Monday, December 17, 2012

37 things you should hoard

Consumerism is as much about acquiring stuff as it is about acquiring stuff that other people don’t have. In our advanced industrial age this sometimes involves cultivating elaborate illusions of scarcity. Take the people who queue outside of Apple Stores ahead of the release of a new iPhone. They don’t do it because a slavish obeisance to this ritual is proof of the fact that they ‘think different’, nor because they actually fear that the world might be running out of iPhones. (The Stones aren’t in town. This thing isn’t going to get sold out.) They do it because it enables them to own that particular object ahead of other people. There is a narrow yet psychologically significant slice of time between nobody owning the new iPhone and everyone owning the new iPhone. To live in this time must mean something. It must be worth the emotional and physical labour required to be part of that large group, ahead of the even larger group that is the mass.

Another, more time-honoured way of acquiring stuff that other people don’t have is to throw your money after something that is stupidly expensive. Say, $6,000 for a Hèrmes hourglass, or $7,000 for a coyote fur hammock (‘produced with naturally deceased coyotes’). Or – if you really are in a spending mood – you can go for the Azature black diamond nail polish.

h/t @agatapyzik

Retailing for a trifling £160,000, each bottle of Azature – available exclusively from Selfridges in the UK – contains 267 carats of black diamonds and features a hand-made platinum sterling cap. I’ve actually added the item to my cart and proceeded to the check-out, just for fun, and in the off-chance it might briefly excite a sysop. I am therefore able to report that the website will insist on charging £4.95 for delivery within the UK, and that in a show of unbridled optimism it offers you to pay the total bill of £160,004.95 by credit card. But observe the footnote:
Availability: Low stock
Orders taken today will be dispatched from 13/1/13
This casual note is designed to reassure you that a cosmetic product costing two thirds of the average national house price is actually being sold, and that its makers are struggling to keep up with the demand. Which is another way of saying: some people have this. Other people. Wouldn’t you want to be one of those people?

A perception of scarcity. Coca-Cola introduced it, in what is possibly the world’s most common product, by naming some of the bottles as if they were people, thus making them ‘unique’. Clearly there is no limit to the shit that we’re prepared to fall for. And what a perception of scarcity is designed to trigger is not merely consumption – it is hoarding. Things must be had. Not having them might result in permanent lack, and this cannot be allowed to happen.

I don’t remember when it is that I came across this promotional video by Damian Campbell for the ‘37 things you should hoard’. That’s not the title, by the way, just the hook used by some of the website that link to it – charming places with names like Radio Britannia or The Vanguard News Network, frequented by charming people sporting slogans such as ‘Nobody but Jews want us all to believe the Jew version of 9/11’ (this from a particular gentleman who lists as his location the ‘Jewnited Snakes of Amnesia’). I’m not going to link to any of these places, obviously, but the video itself is somewhat less objectionable and there is a version of it on YouTube.

Not that I’m suggesting one should bother watch it. It struck me, though, as an extreme but nonetheless instructive example of the places consumerism can take you. The premise is that Mr Cambpell, author of the Survive Anything Guide, has information that could be a key to your survival in a civil emergency, terrorist attack or other crisis, when people will panic and loot the food stores or hoard everything in sight before you have a chance to purchase the 37 critical food items that alone would ensure the survival of you and your family. He spends several minutes telling you about this, first warning you about the many dangers that beset America (‘there’re some serious events about to hit the US. Some you know of already, but some will be brand-new in a threatening way’), then cautioning that some foods are good, whereas others are useless or could even hasten your demise, all the time building up to the sales pitch.

The addressee is a prepper or aspiring prepper. A ‘fellow patriot’, in the common parlance of these sites. Therefore male, therefore a father (if not actually, at least for the purposes of self-identification). The society in which the prepper and his family live is savagely Darwinian due to the facts of human nature, or so weakened by the corrosive influence of Government, the unions and liberals that it is destined to crumble in a crisis. The prepper lives therefore already in end times, and must devote his intellectual, physical and financial resources to ensuring the future survival of his family unit when disaster strikers, as it most assuredly will. (Although the prepper is resolutely Christian, this prophecy is of the agnostic kind and salvation comes not through faith but through works.) The pitch involves a wonderful piece of #nodads shaming:
It’s crushing when your kids realize that their Dad was wrong and your wife feels like you failed to protect the family.

Conversely, the very preparedness that now attracts ridicule will bestow status and respect in due course:
Sometimes our neighbors or even family say we’re “crazy” or “kooky” but…

People May Say We're “Crazy” Now...
But We'll See Who Was Right When
They're Asking Us For Help!
Whereas those of a less vindictive bent can look forward to
  • Attract like-minded Americans to rebuild our nation based on the constitution – without all the liberal crap…
  • Be a community leader ready to protect and provide for your fellow patriots

About twenty minutes into this carry-on it becomes clear that Mr Campbell has no intention of telling you what any of those 37 food items are, at least not until you’ve forked out $50 plus postage and handling for the entry-level CD-ROM version. The hoarding therefore takes a special form: it is hoarding of information. Having what others don’t have is subsumed to the logic of competitive survival. You will get to those precious items first if your neighbour doesn’t know what they are. I’ll teach you how to prepare in secret. I’ll tell you how to grow a hidden garden.

Like regular consumerism, this extreme kind is the mirror to a society that equates solidarity with weakness in the face of a crisis. That is the meaning of Nancy Lanza’s arsenal. She knew that what a good prepper must have above all is guns, To guard against other people. For safety. This requirement is so implicit that Campbell needs not mention it. Besides, he has this.

The NRA Business Alliance guarantees Damian Campbell and everyone else who is in the business of freedom. Even when it means privatising and ring-fencing something as basic as the advice on how best to prepare for a large-scale emergency. I can think of few more concise illustrations of the violence of capitalism than that seal and the slogan that accompanies it.


This may not be necessarily what I had in mind as an end-of-year, wishing-everyone-a-happy-christmas post, but there it is. Should you wonder what the 37 food items are, a helpful prepper revealed them in a forum. The list comprises water, pasta, rice, canned soups, meats, veggies, fruit, popcorn, salt, milk (condensed or powdered), cereal, beef jerky, grains, cooking oil, sports drinks, nuts, pickles, dried fruits, spices, honey, crackers, baking essentials, power bars, instant rice, coffee, alcohol, hard candies, dehydrated canned entrees, juice powders, protein drinks, peanut butter, long lasting treats (Twinkies, etc.), salsa, ramen noodles, fresh fruit, baby food and pet food. That’s it.

I’ll see you all in the new year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Another Skyfall review

Then I understood that I am the world.
But the world - it isn’t me.
Although, at the same time, I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
And then I didn’t think any further.

(Daniil Charms, 1930)

I am the world

See my gun. Drive my car. Drink my beer. Wear these clothes.

My name is James Bond. I am a global brand. The least secretive of all secret agents, I always give my real name. It has been estimated that roughly one third of living human beings have seen at least one of my films. That’s as many people as there are Christians on Earth. And because I don’t belong to any one religion I am the closest thing there is to a universal global experience.

You can own things that belong to me. This suit. It’s by Tom ford. This watch. You ask if it’s a Rolex. I say: ‘Omega.’

I am a brand. I know my brands. England. That is one of my brands. That is the country that I identify with, and my country identifies with me. Bond is GREAT Britain. (They say Great Britain. I say England.) But I play equally well in China. Recently I spent time in Shanghai. Although it was also London. We used the streets of London for some of the action that took place in Shanghai. That’s okay because we made sure that you couldn’t tell the difference.

I travel the world but I always come back to England. We are cut from the same cloth, England and I. It is like the cloth of my Tom Ford suit. Underneath the cloth there is steel, like the steel of my Walther PKK. You too can own one. You too can own me. You too can kill.

But the world isn’t me

Skyfall nearly never got made. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, owner of the rights to the Bond franchise through its controlling interest in the long-since defunct United Artists brand, filed for bankruptcy in November 2010, months after halting production on the 23rd film of the series. Pre-production resumed in 2011 when the studio laboriously emerged from its financial troubles. For its part the film’s co-distributor, Columbia Pictures, is a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., which is a unit of – you guessed it – the Sony Corporation, whose bonds have recently been downgraded to just-above-junk status by Moody’s and S&P, and to actual junk status by Fitch. The global financial crisis may turn out to be Bond’s deadliest enemy yet. And who knows, perhaps there is an ulterior meaning in the choice of that title. An allusion to another kind of fall.

What seems certain is that the film’s relatively small budget – £93.7m compared to the £125m of Quantum of Solace – and the decision to set a much larger portion of the story than usual in the home country are connected to these crises. To this we must add that anything between a quarter and a third of the capital to cover the production costs of Skyfall was raised through product placement and other marketing arrangements – an approximate but nonetheless remarkable, possibly unprecedented figure. The most widely discussed of these deals was the one with Heineken, leading to two instances of placement of the product in the film, and an ad campaign starring Daniel Craig that reached a feverish intensity in the lead-up to the film’s release. MGM and Sony benefited from the deal twice: in terms of the money they received upfront and in terms of the free help in the marketing of the film. In exchange for that, Heineken got James Bond to hold a bottle of Heineken for about three seconds on screen.

But I am the world

I am lying on a bed somewhere in India, holding a bottle of Heineken. The bottle is half-empty. I am a global brand, therefore I must consume global brands. Or maybe this bland Dutch lager is a sign of my despair. I am no longer myself since I fell out of the sky. I am no longer myself since my betrayal.

But the world isn’t me

A Dries van Noten cardigan. A Pretty Green fishtail parka. Several Sony Vaio computers. Cartamundi Poker Cards and Chips. A pair of Acne Wall Street Shark Grey trousers. A Belstaff New Selsey jacket. An Interstuhl AirPad 3C42 chair. A pair of 3M Peltor H61FA British Army Ear Defender earmuffs. An N. Peal cashmere sweater. A John Smedley Bobby v-neck pullover. A pair of Adidas Gazelle 2. A pair of Dents unlined leather gloves. Cosmed fitness equipment. A Carine Gilson satin-silk robe. The AgustaWestland AW101 Helicopter. A pair of Tom Ford Marko TF144 sunglasses. A pair of Crockett & Jones Highbury shoes. A pair of Crockett & Jones Tetbury chukka boots. A Sony ECM-Z60 microphone. A pair of Puma Alexander McQueen Street Climb Mid sneakers. An Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra Mid Size Chronometer. An Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean wristwatch. An Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra Automatic wristwatch. A Land Rover Defender Double Cab. The latest Sony Xperia T smartphone. A Globe-Trotter Stabilist Case. The Macallan Whisky. A set of Swarovski SkyFall earrings, necklace and ring. An army PTI Training Jacket. A Billy Reid peacoat. The Pruva Regina yacht. An Anderson Wheeler 500 Nitro Express Double Rifle. A Barbour X To Ki To Beacon Heritage Sports Jacket. A Wild & Wolf Scrabble Q mug. A Polycom SoundStation2. A JBL On Tour XTB. An Artemide Tolomeo Basculante table lamp. A Royal Doulton Bulldog Union Jack. A Honda CRF250R motorcycle. A pair of Orlebar Brown Setter Sky swimming trunks.

A bottle of Heineken beer. (Two, actually.)

The Aston Martin DB5.

A Walther PPK handgun.

All of these products, and likely many more, are ‘placed’ within Skyfall. There are online forums devoted to identifying the ones that aren’t immediately obvious, and so the list is constantly updated and open-ended. Call it brand-spotting. It’s how we know that Daniel Craig wore Orlebar Brown Setter Sky swimming trunks.

That the process of naming the products is at times so elaborate and meticulous is enough to suggest that not all of them are placed in exchange for money. Some are just ‘there’, and few brands are willing to reveal whether they in fact paid for the privilege, or how much. But we know that it’s a major business, and that James Bond is one of the most profitable and costly franchises to be associated with.

And what does it say about capitalism and globalisation that the world’s most coveted advertising vehicle is an assassin?

But I am the world

‘Someone usually dies.’ It’s one of my favourite lines in the new film. I say with a wry smile it in front of this woman, who will also die.

I kill because it’s my job. I kill because it’s what sells. Of all the products that I endorse, the Walther PKK is second only to the Martinis I drink in defining me. In Skyfall, Q gives me this special Walther that only I can shoot. My gun and I have achieved symbiosis.

I drink to excess to drown the excess of death that surrounds me. I didn’t mean for the woman to die.

But the world’s isn’t me

‘Someone usually dies.’ The spectacle of global capitalism is marked by these deaths: as many as there are evildoers, plus half the women and an unspecified but not small number of extras. Are you a security guard working nights on the ground floor of a corporate building? Expect to be shot at point-blank range. The rule is that the shorter your screen-time is, the more clichéd your death will be. The security guards are but punctuation. Death commas. By contrast the villain-in-chief is destined to die a protracted, wretchedly painful, heavily symbolic death in which the process of consumption is both exorcised and sublimated.

The vast and capital-intensive edifice built around the villain crumbles in this final act, offering temporary reprieve and the semblance of resolution. But: ‘James Bond will return’. There will be a new issue, a new gallery of products, a new villain commanding impossibly vast human and financial resources. Bond will make more sales, more kills. This we know.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

We are in a book

There is a little exercise that you can do if you have children: go through their shelves and count how many of their books deal in an overt way with what a book is and how books work. This includes all lift-the-flap books, all pop-up books and tactile books and books featuring physical contraptions or gimmicks, as well as the vast metafictional literature that introduces and at the same time messes with the conventions of storytelling or the medium. You’ll likely find that there are many.

I discussed some time ago a book that belongs to a couple of those categories. In David McKee’s Elmer’s New Friend, a rumour spreads through the jungle that Elmer the patchwork elephant has a new friend, and various animals speculate as to whom it could be. Finally the reader is invited to look through some foliage – there they will find Elmer’s new friend. And there, amongst the trees, is a rectangular strip of reflective paper. The reader is caught in the story. Elmer’s new friend is you.

I remarked at the time how peculiar to print technology this idea is, and that Elmer’s New Friend is a book that would be impossible to digitise (although arguably it could be remediated as an app for a portable device equipped with webcam). However what is more interesting to observe is how common children’s metafictions are. Early readers are about reading and early stories are about storytelling. First books are about book-ness. Like Don Quixote, the ur-texts are already parody of the mature texts to come; rote phrases like ‘once upon a time’ and ‘lived happily ever after’ already hint at their ironic inversion. This is the beginning of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883):
One upon a time there was...
“A king!” my young readers will immediately say.
No, children, you are wrong. Once upon time there was a piece of wood.
The entire novel is almost contained in those three lines: everything from its mischievous play with expectations and insistence to speak for the reader to its being – in the most emphatic sense – not about a king. You could almost stop reading it right there. (Although you shouldn’t.)

A later Italian author, the great Gianni Rodari, also liked to pull his young readers into the fiction-making process. His Favole al telefono (‘fairy tales over the phone’) are stories told by a travelling salesman every night of the week to his daughter while he is on the road. They are short because the salesman has to pay for private phone calls out of his own pocket, and that small, casual observation is a whole thesis on literary form and the constraints of genre. This is the collection that includes ‘A sbagliare le storie’ (‘getting stories wrong’), about a grandfather who cannot tell – or plays at getting wrong – the story of Little Red-Riding Hood, to the immense and vocal frustration of his granddaughter.

However Rodari’s masterpiece was Il libro degli errori (‘the book of errors’), in which the source of the invention are mistakes of grammar and spelling, and the artful inability to get the gist or correctly interpret the moral of a story.
Mistakes are useful, as necessary as our daily bread and often even beautiful: for instance, the tower of Pisa.

Some of the best children’s books are about getting things wrong, or playing at getting things wrong: stories that seem to go hopelessly off-track until things are resolved, by the standard of good grown-up literature, badly. In the case of The Cat in the Hat, literally by a deus ex-machina.

And then there are the stories – is it all of them? – that are about the act of make-believe. My favourite is still Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. ‘And Sophie found she couldn’t have her bath because the tiger had drunk all the water in the tap.’ Mother and daughter are just playing now. There was never a tiger in the house.

And then they go shopping and they buy a big can of tiger food in case the tiger should come to tea again. ‘But he never did.’ That is the last line in the book. It’s a game they only played once, although that is complicated, too, because I would have read the book to my daughter at least one hundred times and it’s likely to have been a ritual in many other households, if not with this book then with others. It’s make-believe and repetition. Savouring the surprise of what you already know by heart.

Lately we are quite fond of Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie books. It took me a few attempts to warm to them, but our four year old was enamoured from the beginning and the rest of the family gradually followed. I think what captured the boy’s attention were the big words and the big expressions. The world of elephant and piggie is full of intense feelings and exuberant theatrics. In I am Going!, Piggie states her intention to ‘go’ and Gerald (the elephant) is terrified that his friend might be leaving him forever, while she really only plans to have lunch. The entire 60-page book consists of that single dialogue, building to a paroxysm of drama. It’s Harold Pinter for children, except with more pathos.

Then last week we got out We Are in a Book!, which is about Piggie and Gerald first noticing that they are being watched by a reader, then realising that they are in a book.The first thing they do with this newly-acquired knowledge is to play a trick on the reader and get them to say the word ‘banana’. But when it’s Gerald’s turn to think of a jape ‘before the book ends’, that new realisation – that the book is going to end – precipitates another nervous crisis.

After some thoughts on how fast – too fast – the book goes and the fact that the pair ‘only want to be read’, a solution is found in a young reader’s habits and the recursive nature of children’s literature.

The book never ends. Like childhood. Or rather, like a model childhood producing and endless chain of model readers, all of them characters, all of them caught in the story.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The weariness of the satyr

Originally posted at Overland.

If it were made into a film or a play, it would have to begin near the end: from the parties that were held in the weeks and days before the trial, when the girls tried to grab the last of the money and favours whilst talking privately about him with open, at times ferocious disrespect, calling him a ‘flaccid arse’ and other things. ‘He’ was at this time the Prime Minister of what is still formally regarded as the world’s seventh largest industrial power. They, ‘the girls’, were a disparate group of women ranging in age from 17 to 27, some foreign, some prostitutes, some studying towards a degree, some aspiring to make a name for themselves in the world of televised entertainment, many a combination of the above, but all struggling right now to make the most of those last few parties. To corner him, to persuade him to help them start a business – which was code for receiving a large payment, practically a severance – or even, as they dreamed, to have the deed for one of the apartments in which they lived in Via Olgettina, in the outskirts of Milan, transferred into their names, so that they could ‘settle’, walk away with something.

In the day-to-day, or rather night-to-night, the competition consisted in seeing who would receive the thickest, richest envelope at the end of the party. ‘Aris got nine pretty flowers the other night,’ says Nicole Minetti in one of the phone calls recorded by the police. This means that Aris Espinoza, then 22, was handed an envelope containing 9,000 euros at the end of that one evening spent at Berlusconi’s palace in Arcore. In exchange for what? For being beautiful and being available, I think, would be the most accurate answer. For being pretty. For being there. Whether or not sex was part of the transactions, or of which particular transactions – whilst of material interest to the prosecutors and of largely prurient interest to the public – seems to me a much less interesting question. One of Berlusconi’s lines of defence in the media has always been that he gave all that money because it’s in his nature to help people in financial strife. It just so happened that the people in question where all young, beautiful women. ‘Girls’, as he always called them, as they called each other. And this story could not fail to be not only about power but also about the subservient role of women in Italian society and the role of the female body in the national psyche.

At one of the national demonstrations organised by the feminist movement If not now, when?
Berlusconi’s women weren’t sex workers. They were a live-in harem, serving as wives, housewives, companions, lovers, all supposed to be available whenever ‘the boss’ or Papi (‘Daddy’) asked the caretaker of the group – former dental hygienist and current regional councillor Nicole Minetti – to organise one of the parties known to the world as bunga-bunga. The international press has concentrated on the ‘last days of the empire’ nature of these festivities, the grotesque dress-ups. One of the girls once dressed as Obama, another time as Ilda Boccassini, the public prosecutor who had led most of the trials against Berlusconi (including, eventually, this one). You can see why people would focus on such things. But there is a much harder edge to this affair, and it becomes most evident when the Olgettina system is about to be dismantled. You can read it in the increasingly fevered pitch of those last requests, even as the girls started meeting with Berlusconi’s lawyers to receive the necessary coaching on how to speak and what to say to the magistrates. They knew they had given this 75 year-old man, whom now they frequently and openly confessed to each other to finding repulsive, their one shot at youth, beauty and a good, clean name, that is to say their most valuable assets in a society that trained them to see themselves not as possessing but as being those things (and a special chapter ought be devoted, when somebody writes the book, to the parents who reassured their daughters in the recorded phone calls, pleading with them not to walk away, at least not before having secured a large enough sum of money.)

It is in those final days, when the stakes were raised, that the market logic of the system became impossible to conceal – and besides there was less of a reason to bother with the decorum. What Berlusconi got out of the exchange was the ability to switch between a series of roles within his private theatre: he could be loving uncle, flirty friend, insatiable lover to all of these women, who were his. If you wonder how badly he could possibly have needed those psychological comforts, consider that he had a whole other mirror bunga-bunga party system going in Rome (where he spent half the year as Prime Minister), about which we know very little other than the fact it existed and was likely as large. Now the Olgettina girls were setting aside all of the pleasantries, demanding to see the money. On one occasion they did so openly and in a group, almost acting as a collective, to which an angered Berlusconi replied that they shouldn’t complain about getting in one night what it would take a factory worker five months to earn.

This is clearly the mirror not just of a nation’s moral decline, but also of its broader social and economic relations. The boss owns your body, your personal history, your future. At the end of the day’s work, he sets the price for your services. Because he is the market, he tells you how much you are worth. It is almost always less than you think.

I feel I should write a much longer post about this. I read the 400-page long court summons. I listened to the phone calls. I waded through two years’ worth of media reports. There is so much detail, and so much of it is exhausting, enervating. It is said that power wears you out, and weariness is a strong theme in this entire story. The standard narrative about the end of the Olgettina system pits a tired, fragile Berlusconi against his increasingly impudent, greedy menagerie, and is tinged with an undercurrent of melancholy sympathy for the old man. The sentiment is quite misplaced. Now we now from yet more recorded conversation from another wire that he had moved on, that he soon started partying elsewhere, even as the Olgettina trial got going. He found himself a new group of young women and boasted that his lovemaking was leaving them exhausted. In fact – reveals wryly his friend in the recording – they had quickly worked out that all they had to do to make him happy was to cry ‘enough, I can’t take it any more!’ after a couple of his pelvic thrusts.

Adesso basta – ‘enough is enough’ – was also the slogan of the feminist marches at the height of the bunga-bunga scandal. It captured the mix of weariness and anger that so many of us feel. How many of the same battles for women and the Left have had to be fought over and over again in my lifetime? But exasperation is no strategy on which to build alternative futures. The demonstrations came and went. They made no difference. Berlusconi’s fortunes only came to an end once he had tired himself out.

I should write a much longer post about this. Begin again from the beginning. I haven’t even told you why Berlusconi is on trial for this. Almost everything he did was legal. But I won’t. Ça suffit. It’s enough.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Leaving Middle-earth

First it was rugby and the America’s Cup, and sometimes Katherine Mansfield and Jane Campion (thank you very much). Then The Lord of the Rings came along and it became the thing that people knew about New Zealand. That, and that it was a place of great natural beauty.

It’s funny what people know about other nations. ‘If they commit suicide and the king rides a bicycle, it’s Sweden.’ I think Alan Bennett said this. New Zealand is the kind of place that people seem to know two things about. Seldom less, seldom more.

Years ago a friend in the tourism business who specialised in South-East Asia and the South Pacific told me that she visited New Zealand as little as her role allowed her. There’s nothing to see there, she explained, nowhere you’d want to be. Too much nature, not enough culture. It was a one-way conversation as I had no direct knowledge on which to build a counter-argument at the time. I’m not even sure I could successfully muster one now – not when she could turn around, pick up a brochure from a shelf in her office and wave it triumphantly in my face.

Image from the Tourism New Zealand website
This is how the country markets itself at this time. The $10 million campaign goes by the name of 100% Middle-earth and its main vehicle is a 60-second ad created by TBWA ‘placed on TV and cinema in selected offshore markets’. At the end of the ad, which tracks a fellowship of tourists as they tramp and frolic through a series of scenic spots, we come to the hobbit burrow shown above. The tourists look at each other in delight and wonder. Cue the campaign slogan: ‘Traveller: your dreams are waiting.’

It’s not just awful, but a special kind of awful. The last place shown in the ad before getting to the hobbit village is a hilltop dotted with carved Māori pou (voiceover: ‘where you can play on mountains protected by the gods’). Thus a direct, seamless transition is set up between the true and fake indigeneity, allowing the traveller to grab one of each. This New Zealand without cities, this nation without culture, is open to such reinventions.

The recipe is a kind of colonial mille-feuille. New Zealand can stand in for Middle-earth not just because of the entrepreneurial genius of Peter Jackson and the capital supplied by Warner Brothers but also because its native landscape was remade by British settlers in the image of their (and JRR Tolkien’s) motherland: hence when the Tourism Board boasts that ‘the fantasy of Middle-earth is in fact the reality of New Zealand’, as opposed to manufactured in post-production, it glosses over the pre-production work carried out by generations of colonizers. Another delicious layer of the cake consists of the arrangements that made the films possible, and the remarkable contortions (and outright deception) that led Warner to secure significant tax breaks and have a direct hand in drafting our labour legislation. Which efforts in turn – and we’re getting to the cake’s crunchy base – were targeted not at supporting a national film industry but rather at increasing the flow of foreign tourists.

The New Zealand of 100% Middle-earth is thus – to borrow Irena Ateljevic and Stephen Doorne’s phrase – the perfect postcolonial consumer fantasy: pre-packaged via entertainment products that are already thought of as pieces of tourism marketing, then sold as pure experience, a vast empty signifier that is up to the traveller to fill. There is no indigenous meaning here, not even in the shape of the land. We stand before you, all nature and no culture, ready to be remade in your image.

A true New Zealand landscape
The trouble is that none of it is real. Not 100% Middle-earth, which is just stupid, nor 100% Pure, which is the slogan of the parent campaign and only marginally less dishonest. New Zealand is neither of those things, and our target audience has cottoned on to this, as evidenced by the strange spectacle of the Prime Minister being grilled on such claims on Hardtalk last year (‘I think for the most part, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are 100% pure,’ was his inspired response) or most recently by a New York Times article timed to coincide with the release of the first Hobbit film.

Nonetheless, if The Hobbit is even a moderate success I’m sure that we’ll register an increase in the number of tourists, and the stats will be crunched and it will be found that the investment was worth it, all of it, including auctioning off our labour laws to a Hollywood film studio, for the people came, and they went to the hobbit village at Matamata, and they weren’t bothered by the fact that those lovely hobbit houses have no inside – they are just pasted onto the side of the hill – nor did they go away thinking you know what, in a funny way the entire country is like that: not quite real, a bit of a trick. You open the door, and there’s nothing there.

With thanks to Anna Caro. She knows why.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This tree is made of tweets

IRL. In Real Life. As if this life were unreal. As if my writing this blog or my tweeting about going to a book fair during the weekend existed in a separate dimension of virtual interactions, and those interactions were collectively meaningless, immaterial, or at any rate less meaningful and material than what happens In Real Life.

Nathan Jurgenson is right to point out that this is a fallacy. Emails belong to real life just as much as letters or verbal communication. Facebook is real. But for Jurgenson IRL is more than just a fallacy: it’s a fetish. Calls to disconnect from electronic media and reconnect with the physical world as ‘something more real’ are, in his view, nonsensical, because there is no there there to return to. The online and the offline world are now so enmeshed that Real Life no longer exists except as a nostalgic construct to be accessed by those who wish to affect an uncommon sensitivity. He writes:
What a ridiculous state of affairs this is. To obsess over the offline and deny all the ways we routinely remain disconnected is to fetishize this disconnection. Author after author pretends to be a lone voice, taking a courageous stand in support of the offline in precisely the moment it has proliferated and become over-valorized. For many, maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses.
In response to this mindset, and to the ‘digital dualism’ that underlies it, Jurgenson has been working for some time on the concept of augmented reality, which is supposed to account simultaneously for ‘the merging of material reality with digital information, as well as the augmentation of digitality with materiality’, that is to say for the feedback loop between the digital and the material world. In the simplest possible terms: relationships that originate and take place mostly online may at times dominate one’s social existence, but so too the store of knowledge of the networks is comprised of information that is generated mostly offline. In the final analysis, it becomes not just impractical but futile and conceptually flawed to attempt to separate the two.

Which is fine as far as it goes, although Jurgenson runs into some difficulty when he tries, or tries not, to explain how and at what level of abstraction the enmeshing of bits and atoms is actually supposed to operate if ‘augmented reality’ is to be used for other purposes than to denounce digital dualists, and is not to produce another kind of dualism (digital vs. analogue). There is also some irony in the fact that the main target of Jurgenson’s critique, the Sherry Turkle of this admittedly less than impressive New York Times opinion piece about the lost art of the face-to-face conversation, owes her scholarly fame to a 1995 book – Life on the Screen – that was amongst the first to address these very same issues. It’s while conducting her research for Life on the Screen that Turkle was told by one of her informants ‘RL is just one more window, and it's not usually my best one’, a quote correctly suggesting that the end product of the internet revolution would be not so much an enmeshing as a series of slippages between socially constructed meanings – of what is media, of what is experience, of what is life, of what is real.

I am of course not alone in thinking that living at a time when the troubled settling of these meanings can still be noticed and – to some extent – contested is a historical privilege. Barring a forced and catastrophic resetting of the technological clock, future generations will likely find it as hard to think in pre-internet terms as a literate culture does when it tries to imagine what life was like before the alphabet was invented. Even now I think I am starting to struggle, and I didn’t own my first computer until the age of fifteen or encounter the internet until the age of twenty-six. Recollecting previous habits of mind is one of the hardest things. But at least I still know people who are internet-illiterate. I can rely on their experience, face what is at times the challenge of relating to them after spending the entire day or week on the other side of the paradigm shift. I can even defer the development of this literacy in my children, if my partner and I agree that they might benefit from a gentler introduction. Such not-yet-radical gestures, too, are privileges that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Which is why I find the fallacies and fetishes that Jurgenson decries less problematic than the rhetorical framing of his critique. This involves heavy use of what I have taken to calling the Wired ‘we’, a magical pronoun that captures the entire range of behaviours and attitudes towards electronic gadgets or digital media in order to allow a writer to make a universal point about these technologies. Turkle herself makes a dreadful abuse of that ‘we’ in her piece, but the retort is worse. These are all from Jurgenson's TNI essay.
While eating, defecating, or resting in our beds, we are rubbing on our glowing rectangles, seemingly lost within the infostream.

Twitter lips and Instagram eyes: Social media is part of ourselves; the Facebook source code becomes our own code.

It’s not real unless it’s on Google; pics or it didn’t happen. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends. We have come to understand more and more of our lives through the logic of digital connection. Social media is more than something we log into; it is something we carry within us. We can’t log off.
There is a very suasive flow to these passages. That we is so tempting, enveloping. It almost makes you forget it’s tosh, and I mean all of it. We aren’t friends until we are Facebook friends? Who thinks that? And I know it’s not me in bed or on the loo with the glowing rectangle, and that I’m the only person in my immediate family who’s even on social media. There is no we around me, not yet. And even if there was, even if we were all issued with smartphones and unlimited data, this picture wouldn’t be us but rather the global society as imagined by Wired magazine, made of people who all used the technology to produce the same social formations and meanings, all coming to understand our lives through the logic of digital connection. This is simply another fallacy.

Over at Cybergology, Giorgio Fontana has written a nuanced and much more sympathetic critique of Jurgenson’s work which covers some of these same issues, but for some reason I ended up stuck on a throwaway sentence: ‘A tree can exist without the net; a tweet simply can’t.’ This is true in the sense that he meant it, but I mentally quibbled: not if the people who planted the tree came together on the net for the express and shared purpose of planting trees. This is how I would tackle the IRL fallacy, as the incorrect opinion that the physical world can be said to make sense independently of the social. In that respect, a life lived surrounded by books is neither less nor more real than a life spent playing chess or surfing the web. The web may in fact be the best option, if what you wish for is to rearrange the world.

However what Sherry Turkle and Robert Kaplan and others for the most part are saying, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, isn’t that spending one’s time online amounts to living a life less real, or that we should prefer a mythical, edenic IRL to its digital simulacrum, but rather that the demands that the internet often entails – chiefly the requirement to always be on, always be available, both affectively and professionally – have a cognitive and social cost, not least since, as Jurgenson himself implicitly acknowledges, the internet aspires to occupy the whole of your RL and to subsume all other means of experiencing the world and other people. This, I feel, is a very legitimate argument, and if anything I wish it were taken up more articulately and forcefully.

As for the most persuasive part of Jurgenson’s essay, I don’t think it would be ungenerous to say that it was already formulated quite perfectly by this xkcd cartoon of some years ago called ‘Bored with the Internet’. I think about it quite often.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Kill File

‘When you rely on a particular tactic, it starts to become the core of your strategy — you see the puff of smoke, and he’s gone.’

(Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center)

It was as much a question of bandwidth as of attention. Loading all of those derailing posts, and all of the responses to all of the derailing posts, took time and eroded the cap on my painfully slow dial-up connection. So I started using a kill file.

At first I just killed the known trolls. There were epic ones in the newsgroups I frequented in those days. The one known as Maria Strofa ruled over it.cultura.libri like a warlord-poet. In some of the largest newsgroups devoted to politics or science-fiction, the trolls travelled in packs, so if you decided to go down that route you had to add new people to the kill file on a daily basis. I say new people, but sometimes it was the old people under new names. That’s how the internet worked before social media and the identity wars.

Bandwidth, attention. In the early days of the global internet they were metaphoric synonyms. Somebody might say they only had so many megabytes or RAM to devote to a certain topic or problem. The mental and social space was mapped onto an ideal, platonic computer, or an ideal, platonic network. Improving the workings of those machines became therefore a way of improving communication and the quality of online relationships. Online was still seen as having its own ecology, and killing people was promoted as a way of preserving that ecology.

It was considered poor form to share the contents of your kill file, but if you decided to kill a particularly objectionable person, sometimes you’d do it in the open. Plonk. That was the sound that the kill file made, as if you had dropped the person into a giant empty metal bucket. I did this. I used that word, as an adult, more than once, to signal to somebody on the internet that I was going to kill them. In fact I just had, at that very moment. Plonk. You’re gone.

Killing people was very effective. The next time you downloaded the content of a newsgroup, they just disappeared. People still talked about them. Sometimes they even debated them, as if they were still alive. But they weren’t. Not to you, anyway. The best newsreaders allowed you to remove the ghostly conversations by eliminating the responses to messages posted by a user that you had killed.

Killing people was effective but a blunt instrument. So the kill file evolved. You might want to silence somebody only temporarily. Or you might want to kill certain topics instead of individual users, or posts with phrases that might indicate spam. Thus in newsreaders like slrn and Xnews the kill file became the score file. A more subtle, sophisticated tool. Every topic and every user started at 0. By setting the appropriate regular expressions, you could assign positive or negative scores to either, and then set the threshold for the material you wanted to read. For instance you could ask just for the topics or posts with a positive, as opposed to neutral, score. The score –9999 became equivalent to the old instruction ‘kill’. But now you could do so much more.

It was common for users on dial-up to consume forums offline, so the score file gave you the means of creating a sanitised local version of the internet on your machine. In some newsgroups it was a necessary measure. Nobody was in charge and most communities hadn’t developed effective ways of managing themselves, so it was up to you to clean up your feed.


The web has changed. Newsgroups exposed people to vast, unregulated discussion forums. Now you are expected to choose the people you want to converse with as opposed to a limited set of topics of conversation open to (theoretically) everyone. And if you made the decision to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ someone then it would make little sense for you to kill them, wouldn’t it? You could just rescind the friendship or the follow, with or without stating the reasons or recurring to onomatopoeia (unfriending and unfollowing don’t make a sound, as far as I am aware).

Yet the kill file hasn’t disappeared. It has just changed form, adapting to the dominant ways of encoding social relationships on the networks.

Take Facebook. On Facebook you cannot score people or topics according to your own criteria – the company won’t let you hijack its product to that extent – but there is a way of unfriending people without their knowledge. The feature was launched in 2009 and is called ‘hide’. Hide a friend and they’ll quietly disappear from your feed, just like in the old kill file, whilst continuing to ‘see’ you as if nothing had happened. However thanks to hiding you can not only unfriend people without any of the unpleasantness but also critically undermine friending itself. So long as it is possible to friend someone knowing in advance that you will never have to pay any attention to them, the reciprocity on which the idea of friendship is supposedly built – as much off the network as on it – ceases to have meaning.

Twitter doesn’t have a built-in hide capability but it allows third-party interfaces. Some of them have functions like ‘mute’, which enables you to either silence individual users or exclude certain topics from the feed (provided they are designated by a consistent hashtag). Thanks to muting you could follow an indefinite number of users without ever planning to listen to a word they say. This will help you to build a following, again because of the perceived value of reciprocity.

For bandwidth is no longer a problem, but attention is as valuable a commodity as you will find on the web. Pay no attention to me and I cease to exist. Hide me, mute me and I will be consigned to a social limbo, there to dwell amongst the givers of reputation.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google Plus integrated these ideas from the outset and featured a 'contact circles' structure that functionally resembled an advanced kill file. Because this mechanism was built-in, people quickly worked out they could just cheat and build fake contact networks. This is why Google Plus, more than any other network, foreshadows the death of the social web: a place where everyone is everyone’s friend but nobody listens to anyone.


The days of the kill file have returned. They never really went away. But I must account for the provocative quote at the top of this post. Do I really think that a newsreader’s metaphoric kill file is comparable to Obama’s list of people whose life will actually be ended? Yes, insofar as they are both dabatases designed to eliminate certain people on the basis of certain criteria. They are both informational constructs, a product of the technopoly. You couldn’t conceive of the kill list in a world that wasn’t mapped by computer networks and governed by institutions for whom human problems are best represented in database form. The same Washington Post article from which I took that quote also included the following, from a senior Obama administration official:
We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us. It’s a necessary part of what we do… We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’
The CIA will never run out of high-level targets. The internet will never run out of trolls. This is simply because should either of those categories be emptied, the database would fill them again with the people previously defined as mid-level targets, or a nuisance. The danger of terrorism or insurgency will never disappear in the same way that online social interactions will never become perfectly smooth. This is why the kill list and the kill file are not to be understood as temporary solutions but rather as permanent features, a way not just of dealing with concrete problems but of imagining and seeing the world.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Coronation Avenue

The road from the Capitol building in Washington DC to the White House is 1.7 miles long. On the day of the inauguration, the President covers some of that distance by car and some on foot, physically bridging the space that separates the seats of the legislative and executive branches of government in front of they, the people who elected him.

Nowadays the vehicle in which the President travels down Pennsylvania Avenue is a black limousine surrounded by the black SUVs of his security detail. In Lincoln’s day, it was a stately carriage surrounded by a close guard of cavalry. Were it still a carriage, the event would look to us like a coronation. But that’s just what is: a coronation that keeps up with the times. A ritual steeped in tradition yet befitting a modern nation, linking the past with the future in a manner that signifies both continuity and renewal. Nowhere in recent memory was this more apparent than in the coronation of Barack Obama.

We didn’t need to be told what was unusual about this Harvard graduate, this wealthy man, this lawyer, this Democrat. Nearly everything about him was perfectly ordinary and read like the curriculum of every other presidential candidate. But two months earlier the nation had discovered that it was capable of electing somebody who was all of those things and also black. The promise of America, as glossed by the hosts of CNN on the day of the inauguration, found new expression in this moment, transforming the legacy of slavery and segregation into the conditions for historical greatness. ‘Only in America,’ said Gloria Borger, echoed by half a dozen colleagues and guests. ‘This is the world’s inauguration,’ said David Gergen. Together, these two statements invited the rest of us, the non-Americans, to both marvel at the achievement of the world’s leading nation and to share in its pride.

I wondered at the time if it was hypocritical of me to take exception to this. After all I had followed the Democratic primaries and the American election of 2008 more closely than many elections happening in my own two countries. It’s not just that it was great theatre – although it was. It’s also that the alternatives seemed uniquely stark. John Kerry, who voted to support the invasion of Iraq, had relied almost exclusively on his war record in his fight against Bush, to notably grotesque effect at his nominating convention. The great liberal counterfactual of the 2000 election – that if Gore had been in charge at the time of 9/11, Iraq would not have happened – was belied by the Democratic nominee’s enabling role and the platform on which he was seeking election. If Kerry was a lesser evil, he was also an exemplar of the brutally limited capacity or inclination of liberals to conceive of limits to the use of American force abroad. By contrast, Obama, aside from opposing the war in Iraq at a time when his opinion didn’t warrant much scrutiny and planning to withdraw the troops according to a timetable not vastly different from Bush’s own, had campaigned openly against torture and vowed to close Guantanamo. This was not only materially but also rhetorically significant, in that it shifted decisively the terms of the debate on the American imperium. Here was a Democrat unafraid to appear weak on national security. He’d still be a hawk by most nations’ standards, to be sure, but a pacifist could look forward to opposing the war in Afghanistan again. In domestic matters, Obama seemed in command of a different language for discussing the common good than what I had been used to hearing from Democrats in my limited exposure to US politics. Even if you didn’t hold out too much hope that the policies would match the rhetoric in the new administration’s response to the financial crisis, or in the reform of healthcare, or most especially in Obama’s stated goal to ‘change the way Washington works’, at least the new President would have something to fail at, and something of a mass movement to account for those failures to – political assets, both.

Now I couldn’t even begin to count in how many ways I was wrong. Not only is the progressive cause been hurt in equal measure by Obama’s successes as by his failures, but there has been nothing approaching a shift of the consensus following his electoral victory such as might be reasonable to expect in a liberal democracy; on the contrary, the American Right has been both invigorated and radicalised by its defeat. In 2012 the choice is between a homicidal technocrat and a batshit billionaire, which is closer to the long-term trend, and the inauguration of Barack Obama seems an impossibly far event in time, belonging to a parallel reality in which some of those possibilities hadn’t yet been foreclosed, some of those futures selected.

I watched some excerpts at the time, but recorded the whole event with the intention of watching it much later. I was curious as to how it would date, emptied of some of the original expectations and political content, and without those it looks even more like a coronation. It is especially strange for someone not used to these events to see the President’s family play so large a role. Not only Obama’s wife but his two girls were introduced to the million-strong crowd, along with the ex-Presidents and key current office-holders. Aretha Franklin sang. A poet asked plaintively ‘what if the mightiest word is love?’ An old black pastor delivered in a wonderful monotone a benediction full of the slogans of the civil rights movement. The former President was physically removed by means of a military helicopter, instead of being shot out of a cannon. (The King is dead, long live the King.) And then, after a break for a luncheon on the Hill, the First Family drove, and walked, down to their new stately residence. Like in a royal wedding, if your average blue-blooded couple were this handsome.

Needless to say, the event was already seen as history in the making. ‘Elected, not befallen,’ as the New Yorker recently reminisced in its endorsement of Obama. And like history in the making it was narrated by CNN – whose feed I recorded – as if every frame, every moment needed to be close-captioned in order to pass through the screen. Then there was the hyper-representation, for which the network used the kinds of technologies you might expect at the Superbowl. Chief amongst these was ‘the moment’, a multidimensional image of Obama taking the oath of office created by processing thousands of photographs uploaded by CNN viewers who were present at the event. Within this preternaturally detailed picture you could change angle and zoom into any random sections of the crowd. Shifting the viewpoint or the level of magnification would also show you Obama at slightly different times, multiplying the figure of the President.

Less technically elaborate but in some ways equally disorienting was the composite satellite picture of the Washington Mall at the time of the oath, showing the immense crowd concentrating at what I assume must have been large screens set up by the organisers.

These are ironic technologies to deploy, for a society that under Obama would enhance its methods of global surveillance and make of the aerial view its key modality of understanding foreign territories and foreign bodies. The Barack Obama lost and found in the crowd in the image created by Photosynth is every bit as elusive as Obama the President would turn out to be, while the crowd who invested him viewed from outer space would be the perfect control group on which to calibrate the algorithms of a signature strike. How many of those people could pass as statistical enemies? Together the two images achieve a complete loss of perspective, placing us at the same time too close and two far from the scene, which is American politics, therefore world politics, hence a total abstraction. There is no reality, no referent to get at once you have peeled off all of the layers. In one of the pictures Obama smiles a bit more, in the next, a bit less, like in one of those cards that changes depending on how you tilt it. That is as much insight as you could hope to gain into the man’s behaviour or motives.

Politics in the world’s model democracy is this: the unknowable, programmed into the system. For you might have been cynical about Obama, you might not have believed any of his campaign promises, or you might have thought the absolute worst and accurately foretold that he would one day joke about his daughters’ aspiring boyfriends being taken out by predator drones, but either way I’m not impressed because the product – much like one of those financial instruments that sank the global economy – was packaged so that you couldn’t make sense of it. This, even more than the narrow and arbitrary nature of the choice, is what marks the loss of our democracies.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

After the Ball

It is necessary for an annual ball of young conservatives to enlist the services of a professional photographer, as there wouldn’t be much point in attending without a record of your having been there. The ball is really an elaborate preamble to the photo book that will inevitably follow and that thanks to social media can now be produced almost in real time. As well as taking high-quality images, a professional will make sure that nobody misses out on their chance to be snapped mid-social climb.

For anyone but the young conservatives themselves, these documents are a cautionary tale, a ghoulish gallery worthy of Lombroso. These aren’t so much the well-adjusted as the people who will eventually adjust you: probably out of a job, possibly out of social security. Study these people. You are bound to see them again some time sitting across a desk near you.

Everything about the set-up – the empty gilded frame, the unctuous presence of the Prime Minister, the unbroken sea of white faces – is damning in itself, but there is always the odd fellow for whom this isn’t enough. There is always a bloke who thinks my being here, this yellow tie I’m wearing isn’t enough. I am at risk of not being noticed. Wait, I know what I’m going to do. I’ll sit here with my yellow tie and my idiot smile and do a Roman salute.

In the shithead’s defence, he might have fairly assumed that the photographer would set the picture aside and not include it in the public display, since regrettably not everyone outside of the conservative movement gets how hilarious Fascism can be in its proper context. But it was uploaded along with the others, and naturally within minutes everyone posted a link to it everywhere. What happened next is the actual subject of this post: the admins of the Facebook page for the Auckland chapter of the worldwide fraternity of young conservatives took down the photograph, and several people noticed so the word immediately got around – does anyone still have that link open on their browser? – which ensured that the maximum possible number of copies were saved locally on the nation’s computers. It’s highly likely that someone would have saved it anyway, but that attempt to remove it just as everyone was looking at it, that reflexive bit of damage-control, made absolutely sure of it.

(And by the way I am one of those people: I saved the photograph and shared it on Twitter after it was taken down. The image is still on my computer but I’ve chosen not to include it in this post for reasons that I hope will become clear.)

The internet says: you will be publicly embarrassed. It’s bound to happen at some point, and when it happens you’d better not dare to remove the cause of your embarrassment or we’ll make ten copies of it and share it with one hundred friends. It doesn’t matter whether you deserve it or not, or what the nature of the embarrassment was. What matters is that the internet doesn’t forget. This is ensured no longer by the impersonal algorithms of Google’s cache, but by a much more effective and responsive social mechanism. Web 2.0 has an even greater fear of forgetting than web 1.0. It must control and retain all information, but most especially the information that is of a personal nature. The users themselves will police this.

Now suppose you did a Roman salute at a public function when you were at varsity and later in life Dad’s connections fail to come through and you apply for a job at a firm that might not see the funny side of that little episode. (In this hypothetical scenario you are not an heir to the British throne.) If they Google you – and they will – the picture is going to come up, and since many people linked to it, chances are it will be one of the top results. There is no actual solution to this. There is no authority, no jurisdiction, no pockets so deep that will buy you the right to remove all or even some of the copies of that photograph from the internet. All you can do is hire a reputation management company with a name like Defendmyname, Reputation Champ or – my favourite – Propadoo. They will attempt to push that link to the third or fourth page of Google results by creating thousands of spurious links to more neutral or positive information about you. If you ruled the internet for a day, this might turn out to be prohibitively expensive or even impossible, but it’s your only remedy. Of course a prospective employer or other interested party that is savvy enough might just take a peek at the third or fourth page of results. Furthermore, nothing says that down the line Google and the other search engines won’t get better at weeding out the fake links, causing the photograph to percolate back up to the top page.

This is the inside of the Google data centre in Douglas County, Georgia. Facilities such as these used to be shrouded in secrecy but now the company allows you to take a virtual tour. The caption for this area explains that
the colorful pipes send and receive water for cooling our facility. Also pictured is a G-Bike, the vehicle of choice for team members to get around outside our data centers.
The stock image for the memory of computer networks used to be, incongruously, the microchip. We should update it to this: a colourful maze of cooling pipes; a little colourful bike for getting around. Technology with a human face, like the social web itself. The purpose of this place is to secure your information and the information about you. There are thirteen such facilities around the world, with enough redundancy to ensure that a catastrophic mishap at any one of the data centres wouldn’t entail actual loss of data across the Google network.

If I had to settle for pursuing a single question on this blog it would be this: how do you repress a digital memory? And if I look at those pipes and think back on the thing last week with the bloke at the ball who probably isn’t even a fascist, and my own role in preserving the integrity of the data, I think I know the answer: you don’t. You just can’t. You can only feed the network with yet more personal information, yet more memory, in an almost certainly futile attempt to overwhelm not the system itself (the internet doesn’t forget) but people’s capacity to extract meaning from it, including your own.

So I opted not to include the photograph of the young man with his arm raised and the idiot smile, for whom I have no sympathy. Just some of the others. Photographs of people who want to be seen and remembered like that.

It was an empty gesture.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

'I don't have to do this anymore'

Richie McCaw has made a career out of his lack of wit. He’s a genius at doing what is ordinary. At applying himself. At getting stuck in. He has grown into a rugby superstar by being stronger, working harder and enduring more pain than anybody else in the field, and he’s been doing it for thirteen years. When you look at him you might fool yourself into thinking that anybody could do what he does – so long as they were as strong and could take as much pain and work as hard as he. It’s not remotely that simple, of course: McCaw plays the game with all the intelligence and guile that the role of open side flanker demands. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to him. In all his post-game speeches and press conferences McCaw is softly spoken, unassuming and candid. The title of his newly published autobiography, The Open Side, banks on this lack of artifice, promising nothing less than absolute transparency.

The publishers were kind enough to release two different extracts to Fairfax and APN, so they could both claim exclusive rights. The pieces themselves are interchangeable: each will give you the distinct flavour of the book and a window onto a prose that barely qualifies as prose. Dan Carter gets crocked. Richie’s foot goes clunk. Mils Muliaina cracks his shoulder blade and doesn't come out for the second half. ‘Jesus, what else?’ It’s a litany of bangs, bruises and worries, studiously written the way McCaw speaks. The one piece of insight to be gleaned from the two extracts, totalling nearly five thousand words in length, is that the captain played throughout the last World Cup with a very sore foot, which is of course something we had been told at the time in almost equally painful detail. But really, it was very sore. ‘I’m sick of the bloody foot,’ says/writes McCaw four thousand words into the combined excerpt, by which stage the reader knows exactly how he feels.

A tell-all book with nothing to say: this is how one could characterise The Open Side, if the sample is representative. However it seems unlikely to me that the sport is so uncomplicated, and one of its major personalities so two-dimensional. I suspect that McCaw can count among the very many pressures that he has been under since at least 2005 that of embodying the model All Black captain, hence of being as stoic and laconic off the field as he is ruthless and cynical on it. That, even more than the legendary flair of the Dan Carters or the Tana Umagas, is the true essence of the team’s brand: a combination of honesty, strength and will to succeed.

Meanwhile, insurance behemoth AIG is rebranding itself. Once the sponsor of Manchester United, the company had its logo replaced with that of competitor AON in 2010, following its bailout. Now the $182 billion debt has been repaid and CEO Robert Benmosche has decided it’s time to restore the company’s good name. If you think that it sounds a little bit like the redemption that the All Blacks sought at the last World Cup, it shows you’ve been paying attention.

The information page on the All Blacks' website concerning the new sponsorship deal characterises the relationship as follows:
This is a company that has been through tough times, repaid its debt to American taxpayers and is on the comeback trail. They look at the All Blacks as a team of character that has bounced back from adversity, and a team that remains the most successful rugby side in the world, one that prides itself on winning, like all our national teams. AIG also wants to be the best in the world at what it does.
Concerning the issue of the prominence of the AIG logo, which is quite unprecedented for an All Blacks team, the document goes on to explain that
AIG greatly respects the rich and proud heritage of the All Blacks jersey. This is why the logo is also just under one third the size of the maximum allowed under IRB regulations. The logo is significantly smaller than those appearing on the jerseys of many other international teams and smaller than those on Investec Super Rugby and provincial team jerseys. The logo on the All Blacks shorts is also less than two thirds the maximum permitted.
This is what honesty, strength and a will to succeed get you: a better deal, and a less invasive logo on your hallowed shirt. I find the negotiation itself fascinating and wonder what price was put on each of those precious millimetres. How much each side had to give before a deal was struck. How much like a war it was.

There is no more literal image of the bankable value of that piece of cloth than this MasterCard ad circulating in the lead-up to the last World Cup.

However the branding of rugby by corporate interests is only half of the story. The other half is the colonisation of the whole of culture, society and politics by sports.

When New Zealand hosted the World Cup we were asked to become a nation about rugby. Martin Snedden’s favourite slogan – a stadium of four million – captured the entire narrative quite beautifully. The state had made a massive financial investment but it had to be matched by an athlete-like commitment on the part of each of us. I was in Italy during the 1990 Soccer World Cup, but had never experienced anything like this. It was not only accepted as inevitable that the Cup should dominate public life for months on end (even the school calendar was amended to accommodate it), but it was actually welcomed. This culminated in the renaming of entire towns. Benneydale became Rugbydale. Te Kuiti, grotesquely, became Meadsville.

What was most disconcerting and frustrating is that you couldn’t critique any of this. As the Meadsville poster exemplifies, the narrative of total commitment to the Cup contained its own ironic inversion, so if you had a problem with any of it, it meant that you didn’t get the joke. (And there are few things more disqualifying in our culture than not getting a joke.) The military-themed ad campaign for Sky’s television coverage set the standard for this unique brand of totalitarianism with humour.

In spite of all of this, I was quite prepared to enjoy the rugby once the tournament got underway, and for a while I did. I don’t pretend to see the logic of it. Allegiances to sports in general or one sport over the other, including my own allegiances, have always struck me as arbitrary affairs, governed by mood and accident. This is not to deny that rugby is a genuine part of my adoptive culture, but to acknowledge it is not sufficient. There still needs to be a spark, something that will make you believe in the spectacle. (After all each individual sport, unless you’re a player yourself, is like a string of endless reruns. Why would anyone bother?) Sports marketers must be keenly aware of these alchemies, as well as of the perils of corporatising a sport’s most cherished symbols, which is no doubt why they negotiate for every millimetre of non-sponsored space on those jerseys. Push things too far and something might snap. But there are other reasons, as well as non-reasons, the arguments we make up to rationalise what can’t be readily explained.

Something snapped for me last year, and I think it was during the second half of the grand final, when François Trinh-Duc went to take a crucial penalty and I realised I didn’t really care whether or not he was going to score. It was nothing like that famous kick by John Eales. I had lost faith that something real was happening. I couldn’t honestly tell you why, although I could make up a plausible enough reason. All I know is that in the end I couldn’t quite make the total commitment that was asked of me. I have barely watched a game of rugby since.

When the final whistle of the World Cup Final blew, Richie McCaw sank to one knee. His initial emotion, he tells us in the book, was more relief than joy.
It's finished. I can stop. I don't have to do this any more.
I find this such an arresting line. It captures with brilliant concision the physical and psychological strain that McCaw had to overcome to get to that point in his life and career, as well as the singular paradox of how joyless even your favourite sport can become when it is invested with far greater meanings than the act of running around on grass could possibly express. As soon as I read it I thought of those famous lines at the end of Foreskin’s Lament.
Can’t play the game.
Can’t play the game
Or anymore wear the one-dimensional mask
For the morons’ Mardi Gras
Where they ask you whaddarya
But really, really don’t want to know.
Letting myself get carried away, I thought of McCaw delivering those lines, the entire monologue, ending in that heart-stopping string of whaddaryas?, as if to say, you can take your stadium of four million and fuck right off. None of this matters, none of this is real. But that would be reading far too much into that single line. It doesn’t matter that it’s Greg McGee himself who helped McCaw write his book. People move on. McGee has moved on. So has Richie McCaw, who after another very successful season is about to take nine months off with a view to prolong his career. So has Martin Snedden, who as the CEO of the Tourism Industry Association will now be working on our transformation into a Shire of four million. Something else for us to be, another communal effort with no trade-offs and untold benefits for years to come. So long as we never ask – what are we?