Posts tagged cyberculture
Last night, I had a highly amusing but rigorous discussion in bed. No, I actually mean a discussion, not discussion as a euphamism for something else.
I brought up a simple-but-not question to the woman I’m currently dating: “Should we tell Facebook that we’re dating?”
Given that she is a digital media scholar as well, this question was taken and considered for all its ideological social and digital cultural implications.
Facebook, like MySpace or other social networking tools, is a major way in which plugged-in people communicate with their social worlds and represent themselves in those worlds. I have friends I haven’t seen in person for several years, but maintain a level of ambient awareness about their lives due to Facebook. Facebook isn’t simply a translated/re-mediated version of my life and what’s happening in that life, though. It’s a platform for communication, canvas for expression, digital cocktail party for socializing and networking, and much more. The current version of Facebook is a Twitter-inspired giant crawl of activity, commentary, content, and dialogue, a centralized feed displaying the minutia of Facebook life which each person’s filters have chosen to display.
There are many levels of invovlement in social networking sites such as Facebook. Some people eschew them, and their existences are sketched out only by others, tagged in photos with names that don’t lead anywhere (as opposed to leading to active profiles for the Facebook-inclined), and they have little-to-no input on how they are represented in the social network. Some have profiles but barely use them. Some represent their lives using Facebook as a tool for ambient awareness, but don’t actively conduct their lives on Facebook. Others spend many hours on Facebook, using the built-in chat tool for communication, stay abreast of feeds, spread media through its tools, organize parties with the Events function and much more.
So what happens when you get two people who are very active on Facebook but are also very aware of the ideological interpersonal social implications of telling the entirety of Facebook (depending on privacy settings) that they’re In A Relationship?
Clearly, there’s a lot of talking about it, first. Making a relationship ‘Facebook official’ as my signifigant other called it communicates a level of commitment and seriousness in the relationship. It’s a parallel rhetorical shift to switching between calling someone ‘the guy/girl I’m seeing’ to ‘my boy/girlfriend.’ The rhetoric you use to discuss a romantic partner signals to your friends what is going on and how serious something is. The range goes from ‘booty call’ through ‘friend with benefits’ to ‘person I’m seeing,’ ‘girlfriend/boyfriend’, ‘partner’, all the way to the legally-significant ‘spouse’ or ‘(domestic) partner’
The option exists to not bother saying anything about one’s relationship status on Facebook, and many people chose that option. But when you go to the relationship settings and signal that you’re in a relationship, you’re doing the equivalent of calling all your friends to tell them about your new girl/boyfriend, and through the link to the partner’s profile, providing an opportunity for your friends to investigate this new partner. Privacy settings allow a certain amount of filtration of content, but if my friends send friend requests to a new partner looking for information, then it becomes a question to my partner of whether they want to let someone past that gate.
And if you tell Facebook that you’re In A Relationship, then there’s the chance that at some point, the relationship may end and then someone has to tell Facebook that the relationship is over, which is effectively a second/echo breakup, with its own round of condolences, surprise, and the other social fallout.
Since Facebook is likely to be one of the primary tools that my current paramour and I use once our relationship becomes long-distance, the representation of our relationship on Facebook is increasingly important. As my girlfriend said, a plus of making our relationship Facebook official is that it makes it easier for us to assert the existence and make clear the presence of/commitment to a partner when we are apart. The friends she makes at her new university program who friend her on Facebook will see the ‘In a Relationship with <Person>’ on the feed, and have that important piece of information, along with various other facets of self-representation which she has carefully chosen for her profile. It’s the ‘Canadian Girlfriend‘ issue on the internet, and having the explicit hypertextual link between our profiles is a digital representation of the social link and a proof of existence/validity.
There are a variety of other ideological issues surrounding the way that romantic relationships are represented on Facebook. The options exist to speak of being in an open relationship, but there is not (currently) an option to list multiple relationships, which limits the accuracy and efficacy of Facebook for communicating the relationship status of those who practice polyamory.
For those of us who live our lives increasingly online, the way that tools like Facebook control the flow of information and what options we have for mediating and representing ourselves becomes increasingly important. The internet is in total a very democratic place, but in digital sites of high information traffic, the gatekeepers and architects of places like Facebook weild great social and organizational as well as economic power.
On the other hand, we have seen already a number of times where the populace of Facebook rises up to make a strong opinion about how the site conducts its business (the recent reversed change about Terms of Service and photos, for example).
So now, my girlfriend and I are Facebook Official, with all the amusement and social intertwining that comes along with it. I have the feeling there will be more blog posts prompted by the role of digital communication technologies in our ongoing relationship. Probably because we’ve already started talking about them.
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.
In the first few weeks of Dollhouse’s life, Whedon and others associated with the show said ‘wait for episode 6 — that’s when it gets really good.’
The reason given for the change in Ep. 6 is that FOX high-ups stopped having as much direct input as of the episode, which means that less was done to make the show fit the exec’s ideas of what the show was supposed to be. At least, this is the story that is told.
Whatever the reason, “Man on the Street,” “Echoes,” and “Needs” are stronger, tighter episodes, with more ongoing momentum and more of the humor we expect of a Joss Whedon property.
The themes of the show all ramp up in these episodes, most especially the degree to which the Actives/Dolls are treated as not-human.
Using a documentary frame that might have been useful to implement right away in the Pilot, the unseen documentarian/reporter gets a variety of responses and commentaries on the idea of a Dollhouse, ending with a validation of the redeemable qualities of the Dollhouse concept, which goes hand-in-hand with the engagement-of-the-week with Patton Oswald as the grieving widower who contracts an Active each year to be imprinted with the memories of his dead wife so that he can have the day/weekend with his wife he was denied by fate.
In “Needs,” Lawrence Dominic tells the powers that be in the Dollhouse to think of the Actives as pets rather than people. We also get several data points which suggest that manner in which the Actives come to the Dollhouse are less altruistic than Adelle DeWitt would have us/the Actives believe. If the rapist client is to be believed (not exactly a reliable witness), then Sierra was sent to the Dollhouse not because she wanted to be there, but because the client wanted to make her go away, or at least, her personality and memories. We see that Caroline coming to the Dollhouse was in no small part to learning too much about the Rossum Corporation, also known as the People In Charge, owning/sponsoring not just one, but twenty Dollhouses.
The plot, it thickens. In “Echoes,” Sam, the scientist who conspired to steal the memory-altering drug to sell to Rossum’s competitor is brought in by DeWitt and is given the same ‘offer’ as Caroline/Echo. This leads directly to a reading where the ‘offer’ given to would-be-Actives is far more morally compromised. November may have wanted to escape the grief of her dead daughter Katie, but for Caroline and Sam, going to the Dollhouse was much like Taking the Black in George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — the only option given to someone who would otherwise (likely) be killed.
When I saw the preview for “Needs” and then the one-line description of the episode following it, I was afraid that the plot was going to be completely irrelevant to the overall story, much the same concern that I’d had since the beginning of the show. If the events of the episode and each engagement are wiped away for the Actives, those episodic plots become even less relevant. But for “Needs,” where Echo, November, Sierra, and Victor have their original personalities (but not memories) restored as a therapeutic release valve, we learn not only that the whole plot was a deliberate control technique implemented by Dr. Saunders and Dollhouse executive staff, but also that Caroline was cagey enough to contact Agent Ballard, making the events of the episode moreover relevant to the overall story.
Ratings have not been good, but haven’t been so abyssmal as to immediately call for cancellation from FOX. FOX put at least enough confidence in the show to include shortened commercials, allowing episodes to clock in at around 50 minutes rather than 43-45. Its timeshifted (TiVo, DVR, etc.) numbers are good, however, which makes sense for a Friday night snow.
Time will tell whether the show will make it past one season and develop its threads, from a confrontation with Alpha to a possible composite event for Echo/Caroline. In the course of three episodes, Dollhouse has found a stronger voice and is a stronger show. If the first couple episodes didn’t quite do it for you, it might be worth your while to watch through to episode 6 and beyond.
Battlestar is back, and the WTF? factor is high. Here’s my breakdown of the episode, Spoilers Galore.
- Starbuck finds her own wreckage, with her fin #, and a corpse with her dog tags.
- The Final Four all have memories of living on Earth.
- Dee breaks down and commits suicide after one last happy memory with Lee.
- Tigh flashes back to Earth and sees Ellen, leading him to identify her as the Fifth Cylon.
- Earth is uninhabitable, and the remains discovered there are all genetically Cylon, accompanied by Centurion-style Cylons unlike those made by the humans of the 12 colonies or the Cylons they made.
1. This fits in with the fact that the Raptor that Starbuck arrived with after her dissapearance was fresh-off-the-line clean. This leads us to believe that Starbuck is a Cylon, or that she was somehow cloned by the Cylons, based off of the tissue samples they could have taken during the time she was held at the farm during “The Farm.” This is of course all interpolation. Leoban is shocked by the revelation, as it disproves/disagrees with his visions. His religious certainty is shaken, and the connection between him and Starbuck is now in question again.
2. From Tyroll walking the marketplace to Anders remembering playing “All Along the Watchtower,” this fits in line with my reading that that the humans of Earth are descended from the intermarriage of Cylons and humans who settle on Kobol and then leave for the thirteen colonies, as a part of the cycle (hence “all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again”) — This would allow for our civilization as is now to be a part of this cycle, between when the 13th tribe reaches Earth and when nuclear war destroys civilization on the planet.
The Final Five would then be the people who remember their previous incarnations elsewhen in the cycle, who are ‘Cylons’ in that they are the descendents of the re-connected species.
3. Dee’s suicide is used as the personalization of the collective despair expressed by the fleet after being let down by Earth. The people had held up hope for years and years, thinking ‘if we make it to Earth, it will all be ok.’ — and now that Earth has been removed as the great hope, people’s defenses are down and they’re crashing. Everyone of the survivors have PTSD, first from the destruction of the colonies, likely again from the events on New Caprica, and many things in between and after.
Dee had already lost her connection to Lee, before that she lost Billy, on top of the destruction of the colonies. She showed signs of breaking down throughout the episode, from the return trip from Earth to speaking to Hera to the musing about the picture from when she was five. And then, after one more happy moment with Lee, she takes her own life. This is the personalized version of the despair rampant throughout the fleet that we can see on Galactica with people breaking down in the hallways and from the graffiti.
4. Ellen was originally suspected as being a Cylon because of her mysterious appearance in the fleet, then discounted because she was too human-ly screwed up. And by the time she let Saul kill her as they departerd New Caprica, she had achieved a measure of redeption. And now by revealing her as the fifth Cylon (confirmed in the ‘next episode’ preview), they open up the question of another instance of her being alive or able to be activated. It also makes for more of a reason to stay on Earth for archaeological excavation to uncover more information and/or unlock more memories of the Four that remain.
5. This supports my ideas from 2, positing that once humans and Cylons intermingle, they will just distinct enough from humans now so as to register as ‘Cylon’ (ie. ‘Other’) — But I imagine that Hera and Nicholas, our two known human-Cylon crossbreeds would register as ‘Cylon’ under the same analyses.
Next episode — Vice President Zarek makes another power play, looking to divide the fleet. Meanwhile, people try to figure out what the hell to do now that Earth is no longer the safe End Point. Cavill’s fleet is still out there, meaning that there will be more chances for explosions and dogfights and such.
In case you haven’t noticed, geeks are big. Geek culture is big, geek subculture is ascendant, being mainstreamed and both ideologically and commercially incorporated by said mainstream. This trend is not entirely positive or negative, but is complicated, like most things.
For this post, I’m going to be looking at two new TV shows that debuted during the WGA-strike-shortened 2007-2008 broadcast year. Those shows are NBC’s Chuck and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. Both of these shows star characters who I call geeks, though in the shows, they are often known as nerds rather than/in addition to geeks.
First, let’s talk about geeks vs. nerds. I’ve been reading Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, which is a cultural studies history of the nerd. For me, Geek and Nerd are sometimes synonymous terms which refer to substantially overlapping subculture groups.
Here’s the important overlap — Geeks and nerds are conceived of as intellectually inclined, socially mal-adjusted individuals with intense commitment to non-majoritarian hobbies. Geeks are more associated with fandoms, computers, and media, wheras nerds are more associated with academia and scholarship.
Geeks were the kids who played Magic: the Gathering during lunch. Nerds were the ones with their noses who spent afternoons at Science Olympiad/Academic Decathalon. In high school, I was both a geek and a nerd, since I did all of the above. Geek has become the more dominant term, and is also the one with the greater cultural cache at the moment, given things like Best Buy’s Geek Squad, The CW’s Beauty and the Geek, and the like.
We’ll be bouncing back and forth between nerdiness and geekiness pretty quick here, which is why I wanted to define terms before diving in.
Chuck — Meet the Lovable Geek
In Chuck, the titular character is Charles Bartowski, the head nerd of the ‘Nerd Herd’ at a ‘Buy More’ — TV-world versions of the Geek Squad from Best Buy. Chuck was an engineering major at Stanford, but was expelled from the school due to the machinations of his former best-friend, Bryce Larkin (who also stole Chuck’s girlfriend away from him). Five years after his expulsion, we meet Chuck in his aimless path working in the Nerd Herd and hanging out with his even-geekier friend Morgan Grimes.
Chuck is depicted in an archetypal role I’ll call the Lovable Geek. Chuck is handsome in a goofy way (because everyone important on TV is pretty), kind and intelligent, but awkward around women who aren’t either related or under-age. For Chuck, being a geek is about being smart and technically adept and interested in things like Batman and Dune and Call of Duty 4. Morgan serves as a counter-point to Chuck, the Uber-Geek to Chuck’s Lovable Geek. In Morgan, we see what Chuck could/would be if he had less social acumen. Chuck is our protagonist geek because he is more accessible, less esoteric in his personality and interests.
The Big Bang Theory — Four Flavors of Geek
In The Big Bang Theory (shortened as TBBT) we find a similar configuration, but with more variants of the geek archetype. The characters in TBBT are more firmly nerds than Chuck and Morgan in Chuck, but they are also most certainly geeks (they all dress up as the Flash for a halloween party, they play Talisman and Halo, they geek out about acquiring the original time machine prop from the 1960 film The Time Machine. The four geek/nerds in TBBT are all faculty at and/or employed by Caltech.
The Lovable Geek lead in TBBT is physicist Leonard Hofstadder, PhD. Leonard is the most socially adept of the four, and frequently acts as the group’s interpreter to the rest of the world (most frequently the neighbor Penny, who Leonard has a crush on). Leonard and his roommate/friend Sheldon Cooper, PhD are the host for the geeky/nerdy antics of their circle of friends, including Howard Walowitz, an engineer and Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist.
Leonard’s romantic interest is Penny, a classically pretty bleach-blonde from the midwest who moves in next door to the geek/nerds. Penny works as a waitress while trying to break in to show business, and is completely ‘Normal.’ She’s Everywoman, frequently the straight woman to the geek’s jokes.
Sheldon Cooper is the Uber-Geek for the show, manifested more properly perhas as the Uber-Nerd. Sheldon has the highest IQ of the quartet of geniuses, and the complete social incompetance to go with it. Sheldon is an instance of the double-edge of genius that makes it harder to communicate effectively with the rest of the world. Sheldon was a child genius, and looks down his nose at those less intellectually capable than he. Sheldon is the standoffish insular and hermitish geek/nerd, who pulls Leonard away from the rest of the world and more into the realm of calculations and formula and speculation.
Howard Walowitz, the engineer, is the Annoyingly Extraverted Geek. Howard has no problem speaking to women, in fact he does so all the time, and thinks he’s awesome at it. However, his confidence comes off as arrogance and the obvious attempts lack any natural charm. Howard knows about charm and how it’s supposed to work, but is incapable of implementing the techniques he sees from others.
Rajesh Koothrappali is an Indian astrophysicist and the show’s Painfully Introverted Geek. Rajesh is incapable of speaking to women without either alcohol or experimental drugs. He represents the ethnic geek, those geeks from recently-developing countries like India, China, South Korea, etc. who are lumped in with the geek world.
Nerds and Race
At this point, I’ll interject with some of Nugent’s theory. Nugent constructs a continum of racism with regards to nerds/jocks and ethnic stereotypes. Nugent identifies a Animal<->Machine spectrum, where peoples of different types are conceived as being more animal-like or more machine-like. Caucasians get to be the ‘norm’ in the middle (yay racism!) with Jocks on the animal side of average and nerds on the machine side. Africans go further towards the ‘animal’ side due to racist conceptions of Africans and African-Americans as being more animalistic, associated with physical endeavors, etc. Asians are opposite Africans, placed on the scale towards the Machine side, due to racist conceptions of Asians as being less feeling, more mechanistic and associated with the technical.
Looking at the Flavors
In TBBT, Leonard and Sheldon are conceived as one pair of geek types: Leonard is capable of walking in the ‘average’ world, though his intelligence and geekiness sets him apart. Sheldon is mostly incapable of walking in the ‘average’ world, cleaving to the world of his hobbies and profession. Howard tries to court women but is unsuccessful because his confidence is untempered by empathic understanding/skill, while Raj is a ‘great listener’ (he once gets picked up by a girl at a party without ever talking — in bed, she praises his skills as a listener.) who has a mental/emotional block to actually conversing with women.
TBBT portrays four flavors of geek, and it’s no surprise who our romantic male lead is: Leonard makes efforts to reach out beyond the geek community in initially attempting to pursue Penny romantically, then inviting her into their social group when his initial efforts fail (and by fail, I mean fail to happen at all). Leonard is the geek interpreter, the middle ground between Penny’s Everywoman and Sheldon’s Uber-Geek. Normality and Geekdom seem to be portrayed as a continuum like Nugent’s Animal<->Machine spectrum. As Leonard reaches out towards Penny, his fellow geeks see him moving away from his geek roots. The show seems to be trying to work out the possibility of a geek dating a non-geek, reaching across the subcultural divide without losing your identity.
On the other hand, Chuck’s interest in Sarah Walker, the CIA agent assigned to protect him, is also a question of identity, but one determined by the Spy Show genre association of Chuck. Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, complicated by the fact that Chuck is interested in Sarah and suffers through the fake relationship that he wishes was real. This shows an uncomfortableness with the world of fantasy and make-believe–of course, for Chuck’s life, the make-pretend life is the boring cover and the real life is the dangerous adventure of a James Bond film directed by Judd Apatow. Chuck has to keep his spy identity secret from those he cares most about, his sister and his best friend. The secret makes him closer to Sarah, and if he were to leave the spy business, it’d mean leaving her as well.
Chuck, like TBBT tells a story of a geek coming out of his shell and becoming more confident. His sister hopes that Sarah will help Chuck regain his confidence and gain some momentum in life. The spy experience moves Chuck from the role of geek slacker and moving towards the geek-chic Analyst/Field Agent. It’s a kind of geek fantasy — we have to pretend we’re slackers to protect those we love because we’re actually so cool that it’s dangerous, our technical/cultural knowledge is actually highly important to the world.
California — The Land of Geeks
Another notable similarity between Chuck and The Big Bang Theory is that both shows take place in Southern California. This makes sense, as California hosts many of the centers of geekdom — San Diego ComicCon, Silicon Valley, Hollywood. Geeks are a predominatly urban and suburban subculture, thriving in places with a preponderance of hobby stores, technological infrastructure, and media entertainment. A number of other big cities are also geek-tacular, like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc.
Geeks and Cybercultural Technophobia
Why are more geeks being depicted in leading roles in mainstream TV/film? Here’s a possible reason that you might not have thought of. Geeks are the stand-in for the technocratic citizen of the possible future, a future where everyone is plugged-in, technically adept without trying, communicates predominantly through non-embodied media. Ambivalence about geeks is ambivalence about technology. Returning to Nugent’s Animal<->Machine continuum, geeks are cyborgs–with Bluetooth phones and PDA exo-cortexes, we’re becoming increasingly disentanglable from our technology, and not everyone is happy about this. Sometimes you want to turn off your phone, put up an away message on G-mail and just go run around in the park.
Leonard is negotiating between the romantic subsection of socialization, the scary embodied world of emotions aka ‘real life’ and the insular world of technology, science, and the mind. It’s a false Cartesian dualism, but it’s one that continues to be propagated and used as argument against cyberculture. There’s the fear that if we rely too much on machines, become too technically adept and cybercultural that we’ll lose our humanity, and so we use geeks as the testing grounds for those possible futures, trying to see how we can use the power of technology while remaining human. It’s cyborg identity theory with geeks as the metaphorical (and sometimes literal–I mean, Chuck has a super-computer in his brain — even though it’s all still a flesh-and-blood brain) cyborgs for society to work out its issues. And Leonard/Sheldon/Howard/Rajesh are test cases for the different ways that becoming technocrats/scientifically adept might affect our social/emotional capabilities.
Of course, I fall on the pro-geek side, but it’s interesting to see Geekdom not only being commoditized, but also used as a testing ground for us to try to resolve our ambivalent relationship with technological development and the growing role of mediated cyberculture.
In my introductory post,
Chad made a response with enough meat that I’ve decided to respond in a full post here.
I’d agree that technology has changed music distribution moreso than a lot of other things, but I think it’d be unwise to dismiss other changes due to technology.
The internet has created vast opportunities for niche communities to form around interests without specific geographic boundaries. Back in the day, fan culture was an underground circuit of mimeographed fan ‘zines and the conventions. Now, fan cultural activity happens substantially (mostly?) on the internet, with vast fan fiction archives, fan vidding and re-mix culture, live forum thread discussion during episodes, and more.
One of the main lines of argument in my hypothetical future dissertation will be to trace and explain how geekdom has come into the mainstream, from a marketing perspective, from a cultural diffusion standpoint, and more. Watching four year old kids come into the Build-a-Bear workshop and get really excited about making a monkey with a Spider-Man or a Batman bear makes it very clear that many superheroes have come around again in a fashion reminiscent of Superman’s overwhelming omnipresence during the 40s, the fact that comics used to have distributions that Marvel and DC would invade small 3rd world countries to have once more.
Yes, geek culture is being tapped as a source for commoditization, but the other side of commoditization is popularization and normalization. Looking at the new tv shows from last year, a substantial proportion were based on speculative fiction premises: Pushing Daisies, Bionic Woman, Chuck, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Journeyman, Reaper, plus a number of shows from years immediately previous. As CGI and special effects become more affordable, the dramatic and cinematic opportunities of genre television became much greater. Companies are making genre shows to make money, but they’re also making <i>genre</i> shows to make money, and as a result, we’re getting more and more genre material in prime-time, where it gets exposure, seeping into the collective unconscious and changes the definition of what fantasy and sci-fi mean in the broader culture. Sci-fi means Flash Gordon, but it also means Battlestar Galactica and LOST. Used to be that SF literature fans bought every book that was published in the genre just to have more <i>stuff</i>. Now, the glut of genre lit means that we get to pick and choose and be really picky. It’s all out there, with people who wouldn’t identify as geeks spending lots of time talking about Lord of the Rings as a way to really talk about how hot they think Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom are and how hot they’d be together.
Geekdom is gaining acceptance the way anything does — slowly and almost imperceptibly. Plus, making jillions of dollars goes a long way towards getting people to listen to what you say. Peter Jackson will be able to make whatever movies he wants for quite a while, until he completely fracks up and loses people a lot of money.
As for transmedia cultural diffusion — Of course not all Buffy fans will buy the board game and CCG and RPG, but a few will, and the kind of RPGing they do will be different than other modes of RPG-ing, mostly because it’ll probably look a lot like the freeform text-based RPGs people do online. And when the transmedia storytelling requires fans of a property/world to jump between media (and here’s the important part) and does so in a fashion that is both inviting and provides good materials in the multiple media but also makes it so that the different manifestations can stand on their own, then we’ll really see the media/cultural crossover. Things like the Matrix series did the transmedia bit, but not as effectively as they aught.
I’ve watched The Big Bang Theory and had a similar response at first, but re-evaluated my opinion when I decided that there is at least as much a loving treatment of geekdom as their is subtle condemnation. This acceptance comes later in the season, when Sheldon throws Penny’s critique of Nerdmabilia back in her face re: her Hello Kitty stuff, Beanie Babies, etc. And while most of the nerd leads are exaggerations of geek stereotypes, it’s a sit-com, so exaggeration of mockable traits is part and parcel with the genre. And at the show’s heart is the promise that love may be able to grow across the seemingly vast cultural divide represented by the hallway between Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment and Penny’s. And as much as the show makes fun of geekdom, it also makes fun out of geekdom. It’s not a paragon of positive representation of geek culture, but it is a representation of geeks as dramatic leads in their own right.
Geeks are still geeks, but many geeks are also the techno-shamans of our age, the early adopters of digital culture and exist in a feedback loop of SF literature and media going back and forth with scientific and technological development. Geeks may not be the 21st century Hollywood starlets, but they are making our computers, our blockbuster movies, and our bestselling novels. Geeks have made a space for themselves, partially out of being dragged in to be marketed and partially by claiming a space for themselves as the vanguard of digital cultural development.
Re-post review #3:
David J. Williams’ The Mirrored Heavens is 21st century, next-gen cyberpunk, a grim imagining of a possible future our current international climate could easily produce. Four separate but inter-reliant plotlines fire like lasers, closing and eventually colliding in a breathtaking finale. Twists and turns are matched with breakneck pacing as Williams catapults the reader ever forward, ever onward with the tale of US counter-intelligence agents Jason Marlowe and Claire Haskell, who are stuck in the middle of the most monumental events since the end of the second Cold War. The Phoenix Space Elevator is humanity’s greatest technological achievement, a display of unified American and Eurasian power. It also goes down in flames before the end of Act One, setting the whole novel (and the series) into motion as various special forces try to hunt down Autumn Rain, the mysterious terrorist cell which executed the seemingly impossible strike.
Williams’ Razors are the 22nd century descendants of the original cyberpunk hackers and netrunners, who operate in a completely realized second world, the Zone. Their counterparts and teammates are Mechs, cyberware-enhanced soldiers who use awesome battlesuits to play out explosive choreagraphies that would have Michael Bay and John Woo exchanging high-fives.
The first novel ends at a turning point that positions the reader ready to plummet headlong into the next chapter of the story, satisfied but yearning for more.
The Mirrored Heavens shows how the cyberpunk genre is a still-valid mode of speculation about our future, a potent warning against global proliferation of arms and consolidation of control. Most of all, it shows the disastrous possibilities which could spin out of a 21st-century Cold War, with the US set against superpowers in both Europe and Asia.
Disclaimer: David J. Williams was a classmate of mine at the 2007 Clarion West Writers Workshop. I consider him a good friend, which of course colors my opinion, though the book’s merits stand on their own.
Welcome to 21st Century Geeks, an academic blog focusing on geek cultures and media convergence.
Here are the stakes:
We are entering and/or are already in a golden age of geek culture. Geek movies continually rock the box offices (Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Transformers, Iron Man), video games have become an immensely profitable entertainment medium embraced by the mainstream, and techno-culture is in.
Fan culture has grown and diversified, and convergence media allows for consumers to become cultural producers with wide distribution of their works, with intensely complex and thought-out works that bring into question the validity of IP and cultural ownership which is very visibly bringing copyright and IP into question. Harry Potter slash-fiction may prove to be one of the primary factors that leads to the downfall of copyright and IP laws as we know them. People who grew up in slash-writing communities move into college and go to law school and become IP lawyers years down the road. Each generation re-works the social order in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to fit their generational worldview/zeitgeist.
When the Napster Generation/Gen X/Y/Insert Catchy Generational Label Here hits the age of being able to dictate policy on these matters, we very may well have a sea change on our hands. Music distribution is already changing, especially as stockholders check the numbers and move to handing over the reins to younger execs more in tune with Web 2.0 and other 21st century marketing/business models, where attention is the commodity to be cultivated by a company. In a world where you can watch the whole first season of the smash hit Heroes online and watch one add five times instead of ten adds five times, the advertising paradigm has to change. Combine that with the rise of DVD-sales and direct-to-DVD cultural properties and we’re already in a transition.
What does that have to do with geekdom, though? Well, if we look at things like the short-lived show Firefly which was re-lit for a feature film because of intense fan engagement and DVD sales, or the direct-to-DVD Hellboy and superhero films, we’re seeing that geek media is in the foreground of these transitions in marketing strategy and cultural production. Where geeks go, the technology follows. Or where the tech goes, the geeks follow. It’s a perpetuating cycle of technological advancement and commoditization of cultural production.
As geekdom continues its ascent and moves towards the mainstream, it’s also manifesting more and more distinct subcultural markers. T-Shirts seem to be the primary display of geek style, with obscure video-game references, coding jokes, and markers of affiliation with comic characters providing the canvas for geeks to display their subcultural affiliation. Recognizing and obscure t-shirt is one of the secret handshakes of geekdom. It’s one thing to compliment someone on a Greatest American Hero t-shirt, it’s another thing to identify the Blue Sun logo and greet a fellow Browncoat and reminisce over shared love of Firefly. Geek culture is being marketed top-down and bottom up, with Geek Magazine, Hot Topic’s t-shirt lines, and in situations like online dating, with www.geek2geek.com and www.sweetongeeks.com – where the early adopters of the internet, dissatisfied with the mainstream inclination of most online dating sites, have moved to create geek-friendly dating sites, where the ability to have an intense discussion about time-travel physics or partition a hard drive are the turn-ons, and Mac vs. Pc (with/without Linux) or X-Box 360 vs. PS3 vs. Nintendo Wii are sorting questions for potential partners.
Geek culture has long been decentralized, fractured but interconnected, with cultural properties bringing their fan bases across media, across subcultures. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer follow the tv show, then pick up the collectible card game and move into another geek subculture, then stop by the comic store every other week to buy the comics. Geeks move between the member subcultures of what I call the ‘geek subcultural complex’ – basically a bunch of overlapping subcultural groups that draw from similar sources and have developed interconnections while remaining sufficiently autonomous such that one can be a geek without necessarily participating in any one of the groups, as long as they participate in others.
A superhero comic reader who plays MMOs need not be a programmer or play Dungeons and Dragons to be a geek, but their D&D playing comrades are no less geeks for eschewing MMOs and not being able to tell Captain Marvel from Captain Mar-Vell. There are many ways to be a geek, and they feed into and out of one another. Convergence culture and transmedia storytelling (ala Henry Jenkins) means that these connections are being strengthened as they are commoditized, with IP crossing media with properties like the Matrix series, which had films, anime, video games (console and massive online), comic books, and more. A fan of a world/universe will follow that cultural property across platforms and into various groups, under the rubric of their own fandom, and thus, the groups cross-pollinate. Follow the money. Or, follow the fandoms. It’s another cycle, a feedback loop.
There is lots of geek culture out there. And lots of people talking about geeks. What I hope to facilitate with this community is a place for scholars of geek culture to meet, collaborate, and draw together disparate threads of geek studies as the subculture grows and changes in the age of digital convergence and massive wars over IP/DRM/revolutions in distribution and commercialization.