Writing about culture is delicate thing at the end of 2016. Our society is undergoing frantic re-contextualization of what is right or wrong, conservative or liberal, taboo or normalized. Is social media is ultimately a tool for more social democratization or a boon for totalitarians? I suspect the ructions will continue, and we won’t shake this out for some time.
Maybe the received wisdom from cultural curators in the past was just reporting on general trends rather than influencing them. I’d wager that established cultural critics have never been less influential on popular perceptions than they have been in 2016. In the past, I would have thought the influence of internet bloviating twitterati as being over-hyped. This year has proved me wrong. Received wisdom is being overturned with every tick of the news cycle.
I think the pushing aside of the clerisy has been a long time coming. As a Libertarian who is technically an atheist, I don’t exactly stand athwart social change shouting “stop.” But I’m afraid right now we are in the Stalinist stage of the social media revolution. The marketers, both of the commercial and political species, have legions of marketing and psychological methodologies at hand. The trick nowadays for the would-be power brokers is not to actually be an individual going viral with an original point of view. Clever power brokers at the top now seek to use strategically placed social media as an imitation of authenticity.
One of the insights on the state of all things digital and cultural was provided to me by Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying about his work as a PR person deliberately manipulating media blogs. Internet news blogs run on advertising, and advertising runs on clicks. They must get you, the consumer, to click on something, whatever it takes. Thus, the most ridiculously arresting, arousing, or infuriating of headlines will be hyperlinked. The metrics of what works are known by cruel, unfeeling, Darwinian culling. If it harvests a click, it multiplies; if it does not, it withers. It doesn’t matter whether what is being put forward is uplifting, insightful, or important to your actual life. What matters is a boolean consideration: whether or not the user clicks that link.
Media manipulators have used the accumulated knowledge of human nature to figure out what makes us click. Turns out, things that make us angry make us apt to click more than anything else. Yes: puppy videos or celebrity nip-slips are up there, too. But it’s much more profitable, if you are running a web site, to have a headline with a declarative statement that will cause blood pressure to spike one way or the other. This earn clicks. And only clicks matter.
It could be said that advertisers, politicians, and polemical-minded journalists are trolling us. They are much like the fisherman trying out different shiny flies to find which one gets the bass to bite. The troll feeds on its catch, grows larger and smarter, and the cycle continues.
Trolling reverberated throughout the election this year. Electoral anger was made possible by a Democrat Party that sought to suppress democracy in the name of Super Delegates delivering up a candidate neither welcomed nor even widely well-liked by the would-be consumers.
Anger-induced clicks helped with the Bernie backlash against the Clinton product simply being handed to the Democrat constituency by this clerisy. And this anger against the clerisy ultimately helped Trump against everyone else.
American politics are almost light-hearted compared to, say, the Turkish would-be “coup” this summer. This is a story almost completely uncovered in the West. In what’s become a theme this year, the government of Turkey seems to have trolled their own populace. The Islamist President blamed the coup attempt on a bookish Islamist organization his own Islamist party was once allied with. In this way, Erdoğan cemented his hold on the country as a populist Islamist, while also claiming to fight dangerous Islamism. This contradiction is not coincidence. The incoherence is confusing and demoralizing, of course, but that can only help the powers in charge maintain their hold by repressing dissent.
Not so subtly, the Erdoğan regime has claimed that groups of secularist liberal intellectuals are tied in to the “Islamist” coup through links in education. Thus, the current Islamist populist regime has cemented its hold on the country, while claiming to be fighting Islamist terrorists by arresting and removing from positions of power large numbers of non-Islamist secularists. It takes some deliberate concentration for an outsider to follow these events, but the population of Turkey is forced to take it all in stride, and stand compliant in the face of a broadly mendacious official government line. And if the individuals do not like it, they can say goodbye to their jobs, their livelihoods, and in a word repeated quite often: their “honor” in society.
True totalitarianism is not merely living in a society in which official power repeats lies endlessly; that happens often enough everywhere. Under true totalitarianism, one is forced to recite those lies with phony sincerity and a phony smile, which everyone knows is phony, but which is required nonetheless. Totalitarianism demoralizes the individual by humiliating him and emasculating him, forcing him to smile and partake in his own humiliation.
Social Media has proven to be very adept at reinforcing these totalitarian norms by leveraging every pseudo-private space as a vector through which to enforce these pageants of self-negation and submission. In the West, we’re so far only playing games with totalitarianism and hate-clicks; contrarians still have room to mock back. In Turkey, the real thing is playing out for blood and body-counts. It remains to be seen whether the Turkish experience is an anomaly or a prequel for the rest of us.
Of far less importance than matters of Trump or Turkey, is the state of the culture of geekery.
I’m not sure whether it’s purely motivated by money, or part of some social experiment, but the social media hive minds been telling us consumers of geek media that what we really need is for women to kick ass!! in more action/sci-fi/super-hero movies.
I think, for the dollars involved, marketers are determined to fight the fundamental truth that a bunch of action films are power fantasies that boys — testosterone soaked boys — revel in. Female power fantasies — which exist — are often much subtler, personal, and less about punching or using swords. The company line that feminism means we need to see more women kick ass!! is as phony to me as claiming Cinemax soft-core lesbian sex scenes are “empowering” for the gay community. Both seem to me really driven by the consumption habits of a male audience, eager for the visual spectacle of titillating female flesh.
I think the story of 2016 as the year of the Great Gaslighting might best be exemplified in this RedLetterMedia video on the failed Ghostbusters reboot. Consider: a major corporation, worth billions, for the sake of maintaining high-income executive salaries, conducted an ad campaign for Ghostbusters that framed the existing fans of their intellectual property as basement-dwelling misogynists. This is not to defend the small number of misogynists who actually did make their foolishness known, but to point out that Sony marketed their product as a symbol of progressivism and feminism that all well-meaning, right-thinking people should embrace by principle. Whether it’s fraudulent to advertise an awful, unfunny movie as if it were otherwise, is besides my point. It’s about a multi-billion dollar corporation ginning up hatred against a group of people that Sony even explicitly recognizes as powerless and small. The massive corporation played the part of victim for being rejected by its own consumers. This is a level of cynicism really beyond parody.
This is not to claim that there are no legitimate fans of watching women kick ass!! in movies. Geek girls exist, and they are legion, and I love them. I just won’t pretend that these are things that everyone actually wants. I’m in favor of the things that not everyone gets.
I just am aware that geek girls are numerically in a minority, and no sane person goes to, say, ComiCon because it’s a great place to meet girls. I stand for the contrarians, the geeks, the outcasts, and the lovers of insanely nerdy inside references. I fight for the users! There is something to be said for being in the minority, anyway. Who wants to always be in the “most” when the “most” is mostly wrong?
As it is, true nerds have seen their culture appropriated as super-hero, fantasy, and sci-fi movies have taken over movie grosses. As a geek, it’s interesting to watch female starlets play comic book characters. I often think to myself: has she any clue who Emma Frost or the Scarlet Witch are in comic books? And one level further: has she even dated the kind of man who has any idea who those characters are?
Fine enough. Let the nerds and neckbeards have our moment. We geeks suffered through playing right-field in our day, so I am fine with the pretty, chiseled people in movies coming to ComiCon and grovelling at the great otaku temple to win the favor of our dollars and clicks.
Arrival is a science-fiction movie with a female protagonist, and it’s very good science-fiction that satisfies the thinking geek. Nothing felt false to me in the movie, as things so often do in the sci-fi genre these days.
I’ll compare it to the Martian, as far as smart sci-fi goes. I didn’t care much for that movie, even when I wanted to like it. It pulled me out of my suspension of disbelief a little too often with over-acting actors making too many quips and asides that fell flat to me. I liked it for the journey of the protagonist solving problems in a methodical way, providing the base for the rare hard sci-fi big budget movie. I felt I appreciated the Martian more as an idea of a story than the story itself. Which follows, as I heard the book was better.
Arrival, also based on a book I didn’t read, is not quite hard sci-fi, as obviously it involves aliens and fantastical elements. But let the geeks rejoice! This is a movie wherein the two lead characters are scientists. And they act like scientists. And there is honest-to-Xenu drama in watching them figure out the complexity of communicating with aliens. There is no fake-out with people acting like they wouldn’t act in real life, nor needless quips, nor jokes to elicit audience response, nor cheeseball moments. It all felt very true. Even the heart-wrenching sentiments, which are very powerfully evoked by Amy Adams’ character and her very personal loss, are all very pure.
Critics said they hated how the military stymies the scientists when they’re trying to figure out how to communicate with the aliens. But I found it rang true. Forrest Whittaker’s character says “I need to know exactly what you’re going to do before you go in there, because I need to defend it to a room of people trying to protect their jobs.” Sounds like a perfect recitation of the drama of life in a bureaucracy. In my experience, any actual scientist would nod knowingly at that scene. (Yes, that’s how you can recognize the real scientists in the theater: they’re the ones in the lab coats nodding.)
There still is a lot of drama that is milked from characters under danger from other characters pointing weapons at them, but it serves the story progression within context of the plot, not as a plot device to add drama unnecessarily. No jump scares. Sound is used as part of the story, but the alien noises are very deep audio tones, and it worked to hear it in a theater where the room is shaking. No audio is used in lieu of plot. (Take that, JJ Abrams and Lost.)
Yes, the message is a bit hippie-dippie: “we all need to get along!” But if you’re going to criticize human nature and the state of the world along those lines, this is the way to do it.
Arrival is science-fiction at its best. It is transcendent storytelling that bridges the world we know with fantasy, and brings us face to face with things both beautiful and terrible.