation as not setting the scene for a catastrophic collapse, but for long periods of mediocre stasis, punctuated by the occasional sharp step down for individual nations. In many ways this is the one scenario that Western societies are least willing to entertain. Our deep Faustian psychological investment in growth, expansion, and the myth of progress tends to divide future possibilities into a false binary - either infinite expansion into a techno-grandiose future of wonder, or, on the other hand, the Apocalypse, as we over-extend our Promethean powers and are punished for our wickedness. The idea that our future may be one of mediocre making-do is anathema.

The crises of the 1970’s that originally prompted Tainter to write the book were temporarily assuaged by the oil glut of the 1980’s, and the rise of China in the 1990’s. By the late Nineties, even the most cornucopian techno-optimists could sense that the West had had its day, so the rise of China supplied a tantalising possibility: that the baton of humanity’s bright future could be passed from West to East, the neoliberal dream of the end of history finding its destination in Beijing.

China, far from representing a genuinely alternative economic system, simply grafted neoliberalism onto its centralised state apparatus. The extent of its envelopment into the existing global system was its investment in the chimera of Gross Domestic Product, that phantasmagorical statistic that measures economic activity regardless of its utility. The result has been that China has become a kind of Potemkin state, in which entire uninhabited cities have been built in order to maintain the illusion of growth. Those who believe that the "project" of mankind will be carried on under Asian management are likely to find themselves deeply disappointed.

The real lesson of The Collapse Of Complex Societies was that we are blind to the wheel of history, as it slowly grinds away behind the curtain of events (elections, revolutions, economic crashes) that we mistakenly perceive as the dynamic forces that shape reality. Contrary to popular belief, civilisational collapse is generally a rather boring, imperceptible process. The future that we are likely to experience is the one we are temperamentally least willing to accept - a long, grim, drift into mediocrity.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

All The Better To Eat You With

There's no such thing as a free lunch. 
Milton Friedman

What took place in the 1980s was therefore an extension of the Carter years, not a reversal of them. The process of deregulation and redistribution up the chain accelerated under Reagan, who was broadly sympathetic to these goals. Yet it happened not because he was sympathetic to them, but because his sympathies were allowed free rein in a political environment where the opposition was muted and the expected coalition of interests opposed to the changes never materialised. After all, as Hacker and Pierson point out, Richard Nixon, who might have been expected to share some of Reagan’s sympathies, had gone the other way in his actual policies a decade earlier, shoring up the legislative framework of the welfare state and maintaining a broadly progressive tax system. (Something similar happened in Britain under Edward Heath.) He acted like this because he felt he had little choice: the organised pressure ready to resist change appeared much too strong. It was only during the Carter years – and to some extent the Callaghan years in Britain – that this pressure turned out to be weaker than anyone thought. The politicians of the Reagan/ Thatcher revolution did what they did not because they were committed ideologues, determined to stick to their principles. They did it because they found they could get away with it.

Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.
Milton Friedman

Homo Economicus
A person that desires to maximize his/her needs or desires. Homo economicus is used most of the time to refer to the rational economic actor, who desires wealth, does not desire to work if it can be avoided, and is able to find ways achieve those ends. This assumption is accepted by many economists, especially those who follow rational choice theory, but it remains controversial. The concept of homo economicus was developed by utilitarian thinkers, and contrasts with the constructs of behavioral economics.
Farlex Financial Dictionary. © 2009 Farlex, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Moreover, the neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and conjures imaginary dangers. In many instances the semiotics of 'defensible space' are just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop. Today's upscale, pseudo-public spaces - sumptuary malls, office centers, culture acropolises, and so on - are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass 'Other'. Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups - whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females - read the meaning immediately.
Mike Davis City of Quartz

The question "Who eats and who gets eaten?" reverberates in the material of bogeydom. How cannibalistic impulses beat in the cultural imaginary and what significance they carry can still be heard in the tread of the flesh-eating ogre and his progeny, whether he rattles his bones, strides in in seven-league boots or comes whiffling through the tulgey wood. Control of food lies at the heart of the first werewolf story, the transformation of Lyacon, or famous fairy tales like 'Hansel and Gretel' and less familiar ones that feature ogres and ogresses like Baba Yaga. Vampires and the undead progeny of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), who walk abroad in the shadows of our culture, form part of the larger family of fatal monsters who cannibalize humans. Food - procuring it, preparing it, cooking it, eating it - dominates the material as the overriding image of survival; consuming it offers contradictory metaphors of life and civilization as well as barbarity and extinction.
Marina Warner No Go The Bogeyman

(A tip of the wig to Greyhoos for his lupine post)

Career is a four letter word

In 1985 Bob Black wrote an essay called “The Abolition of Work”. Erudite, entertaining and also lacking in any really substantial notions of precisely how and by whom work would be abolished its core argument is that man is effectively here to play not labour, he is homo ludens, and work is a self-reinforcing system of domination and oppression that colonizes the mind and forces this ludic spirit to atrophy.

Coming as it does in the mid-eighties The Abolition of Work stands at a kind of crossroads in the culture, the point at which the promise of the Sixties and Seventies, The Leisure Society is already evaporating and work itself (and workers) are being rebranded. As a fourteen year old in 1984 I remember watching, with mounting dismay, a Sunday afternoon discussion in which the notion of the Job Portfolio was introduced. In the future you will have to be a multi-tasker and omni-skilled: there will be no single job-for-life, you will take on multiple roles in your lifetime and be required to train–up and re-skill in order to do them. This was the precarity-to –come pitched as opportunity and innovation.

Work would now dominate life more than ever, it would no longer simply be thirty five hours of enforced drudgery but an endless and all-consuming quest. A part of the shift attendant on de-industrialization and Britain’s brave embracing of new economic models was the notion of “the career”, the “democratization” of this mode of self-realization. A career is something that only a few professionals used to have, people for whom work was a central concern, the rest of us just wanted a job, to work as little as possible and concentrate on those things that made life worth living: family friend, hobbies, reading, a spot of gardening, getting pissed, whatever your passion was, therein lay your real life, work itself was a un/necessary evil, a “four letter word”.

The rebranding of work required that work itself, now about to become more than ever the central anxiety and focus of existence, was regarded not as a nightmarish imposition but as an exciting adventure, a land of opportunity. Work is glamorous, dynamic, sexy, fun. Even prior to the full-flowering of the “creative industries” the distinction between work and play, between life and work was being elided. In lots of ways Black’s Homo Ludens and the neoliberal Homo Economicus look the same, the worker rescued from the factory and transformed into an entrepreneur (the entrepreneur being the highest form of human expression for the Austrians) a seeker after opportunity, a protean seller of self, not a slave or a serf but a liberated and fully realized individual dizzily and gratefully taking his place in the market. The entrepreneur and the careerist are those for whom work is the central life concern, for them the distinction between work and play doesn’t exist, as such one route to the abolition of work is the abolition of an anti-work, anti capitalist subjectivity. Try to think about it all differently.

Certainly work-as-play and the office/corporation as a dynamic social space has been remorselessly sold to us over the past thirty years, from The Secret Of My Success through to Sex and the City among innumerable and interminable others. The phrase “The Leisure Society” the term that was used in the post war period broadly dubbed “the age of affluence” to speculate on what would come next, was even laughably revived in the Nineties as one sector of the British public went on a credit card fuelled, cheap holiday, second homes and consumer tat binge, despite, as we all know, fewer people working longer hours for less money in real terms than they did in the Seventies.

Black’s notion is that we should work a few hours a day, that 95% of work is socially useless and that this should be made as much like free play as possible (Mining? Bob?! Working in A and E?) to limit its alienating and existentially damaging qualities, the neoliberal version trumps even this by simply positing the total elision of work via the limitless possibilities for self actualisation of the free market, as people like to say of sulky shop assistants ”if they don’t like this why don’t they do something else for a living?” Remake, remodel, retrain.

If you have a job, you only have yourself to blame.

Monday, 4 April 2011

History, Nostalgia, Hauntology: The Uses Of Fantasy

"Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate." 
- Edward Said Culture and Imperialism 1993

"Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things To Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect's perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming ziggurat steps that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the dance), mile-long blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters...

I closed my eyes tight and swung around in the seat. When I opened them, I willed myself to see the mileage meter, the pale road dust on the black plastic dashboard, the overflowing ashtray. "Amphetamine psychosis," I said. I opened my eyes. The dash was still there, the dust, the crushed filtertips. Very carefully, without moving my head, I turned the headlights on. And saw them. They were blond. They were standing beside their car, an aluminum avocado with a central shark-fin rudder jutting up from its spine and smooth black tires like a child's toy. He had his arm around her waist and was gesturing toward the city. They were both in white: loose clothing, bare legs, spotless white sun shoes. Neither of them seemed aware of the beams of my headlights. He was saying something wise and strong, and she was nodding, and suddenly I was frightened, frightened in an entirely different way. Sanity had ceased to be an issue; I knew, somehow, that the city behind me was Tucson a dream Tucson thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era. That it was real, entirely real. But the couple in front of me lived in it, and they frightened me.

They were the children of Dialta Downes's `80- that-wasn't; they were Heirs to the Dream. They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American. Dialta had said that the Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here, we'd gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, or foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world."
- William Gibson 'The Gernsback Continuum' (collected in Burning Chrome) 1981

"He thought, We can only hope. And try. On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components."
- Philip K. Dick The Man In The High Castle 1962

Brian Walden (Weekend World, ITV 1983):
"All right, now you know, when you say you agree with those values, those values don’t so much have a future resonance, there’s nothing terribly new about them. They have a resonance of our past. Now obviously Britain is a very different country from the one it was in Victorian times when there was great poverty, great wealth, etc., but you’ve really outlined an approval of what I would call Victorian values. The sort of values, if you like, that helped to build the country throughout the 19th Century. Now is that right?"
Margaret Thatcher:
"Oh exactly. Very much so. Those were the values when our country became great, but not only did our country become great internationally, also so much advance was made in this country. Colossal advance, as people prospered themselves so they gave great voluntary things to the State. So many of the schools we replace now were voluntary schools, so many of the hospitals we replace were hospitals given by this great benefaction feeling that we have in Britain, even some of the prisons, the Town Halls. As our people prospered, so they used their independence and initiative to prosper others, not compulsion by the State. Yes, I want to see one nation, as you go back to Victorian times, but I want everyone to have their own personal property stake."

"Finally—and this is not limited to this analysis, though it seems especially relevant—there is the evidence of just how ideological transformations and political restructuring of this order (ascendancy of the New Right) is actually accomplished. It works on the ground of already constituted social practices and lived ideologies. It wins space there by constantly drawing on these elements which have secured over time a traditional resonance and left their traces in popular inventories. At the same time, it changes the field of struggle by changing the place, the position, the relative weight of the condensations within any one discourse and constructing them according to an alternative logic."
- Stuart Hall 'The Great Moving Right Show' 1979

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Game Over. Continue?

In the 80s, playing a videogame at home in the UK often meant using a microcomputer. The Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro were all popular among parents for being multi-purpose. Instead of buying a console dedicated solely to games, so the thinking went, why not buy one that could perform multiple tasks and even educate your children.

In America, things were a bit different. While they had microcomputers and educational games, the market was dominated by Atari. Along with other companies like Intellivision and Coleco, they focused on consoles that could only play games.

For a while this strategy worked well and Atari products were popular. At the turn of the 80s Atari’s wood-finish consoles were synonymous with home gaming. But a few years later number of problems began to surface. First and perhaps most disastrously, the financial success of videogames was growing into a bubble. The market became saturated with consoles and games of varying quality, while at the same time their market share was being threatened by the rise of personal computers.

The crash started with two high-profile failures. Pac Man was one of the most popular and successful arcade games of all time, so making a port for the Atari 2600 would seem like a fool-proof money maker. Unfortunately the Atari 2600 was not powerful enough to run the arcade version, so the game had to be downgraded in order for it to run on the home console. The game did not look very good, but wasn’t terrible for Atari standards. However, it was marketed as differing only “slightly from the original”.

Atari made 12 million Pac Man cartridges, assuming that every one of the estimated ten million people who still used their consoles would buy a copy and that two million more would buy a console to play the game. They eventually sold seven million copies, more than any other Atari 2600 game. This meant the game was a retail success, but a financial and critical failure.

For a while Atari could cite the sales of Pac Man to spin the game as a success. Not so for the next high profile disaster for the company. In mid 1982, Atari won the rights to make a console game based on Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The movie was massive, so how could they go wrong?

Eager to have the game out in time for Christmas, Atari allowed only six weeks for development. Due to the popularity of the movie and the then-novelty of a videogame based on a film, initial sales were good. Critics were scathing, however, and players began to return their copies in frustration. Again Atari had made too many cartridges and the bulk went unsold or were returned. The Christmas sales profits were eaten up by the licence fee (around $25 million) and E.T. ended up making a loss for Atari of $100 million. It is commonly referred to as one of the worst games ever made. A million unsold copies of E.T. are rumoured to be buried in a massive landfill in New Mexico, crushed and encased in concrete along with other Atari products.

Atari games now had a reputation for low quality. In 1983 Atari lost over $500 million and the market for videogame consoles collapsed. The stock value of Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications, dropped 35% after Atari announced a cut in predicted revenue increases in late 1982. Warner wiped it’s hands of Atari and chopped up and sold the company in 1984.

During the bubble, Atari had launched a massively ambitious project. Spanning four games and coming with comics made by DC, Swordquest was a new type of game that mixed puzzles with action and an epic story. Each game was filled with clues to a riddle and the reward for solving the riddle was real treasure. The prize for the lucky winner of first game, Earthworld, was the "Talisman of Penultimate Truth," an amulet of solid 18crt gold embedded with diamonds and birthstones representing the Zodiac. Fireworld, the next instalment, rewarded the winner of the contest with the "Chalice of Light," a cup made of platinum and gold and decorated with precious stones.

The third game, Waterworld, was cancelled when the bubble burst. The remaining prizes – a crown, a “philosopher’s stone” and the grand prize of a sword – had already been made, but no one knows what happened to them. The man who bought the consumer division of Atari after the crash was Commodore’s former owner and founder, Jack Tramiel. According to rumour he still owns the remaining treasure, including the sword – valued to be worth $50,000 at the time.

Jack Tramiel is a colourful figure. A survivor of Auschwitz, he was a tough Polish immigrant with a reputation in the industry for being a “monster”. Tramiel was contemptuous of computers for schools and famously said, “We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes". But it was the reliance on multi-purpose computers – that were bought by schools as well as homes – rather than game-dedicated consoles that spared Europe from the North American crash.

Tramiel had played his own part in the crash while at Commodore, engaging in a ruthless and petty price war with a rival that ended with his resignation from his own company. His leadership of Atari Corp in particular has come under criticism for his tough management practices and short-sightedness (how often those two go together). Under Tramiel, Atari was understaffed and overworked, but they managed to release the successful Atari ST personal computer in 1985. After putting out a few lackluster game consoles, Atari closed in 1996.

‘Understaffed and overworked’ soon became the unspoken mantra of videogame development. Today, videogames are made under call centre-style working conditions of gruelling unpaid overtime known as ‘crunching’. The ‘crunch’ is the period of time, maybe three months, when the deadline looms and much work has to be done. Workers go without pay on barely any sleep to get the game finished in time. Crunching has now become standardised to the point of being scheduled in advance.

The kind of hubris that crippled Atari was still detectable in the videogames industry 25 years later. As Lehman Bros. collapsed many influential figures in the videogame world claimed that the industry was “recession-proof”. Videogames still rake in enormous profits, but the question isn’t if the bubble will burst, but when.