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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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Stories and Uncertainty

Humans are story telling creatures. We are adapted to look for patterns and this can play out in our stories about ourselves and how we see the world. There’s no evidence to suggest our propensity to see patterns in randomness is the grounding for our being creatures who search for meaning but what is meaning except a pattern which we can articulate and whose framework we can place ourselves within.

The last few weeks at work have seen many, many high level discussions about the future. Or THE FUTURE if you prefer. Which isn’t that different to normal. When we do deals, when we’re planning strategy across the UK, Europe, APAC and the US we spend a lot of time on these questions.

However, right now there is no narrative we can construct which makes sense. Everything is fraught with problems. Every strategy governments and (more relevant for me, companies) come up with can be picked apart.

We invest on the basis of stories which make sense when picked apart. There will be maths, rigour etc. But in the end they serve to tell a coherent narrative upon which we will make decisions.

Where our stories fail we experience crisis. At least in my experience. Where our stories won’t explain we flail. Sometimes we look for new stories but what I observe most often is fragmentation. We look for elements and fractions which confirm the interpretation of the world we want to be true. It is not a moral failing even if it is a failing of mindful discipline. We all struggle with this. Here’s my own case – when CV-19 first hit in Jan, I didn’t believe it would strike us as it has done. H1N1, the last global pandemic hit 100m infections and about 1m dead. It hadn’t seen anything like the kind of response we’re talking about now. We’re at 200,000 infections globally right now…compared to 100,000,000 for H1N1. So I just couldn’t see how the two had any kind of equivalence. And I said so quite loudly – partly, especially into Feb, there was a decent amount of hysteria already festering around the edges of the markets.

However, my story was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong a second time – which is I couldn’t conceive of us shutting ourselves away for what is (people are saying) likely to be months not weeks. Certainly we have been given no end date.

Yet all of this hasn’t stopped people from all walks complaining bitterly and loudly that those trying to grapple with these decisions have got it wrong every step of the way. There may well be some element of that criticism that’s correct. Yet correct in what sense? Do we want to minimise deaths? Of course! Do we want to make sure we don’t cripple the economy? Of course! Do we want to ensure we come through this outbreak more resilient should it resurge? Of course! Can we do all three? Nobody knows. And no one has a mandate to say which combination of those three priorities is the preferred one and the one we’re going to aim for. There is no story here which is nuanced enough to allow for the deeply complex uncertainties to be expressed in a simple linear narrative. Hence we struggle to articulate both the issues and our fears. You could even argue that our inability to articulate the issues exacerbates our sense of anxiety. It’s certainly led to me reading more about the subject (even if much of that material turns out to be complete guff).

Then there are those who deliberately peddle nonsense like the fake cases of people taking ibuprofen on Cork who died from complications with CV-19. Or whatever version you came across. A set of falsehoods so egregious even the BBC was moved to write an article discussing the case.

Some smart arse will reply ‘but the chief medical officer said…’. Yes they said ‘don’t use it if it’s dangerous for you. Which is freaking common sense and, perhaps surprisingly, applied before CV-19. So don’t @ me with your counterfactuals.

(ed: he’s taken his pills, rant over)

What’s the point of this post? A couple of things drove me to write it.

First – we are in a time when stories about the way the world works are not going to serve us. Venal corporations vs. valiant individuals will not help. Corrupt government vs. the populace won’t help. Callous youth against vulnerable boomers won’t help. We have to do better.

We have to tell a different story – one where we don’t know the end, where we don’t know the rules of the story and are actual participants rather than the writers of it, rather than observers who’ve divined how it’s going to end and are on the ‘right side’.

I believe this can make us kinder – because to exist in this kind of story is to admit we don’t know and if we don’t know, the kind of empathy we’d like to have expressed towards us should also allow us to express empathy to others. Because we’re all in the same boat.

Second. We have to accept (if not embrace) the uncertainty inherent in our situation. We have to be wary of any stories right now which purport to tell us how the world is, how it’s working and how it’s going to turn out. I’m not proposing ignoring well researched evidence and science. What I’m saying is we have to simply gather than information and refuse to draw conclusions because the period of time in which the dataset’s being written is weeks and months, not the 24 hour news cycle. I recognise how stressful this is.

There’s an old maxim for people floating on the stock exchange – don’t look at the prices. Buffet said the same to investors – don’t second guess, don’t even check. Just invest and go away until such time as you need the money.

It applies here – constant reviewing of the information won’t yield insight. Especially when we’re dealing with radical uncertainty. Imagine one of those old war games on consoles/PCs such as Command & Conquer. Right now we’re effectively still in the home base and the fog of war covers the whole map – looking again and again at the map won’t help us because we can’t see the critical information needed to arrive at meaningful conclusions. We have no choice but to accept we are living with uncertainty. We still have to make decisions. Which is a right pain – but you know what? It’s highly unlikely we’ll make them any less badly than normal – because most of us are bad at making decisions anyway – factoring in the wrong considerations, biases and emotions as a matter of course.

All of this is a long way of saying – there are a lot of pressures out there right now which can be interpreted as telling us to act selfishly, to see others as ripe for ridicule and disdain and constant criticism. However, this is the perfect time to remind ourselves we live in stories of the everyday where none of us can be certain and hence all of us can be kind.

The Sinking of Skywalker

This post contains ALL THE SPOILERS

DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM

So. I’ve seen it. I preface the below with the following disclaimer: it is just a film. It is entertainment and there are far more serious issues in the world, and in my country, right now.

However…it is also a presentation of how our culture sees itself. There’s reams of academic literature exploring how presentation of popular culture shows a mirror on the concerns and occupations of the people participating. And, in case the reaction to The Last Jedi hadn’t made you aware, Star Wars has become a battle ground between a certain class of those who think the world should serve them, reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and exclude those not like them and those who think, basically, the opposite.

I’m in the latter camp – I’m looking for representation. I’m looking for challenge, for change and for more than nostalgia for a type of society that has NEVER existed except in the myths told by the powerful to justify their actions.

Ok. If you’ve made it this far I’m ready to actually start. I’m going to list a few things I like about the film and then I’m going to really let go.

First. I like Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. They are both fantastic in all three films. The commit to the material and both of them manage to deliver nuanced and emotional content. I could especially watch Driver all day long.

I also think John Boyega is great.

I think Chewie’s response to Leia’s death is the only really genuine emotional point in the film. Nothing else comes close.

And as ever, Hamill comes to the screen with an ironic but authentic presence. I feel like we truly missed a great actor of his generation. It helps that he appears to be a genuinely cracking human being as well.

The problems, for me, start with the opening crawl. The film simply announces the Emperor is back. No explanation. No sense of why or how anyone could have not foreseen this. No sense of being able to trace his signal back. Instead we have a preamble focussing on Kylo Ren rather than the heroes (and that’s a foreshadowing if ever there was one) who basically montages his way to secret hideout and then discovers all the secrets. I mean…really? And those secrets completely change everything he previously thought…well those convictions were easy to dismiss.

Then we have a completely pointless ‘spy’ narrative. It appears only to serve to establish there’s no time to save the galaxy from this unspecified threat (which by the way the spy can’t know about yet, since Ren himself also doesn’t know the details at this point). But hey, who needs continuity???

And here we see hyperspace travel, which has been clearly held up as taking hours, days or weeks across the entire canon now being completely discarded. (let’s not even talk about tie fighters which can hyperspace despite NEVER having been able to do this before).

By this point and I’ve already got questions…who saved Palpatine and took him half way across the galaxy to a safe space where snowflakes couldn’t get at him? Who fed him, watered him and doused him with anti-cancer drugs after they found him in a nuclear fusion reactor…?

How did his face not get BURNT OFF by the heat of an exploding nuclear reaction??? How did he create Snoke? We never find out. How did he become EVERY VOICE YOU’VE EVER HEARD?

I mean. Well I got nothing here. Because just then a thousand star destroyers rise up out of the mud…just like that. Who’s crewing them? Who’s feeding that crew? Who’s doing all of this???

It turns out Hux is the spy…the basic ruler of the first order. The chap who masterminded StarKiller base. Selling HIMSELF out. Why? Because like a five year old who’s had his candy taken away ‘I want the other kid to lose’. How this guy ever charmed his way to ruling a galaxy spanning super advanced nation of neo-nazis is anyone’s guess at this point. But it’s ok, because he has an ornate wooden walking stick in his quarters for the very day he gets shot in the leg…thank goodness. He obviously was a great Cub Scout.

So the resistance still has an unspecified number of ships (as does Ren, even after their disastrous losses in TLJ). So they just fly about wherever and whenever. The resistance generals leave the resistance behind instead of leading them and head off from one frolick to another without any clue what they’re doing excepting chasing down one macguffin after another. And it doesn’t matter when they get destroyed because it turns out there’s always another one. Oh, and I love that the Sith Wayfinder can be crushed by a human hand but can survive an inferno which melts a Tie Fighter…which was just so handily parked exactly where a random and ranging melee brawl happens to finish…

Ren gets his gang of Incels together and with a chimpanzee they spend an unnecessarily long time reforging his helmet. Indeed the chimpanzee probably has a more meaningful role than Rose, Finn’s love interest from TLJ and the moral heart of that film. But of course, certain white men hated her so she got sidelined and her emotional connection to the film severed. These Knights of Ren aren’t Sith, they aren’t jedi gone bad and don’t have anything to recommend them except old fashioned medieval melee weapons…which you can tell isn’t going to end well for them. And hey, it doesn’t, but who cares because by the end of the film they’ve done precisely NOTHING. Even Rey has to fight people with lasers…these guys have sharps…which are nasty except when pitted against LASERS! A pathetic waste.

So Rey’s been trained. Except she hasn’t passed some test we’re not really sure about because it’s not made clear. She’s almost all powerful and can teleport items across the entire galaxy. And she has powers other jedi considered rare (or were previously completely unseen). Now, I don’t object to this except they’re not consistent and only appear to get her out of being stuck. Like force memories (from Fallen Order). No prior use but all of a sudden she’s all about them.

And apparently her parents were important. Now this is where I really lose my shit. One of the things I loved about the Last Jedi was its message we are all capable of changing the world. That there is no divine right of kings, no special people who are special because of their blood, or their wealth or their parents. Instead we’re brought right back to, oh yes, the concept of there’s a specially powerful aristocracy and the rest of us should just shut up and listen and do what they say. And the entire argument between Sith and Jedi becomes an argument between two sides of the same group -those who are divinely chosen. It’s profoundly anti-democratic and deeply depressing that this is the message we’re choosing to privilege. It also suggest the nastiness of caste systems and is an argument that’s been used to justify slavery, racism, sexism and on and on across human history. You’d think we’d be able to jettison it – especially when TLJ did exactly that.

By the way…who’s flying the star destroyers? (I know, I’ve already asked but really, have you got an answer?)

Then there’s the fleet that arrives out of nowhere. It looks spectacular but…we’re told explicitly the hyperspace lanes are blocked…we’re also told no one came before. This is an important point. Except one ship disappears off and brings the entirety of the galaxy’s civilian population to fight the fascists (which is great btw!). How did they unblock the spacelanes? How did they convince people who, previously, had stayed the hell away? There’s no more hope now than earlier…so what changed their mind? Why weren’t the heroes doing this bit? Scouts could have been sent to…you know…SCOUT. The heroes and leaders could have been…oh, I don’t know…leading?

I feel sorry for Oscar Isaac. Poe is charming and dashing but clearly emotionally stunted because he learned this great lesson in TLJ and the immediately forgets it all over again and gets most of his mates killed doing exactly what he learned not to do the movie before.

By the way…when you need to insert into the script lines like ‘but that’s impossible’ not once but like three times? You’ve jumped the freaking shark, come back and given it a hotdog for being a good boy and then jumped it again and you’re so embarrassed by this you even confess it to the audience.

C3PO – I mean you sacrificed everything for this plot only to be brought back from the ‘dead’ just like that. Chewie…we thought you too were sacrificed to show Rey’s power and the conflict in her…only for you too to be still alive.

And Harrison Ford…I mean…were you a force ghost? An ordinary ghost? A memory? A hallucination? I mean…what? Was Ren actually mentally ill and the film simply crassly uses that to change Ren’s thinking?

Ren…you wanted to kill the old…and then you didn’t. For no reason except you discovered Rey was a Palpatine…which makes no sense. Much like the rest of the film, but hey. I like your character. I like your neo nazist portrayal, I like how it meant you could have been a proper bad guy. I hate how they made you back into a child doing someone else’s bidding. Oh, you have a plan? No you don’t because the PLOT says otherwise. What you have is a suddenly sexual crush on Rey who sees you like the boy next door and if only you become that boy next door you can be the good guy. After killing millions there’ll be no consequences for you and you’ll get the girl. Good old white boys will be boys after all.

And Poor Finn. You loved Rose. Or at least she loved you. But there’s no room for her anymore and even if you also love Poe, we can’t let that happen between two main characters can we??? Oh no, keep the gay stuff for two minor unnamed characters who get to kiss at the end. Argh! So Finn has no story. No arc. No meaning. Except hey, what’s this? Other POC who were stormtroopers too..probably slaves? yes, let’s not use that word but let’s heavily imply it. Then let’s only have relationships between people of the same colour – because white men complained about mixing of races on twitter. And let’s make this a slave rebellion on horses! Woo! Oh…wait. No. let’s not do that.

And, you know, after telling the audience for 8 films and an entire canon that it takes huge effort and a moon-sized base to create a planet destroying laser…let’s just tack one onto every spaceship the bad guys own…no need to supply chains, no need for ANY resources because we have the emperor in our back pocket and he can shoot lightening into space and only hit his enemies! In fact, who needs spaceships at all…apparently he doesn’t (he even says this) which dies beg the question…why have them at all you numbnutz?

And oh dear me…she did have important parents? And she’s not angry at them? And Palpatine didn’t have control over them? The emperor who says, at every fricking opportunity, this is just as I planned? Pretty poor planning/management skills there old Palps. You might need to watch a couple of TED talks mate, get a grip on family planning and strategic thinking.

It also entirely undermines Rey’s emotional journey – she’s no longer struggling with moral choices – she’s simply obeying her blood…more divine right moral absolution. It wasn’t me and even if it was, God said I could do it and who are you to question me?

I actually like the swapping of lightsabers. I liked the confrontation between Rey and Palpatine. I liked Chewie. I liked a whole bunch of moments in this mess. And it looked beautiful (although TFA and TLJ had more standout compositions) and the soundscape was great.

The film offers no reasons for many of the characters’ choices. No reason for Ren to change his mind, no reason for Lando to actually help, no reason for why Luke comes along and says ‘hey, all the stuff I learned in the last movie, when Yoda finished my training…it was all ponk. I was just wrong. Ignore me!’ No reason for Finn and Rose to not be together, no reason for why Poe was a spice smuggler or why he left, no reason offered for why Luke was looking for the Sith homeworld, no reason for why the rest of the galaxy decided now was the time to pitch up and help (when the enemy fleet is a hundred times bigger than the last time), no reason for Dominic Monaghan, no reason for why R2-D2 is almost entirely absent from the film.

BB8 is irrelevant and his hairdryer friend operates purely as a plot delivery mechanism.

I’d love to say this is lazy writing and some of it surely is. But I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s design by twitter and reddit. I think it’s design by reference to what the alt-right want in their films. Less non-whites, less mixed relationships, more white guys being the saviour, more white guys full stop. More mavericks, less cooperation and less community making the difference. I mean, it’s hard not to read into the people turning up to destroy the fleet as being anything other than a militia…so we have a defence of the 2nd amendment right there (another preoccupation of the alt-right checked off).

I apologise this is garbled. so a summary to finish.

  1. This film destroys all the good work of TLJ in taking Star Wars in new directions
  2. Even if you hate TLJ, it also completely ignores the universe set up over the last 40 years
  3. It has no character development worth a damn since there are no sacrifices by any major characters. Even Ren is redeemed and gets off without having to face the consequences of his actions.
  4. Who’s flying the frickin star destroyers???
  5. It makes the universe others have spent so long making feel real feel like a toybox with a kid simply saying ‘and then this happens and then this happens’. A crushing of the narrative rules.
  6. Characters are safe from harm because of plot armour. They’re also safe from thinking because of plot requirements.
  7. Worst of all, the above combines to make a chronically dull film which, although it’s clear it doesn’t like fascism, accommodates it in Kylo Ren and has no answers to the questions posed by evil. To be honest, it’s not even clear why Rey dies after her confrontation with Palpatine except it’s narratively expedient.

In the end it’s just a film. But my kids watch it and see the kind of world they think might be possible politically through stuff like this. To me its messages are retrograde and need to be rejected and to make it worse? It’s boring and meaningless with no consequences. It might be nostalgic crack for a certain demographic but the rest of us are left looking at it and shaking our heads as we move off to find content which actually interests and represents us

Do you like losing?

No one likes to lose.

Except…that’s not true is it?

We play games like Lost Souls, where the point is to win but only through grinding loss. We read grimdark in massive numbers where the hero isn’t and no one really wins; traumatised survival really being the best outcome.

In the UK, at least, we love the heroic failure so much there are even books about them that we cherish as national icons.

Except most of that isn’t really failure, not in the immanent, personal sense. Many people (me included) find games where repeated failure is the aim to be off putting. Most of us avoid conflict (if we’re lucky enough to live in stable societies where such a thing can be done). We avoid quitting jobs because of the risk, we worry about doing anything where we might not be great immediately.

Indeed, in many forms of fiction, failure is symptomatic of moral weakness or failure. Often bad guys are flawed in precisely this way – they have failed at something crucial and now are bad as a direct response to that failure.

Perhaps worse still – in real life, although we say we want authenticity, we want leaders who take risks…well we turn on them pretty quickly when they fail to deliver. Consider how so many people turned on Obama because he couldn’t deliver on what they expected from him. (Now you may say it was poor expectation management, but really? Are people so infantile that they believed the extraordinarily complex process of government could deliver whatever baggage they put onto Obama?)

Along with everything else I do, I play and crew a couple of LARPs. I do it because I i) love stories, ii) love hitting other nerds in the face and iii) get to meet a huge bunch of wonderful, kind and funny people in a field with booze and fancy dress.

We had a big battle at one of these over the summer where the players lost the battle in record time. Now, I’m not that interested in discussing here why that was. What I want to talk about is how we respond compared to how we say we respond.

Overall the response was positive – the system is one where if you get it wrong, well there’s some hand holding but not a lot. As far as I’m concerned, the players got it about as wrong as humanly possible.

The aftermath is where I thought it got interesting as it was, for me, like someone had put together a very specific social experiment all for me to observe. I saw all the classic forms of response to failure.

  • People denied it was a failure (the we meant to do it scenario)
  • People denied it was their fault (the it wasn’t my fault scenario, if I’d been in charge, it would have been different!)
  • People denied it was anyone’s fault (the it’s an accident scenario)
  • People blamed others (the It was your fault)
  • People blamed the system (The we were powerless! scenario)
  • People said it was fixed (The ‘we were always going to lose’ scenario alongside the ‘the others cheated’ scenario)

After the initial reactions bubbles took effect where small circles of people were able to claim that ‘lots of people’ agreed with them. Which is another classic case of self-reinforcing socialisation of ideas.

The leaders in that group did not publicly apologise for their role in the debacle, nor did there appear to be much reflection on how they got it wrong…except the next battle evidenced such clear learning that they came in and smashed it out of the park.

Now I wasn’t charged with responding to much of this – to be honest I do it in more challenging contexts (ie where actual money and lives are affected) in real life, so that’s fine by me, but watching the procession was no different to watching people process grief – which is fine, because that’s exactly what losing provokes in us. That dissonance between the world turning out one way and what we expect it to do when we consider that we’re in control.

I was considering how this intersects with real life and why it provoked such a storm of people responding in a classic instinctive sense and it occurred to me, in proper pop-science fashion, that we spend most of our real lives avoiding failure at all costs. I don’t mean that we spend most of our lives succeeding wildly so it’s not an issue. We’re a bit of a cross between Captain Kirk in Wrath of Kahn (who cheated the test designed to make him face failure) and Homer Simpson, who always (haplessly) chooses the easy way out.

We live in a safe culture, sure it has its grinding issues that we can discuss elsewhere, but  we’re bloody fortunate. However, extending Richard Sennett’s argument in The Corrosion of Character that proposes that work regulations are so tight that we no longer have to make moral choices on a day to day basis (which renders us weakly sensitive to them more generally), I wonder if the lack of living in circumstances where we can fail enough to learn how to innovate, respond to it and overcome such challenges does the same for us in terms of how we build the capacity to fail into our characters.

Think about when you failed last. I mean actually failed. Be it relationship, work, in being a good friend. Then think about the things you don’t do because you don’t want to look dumb, or foolish – like dancing, or speaking up in public, or in making yourself vulnerable. I think we actively choose not to fail in that we actively choose not to engage in activities where we think failure is an option.

No, I don’t like failing. I suspect you don’t either. But some failure is good for the soul because it stops us reacting to its inevitable arrival in other contexts like four year olds who think the world is targeting them personally and how dare it.

One of the things I love about the USA is its view of failure is very different. Even legally. Bankruptcy is just another process there – without moral implications of personal failure. It’s one reason why they’re better at taking innovation through from idea to actual business. Sure, it has its downsides as an attitude as well, but I wish we Brits were a bit braver in general.

For my fiction this means that I tend to want characters who are dislikable but go through some change, some failure that forces them to rethink who and what they are. It’s not always successful as many readers want characters who are more like them than not. I struggle with that; it’s not why I read fiction, personally. I want to meet alien ideas, people I detest but who are plausible and situations I’m not going to be in ever. Now, I don’t mind absurdist writing like most grimdark, or epic fantasy, where the characters operate in the far end of what, in our society, we’d designate as seriously mentally ill and in need to some immediate aid. But I prefer properly alien, properly other to the faux other of most fantasy and contemporary fiction.

I hope to write that too.

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