Archive for August, 2008


..Well, that ought to teach me to do what Mary Beard does: write posts late at night, then check them over and publish in the morning, “in case I was too pissed”. Incomprehensible phrasing and array of typos in the last post aside, several people reading this have told me that I’ve developed a patrician air, or at least a set of buzzwords which make posts seem inaccessible. That’s really the last thing I want; I’ve had a couple of good conversations in the last few days about the realities of Public service distribution, and what it means in terms of tax and service. It’s a really exciting and important set of issues, and it should be made more interesting, not less, by the fact that much of the time I can’t decide whose damn side I’m on.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for the debate, but I’ve been largely away busy gearing up for Japan. To avoid confusion while there, I’ll probably end up splitting my writing across two blogs: this one, and a more journal-like one for friends and family interested in hearing about the sights, smells and inevitable gender confusions of teaching in Japan.

In the meantime, long overdue for a bit of analysis are the implications of ITV Programming Head Peter Fincham’s MacTaggart speech (news brief, couldn’t find a text yet), in which he argued the BBC and OFCOM’s obsession with “worthy” programming was managing to suffocate populist programming. And hence, by extension, popular demand. If we go along with Fincham for a bit, we could find parallels in theatrical censorship policy of the 1950s. In 1951 the Lord Chamberlain wrote to Laurence Olivier about his recently lifting the ban on the depiction of homosexuality onstage:

“the main reason for lifting the ban is that the general public is much more outspoken and broadminded than it was and that to ventilate (i.e. to expose) vice and its tragedies would be to the general social advantage…”

However- “the introduction in plays of new vices might start an unfortunate train of thought in the previously innocent.”

The BBC, Fincham might argue, are natural heirs to these bland efforts at social control by omission. When the BBC has a degree of monopoly -being numbers 1 and 2 on the remote- their efforts at ‘worthiness’ are an attempt to suppress by omission the kind of content which ITV and others find their audiences want. Now, whether or not ITV’s “Kids do the Funniest Things” lineup appeals to you, Fincham has a point. But given that he’s arguing that ITV should retain status as the third free-to-air national channel, while being granted amnesty on its legal Public Service requirements -i.e. quotas for largely unprofitable local or religious programming- it’s in his interest to omit a few things himself.

Whether or not you ever believed that a small number of centrally-controlled TV channels could or should impose ‘worthiness’ on its viewership, TV execs know that the ‘net is rapidly rendering such a belief irrelevant. The BBC might argue that the ‘new vices’ that they omit from their programming are not really what the audience want, or what they need: surgical horror-stories, say, or Britain’s dirtiest flatshare. Consumers can always get this stuff elsewhere, they might say, so how come they keep coming back to the BBC? How much of their market share is due to their having the number one & two slots, and how much to their supposedly laser-like focus on “do-gooding”?

However. About 56% of homes in Britain are online, and as such have access to an infinite array of stuff , worthy or stomach-churningly venal, to suit every palate. If we ever believed that broadcast policy was capable of suppressing or suffocating popular demand, it is no longer the case.

Finchley takes as read that Public Demand is an inherent good. People, as the saying goes, have a right to be entertained. The internet as it stands empowers this right to an unprecedented degree. So much so that, for example, news sites without a vested financial or legal interest in objective reporting might find that telling people what they want to hear is a better business model. The BBC, ITV and the others are coming under the ultimate in market pressure, an international attention defecit.

‘Worthiness’, in whatever form you take it, can survive in this environment: such sites always have an air of the labour of love, or at least of the prophet shouting in the wilderness: sites with the luxury of not caring about eyeballs.

Arguably, the best repository for ‘worthiness’ and objectivity online would be a media group able to ignore ratings and advertisers almost altogether. I firmly believe that serving up news without giving much of a damn about your readers’ opinions on the subject will continue to be an appealing journalistic model. But can you possibly justify giving public money to such an organisation when they have no monopoly on readers and will doubtless lose many before the end of the the first headline?

We shouldn’t lose sight of the relevancy TV has to many, nor the unimportance of the net to many. But someone like Finchley makes a living from working out what will play in Peoria, the population defined by terrestrial viewership.  Now, to a large extent, his job is being done for him; not by machines, but by millions, by the democratisation of taste. As we now all know stupid, unlikely shit makes it big for no other reason than that it’s cool.

This has been said for years. But Finchley’s argument is caught between two very modern points, and it has big gaps because it hasn’t committed fully to either. He argues for subsidisation with diminished responsibility for ITV because ITV is a responsible programmer, with a clearer vision than the BBC of what people want for their license fee. He argues that TV, like roads, need regulators: “but you wouldn’t ask your traffic warden for advice on what car to buy, still less how to drive it.” But anyone with a browser is currently off-road: the license fee is a tithe on an appliance, totally disconnected from how the user might use the material the fee pays for, whether ITV or BBC.

As John Whittingdale put it, no government intervention is required to get ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ onto our screens.  As on earth, just so in cyberspace: if the sating of public demand is a good, and if consummately British content is a good, then large portions of the nation’s demand are currently being served for free by by volunteers, entrepreneurs and wackjobs.

If, when faced with an infinite field, customers make their own unpredictable choices as often as they choose mass-mediated tat, then ITV may have as much of a fight on its hands as the BBC, or more. As digital package takeup and broadband increases, ITV may find itself providing gratification in a field already more than adequately served, and claiming public money to do so: facing off its £1 million-an-hour drama flagships against videos of dancing prisoners, imported asian soaps and piracy. Perhaps ITV and BBC may be taking a measure of comfort from the thought of cornering the off-digital market -less Peoria, more Shady Acres. But whatever they’re thinking, ITV’s arguments currently contribute nothing to the public service debate other than obvious and relatively short-sighted self-interest.

Of course this approach is mediated through my own interests, even my age. TV isn’t going away any time soon. But free-to-air dominance is, and though their sales pitch says otherwise, granting license fee money to ITV might well accelerate, rather than arrest, the growing public opinion that the fee is an expensive anachronism.


One of the things that freaked me out a little about writing a blog is that whatever you’ve written latest is what people see first. There’s no real way to make an opening statement or to impose a structure on how people read. That’s one of the strengths of the medium.

I’ve long stopped trying to think of this blog as a column, which was its original, now defunct purpose. It’s an imperfect, day-to-day thing, which may have led to some opinions no-one asked for. But then, rambling along without concern for pleasing the reader is a cornerstone of internet conversation. [If only it were all a drinker’s talk. ‘This is one of the disadvantages of wine; it mistakes words for thought’.]

Perhaps it’s easier to clarify myself as I go along, and make it look like a kind of senility sets in deep in the archives, with me repeating myself in an increasingly confused fashion.

It is most absurdly said, in popular language, of any man, that he is disguised in liquor; for, on the contrary, most men are disguised by sobriety


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I’m reading Dreams From my Father. You know, from back before he got all mainstream.

If you’ve read it you’ll know that the man is of extreme intelligence and insight and that he has a surprising flair for stories. No matter what crackpot ‘secret muslim’ theory you come across about Obama, it’s refreshing to find that he had already perceived, in his 2004 introduction to the second edition, the essential element of nihilism present in ideologies of violence.

It seems now that the British Secret Services have been operating for a few months with a new kind of profile in mind for terrorists: a months-old MI5 report argues that a solid religious background is actually a preventing factor in ‘radicalisation’. Most radicals are religiously ‘novices’, mostly in low-scale jobs, mostly legal nationals, not illegal immigrants.

Obama’s a zealot of sorts, of course, but his naked idealism excludes from him the idea of a spiritual destruction. Not that he doesn’t understand the concept. There’s neither false modesty nor any hesitation at candour when he says “my powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would slaughter innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.” Even if he weren’t an immoveable idealist he shows a flexible and unflinching self-knowledge that makes the idea of him having an inner agenda, either of violence or of compromise, difficult to take seriously.

I’ve been told a couple of times that this blog has an impenetrable, kind of patrician air. When I first started it I was freaked out a bit by the fact that it ran backwards; that whatever I had had to say on a given day would be the first thing read by anyone who came to visit. I know that the inability to make a fixed introductory statement is what makes blogs blogs, but nonetheless I wanted to make a statement of purpose on day one which would let everyone know how to read what I wrote. Nonetheless, with a journal working this way round at least I can clarify statements made weeks ago, in a way that’ll make sense should anyone ever manage to trawl through the archives. So. I hope to start to clarify my terms and the ideas I take for granted, and make the blog a generally more user-friendly place.

This was all brought on by the memory of me and my brother going for a drink with an old teacher of ours a few nights ago. He asked about the role of Facebook in our lives, which precipitated a kind of fevered lecture on every aspect of the internet. He didn’t know what WoW was, which suggests to me that he doesn’t read the newpapers; we told him to watch out for the smart, underachieving, distracted and incomprehensible students under his charge, and to ask them what they’d rolled.

We alternated between cynicism and idealism, since like any good double act my brother and I are essentially against the notion which came easily to a middle-aged man; that technology is in some way a cause or symptom of decline in Our Youth. Hence, we ran through the argument about whether the experience of total empowerment (“just clicking a link is a preference”) leads naturally to an increased sense or personal responsibility, or just a feeling of feckless isolation. We did the long tail, the theory that’s probably the most improtant idea in making economic sense of the internet. We did the Katz thesis, that free access to media leads to the breakdown of social cohesion, which a single channel can sustain. We talked about whether, in that sense, ‘everyone’ was talking about the same thing anymore. Which they aren’t.

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Blanky Ickness

Georgia is invisible on Google Maps.

(Search for Tbilisi to avoid getting the Peach State.)

Try here as well. You can zoom much further, rather than just getting the blank. What you get is a mix of mid-def contour texture, low def and “We are sorry, but we don’t have imagery at this zoom level for this region”.

Google’s response is here. Of course, there isn’t any data outside Google’s banks and anecdotal evidence that Google’s Georgia was always a white mass. I’m not saying I don’t believe them, but having been reading about Newseum today, I’d like to see an archive of how geography is recorded from day to day. Such things do exist, but these record firm political change, authenticated by history. Since Russia seems prepared to treat political geography as conceptual, not sovereign, I’d argue the need for an independent archive of screenshots of “other significant regions” from a record like Google Maps, which is conceptual by virtue of being unverifiable.

if you got a big **** let me search it

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“I have already had occasion to mention, indeed I have quoted, a certain high-browed gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a golden pincenez and writing for the most part in that beautiful room, the library of the Reform Club. There he wrestles with what he calls “social problems” in a bloodless but at times, I think one must admit, an extremely illuminating manner. He has a fixed idea that something called a “collective intelligence” is wanted in the world, which means in practice that you and I and everyone have to think about things frightfully hard and pool the results, and oblige ourselves to be shamelessly and persistently clear and truthful and support and respect (I suppose) a perfect horde of professors and writers and artists and ill-groomed difficult people, instead of using our brains in a moderate, sensible manner to play golf and bridge (pretending a sense of humour prevents our doing anything else with them) and generally taking life in a nice, easy, gentlemanly way, confound him!”

-H G Wells, The History of Mr Polly

I will be in Paris over the weekend, so there may not be any posts. Good luck to everyone staying up to watch the opening ceremonies in Beijing in case anyone gets shot or arrested in a particularly flagrant fashion

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Thinking about how earlier I linked to a broadly sympathetic interview with Frank Miller, a man I despise. Linking to him does not endorse the source, nor the person in question, nor the decision of the host on how to present the material. How I choose to write out the link has an effect on the opinion of the person clicking on it, inevitably, but I can’t impose my interpretation onto the website which records his words. I am relying on Miller damning himself, and as such I’m relying on an assumed consensus between the reader and me. But the hyperlink’s function doesn’t break down because I use it this way. Making an assertion without linking would be as visually incongruous to a seasoned internet user as if I had tagged it CN myself. But the reader’s free to find my interpretation, find their way to Miller, and decide.


Below is part of an essay I wrote a while ago, on hyperlinking. It may tae a while to get going.

Warming up:

One corollary of the breakdown of commercial publishing institution is that publication online carries no inherent authority or legitimacy other than the literacy of the author. It has no assumed place in a hierarchy of genre- or quality-mediated publication, samizdat-style soapboxery, and everything in between. In this light, the internet is best treated as an environment, rather than a medium: it has its dangers, in a manner of speaking; it is made up of texts whose motive and authority often cannot be ascertained; its use is charged with responsibility. There is arguably a secondary phase of ‘internet literacy’ beyond keyboard skills, which is conceptual: internet newsreading, for example, requires an acclimatisation, even a wariness. Unregulated communication presents a frightening aspect, as it can have no appeal to authority other than through reputation or the supernatural.

For the internet user ‘bardic’ affirmation of shared values (i.e. sites saying exactly what the user wants to hear) is not a limited commodity. Further, the user’s choice of sites which might offer affirmation can’t be mediated by a central legislator. The ‘bardic’ analogy belongs to the theorists Fiske and Hartley (Reading Television, Methuen 1978, London. 24). Like the bard, mass media such as traditional newspapers “both function under a cultural logic that obliges them to speak from a position of assumed consensus… thus providing ritual confirmation of the culture and its members”.

Online the same assumption is required to make assertions, but the author is assured neither of consensus nor of audience. [Compare the Katz essay on the early de-restriction of Israeli TV broadcasting ‘And deliver us from segmentation’, summed up here]. I’ve written about this in vaguer terms before. If was ever true that, as Sam Chibnall, classic gumshoe journalist put it, “you can put six journalists in a court and they can sit through six hours of court verbiage and they’ll come out with the same story”, it’s definitely is not true of six ‘citizen journalists’. Reading a ‘large’ news story the internet user has thousands of diverging accounts of the same events to choose from, among which they can find almost any bias or interpretation will be affirmed. Sunstein uses a hypothetical community, ‘Boston Tea Party’, which becomes an echo chamber of ideology, an environment of “mutual radicalisation” in which the user attracted by the constant affirmation of their prejudices is encouraged to reject any sources of information outside the group. In Sunstein’s example the group becomes an anarchist cell, or something.



For the community to become the dominant source of information, the individual seeking “approval” must invest the community with authority and agree to be bounded by its arbitration, “though of course,” says Bauman, “the reverse order must be believed to be the case to make the whole thing work.” If anything this is the illusion which the ultimate control of the internet reader confronts. Websites are ‘framed’ by navigation components but on the digital screen they are a composite image: control is an integral part of the visual experience of the internet.

Finally, the technical nature of hyperlinking enables an unprecedented visual duality. Hyperlinks embedded in text are unobtrusive but visually clear references to extra-textual material, which can be viewed instantly and concurrently with the main text. The hyperlink may arguably appear to grant authority or look like the author has a third-party authority. But the hyperlink by its nature allows instant inspection or verification.

The author’s control over the hyperlink is compelling, but ultimately extends only so far as his ‘territory’. In the example below, the author is able to categorize or ‘construct’ another author, while enabling navigation to the user’s own utterances:


Fascist lunatic ‘Anonymous45’ presents an Oriental mass which is either masked, deformed or tarted up like a predatory club queer.

‘Pigdog19’s’ assertion looks symbolically like it’s verified with citation and hence garners itself a kind of authority, like a footnote which the reader is not expected to read. But by hyperlinking the author admits his own need for the reader’s consent to his assumed consensus. Letting Anonymous45 ‘damn himself’ is an assumption of consensus from the readership, but also an endowment of responsibility on the reader.


Many journalists might thus conclude that giving people what they want to hear is a better way of attracting attention than maintaining professional standards of objectivity. The alternative theory that has so far powered a lot of user-generated content is that if you believe it and publish it, interested people will find you, whether you are dancing in front of a camera or venting about your office frustrations. In other words, the internet is such a schizophrenically personalising experience that it invites extreme specialisation, even fetishization, without trapping the user into radicalisation. In the attention economy, the attention deficit is the limiting factor. This is what makes the future of Public Service publication problematic; people aren’t stuck with your material, no matter how worthy it is. But it also puts the future of extremism in doubt. The ultimate in doubt, the fickleness of human attention.

This isn’t an attempt to define extremism out of the internet. It isn’t radicalising, but it is iconoclastic. The internet erodes the illusion that there’s a single informed consensus in society, for which notion we can go all the way back to Habermas‘s coffee-house parliaments. If interested people don’t find you, then you’ve not failed the web; in a sense it’s failed you. Or so every half-baked blogger like me tells themselves. Who’s so weird they can’t find a community online anyway?


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Different sorts of power

Frank Miller’s naked fetishism has never been more naked. It it looks as though the cinematographer from Sin City has been poached for the purpose of cementing the Miller visual brand, and with orders to graft onto celluloid the sense of humour that Miller is so totally absent.

Miller’s ‘Holy Terror, Batman’ looks to have been twisted to purpose beyond the point that it needs Batman. When I first heard about it, it took a great deal of research to convince me that it wasn’t satire: a Miller comic in which Batman fights Al-Quaeda in Gotham City’s streets. The much-anticipated comic will now apparently be part of a ‘wider project’, and hence will most likely be an unfettered Randean screed with a Mr. A-style anti-charm offensive, rather than a Batman one-shot turned to open propaganda purpose. I can’t decide whether or not I’m relieved.

No doubt those on the other end of the political spectrum view soft-spoken prophet of anarchy Alan Moore with the same dim agitation. Moore disavows all involvement in films made from his material, which given the track record is sensible. I will say this: it took three generations of super hero movies for Hollywood to start making them good (X-Men 2, Spiderman 2, Iron Man, Dark Knight of the current golden age). If this means Hollywood is thus able to do some kind of justice Watchmen, but will in all likelihood never make another good comic book film, then it would still be worth it. Upcoming likely dreadful adaptations include Wonder Woman, more Punisher, Avengers and Thor, which will either be schlock or will be so paralysed with irony that it barely moves past the origin story. I’d like to see the Preacher series done well, but fortunately it’s been saved from an inevitably patchy and curtailed film and snapped up by the medium it’s best suited to, HBO.

Cliff Bleszinski was interesting speaking at ComicCon about video game movies: I think he’s right that the comic movie will clearly be played out quite soon, and that game movies might soon come into their own. Halo and Gears of War are the two most likely candidates. Game franchises offer the same rich mythologies that comics do, and similar fan interest, but don’t demand adherence to canonised story or theme. Comic fans know that Joker cannot be Joe Chill, and could watch the Batman origin being well told endlessly. Gamers, on the other hand, don’t want to watch something they’ve already played through themselves.

For example, there’s nothing stopping a Half Life movie being great, on the basis that watching someone else play through the first game for the first time in one sitting, like I did, is at least as entertaining as watching five normal movies in a row. The challenge would be to get the atmosphere right, the bitter sense of humour. And if that means making an almost wordless film set in an institutionally-textured maze, claustrophobic, panicked and yet impassive, then the filmmaker must serve demand. Or hire Sylvain Chomet.

For example, everyone would know that a GTA movie would be nothing but a gangland flick with a lot of money and expertise thrown at it. It’s only a matter of time before it’s made, and Rockstar would be foolish not to license a trilogy, since a single film would seem like a pretty ineffectual castle in the middle of that giant sandbox.

For example, Metal Gear Solid is another obvious candidate for movie tie-in. But not inevitably; Hideo Kojima has already served as enough of a lunatic auteur that the games are the most cinematic in the world, at least in the sense of being non-interactive. Possibly Kojima’s Cassandra-like anticipation of game-movie convergence has been so astute that we might be spared a film’s length of balsawood dialogue and conspiracy theories without any chance to strangle someone.

But then, with Microsoft seemingly fully partnered with Peter Jackson, Halo seems poised to have both professional consultation on cinematic storytelling in the games and an in-house influence on the process of the inevitable film, which may well be the best way to play things. Jackson’s relationship with New Line looks rocky, but if he does have a hand in making The Hobbit, then his Halo movie will likely be too late to be the first good games movie, the Spiderman, but might still be the first great games movie: the Spiderman 2.

PS. Get in and watch Ludacris’s Obama track while the first result views is still under half a million. The furore surrounding his stab at Hillary serves to highlight a more telling, more socially acceptable expletive: no one even bothers to mention that the rap posits explicitly that President Bush is mentally held back. Ironic that in the song it’s the b**ch who’s irrelevant

do you copy

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We entertainers

So you’ll probably have to wait a few hours for a video of Steve-o’s new music video. It seems to have been released only a few hours ago on Jackass’s 24 hour takeover being mercilessly reviled by a superbly reanimated Beavis and Butthead. But imagine a link here and imagine being that particular “video babe” at about the three minute mark; imagine having this to look back on as the greatest moment in your life. Being clumsily spanked about the hip by a gurning scarecrow with a pinkening mass of cocaine-fuelled arrogance clinging to its gnarly bones. Being gigglingly, bonily thwacked by a man who’s famous for throwing himself off bridges.

It’s interesting to note that either Steve-O has been hacked up good or has found in rehab the religion his 4th-grade math teacher couldn’t give him: His website quotes generously from the Keylontic Dictionary, cypher to a pseudoquantum guild-faith that seems likely to either feast or internally combust the day the LHC is turned on.

“We have no business being here, and it’s exceptionally irresponsible of the network to let us do this. I can’t believe it’s come to this.” Jeff Traimaine, Director, Jackass

“Planet X, also known as ‘The Fifth Sun’ … is coming into our solar system to wipe virtually all life from the face of the Earth… I am here to play a vital role in the rebirth of humanity as it will exist in the Fifth World, multi-dimensionally.” -Steve-o at enquiry, Cocaine Possession

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