Monthly Archives: December 2015

Digital Folklore: A mess of mass culture or valuable cultural artifacts?

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I find myself constantly confronted by a mentality that artifacts of popular culture are inferior to those strong pillars of Western intellectual culture (Shakespeare and Gatsby). I’ve encountered this from peers and mentors, classwork and coffee shop discussions. In this blog post, I’m going to challenge these common assumptions that position popular culture as something less than intellectually stimulating—or worse yet, mere entertainment. I am not trying to say that other forms of art and creation (“high culture”) are bad, I quite enjoy Shakespeare and Gatsby. But I also love Star Wars, Rick and Morty and the Hunger Games. The Internet, and other developments in digital technology, has allowed for the proliferation of popular culture. The Internet and computer software has provided affordable mediums and methods for all kinds of people to create “things”. All kinds of “things”! Memes, amateur YouTube videos, blogs, creepypasta (amateur scary stories), and enormous catalogues of emotional responses in the form of animated GIFs.

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This is folklore. The study of the culture of the everyday life of everyday people. Lynne McNeil, a folklorist, recently gave a Ted Talk (TEDxUSA) on digital folklore and new media. She heralded the Internet as the perfect archive of everyday life.

McNeil observes,
“Folklorists, unlike literature scholars, or art historians, or music scholars, we don’t look to the productions of the rare geniuses of human kind as the only cultural products worth paying attention too. We look to other kinds of cultural productions, productions that I think make the state of our digital lives seem a little less dire… The problem is with the assumption that the collective works of Shakespeare is the only valid cultural output…”

Through studying, interpreting and understanding folklore, or the stuff and knowledge of everyday life, we get a pretty good illustration of how people interpret and understand the world around them. This is important for all kinds of reasons.

Brenda Brasher (1996), in her work titled, ‘Thoughts on the Status of the Cyborg: On Technological Socialization and its link to the religious function of popular culture’, observed that people are shifting from using religion to generate an understanding of ethics in everyday life to that of popular culture. In this sense, there are more and more people who are interpreting ethics through the Jedi philosophy of the Force than that of the bible. People construct complicated pastiches (or collages) of raw pop cultural data to construct their belief systems. Snippets of ethics and norms taken from Hollywood blockbusters, 4chan, YouTube series, and an ungodly number of video games.

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To ignore popular culture is to ignore this massive shift in how people understand the world around them. A great example of the power of vernacular popular culture and folklore is video games. To be frank, though there are amazing and powerful pillars of literature—I find myself struck with an overwhelming sense of catharsis when I play through a well-constructed video game. I’ve had oodles of discussions with friends who are willing to bracket off video games as an intellectual waste of time. However, such cultural artifacts are important to the aspiring digital folklorist just because so many people play them. Furthermore, so many people code them as well. Gamer culture becomes a myriad of professional and independent games.

Just to demonstrate this, here are some statistics presented by the Entertainment Software Association at E3 (a big gaming conference) in 2015. 42% of Americans play video games regularly (at least 3 hours a week). The average age of a gamer is above the age of 35 (so video games cross generations). Gamers consume more games than they do TV and movies. Consumers spent a grand total of 22.41 billion dollars in America in 2015. Video games are big! Lots of people use them, identify with them, and generate cultural groups around them. This is an eye opener for a folklorist, it should certainly be an eye opener for other social scientists.

Trevor Blank, a digital folklorist, observed in his introduction to digital folklore that “It bears noting that the fear of cultural displacement via mass culture is mothering new” (3). He demonstrates that following the innovation of some new form of media, cultural pundits criticized emerging technology as destroying traditions and communication. They accused technological innovations of destroying the folk. However, another perspective of framing the changes brought about with these new forms of media is that they entailed new forms of folk. A problem with framing the media in overtly dystopic ways is that you create a technological determinism that takes agency (choice) from those who participate in everyday life. These critics actually ignore the “folk” (and their practices) in their criticism. The vernacular has not disappeared into the heterogenous mess of “mass” culture—it has changed form.

Blank explains, “New media technology has become so ubiquitous and integrated into users’ communication practices that it is now a viable instrument and conduit of folkloric transmission…” (4).

Folklore is the study of everyday life. The digital has become a realm of everyday life. Cyberspace is just as important as actual space to the emerging generations of humans in consumer societies. From the rich and poor, men and women (and trans* and queer), and all races and ethnicity use the Internet in their everyday lives for all kinds of reasons. Popular culture in this context provides us with valuable new social contexts to study. New gateways into understanding human culture, society, and communication.

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REFERENCES:

Blank, Trevor. 2012. “Introduction.” Pp. 1-24 in Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction, edited by Trevor Blank. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Brasher, Brenda. 1996. “Thoughts on the Status of the Cyborg: On Technological Socialization and Its Link to the Religious Function of Popular Culture”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64(4). Retrievieved December 28, 2015 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1465623?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) .

McNeill, Lynne. 2015. “Folklore doesn’t meme what you think it memes.” YouTube Website. Retrieved December 28, 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBDJ2UJpKt4&feature=youtu.be).

Social Media: Moving beyond the Luddite trope

Social media is neither good nor bad, though this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily neutral as it certainly has the potential to exploit and empower. Nicole Costa’s rendition of her experiences and tribulations with Facebook in her recent article My online obsessions: How social media can be a harmful form of communication were incredibly touching. Her refusal and resistance to appearing and contributing to the Facebook community is empowering. However, I believe it is also misleading. Social media and digital exchange and interaction are here to stay (save for some cataclysmic event that knocks out the electrical infrastructure) and because of this I believe that we need to learn how to engage with it productively and ethically. We need to engage with social media in a way that doesn’t jump straight into a moralizing agenda. By this I mean illustrating social media as the savior of humanity or a dystopian wasteland where people’s communication collapses into self-absorbed decadence.

How do we maneuver this politically charged land mine addled cyberspace? First we need to recognize that a great number (in the billions) of the human race use social media (of all sorts) for many reasons. However, this is far too broad, let’s focus on Facebook. Facebook is among the most popular of social media with over 1.5 billion users and growing. It is built into the very infrastructure of communication in the Western world. If you have a mobile phone, you very likely have Facebook. You might even use Facebook’s messenger service more than your text messaging. Facebook allows us to share information, build social movements, rally people together in all sorts of grassroots wonders. As an activist, I’ve used Facebook to run successful campaigns. Why? Everyone uses it, and because of this, it has the power (if used correctly) to amplify your voice. Facebook, and most social media, can be very empowering.

But hold your horses! Facebook is still terrifyingly exploitative. Their access to your personal and meta data is unprecedented. Furthermore, they actively use the data that you give them to haul in billions of dollars. Issues of big data and capitalism are finally coming to the forefront of academic and popular discussion, but the nature of such complicated structures are still shrouded in obscurity. The user sees the interface on their computer monitor. But Facebook sees electronic data points that represent every aspect of the Facebook user(s) in aggregate. Through elaborate surveillance techniques, these data points are collected, organized, stored, and traded on an opaque big data marketplace. Furthermore, the user is not paid for their (large) contribution to the product being sold. They are exploited for their data and their labour—as everything you do on Facebook is a part of the data that is commodified and sold.

At the same time Facebook (and other prominent social media platforms) allow for an unprecedented freedom and speed of communication. They have been embedded into our everyday ways of socializing with each other. New social media have become an invaluable and ubiquitous social resource that we engage in from the time we wake to the time we sleep. It has been used to organize events, rallies and protests. It is used to keep in touch with distant family and friends.  It is used for romance, hatred, companionship, and debate. Facebook is playful and empowering.

So if you are like me than you may be absolutely confounded on how to resolve the tensions between Facebook (and other social media) being at the same time exploitative and empowering. We have gone too far down the rabbit hole of social media and digital communication to merely refuse to use it. It is now a intimate part of our social infrastructure. Those who resist through refusal may find themselves at multiple disadvantages in how they engage with the world. My own ethnographic research into why users refused Facebook illustrated that those who abandoned Facebook may have felt empowered by overcoming the “addiction” of social media, however, they also felt excluded and alone. And it must be noted that mostly everyone I talked to who had quit Facebook are now using it again. So clearly, refusal to use these services is not enough to meaningfully challenge problematics in social media.

The Luddites historically were textile workers who were opposed to the invasion of machines into their workplace. Machines that they figured would gouge away at their wages. Today, it is a term used for those who refuse to use certain technologies. In the realm of social media, a Luddite resistance has proved to be incredibly ineffective. It is also important to note that this sort of refusal obscures ways of meaningfully resisting mass surveillance and the exploitation of user data.

I propose the complete opposite. I propose the path of knowledge. We need to learn how to maneuver through social media and the Internet in ways that allow us access to anonymity. Ways of asserting our right to anonymity. This is critical. We need to mobilize and teach and learn through workshops. We need to scour the Internet for free resources on the technical perspectives of social media. We need to also spread awareness of this double edged nature of social media. It is no use to take a stance of refusal, to ignore the importance of social media, and thus remain ignorant to how it all works. When we do this, we actually empower these large capitalist corporations to exploit us that much more. The less we know about the calculus of social media and how it works on a level of algorithm, code and protocol, the more able the capitalists are at disguising and hiding exploitation.

Science Fiction, Mixed Media, and Surveillance

For those of us who have been reading science fiction for some time now—it becomes clear that SF has a strange propensity to becoming prophetic. Many of the themes in science fiction classics are now used as overarching metaphors in mainstream surveillance. Most notably among these is: Orwell’s Big Brother, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Kafka’s Trail. Other common tropes we might refer to is Minority Report, Ender’s Game, and Gattaca.

Though I am not trying to claim that these classics aren’t good pieces of SF literature, they may not do a superb job of covering issues implicit in contemporary surveillance. Imagine George Orwell coming to the realization that the Internet is one humungous surveillance machine with the power of mass, dragnet surveillance. Or imagine Huxley’s reaction to the lulling of consumer affect through branding and advertisement. The power of surveillance tools to control and shape large populations has become a prominent and dangerous feature of the 21st century.

As Richard Hoggart says,

“Things can never quite be the same after we have read—really read—a really good book.”

So let’s stop recycling old metaphors (if I read another surveillance book that references Big Brother or the Panopticon I’m going to switch fields). Let’s look at the work of our own generation of writers and storytellers. What I think we might find is a rich stock of knowledge and cultural data that could illuminate some optics into our (post)human relationship with advance technology.

The reason why I am using mixed media, as opposed to focusing on a singular medium, is that I believe that our relationship with media is not limited to one or the other. Novels, movies, video games, graphic novels and YouTube videos all offer us something in terms of storytelling. Part entertainment, part catharsis premised and constructed through the engagement with the story.  Our generation of storytelling has shifted into the realm of mixed media engagement.  What follows are some stories that I think are critically important to understanding the human condition in our own generational context.

P.S. They are in no particular order.

Disclaimer: Though I tried to be cautious not to forfeit any critical plot or character points, be careful for spoilers:

SOMA 

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SOMA is a survival horror video game released by the developers of Amnesia (another terrifying game), Frictional Games. It is a 2015 science fiction story that both frightens you and an imparts an existential crisis as you struggle to find “human” meaning between the fusion of life and machine. After engaging in a neurological experiment, the main protagonist Simon Jarrett, wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. As opposed to people, Jarrett finds himself trapped with the company of both malicious and benevolent robots—some who believe they are human. The interesting overlap with surveillance here is the focus on neurological surveillance. Scientists (in and out of game) transform the biological brain into a series of data points that represent the original. From this, scientists hope to predict or instill behavior. Or in the case of this game, transform human into machine. This is done by literally uploading the data points of the brain in aggregate to a computer. The game instills a constant question: is there any difference between human consciousness and a copy of human consciousness? SOMA is more than just a scary game—it is a philosophical treatise on the post-human illustrated through an interactive story.

Ready Player One

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Ready Player One, is a novel written by Ernest Cline, which covers a wide breath of themes: notably the uneasy relationship between surveillance and anonymity, visibility and hiding. Cline constructs a world that doesn’t seem very far off from our own. A world where people begin to embrace simulation through virtual reality (VR) as environmental disaster plagues the actual world. People hide in the sublime. The VR game, OASIS, a world of many worlds, is the home of many clever pop culture references. Mostly music, video games and movies. With an extra emphasis on science fiction. Embedded in this world of worlds is several “Easter Eggs” (surprises hidden in videogames) that act as a treasure trail to the OSASIS late founder’s fortune and ultimate control over the virtual world. Anonymity is the norm of OASIS—a utopian world where the original, democratic ideal of the Internet is realized. A place where anyone can be anybody—without reference to their actual identity. However, this world is jeopardized as a the corporation Innovative Online Industries is also searching for the Easter Eggs to take over OASIS and remake it to generate capital. The theme of anonymity vs. mass surveillance for profit is arguably a major fuel for global debate as all “places” of the Internet are surveilled in increasingly invasive ways. Anonymity has almost disappeared from the Internet, to be replaced with quasi-public profiles (Facebook and Goggle+) that exist to make billions of dollars off of people’s identities and user-generated content. The original dream of the Internet, sadly has failed.

Nexus

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Nexus is a science fiction novel written by Ramez Naam following characters who are engaged with a new type of “nano-drug” that restructures the human brain so that people can connect mind to mind. There are those who support the drug and those who are against it. This conflict is followed by a slurry of espionage that exposes the characters to incredible dangers. The theme of surveillance in Nexus follows a new fixation on neuroscience. The ability to surveil the very essential, bio-chemical features of the human mind. As well as exposing mind and memory to others participating in this new psychedelic (psychosocial) drug. This is a level of exposure that far supercedes our experiences with the Internet and social media. Imagine being hardwired into a computer network. The book also follows traditional surveillance themes as the main character Kaden Lane becomes entangled in the conflict of private corporations and state government.

The Circle

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Social media in the 21st century has positioned Western society within the context of visibility and exposure. Most people are simultaneously engaged in self-exposure and participatory surveillance—as we post content about our lives and browse and read content about the lives of our friends and family. The Circle by Dave Eggers works this theme through a character, named Mae Holland, who has just been hired by the world’s largest IT company located in a place called the Circle. The Circle is a place, much like a University campus, with literally everything on it. This place boarders utopia—a place where work and play blends. However, following the mantra “All that happens must be known”, social media penetrates the lives of those who exist in the Circle in pervasive and exposing ways. Very quickly, the utopic illusion slips away into dystopia.

Slenderman

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Slenderman was, in its bare skeleton form, introduced to the Internet by Eric Knudson on the (in)famous Something Aweful forum board for a paranormal photo editing contest. However, within a year, Slenderman was sucked into a collective narrative construction across all media platforms. People blogged about it, tweeted about it, YouTubed about it. A massive and ever changing (and unstable) urban legend (or Fakelore) was constructed in the chaos of cyberspace. Slenderman, the paranormal creature, can be described as a tall man with unnaturally long arms and legs (and sometimes tentacles), wearing a black suit, with no face. It is usually depicted as a creature who watches, in other words surveils. It watches from obscure areas, slowly driving its victim to paranoia and insanity. Than the victim disappears, without a trace. Slenderman is the contemporary boogieman. But it also shares a narrative with dangerous, obscure, and mysterious secret police and intelligence agencies. As Snowden revealed to the public, governments, through mass surveillance techniques, watch everyone and everything. Could the slenderman narrative be telling of a deep seeded cultural fear of government surveillance in the 21st century? There are many ways to tap into this story—google blogs, tumblr accounts, and twitter accounts. But also, YouTube series’ like Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, and Tribe Twelve. Also check out the genre called Creepypasta for an extra home brewed thrill.