Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fight Developing Over UCSF's Mt. Sutro Forestry Plan

Mt Sutro, as seen from Golden Gate Park

UCSF currently owns and maintains 61 acres of undeveloped forest land on Mt. Sutro.  An easily accessible natural area located within the heart of San Francisco, Mt. Sutro is home to numerous hiking trails and a unique cloud forest micro climate.   However, according to an item posted yesterday by, UCSF's most recent forestry plan involves removal of up to 30,000 of the site's existing trees and underbrush, constituting a 90% plan life removal.  This plan includes the use of pesticides, as well as intensive use of tarping to prevent regrowth, and could begin as early as fall of this year.

Given the scope of this project, and the sites biological significance, it is easy to have an immediate, almost gut level response to the news.  However, before reaching any conclusion as to the projects long term consequences, it is important to more closely examine its many aspects.  How does UCSF respond to the allegations made by the opposition campaign   What are the long term effects of the use of pesticides, specifically Garlon?  What are the plans of those opposed to the project in terms of communal resistance?

Hopefully, over the next few months a more clear picture of this issue will evolve.  In the meantime, it is important to know what UCSF's plans are, and how those plans are viewed by various opposition parties.      


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Empire Eats the Innovators Part 2: Disney Hates You

In 1947, at the beginning of Communism Paranoia in the US, Walt Disney was among those within the entertainment industry who testified to the House Un-American Activities Commission.

What I love about this is that Disney supports both conservative paranoia and liberalism, so there’s something to irritate everyone. 

Many of those who refused to testify were either blacklisted from Hollywood for the rest of their lives or under suspicion of Communist sympathies for years.  Many of those who blew the whistle on their own employees and colleagues have since become synonymous with their politics, including Ronald Reagan (duh), Ayn Rand (double duh) and J. Edgar Hoover. Yet Walt Disney occupies a rarefied space, his political and personal views eclipsed by the near infinite reach of his own “creations”. 

 There is an implicit approval of certain ideologies within both mainstream culture and the geek community, an unquestioned acceptance of the relationship between creator and property, a blurring of the edges between artist and owner.  It is well known, even parodied, that Walt Disney’s “creation” of Mickey Mouse owes the lion’s share of credit to a man named Ub Iwerks.  Though Disney would provide the character’s voice, Iwerks was the sole designer, hand animating the first unofficial Mickey Mouse short, Plane Crazy, in 1928. 

Source: Disney Image Archive 

Of course, Iwerks was Disney’s employee, and as such retained few rights.  Iwerks continued as an innovator in animation for much of his life, but saw little of the profits garnered from his creation.  Though his initial split from Disney has been attributed to a feeling that he was being denied credit for creation, Iwerks was seen as a man working on commission.  Any profit derived was simply determined by right of contract.  He was, essentially, an intellectual sharecropper.

The same was true for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster when they sold the rights to their joint creation of Superman to National Allied Publishing.  They were paid $412.  Since then, first the men themselves then their respective families have seen nearly a century of legal battles in order to achieve proper residuals from their intellectual inheritance.  A settlement on the Schuster family’s fight was reached in favor of Superman’s parent company, Warner Brothers, as recently as last year

The problem for the families, much as with Iwerks, was that they had nothing but an ideological truth in the face of hard limits of the legal system.   The relationships between creator and owner was designed to be this way, much as the system surrounding it was designed so that art is so little valued that artists are often left forced to usurp the rights of their creations in order to survive.  Any attempt to overcome this system after the fact is one that has been lost before it began.

Of the millions of people who saw the Avengers last summer, how many of them knew that most of those characters were created by a man who had to fight for compensation and recognition until the day he died?  How many people who watch The Walking Dead every week know that the source material’s publisher, Image, was born out of a group of creators splitting from Marvel over demands for this very same recognition (and a lot of ego, but still)?  How many of the adults who support the characters they love by accumulating huge toy collections ever stop to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group whose sole purpose is to fight for the rights of creators?

But that is what our culture does.  It abandons the creator and worships the object.  A single company like Disney can own so much intellectual “property” as to essentially hold dictatorial control over a culture’s fantasies.  And it would be one thing for the general public not to question it.  But for the “geek” to accept it and praise their arrival in the mainstream is disappointing.  It is the job of the outsider to question, to resist, or at the very least to declare solidarity with creators and artists and call for a system to acknowledges their contributions.  Sadly, it seems geek culture is content enough.  To use an appropriate analogy, it is not too much to give up one’s voice if the prize is approval by the patriarchal establishment.  



Monday, January 28, 2013

The Empire Eats the Innovators Part 1: The Decline of the Public Domain

“Our system of law doesn't acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren't so tidy. They're layered, they’re interwoven, they're tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality... the system starts to fail.”----Kirby Ferguson, Everything is a Remix Part 4

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm this past December, the question on everyone’s mind, from geek blogs to mainstream news outlets, was what this meant creatively.  How would these new owners capitalize on their new property?  What would the stories be?  Who would direct the inevitable films?  What seemed to not be questioned, however, were the ideological implications of the news.  Why do we accept so freely a system that allows for corporate ownership of intellectual property?  What does it mean that single entities are allowed to own and dictate what eventually becomes the collective narrative of a culture?    

Limitation to the indefinite ownership of ideas is one of the few actual legal rights spelled out in the US Constitution.  The Bill of Rights sought to promote “the science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  And, as becomes problematic for any central document intended to organize a large a system over time, powerful interests found ways to interpret the law to fit their needs. This led to the development of strict Intellectual Property laws for the service not of individuals, but centralized corporate entities.

Source: Techfleece

The term limits of copyrights have been expanding since the initial terms of 14 years set in 1790.  First in 1909, then again in 1976 and, most dramatically, with 1998's “Mickey Mouse Act”, the length of time granted to private ownership (and even more so to corporate ownership) has moved steadily away from the initial concept of “limited” time.  A corporately authored creation can now enjoy an ownership period of 120 years.  The idea of a robust public domain moves further and further away, while purchases of vast swaths of intellectual property are celebrated for their creative potential.

The Copyright Term Extension Act, heavily lobbied by Disney, severely extended corporate control over intellectual property.
Most troubling is the implicit acceptance of the dictatorial control of ideas and characters by a central governing power, in this case the Walt Disney Corporation.  The spokespeople of geek culture should by design be suspicious of mainstream usurpation.  Anyone whose culture is based in marginalized interests should look with suspicion upon the figures at the center of that culture.  But a geek culture seems acquiescent to the further centralization of power, a community so excited by the carrot of yet another Star Wars trilogy (which are totally going to live up to expectation this time) as to ignore the implicit nature of a political system that allows for ideas themselves to be bought and sold.

What if we resist the idea that Jedi can be owned?  Is it too much to ask for a system where, at least after a certain amount of time, popular characters are treated not as commodities, but masks concealing universal archetypes, their interpretation open to public use?  In one sense, Lucasfilm allowed for this for a decade, openly endorsing the creation of fan films with their Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards, encouraging the use of their properties and images from within the public community.  But now that they are under the ownership of a company notorious for its strict policy on usage, some are already asking  what this might mean in terms of fair use.

Source: ABC
Disney celebrates its news acquisition with a "Star Wars" themed episode of  Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Unfortunately, as the previous few decades have proven,  the idea of an open system of ideas, of a robust public domain, seems further and further from the accepted model.  Instead, the innovators find themselves swallowed up, while one of the most notoriously conservative corporations in the world continues to spread its girth.            

For a deeper examination of this issue, take a look at Kirby Ferguson's concluding entry in the "Everything is a Remix" series. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Goodbye Space Lincoln: JJ Abrams and Cultural Homogeneity

I’ll admit that when I first heard that JJ Abrams was poised to direct the new Star Wars film, my initial geek blurt was, “That’s good.”  This was the director of the LOST pilot, Mission Impossible 3, the rebooted Star Trek film.  Those are all solid entertainments, infused with a mixture of solid character work and action that is not just kinetic, but coherent (a point on which his is often superior to the chaotic approach of Christopher Nolan).   When adapting an old property, as with Star Trek, Abrams has demonstrated the ability to infuse it with contemporary sensibilities while also demonstrating his own obvious admiration for the source material. 

It could easily be argued that 2009’s Star Trek film wasn’t really a Star Trek film, as it eschewed the philosophy and social critique of the original series to make room for sick ass sky jumps and “splosions”.  But the Star Trek films have been moving in that direction since the failure of Star Trek the Motion Picture all the way back in 1979.  What troubles me about this is the idea of a single voice holding the reins to two most prominent science fiction mythologies of an entire culture.

Artists impart sensibility.  Likewise, the level to which a character or universe is available for interpretation can provide for greater degrees of interpretation.  There are currently three active interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes characters; two different television series and a chain of feature films.  Regardless of personal preference or relative accuracy in relation to source material, this demonstrates how a property’s status in the public domain can contribute to a more robust cultural landscape.  Had Warner Brothers retained the copyright to the character upon the release of their 2009 film, the subsequent adaptation would never have happened.  However, the character remains open to constant reinterpretation, fulfilling the role of a kind of modern folk tale in that it maintains certain key elements (the triumph of deduction, let’s say) while filtering others through contemporary taste.  The character lives on through reinterpretation. 

Not like i have a preference or anything. 
Even in terms of storytelling there is a greater freedom here.  There is no official Sherlock canon.  Even the books are simply starting points, and there are as many different universes and time lines for Holmes as there are iterations.  Compare this to the news of Abrams directing this new Star Wars film.  He responded to previous Star Trek continuity by literally wiping it from existence through time travel.  You can have your stodgy old tribbles and Space Lincoln, but in this brave new world, there is no room for the past.  There can only be one “official” timeline, and this is it.  

Now we have news that the same man will be providing a likely similar take to another huge property, itself with a pre-existing universe of characters and events that has been unfolding steadily for almost a quarter of a century.  Now, with this new film looming, fans of those stories are about to be told that those events never happened.  Make way for the new universe.  Just as Peter Jackson and Weta have become the sole arbiters of what another man’s universe might look like, so too does this directorial appointment seem to indicate a continuing homogeneity of approach.

Science fiction looks to the future and wonders what could be.  It envisions a better world, or a smarter world, or another world entirely, and dares us to achieve it in our own.  Star Trek’s creator, Gene Rodenberry, famously insisted that his Starfleet would not be driven by internal conflict among crew members.  This was a future where we were past that.  It pushed up against the boundaries of what could be depicted during an era of intense racial segregation and gender normativity.  

Star Wars, meanwhile, took the monomyth at the root of our story telling and dressed it up in new clothes. It said that the old stories were still powerful, that all they needed was a new outlet.  But what remains of these aspirations and these undercurrents when two entire canons are handed over to a single individual, himself representing the best choice of a profit minded pair of mega corporations seeking to challenge as little as possible?  What happens to that optimism?  It doesn't go away, but it becomes harder and harder to hear over the drum of the status quo endorsing juggernauts that are now wearing its skin.         

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Myth of Geek Culture Part 3: Numbers from the Golden Age

A continuing examination of the role of Geek Culture within the larger frameworks of capitalism and consumer culture. 

Source: Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images 
The supposed rise of geek culture is often attributed to a number of newly popular genres and mediums.  But even if the argument can be made that the popularity of video games, for example, represents nothing but another aspect of consumer marketing, doesn't that still leave the fact that “geeky” genres like superheroes dominate the landscape?  Doesn't that leave the fact that geeks made good like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates still garner widespread acceptance for their success, regardless of this success’ basis in a capitalist value system?   In actuality, a closer reading of mass culture over a longer span of time reveals previous eras in which certain aspects of supposed “geek culture” occupied a much wider portion of mainstream acceptance.

If you want to go looking for a time in history when superhero consumption was the metric for the acceptance of mainstream culture, you have to go back to the early to mid 1940’s. Between 1941 and 1944, monthly comic book sales doubled from 10 to 20 million units, even in the wake of war time paper shortages.  This was a time when comic were consumed by an estimated 80% of children, 41% of men between the ages of 18 and 30 and 28% of women the same age. 

February, 1942.  
Source unknown

Much of this can be attributed to the reading habits of servicemen, for whom comic book consumption was both a natural remedy for the boredom of their bases and a byproduct of institutional distribution.  Superman was among the eighteen magazines distributed by the War Library Service between 1942 and 1943, and comic magazines accounted for a quarter of soldier’s preferred titles.   

Of course, to the people of the 1940’s, comic books weren't some aspect of geek culture infesting the main stream.  They were the main stream, more ubiquitous then than any single property or cultural figure could be in today’s landscape of multi-channel media.  

In the 1940's, they weren't called geek girls.  They were just girls.Source: Ruth Orkin
The soldiers of World War II saw comics as one of their main links to domestic life, powerful symbols of the shared culture they perceived the war to be in defense of.  And yes, a lot of people went to see Batman punch people in a theater in 2012.  But with film attendance at a twenty year low in the US and the UK, this hardly seems like this so called wide spread acceptance of geek culture we so often hear about.   Even after a sales bump following a slow 2011, the comic book market was lucky to move 7 million copies in any given month of 2012.  The top selling title of the early 1940’s wasn't even Superman, but Fawcett’s Captain Marvel starring Whiz comics, which moved an estimated 1.4 million copies every month.  Today, the top selling titles might be lucky to move 300,000 copies.  

The irony is that the publishers of superhero stories at their true peak were measurably smaller in scale than the multimedia distribution firms who handle the same character today.  Publishers like Timely (the predecessor of Marvel) and National Allied publications (who later changed their name to DC ) had their roots in pulp publishing.  Fawcett Publications had their roots in cheap joke comics and paperback books.  These were cheap products, printed on low quality paper, without a corporate advertisement in sight, and they reached a demographic that any modern media juggernaut like Time Warner or Viacom would kill for.  Comics and superheroes were as main stream as Coca Cola and Hollywood gossip, a cultural occupancy that they held well into the 1960’s.  By the 1980’s, with the beginning of the movement of comics out of grocery stores and into specialty retailers, comics had truly moved away from the mainstream and into a cultural ghetto, beginning a steady sales decline that has continued into the present. 
We observe culture through a narrow view, isolating the examples and outliers that support preexisting narratives about what is popular and what is marginalized.  It is an inherently ludicrous idea that the mainstream accepts outsider culture.  By design, any sub cultures movement into a mainstream light can best hope for co-option.     


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Quantum Leap School for Quantum Leapers

Something tells me Sam Beckett could have really benefited from taking a few courses here.  At the very least, maybe he could have gotten accredited in Quantum Leaping.

The Myth of Geek Culture: Part 2

The Nostalgia Trap: "Geek Culture’s" Roots in Neo-Liberal Deregulation

Source: Gracie FIlms, 20th Century Fox

Admittedly, from a certain perspective, “geek culture” is thriving.  In the US, the mainstream box office for 2012 was dominated by geek franchises (refreshingly, at least, about evenly split between those targeting men and women) while in the UK, video game sales continued to outpace those of DVD’s as the country’s dominant media commodity (a feat they accomplished in the US in 2009).  Of course, when judging any cultural shifts, sheer cash flow is a simple to determine, seemingly objective signifier of relative value.  The Avengers made more money this year than any other movie, therefore “geek culture” must be attaining dominance.  Setting aside the inherent value judgments at play here, the other question at hand is how did all this happen?  Where did these characters and their dominance come from?  Did a series of subterranean cultural sea changes take place, from the spread of internet use to some intangible recognition of the mass appeal of superheroes, which led to this rise in geek culture?

Obviously, when people talk about this so called rise, they use a much more varied set of metrics than the popularity of Captain America.  But the popularity of this one subgenre is frequently pointed to as supposed proof of a cultural shift.  The “mainstream” appeal of geek culture represents a fragmentation of demographics that has been expanding for decades, representing the increasing ability of larger and larger companies to more closely target smaller and smaller groups.  It feels nice to call these groups “cultures”, but in advertising industry terms, they are called “lifestage segments”, carefully ordered subsections of consumers kept on file in massive demographic information database by “narrowcasting” companies like Acxiom and NarComm.


The most direct connection between current “geek culture” and deregulation of the media landscape can be drawn towards the Reagan administration’s relationship with the FCC (an in depth examination of which can be found here).  In 1969, the FCC decided that Mattel’s Hotwheels cartoon was expressly designed to advertise to children, leading to its removal from the airwaves.  However, in 1981, under the presidentially appointed leadership of Mark S. Fowler, the FCC reorganized its priorities.  What followed was a massive increase in the amount of licensed properties in children’s programming.  The flood gates that opened spilled out the likes of He-Man, GI JOE, Transformers, and over the years dozens of commercials disguised as creative programming that have now become the basis for a wave of wistful nostalgia.  And so, generation Y owes much of its “childhood” to the economic policies of Ronald Reagan, while children born in the 1990’s will likely draw all their future nostalgia from the byproducts of Bill Clinton’s own campaign of free market reorientation.     

Source: Anime Wallpapers 

In 1993, Clinton’s administration abolished the Financial Industry and Syndication “fin syn”.  In place at the time since 1970, these rules made it illegal for the three major television networks to own their prime-time programming, or from broadcasting any syndicated programming in which they had a financial stake.  It was the spread of small scale and cable networks likes Fox and HBO that led to this deregulation, as their exemption from the rules, it was argued, would have made for an uneven playing field unless the larger network’s leashes were cut.  It may have been argued at the time that the same rule should have simply been applied to the new networks, but the move went ahead regardless, paving the way for the current practice of large scale media companies, from Disney to Viacom to Time Warner, purchasing a wider range of media commodities to create more expansive corporate entities.

Source: Genzoman

Three years later, Clinton’s White House passed the Telecommunication Act of 1996, allowing for further flexibility in media cross ownership.  Though also ostensibly aimed at the broadcast networks, this ruling was also a response to the rising popularity of, and the first major media legislation to include, the internet.  Using radio as just one example, the act saw a drastic increase in overall media outlets even as the number of total owners continued to contract.  It is what Amanda D Lotz calls the “multi-channel transition”, a widespread expansion in distribution and outlets bolstered simultaneously by technology and deregulation, in which even as the number of media options increases, the number of suppliers atrophies into a few enormous owners. 
It is this atrophying that has allowed for the demographic targeting required to populate the current media landscape.  It doesn’t matter to Disney that The Avengers was the highest grossing film in the lowest grossing movie summer in decades, not when they have countless hands in as many different pots across multiple mediums and delivery systems.  For the companies whose job it is to make sure you stay a healthy and productive consumer, your precious “geek culture” is just another “lifestage segement”, a sub group determined not by its values but by the specifics of its purchasing power.        

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Myth of Geek Culture: Part 1

The internet is convinced.  The geeks have won.  They have won popular approval within the mainstream and the acceptance of their own legitimacy as an influential subculture.  They have won, after decades of nerd caricatures and marginalization, the ability to not just add to mainstream culture, but dictate the direction of its ideas and representations.

Source: Lorimar, Urkel 

In March of 2012, Paul Barter of the Huffington Post quoted his colleague Geoff Flood’s assertion that geeks are those who, “really do believe…that we can change the world."  On in November of 2011, Ron Mwangaghuhunga elucidated the new information economy, praising the “new-found respect for people like Steve Jobs, who made it cool to be creative, and Bill Gates, who makes it cool to save the world." 

Michael Poh, of geek and tech blog, regularly espouses the virtues of geeks’ cultural ascendancy  “Geeks Against the World,” he frames it, praising Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, who “followed their hearts” to success, going “against social norms and establishments to stand up for (their) passion and values.”  In the now defunct blog “geeks will save the world”, multiple examples are given as to how information technology and innovative technology has been and could be applied to toppling problems ranging from Middle Eastern despotism to global warming.

Source: Lionsgate  

Why does this idea of world saving crop up so frequently?  More importantly, what are the inherent value assumptions made by thinking in these terms?  What is “the world” and what does it need to be saved from?

Consensus seems to have been achieved.  Wealthy entrepreneurs as the new paragon of geek success.  Zuckerberg and Gates, once the outcasts, now determine the culture itself.  Their kind has opened the doors so wide that the mainstream that once shunned them is now left with no other option but to accept their influence. 

Source: Reuters 

These praises are not referencing geek culture (which, for lack of a more nuanced definition, we will simply call the culture of the analytic outsider) at all.   They are referencing the cultural values of free market capitalism, in which success is measured through wealth and identity is measured through consumption.  To say that Zuckerberg and Gates “went against social norms” is correct in one sense, as the ability to innovate technologically does require the ability to see beyond what exists and apply new models to societal interaction and communication.  However, for these two men, as well as all of the other members of the new tech-ocracy, the passions being followed were no more personal than that of an eighteenth century railroad tycoon; profit and accumulation.  As recently at the 2012 World Economic Forum, Gates described Capitalism as, "phenomenal system", one that has improved humanity more than any other system."  I don't seek to make a value judgement on capitalism here, only to reinforce how connected these so called "outsiders' are, and have always been, connected to the most systemic aspect of our culture. 

Source: Reuters 

When Albert Sabin developed the polio vaccine, he released it for free with no intent to patent or profit.  This was a response to a tangible world problem that rebuked the temptations of capitalism and chose an open source, free to all mentality that truly did “go against social norms.”  When Mark Zuckerberg chose to take Facebook public, he engineered a nefarious dance of tax avoidance measures to ensure he never paid taxes on his wealth.  To achieve the same ends, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his US citizenship.  This is not saving the world.  The only value being stood up for here is that of undeterred wealth accumulation.

Source: Unknown

The world that so many bloggers are talking about, then, is the popular consciousness of the United States as interpreted through the narrow lens of people writing articles on the internet.  The social change, this new mass acceptance being so celebrated, is a phenomenon I don’t believe is occurring at all.  It is an assertion I will be seeking to prove through a continuing discussion of these values, and how they clash with the true values of outsider culture.   As good as it feels to finally be allowed to sit at the grownup table, one thing stands out as undeniable.  The geeks didn't win.  They just got consumed.