Dystopia Never Changes

Mr. Robot was the hottest, sexiest, most dystopic look at a high-tech future on the airwaves. Graced with exquisite talents like Rami Malek, Christian Slater, and Carly Chaikin, it was a tightly written example of how an unreliable narrator can change the way we view the world.

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So why didn’t we get to finish the story? The show developed a huge following. The masked visage of the show’s “villainous” fSociety (itself a riff on the Guy Fawkes mask from V) became synonymous in popular culture with real-life anonymous hacker cultures. For a high tech thriller it had managed that one impossible thing. It had gone beyond it’s base as a “genre” show and had been embraced by a broader, non-tech-savvy audience.

The problem, as I see it, is that dystopias inevitably get boring. Nobody wants to see the end of the story. Nobody wants to see an evolution of the world, either to something brighter or something darker. Dystopias are trapped in the realm of emotion and visual stylings and the characters, while they may themselves grow and change, are trapped in a world that is static. Most of these kinds of shows get taken off the air before we can come to a conclusion. In part this is because the audience usually thins out after two or three seasons. The thrill of the broken wears off when you finally have to face the fact that there’s no fix, the only way out is down.

But even when a show set firmly in a dystopia is allowed to tie everything up with a grimy asphalt colored bow, nobody’s ever happy with the ending. This is, in part, because a dystopia is an endgame into itself. It is an entropic state where the effort of maintaining a society is perfectly balanced against the depravity and self-centeredness of the people that live in it.

And I feel, in a weird way, that dystopic narratives are best served by this kind of abandonment. There’s an almost Lovecraftian sense of doom that hangs over the narrative, even when there’s a “happy ending” because that happiness is always individual. The world is still a dystopia, it hasn’t changed, it’s just that our heroes have found a way to live with/in it. And taking the narrative the other direction, watching the world finally destroy itself is far less satisfying than you might think.

Because, in the end, dystopias are all about the middle game. We enter them after they’ve had enough time to get interesting and we’re not actually interested in seeing where they go, what they turn into over time. They serve as a platter on which a drama is served, rather than being the real reason we are all there to watch.

Social Media and the Creative Arts

The advent of social media changed everything for the freelance creator. Suddenly there was a whole new way to be seen. You could show off your art, your writing, your code, your cooking, to thousands of new faces who were all hungry for something just a little bit different. If you didn’t have the scratch to travel to tradeshows or major entertainment watering holes, you could still meet people, you could still establish connections that would allow you to bring in new work without that massive cost outlay. Your career could, in a word, become viable. AND as a bonus, it was something you could control.

There’s tasty stuff in here, but is it worth navigating all those thorns?

You didn’t have to rely on a big-name artist or producer noticing your work. (The famous scene in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure about getting Eddie Van Halen in their corner comes to mind). You didn’t have to consider shoving your script under the bathroom stall door or arranging for your art to get hung on the walls of Superstar #5’s hotel suite or any of the other really off-the-wall ways in which creators have tried to be seen.

As online media took off like a rocket, social media gave you this tool to add to your pitch. An audience. Having 25k+ pairs of eyeballs on Twitter, or MySpace or Facebook or *any* social media platform became part of your “secret sauce”. As a creator, in particular as a freelance/contract creator, it gave you an edge over other creators of equal talent. Skill + Eyeballs became the new equation when trying to land a gig. And it worked okay for a while. Authors/Artists/Designers could all bring parts of their audience with them, boost sales for whatever new project they were working on and everyone got paid a little closer to what they were worth.

But now the worm has turned. Big Brands want those new fans, they regard getting access to those fans part why they hired creative A over creative B. They reap the benefits, they get all those lovely new eyeballs, but when a freelance/contract creator comes under attack, they walk away. They throw up their hands and say “Well, clearly they’re *your* fans. You handle the hate, you handle talking to the cops about doxxing and changing your phone number, that’s all on you. It’s against our policy to make a statement of support for non-employees.” And at the end of the day, if the vitriol outpaces the support, they wash their hands of the whole thing and go find a shiny new creator to work with. “Sorry, man, you’re just too toxic. You’re baiting a bad element.”

The creators are being thrown under the bus as a front-line defense against angry fans and bad publicity.

Which means that having a social media presence, having a fan following is now becoming a liability for any given creator, rather than an asset. Creators are being encouraged to keep their heads down, to avoid feeding the trolls, to no do or say anything that might upset the brand they’ve been hired to enrich. They are being asked to be good little girls and boys and take the hits and bags of sh*t and Your Tube rants and swatting with a smile because nobody wants them to hurt the Brand.

But, look, if the Brand is going to ask for that. If they are going to ask you to just let the sh*tstorm roll over you in service of their content, then they need to pay up for that service. Just like a Brand has to pay extra for exclusivity, for you to create content just for them alone, or not allow your personal marketing to cross the streams, they need to start ponying up for hazard pay, especially if the toxic elements of their fans are an established quantity.

Anybody who dips a toe into creating for some of these established Brands becomes a target. It doesn’t even matter if they create something the fans don’t like, the harassment systems in place, trolls and bot-farms and protest groups, now kick in the moment you announce you’re working for Brand A or Brand B. You put your feet in the water and the sharks start to let you know they’re watching, that you better not f*ck up their childhood because WATCH OUT.

But, like so many new things, the solutions are still to be hammered out. Creatives (myself included) are notorious for following our passion, for jumping at a chance to create for something we love. And there are a lot of us out there. On any given project you might have twenty equally-talented creatives waiting in the wings and the only way you get that contract is if you don’t ask for that support, if you agree to keep quiet, to take those hits for the Team without complaint.

We all need to work together to fix this, and it won’t come quickly. It might even take a couple of years for creative support to come together under contract. But the more creatives who insist on it, the more commonplace it will become until, eventually it will just become boilerplate and included in every contract.

Autonomous cars and personal space

Image result for self driving car map

The vision that keeps getting served up, when self-driving cars finally become ubiquitous, is that of a fleet of vehicles capable of computationally precise pathfinding. By talking to one another, they will be able to tool down the freeway, bumpers within inches, rearranging their groupings so as to allow for maximum aerodynamics and most efficient travel times. It’s well within the bounds of these vehicle designs, computers can react thousands of times faster than we do and if we give them the ability to communicate with one another, cross-platform, they can do a brilliant of of staying out of one another’s travel path.

But as we know, or many suspect, the best, most efficient solution is not always the “best” (for human-comfort orders of “best” at any rate).  The auto-pilot on an airplane can land it in a storm with little problem, but the decision making keeps the plane intact, with little regard for the comfort or even safety of the passengers. The world is riddled with examples of human “best” taking the lead over efficiency.  Everybody wants a window or an aisle seat, people will take the time to wait for the next elevator if the one arriving seems too full (even if it is still well within its weight capacity). What is “best” for a computer is simply not always “best” for a person.

This got me thinking about customization, user preferences for these kinds of vehicles. I mean obviously you *can* drive with your bumpers within 5 inches of each other, but anyone who’s had their hands on the wheel is going to be more comfortable and familiar with the “two second rule”, where a driver maintains a two-second gap between your car and the one ahead of you. Granted there are a few there who seem to have no concept of personal space while maneuvering a 2000 pound pile of carbon fiber and steel, but by and large, most drivers leave a comfortable distance between the cars around them.

And as you sit, safely ensconced in your self-driving box (assuming you’re not distracted by a film or some quality “personal time”), you may not at all enjoy your vehicle tailgating someone else or someone else’s vehicle tailgating yours. The most efficient mode of travel may simply be nerve-wracking to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it.

I imagine that the initial solution is going to be the allowance of “user preferences”.  You can choose wake times and ringtones on your phone, so it follows that car manufacturers might allow a user to set things like minimum distance to the car in front of them, or maximum tailgate distance (in fact, aggressive human drivers may be able to take advantage of gaps in traffic left by two cars whose owners requested a large buffer around them). Cars would communicate these preferences between each other and roll that into their driving calculations as they go.