Thursday, 28 August 2014

Phasers on Stunned

I appear to have broken one of my friends, a colleague and a co-writer!

I've been pretty quiet this week because I've been working really hard on a conference paper (and hopefully journal article). The conference is on The Politics and Law of Doctor Who: its energetic progenitor Danny Nicol has even set up a blog well in advance to kick ideas around outside the closed circle of academia, which is the kind of thing that makes me happy.

I've been thinking for ages that I should put my interest in popular culture and science fiction to good (academic) use rather than treating it as a private pleasure. The geeks have seemingly inherited the earth, looking through cinema and TV listings, so it's not as if SF is a guilty pleasure any more (the extended version of this rant is very similar to the defence of Media and Cultural Studies I will deliver at the drop of a hat).

So anyway, this conference seemed like an ideal opportunity. I toddled off to my esteemed colleague who works extensively in pop culture (particularly serial killers, pornography, 'underground' fiction, comics and so on) because I knew he'd love to have a go at this. Cue months of wading through the oceans of material he found: production notes, spin-off novels and comics, scripts, the lot. Eventually, we picked one Who seven-part adventure ('Inferno')* and a single Trek episode, 'Mirror, Mirror'.** They're both about dangerous searches for energy sources, both feature mirror universes and both appeared on TV in Britain at exactly the same time: 'Mirror, Mirror' aired in the same week as the last episode of 'Inferno'. Who could resist?

'Mirror, Mirror' is famous as the origin of the science fiction trope Beard of Evil, because Spock in the Evil universe has a goatee so you can tell them apart:

In actual fact, Beardy Spock isn't evil, he just behaves cruelly because that's the logical thing to do in a cruel universe. It does mean that Evil Kirk gets to utter the immortal line 'Has the Galaxy gone crazy? Where's your beard?'.

By an amazing coincidence, 'Inferno' also uses facial hair and features to differentiate mirrored characters. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (uptight but decent old stick) has a military moustache. His evil counterpart Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart has no moustache but does have a scar and an eyepatch.


So that's the aesthetics sorted out. What we're interested in is how these popular SF TV shows constructed their 'ideal' politics by representing an 'evil' mirror.*** Bearing in mind that they were made in the late 60s and early 70s, it's interesting that they don't choose Communism. Instead, 'Mirror, Mirror' depicts a piratical world of violent oppression by an Empire, while 'Inferno' chooses a fascist regime, albeit one with Orwellian Stalinist overtones mixed in with a general Nazi atmosphere. So what we think is that both shows avoid criticism of the political cultures which generated them by presenting horrific regimes which some viewers may find resemble states against which they actually fought. 

All seems quite simple. And then I decided that Foucault would be useful here, and I went back to Discipline and Punish, adding 'Technologies of the Self' to the mix. That led me to Kant and the Federation's slightly confused invocation of the categorical imperative, and before long I'd generated 100 pages of notes which seemed to suggest that the Empire (which applies an Agoniser to incompetent crew members) and the Republic (which practises summary execution) are far less oppressive than Who's normal Britain and the Federation, because the Empire doesn't give a damn what you think as long as you do what you're told (and makes you carry around an Agoniser that superior officers use on you when you're not performing up to scratch), whereas the Federation has ways (philosophical 'technologies') to make you love it. It doesn't need to torture you because you've internalised its values and spend your time worrying about whether you've lived up to them in your daily life (hence the importance of the Captain's Log): you govern yourself and become a subject by examining yourself for signs of deviation. The conclusion is that the Doctor's preferred England deserves to survive because it has room for sexiness and intellectual flexibility, whereas the fascist Republic gets blown up because the mad scientist and his party friends are too rigid to admit they need help (and sex). Star Trek's Empire will probably fall or be reformed for the same reasons, with a little help from Not Actually Evil Spock once the 'good' Kirk points out the logic of not committing genocide while giving him a device allowing him to murder his way to the top of the Empire. The Federation, I feel, is a little smug in the way that hegemonic American culture tends to be: I like Doctor Who's rather English assumption that bumbling along without having to be absolutely right all the time is probably the best way to go. Foucault disagrees: he thinks that 'tolerant liberal' states are just subtler at turning individuals into tools of state continuation. 

My colleague thinks this is a slightly fascistic argument, but I'm sticking to the line that it's radically poststructuralist. I've just sent him a largely incoherent and obsessive cowpat of this argument and he's got to a) hack a 20 minute presentation out of it and b) cross out all the bits he thinks are bollocks. The good outcome of all this is that he can't do it tomorrow so I have a day off. The down side is that I've just remembered that rather than go for a long bike ride, I'm going to a funeral instead. 

But when anyone asks me what I do, I can quite truthfully say that students' massive debts pay me to work out what French poststructuralist philosophy has to say about 1970s Saturday evening TV. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it. 

* That's a link to the Tardis Data Core because I love the fact that there's a whole Wikipedia just for Doctor Who. No lives have been wasted doing that at all.  
** And that's a link to the Star Trek equivalent of Wikipedia, Memory Alpha. It's a hell of a lot bigger than the Data Core too (and one day will outstrip Wikipedia because frankly a lot of knowledgeable men care a lot more about SF shows than they do about the rest of our achievements as a species. 
***'Inferno' also has some rubbish monsters called Primords but they make absolutely no narrative sense at all, so we've decided to ignore them. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses

The tech industry is the future. It pumps out shiny, sleek machines on which we can do futuristic things. The fact that most of these things are extensions of work into what was previously leisure time and space, or enrich the tech industry, or involve handing over vast amounts of lucrative personal data to tech companies, advertisers and shady security agencies is by the by. 

The tech industry works hard to make its own operations look like the future. They don't have offices, they have 'campuses'. On these campuses, work is made to look like play. White-toothed youngsters zoom past on Segways from 'breakout space' to the company basketball court, pausing only to grab 'free' comestibles. They really love big brother. And why shouldn't they? These men (yes, and they're almost all white too) move (in corporate buses and private jets) from the grubby public realm to the primary colours of private, corporate space, free from litter, loafers, the poor, traffic jams, protest marches and anything else that smacks of inefficiency. It's a Hayekian paradise. Better than that: they earn a fortune too.

So we might all be forgiven for not giving a single solitary damn for the problems of these fresh-faced overlords. And yet while they are the chino-wearing shock troops of a eugenicist master-race, they're also a new proletariat in a game that's as old as the hills, as some recent news disclosed. We all know that the tech industry markets itself as making fortunes from 'innovation', while actually making billions from tax evasion – Apple has $111 billion stashed offshore because it doesn't want to pay its taxes – it has learned a lot of lessons from the nastiest of the 'old' industries: MacDonalds, Standard Oil, the mining companies and their ilk. You might make this behaviour by calling it tax 'avoidance', but Apple and its friends are now lobbying the US government for a tax holiday so they can bring it all onshore without having to contribute to the public realm which makes all its activities possible.

Imagine you're a young tech worker. You have flexible typing fingers, you're good with code and you never spill Pepsi down your polo shirt. You've been a code monkey at Google for a couple of years and you fancy a change. Your friends in finance are always telling you about the cold calls you get from recruitment agencies, yet your phone never rings, and your applications to Apple are never answered. Why the hell not?

Why not indeed? Court proceedings reveal exactly why not. Just as the bankers ganged up on the poor to apportion blame for the crash, all those cuddly, cool companies have organised a little cartel to ensure that you and your greedy friends don't increase wages by flitting between jobs. Free markets are for megacorps, not paupers however good they are at Objective C.

The DOJ alleges that Senior executives at each company negotiated to have their employees added to 'no call' lists maintained by human resources personnel or in company hiring manuals. The alleged agreements were not limited by geography, job function, product group, or time period. The alleged bilateral agreements were between: (1) Apple and Google, (2) Apple and Adobe, (3) Apple and Pixar, (4) Google and Intel, (5) Google and Intuit, and (6) Lucasfilm and Pixar.
The civil class action further alleges that agreements also existed to (1) "provide notification when making an offer to another [company]'s employee (without the knowledge or consent of the employee)" and (2) "agreements that, when offering a position to another company's employee, neither company would counteroffer above the initial offer."
There we have it: once you're in a job, you stay there, be proud of the logo t-shirts and little backpacks, or you leave the industry amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth (yours). Otherwise you might damage the dividends.

But…surely not Apple? They're so cool! They're not like nasty Mr Arkwright down at t'mill? Oh dear. Saint Steve was up to his neck in this plot against his own workers, as revealed by the only hero of Silicon Valley, sad little Palm's Edward Colligan. He wrote to Jobs about this cosy little conspiracy after an unpleasant (i)phone call:
Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other's employees, regardless of the individual's desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal.
 'OK', said Steve. 'You're right. We're way out of line here, and my Buddhist morality won't allow me to carry on this way'.

Only joking.
"Mr. Jobs also suggested that if Palm did not agree to such an arrangement, Palm could face lawsuits alleging infringement of Apple's many patents. This is not satisfactory to Apple," Jobs wrote. "I'm sure you realize the asymmetry in the financial resources of our respective companies when you say: 'We will both just end up paying a lot of lawyers a lot of money.'"
That's right. The guru of everything cool left the equivalent of a horse's head in a rival's bed, threatening to sue it out of existence if it didn't collude in a conspiracy to restrict their employees' earnings and mobility. That's Steve – and all his mates. Behind the optimistic techno-babble of bright new futures lurks the social, ideological and economic attitudes of the 1920s Virginian coal barons.

This isn't the 22nd century, let alone the 21st. It's the 19th. And it's why we need trades unions. (Also: Dave Eggers' The Circle is a very interesting novel on the way the tech industry experiments on notions of the self and individuality, using its own employees).

This is how companies treat their literate, highly-skilled and articulate workers in the world's most developed (sort-of) country: just imagine how they're treating those who toil in the assembly factories away from our prying eyes.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Vole Returns!

You have all signally failed to improve this benighted country in my absence. Though you did get rid of Baroness Warsi and a government minister who insisted that he just couldn't live on his £125,000 salary + expenses. Good work, all! To be fair, I have a little respect for Warsi now: she was elevated as a kind of Judas Goat to persuade ethnic minority voters that Tories aren't racists any more, but she turned out to have opinions too, clearly not what the hierarchy wanted from a Northern Muslim woman. Anyway, having slightly damaged her party, let's hope she carries on doing that but otherwise withdraws from public life.

What did I do on my holidays, I hear you ask? I read a lot of newspapers and books, including Williams's sleeper hit Stoner, about a failed academic. It's a wonderful book but desolatingly sad. Academics reading it are committing a form of self-harm, I couldn't help feeling. I also read a book on Foucault and TJ Bass's The Godwhale, which was rather good. I also took a lot of photographs. See the whole lot via that link or click on these to enlarge them.

Otherwise, I went swimming in the Atlantic near Killorglin in Co. Kerry, Ireland:

where my lithe body attracted a crowd of salivating photographers:

Though they may have been wearing beer goggles rather than swimming ones:

I was stung by jellyfish at Rossbeigh, so moved to another wonderful beach, Dooks for the rest of the holiday. The weather was wonderful: here's the sun setting over Killorglin town

The main event of the year is Puck Fair: a wild goat goes up on a stand to preside over 3 days of carousing, merry-making, horse-trading (literally), music and dancing. I love it, especially wandering around with a camera in-between daytime scoops. I particularly love the dodgems:

and the mini-car ride which I enjoyed very much:

and fairground neon

but after a day or two I was looking slightly haggard, though still dapper:

Though after a stroll through the horse-fair I got back on my horse and felt a new man:

before shopping around for some stupid pocket-size dogs:

I even found the time to get myself some new togs:

and a feed of buns:

before setting off purposefully to the Mr Puck competition

Though the crowd of people chanting 'get 'em off' at me was slightly disconcerting

and not everyone was impressed by my rendition of Voulez-vous

Ingrates. King Puck was a magnificent specimen this year. 

So much so that he even inspired some lookalikes:

And then came the rain. Being County Kerry, I was never without (and sometimes simultaneously using) a waterproof and sunglasses:

And the band (Fanfare Piston, a French engineering students' brass outfit) played on:

and in-between the showers there was dancing:

Although there was a sinister side to the festivities:

One of the lovely things about Puck is that all buskers are invited to play - no permits, auditions or (as you can see) minimum ages or height tests: I made a fortune.

The sweet strains of the melodeon made a pleasant accompaniment to the gentle shower of small change and vomit from the funfair:

While outside the bustling metropolis that is Killorglin, bucolia awaited:

Until it was time for me to fly* sadly home, fatter but not necessarily wiser.

*Metaphorically. I actually got the train and ferry. 

How was your summer?