Editor's Choice

Necessary frictions

These are deep thoughts occasioned by playing 1942, so measure them accordingly. The problem I faced was defeating the first big plane you encounter, about 10 stages in. I found it to be ridiculously hard and was entertaining implementing the cheat code that let's a player destroy it with one hit. But then I began thinking about optimal frustration and about the difficulty game creators must have in finding the ideal balance between frustration and progress. Obviously games need to be just hard enough to keep you pressing reset (or, back in the paleolithic days of arcades, dropping another quarter in) when you are foiled. You have to be persuaded by the game that you can make it past the obstacle even as the game is at the same time thwarting you. What emerge from this apparent contradiction is a sense of how frustration structures the feeling of progress. When the cheat code is enabled, there is no sense of progress in 1942 -- only a curiosity about what's next keeps me going. Oh, neat: the red planes now criss-cross instead of flying in a spiral. The thirst for this sort of novelty only takes me so far, and in fact what's revealed is how idiotic it is to care about what comes next in 1942. (It's like the elementary-school teachers say: "When you cheat, you're only cheating yourself.") A measure of difficulty, of friction, is necessary to transform the arbitrary novelty into progress.

This dynamic perhaps holds true for consumerism generally -- we want more things because we imagine these things will enhance or enrich our lives in some way, offer some sort of progress toward a self-concept or goal. Consumerism seizes upon that impulse as the source of profit and thus seeks to gratify it. But because maximizing the volume of exchanges ultimately suits producers best, their efforts are focused on eliminating the difficulties that impede them -- they seek to enable the cheat code, as it were, and let us get what we want as soon as we think of it (and can afford it). But without any difficulty in accessing more stuff, our pursuit of novelty never gives us a feeling of progress or accomplishment. Without the frustration, our frivolous impulses can't ripen into meaningful desires. If there is no friction, our concentration is not engaged in the same way -- we don't stoke our creative problem-solving abilities or become invested emotionally. The problem (i.e. the new thing we want to integrate into our life) takes on no metaphoric resonance or depth. To make another maudlin videogame allusion: each new impulse remains just another dot to consume as wend our way, Pac-Man-like, through the meaningless maze of existence.

Obviously, as the internet facilitates our access to cultural goods, frustration becomes harder to find. In a recent post (via BoingBoing), tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly argues that more and more culture products will become readily available social goods. He argues that access is better than ownership, and therefore society will move in the direction of providing access while eroding the barriers set up by ownership.

Very likely, in the near future, I won't "own" any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won't buy – as in make a decision to own -- any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won't own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to "own" it. I can consume a movie, music or book without having to decide or follow up on ownership.

For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage. As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It's not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

That is a pretty friction-free world that Kelly is imagining, which will may erode some of the meaning that we derive from such cultural goods. Instead of engaging, it will be easier than ever to say, "Next?"

But what also may happen, as the sources of friction that we are accustomed to are eradicated, we will produce new, synthetic ones -- we will create frustration to preserve our sense of making progress. Or we will cast about looking for frustration, though calling it something else to ourselves. My thinking about this is a bit inchoate, as you've probably observed by now, but it seems to me that consumer capitalism, by making it easier to get more and more things (while convincing us that this is life's end-all and be-all), has had the effect of preventing us from experiencing a feeling of progress -- we are trapped instead on a treadmill of novelty. But what makes this painful for us is that we may invent frustrations to make up for the lack of friction in our acquiring things, imposing arbitrary limitations on ourselves in the absence of external limits -- those problems of exchange that our existing social relations had equipped us to deal with. So these arbitrary limits can perhaps take pathological forms -- crippling self-doubt, optional paralysis, inertia, dysthemia.

Essentially, this is a variation on a joke from Manhattan, where Woody Allen's character is tape-recording an idea for a short story (and this is a paraphrase I lifted from an Amazon.ca review) "about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe." I think consumerism has distracted us from taking on the existential problems and hung us up with the self-created problems which turn out to be far worse, as they are not constrained by any real facts about our lives.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.