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Fri, Sep. 19th, 2008, 04:39 pm
[free write] On Piracy

So - another September 19th, another day of Robert-Newton spawned dialect. I happen to like the idea of it, but I like the idea of a lot of things. A spontaneously manufactured holiday that goes viral and is getting significant pop-culture traction? Fine by me: I'm big on this idea of how culture should be organically generated, people should be free to do exactly this sort of thing and participate in and create and remix the culture that they live in. It's important that we not live in a monoculture, that our mental environment have diversity and vigor and sometimes knockdowndragouts between ideas that hate each other's guts.

That said, there are some issues with it. For one, it's interesting how it blew through the nichè-appeal to geek cred to trendy-in-the-good-way to trendy-in-the-bad-way arc in all of five or six years. The Internet as a subculture consumes ideas really fast - and the Internet, partially on account of its American heritage, thinks of itself as The Part Of The World That Matters. I'm actually glad that it's getting harder to make blanket judgments about The Internet. At this point in time, human evolution is a matter of changing ideas because they change faster than genes. The Internet is a damn spectacular tool for doing rapid prototyping on ideas. To paraphrase Erin McKean, the Internet is made of ideas and enthusiasm. So, TLAPD is part of this deal where ideas are out on the internet, doing the Go Forth Be Fruitful And Multiply deal, and some of them affect the real world. Most of them don't: we are talking about evolution here, and evolution is the original basis of that whole "on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero" deal. So basically any idea that survives the Internet for long enough that it actually affects the real world is worth examining.

When you examine Talk Like A Pirate Day, you find (and it's not like the creators don't acknowledge this) that it's constructed from a pretty narrow idea of piracy - basically from Caribbean and Colonial piracy and privateering in the 17th and 18th centuries, and especially on the aforementioned Robert Newton portrayal. People have something to say about that every year. Me personally, I'm just distressed that it has this annoying tendency to leave out Sir Francis Drake, one of the stone cold thugs pre-Golden Age of Piracy. So my liking for the culture-jam angle of the day is tempered by the fact that the chunk of culture being jammed is pretty narrow. That exacerbates the behavioral problems; throwing in "ARRRRR!" does not pirate a sentence up quite the way people think it does. It's the equivalent of quoting movies and television as a form of humor: it can be funny, but it's very easy to overdo it and come across as someone petrified of trying to think up their own jokes.

It's also a crossover between two bad mental habits of geek culture: the Anything Popular Is No Longer Cool habit and the The Internet Is The World habit mentioned above. TLAPD is definitely developing symptoms of the former, and I personally give it until 2010 to get to zombie status (For those who are wondering, bears were the new zombies, and 70s muscle cars are the new bears. I am unsure as to what will be the new 70s muscle cars, but my money is on cowboys.) I'm as much of a sucker for this as anyone else, but what I try to keep in mind about the "it's popular therefore it can't be cool" fallacy is that it's a pretty strictly modern idea, it's an idea that really can't exist without mass media and people manufacturing culture in an industrial way. There's no such thing as Selling Out as we conceive of it before the twentieth century (and hell, our idea of it doesn't really come up until the tail end of it, until the 60s and the growth of media criticism). You get some propaganda before that, with the pamphleteers and the demagogues, but it's thin gruel compared to what you get with radio and film. The selling-out accusation basically translates to "This thing we are talking about is very popular and many people like it. It can't have gotten to that many people without being transmitted by mass media. The gatekeepers of mass media are inherently untrustworthy, and so anything that they choose to transmit and give air-time to, such that this many people like it, is necessarily tainted by them and therefore I can't like it." Like a lot of arguments, when you take it out of the shorthand version, the lacunae get much more obvious. I very much dislike the gatekeepers of mainstream culture, but I still think that the given argument is a bad one. Regardless of its merits, though, it's got postmodern fingerprints all over it. It's definitely a meme from within living memory.

Of course, that mental habit reinforces the thinking that the Internet is all the culture that matters. That may be true in the future, but right now it's pretty shameless egotism. I do love that the Internet has fewer gatekeepers, but that doesn't solve the problems that some people imagine it does. It's definitely made the de facto gatekeepers just as important as the old ones: Google, for instance, is one of the defining ones. Just like the old gatekeepers, it started out as a pretty benign entity; in some ways it still is. Just like the old ones, too, people are noticing its limitations and getting riled about them. With Google, though, it's happened much faster - and Google is, in some ways, less prepared to deal with the challenges of the gatekeeper role (though, suitably for a company that operates on Internet time, they're coming up to speed fast). Amusingly, the time frame for that, the last six years, overlaps very neatly with the rise of Talk Like A Pirate Day - which, itself, is a good example of what can happen with a different set of gatekeepers. My other favorite example of what happens with a different set of gatekeepers is 4chan. It's another site of fairly recent development, but it's a prime example of the rapid idea evolution that the Internet forces. It's like playing to the world's toughest crowd as a musician, visual artist, or stand-up comic. It's also, in the form of /b/, one of the world's biggest crowds of bored and moderately savvy youth eager for laughs and lashings of the old ultraviolence.

That crowd, in turn, brings us to the flip side of thinking that the Internet is the world: thinking that the Internet doesn't matter. It calls to mind another Internet event occurring in September. I'm kind of looking forward to these two contradictory memes meeting and exploding one another. The Internet matters, yes, but it's not the whole of what matters (whether it ever will become the whole enchilada is still being debated in committee). The assertion that what happens on the Internet doesn't matter is pretty much ridiculous on its face, but I want to take some time to demolish it.

Talk Like A Pirate Day is actually a good example of how it matters: the original creators were able to give their holiday a bit of a push, and getting plugged by Dave Barry is not small, but without the Internet, it wouldn't have gotten to where it is now, to the popularity level where you can discuss shark-jumping without being laughed out of the room. Ideas from the Internet make the jump to meatspace all the time, and that definitely matters - there are a lot of ideas on the Internet, and TLAPD is one of the fairly harmless ones. You can find the toxic ones on Stormfront, Free Republic, and, well, /b/ (when the latter two meet, sometimes hilarity ensues).

Also: the Internet is a communication medium. No one would cut you the slightest bit of slack if you said "Yes, I sent harassing voice mails and called him hourly - but it's just the telephone, it doesn't matter!" If you're a skywriter and take off to write "FUCK" in enormous letters over Salt Lake City, you definitely expect trouble when you touch down again. The medium is not an excuse for what you do with it. With the Internet, it's even more of an idiotic excuse because the people indulging in that behavior are usually in the age cohort to whom the Internet is as transparent as telephones are to Boomers. In our age bracket, you can't just be an asshole on the Internet. Who you are on the Internet - is who you are. So restricting your antisocial impulses to the Internet is not any kind of mitigating factor; it's just the same as most assholes who turn off the antisocial behavior around people they actually like. That doesn't excuse the jerkitude in other contexts - especially not when you're part of a horde of jerks. The Internet does, in fact, matter.

Looping back to pirates again, though, I think that this sense of detachment connected to the It's Just The Internet meme is part of the longing for the frontier. The defining thing about those pirates, after all, was that they looked at the deal that civilization was offering them and said "Bollocks to that: I've got a better idea." It was a terrible idea - but that attitude is indispensable in hauling humanity, collectively, out of the past. The longing for the frontier is a big part of the American mythos: we're full up with heroes who, paralleling the pirates, looked at the going deal and didn't take it. It plays into the archetypes of reinvention, freedom, and self-control. When you're trapped in the deal that we 21st-century types have landed in, the lack of agency makes guys like the pirates, the pioneers, and their ilk look really appealing despite the prevalence of violent psychos. It's tempting to imagine the Internet as the American West or the Caribbean, a place of reinvention and bold self-determination - but at the end of the day, that outlook requires killing a bunch of the natives, xenophobic brawls with everyone who moves in after you, and strip-mining the place's natural resources until they peter out some time after you've started to need them for day-to-day life.

I think that we can do better.
(Deleted comment)

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 01:10 am (UTC)

See, that and the SCP Foundation? Those are part of the deal with 4chan and generating ideas. I appreciate the joke with YPA, but the thing is that that site is also one more step towards Whuffie (cryptodragon, take note!).

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 02:21 am (UTC)

It makes me wonder how the speed and spread of cultural memetic mutations will increase over the next few years as technology leeches out of its boxes and into the air and into our bodies.

Oog. Imagine Transmetropolitan's The City, only run by /b/-tards.

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 02:23 am (UTC)

Shit, you mean it wasn't ?

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 02:25 am (UTC)

No, those were advertising agencies.

Sometimes it's hard to tell, admittedly.

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 02:33 am (UTC)

I'm still not convinced. /b/-tards do grow up and get jobs, but the attitude persists - hence, advertising.

Also, both of the Presidents - hell, I think I'm going to try posting quotes from them on the chans and see where that gets me. Their attitudes are familiar, let's say.

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 02:40 am (UTC)

I just think it's apropos we have The Beast vs. The Smiler this year...

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 02:50 am (UTC)

The genius of setting them up the way Ellis did is that we had that dynamic in 2004, too, and in 2000, and in '96 ... you see where I'm going.

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 05:07 am (UTC)

Some beautiful words, well overdue for being spoken. I linked to this; hope you don't mind.

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
krinndnz: hot diggity

Linkage is pretty much always a compliment. Thank you!

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)

You reminded me of the silliness of "Renaissance" faires in which people think that affecting a fake Cockney accent makes them sound medieval. (Or mid-evil as the trendy spelling has it.)

Sat, Sep. 20th, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC)
krinndnz: it's called "thorn" dammit english changes

Which, of course, brings us to Dave Barry again.
We should enact an 'e' tax. Government agents would roam the country looking for stores whose names contained any word that ended in an unnecessary 'e,' such as 'shoppe' or 'olde,' and the owners of these stores would be taxed at a flat rate of $50,000 per year per 'e.' We should also consider an additional $50,000 'ye' tax, so that the owner of a store called 'Ye Olde Shoppe' would have to fork over $150,000 a year. In extreme cases, such as 'Ye Olde Barne Shoppe,' the owner would simply be taken outside and shot

Mon, Sep. 22nd, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC)

"This thing we are talking about is very popular and many people like it. It can't have gotten to that many people without being transmitted by mass media. The gatekeepers of mass media are inherently untrustworthy, and so anything that they choose to transmit and give air-time to, such that this many people like it, is necessarily tainted by them and therefore I can't like it."

Some people have adopted this attitude, yes. They are hipsters, the people ruled by irony. They are, for the reasons you say, made of fail. When I have more time, I'll write about hipster-dom and what specific fail it is full of.

However, I submit this revision:

"This thing we are talking about is very popular and many people like it. It can't have gotten to that many people without being transmitted by mass media. The gatekeepers of mass media made this thing, whether from an existing entity or from nothing, and have transmitted it to people who do not have the exposure to alternative forms of this and is necessarily tainted by those gatekeeper/producers and therefore I do not respect it's cultural or artistic value."