Monday, September 21, 2020

Control through triviality - III

Many authoritarian governments have found that providing online entertainment, especially if spiced up with porn keeps people distracted from politics. The Chinese initially cracked down on many porn sites but then changed course. Evgeny Morozov quotes a Chinese internet expert as saying that it was a strategic move by the government who probably reasoned that if internet users are kept busy watching porn, they will be less interested in politics. In Vietnam, censorship targets political users while leaving pornographic sites unblocked. The most popular blogger in Russia runs contests to find out the woman with the most beautiful breasts. 

In Belarus, some ISPs provide illegal music and movies free to their customers. The government can easily crack down on them but choose to look the other way. There was an experiment in which some computer users in democratic countries donated some bandwidth to people in countries where there is internet censorship using a special software so that the latter can read about the horrors happening in their countries. But it was found that people were more interested in looking at nude photographs of celebrities. Morozov writes in The Net Delusion, ' . . .we may well end up with an army of people who are free to connect, but all they want to connect to is potential lovers, pornography and celebrity gossip.'

A games developer, Ian Bogost showed how easy it is to seduce people into playing pointless games. Zynga, the company that created Farmville, claimed that its games were all about bringing friends closer together but  they carried a whiff of exploitation. FarmVille, Zynga's flagship franchise, encouraged people to publicize their every action on Facebook newsfeeds and pester their friends to join them. It kept players coming back by setting onerous time limits — return in 16 hours to harvest your rhubarb or your fields would be riddled with withered stalks. And it compelled them to pay money if they wanted to avoid mindless tasks or lengthy delays. Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker as a critique of Facebook games and was intended to embody the worst aspects of the modern gaming industry. 

Taking his cue from FarmVille, which encourages players to personalize their homestead with special crops and equipment, he drew a series of cows for his players to buy with virtual "mooney" or real money. The rules were simple to the point of absurdity. A leaderboard tracked the game's most prodigious clickers. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement — "I'm clicking a cow" — appeared on their Facebook newsfeed. As a play experience, it was nothing more than a collection of cheap ruses, blatantly designed to get players to keep coming back, exploit their friends, and part with their money. "I didn't set out to make it fun," Bogost says. "Players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do."

Bogost watched with surprise as a game that was supposed to be a satire became popular with many playing it seriously. Bogost kept his players hooked by introducing new cows for them to purchase using virtual currency that he called mooney or real money. The players were like rats in a Skinner box, hitting a button to get a jolt of reinforcement. Bogost coined the term Cowclickification, "the application of cow-clicking mechanics to non-cow-clicking applications." He said, '"Businesses can employ new cow-clicking mechanics such as clicking a cow to distract customers from the vapid pointlessness of their products and services." He created My First Cow Clicker, a "repetitive cow-clicking drill cleverly disguised as an entertaining videogame" that promised to teach kids "how to click a cow effectively" for the low, low price of $1.99. (He sold dozens of them.)

Finally Bogost decided to end the game and the image of a cow was replaced with an image of an empty patch of grass. Players can still click on the grass, still generate points for doing so, but there are no new cows to buy, no mooing to celebrate their action. But months after the end, Adam Scriven, an enthusiastic player from British Columbia, hasn't accepted that invitation. He is still clicking the space where his cow used to be. After the ending of the game, Bogost added a feature — a diamond cowbell, which could be earned by reaching 1 million clicks. It was intended as a joke; it would probably take 10 years of steady clicking to garner that many points. But Scriven says he might go for it. "It is very interesting, clicking nothing," Scriven says. "But then, we were clicking nothing the whole time. It just looked like we were clicking cows."

According to Zynga, Cow Clicker probably demonstrates the opposite of what it set out to prove and that social games, no matter how cynically designed, can still provide meaningful experiences. They still allow players to connect with one another and express themselves. Bogost replied in a blog essay called Shit Crayons in which he compared Cow Clicker players to the imprisoned Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, who composed poems from his cell using whatever writing material he could find. Bogost writes that social games are akin to the Nigerian prison, trapping players in a barren environment. The fact that people are able to exercise creativity despite the cruel limitations of the game — to craft crayons out of shit — is a sign of the indomitable human spirit but no reflection whatsoever on the merits of Cow Clicker. "Even if creativity comes from constraint, there's constraint and there's incarceration," he writes. "A despot in a sorcerer's hat does not deserve praise for inciting desperate resilience."

A psychologist said, "The scary thing about Cow Clicker is that it's just an incredibly clear Skinner box. What does that say about the human psyche and how easy it is to seduce us?" The World Health Organization is to include “gaming disorder”, the inability to stop gaming, into the International Classification of Diseases. As Tagore said, ‘The inertness of mind, which is the basis of all slavery, cannot be got rid of by a docile submission to being hoodwinked nor by going through the motions of a wound-up mechanical doll.’ 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Control through triviality - II

The Streisand Effect is a phenomenon in which attempting to suppress information attracts even more unwanted attention, thereby increasing its magnitude of exposure. It applies when one tries to hide something, or tries to defend oneself from seemingly menial remarks. If the original act had been ignored, it might have gone unnoticed. It is only after the attempt to hide, that the matter is blown out of proportion. In the Age of the Internet the Streisand effect has found a permanent place, thanks to people who underestimate it. The entire public itself tries to uncover something that someone doesn't want you to see.

Why this particular name? A photographer was asked to take photos of the California coastline for signs of coastal erosion. One of the thousands of photos happened to be the Malibu beach house of Barbara Streisand. Her lawyers found out about the photo and immediately sent a cease-and-desist letter to the respective office and ordered them to take the photo off their site. The site refused, and Barbara sued. The court dismissed the case, but the issue became instantly popular, and now everyone wanted to see the photograph. Before the case, the image had been downloaded from that site a mere six times. After the lawsuit the photograph was viewed by more than 420,000 visitors. 

Although the name the Streisand effect was given only in 2003, the psychological phenomenon has been known ever since the birth of mass communication. Indeed, one of the oldest known ones was when the Vatican banned Copernicus' book, 'De revolutionibus orbium coelestium' in 1616, and instantly a reprinted version was issued. Some people even try to manipulate the results of the Streisand effect, trying to achieve defamation by higher peers and the consequent attention. The internet has made it difficult to ban anything. But the more interesting phenomenon is that internet has made it unnecessary to ban  anything. 

It may be thought that the arrival of the internet has made it easier to organize a protest, learn about human rights violations of their own governments etc. But such people are in the minority. For the vast majority of Internet users increased access to information by itself may not always be liberating. In fact, it may only undermine their commitment to political dissent. The endless supply of online entertainment may be making people disengaged from political issues. Every new technology has empowered the strong against and the weak and inspite of all the propaganda about it being a democratizing tool, the internet may also be doing the same. 

The Net gives writers new tools but they may find that the public that they are trying to influence may be diverted by other attractions. The Web has simultaneously made it easy to write and easy for their efforts to be ignored. They can produce serious content but find that their target audience is seduced by cheap entertainment. The anaesthetizing effects of perpetual amusement on the Web and TV have the risk of making people blind to the vital issues of the day. The internet has increased the opportunities for the masses to find pleasing diversions to a level that no one had previously imagined possible.  

In The Net Delusion, Evegeny Morozov cites the effect of TV to explain why it may be na├»ve to think that the internet will boost political knowledge among people. He says that in the early days of TV, Americans were better informed politically, more likely to participate in politics and were less likely to be partisan than today. They watched political news not because they liked it but because the was nothing else to watch.   Then came cable TV and they got a wider choice. The result was that most people preferred to watch entertainment and gradually got disengaged from politics. The drive for entertainment outweighs the drive for political information. He quotes Phillip Roth writing in 1990 addressing Chechzs:

I can guarantee you that no defiant crowds will rally in Wenseslas Square to overthrow its tyranny nor will any playwrite-intellectual be elevated by the outraged masses to redeem the national soul from the fatuity into which this adversary reduces virtually all of human discourse. 

I am speaking about that trivializer of everything, commercial television - not a handful of channels of boring cliched television that nobody wants to watch because it is controlled by an oafish state censor, but a dozen or two channels of boring, cliched television that almost everybody watches all the time because it is entertaining.

He cites the case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR; 'Democratic' means it was communist) which could receive Western broadcasting for most of its existence. Thus one would tend to assume that among the communist countries, GDR would have had the most politically informed citizens. But a study revealed that this assumption was incorrect. GDR's geography is such that most of the country received Western signals except some counties along the Western border. This area that did not receive the signals was sarcastically referred to as 'The Valley of the Clueless'

It was found that people in GDR were more interested in watching soft news and entertainment than in political news. American shows like Dallas, Dynasty, Miami Vice and Sesame Street were very popular. When East Germans were asked what changes they would like to see in their country's TV programing, they chose more entertainment and less politics. The local communist officials in an East German town said that the people in their community were more satisfied with the regime since the introduction of West German TV. GDR's propaganda officials learned that they get the most viewership when they scheduled their propaganda programs when West German TV was running news programs because people found the latter uninteresting. 

Officials in GDR had conducted surveys among youth, workers, etc. to determine their attitudes. These survey results were declassified after German reunification. After studying the data, two researchers published their findings in a report titled 'Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Stabilizes Authoritarian Regimes'. They concluded that in the parts of the GDR where Western TV was available, the population was more supportive of the regime and in the parts where Western TV was not available ('the Valley of the Clueless'), the people were more critical of the regime. The researchers concluded that Western TV was 'the opium of the masses', a role that Marx had attributed to religion in capitalist societies. Morozov writes:

They described the process as 'escapism': 'West German Television allowed East Germans to vicariously escape life under communism at least for a couple of hours each night, making their lives more bearable and the East  German regime more tolerable . . . West German television exposure resulted in a net increase in regime support.'