Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Slender Man, Legends and Cultural Anxieties

Surveillance is being called ubiquitous by most of the leading scholars who study the social, political, and cultural ramifications of surveillance technology. A focus that I have been studying and thinking about is how surveillance is understood by everyday people living everyday lives.

I do this through the lens of Folklore, the study of everyday life. Or the study of the Folk (lay-person). This is obviously problematic—as such a term equates everyday life with peasantry. So for the remainder of this post I will use the term vernacular performance (i.e. everyday performance).

I’ve written about this work in the past. One of the ways that we demonstrate our cultural anxieties and fears is through the collective performance of legend cycles. In this case, I am speaking about the boogieman of the Internet—the Slender Man.

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What is a legend?

Legends are repetitive and variant. Meaning people tell it over and over again, and as it is told and spread it changes form while keeping a central theme. Legends are a performance between storyteller and audience. Meaning that people perform legend cycles. A teller typically recounts a story to a listener or audience. This does include digital legends. Finally, Legends are not constructed by the teller, but by the community. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience constructs the story and allows it to spread. It is a collective process.

The Slender Man is a creature born the performative interactions of a group of users on the forum Something Awful. The Slender Man is a tall, monstrous figure. One that resembles a tall man in a black suit. He has no face, and extraordinarily long arms. He is sometimes depicted with many moving tentacles. All of this, and his many disproportions give it a Lovecraftian appearance. An eldritch monstrosity.

Cultural Monsters

As Tina Marie Boyer (2013) asserts in terms of the Slender Man, “a monster is a cultural construct” (246). And as such, understanding the ‘anatomy’ of a monster sheds light on the problems people face in their day-to-day existence.

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What is the anatomy of the Slender Man? I decided to do some ‘fieldwork’—exploring many of the blogs/vlogs that contributed to its legendary constitution. I found three major themes: Surveillance, Social Control, and Secret Agencies. This returns us to the topic of this blog post: The Slender Man is a vernacular performance that demonstrates our collective anxieties of a culture that is under the constant gaze of massive and complicated networks of surveillance.

Surveillance

The Slender Man is known to watch its prey. It is rarely confrontational, though it seems to relish in making its presence known. One scene that sticks out to me is from the YouTube series Marble Hornets—the main protagonist, after becoming increasingly paranoid of the faceless man in a business suit following him began to leave his camera running while he slept—only to discover that the slender man watches from a crack in his door while he sleeps. The Slender Man watches, seemingly from everywhere—but even when it is seen, the Slender Man has no eyes to watch from. It is as if it sees everything from nowhere. The Slender Man appears and vanishes, seemingly at will, haunting victims with little to no motive. The Slender Man represents the phenomenon of ubiquitous surveillance in the virtual world. A world where anonymity and pseudonymity are quickly disappearing. A world where only the experts understand what to surveil and how to read the data such surveillance produces. And a world haunted by faceless watchers.

Social Control

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The Slender Man also represent themes of social control. The most obvious instance of this is the ‘proxies’, otherwise known as the ‘hallowed’. These are people who have been overcome by the Slender Man’s will. In many instances, the Slender Man legend telling ends in the main protagonists going mad and disappearing. They are either killed by the Slender Man (or its minions), disappear from time and space and sometimes memory, or are turned into a proxy. This means, they lose their minds and begin to do the bidding of the Slender Man. In the blog ‘Lost Within the Green Sky’, the main protagonist Danny describes it as a form of indoctrination that slowly drains the will from its victims. Even as a proxy, once their usefulness dries up – they are often killed. This theme is not surprising as it emerges from a cultural context that is known for its pervasive ability to control through silent software mediators.

Secret Agencies

The Slender Man is also known as The Operator (signified by a circle with an X through it). This name, along with the black suit it wears, makes the Slender Man a clear reference of Secret Agents. Those organizations who haunt the Internet, forcing those who wish to remain anonymous into the depths of TOR browsers and VPN applications. The Slender Man is representative of the NSA, FBI, CIA, CSIS, KGB and other notorious spy agencies operating with little oversight and behind a secretive veil. They are just as faceless as the Slender Man. And just as cryptic. Few understand the significance of their presence. And those who come under its haunting gaze have quite a lot to fear.

More Research

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Folklore is a small branch of the social sciences.  There are few people who work beneath its flag. And fewer of those people study contemporary, digital folklore. However, this does not diminish its importance. Folklore offers us a lens to peer into how everyday people interpret the world through vernacular expression. It is an essential dimension to the surveillance studies canon. An understanding of how people interpret surveillance is essential if we are ever going to take action to educate people about its dangers.

Affinity and Algorithm: A sociological review of Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities

Preface: Read the book first 😉

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson is a science/speculative fiction about a man named John Fisk, whom gets caught up in the whirlwind of a new, emerging social order.

The affinities, a group of 22 technologically and scientifically engineered social groups, were created by a man named Dr. Meir Klein, a social psychologist whom discovered the ‘socionome’ through a fictional scientific field call ‘teleodynamics’.

Klein names twenty two affinity groups, and they are all reserved only for those who are preselected to belong to such groups through rigorous psycho-socio-technical testing.

A collection of neurological, psychological, and sociological data are collected from social actors and entered into a computer program that has an advance algorithm that sorts patients into different affinity groups that are based on essential qualities of the individual that the actor has no control over.

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John Fisk is chosen for Tau—one of the largest affinities.

Just as a precursor to this review: Wilson has embedded so many layers of academic and creative work into this novel.  I am only able to focus on a particular dimension—algorithmically engineered social groups.

Once a person joins an affinity, they get drawn in by some psycho-social force that creates bonds stronger than family and a fierce loyalty akin to wolves.

The book begins, following John who is suffering some sort of ambient existential crisis. This character does not belong to his family, his school, nor to his friendships. He is lacking an essential quality that most humans long for: belongingness.

Once he joins Tau and attends his first meeting, he is immediately hurled into a cult like loving embrace with the other Tau members. A sense of belonging emerges so strong that I felt myself becoming overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced.

Here is the central problem: How do you engineer social relationships to address one of the most prevalent symptoms of late-modernity—loneliness and anomie.

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Wilson’s story explores the power of computer algorithms and social technology to augment and engineer human interaction. Such social engineering has the potential to create a perfect group dynamic powerful enough to accomplish anything. Including bringing about a sense of purpose that dissolves the problem of social anomie.

Though ‘teleodynamics’ and the ‘socionome’ are works of fiction, such algorithms already play such a large role in our lives.

These are the algorithms that organize and structure how we use most social media applications. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tinder utilize complex algorithms that mediate, and sometimes exert control, over our interactions with each other.

This phenomenon is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere, and it’s usually disguised, and made invisibile, in complicated electronic devices.

It’s easy to get bedazzled by the spectacle of affinity groups. The beginning of the story leads us to follow lonely John Fisk get carried away by the social bonds created in Tau. He is no longer lonely. He has found a sense of belongingness that his broken family was unable to give him.

However, as the story progresses we get to see snippets of a dystopia burning away at the overall spectacle. Not everyone can get into an Affinity. After testing, many are turned away as their psycho-social profiles do not match any of the 22 affinity groups.

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They are rendered outsiders. In a move that is reminiscent of eugenics—these outsiders are put into a seriously disadvantaged position as affinity groups ignore their concerns.

Twenty two utopias are formed and they close the door on anyone who doesn’t belong. Furthermore, the hyper-loyalty begins to make pan-affinity tensions as affinity groups begin to push against each other for supremacy.

We are left with a sense of anomie and a lack of belongingness. The very issue that the Affinity groups, constructed by Klein, were supposed to elevate.

There are many layers of inter-personal and inter-group conflict that emerge out of these tensions. The affinities are battling secret battles against each other, not so different from gangs; the politicians of the state oppose the fiery emergence of affinity based governance; and those who don’t belong are asserting their right to belong.

The affinities change everything from the most micro social interactions to the most macro global politics.

However, once this new form of algorithmically engineered social groups take root in the social and economic infrastructures—they are here to stay. Everything is different. Eventually the technology for testing people for affinity groups becomes affordable and public.

Coders and social scientists begin to experiment on alternative affinities. Or at the very least, innovative ways of using algorithms to structure relationships. And of course, like everything on the Internet—an open source version emerges to deal with all those who don’t belong. Everyone left behind.

This project is led by an organization called New Socionome. A decentralized and open-sourced activist group trying to create access to affinities for everyone.

In the end, the social landscape is changed for good and it is uncertain what the future will look like. This book is a useful tool and a powerful story that engages with the developing tensions surrounding emerging algorithmic relationships that are silently shaping the lives of millions.

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Wilson’s work also explores the existential issues of belongingness in a society where family bonds are becoming fractured and falling into a state of anomie. This existential angst that can be elevated with technological assistance. Though he is careful to portray that such assistance is not a perfect, utopic solution.

Science and speculative fiction have an immense power to explore issues between humans and technology. The Affinities does a great job at this. Oftentimes, algorithms are silent mediators of our communication. So silent, that no one seems to notice their prevalence. It’s stories like this that draw attention to a problem that has existed for over a decade.

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).

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.