Internet Histories | 19 August
The Postal Service isn't dead, just resting | The political economy of Facebook |
Reviewing all of the music videos | Adam Curtis on the surveillance state |
Video games, but not as you know them | John on John
NZ's printed music journalism
In 2008 I was on holiday in the rural north island and a friend mentioned a rumour The Postal Service were putting out another album. The next day, when everyone drove to Kaikohe for booze and food, I snuck away to an internet café to check, just in case. I was inevitably disappointed, but that disappointment is the legacy of a band whose single album is enough to interrupt holidays and inspire an irrationally passionate melancholy.
This year, for the first time in a decade, they reformed and went touring. They didn’t leave the States, and played their last gig on 5 August in Chicago, but in late July a mini documentary emerged covering parts of the band’s tour, their history, and what they mean to fans. For 14 minutes it’s almost like being in seventh form again.
Australian election season is underway, and this year voters are treated to a smorgasbord of electoral choice: an unsmiling religious zealot who doesn’t believe in climate change, or a smarmy Lazarus who has bent over backwards to accommodate a racist public. I asked one of my flatmates who he was voting for and he went silent for several minutes then walked into the sea.
It’s illegal to buy votes in Australian federal elections, but there’s no law preventing you from buying Facebook likes. Last week, Tony Abbott’s Facebook page began accruing likes at a rate that raised suspicion:
Another kind soul decided to compare the increase in likes to people outside of the Australian political spectrum, and found that Tony Abbott is gaining popularity at a greater rate than One Direction, Justin Bieber, and even Facebook itself. He's around 50% more popular than Game of Thrones, even.
Sadly – yet somehow appropriately – many of Tony’s new friends turn out to be robots. While it’s true that one day artificial organisms of code and coltan will be able to cast votes, it is also true that this day will not arrive on 7 September 2013.
Robyn Gallagher is attempting to review every single music video ever funded by NZ On Air. There are about 2200 such videos, spanning from 1991 – 2011: two decades of forgotten one hit wonders, funding mistakes and genuinely awesome kiwi music. She’s managing to post something almost every day, which is lucky because even at that pace it will take six years. Her most recent review is of K’Lee’s ‘Lifetime Left to Wait’:
In a way, K’Lee was the Lorde of the 2000s. A young female singer going by a single name, mentored by an older male songwriter/producer, singing songs about typical teenage experiences. Only Lorde is a lot more serious and is enjoying international successes, whereas K’Lee ended up marrying Coolio’s DJ and – as she recently revealed – they narrowly avoided death when their home was sprayed with gunfire in a drive-by shooting. I can feel you, K’Lee.
Check out the rest on her site 5000 Ways to Say I Love You and be transported into your childhood.
Filmmaker Adam Curtis, recent collaborator with Massive Attack, is someone whose documentary style – in which footage from every last dusty corner of the BBC’s archive buts up against each other, a musical soundtrack often deeply unsettling, and Curtis’s declamatory voiceover – has started to infiltrate not only other documentary makers, but of course advertising and music videos.
His latest blog post is particularly timely, as he details the quite often ludicrous actions carried out both by MI5 as an organisation and its individual agents. As with some of his other work, there are some grand claims made that might need a little more substantiation, (was MI5 really established due to hysterical Daily Mail readers?) but there’s some cracking, and quite disturbing, stories in his collection. As he claims, the history of MI5
...is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.
Time after time, MI5 is revealed to fail in not only discovering information about those that would harm Britain, but also to fail in spotting within its own ranks the counter-agents, garden variety fantasists, and those mixing their spying with sometimes very serious criminal activity.
Because at the very same time that everyone was talking excitedly about completely invented moles, MI5 missed the real moles at the heart of the intelligence services – even though they were completely obvious, and almost screaming to be noticed.
Michael Bettaney worked in counter-espionage in MI5. He had been recruited when he was at Oxford University – where he had been an admirer of Adolf Hitler and had a habit of singing the Nazi Party anthem in local pubs.
Curtis claims that MI5 was allowed to get away with all of this for so long because so many journalists got caught up in the mind-set - promoted by the intelligence agencies – that Britain was infiltrated with communist agents. It’s a slight consolation, but we can take some cold comfort in the fact that in the post-Wikileaks world, there are more questions being asked of intelligence agencies and those that administer them, even if so often the answers given seem like they’re out of some sort of bizarre pantomime combining fish, metadata, and a Cheshire cat.
Unsurprisingly, Curtis’s blog has some striking footage, including some real live spies doing a dead letter drop (which all appears strangely innocent, just some men larking about in a field) and unedited rushes, found in the back of a cupboard in the BBC’s Moscow office, of the Russian state funeral given to Kim Philby, the MI5/KGB double agent who, once he had confessed, spent the rest of his life in exile in Moscow, reportedly disappointed by what he saw there.
Other highlights include a very plummy voiced man claiming his concern for “the little man”, and a high security pigeon loft for pigeons trained to steal pigeons from rival pigeon fancying gangs.
And, finally, a few lovely little spiky comments:
Even Nigel is shocked by how MI5 didn't spot Bettaney. And he's having a bad hair day.
As with all of Curtis’ best work, his great skill is in spotting the small(ish) stories - here, a wife forgiving her pedophile husband, there, the Prime Minister only able to write a page and a half about National Security, and using them to illuminate a greater whole. He concludes that:
For most of the twentieth century the combination of ineptitude and secrecy created an organisation that retreated more and more into a world of fictional conspiracies in order to disguise its repeated failures. The question is whether the same is true today?
On a somewhat different tack, here’s a fairly extraordinary map showing parking buildings and spaces in downtown Detroit. Seems like the place to go if you like stationary cars!
I’m in my thirties now and I’ve played video games all my life, from an Atari 800XL to the PS3, from Defender to The Last Of Us. Without a doubt I can say the majority of my gaming life has been about shooting, running, shooting, crouching, stabbing and sometimes decapitating enemies with a lightsabre. It’s an awful amount of death dealt from one extreme to the other and always with an appropriate amount of mayhem. This is what the computer gaming industry’s built on.
Well, mostly. Take for example the slow, skull-pounding tedium that is Desert Bus. In Desert Bus you control a bus that you have to drive from Tucson to Las Vegas. It’s in real time and you can’t pause the game. The road doesn’t turn or even curve slightly. The scenery never changes and the bus never changes its speed (45mph/72kph). It takes eight hours to get to Tuscon where you are awarded one point.
Desert Bus was part of an unreleased game called Smoke and Mirrors made in the 90s for the Sega CD and starring those crazy magicians Penn & Teller. It was a mini-game, a sly little comment on the moral panic around video games at the time. But before it could be released the company behind Smoke and Mirrors went bust and Desert Bus was forgotten and discarded.
This being the era where nothing is ever left to die a graceful death, Desert Bus became notorious. It was the sort of thing Reddit TIL threads are made of. However, it’s received a second life as a mechanism for charity. Desert Bus marathons, some of them days in length, have been popping up on the internet raising money for various causes. As yet no one’s brain appears to have shut off from chronic boredom.
The setup for recent PC game Gone Home does suggest another Desert Bus snore-a-thon. Set in 1995, Kaitlin Greenbriar arrives to her family’s new, recently occupied house after a year overseas. No one’s home and Kaitlin has to deduce the whereabouts of her family and what happened to them by reading every scrap of paper and every note left in the house. No guns, no user interface: just a lot of reading while walking around a CGI house.
Sounds shithouse, doesn’t it? Well, if you agreed with that statement you’re so wrong you might as well attempt to crawl back into the womb and try again.
The game’s been receiving some pretty heavy duty critical attention, mostly positive. The game does a number of things: it evokes the mid-nineties punk scene wonderfully; creates fully realised characters that live and breathe in your imagination even though you never meet them in the flesh (so to speak) and plays with and subverts gaming genres and conventions.
It’s also fucking unnerving. Empty house, night, storm outside: the atmosphere is so tense you find yourself quickly flicking on the lights every time you enter a room. At one particularly scary point in the game I walked out of my room and gave myself ten minutes to calm down.
The gameplay mechanics aren’t particularly innovative; there probably isn’t a mainstream computer game out there where you don’t have to open up drawers and can flush toilets, but screw that shit. Most importantly, Gone Home an effective and touching story about a family trying to connect with each other. Like all good fiction the characters seem to live beyond what’s presented to the reader. Although if that’s true, I’m feeling somewhat guilty about the Greenbriar’s power bill after leaving all their lights on.
“The Prime Minister was absolutely brilliant,” John Campbell said in a post-mortem of his interview with John Key on the GCSB Bill last Wednesday. And yeah, he was pretty good and he got the upper hand, but chances are copies of the Campbell Live exchange are less likely to get pulled by pol-sci students in a decade’s time as a moment of divine statesmanship and more as an example of where well-honed media training reached its apex, a very popular news host/production team overreached themselves, and no one got particularly edified in between.
Placed in context, you can see why it’s a bigger deal: we don’t have a exactly have an extensive back catalogue of the Prime Minister going on television or radio for long discussions that canvas difficult topics. Ideally, John Campbell trying to corner him on the GCSB should have been a misfire in a full media volley that runs its course at least every couple of months or so. Instead, this felt like it was probably it for the year, unless the PM changes allegiances from More FM to Morning Report any time soon.
But an interview doesn’t need to stand or fall ‘in context’, and so a whole bunch of write-ups outlining where the Prime Minister was inaccurate at best in the 15-minute back-and-forth don’t actually relieve it of the central and damning charge: ie, that it was shambolic television that didn’t make any sense. The facts and analyses, when they were run through, felt like they jumped from facet to facet. In the face of Key dropping science (well, Norton Antivirus) you would have hoped for some overarching rhetorical discussion about the moral philosophy of the law, but Campbell didn’t even take us there. Like a Chris Morris show in search of an editor, the last third was basically a journalist levelling acronyms at John Key that he professed no knowledge of. That’s numberwang.
Worst part of it is that this all treated as inevitable when it didn’t need to be. Given that Campbell Live appeared to send its entire staff out to rural New Zealand for the week to survey the lay of the land against domestic spying and surveillance legislation, you’d think they would leave someone at home lining up the ducks for if John Key – if anyone, really – had come on television defending the bill.
It all seemed too perfect. If the NZ vox-pop tiki-tour occasionally felt a touch patronizing (“Sheree of Eketahuna doesn’t even have a Tumblr and works in a shop, but she doesn’t like being spied on!”), it was a pretty canny gesture of crusading populism. And the one authoritative voice in favour was a stilted pre-recorded answer from Massey University’s Jim Veitch, who didn’t seem like he realized he was going to be on TV. Sure, they’d been relying heavily on guest experts; sure, Key only confirmed he’d go on Campbell Live at 4pm that afternoon. But what it revealed was that the emperor was in the nip and that no one involved in the making of the show had bothered to do a fraction of the research and thinking needed if Campbell faced a tough interview subject on the issue he was making a cause celebre. And that’s both a pity, and the lesson. (Note: this legislation is still hideous and you should consider going to the Auckland Town Hall meeting tonight to show your opposition).
I have overwhelming synesthetic memories of walking to St Lukes to get Rip It Up from Whitcoulls as a 12-year old. I think the first issue I ever bought had Stellar* on the cover, and they had a great two-part feature on the history of censorship and pop music, as well as a story where a bunch of art critics were asked to review album covers. They said ‘fuck’ and sat comfortably with the V-saturated suburban vibe of Channel Z, which I was listening to at the same time. It was great.
I never wrote for them, though – but like, I’d experienced the abrupt and painful deaths of Real Groove, Groove Guide (you heard me), and Volume – so why set yourself up by getting invested in something else? But it would still be worth a read, even if I wasn’t listening to Bomber do talkback anymore, and especially when Leonie Hayden stepped in for the last couple of years. So the news that she’s out the door and one of the last New Zealand music magazine is getting sucked into Groove Guide’s zombie orbit is devastating.
Radio NZ’s interviews with Groove Guide’s Grant Hislop and Duncan Grieve doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. If it’s not the news that Groove Guide’s team (I mean, I can’t even picture what ‘team’ this would entail – have you seen a Groove Guide recently? How many living, breathing people did it take to generate that?) will simply pick up the stewardship of Rip It Up, or the long and awkward pause after ‘longform music journalism’ is mentioned, it’s the blundering ease with which Hislop advocates a new-look Rip It Up. You can feel the word crawling before he says it, the dread: “lifestyle”.
Which isn’t to act as if RiU or any of these outlets have stuck to some puritanical thing of being music-only magazines, but you need some sort of tether, because ‘lifestyle’ can be anything and nothing really. That’s the kind of territory where you don’t really have any mission statement or ambition, you’re basically just searching for advertorial to fill your days and your pages. Like a Monocle without the secure heft of old money.
Duncan’s right in summing up that people don’t stop writing critically and at length about music just ‘cos there’s not a dead tree with a masthead to legitimize it on, and, moreover, he’s right – punch-the-air right – when he talks about growing up surrounded by a plethora good-to-great music journalism. How it didn’t just let you discover new music but ways of listening to that music, along with a constellation of reference points – other music, books, movies – you wouldn’t have touched otherwise. The bummer is knowing that some of the people I read that did this for me wouldn’t get paid to do the same now, and whether that reduces the incentive to bring kids into the fold, to show something new to the world rather than pontificate on some genre-fied niche.
(Duncan’s piece for The Corner after Volume kicked it is kind of canvassing the territory from another angle – why owners and advertisers are wasting and killing what could have been good brands and tidy earners – and it’s a good read.)