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by Rob Horning

30 Sep 2008

In continuing to think about whether social networking is engineered to make us more narcissistic, I picked up Christopher Lasch’s study The Culture of Narcissism, the dour condemnation of 1970s America that helped prompt Jimmy Carter’s infamous malaise speech. Early in the first chapter, after arguing that Americans are helplessly dependent on bureaucratic institutions, he unloads with this:

Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as am empty wilderness to be shaped by his own design.

The applications of this to social networked seem pretty self-evident. The empty profile page provides the illusion of providing that “empty wilderness” to conquer, but that is just the alibi for the real function of social networks, which is to gratify our bottomless need to be validated in as close to real time as possible. Clearly Facebook and Twitter serve to meet that need, and what’s more, it taps into the latent narcissism of all its users, rendering self-involvement even more socially acceptable. It’s now a perfectly plausible and respectable basis for a business model.

In general, The Culture of Narcissism is a bit cranky and dated, and a bit too much of a jeremiad to be persuasive; its chief virtue is to reference Richard Sennett’s far more comprehensive and convincing The Fall of Public Man, which charts the disappearance of the public sphere and speculates about what exactly caused it to vanish. The gist of Sennett’s argument is that (perhaps for reasons that Habermas articulates in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) society was once such that we maintained public and private selves: We donned a public persona, guided by rules of public conduct, when we sought to contribute to society, and in private we had an intimate self appropriate for family life. The two were only tangentially related, and neither was considered the absolutely authentic, real self. With the rules of civilization clearly in place, public discourse was civil and impersonal, and therefore far more objective and constructive, a place for “rational-critical debate”—- the sort of thing Habermas celebrates.

But thanks to the individualism fomented by the rise of capitalism prompted a growing fascination with authenticity, “realism” in the novelistic sense, depth psychology, and the all-consuming importance of an integral identity that we establish in our own minds through our deeds and public behavior. (The roots of this can be glimpsed in the 18th century cult of sensibility and then romanticism. In those movements was the advent of studied spontaneity. The 18th century had vestiges of a theatricalized public sphere that is annihilated by a new emphasis on authentic personality—one must represent rather than present emotion, so all public behavior is at a remove from the new standard of authenticity. Anxiety, and vulnerability to marketing campaigns, ensues.) Gradually we started to conceive as the public sphere as a place to establish our identity; it became a mirror rather than a realm for discourse and the shared social construction of reality. This makes social interaction difficult, since our whole personality is at stake, at all times, with all people we encounter. Consequently, convenience becomes synonymous with avoiding interpersonal contact (self-service begins in earnest). And we fall prey to “passive participation,” or the impulse to vicariousness, which allows us to partake in society, now reconceived as a kind of pageant of self, but without the vulnerability. Hence deliberation and conversation are out; marketing and celebritization are in. And the next thing you know, there are tattoo parlors on Main Street.

Facebook and Twitter would seem to complete the erosion of the wall between public and private selves, offering us the technology to broadcast every moment of our private lives as if the world was nothing but an audience waiting for updates, or a canvas onto which to paint our ever-evolving self-concept. It moves us from vicariousness to a more direct kind of self-display, because the filter of the internet shields us from the rejection incumbent with social participation (aka “social anxiety”). I imagine, though, that apologists for the technologies view the matter in precisely the opposite way, regarding the space of social networking as a rebirth of the public sphere, where no identity represented should be regarded as authentic but as evidence of free play and an experimental testing of possibilities for the purposes of our collective edification. But I don’t think that holds up: Most people would regard having multiple profiles on the same social networking site as sneaky, and a fictitious profile not as a expression of creativity but a pack of lies. Social networks seem to function as a more manageable substitute for actual presence in relationships, you get the upside of validation of your “true self” without the hassle of actual reciprocity. What distinguishes social networks from the blogosphere generally is that they are defined specifically by their not being forums for the exploration and debate of ideas. The prevailing purpose is to display yourself to your best advantage and “stay in touch” with people with whom it would otherwise take effort to remain in touch with.

by Bill Gibron

29 Sep 2008

He was classic Hollywood for the counterculture generation, a throwback to the days of good looks and gifted talent transformed into idealism, allure, and myth, He legitimized the word ‘legend’ proving that a mere mortal could carry the tag with dignity and distinction. He had the face of an angel, the ethic of a saint, and the passions of a sinner. Together with his deliberate career choices and professional admonitions, he forged a cinematic canon unmatched by his fellow fame seekers. Even outside the industry for many years, the rumors of Paul Newman’s life threatening cancer gave everybody in his business and his formidable fanbase pause. The 83 year old seemed so ageless, so timeless, that to think that something simple as disease could destroy him appeared impossible. Sadly, he succumbed to mere mortality on 26 September. It was more than just the end of an era. It was the end of an entire motion picture principle.

Of course, such greatness had to start from humble beginnings. As a youth, Paul Leonard Newman, showed a keen interest in acting. His father ran a small sporting goods store. His mother, a Christian Scientist, fostered his love of theater. By the time he graduated from Shaker Heights High School in his hometown, he was set to pursue a degree at Ohio University at Athens. He was later kicked out for bad behavior. With little options available, Newman entered the military and spent three years as a naval radioman during the Pacific campaigns in World War II. After the service, he completed his studies at Kenyon College, went on to Yale to work on his dramatic skills, and was accepted to Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actor’s Studio.

Getting his start onstage, where he cut his teeth on such Great White Way smashes as Picnic, The Desperate Hours, and later Sweet Bird of Youth, Newman would also find roles in the fledgling format of live TV drama. It was a wonderful proving ground for the still green thespian. After seeing his theatrical turns, Warners offered him a contract, and a part in the Roman costume epic The Silver Chalice introduced the actor to movie audiences. Sadly, the film was so awful that it nearly ended Newman’s fledgling career. But with Somebody Up There Likes Me, he found a perfect fit. As real life boxer Rocky Graziano, Newman established an onscreen persona that would carry him through the next several decades - the well intentioned outsider who battles the system to salvage his own humanity.

After starring in a pair of Tennessee Williams potboilers - The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Newman ushered in the ‘60s with a film that would end up looming large in his legend. As “Fast” Eddie Felson, he costarred alongside Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott in the definitive pool hall parable The Hustler. The film showed that, even with his natural good looks, Newman could portray a morally complex (and occasionally, bankrupt) character. It was something he would carry on through signature turns in such now classics as Hud, Harper, and the messianic message picture Cool Hand Luke. By the end of the era, Newman was the biggest box office draw in Tinsel Town. In 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid continued his counterculture significance and mainstream value.

It also established one of his great lifetime friend and partnerships. At the time he was hired to play the brooding gunslinger with a luminous name, Robert Redford was an up and coming star. Newman championed the younger man, and together they formed a creative combination that would carry over for the next few years. By celebrating the anti-hero and deflating the influence and power of the “Establishment” Butch Cassidy clicked with late ‘60s audiences, and it wasn’t long before the duo were the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Their fantastic follow-up together, The Sting, would become an instant classic and winner of Best Picture at the 1973 Academy Awards. Newman took his new clout to the bank, making disaster films for Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, When Time Ran Out) and branching out into all manner of movies, from sports comedies (Slap Shot) to experimental fare with famed director Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet).

By the ‘80s, a middle aged Newman was ready to play elder superstar statesmen. The parts he chose continued to challenge his abilities (a down and drunken lawyer in The Verdict) and expand his range (the cartoonish Louisiana Governor Earl Long in Blaze). But one thing continued to elude the actor. Even after being nominated seven previous times, Newman had yet to win the Oscar. It would take Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, and some character karma in the form of a return to “Fast” Eddie to gain his little gold man. Color of Money showed that, while his façade may have aged, there was nothing ‘old’ about this longtime leading man. Today, his intense and insular performance makes the work of his younger costar seem overly simplistic by comparison.

With said persistent professional obstacle removed, Newman entered into a phase of semi-retirement. He only made five movies in the ‘90s, and of those, only Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (from Merchant/Ivory) and the Coen Brothers corporate screwball classic The Hudsucker Proxy stood out. He became even more reclusive in the new millennium, working with Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition, and voicing the amiable Doc Hudson for Pixar’s animated effort Cars. During his now abundant downtime, he continued several important passions from his far more famous days. Newman loved racing, and he indulged in the sport from the moment he completed work on 1969’s Winning. Charity was also important to the man. Having lost his only son to drug addiction in 1978, he was a supporter for rehabilitation. He also sponsored camps for children with cancer, and used his love of food to begin Newman’s Own, a culinary label that, to date, has contributed hundreds of millions to various non-profit causes.

For such a handsome, hunky lead, Newman was only married twice. His first marriage to Jackie Newman lasted a little over eight years. He met fellow performer Joanne Woodward while they were understudies on Picnic. After begging his first wife for a divorce, the icon and his new leading lady were married a week after the court’s decree was final. It was a relationship that lasted for the next 50 years. Newman often worked with his lady love, directing her in such films as Rachel, Rachel, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, and The Glass Menagerie. Theirs was a partnership that bucked the Tinsel Town trend. Normally, two incredibly successful and important stars would have a hard time sharing the spotlight professionally, let alone personally. But Newman argued that Woodward kept him grounded, and she the same.

Looking back at his illustrious career, it’s clear that this was a man who understood his influence within popular cultural and the social dynamic. His choices often reflected his politics, and during the ‘60s, he stayed close to his idealistic roots. By the ‘70s, it was time to expand the oeuvre, to experiment as part of the post-modern movement. The ‘80s was all about product, about sealing the legacy and retaining a bit of dignity. And up until his death a few days ago, the rest of his creative life was a balance between doing what he wanted and what he needed to in order to maintain his majesty. In between, he took on challenges that would undermine a mere mortal, his stature only growing as the years trailed by.

Sure, there was talk of a Newman/Redford reteam. There was even a 2004 interview where the two twinkled mischievously at the thought of making another movie together. There was also the change of heart, the actor announcing that Hudsucker would be his last film ever - before turning around and performing again. He was a foil to late night TV guru David Letterman, and was known - within limits - to poke fun at his own persona (as in Mel Brooks’ demented Silent Movie). But what’s certain about Paul Newman, and his lasting reputation, is the notion of true super stardom. He looked the part, played it perfectly, and never allowed fame to influence his abilities or beliefs. Newman never phoned it in, or traded his talent for a paycheck. Somehow, he knew his importance - beyond the good looks and classic features - to those in the audience. He never let them down, not in life, and not in death. Paul Newman was everyman’s idol. He was truly an icon for every generation, and deservedly so.

by L.B. Jeffries

29 Sep 2008

I’m going to start this blog of by saying two things.

One, I am in no way a qualified legal expert and you should consult a licensed attorney if you have further questions. Actually, it would be awesome if you didn’t even mention me. Two, all the opinions stated here are conjecture. I am simply making guesses about the future.

There, now that all that noise is out of the way, let’s talk about something that doesn’t often come up with video games: the law. More specifically, the potential lawsuits and rights that people are going to start fighting for as the internet develops. Up until this point, video game litigation hasn’t exactly been a page turner. A lot of patent, copyright, and intellectual property disputes make up the bulk of the legal questions that have gone to court. Is Donkey Kong ripping off King Kong? Nope. Does Game Genie violate Nintendo’s Intended Use policy? Nope. A couple of inventive companies have started patenting game designs…which might lead to some interesting exchanges, but given the millions it would cost to declare these illegal, most companies will just tweak their own games to not violate the patent. I could go into video game violence cases but these won’t go anywhere until quantifiable proof that games (as opposed to bad parenting, drugs, or boredom) caused the violence. But with the growing market of MMORPG’s and online services, a whole new breed of virtual lawsuit is on the horizon.

 

Griefing is when someone in an online game or community disrupts someone who is taking it seriously or having fun for the sake of getting them to lighten up. Whether it’s by screwing with an online match or hacking Second Life, playing pranks with people online can be pretty funny. I can honestly say that back when I was first getting used to internet culture, the first time I made a fool of myself by spazzing online was both humbling and helpful. You have a couple of beers, realize it’s not that big of a deal, and become a better person for it. Nor is there much to discuss in terms of legal issues. The general reaction of most courts to “they said mean things to me” is to recommend the person grow a thick skin. Short of being able to show quantifiable damage (therapy bills or worse), there isn’t really a law (depending on where the lawsuit is filed) to base a legal claim on.

What’s becoming tricky is that people ARE starting to need therapy. This is usually a little clause in the average insurance contract which explains that in the event you make a damage claim caused by someone else, the company can sue that person to get their money back. So when someone hands their insurance company a massive therapy bill for a destructive prank pulled online, the company doesn’t pay the Piper. They find the townsfolk who ticked him off. Most of this trauma is coming from MMORPG’s, where people invest years of their life into property and characters within the game. Erin Hoffman explains in an article for The Escapist the extreme trauma one player went through from losing her character and items due to pirates. We’re a long way from players buying insurance for their virtual lives, but they can certainly be traumatized by the loss at this point.

Another reality is that property with genuine economic value is now at risk in-game. A recent article in Wired points out that a lot of these online games are starting to have in-game items that are worth real world money. 20 million game dollars and a fully trained technician on EVE can get you 150 dollars on Ebay, which is chump-change when you factor in Player-controlled Empires that can get into the tens of thousands in value and have hundreds of people working for them. The culture of griefing may be relatively harmless in something like Second Life or online competitions, but costing someone real money is another issue entirely. That’s a quantifiable loss you’ve inflicted. Micro-transactions make this more complicated. If the person spent real money on that starship and you just blew it up…how is that different from blowing up their car? The main defense the griefers use is a sound one: the in-game policy you’ve agreed to clearly states that it isn’t your property. The thing is, none of those companies are going to defend this once some enraged player files a class action lawsuit. This is an amateurish guess, but why would the company not merrily hand out the ID of any player someone has a claim against? Why would they spend money defending your right to make their clients miserable? The alternative is start doling out items to anyone claiming a loss, which would work fine except once these things have an economic value the company can no longer just print more money when things go sour. Other players will cry foul when their own hard earned battlecruisers are suddenly worth less.

 

Which brings us to the inevitable debate of whether anyone owns the virtual stuff in those video games anyways. As a blog post at tobolds explains, the heart of the issue is whether you really want to own stuff in an online world. The author isn’t a lawyer but the conversation in the comments properly highlights most of the problems from the gamer’s perspective. An expansion pack devalues your virtual property, but does that mean we sue over it? If it becomes recognized as property, does that mean I can be taxed for my Level 70 Paladin? What if I’m selling him? Does the company get a cut of that? If you want to get technical, the game company handed me a Level 1 Paladin and I invested hundreds of hours making him into an epic Level 70 Warlord. Who gets to keep those improvements to the property? Virtual Property rights are hardly a simple “Make it like Real life” situation. A completely different set of laws and conduct need to be established and accepted by people in the real and the virtual community.

Griefers are hardly a unified club or sect, as the Wired article mentioned above notes many are just having fun. But like any good party or fun joke, eventually someone is going to take it way, way too far. California’s reaction to such a tragedy is already setting a precedent for the Federal level, Congress is looking at drafts of a cyber bully law as I write this. Nor does allowing a company to completely own their virtual property make sense after a certain point. A lot of those games are, quite frankly, worthy of a place in history. World of Warcraft has over ten million users and changed the entire economic model of video games. Once that game stops being economically viable…what’s to keep them from just shutting it down? How do we ensure people will have an accurate understanding of the names and places of the game world? Should a historical preservation society step in, create servers, and keep the game running? Is it really all that different from preserving a piece of land? It’s hard to say where the hammer is going to come down in all this, only that it has to eventually.

by Lara Killian

29 Sep 2008

This weekend I finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. This book is very readable and has a number of thought-provoking themes, taking place as it does in the summer of 1964 in South Carolina when racial tensions ran high.

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Lily, the protagonist, is a white teenager whose life has been full of misery, her mother having died in an accident when she was a toddler, and her father sinking deeper into anger and violent tendencies over the years. Fed up, Lily runs away and take with her the few mementos of her mother that have survived, including a strange picture of a Black Madonna.

Lily’s wild nature and spontaneous actions are offset by the calm presence of August, the black beekeeper whose home Lily ends up invading, led to it by the Black Madonna, in a way. The personalities of Lily and August keep this book wonderfully balanced. They’re both quirky in their own right; Lily notices that in August’s bedroom, “On her dressing table, where less interesting people would’ve put a jewelry box or a picture frame, August had a fish aquarium turned upside down with a giant piece of honeycomb inside it.” Later on, Lily takes to carrying around a pile of mouse bones in her pocket. “Every day I carried them around in my pocket and could not imagine why I was doing it.”

Such details, along with the intense racial and emotional themes that permeate this book, make Kidd a great storyteller. I’m glad this book landed in my hands.

What are you reading this week?

by Rob Horning

29 Sep 2008

PSFK has a post about Of Montreal’s eagerness to seize upon branding as a way to make money as revenue streams from intellectual property collapses. Like some sort of would-be futurist, frontman Kevin Barnes has even written a manifesto on the subject.

Once we’ve established a comfortable self-sense of our current identity, we want to parade it. We want to campaign for it. We want the whole world to know, “look look, this is me, how you like me now?”. To project our self identity into the outer and, to amplify the howl of our self expression, we have many tools at our disposal; our art, our clothing and hair style, the way we talk…, and, for a lot of us, the objects that populate our living spaces….

of Montreal has, from the beginning, taken great pains to always put a lot of thought and care into the art packaging for our records. We’ve always felt that the packaging was just as important as the music inside of it. We’ve worked within the constraints of conventional album packaging, and have tried to create something fantastically uncommon every time. Now, we find ourselves in the middle of an exciting epoch: A time, when new technology has shattered the conventional business model and has set a paradigm shift in motion. For some people in the music biz, this is terrifying. For us, it is a fucking miracle! While the kings are in a stupor, we are going to take full advantage of the changing guard.

It seems inevitable that music would become secondary to a band’s ability to have a large-scale impact. To use some guru manifesto rhetoric of my own for a second, music longs to be intimate, local, small-scale, human, as befits its roots in unifying small communities with rhythmic rituals. Brands evolve from the demands of mass marketing, of packaging a lifestyle that allows individuals to transcend or reject the constraints of whatever community they might otherwise have to be attached to. As music’s viability as a commercial product wanes, its original significance returns and it becomes a local and live phenomenon open to universal participation. Anyone can make music and share it, and the meaningful music of the future will be made by you or your friends. Bands can’t simply be musicians anymore and expect to function in the mass market; they need to underscore the elements of brand marketing that have always been latent and make them the total package. They need to be lifestyle-promoting companies who happen to use sound as one of their tools.

But the music-identity nexus that Of Montreal wants to exploit to sell its “exceptional object” hinges on the product not being regarded as slick marketing but as the authentic outpouring of artists that people in subcultures want to emulate or experience vicariously. But who wants to experience vicariously the excitement of coming up with a hot new way of selling T-shirts and posters? Of his grand idea to make packaging more interesting than what is packaged, Barnes writes, “We hope this idea catches on and, in the future, square CD packaging will be abandoned forever and only interesting art objects will fill record stores.” So in other words, he hopes record stores will in fact cease to be record stores and become either hipster knickknack shops or variants on Hot Topic.

 

 

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