Posts Tagged ‘Digital’

About a week ago, I wrote a post on Penny Arcade vs. Rape Culture, which sent my blog traffic skyrocketing after it was linked on Reddit. However, both in comments on the post itself and elsewhere on Reddit, quite a few people seemed to be missing the point: or, more specifically, misunderstanding what rape culture actually is and how it applies to gaming. One commenter, in fact, responded thusly:

My mind is boggled that you feel righteous in condemning something people enjoy, especially when it’s not even real. Do you realize that’s what you’re doing? You’re standing up and telling all these people, people you don’t know, that what they’re enjoying is *wrong*. You don’t have numbers or statistics or any sort of fact behind you quantifying how what they do is wrong. None. Telling people that what they enjoy in the privacy of their own homes in a virtual reality contributes to a Rape Culture is crazy. What’s next? Telling people what sort of porn they can watch, what sort of books they can read?

Seriously, show some facts. Show a concrete link between this and that, between playing the computer game and a rise in rape statistics. I know, I know, it’s not “Rape” it’s “Rape Culture”, so you conveniently don’t have to show *any* facts. Which is the one saving grace in all this. In the real world, for laws to pass and things to change, you have to show concrete evidence of your position. I remember how they tried to do that with Computer Games and Violence, and how no one was able to draw *any* sort of factual link between one and the other that would stand in any court of law.

Which is what made me decide that, rather than linking to any number of excellent rape culture 101 posts online, there might be a need for an explanation of rape culture tailored specifically to gaming. Because, let’s face it: gaming culture has so often been singled out by lazy politicians as the root cause of society’s ills – which is to say, as being inextricably bound up with violence, obesity, immaturity and so on – that it’s small wonder most gamers, on hearing it simultaneously accused of rape culture, are likely to roll their eyes. After all, those other accusations are only so much hot air, and tend to stem from a deeply prejudicial view of games and geekery besides – so why on Earth should rape culture be any different?

From the outset, we need to acknowledge something critical: that gaming is primarily a digital culture, and that digital cultures – while analogous in many ways to other cultures – happen in venues that lack a physical presence. Yes, there are gaming expos, conventions and tournaments where gamers come together, while many friends who meet up regularly IRL will also game together online or at lans. But the difference between gaming culture and, say, workplace culture is that the latter occurs primarily – if not exclusively – in a specific physical location inhabited by all the individual participants in that culture. What this means is that a Venn diagram of the overlap between social interactions, physical proximity and guiding culture for any given workplace would practically be a circle, as all three elements would, with very few exceptions, happen in the same space. But the same diagram of gaming culture would look drastically different: physical proximity would barely have any overlap with guiding culture and social interactions, which would themselves be separate, because proximity is a meaningless concept in digital environments, guiding culture doesn’t come from a single body but from multiple competing sources, and social interactions are less a byproduct of something else – like being at work – than they are a primary point of gaming.

And what this means for rape culture, which is a term we most often hear applied to cultures that do center on a physical environment – such as, for instance, sports clubs and fraternities – is that right from the offset, people are confused about how it can apply to digital environments in comparable ways. Because for both sports clubs and fraternities, rape is a significant problem; it is an actual, physical consequence that happens in the actual, physical environments associated with their cultures. Hardly a week goes by without some sporting hero somewhere being accused of rape or sexual assault, while the dangers faced by women at fraternity parties are a mainstay of both popular culture and popular knowledge. So when we talk about rape culture being promoted by this football club or that frathouse, we – very naturally, and very sensibly – tend to link the accusation with instances of rape being perpetrated by their members. But when the term is applied to something like gaming, there instantly seems to be a disconnect between the accusation and the reality, because barring conventions, tournaments etc, gaming lacks the physical spaces in which rape can actually take place. Which isn’t to say that sexual assault and rape never happen at cons or expos or tournaments; they do. But obviously, there’s a difference, because the primary mode of social interaction in gaming is digital – and how can you rape someone over the internet?

Which brings us back to the actual, proper definition of rape culture. Quoting from Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places For Women? by A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade (my emphasis):

“Rape culture is a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape… The term applies to a generic culture surrounding and promoting rape, not the specific setting in which rape is likely to occur.” 

In other words, rape culture refers neither to physical locations where rape is deemed likely to occur, does occur and/or has occurred, nor to the specific details of  particular rapes: rather, it refers to a culture – that is, a set of values, beliefs, rituals, social codes, language, laws and art – which can be said to promote sexual violence, and particularly sexual violence against women as perpetrated by straight men. Note that this argument neither automatically nor universally implies the existence of a direct causal link between specific cultural artifacts and incidences of rape (though this is certainly possible); nor does it contend that every participant in that culture is or must be a rapist. What it does describe is a culture where rape is trivialized, where both the abuse and sexual objectification of women is normalised, and where, as a result, the sexual abuse of women is more likely to happen. 

But – and I cannot state this emphatically enough – rape is not the sole expression of rape culture. The whole point of the term is that abuse of women doesn’t happen in a vacuum: other sexist, toxic social conditions have to be present first, and so long as these conditions remain unaltered, the abuse itself will continue. The fact that gaming exists largely outside physical spaces isn’t a get out of jail free card; it just means that in the case of digital expressions of rape culture, we have to get ourselves out of the mindset that rape is the only consequence that matters – or, worse still, that unless rape happens, the accusation of rape culture is somehow bunk. Culture is what informs our actions; it is not the actions themselves – which means that rape culture is perhaps best understood as the presence of an ongoing sexual threat. If someone wielding a gun threatens to shoot me unless I comply with their orders, I’m supremely unlikely to challenge them: they don’t have to shoot me in order to change my behaviour. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if they really planned to shoot me, or if the gun was even loaded. The point – the effect – is power and coercion, and only someone who was completely callous, stupid, oblivious or a combination of all three would argue that the threat of being shot – and the subsequent change to my behaviour – was meaningless unless I actually was shot. Similarly, if I’m threatened with rape and violence and silenced with gendered, sexualised slurs every time I disagree with male gamers on the internet, it doesn’t matter if they really plan to rape me, or if they’re even capable of doing so: as with the gun, the point – the effect – is power and coercion, and the logic which underlies their choice of threat. What they want is to shut me up by reminding me that rape happens, that it could and should happen to me because of what I’ve said. And when that is your go-to means of silencing women in a context where men are the majority, where the female form is routinely shown in attitudes of hypersexualisation, sexualised violence and submission, and where men are in majority control of that setting? That is rape culture. 

Which brings me to the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian, for those who’ve never heard of her, runs a website called Feminist Frequency, where – among other things – she posts videos deconstructing and criticising the presence of sexist tropes in popular culture. Recently, she went on Kickstarter to garner funding for a new series of videos: Tropes vs Women in Video Games. It should tell you something significant about the popularity of this idea – and of Sarkeesian herself – that, having asked for a mere $6,000 in financing, she has, as of today – with four days left on the clock – been funded to the tune of $44,027 – more than seven times what she initially asked for. Here’s her kickstarter pitch:

I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented.  This video project will explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.  The series will highlight the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry rather than just focusing on the worst offenders.  I’m going to need your help to make it happen!

As a gamer, a pop culture critic and a fan, I’m always working to balance my enjoyment of media while simultaneously being critical of problematic gender representations. With my video web series Feminist Frequency,  I look at the way women are portrayed in mass media and the impact they have on our culture and society.

THE PROJECT

With your help, I’ll produce a 5-video series (now expanded to 12 videos) entitled Tropes vs Women in Video Games, exploring female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry.  This ambitious project will primarily focus on these reoccurring tropes:

  • Damsel in Distress – Video #1
  • The Fighting F#@k Toy – Video #2
  • The Sexy Sidekick – Video #3
  • The Sexy Villainess – Video #4
  • Background Decoration – Video #5

1st Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress – Video #6
  • Women as Reward – Video #7
  • Mrs. Male Character – Video #8
  • Unattractive Equals Evil – Video #9
  • Man with Boobs – Video #10
  • Positive Female Characters! – Video #11

2nd Stretch Goal Achieved!

  • Let’s Bump up the Production Quality!

3rd Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Tropes vs Women in Video Games Classroom Curriculum 
  • Video #12 – Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games

Each video will be between 10 and 20 minutes long and available online for free for everyone and anyone to watch, share and use.

Pretty benign language, yes? All she’s done is state what should be a fairly uncontroversial and obvious truth – that women are often presented badly in video games – and proposed to discuss this in detail.

And for this crime, she has been threatened with rape, with death and with violence, and had her Wikipedia page vandalised with images of graphic pornography.

This is what rape culture looks like in gaming: the use of misogyny to defend yourself against the accusation of misogyny. It’s like a woman telling an abusive partner that he’s abusive, and the partner being so angered by this that he punches her in the face. It’s doing exactly the thing you’re being accused of in response to that accusation while simultaneously trying to plead your innocence. And you know what makes this even worse? Sarkeesian hasn’t even started her videos yet. All she’s done is tried to get the funding for them – but even the prospect of a popular feminist deconstructing video game sexism has apparently been deemed so threatening, so emasculating and yet simultaneously so unnecessary by this particular misogynistic segment of the gaming population that, as one, they’ve risen up to threaten her with death, rape and physical violence.

And I can’t help but wonder: how many of Sarkeesian’s attackers use rape language when gaming? How many of them have inferred that because it’s apparently OK to talk about raping other players in-game, it’s OK to issue rape threats against women out of game? What are the odds that the men who vandalised her Wikipedia page with pornographic images – who decided that the quickest, easiest and most universally effective way to insult, demean and punish a female adversary was to hypersexualise her – are the same men arguing that the hypersexualisation of female characters in video games is normative, desirable, harmless? I’ll say it again: rape is not the sole expression of rape culture, and the fact that it exists foremost in gaming in nonphysical spaces – forums, online, in game, on the other end of the microphone, in game design itself – doesn’t make it any less toxic to women than the unsafe frat houses of Boswell and Spade’s study.

Critics within gaming seem to think that, unless we can prove definitively that rape culture acts like some sort of Hypno-Ray to turn otherwise normal men into rapists and sexual harassers, the whole idea of social settings that are inherently toxic to both female safety and healthy gender relations is bunk. But what else do you call it when gamers defend sexism in gaming by threatening a woman with rape? What else do you call it when a prominent figure in gaming says that “sexual harassment is part of the culture” and counts this as a defensible, necessary thing? What else do you call it when the combination of hypersexualisation and violence against women are so deeply embedded in gaming culture that a significant portion of developers and fans don’t see it as problematic? What else do you call it when the default form of insult used by and against male players is, as Penny Arcade’s Tycho once called it, ad mominem – that is, a way of insulting men by sexually impugning the women (mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends) with whom they’re most closely associated? There’s a reason, after all, why such jokes are used primarily against men, and why their subjects are never fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends – what misogynistic male gamer would bother leveling sexually loaded insults at a female player’s mother when he could just level them at her? Show me a female gamer who’s played online or at tournaments, or even one who has simply participated actively in male-dominated gaming forums, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I will show you a female gamer who has at some point been called a bitch, a cunt,a slut or a whore by male players, or who has been crudely sexually propositioned by male players, or who has otherwise been sexually threatened or intimidated by male players, because this is how rape culture is primarily expressed in digital contexts: through the abusive language, gendered slurs, sexual threats, silencing and exclusion that are levelled at women generally, but which are specifically and intensely used to punish women like Sarkeesian, who dare to point out that this is what’s actually happening.

The core argument of rape culture isn’t that exposure to yet another instance of highly sexualised violence against women will turn every man who sees it into a rapist, and that therefore we should censor everything that even vaguely references women and violence together; the point is that in a healthy culture, there would be no need to censor such images, because participants in that culture would have enough respect for women to neither create nor demand them as mainstream in the first place. Because ultimately, the big objection to the charge of rape culture in gaming seems to boil down to fears about censorship: that by criticising creative output and language as being problematic, sexist and offensive, people like me are arguing for less art all together, when what we’re actually arguing for is more good art. Sexualised violence and the sexual objectification of women should be to gaming like The Human Centipede, a film which is horrific in absolutely every sense of the word, is to cinema: something that we all understand is vile, but where a desire to confront that vileness is the motive for watching – as opposed to a scenario where almost every film produced contains elements of The Human Centipede, and has done for so long that cinemagoers treat those elements as normative rather than vile, because they’ve become so commonplace that they can’t properly imagine films without them, reacting with bafflement and outrage and cries of ‘Censorship!’ every time some critic were to suggest that maybe, just maybe, not every film needs to feature graphic depictions of the forced ingestion of shit.

In other words: it is not censorship to suggest that gamers and game corporations should increase their collective respect for women, or to try and encourage the creation of a gaming culture that would nominally reflect such respect in both its output and its language.

Returning to the Boswell and Spade paper about rape culture in fraternities, it’s extremely important to note the differences between houses which were identified as ‘safe’ – that is, houses where women felt comfortable and which had lower levels of sexual assault – and those which were ‘unsafe’ – where women felt more vulnerable and which had higher levels of sexual assault. To quote:

“At high-risk houses, parties typically had skewed gender ratios, sometimes involving more men and other times involving more women. Gender segregation also was evident at these parties, with the men on one side of a room or in the bar drinking while women gathered in another area. Men treated women differently in the high-risk houses. The women’s bathrooms in the high-risk houses were filthy, including clogged toilets and vomit in the sinks… 

Men attending parties at high-risk houses treated women less respectfully, engaging in jokes, conversations, and behaviors that degraded women. Men made a display of assessing women’s bodies and rated them with thumbs up or thumbs down for the other men in the sight of the women. One man attending a party at a high-risk fraternity said to another, “Did you know that this week is Women’s Awareness Week? I guess that means we get to abuse them more this week.” Men behaved more crudely at parties at high-risk houses… It was rare to see a group of men and women together talking. Men were openly hostile, which made the high-risk parties seem almost threatening at times.”

In other words: the high-risk environments that were toxic for and dangerous to women were characterised by skewed gender ratios, poor respect for female spaces, offensive jokes made at the expense of women, the hypersexualisation of women themselves, and male hostility towards women – all of which is representative of rape culture. The fact that these behaviours are also representative of many digital spaces in gaming culture should not be any less alarming simply because they happen online: the misogyny, sexism and disrespect which underlie their usage is, at base, identical. Similarly, it’s worth noting that in another recent paper, Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace by Sreedhari D. Desai, Dolly Chugh and Arthur P. Brief, the authors found that employed men in traditional marriages – that is, marriages where the wife stayed home and the husband was designated as the sole breadwinner – tended, when compared to men in non-traditional marriages, to:

“(a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

On the surface, this has nothing to do with rape culture – and yet I mention it by way of demonstrating that the way men treat and think of women in their private lives has a direct impact on how they treat them professionally and elsewhere. This doesn’t even have to be a conscious process – as the authors point out, the majority of such sexism was implicit rather than overt, meaning that the men didn’t even realise they were doing it – but either way, the impact on women remains the same. Given this evidence, then, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that male gamers who disrespect women online, who threaten women with rape, who call women bitches and sluts in anger, and who view both women in games and women gamers through the lens of hypersexualisation, will be much less likely to respect women generally and elsewhere. And that really is significant in terms of analysing the elusive physical, real-world implications of rape culture in gaming, because even though gaming itself is a primarily digital culture, gamers themselves still inhabit the real world, where they must necessarily interact with women in physical spaces and contexts that have nothing whatsoever to do with gaming.

Or, put it another way: parties, clubs and bars are universal spaces, places where people of all different cultures and subcultures meet – as, for that matter, are workplaces, offices, shops and streets. If a group of footballers sexually assault three women in a hotel, for instance, we aren’t wrong to ask about the influence of rape culture in football, even though the physical location of the assault is a public place with no specific ties to either the sport or its culture. But this is where things become tricky, because gamers – unlike footballers – aren’t celebrities; and unlike fratboys, their subcultural identity is unlikely to be mentioned in the event that they’re involved in an incident of sexism or sexual assault. And there’s the additional problem of making the nomenclature accurate: while it’s very easy to identify footballers and fratboys – do they belong to a club or frat house? then yes – it’s less easy to tell who, for the purpose of analysis, is a gamer, and if so, what their level of participation in gaming culture actually is. It’s exactly this sort of subtle point that so easily gets lost in public discourse, but which becomes exquisitely relevant when we start talking about preventative strategies and the real world consequences of rape culture in gaming. Saying gamers are is a vastly less accurate and more problematic notion than saying gaming is: even though there’s a massive intersection between the two concepts, the former is still a generalisation about types of people, while the latter is an assessment of culture that may or may not be relevant to individual participants in that culture. But still, I have to ask: if gaming itself lacks the physical spaces we usually associate with the most dramatic consequences of rape culture – but if this doesn’t invalidate the fact that many sexist male gamers are nonetheless learning from and actively participating in a rape culture they refuse to acknowledge as negative – then what happens when those men interact with women in other areas of life? On the basis of the evidence, they seem deeply unlikely to respect them, and however subconscious their sexism may be at such times, the fact that any physical consequences, such as abuse or assault, would happen outside of gaming-oriented contexts does not free gaming as a community – as a culture – of the responsibility to reinforce the fact that abusing women at any time is completely unacceptable.

So: gaming culture is – or at least, contains many problematic elements of – a rape culture. It is frequently hostile to women, toxic in terms of both the hypersexualised, violent content and the hypersexualised, violent language it uses to demean and belittle women. Even if, for whatever reason, you’d hesitate to use the term rape culture, it should nonetheless be apparent that gaming, en masse, has deep-seated problems with its treatment of women, and that this ought to be addressed. The horrific backlash against Anita Sarkeesian is unacceptable. The Hitman: Absolution trailer is unacceptable. Aris Bakhtianians’s comments are unacceptable. Saying so is not censorship: it is simply a call to treat women with respect. But so long as gamers refuse to acknowledge that rape culture is an issue which applies to gaming, the situation will not – cannot – get better.

Back in 2008, I found myself somewhat hilariously fired by humourless bureaucrats for, among other things, daring to read Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World, by the photocopier. The fact that TGAW is merciless in its mockery of, among other things, humourless bureaucrats only added to the delightful, ironic savour of the experience. More recently – which is to say, this year – Nick has released two more books: fiction/SFF work Angelmaker, which is a sort of blackly comedic gangster-spy-steampunk novel set alternately in the modern day and WWII, and non-fiction work The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, an exploration of the many intersections between digital culture and human life – which, quite coincidentally, the wonderful Nick has consented to discuss with me, despite my tendency to ramble. So, without further ado: Nick Harkaway on The Blind Giant! 

Given its subtitle – Being Human in a Digital World – the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that The Blind Giant focusses more on technology than it does on being human. In fact, I’d contend, the opposite is true: rather than using the digital world as a lens through which to view social issues, it instead uses humanity and the human condition as a means of analysing what part digital culture plays in society.

I think that’s exactly right – when I did an event at the School of Life the other day, one of the people there described the book as ‘a call to active citizenship’. So much of the digital debate is actually a cipher for debates we should be having about our culture, so a lot of what I’m doing is teasing out technological strands from cultural ones…

At the very least, it alternates between these perspectives in a way that makes the technological elements easily comprehensible to the layperson. Being of the geekish persuasion yourself, and given also the book’s iteration of the importance of constant engagement with the world, was it difficult to keep to a particular structural path and within the intended scope?

The aim was to produce a book with a very wide possible readership – something which would be readable whether you were an absolute blazing Luddite or a grade 1 digiphile. My hope is that there’s something of interest for everyone, that the book can be appreciated at a number of levels, but obviously there are limits on that. Staying within scope was relatively easy, because the idea was to go as broad as possible, to show the top metre of the ocean over a wide area rather than attempt to follow a single narrow fishing line down to the bottom – but staying coherent was harder. I was writing fast and sucking in information as I went along, organising it in Scrivener, trying out pathways. It was genuinely an iterative writing process and I could easily still be doing it. My ideas have evolved since the book came out, largely through dialogues with readers and with fascinating people like Anab Jain, Simon Ings and Andrew Keen. But seriously: the contract and the software kept me sane. I didn’t have time to write Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

Early in the book, you talk about the importance of the digital hearth, deliberately choosing a word with ancient, preindustrial connotations. This is a particularly effective image for many reasons, but chief among them – for me, at least – is the simultaneous invocation of the mythic: of the idea of lares and penates, those minor household deities who were honoured as being integral to hearth and home. In our current world, where both the fluidity of texts and the hearth-extending properties of social media have allowed us to define our digital homes through endless recombinations of the ideological, the sacred and the personal, what sort of figures – whether real or imagined, familiar or unknown – do you think have taken on the equivalent roles of our guardian household gods?

That’s part of our problem, in a sense – they’ve faded into us and we haven’t entirely realised it yet. We’re still looking for external sources of influence and protection – we blame the phone for ringing, the Internet for serving up information, the TV for strobing ads at us. And that’s ridiculous. If we ever make self-aware appliances with volition of their own, we can come back to that, but right now we’re alone with ourselves and if something happens it happens because we did it. We allowed it. I think the alienation comes from the metaphor of cyberspace, which proposed a foreign country behind the screen, and I think that’s breaking down now – thank God – as a consequence of the arrival of the touchscreen. When you can drag data around with your finger, it’s no longer other, it’s immediate. Things are not emerging from a TRON landscape in a subatomic alien world, they’re coming from other people using technology. We don’t need household gods in a literal sense – we need to understand that they were always reflections, and accept the role we took from them.

You talk, too, about the problem of ‘locked in’ systems, which – to quote the book – are defined as such ‘because while we might wish to break out of [the system], we cannot do so without also unravelling everything that has been constructed on top of it, and many of those things are hugely profitable and hence powerful and able to defend themselves. They refuse to be undermined, even while the individuals within them might privately recognise the need.’ This is a very apt description, and one which fits a distressingly large number of systems and institutions. I’m especially concerned about its application to our current educational frameworks; secondary school in particular. Given the myriad disconnects between the old world our educational systems were originally built to support and the worlds – both digital and tangible – that exist now, do you think it’s possible that part of what you describe as ‘the growing sense of abandonment and contempt’ that fuelled the anger of youthful participants in the UK riots could stem, however subconsciously, from the awareness that they’re being trained to enter a society that no longer exists?

I think there’s an element of that. They were told they’d always get richer, that that was the natural state of being in an information economy (which we don’t have, by the way, as Ha Joon observes in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism). They can see in front of them that the pathways they’re on don’t lead anywhere very cool, and that was fine so long as the economy was on the up and they could still expect a rising standard of living. Not any more. Alexis Tsipras told the Guardian the Greek financial situation was part of a war between the people and capitalism. I think he’s almost right: it’s a struggle between sanity and a particular style of finance-based fairydust capitalism which is a bit stupid, a bad iteration which consumes too much fuel and throws up too much waste and benefits a very, very few in the short term. But look, all the rioters knew was that they were getting screwed, and they didn’t like it. That’s what revolutions are in the first place: a sense that you have to push back even if it kills you.

Which locked in system would you most wish to see torn down, and why?

I can’t pick just one. There are simply too many. Gender inequality has to be the most wasteful human-aspected one one. Petroleum is probably the most interconnected, along with beef farming, which results in famine, soil erosion, environmental damage, poor health in the industrialised world, and economic shenanigans around subsidies. The reason to tear them down is the same throughout: they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They’re aberrant. They cause problems rather than creating solutions. I’m not saying “no oil” and “no beef” – I’m saying that the entrenched systems around those commodities are obnoxious.

Midway through the book, you make a fascinating and deeply significant point about the correlation between the preservation of online privacy on the one hand, and the retention of intellectual property rights on the other. To quote again, ‘You can’t trash privacy and hope to retain a sense of respect for IP.’ Bearing in mind that this is an enormously complex issue, if you woke up tomorrow as King of Earth, what measurements would you enact to try and foster a united sense of ownership and privacy in the digital sphere?

Well, I’d have anyone who pulled what the FBI just did in the Megaupload case tarred and feathered. To clarify: they took a bunch of data they may not have had a right to from New Zealand and are now defending the action on the ironic basis that because it’s non-physical the law does not apply. I mean, seriously? In a copyright infringement case, this is your position. It’s insane. You can’t respect IP if that’s how it is defended.

More seriously: I think I’d legalise encryption globally and institute powerful protections for keys under – at the moment, in the UK, you can go to prison for refusing to hand yours over. In Russia you can go to prison for just possessing encrypted data. Personal data should have the same robust protections as personal space. I’d need to find a balance between powerful protections for the individual and the rights of a free press, but I’m not sure that’s as tricky as people make out. I’d also require a new policy of reasonable enforcement from content owners, since we’re making me dictator. The problem is that they’ve already gone so far down the bad road that it’s going to be really hard to establish a proper social contract again – but it’s the only way they can go, in the end. The alternative is slow exsanguination.

The notion of deindividuation through adherence to impersonal systems is a terrifying one, particularly as exemplified through experiments like those conducted by Zimbardo and Milgram. It’s also a significant theme in both your novels: The Gone-Away World and, more recently, Angelmaker. In the former, it appears as a chilling warning about unyielding and ultimately sadistic bureaucracies, while in the latter, it comes across in the comparison of personal, ‘friendly’ gangster crime, with its weirdly chivalric rules and its black sense of humour, with the impersonal, devouring autocracy of greed and mechanisation. Despite – because of? – being fictional, these stories seem to treat the deindividuation problem as much more of a binary issue than The Blind Giant, which appears to be more optimistic about the possibility of a viable middle path; perhaps because fiction provides the luxury of usurping such locked in systems as would otherwise prove intractable. Even so, the introduction to Giant, wherein you posit both a dystopian and a utopian future as a starting point for discussion, is still titled Dreams and Nightmares – one of the most archetypal binaries of all. How optimistic are you about our ability to change problematic systems without wholly uprooting them?

I know more about deindividuation now than I did when I wrote TGAW, so inevitably there’s more nuance. I still don’t know nearly enough to answer that question. I tend to think the only way it comes right is at a micro-level: citizen action to rehumanise everyone’s relationships. It’s a big ask, but a necessary one if we want a friendly society. It can start small. Smile at the irritating person on the other side of the ticket office glass, say. Get them to smile back if you can. And so on. Day by day, inch by inch, we inhabit a less divided society. It only works bottom up, though.

On a more positive note, something you blogged about recently was the verisimilitude of coincidence in writing. ‘In the small world of the novel, coincidences can multiply. The people about whom you’re telling the story are the people to whom significant events occur, otherwise you’d be telling the story about other people… We recognise the level of connectedness in the world, and we want it to be appropriate.’ This is definitely something I’ve noticed and appreciated in your fiction, but it also seems a fitting description of the way in which you’ve coherently united disparate (or seemingly disparate) ideas in The Blind Giant. Interconnectedness is obviously relevant to the digital world – arguably, in fact, it’s what it does best. Do you think this has changed or is changing the stories we tell about ourselves and our interactions with the world, and if so, how?

I think we’ve become increasingly aware of our connectedness over the last century. Chains, the story by Frigyes Karinthy which began the ‘six degrees’ discussion, was published in 1929. The mathematics of (pre-digital) social networks became apparent before digitisation really took off, though of course the Internet made the connections more discoverable and concrete. So the answer is probably part of the history of 20th Century storytelling, but I don’t know what it is. The stories we tell about ourselves change constantly, and stay the same.

One final query about informed behaviour: you end the book on what is arguably a cautionary note, exhorting the reader to engage with the world, and to be particularly aware, not only of the choices they make, but the many opportunities they have to make them, and of the idea that being the person we want to be ‘is a matter of constant effort rather than attaining a given state and then forgetting about it.’ This is a timely piece of advice, and one that applies just as significantly to our relationships with equality, privilege, politics and popular culture as to our use of technology and the digital world. With this in mind, how best would you advise people only newly aware of the fluidity of our culture to engage with it critically?

The important thing is to ask questions. That is, after all, the heart of the critical process: you ask what a thing is, whether it is what it appears to be. One of the simplest and most effective tricks in a political or a social context is to ask, of any phenomenon, whether it’s really a noun or a fixed situation, or whether it’s created, constructed, and held in place by a continuing action. Mostly, things are the latter, and when you see how they’re held in place you also see in whose interest it is to maintain that they’re part of the natural order of things. Then it becomes a question of what to do next


Nick Harkaway can be found online at his blog, on tumblr and on Twitter. The Blind Giant is available in both ebook and hardcopy formats. 

Musing on ebook piracy and free downloads yesterday at Alan Baxter’s blog, I made a passing comparison between the digital distribution of books, whether legally or illegally, and the sale of second-hand hardcopies. In both instances, neither author nor publisher makes money on the transaction, but whereas the former practice is almost invariably viewed as foolhardiness where legal and theft where not, the latter is viewed as a benevolent, even positive, parallel economy – and the more I think about this distinction,  the more arbitrary it seems. If publishers and authors are concerned about losing revenue to piracy  – that is to say, to the free transmission of their products and to reduced-price sales made by unrelated third parties in a digital context – then surely the natural system with which to draw comparisons is the physical second-hand market? Throw in data regarding library usage and loans between friends, and you’re basically looking at the real-world equivalent of the digital DL ecosystem, viz: instances in which a single first-hand copy is read by multiple people, only one of whom pays money to the publisher.

This being so, if the mass availability of free or cut-price digital books is causing authors and publishers to lose out on revenue, then you’d expect that the combined presence of friendly loans, libraries and the second-hand market would be seen as having an identical (or at least similar) effect. After all, humans are quite a mercenary species: if we can have something cheaper or for free, then why would we pay full price? Or, put another way: if I can buy all my books second-hand, grab them at the library or borrow them from my friends, then why would I ever pay full price for the same product? Why would anyone?And yet the indisputable fact is that people – and I’d even go so far as to say a majority of people – do.

Here’s an important question: how did you first discover your favourite authors? Did you stumble on them by accident, or pick them up cold in the bookshop? Did you read a good review and decide to check them out? Did a friend spruik their work or lend you a copy? Did you see their opus discounted or for second-hand sale and give them a try? Did you find them at the library? Did you follow their blog or Twitter and decide to read their books? Take a long, hard moment to think about it, because unless my own experiences are very much anomalous, the chances are that the first time you read a new author’s work, you didn’t pay full price for it. In fact, you may not even have paid at all. Going through my own bookshelves, I can vouch for the fact that almost every single author whose work I now collect or have ever bought religiously – Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Terry Pratchett, Tamora Pierce, Robin Hobb, Sara Douglass, Anne McCaffrey, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Richelle Mead,  Naomi Novik, Libba Bray and George R. R. Martin, to name but a few – first entered my awareness through free, loaned, library or second-hand copies. Douglass, Bray and Pierce all came from libraries; I bought second-hand editions of their early works, then expanded to buying first-hand when I could afford it. Elliott, Kerr, Pratchett, Hobb, Martin and Novik all started as second-handers. Stephenson was a loaned to me – in fact, I’m currently reading a friend’s copy of Anathem – while I won my first Mead book in a contest. My first McCaffrey was a gift, and followed by much second-handing before I ever bought her works new.

But Gaiman is arguably the most interesting test case, not only because of his favourable stance on piracy and free books, but because his is the instance that links us back to the digital world. Because when I turned eighteen, a friend’s birthday gift to me was a CD containing an illegal, ripped version of the complete Sandman, which I read voraciously and loved in my first year of college. As a direct result of this, not only do I now own all of Gaiman’s novels, but whereas the pirate CD has long since vanished down the back of a couch, I have since acquired the complete Sandman in brilliant, first-hand hardcopy – the same way that I’ve bought or been given all his other books.

So why, in all these instances, did I switch to paying full price? There were – and are – a number of reasons. Some, as you might expect, are mercenary when taken in isolation: for instance, though it was easy to find older books second-hand, it was simply more expedient to buy later volumes new than wait for used copies to hit the market. Aesthetically, too, a new copy tends be better looking and sturdier than a second-hand equivalent, and, in the case of Sandman, preferable in terms of both quality and physicality to a digital rip. But those are all pragmatic concerns: what changed  – what mattered – is that I loved the stories, and therefore wanted the best possible copies as quickly as possible. I wanted to support the authors, because I wanted them to keep writing, and because there was no longer any question that their books might not be worth the money.

But wait! I hear you cry. That doesn’t apply to the digital realm at all! Is there really so much of a difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook that readers would pay for a better edition? If the accessibility problem is the same – if it’s a choice between clicking one button for free, and one to pay, for essentially the same product – then what advantage does a first-hand copy have? 

To which I say:

Firstly, if there’s no difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook, then possibly there should be. The onus is on publishers to make their product unique – to reward digital first-hand purchasers with pretty content the same way that gorgeous hardcopies do. What about the addition of features that only work on one or a limited number of devices, so that a ripped version would be less special than an original? What about ease of use, where legitimate acquisitions are easier to make – and certainly available more quickly – than their illegal equivalents? What about digital bundling with hardcopy editions? These are all considerations that the industry is actively investigating, and while there will always be people who don’t care or can’t afford the full price – just as there are people who aren’t fussed about the condition of second-hand copies or can’t afford new books – it seems alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that there’s no meaningful difference between official ebooks and rips.

Secondly: believe it or not, the internet has not suddenly caused the entire world to turn into bastards. As I said in the Baxter piece, some of us – a lot of us, in fact – are more than willing to balance out our free or reduced-price consumption of things by paying to support the content we like. If the only conceivable advantage of a paid-for book was that it generated revenue and thereby allowed the author to keep writing, that would be reason enough for most of us. The webcomics arena, for instance, provides innumerable examples of this, and while I’m not so naive as to start touting the generosity, altruism and selflessness of humankind as proof positive that such a system should work flawlessly, I’d humbly suggest that any author who thinks that the majority of their readership is made up of selfish, thieving assholes should probably stop to wonder why they ever thought such people would give them money in the first place. As radical and terrifying a thought as it may seem, authors have to trust that most of their readers are actually decent human beings, at least where books are concerned, because the alternative is to start thinking the worst of the people you want to support you – and that way lies madness.

And thirdly, because it bears repeating: ebooks are not replacing hardcopies. What they represent is an increase in the number of ways that people can access stories, and while ereaders and their ilk are definitely still a new arena, that doesn’t mean the problem of free content – or, more specifically, of multiple readers accessing a story that has only been paid for once – is exclusively a digital problem. Digital music didn’t kill radio, and it certainly didn’t kill the industry; neither DVDs nor VHS before it have ever come close to threatening movies, nor has online streaming overly dented Hollywood; similarly, home recording, Tivo and boxed sets haven’t changed the balance of free vs paid TV. And if libraries didn’t kill bookshops, then I have a hard time believing that ebooks will either destroy publishing as we know it or replace hardcopies, because if there’s two things human beings – and, by extension, the market – like, it’s variety and complementary systems.

Returning to the concept that the provision of free content ultimately leads to more sales, consider how the internet has changed the way we read. I buy books now, not just because they appeal to me, but because I read the authors’ blogs or Twitter and think they have something interesting to say; because innumerable  book blogs and sites like Goodreads get readers invested in the ideas behind new releases while holding contests for the distribution of free early copies and ARCs that are no longer the sole purview of professional reviewers or one-off promotions in dead tree media; because there are free short stories, character bios, Easter eggs, wallpapers, maps and worldbuilding data available online, all designed to draw the reader deeper into the world. All of which is another way of saying: we rarely buy books cold any more (assuming we ever did). Bookstores and libraries are no longer our only – or even our main – source of information on upcoming releases, new authors, related titles and literary events; and that means that when we finally do front up to a first-hand store, whether virtual or physical, there’s a much greater chance that we’ll already know what we actually want – because somehow, somewhere, we have already been provided with free content.

Ultimately, I feel that the debate about ebook piracy has been stymied by the same sort of fearmongering that usually  characterises debates about welfare cheats. Yes, some people will always abuse the system, and it’s only right that we have mechanisms in place to deal with them. But simplifying the whole issue as one of lazy, selfish thieves taking advantage of the charity and resources of better people is always going to be deeply problematic, because of the extent to which it hinges on notions of deservedness. By which I mean: books are technically a luxury item, non-essential to daily living while simultaneously constituting an irrevocable, significant and active portion of our popular culture; but literacy is essential, and books are a big part of that. This is why so many government programs are obsessed with making sure children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to books – because of all the positive links between fostering a love of reading early on and later educational success. And yet, when it comes to the legitimate reasons why many people pirate ebooks, or rely heavily on libraries, or only buy second-hand – that is to say, because of reasons of disability, disadvantage, poverty and accessibility – we have a tendency to assume the worst of them, as we so often do of people (the same people?) who live on welfare: that they should be grateful for what they have, and that they are stealing from us by aspiring to possession of things whose full cost they haven’t personally paid, and therefore don’t deserve.

It’s true of every necessity – food, shelter, medicine, education, childcare – that there will always some people who can’t afford them. The solution in these instances is not to throw up our hands and say that if everything were free, the system would break, and that such people must therefore fend for themselves; rather, it’s to expect that those who can pay, do – through taxation, through donation, through the support of relevant economies – so that those who genuinely can’t don’t have to. And this might seem like a radical, even socialist notion (egads! hide!), but I genuinely do believe that books are an educational, a social, a cultural necessity, and that if the primary upshot of ebook piracy is to get more people reading – by providing books to people who can’t afford or access them otherwise; by introducing new authors to people who would otherwise restrict their reading out of uncertainty; by granting greater access to the books we already own but can’t buy in legal digital form because of region restrictions – then, as with the example of welfare, I’m quite willing to risk that the 10% of cheating, thieving assholes go unpunished in order that the other 90% actually get to read.

But maybe that’s just me.

Oh noes – politicians have been caught Twittering ‘like bored schoolchildren’ throughout an address to Congress! Damn those evil youths and their seductive brainwasters for corrupting the attention of America’s finest! Calamity! Outrage! Way to lay it on thick, Dana Milbank: truly, anyone caught interacting with technology in such a vile fashion must belong to ‘ a support group for adults with attention deficit disorder,’ thereby invalidating the notion of ‘a new age of transparency’ in favour of ‘Twittering while Rome burns.’  

Or, like, not.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d much prefer our (or rather, America’s) politicans payed attention. That is the ideal scenario. But they are still human, and humans – funnily enough – get bored at inappropriate moments. Our brains are cluttered with odd little thoughts and observations crying to get out. We’re a social species. We can’t help ourselves. Thus, while Twitter undeniably constitutes a newfangled outlet for such internal deviance, it is not the source, and scary though we might find the thought, politicians have always been like this: picking their nose in the gallery, wondering what’s on TV tonight, wishing a hated opponent would get off the podium, watching the clock, perving on their colleagues and generally – gasp! – acting like people.

When, exactly, did we start expecting otherwise normal human beings to stop being human just because the cameras (or teh internets) were rolling? Here’s a wacky theory: maybe the only reason we’ve maintained this crazy notion of political pomp and dignity for so long is because we’ve had no intimate windows into the mindset of our leaders. And in this instance, it’s worth remembering that windows work both ways: just as we can now poke our heads in, metaphorically speaking, so can those on the inside stick an arm out and wave.

So, Mr Milbank, repeat after me: Technology Is My Friend. By the grace of what other agency does your irksome perspective reach Melbourne from Washington with such speed? Through what other medium do I now type this reply? Each new invention changes us, yes, but in most respects, it must first build on what is already there, be it a hitherto unrealised ideal, an untapped market, or the even unvoiced musings of our leaders. If, as per your inflationary grumblings, this new global digital society of ours consitutes a kind of Rome, it doesn’t belong to Nero, but to Augustus.

Because while Nero merely fiddled, Augustus found a world of brick and left it clad in marble.

Since discovering it yesterday, I’ve been ceaselessly intrigued by Authonomy, an online forum created by HarperCollins. According to boingboing, it’s been up and running since September ’08, and is currently still in beta; nonetheless, there are already hundreds of contributors. The premise is simple: aspiring writers upload their unpublished novels using a shiny new interface, tag the relevant genre/s, and let other site members promote their favourite books. Despite the sophistication of the website, the mechanism itself is nothing new; the real innovation is in holding a monthly top ten, wherein HarperCollins editors will read, comment on and – potentially – publish those books which get the most votes. They’ll also be looking for trendspotters: site members who consistently reccommend good or popular books ahead of the curve, thus strengthening the incentive for writers to spruik work other than their own. In the words of its creators, it’s a search for new talent: filtering the dross through howevermany pairs of eyes and seeing what floats to the top.

Conceptually, it’s a brilliant embodiment of killing two birds with one stone. For the publisher, it decreases the dreaded slushpile: by providing a sanctioned, online outlet for new submissions, they will likely cut down on receipt of unsolicited hardcopy, while simultaneously gaining a free, enthusiastic, slushpile-reading committee. For the aspiring authors, there is a drastically increased chance of receiving feedback or being published, plus a chance to participate in what is, essentially, a mammoth (but extremely well-executed) writing group. And for passive members like myself, there’s the fun of talent-trawling: reading free books, picking the best and pimping them.

Authonomy is such a deviously simple, workable, natural idea that I’m stunned nobody thought of it before; and if HarperCollins really does sign some new talent this way, it could revolutionise the publishing industry, particularly if other companies pick up on the concept. Especially for smaller, more specialised houses, it could be a fantastic way to expand the business without excessive outlay; and thinking of the local Australian market, where there are few dedicated genre publishers, it could help to demonstrate both the presence of new writers and a viable audience for their work. Even more importantly, allowing digital submission erases the barrier of distance: whereas UK-based writers might baulk at submitting hardcopy to a New York firm, there can be no such qualms about uploading to an internationally accessible website run by an internationally recognised publisher.

One of the biggest hindrances as a writer is the dearth of authoritative feedback: without an agent (or even with), it’s frequently impossible to learn why a manuscript was rejected by a given editor, or what might be done to improve it. While amateur criticism is sometimes unhelpful, creating a resource for such is nonetheless positive, especially where levened by the potential for more measured, professional commentary with an eye to commercial success.

In short, I’m excited by Authonomy and what it might achieve – and if its expanding membership is anything to go by, I’m not the only one.

As a child, there are few things more heady than playing without adult supervision, and few things more crucial to healthy development. It’s a big part of learning to gauge social situations: particularly, the idea that it’s often necessary to behave differently depending on the circumstances. Looked at purely in terms of running around or socialising while adults read in the next room, it’s a sensible – even obvious – assumption. Kids need to be on their own. Should they start picking up bad habits – for instance, acting like hoydens all the time – then parents must rightly step in and explain why this behaviour is inappropriate. The very last resort is banning play itself, or forbidding a child to see certain friends, not just because it’s an extreme measure, but because of the difficulties in enforcing it. 

Now, however, the rise in digital gamespaces has created a phenomenon that many parents are yet to recognise as significant: adolescent participation in virtual and online communities. Time was, punishing bad behaviour by revoking a child’s TV, computer, phone or game-playing privileges was a parental standard: the ace up the adult sleeve. But with so many kids and teenagers relying heavily on new technology for social interaction, blacklisting internet use or taking away consoles has become the equivalent of prohibiting contact with friends. Unintentionally, some parents are upgrading their retaliatory arsenal from standard bombs to nuclear, and are therefore miffed and furious by turns when their child’s reaction seems over the top. The worst-case scenario is, undoubtably, that of Brandon Crisp, a 15-year-old who ran away after being banned from playing X-Box and was later found dead. His father, who’d imposed the ban, is understandably grieved by the tragedy, but has also said that he now understands his son’s reaction.

“I just took away his identity, so I can understand why he got mad and took off. Before, I couldn’t understand why he was taking off for taking his game away,” he said.

It’s a notably drastic example, but one which does, perhaps, exemplify the problem: how do parents withold technological privilege now without simultaneously removing avenues of social contact? It’s a tough question, and one I don’t have an answer to, despite being sympathetic to both positions. It is also, however, something I’ve experienced myself.

When I was about twelve or so, my mother took me to coffee with one of her friends. This friend had a daughter, Michelle, who, apart from being my age, was a born technology geek, and in this respect utterly dissimilar to her mother. The women chatted while I drank my hot chocolate; and then, quite suddenly, my mother’s friend mentioned how angry and irrational Michelle had been acting ever since she banned her from using the internet. Curious, I asked why she’d banned her; the friend replied that Michelle had been leaving a program open that used up their bandwidth. After a short discussion, it became apparent that the program in question was Kazaa, a two-way music download site of the old, pre-iTunes-and-collapse-of-Napster ouevre, and that the bandwidth was being used up because Michelle was allowing other users to download songs from her.

‘So why not just say she can’t use the site?’ I asked, puzzled and a little indignant on Michelle’s behalf. ‘Or that she can’t let other people download songs? Because taking away the internet, I mean, that’s a big thing. That means she can’t check her email, or chat to friends – ‘ both crucial when we were twelve – ‘or anything like that. It’s a big punishment.’ I tried very hard to stress this.

My mother’s friend frowned, shrugged and waved a hand.

‘Oh, but I don’t care about any of that,’ she said, and promptly changed the subject.

In the scheme of things, it wasn’t a big incident, but the injustice of it frustrated me for some time afterwards. The punishment was grossly disproportionate to the crime, and what was worse, Michelle’s mother didn’t seem to care, even after it was explained and even though it explained her daughter’s behaviour. To her, the importance of chat and internet were nil, and so removing them oughtn’t have been a problem: my protest (and, presumably, Michelle’s) was just another sign of unwarranted complaint. Now, of course, I’m free to use teh interwebnologies as I please; Kazaa is long since gone, and I haven’t used Trillian for years. But it makes me wonder: when I have kids of my own, will I understand what’s important to them?

And, more importantly, will I be willing to learn?