Generica

This article makes the claim that a certain type of combat-free environment-based platformer constitutes a “new subgenre” of games. This is wrong for every possible reason, and we’re going to go through all of them.

First, the claim to novelty is straightforwardly false. There are lots of games that are focused on navigating an environment and avoiding dangers rather than fighting (even Mario games are mostly like this), and indirect storytelling is actually an overused and obnoxious fad right now. Bizarrely, the author lists a bunch of counterexamples only to dismiss them for basically no reason, despite the fact that they really are counterexamples. Abe’s Oddysee is precisely a game in which you have no combat abilities and have to negotiate threats through guile and evasion, and in which the story is told through environmental setpieces. Furthermore, the presence of combat or text or narration doesn’t change the general type of thing that a game is. Combat in games is just a metaphor, after all. Pressing A at the right time might represent either attacking an enemy or jumping away from a threat, but it’s still the same action. The point of analysis is not to pick as many nits as you possibly can; it’s to figure out what’s going on underneath the individual points of interest.

Second, it’s a category error. These things aren’t genre boundaries; they’re aesthetic effects. You can use them in any type of game. RPGs, for example, are most often overwrought power fantasies glued together with piles of text, but even here there’s nothing really complicated about inserting these types of effects. Final Fantasy II opens with you getting your ass kicked by a bunch of imperial soldiers who are a billion times stronger than you. After that, your first mission is to infiltrate an occupied town in order to make contact with an informant. The same imperial soldiers are patrolling the town, and encountering any of them is basically instant death. This both portrays the nature of the situation you’re in through properties of the environment and establishes your characters as being radically underpowered compared to their adversaries. Mother 3 has a chapter where you play as an enslaved monkey (literally; that’s not a joke or anything), who is similarly extremely weak compared to the enemies in the area. When you get into a battle, you have to rely on your slaver to do most of the work for you, which deepens the relationship dynamic that defines this part of the game. Also, the first town in the game starts out as an anarchist utopia. The thing that would normally be an item shop is actually just a communal storehouse where you can take whatever you need. Later, the town becomes commercialized, and the same building becomes an actual store where you have to pay for things with currency. This portrays the development of the town’s social situation through the state of the game environment. Of course, none of these are exactly the same thing as what’s being talked about in the article, but, like, no shit. Nothing’s exactly the same thing as anything. Again, the whole point of analysis is to draw connections between things which aren’t identical but which have similarities that can provide aid in understanding them. Categorizing everything into a precise set of neat little boxes might make you feel smart, but it doesn’t actually do anything for anyone.

Third, it’s irrelevant. What actually changes depending on whether the answer to the question “is this a new genre” is “yes” or “no”? Nothing. The games themselves stay the same regardless of how you categorize them. Identifying what the game is doing is useful for understanding it, but what you’ve done that, slapping a label onto an arbitrary collection of “similar” games doesn’t get you anything new. You’ve already explained the part that matters.

Fourth, it’s a misunderstanding of what the concept of “genre” actually is. Genre is not a property of a work; it’s an organizational category, and you can organize things however you want. Super Metroid, for example, is a shooter, and it’s also a platformer, and it’s an open-world exploration game, and it has an upgrade system, and it uses non-explicit storytelling (expect for the intro text). All of these things are properties of the game, but none of them, individually or in combination, require you to affix any particular label to it. Depending on what you’re talking about, you can refer to any or all of these effects. In fact, what actually happened, historically, is that a rough approximation of this particular combination of traits ended up acquiring the label “Metroidvania,” which, in addition to being the absolute stupidest name anyone has ever come up with for anything, just goes to show that genre categorization is completely arbitrary and you can make up a new one basically whenever you want. So, actually, the article isn’t “wrong” in the usual sense, but rather simply useless. You’re always free to pick any three similar-ish games and call them a genre, which is exactly why doing that doesn’t do anything. But the fact that genre don’t real doesn’t mean that it has no utility as a critical concept. There’s no point in using individual effects to establish a genre, but you can use genre to understand what a game is doing through it’s individual effects. People understand the type of thing that a platformer or a fighting game or a rhythm game is, they know what you’re talking about as soon as you bring up the term, so these understandings can provide starting points that ground further analysis. This is why trying to establish a “new genre” is pointless: genre is only useful to the extent that people already understand it. Of course, new genre concepts do have to be established and named at some point, but this happens as a reflection of widespread understanding. “Metroidvania” become a known term once people started to gain an intuitive understanding of what type of game that was; indeed, the term itself reflects the fact that two seemingly dissimilar games “felt” the same to a lot of people. But for games that are obviously the same type of thing in the first place, there’s no point in pointing that out. You’re not telling anyone anything they don’t already know.

Fifth, the assumption that these traits are necessarily good things is unjustified. The author equivocates between the argument that this particular set of effects constitutes a genre and the argument that they’re a good thing, and in doing so avoids actually making the second argument, which is the one that matters. While video games do have a violence problem, it doesn’t follow that any game where you don’t kill things is solving that problem. The violence problem is deeper than just “killing things is bad”; it’s a problem because, to the extent that games are about interacting with an environment, violence-based interaction is a) necessarily adversarial: the environment can only hurt you, and you can’t interact with it productively, and b) reductively physical: the environment consists only of objects to be manipulated or destroyed, and contains no subjects to engage. A game where you can’t fight but you have to run through an area avoiding obstacles maintains both of these problems. The world is still just an enemy and not a place that you can actually exist in. Furthermore, setpiece-based storytelling also has the same problem: it portrays the world as just an object. Of course, this doesn’t mean these techniques are necessarily bad, either. Physical and adversarial actions are parts of the real world, and they’re worth portraying. Even explicit violence isn’t necessarily bad; you can make a game with violent acts that are actually meaningful. The real problem, rather, is the assumption that games have to do one type of thing: that you have to have combat, because otherwise it’s “not a game” – or that you have to have explicit non-violence, because otherwise it’s “not art.” The truth is that getting good requires being able to do different things as appropriate. In the previously mentioned Mother 3 example, you see the town transform as it becomes commercialized, but you can also talk to the residents in order to hear how they’re dealing with it and how they feel about it. Using both types of effects allows the game to communicate the situation more effectively. Picking out any individual effect, even something like non-violence that seems inherently laudable, and labeling it as a “good thing” is a reductive method of analysis that retards artistic development.

Sixth, the whole thing is a transparent ploy to smuggle in an unexamined assumption about what games are “supposed” to be like. Genre categorization is not an evaluation of quality, but the author is using genre as a means to argue that the games in question are good. Something being a platformer doesn’t make it a good or bad thing. Even if you really like platformers, there exist both good and bad games that meet the genre criteria. So you can establish a new genre, if you really want to, but you can’t establish a “good genre,” because there’s no such thing. Historically, though, there’s been a rather strong tendency in game criticism to assume that the “correct” way to do games is to put everything “in the gameplay.” (Anytime you see a derivative of the word “ludic” you’re almost certainly walking into this minefield.) This viewpoint is no more justified than the idea that movies should be strictly focused on cinematography or that lyrics aren’t a valid component of songwriting. In terms of storytelling, there are a lot of people operating under that assumption that the goal is to make storytelling in games as “interactive” as possible. There’s nothing wrong with doing work in this area, but when you assume that this is the only thing that can be done, you basically box yourself into a corner. The usual way the complaint is phrased is that a cutscene or anything else that the player doesn’t “choose” is “non-interactive” and therefore “takes you out of the action” because it’s not “gameplay.” This is an unquestioned assumption that being “in the action” is always a good thing. Actually, it’s not even an accurate description; walking through a setpiece is not being “in the action,” it’s just an unclear cutscene where you have to hold right while you’re watching it. Selecting an option from a menu in order to trigger one of two endings is also not meaningfully interactive; it’s just lazy writing. And that’s exactly how you can tell that there’s no real line here: you can have empty interaction, where the player is pressing a button but is not actually engaged in what they’re doing in a meaningful way, or you can have something nominally non-interactive like a cutscene where the player is actually paying attention and thinking about what’s going on. What makes one choice better than another isn’t how it’s coded or how you can categorize it or what it “counts as,” but what it does. So if you insist that games are only one narrow type of thing, you will end up with games that barely do anything. One of the examples in the article is a game that portrays a Soviet-style dystopia using things like staged propaganda shots. The author is really impressed by this for some reason, even though it’s basically the least impressive thing possible. The Decaying Soviet Dystopia is a cliche; as soon as I say that you already know exactly what I’m talking about. The thing about portraying cliches is that it’s easy; you barely have to do anything other than invoking the name (that’s pretty much the definition of a cliche). So the fact that a game uses a certain technique to do literally the easiest possible thing is actually an indication that that technique is nearly useless, and the fact that this appears impressive to someone is an indication that what’s actually going on here is fetishization.

Seventh, this is all really beside the point, because this is ultimately just another by-the-numbers entry is the musty old “art” debate that yet clings to game criticism like a damp fog. The post is tagged “games as art,” which doesn’t seem to make any sense. How is categorization at all relevant to artistic merit? There are a billion different types of nails, but categorizing a new “subgenre” of nail doesn’t make nails art. Recall, though, what’s actually going on here: we’re talking about a particular set of effects that are assumed to be good things and are furthermore considered the things that games are supposed to be like, and this is what’s being called “art.” So the implicit claim here is that if you do games “right,” so that they’re “interactive” enough, then they’ll be “good enough” to “count” as art. The concept of art is being used as a standard of quality. Hence, the focus is on taking the unique aspect of games – interactivity (although not really, we’ll talk about this later) – and making it as “good” as possible, so that it reaches the level of qualifying as art. But this whole conceptualization is completely erroneous, as evidenced simply by the fact that there exists bad art. Indeed, that is exactly the situation that games are really in right now: the fact that most games are thoughtless kill-em-ups or obtuse number-crunchers or, yes, pretentious pseudo-interactive badly-written short stories doesn’t mean that they aren’t expressing things. It means they’re expressing things badly. Games are bad art, and arguing the “art” part only serves to emphasize the “bad” part. And of course there’s no point in arguing it in the first place, because you can’t convince people that games are giving them significant experiences. They’re either feeling it or they’re not. In fact, that’s the silver lining here: the reason people are talking about these things is that they feel intuitively that games are capable of real expression. The insistence that “games are art” is how people convince themselves that what’s they’re feeling is real and valid. But the need to use that label is born out of defensiveness, and it doesn’t actually help to make anything any better. That’s why the only way to do this is the other way around: to make games that are good enough that nobody feels the need to discuss them “as though” they were art. That is: assume games are art. So what? There’s no point in answering the first question is you can’t answer the second one. There probably was a time when it needed to be pointed out that, yes, games are a form of art, but just pointing that out is all that really needs to be done, because if you can’t move forward from there in order to start making claims that actually matter, there was no point in making that point in the first place. What we need right now is more matter with less art.

Eighth, give me a fucking break. This is what passes for criticism these days?

Download your emotion, baby

Why does no one understand anything about the internet? Serious question. Look at this nonsense:

Freed from the anguish of choosing, music listeners can discover all kinds of weird, nettlesome, unpleasant, sublime, sweet, or perplexing musical paths.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered a howler as blatant as claiming that choice is now less important because of the multiplicity of options offered by the internet. Obviously, the opposite is true: choice is now so omnipresent as to have become tyrannical. It used to be that you were justified in just listening to whatever was on the radio, or whatever the officially-licensed music weirdo at the record store recommended, or whatever bands happened to be playing at your local venues, because you didn’t really have any other options. Now you have all the options; you have to choose. At every moment of every day, you must choose the one thing out of an infinity of options that you will spend this portion of your finite human existence on, and you must do so with the full knowledge that you are damning yourself to miss out on all the things you didn’t choose, forever.

I think that much is pretty obvious. But here’s the important part. This:

These paths branch off constantly, so that by the end of a night that started with the Specials, you’re listening to Górecki’s Miserere, not by throwing a dart, but by following the quite specific imperatives of each moment’s needs, each instant’s curiosities. It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it.

is also wrong. (Also this is a typically terrible video game analogy made by someone who has no idea what video games are actually like, but one thing at a time here.) Just because you have theoretical access to every song ever made (which is not actually the case, but seriously, one thing at a time) does not suddenly transport you into an unfettered wonderland of pure personal choices. In fact, the author cites a rather strong piece of evidence against himself: Spotify carries about four million songs which have never been listened to, by anyone, ever. So it is clearly not the case that people are freely venturing into heretofore unexplored terrain. Indeed, the fact that internet discourse is crammed full of nostalgia suggests that people actually aren’t seeking out new experiences at all. You may have noticed that, post-internet, pop stardom and celebrity are bigger industries than ever. The paradox of internet culture is that a practical infinity of choices makes people more likely to stick with what they already know. Except that’s not a paradox at all, because of course that’s what’s going to happen. The internet does not magically remove society’s existing constraints. On the contrary, by strengthening people’s ability to engage, the internet enables people to cleave more strongly to the things that they were already into. Ergo, Beyoncé’s Twitter mob.

This part makes the failure of analysis pretty clear:

Just five years ago, if you wanted to listen legally to a specific song, you bought it (on CD, on MP3), which, assuming finite resources, meant you had to choose which song to buy, which in turn meant you didn’t buy other songs you had considered buying. Then, a person with $10 to spend could have purchased five or six songs, or, if he was an antiquarian, an album. Now, with $10, that same person can subscribe to a streaming service for a month and hear all five or six songs he would have purchased with that money, plus 20 million or so others.

What’s missing here is very obviously the non-monetary component of opportunity cost. A person has only so many hours in the day to spend listening to music. So yes, it’s great that money is less of a constraint now, but the more important constraint, the issue of what you’re actually going to choose to do with your finite human existence, is as strong as ever. In fact, it’s stronger: there is now more nonsense to engage with, more to attend to, more demands on your attention, and hence less time to make these supposedly free choices we’ve all been gifted with.

These factual inaccuracies point us to the deeper philosophical problem, which is that choice is not simply a matter of the raw number of options you have. Having more options makes it more likely that your choice-set will include good choices, but it also makes it harder to find those choices amidst the noise.

Think of it this way: imagine all the songs on Spotify were unlabelled. All you could do was listen to songs at absolute total random out of its entire catalog. Total horrorshow, right? But this is the maximum amount of free choice: it is totally unencumbered by any kind of bias, including your own. Now imagine that the songs were all labelled, but there were no other discovery tools. This is better, because you can at least find things you’ve already heard of and check out new songs with interesting names, but it’s still pretty hard to discover stuff. Now consider the internet as it currently exists, where you’re constantly being barraged with recommendations and promotions and soforth. This is both more constrained and better than any permutation of the above examples, because you actually have stuff to go on: you can find recommenders you trust and branch out from things you already like and etc.

What’s happened here is that our choices have gotten better as they’ve become more constrained, and the reason this happens is because the constraints are operating in the correct direction: towards things you might actually want to listen to. There are, of course, also constraints that operate in incorrect directions; the reason most of what’s on the radio is garbage is because it’s selected based on what executives think will make money rather than what actually sounds good. So, naturally, there is a situation better than the current one, which is one where all of those recommendation engines and music bloggers and soforth don’t have ulterior motives in the areas of commercial appeal and popularity. This is, of course, an additional constraint that removes things from your search queue that got there because of advertising or whatever, and it, again, makes things better. Choice is a false idol; freedom isn’t free.

And this is a good thing, because if your choices really were totally unconstrained, they would be essentially random, which is to say chaotic, which is to say meaningless. Remember that bit above about “each instant’s curiosities”? Yeah, that’s nihilism. If you’re seriously just going off of your pure momentary whims, you’re an animal. Whereas when you do things like check out formative artists in genres you like, or explore the various bands that were part of a scene you’re interested in, you are engaging with the structure of reality and making choices that are actually connected to the things you care about. While there is a real and important distinction between coerced and uncoerced choices (and lack of options can be a form of coercion), a choice has to be based on real-world conditions in order to be meaningful; the concept of an “unconstrained” choice is oxymoronic. It’s only by being attached to contingent circumstances in the real world that your choices have any chance of being worth a shit.

Indeed, this “free choice” framing betrays a disturbing assumption: that any experience is just as good as any other. If the pure number of options you have is what’s meaningful, that can only be because the content of the options themselves is not meaningful. Which, if true, would mean that all experiences are meaningless. This, for example:

When I hear a song for the fiftieth time, I remember the wall color of my studio apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996, and I remember how cold the awful landlady kept it, and I remember her shivering whippet scratching at my door so that he could come in and curl up in the hollows of my giant furry Newfoundland.

is nothing but the worst kind of banal egoism. If the only significance of music is that it reminds you of some arbitrary shit from your past, then music is meaningless. It might as well be a scrap of paper or an oddly-shaped rock.

Luckily this is a lie, which is obvious when you consider why this is wrong:

Play the songs you heard on February 2, 2013, in the order in which you played them, and you can recreate not just the emotions but the suspense and surprise of emotion as it changes in time.

Dude has literally never heard that a person cannot step into the same river twice. What makes music powerful is the fact that its substance emerges out from particular experiences, not that it is buried within them. Contingency and temporality are what make existence meaningful; without them, you are a portrait and not a person.

Oh and by the way all of this actually has dick to do with the internet. Internet technology enables all of this, but the actual power sources behind these dynamics are political and psychological, just as they always have been. The basic failing of almost all writing about the internet is that it assumes that the same old patterns of behavior somehow assume an unprecedented radical significance now that they’re happening On The Internet.

So, okay, let’s hit this. The first part is easy: the reason people want their experiences to be permanently frozen in time and eternally retrievable is because they don’t want to die. Tough shit, friends. Your name has not been written in the book of life. You’re going to exist for a while, and then you’re going to stop existing.

Moving on, the choice fallacy is a clear outgrowth of consumerism. The idea that picking your very own very special choice from the largest possible menu of options is the ideal situation is a fantasy concocted to sell shit in supermarkets. If contingency matters, then goods are not fungible and capitalism loses its claim to meaning. Which is of course the case; even under the most charitable interpretation of capitalism, what it’s good for is producing enough goods to give people the opportunity to do things that are actually meaningful. Taking economic growth itself as a goal is a blatant capture of the ends by the means. In the same sense, to assume that having the largest number of possible options for which music or movies or books or whatever to experience is what matters is to forget what makes these things worth experiencing in the first place.

The last piece of the puzzle is why everyone constantly talks about The Internet like it actually has its own agenda, rather than simply being an amplifier (or a suppressor) for existing motivations. This is pure ideology. The internet just happened yesterday, so it’s easy to take it as an explanation for everything that’s happening right now and thereby avoid any examination of the underlying forces. Because those forces are not the lizard people and the reverse vampires; those forces are you. The actual conspiracy is the one inside your head, constantly arranging everything you experience to serve its invisible ends. Aggregating data ain’t going to get you out of this. You’ve got to fight theory with theory.

Get the cuts you need

This ranking of Tegan and Sara albums is a remarkably comprehensive argument against the idea that ranking things has any value whatsoever.

The first and most obvious issue is that The Con isn’t at the top, seeing as it’s clearly magical. When Robert Mapplethorpe was taking pictures of Patti Smith for the cover of Horses, he looked at one of the shots and said to her, “this one has the magic.” There’s nothing really remarkable about the image, it’s just a lady wearing a suit and looking at the camera, but it is, in fact, magic. Anyone who’s seen it has it permanently burned into their mind; it has a transcendent itself-ness that gives it an insistent significance; it communicates in a primal language that creates its own understanding; it’s the kind of thing that you feel in your heart before you even know what it is. The Con is the one that has the magic.

This seems like a slam-dunk argument that it’s “the best,” but it doesn’t actually hold up on reflection. The characteristic of magic is precisely that it does not obey the normal laws, so it’s incoherent to say that something is the objective best because it’s magical. On the contrary, the whole point of rankings, it would seem, is to get around vague notions of “specialness” and down to brass tacks.

So, I mean, fine. If you’re trying to rank things, you need to ignore magic and just focus on the things you can measure. This is already pretty suspicious, since we’re ignoring what seems to be the most important thing, but we can at least see if it works. The specific claim made by the listperson is that So Jealous is cohesive while The Con is all over the place. This is certainly true, and it’s also obviously intentional; you don’t follow “Hop A Plane” with “Soil, Soil” because you’re trying to provide a smooth listening experience. But there’s a critical missing step here, which is the argument that a consistent album is better than one with extreme emotional ups and downs. To me, this is clearly backwards: the album that pulls off greater emotional range and more diverse songwriting is the better one.

But the issue isn’t whether I’m right or the listperson is right; the issue is that neither of us is. That missing step is actually just nonexistent: there is no argument you can make as to why one mode of expression is “better” than another. This is professionally known as the is/ought gap: even an exhaustive description of reality does not imply any standard or metric for evaluating that reality. You can spend all day making correct, incisive observations, but everyone still has to decide on the actual value of the underlying content for themselves. So there’s all sorts of analysis to be done as to what an album does and what it’s about, but even after you’ve done that, tacking a number onto it is still completely arbitrary.

So the first two problems with rankings are that they can’t capture transcendence, and that they don’t add anything to the analysis they’re based on. You can just talk about music without sticking numbers next to it. But surely the problem is that we’re splitting hairs between great and greater albums, right? There are certainly some albums that can be said to be better than others, so ratings do have a proper and properly limited utility. For example, Under Feet Like Ours is clearly the worst Tegan and Sara album. They’re pretty much the exact opposite of the band that comes right out of the gate with a fully-formed sound and then struggles to move forward with it: their first record is jittery and awkward, all ideas and no form, and every album after it takes a huge leap in a new direction. The comparison is made extra simple by the fact that This Business Of Art contains many of the same songs reworked to be more fleshy and coherent, making it easy to see it as a strictly superior album.

But what does it actually mean to call something the “worst” album? Does it mean that you shouldn’t listen to it? I mean, maybe; it depends on how worst it is and whether Tegan and Sara are the sort of band who are good even when they’re bad (or when they want to be bad). So even if we take this ranking to be straightforwardly correct, it still gives us no relevant information. After all, we’re talking about the album that has “This Is Everything” on it, which is definitely something I would recommend experiencing (not to mention that that song is itself about transcendent value overcoming practical failure). This is the paradox of aesthetics: being worse doesn’t actually make something worse, so rankings are wrong even when they’re right.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am aware of what the actual purpose of ranking things on the internet is. Rankings are supposed to be bad and wrong, because they’re outrage bait (arbitrary lists of nonsensical rankings are a running joke on Gawker, the internet’s premier source of self-incriminating mockery). What I’m meant to be doing here is ranting about how putting Sainthood in the bottom half of basically any list about anything is blatantly pathological behavior. But the fact that rankings are guaranteed to generate strident disagreement is just more evidence that there’s no substance behind them. If, for example, I were inclined to make a (much) better version of this list, how would I handle Sainthood? The album is fucked up six ways from Monday, from the awkwardly staggered lyrics on “Paperback Head” to the way “Sentimental Tune” crescendos itself off a cliff. “Arrow” bristles with big, gaudy effects, “On Directing” piles up multiple layers of self-reference, “Red Belt” is placid to the point of pain. Are these good things or bad things? Should I just give in to idiosyncrasy and order the albums however I feel like, or should I try to restrain my own impulses as much as possible and put them in the most defensible order? Which of these approaches is less dishonest? The fact that there’s no answer to any of this reveals the fundamental problem: there is zero connection between the score someone gives an album and the actual experience they had listening to it, i.e. the thing that actually matters. The usual distinction is between subjective feeling and objective facts, but actually, neither of these things has any correspondence with rankings.

The reason this is important, the reason we shouldn’t just let these things be stupid and find something better to do (although we should also do that), is that there’s a reason they work, a real insight that underlies their cynical conception: people like rankings. It’s not just internet lists, the basic concept of giving something a numerical score necessarily implies a ranking order. So if it’s so obvious that no one cares which number some hack sticks next to something on a list, why are lists and scores and rankings all over the place?

If you’re reviewing like dishwashers or whatever, some of them actually are going to work better than others, and numerical ratings are a sensible way to represent that. The key, though, is the word “work,” which implies a defined function: the better appliance is the one that accomplishes its intended task more effectively. Some aspects of this will be subjective or situational, but by doing multiple carefully controlled tests and aggregating the results, we can arrive at an assessment that will be broadly applicable in most circumstances, one that is “objective” in the colloquial sense of the term. This process is what we generally refer to as “science.”

And you can’t apply this to art, because art isn’t functional. It is susceptible to analysis; you can focus like a microscope and make all sorts of substantive observations, but none of that is useful until you cross the is/ought gap and start valuing things. And once you’ve done that, you have left the realm of objectivity, turning any kind of rank or score you want to assign into a category error. Subjective experience isn’t just hard to get at, it’s absolutely inaccessible.

Why, then, would anyone get upset about a rating being “wrong,” given that it has nothing to do with how anyone feels about the work in question? The specific feeling at issue is invalidation. When someone gives a low “objective” score to something you care about, you feel like your experience is invalid. And the opposite feeling is the reason people like ratings in the first place: a high “objective” score means that you’re right to like something, that the way you feel is true. But such a source of validation can only be described as cowardice. Certainly, the person who embraces things only after they have been deemed permissible by the appropriate cultural gatekeepers is a coward. But the same is true of any external source of validation: the safety of objectivity is a refuge from the responsibility to determine one’s own values.

Music is one of the less extreme examples here, since the appeal of music is generally understood as idiosyncratic anyway. The most prominent example is, of course, ethics in games journalism. The extreme stupidity of that, uh, “debate” is somewhat offset by the fact that it’s drawing the battle lines very clearly. Some people think games are basically appliances that you plug yourself into in order to be “entertained,” in which case assigning them an objective numerical score according to how entertaining they are makes perfect superficial sense. Others think that the point of games is to create new experiences, which requires engagement with the real world and active acceptance of subjectivity. So the one nice thing about this is that is provides a convenient sanity check. If you find yourself on the wrong side of an argument this obvious, you’ve gotta back it up.

Subjective experience is inherently desperate. It contains within itself the understanding that it cannot be verified or transmitted, that it is a pure moment, that it seems on reflection to not exist at all, even though it’s the only thing of any actual importance. Art is largely an attempt to get around this, to turn subjectivity into something more substantive than simply raw feeling. At a live show in particular, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else in the room is feeling the same thing you are. But the attempt to reify subjective experience as something externally valid is no kind of solution, because this creates only a hollow shell, bereft of the animating spirit that made it matter in the first place. The only real option is to embrace the horror, to hold transience without shaking.

But we have to be careful not to back into reverse nihilism. If everyone just likes what they like, then nothing means anything. There’s no substantive distinction between hearing a symphony and watching paint dry. So it seems like we need a way to preserve objective orders of rank without muffling subjectivity.

The one rating system with a subjectivity-respecting justification is the two-point thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, because it implies nothing other than an answer to the actual question: should I spend time on this or not? But if you accept that, you’ve accepted the idea that there are objective standards that can be applied to art, and that would seem to open the floodgates. Any other rating system, no matter how convoluted, has the same theoretical justification. A rating of 3 stars out of 5 could mean “check this out only if you’re a fan of the genre”; 28.6 points out of 100 could mean “worth it only on a rainy day when you don’t feel like doing anything else.” So it seems like accepting the validity of analysis requires us to countenance every nonsensical rating system that anyone comes up with, and we’re stuck disagreeing with every Bad Opinion on a case-by-case basis.

This is a false dichotomy based on the idea that analysis requires a number as its output, and anything else is just personal feelings. It is not only possible to combine subjectivity and analysis, it is vitally necessary. If you only have your own subjective experience, then there’s no room for any kind of conversation or collaboration; everything is just, like, your opinion, man. And if all you have is analysis, you’ve just got a big convoluted structure that doesn’t mean anything; it might as well just be a big rock.

In fact, it’s perfectly easy to do everything valuable about analysis while ignoring the dumb numerical part. For example, consider this review of Sleater-Kinney’s discography (eMusic used to have a lot of good music writing, but it apparently got run over by the freight train of progress at some point). It has the same album-by-album format, but even as it makes judgments, it doesn’t pretend to be any kind of ranking, and this clarifies the underlying analysis. Actually, the reason I chose this example is because it’s moronic. The person who wrote it thinks that Janet Weiss joined on Call the Doctor, so he disses Lora MacFarlane’s drumming on the first album and then praises it on the second, without realizing he’s talking about the same person. The real problem, though, it that he thinks The Hot Rock was “Sleater-Kinney on an off day,” which I honestly can’t even begin to address. I lack the ability to inhabit the mental space where this is a comprehensible statement. But because the album isn’t “ranked,” there’s no fake argument about whether the ranking is “right” or whether it’s properly “objective” or what the fuck ever. We can just accept that this guy has terrible taste in music and get on with our lives.

What we need to do is to split the concept of ranking along its fault line. As mentioned, it conflates two distinct things that don’t have a real connection: there’s analysis, and then there’s putting a number on that analysis. And what putting a number on something actually means is establishing a hierarchy. Hence the phenomenon of the internet ranking list: a list of which things are better than which other things.

Hierarchy has its uses, but our society has established a hierarchy of people, and this surely ranks among the greatest possible crimes against existence. Its function is to justify the dominance of the ruling class by positing them as the “best” people, and to justify the direction of our development as progress toward a higher goal. People want to feel like they live in an ordered universe, but there are different types of order, and some of them are dispreferable to chaos. Recognizing that there is no real apotheosis, no greatest hit, reveals our society’s horrors as the chosen project of our rulers – a project that we have the freedom to oppose. This is the cure for our crimes.

There’s an old saying, which I thought was Chinese but am completely failing to source, that perfection arouses the envy of the gods. I mean, everything is an “ancient Chinese proverb,” but I genuinely thought that this was a Chinese or Japanese concept. There is, for example, the Japanese term “wabi-sabi,” which expresses the idea that flaws can make something better. But this isn’t like mystical wisdom or whatever; it’s a very practical concept that doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality or metaphysics. What it means is that perfection is impossible not because it is the asymptotic limit of quality, but because it is a self-defeating concept.

If there actually were a perfect album, something that literally every person agreed was the best, that could only mean that no one had an individual reaction to it. If one person were to feel something about it that no one else did, that opens up the possibility that someone else could have such a reaction to a different album, meaning the perfect album is not perfect. In order to actually be perfect, it would have to provide all possible experiences to all people, which is to say it would have to do nothing. The only way to speak to everyone equally is to remain silent. Actually, even that’s not true; 4’33” is one of the most divisive pieces of music in existence. Anything that actually exists is necessarily rough, flawed, divisive, incomplete, and wrong. Perfection is logically impossible.

In a more practical sense, this means that nothing can ever meaningfully be said to be “the best” of anything, even when the category is as simple as 7 albums by the same band. Even on a strictly personal level, this is why it doesn’t make sense to have favorites. Casual conversation is one thing, but seriously conceiving of your values in terms of “favorites,” as a hierarchy, is ridiculous. More than that, it’s a concession to a social schema which is actively trying to kill you, a subordination of your subjectivity, the thing that makes you actually exist, to a fake, boring god of rules and lines. America has a very particular problem with being unable to comprehend quality in any sense other than being “#1” or the “Mattress King” or whatever. Hence certain of our current political problems.

And Tegan and Sara are actually one of the best examples of why this whole idea is dumb, because they don’t make albums that are trying to be better versions of albums they’ve already made. They make different albums. Following up Sainthood with Heartthrob was a good move, even from my perspective, where Sainthood is the kind of music I like and Heartthrob is, uh, less so. The only thing worse than changing is not changing. In the words of Kathleen Hanna, we don’t want to hear you making the right decisions, we want to hear your voice. You might write something that someone might want to read, someday.

How to smell a rat

I’m all for taking tech assholes down a notch (or several notches), but this kind of alarmism isn’t actually helpful:

“It struck me that the search engine might know more about my unconscious than I do—a possibility that would put it in a position not only to predict my behavior, but to manipulate it. Lose your privacy, lose your free will—a chilling thought.”

Don’t actually read that article, it’s bad. It’s a bunch of pathetic bourgeois lifestyle details spun into a conspiracy theory that’s terrifying only in its dullness, like a lobotomized Philip K. Dick plot. But it is an instructive example of how to get things about as wrong as possible.

I want to start with a point about the “free will” thing, since there are some pretty common and illuminating errors at work here. The reason that people think there’s a contradiction between determinism and free will (there’s not) is that they think determinism means that people can “predict” what you’re going to do, and therefore you aren’t really making a decision. This isn’t even necessarily true on its own: it may not be practically possible to do the calculations required to simulate a human brain fast enough for the results to be useful (that is, faster than the speed at which the universe does them. The reason we can calculate things faster than the universe can is that we abstract away all the irrelevant bits, but when it comes to something as complex as the brain, almost everything is relevant. This is why our ability to predict the weather is limited, for example. There’s too much relevant data to process in the amount of time we have to do it). But the more fundamental point is that free will has nothing to do with predictability.

Imagine you’re out to dinner with a friend who’s a committed vegan. You look at the menu and notice there’s only one vegan entree. Given this, you can predict with very high accuracy what your friend is going to order. But the reason you can do this is precisely because of your friend’s free will: their predictability is the result of a choice they made. There’s only one possible thing they can do, but that’s because it’s the only thing that they want to do.

Inversely, imagine your friend instead has a nervous disorder that causes them to freeze up when faced with a large number of choices. Their coping mechanism in such situations is to quickly make a completely random choice. Here, you can’t predict at all what your friend is going to order, and in this case it’s precisely because they aren’t making a free choice. They can potentially order anything, but the one thing they can’t do is order something they actually want.

The source of the error here is that people interpret “free will” to mean “I’m a special snowflake.” Since determinism means that you aren’t special, you’re just an object like everything else, it must also mean that you don’t have free will. But this folk notion of “free will” as “freedom from constraints” is a fantasy; as demonstrated by our vegan friend, freedom, properly understood, is actually an engagement with constraints (there’s no such thing as there being no constraints; if you were floating in a featureless void there would be nothing that could have caused you to develop any actual characteristics. Practically speaking, you wouldn’t exist). Indeed, nobody is actually a vegan as such, rather, people are vegan because of facts about the real world that, under a certain moral framework, compel this choice.

This applies broadly: rather than the laws of physics preventing us from making free choices, it is only because we live in an ordered universe that our choices are real. The only two possibilities are order or chaos, and it’s obvious that chaos is precisely the situation in which there really wouldn’t be any such thing as free will.

The third alternative that some people seem to be after is something that is ordered but is “outside” the laws of physics. Let’s call this thing “soul power.” The idea is that soul power would allow a person’s will to impinge upon the laws of physics, cheating determinism. But if soul power allows you to obviate the laws of physics, then all that means is that we instead need laws of soul power to understand the universe; if there were no such laws, if soul power were chaotic, then it wouldn’t solve the problem. What’s required is something that allows us to use past information to make a decision in the present, i.e. the future has to be determined by the past. And if this is so, it must be possible to understand the principles by which soul power operates. Ergo, positing soul power doesn’t solve anything; the difference between physical laws and soul laws is merely an implementation detail.

Relatedly, what your desires are in the first place is also either explicable or chaotic. So, in the same way, it doesn’t matter whether your desires come from basic physics or from some sort of divine guidance; whatever the source, your desires are only meaningful if they arise from the appropriate sorts of real-world interactions. If, for example, you grow up watching your grandfather slowly die of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, that experience needs to be able to compel you to not start smoking. The situation where this is not the case is obviously the one in which you do not have free will. What would be absurd is if you somehow had a preference for or against smoking that was not based on your actual experiences with the practice.

Thus, these are the two halves of the free will fantasy: that it makes you a special little snowflake exempt from the limits of science, and that you’re capable of “pure” motivations that come from the deepest part of your soul and are unaffected by dirty reality. What is important to realize is that both of these ideas are completely wrong, and that free will is still a real thing.

When we understand this, we can start to focus on what actually matters about free will. Rather than conceptualizing it holistically, that is, arguing about whether humans “do” or “don’t” have free will, we can look at individual decisions and determine whether or not they are being made freely.

Okay, so, we were talking about mass data acquisition by corporations (“Big Data” is a bad concept and you shouldn’t use it). Since none of the corporations in question employ a mercenary army (yet), what we should be talking about is economic coercion. As a basic example: Amazon has made a number of power plays for the purpose of controlling as much commercial activity as possible. As a result, the convenience offered by Amazon is such that it is difficult for many people not to use it, despite it now being widely recognized that Amazon is a deeply immoral company. If there were readily available alternatives to Amazon, or if our daily lives were unharried enough to allow us to find non-readily available alternatives, we would be more able to take the appropriate actions with regard to the information we’ve received about Amazon’s employment practices. The same basic dynamic applies to every other “disruptive” company.

(Side note: how hilarious is it that “disruptive” is the term used by people who support the practice? It’s such a classic nerd blunder to be so clueless about the fact that people can disagree with their goals that they take a purely negative term and try to use it like a cute joke, oblivious to the fact that they’re giving away the game.)

The end goal of Amazon, Google, and Facebook alike is to become “company towns,” such that all your transactions have to go through them (for Amazon this means your literal financial transactions, for Google it’s your access to information and for Facebook it’s social interaction, which is why Facebook is the skeeviest one out of the bunch). Of course, another name for this type of situation is “monopoly,” which is the goal of every corporation on some level (Uber is making a play for monopoly on urban transportation, for example). But company towns and monopolies are things that actually have happened in the past, without the aid of mass data collection. So if the ubiquity of these companies is starting to seem scary (it is), it would probably be a good idea to keep our eyes on the prize.

And while the data acquisition that these companies engage in certainly makes all of this easier, it isn’t actually the cause. The cause, obviously, is the profit motive. That’s the only reason any of these companies are doing anything. I mean, a lot of this stuff actually is convenient. If we lived in a society that understood real consent and wasn’t constantly trying to fleece people, mass data acquisition would be a great tool with all sorts of socially positive uses. This wouldn’t be good for business, of course, just good for humanity.

But the people who constantly kvetch about how “spooky” it is that their devices are “spying” on them don’t actually oppose capitalism. On the contrary, these people are upset precisely because they’ve completely bought into the consumerist fantasy that their participation in the market defines them as a unique individual. This fantasy used to be required to sell people shit; it’s not like you can advertise a bottle of cancer-flavored sugar water on its merits. But the advent of information technology has shattered the illusion, revealing unavoidably that, from an economic point of view, each of us is a mere consumer. The only aspect of your being that capitalism cares about is how much wealth can be extracted from you. You are literally a number in a spreadsheet.

But destroying the fantasy ought to be a step forward, since it was horseshit in the first place. That’s why looking at the issue of mass surveillance from a consumer perspective is petty as all fuck. I actually feel pretty bad for the person who wrote that article (you remember, the one up at the top that you didn’t read), since he’s apparently living in a world where the advertisements he receives constitute a recognition of his innermost self. And, while none of us choose to participate in a capitalist society, there does come a point at which you’re asking for it. If you’re wearing one of those dumbass fitness wristbands all day long so that you can sync the data to your smartphone, you pretty much deserve whatever happens to you. Because guess what: there actually is more to life than market transactions. It is entirely within your abilities to sit down and read a fucking book, and I promise that nobody is monitoring your brainwaves to gain insight into your interpretation of Kafka.

(Actually, one of the reasons this sort of “paranoia” is so hard to swallow is that the recommendation engines and so forth that we’re talking about are fucking awful. I have no idea how anyone is capable of being spooked by how “clever” these bone-stupid algorithms are. Amazon can’t even make the most basic semantic distinctions: when you click on something, it has no idea whether you’re looking at it for yourself, or for a gift, or because you saw it on Worst Things For Sale, or because it was called Barbie and Her Sisters: Puppy Rescue and you just had to know what the hell that was. If they actually were monitoring you reading The Metamorphosis they’d probably be trying to sell you bug spray.)

Forget Google, this is the real threat to humanity: the petty bourgeois lifestyle taken to such an extreme that the mere recognition of forces greater then one’s own consumption habits is enough to precipitate an existential crisis. I’m fairly embarrassed to actually have to say this, but it’s apparently necessary: a person is not defined by their browsing history, there is such a thing as the human heart, and you can’t map it out by correlating data from social media posts.

Of course, none of this means that mass surveillance is not a critical issue; quite the opposite. We’ve pretty obviously been avoiding the real issue here, which is murder. The most extreme consequences of mass surveillance are not theoretical, they have already happened to people like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. This is why it is correct to treat conspiracy theorists like addled children: for all their bluster, they refuse to engage with the actual conspiracies that are actually killing people right now. They’re play-acting at armageddon.

There is one term that must be understood by anyone who wants to even pretend to have the most basic grounding from which to speak about political issues, and that term is COINTELPRO.

“A March 4th, 1968 memo from J Edgar Hoover to FBI field offices laid out the goals of the COINTELPRO – Black Nationalist Hate Groups program: ‘to prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups;’ ‘to prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement;’ ‘to prevent violence on the part of black nationalist groups;’ ‘to prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability;’ and ‘to prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth.’ Included in the program were a broad spectrum of civil rights and religious groups; targets included Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Elijah Muhammad.”

“From its inception, the FBI has operated on the doctrine that the ‘preliminary stages of organization and preparation’ must be frustrated, well before there is any clear and present danger of ‘revolutionary radicalism.’ At its most extreme dimension, political dissidents have been eliminated outright or sent to prison for the rest of their lives. There are quite a number of individuals who have been handled in that fashion. Many more, however, were “neutralized” by intimidation, harassment, discrediting, snitch jacketing, a whole assortment of authoritarian and illegal tactics.”

“One of the more dramatic incidents occurred on the night of December 4, 1969, when Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death by Chicago policemen in a predawn raid on their apartment. Hampton, one of the most promising leaders of the Black Panther party, was killed in bed, perhaps drugged. Depositions in a civil suit in Chicago revealed that the chief of Panther security and Hampton’s personal bodyguard, William O’Neal, was an FBI infiltrator. O’Neal gave his FBI contacting agent, Roy Mitchell, a detailed floor plan of the apartment, which Mitchell turned over to the state’s attorney’s office shortly before the attack, along with ‘information’ — of dubious veracity — that there were two illegal shotguns in the apartment. For his services, O’Neal was paid over $10,000 from January 1969 through July 1970, according to Mitchell’s affidavit.”

The reason this must be understood is that COINTELPRO is what happens when the government considers something an actual threat: they shut it the fuck down. If the government isn’t attempting to wreck your shit, it’s because you don’t matter.

With regard to the suppression of political discontent in America, it’s commonly acknowledged that “things are better now,” meaning it’s been a while since we’ve had a real Kent State Massacre type of situation (which isn’t to say that the government is not busy killing Americans, only that these killings (most obviously, murders by police) are not political in the sense we’re discussing here (that is, they’re part of a system of control, but not a response to a direct threat)). But this is only because Americans are now so comfortable that no one living in America is willing to take things to the required level (consider that the police were able to quietly rout Occupy in the conventional manner, without creating any inconvenient martyrs). This is globalization at work: as our slave labor has been outsourced, so too has our discontent.

And none of this actually has anything to do with surveillance technology per se. Governments kill whoever they feel like using whatever technology happens to be available at the time. If a movement gets to be a big enough threat that the government actually feels the need to take it down the hard way, they certainly will use the data provided by tech companies to do so. But not having that data wouldn’t stop them. The level of available technology is not the relevant criterion. Power is.

It would, of course, be great if we could pass some laws preventing the government from blithely snatching up any data it can get its clumsy fingers around, as well as regulations enforcing real consent for data acquisition by tech companies. But the fact that lawmakers have a notoriously hard time keeping up with technology is more of a feature than a bug. The absence of a real legislative framework creates a situation in which both the government and corporations are free to do pretty much whatever the hell they want. As such, there’s a strong disincentive for anyone who matters to actually try to change this state of affairs.

In summary, mass surveillance is a practical problem, not a philosophical one. The actual thing keeping us out of a 1984-style surveillance situation is the fact that all the required data can’t practically be processed (as in it’s physically impossible, since there’s exactly as much data as total theoretically available person-hours). So what actually happens is that the data all gets hoovered up and stored on some big server somewhere, dormant and invisible, until someone makes the political choice to access it in a certain way, looking for a certain pattern – and then decides what action to take in response to their findings. The key element in this scenario is not the camera on the street (or in your pocket), but the person with their finger on the trigger.

Unless you work for the Atlantic, in which case you can write what appears to be an entire cover article on the subject without ever mentioning any of this. So when you hear these jokers going on about how “spooky” it is that their smartphones are spying on them, recognize this attitude for what it is: the expression of a state of luxury so extreme that it makes petty cultural detritus like targeted advertising actually seem meaningful.