27 May 2017

No new ideas? The possibilities are endful...

Okay, so that title is a little inflammatory. Of course we have new ideas! What I am about to explore, though, is the realisation that we may be creating our own future inadvertently...

There is a scene, right towards the end of the film, Tomorrowland, where the protagonists learn that knowing that the world is going to end is subconsciously allowing that end to come about by affecting the actions of the population of the world. It was, at the time I viewed the movie, a deus ex machina plot device. I felt that the movie was okay but that this 'twist' came from nowhere and was resolved through some silly, emotionally manipulative contrivances. However, I've come to realise I was wrong:

Brad Bird* was right.

Throughout the era of multinational media there have always been trends in the production of media. Memes are the modern epistemological term for our transference of a trend - a non-biological means of evolving. However, as communication and perceived distance and time to communicate have shrunk the cultural effect of those memes has grow exponentially.

Consider the renaissance. That event began in Italy and grew to become (what we term) the early modern age. That took 200 years or more to go from inception to full-blown acceptance and modification of ideas in order to become the early modern age in terms of human conscious thought. In comparison, the cultural zeitgeists of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s have all become more and more short-lived. Looking at the interim period, towards the beginning of the industrial revolution, will also see similar shortenings of cultural changes - though on a longer scale. And, according to this theory, cultural changes occur on a longer timescale the further back we go. Which is kind of what we see...

What I'm getting to is that an idea is able to influence more people, more quickly and more thoroughly than ever before. Whilst that is good in many ways, there is also a counter force that works against this 'evolution' of thought. Mainly, the fact that humans generally become less receptive to new ideas as they age. And to prick the point of the needle: we are living longer than ever in recorded history.

The average age in developed nations has shot up dramatically. I'm not even going to source that - you go out and see that for yourselves, it is an established fact. We're getting to the point where the elderly population is beginning to outstrip the reproduction of new humans to support them and the social and corporate structures that were designed with the old 'survival rates' in mind are not coping with these aged nations very well. The social consequences are for a different post on a different blog (if I ran such a thing) but the memetic consequences of this new order are directly attributable to the current state of the media we produce.

We are dying.

The human race is in a downward spiral. You can argue all you want about whether it's true or not but if you don't believe it's true then you're wrong and you're probably part of the problem. 

If you believe it's true then you are also part of the problem.

You see, we crossed a rubicon some decades ago without realising it and, in the process - just like in Tomorrowland, have begun to engineer our own demise. You see, in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s writers wrote about positive tomorrows. People imagined a world without bounds and created content, media, stories about those (often ridiculous) imaginings. Even in the times before that, there were mixed views on how 'tomorrow' could turn out. In the 70s things started taking a turn for the more cynical and in the 80s full-blown cynicism - typified by the progression, reception and absorption of the Living dead series of films. Romero's 'masterpieces' can be seen in this light as the forerunner and pace-maker of the cultural evolution. Many critics will hail Dawn of the Dead as a masterpiece that dissects western consumerism with a deft hand but they miss the fact that this was the second step on the road to accepted nihilism. Now, zombies are the norm and they arrive in our conscious without any deeper meaning other than destruction and survival.

The young people who consumed the media of the 70s and 80s are the people who are in positions of power today. They have written manifestos, scripts, agreements and contracts - they are the primary architects of this world we live in. These are the people who are writing about survival against the odds. This is where the mass conception of the post apocalypse was conceived.

This is not to say that all people from these clades are uniform. This is certainly not the case of any era or generation. What is important is the recognition that there are trends within society that could be described as 'major' or 'minor'. We're talking about 'major' trends here.

In the ever-present backdrop of nuclear war, consumeristic cynicism and modern political apathy, the memes surrounding destruction and loss of structure expanded and evolved. Not only did these ideas supplant the positivism of the 50s and early 60s but they corrupted them in order to undermine their hold on human cultures. In spite of this, there were relative (as in time-wise) hold-outs like the 'throw-back' success: Star Wars in 1977, which harkened back to the 'golden age' of TV/cinema serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers of the 30s and 40s (symbols of hope in a desperate time).

George Lucas grew up in the latter period of the romantic futurism I outlined above; although George A. Romero also grew up in a similar time frame but had a drastically different childhood setting which may have led to their radically different outlooks on our culture.

Over time, those last few hold-outs became fewer and fewer: It is, without doubt, that the current 'mood' of media creators could be described as pessimistic.

It could be argued that in Japan, a highly industrialised and socially stratified/controlled 'rich' nation, the current trend really began to take hold in the 80s; before the other 'advanced' nations caught up. Anime was mostly 'inspirational' or 'aspirational' up unto this point in time but became increasingly likely to describe post-apocalyptic events - with human societies surviving in the ruins. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind came in 1984, Akira came in 1988 (though was a comic in the years prior to the film release) and since then the post-apocalyptic entries have only multiplied.

While they, arguably, hit critical mass in Japan in the 90s, the memes surrounding this destruction continued to spread and multiply in the other 'developed' nations of the world; their media acting as the propellant for a very insidious arson on positivism. To the point where, today, media representing positive ideas does not exist. The most positive media we consume in the USA, UK and Europe is consumer-orientated; designed to meet aspirations of ownership rather than aspirations of being.

There's an argument in there about the effects on politics and voting decisions but lets not go there.

The point here, is that new ideas are not breaching the memesphere that is in place. For the majority of my life (20 years or so) the media has presented me with tale after tale of negativity - of the certainty of annihilation, of living in the ashes of a collapse. While competing ideas of the future allowed multiple versions of reality to take hold in the fictional representations within books, film and TV series in the 20s - 70s, nowadays I see none of this. It's all about survival and derelictism - trying to understand where we went wrong rather than what we can do right

Even science writing is mostly focussing overly on the negative implications of our current forward momentum instead of trying to imagine positive outcomes based on the research we're currently proceeding with. This, I think could be linked to the broad lack of faith in science, technology and 'experts'.

The problem with this is oversaturation. How many more zombie games/movies am I going to see. How many more post-apocalyptic movies and animes (self-inflicted or not) are there left in writers? I'm sick of them and I'm sick of their shallow ideas that put forth nothing productive or concrete other than semi-autobiographical navel-gazing. Worse still, they are self-propagating because of the advent of heavily curated and ever-present media that we currently consume.

And this is where we come back to Pixar and Brad Bird*.

They are a lone voice*** in our media, promoting positive stories that we can latch onto. And that is why it is very interesting that, even with these positive stories, we, as a culture, are trying to write them into this post-apocalyptic narrative we are so used to.

'The Pixar Theory' is a very seductive story, linking all the movies released by Pixar into one continuum. It's something that I've been aware of in the past but which has been updated more recently following successive feature film releases. And, to be honest, it's an appealing theory and one that sits well with the current cultural narrative. What I find heartwarming (as that is often an adjective applied to Pixar movies) is that even this dire theory surrounding apocalypse results in a positive outcome. So positive are the stories provided by the studio that even the zeitgeist of negative outcomes is unable to truly co-opt it into a downward arc.

Moving back to Tomorrowland, we have the power within ourselves to right the course of this movement. We have the power to re-conceptualise things in a positive way, to frame the future in nuance instead of absolutes. I just hope that the sci-fi and game writers coming through the mill are thinking about these things instead of imitating those that have been before them because that's all we've had since the 90s outside of fairy tales and, given the career progression of people established within those fields, we're likely to suffer them for the next 10 to 20 years.

There's an old saying that people don't change****. But with the extension of the working life, more competition for jobs and the higher risk aversion when it comes to creative endeavours means that it is more difficult to make media with a different voice to that of the mainstream.

As a result, I think we're becoming more fearful and more distrustful of everything in life because there is less to be aspirational towards. Speaking just about games now: the types of stories being told are monotonic (not that game stories have historically been fantastic to begin with) and even the indie 'revolution' has just been a narrowing of focus from 'big' negative events to 'small' (perhaps more relatable) negative events.

I want gaming's equivalent of Flash Gordon, Star Wars Episode 4 (A New Hope) and The Rocketeer but, like in Tomorrowland, we become what we think we are...

*and David Lindelof but that sentence was cooler with one short, easily pronounceable name**

**and any uncredited writers!

***I'm sure there are more but they are in the vast minority of what I am conscious of.

****Which is patently untrue!

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