Trainyard and Neural Pathways

By far the best iPhone game I have come across is Trainyard. Is a deceptively simple puzzle, in which the player lays tracks to guide a set of coloured trains from their starting points to a goal. It has all the features of a great game: the rules are few, simple and intuitive. The puzzles are solved on a 7×7 grid, which gives the impression that a correct solution is on the cusp of revealing itself. The graphic design and sound design give you a satisfying mental ‘pay off’ when a puzzle is solved. This all adds to the addictive quality. It is no surprise it is one of the highest ranking games in the App Store.

Until recently, Trainyard’s only flaw was that it had a set number of puzzles to play. When they were solved, the payer had to go cold turkey. Playing a pre-solved puzzle was dull. However, with the latest update, the game’s creator Matt Rix has solved this problem, by providing an ‘engineer’ feature. Players can now create their own puzzle and upload it to Trainyard site for others to download and solve. This adds an element of competitiveness, and also social play, which makes the project as perfect as can be on it’s own terms. Highly recommended.

The ‘engineer’ feature has an interesting constraint. You cannot upload a self-made puzzle to the website unless you have solved it yourself. For a while I wondered why the computer could not already perceive which puzzles were solvable, and which were unsolvable… But then I remembered Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, as explained to me in the sprawling Pulitzer Prize winning meditation on symmetry, mathematics, loops and consciousness, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. Trainyard is, I think, a perfect little companion to this bizarre, genre defying book.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Back gives some clue to its esoteric subject matter
The cover of Godel, Escher, Back gives some clue to its esoteric subject matter

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem says that in any consistent mathematic system will have certain “undecidable statements” which the system will not be able to answer either way. There will be true statements that nevertheless cannot be proven within that system. This holds for Trainyard, which is definitely a mathematic system with just a few logical rules. If you translate the elements of a puzzle (the starting points, gates, tracks, switch points, the colours of the trains, the goals, and the grid) into a mathematic formula (which, of course, you can do because the iPhone is essentially a mathematical machine, manipulating millions of 1’s and 0’s each second) there would be no equation or test that could consistently tell you whether the puzzle could be solved or not. The only way to tell is to run the puzzle, set off the trains, and see what happens. With some puzzles (such as this one) it is actually quite easy for even a novice player to work out that the puzzle has been solved, but the computer has to run it (all 10,603,843 steps) to confirm that fact.

Kurt Gödel
Kurt Gödel

The second link with Godel, Escher, Bach is to do with synapses, and how elements as simple and as binary as a neurones can give rise to enough symbols and signals to constitute a consciousness. Trainyard works wonderfully well as a metaphor for neural pathways, but it is only with the addition of the ‘engineer’ feature that this becomes apparent.

What do we notice when we look at the game in this way? (1) First of all anyone playing the game can see how the same track layout can result in completely different outcomes, depending on the number of trains sent from any given start position. On a related point, it is also interesting to see tiny changes to the track layout can fundamentally alter the outcome, once the trains are set in motion.

One of 3403 solutions to 'A Barrel Roll', one of the puzzles on Trainyard
One of 3403 solutions to 'A Barrel Roll', one of the puzzles on Trainyard

Through this, one can begin to comprehend how a brain, with very simple building blocks can give rise to huge, complex patterns, which is what is required to perceive and interact with the world. We can see how an apparently fixed set of neurones can act in different ways, depending on the precise nature of the stimulus.

A different insight – one only needs to play Trainyard for a short period of time to see how the same outcome can be achieved in a near infinite number of different ways – for each puzzle in game, users have submitted hundreds of unique solutions. It’s not really important how you get there, just so long as the right pattern emerges. When thinking about brains (artificial or biological), the lesson might be that trying to discover a particular set of pathways could be a red herring. If you were to do so, you would only understand one brain, not The Human Brain. We all have different patterns and pathways in our cerebal cortexts, and it is the different pathways we take to make the same patterns, that makes us unique.

Finally, it is worth remembering the insight of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. When you get to a sufficiently complex puzzle solution,you can never know whether it will produce the desired outcome, until you set the train running. This will hold for the artificial brains we create on circuit boards and in the RAM of computers – we won’t know whether the pattern we have created will work, until we have tried it. Which means we can’t work out the ‘correct’ pattern in advance. We’ll need to create some process of trial and error – a metaphor for evolution – before we hit on a correct pattern, and win our mental payoff.

Power Politics and Revolution in Albert Square

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Phil Mitchell (Steve MacFadden)

Last week, a fascinating storyline emerged in Eastenders. It’s all about the weak standing up to the strong.

Bald bully Phil Mitchell (Steve MacFadden) is pursuing a vindictive vendetta against cheery Minute Mart Manager, Patrick Trueman (Rudolph Walker). Patrick saw Phil’s son Ben (Joshua Pascoe) kissing another boy (Monday) which led Ben to try to intimidate Patrick into silence (Tuesday) This led to an argument which Phil interrupted. He asked Patrick to apologise but this was refused. Phil has therefore ostracised Patrick from Shirley’s cafe, and had him sacked from his glass collecting job at the Queen Vic (Thursday).

Phil is not the only nutter on Albert Square. Two other characters, Michael Moon (Steve John Shepherd) and Dr Yousef Khan (Ace Bhati), are currently behaving in a much more dangerous manner, but their agendas are purely personal. Phil’s behaviour, on the other hand, seems to be more about the exercise of power in general, rather than a personality clash. Patrick is being punished only because he challenged the primacy of the Mitchell clan. Phil needs to be seen to prevail, whereas Michael and Yousef prefer subterfuge.

What is interesting about this new storyline is how this power corrupts other characters. The two most amiable characters in the show, Alfie Moon (Shane Ritchie) and Heather Trott (Cheryl Fergison), are both financially dependent on Phil Mitchell, and both are forced to act unfairly towards Patrick. The young Mitchell generation, Ben and Jay (Jamie Borthwick), certainly realise that their father is in the wrong, but have no interest in challenging him, because their own standing in the community is derived from Phil. Perpetual doormat Billy Mitchell (Perry Fenwick) is likewise an enabler.

Phil has been allowed to get away with such appalling behaviour for so long because of his money. He owns four businesses around Albert Square (the pub, the nightclub, the Arches garage, and the cafe) and therefore has economic power over the less financially secure characters (i.e., most people). Therefore he shows little remorse for psychologically damaging his entire family and almost incinerating everyone in the Vic during a drug-induced rage last year.

However, what is so delicious about the emerging storyline is that this power is now being challenged, and may even be shown to be built on thin foundations. Patrick has made a martyr of himself by standing by his principles and refusing to apologise. This dignity in the face of abuse has inspired an unlikely revolutionary in Heather, who has moved out of Phil’s house in a symbolic gesture of solidarity. The next step will be dissent from within the Mitchell regime that undermines Phil’s aura of impunity. Ben has yet to build up the courage to confess his sexuality to Phil, but when he does that will shatter the unity of the family. Power broker Shirley (Linda Henry) may even take sides against Phil when she returns to Walford.

Now Heather and Patrick have shown dissent, let us hope that other citizens of Walford follow suit. Although Phil is well off, his money is geographically tied to Albert Square. A community boycott would therefore be easy to organise and could have quick and far reaching implications for Phil.

The worry is this: If Phil Mitchell falls, who or what will fill his place. Albert Square is an odd sort of community? On the one hand, it is very tightly woven, and one hopes that this would allow a fairer hierarchy to emerge. On the other hand, the residents have an unlikely appetite for conflict. They are quick to make vocal judgements about other people, are happy to engage in public rudeness and humiliation, and rarely choose reconciliation when it is offered. This lack of a culture co-operation could allow another rich tyrant to step into Phil Mitchell’s shoes. Janine (Charlie Brooks) is my best bet to fill this role – she has just come into a large inheritance and is busy building a property empire on Albert Square. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Two Boys

Mary Bevan and Nicky Spence in Two Boys Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Mary Bevan and Nicky Spence in Two Boys Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Are u there?

I went to see Two Boys at the ENO last night. It’s a new opera by the Vermont wunderkind Nico Muhly. As I understand it, he’s not as well known over here as in the USA, but it’s a real coup for the ENO to have commissioned him to write something, two years ago. It is also prescient, or maybe just lucky, that the opera turns out to be about something completely contemporary.

On one level, we could say that the subject matter is literally two weeks old. It’s a tale of subterfuge online, with one character impersonating others (variously, his promiscuous sister, a rapist, an MI5 agent, and an older version of himself) through the Internet. Given the story of the Gay Girl In Damascus, now shown to be An American Guy In Edinburgh, Two Boys is bang on trend.

Having said that, the theme of one person impersonating another is hardly a new one for drama. If we just consider the idea of online subterfuge, Patrick Marber’s Closer does it, as does Ste Curran’s Monica. In this Tuesday’s episode of Eastenders, Shirley stole Phil’s phone in order to send misleading text messages to Rainie. And impersonating a sibling in order to get closer to the one you love is standard Shakespearean fayre. I suppose what this opera reminds us is that Everything Is A Remix. The new technologies allow us to do the same old things, except with a different sheen.

Detective Inspector Strawson (Susan Bickley), the lead character and sleuth of the piece, catches on to the solution much slower than most of the audience, I’ll wager. In recent years we have seen an explosion in time shifting, deceptive story lines, and Two Boys is firmly in the tradition of cyber-realist storytelling. Despite time shifts and flashbacks, it is easy to understand what is unfolding and when. This is reinforced by the repeating lines of libretto (amusingly surtitled in its abbreviated chat form, “u there?”, “ASL?” &ct), which take on new and more disturbing meanings when sung by different cast members, as the deception of fake identities is revealed. Muhly performs similar repetitions with the score too, as familiar refrains return in new, darker ways.

Its a clever ploy that the D.I. Strawson is a middle-aged woman. All good drama gives the audience an avatar, and Susan Bickley is, I guess, the precise demographic of the traditional opera-going audience member. Even if the audience understands the timeline of the story, that is not to say they have an understanding of the online world.  D.I. Strawson’s bemusement at the behaviour of the teenagers (“It’s a different language” she says) was certainly shared by much of the audience. During the interval, I overheard some of my neighbours talking about how “It’s a different world, isn’t it…” as if they were watching an opera set in the land of Titipu or some far off world. This seemed to me precisely wrong. It’s the same world as our own, just brought into heightened relief. The Internet does to the human world what opera also intends to do – present a stylised, pared down representation, without all the fuss and confusion. All the better to reveal truths and relationships we may not otherwise perceive.

“To them, it’s real”, those same neighbours went on to observe, with ‘them’ being the young ‘uns, the digital natives. This is true but also patronising, because the speaker assumed that the world of chatrooms and forums depicted was wholly false, while the world she inhabited was real, true, and authentic. I submit that she was wrong, and that the mistakes made by the older of the Two Boys, 16-year-old Brian (played by 28-year-old tenor Nicky Spence), are precisely the same mistakes made by the rest of us, most of the time: specifically, if something is written down then it must be true. This false lemma is what keeps dictators in power, excuses wars and distorts financial markets. It is what allows people to experience a very real sense of bullying online. Written words carry an innate credibility, whether they be incribed on a stone tablet, papyrus, vellum, paper, billboard or screen. Even misspelled lolspeak has value as a sort of propaganda, allowing us to peddle a lie or a version of ourselves that bears little relation to the ‘truth’. It’s interesting and surely no accident that the Two Boys set (by Michael Yeargan and Fifty Nine Productions) was a series of plain grey blocks, onto which a bit of scenery and a lot of text was projected. Inside and outside of an opera house, words allow us to conjure our world.

 

Fear of Missing Out

Via Kottke, a great little post on the anxiety, or Fear of Missing Out, that we all experience from time to time, and which is exacerbated by social media technologies:

Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You’re home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you’re participating, not missing out, even when you are.

It’s an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology. To be always filled with craving and desire (also called defilement, affliction) is one of the Three Poisons of Buddhism, called kilesa, and it makes you a slave. There is true meaning in social media—real connections, real friendships, devotion, humor, sacrifice, joy, depth, love. And this is what we are looking for when we log on.

I think FOMO is a big reason why there seem to be so many commitment-phobic people about.  That sub-species of man who cannot settle down and make a long-term commitment to his girl, because secretly, deep down, he cannot let go of the thought that, somewhere out in the world, there may be someone better.  In doing so, they miss out on the pleasure that comes from making that deep commitment.

Global Culture vs International Culture

International departures at Gardermoen Airport, Oslo. Photo by Yrstrly.
International departures at Gardermoen Airport, Oslo. Photo by Yrstrly.

And now for some semantics.  David at Minority Report muses the problem of net nuetrality, and highlights a post over at Confused of Calcutta on the ‘un-national’, a word borrowed from a William Stafford poem.  JP contrasts concepts like ‘global’ with apparent synonyms like ‘international’ and its derivatives.  The former has an implied statelessness, the absence of a nation, whereas the latter implies that the thing we are describing (a person, or an organisation) does have one or more nations of origin, a liable jurisdiction that can control and curtail their activities.

This chimes with Jay Rosen’s description of Wikileaks as the first ‘Stateless’ news organisation, an idea he expanded on in a recent edition of his Rebooting the News podcast (#76, I think), making the same point that ‘global’ and ‘international’ are not necessarily the same thing.  In the context of net neutrality and cyber-dissidence, a ‘global’ organisation, with no final country of origin, is better protected against interference and attack, than an ‘international’ organisation which nevertheless has a home nation. Rosen recommends that Wikileaks adopts a similar model to Greenpeace, Amnesty, and PEN, with national organisations/chapters in many countries.

My thoughts naturally turn to multi-culture and how these terms might be applied in that area.  When cultural phenomenons, and pieces of art and cultural expression, become popular in many countries, are they international or global (in the senses described above).  I would say that musicians like Elvis Presley, The Beatles (bigger, for a time, than Jesus) and Michael Jackson are all international.  In each case, their music is a product of a particular time and place – regardless of where their fans are located, or where they play their concerts.

However, I think cultural phenomenons like Islam or Football are clearly global.  As they exist now, they seem to be a product of the human race as a whole, even if their origins can be pin-pointed accurately to a single country.  You could even include things like World of Warcraft, and the graffiti aesthetic in that list, but not Les Misérables.  What about LOLcats?

Disconnect

This week I’ve read a couple of articles that discuss the ennui of the Internet age.  The first is a Salon profile of the hip New York writer Tao Lin, which features an excerpt from his book Shoplifting from American Apparel:

Sam woke around 3:30 p.m. and saw no emails from Sheila. He made a smoothie. He lay on his bed and stared at his computer screen … About an hour later it was dark outside. Sam ate cereal with soymilk. He put things on eBay then tried to guess the password to Sheila’s email account, not thinking he would be successful, and not being successful.

Daniel Roberts discusses Lin’s style of prose:

[The] term, “depression,” is a bit too clinical in this context. Where Lin is coming from, and what his readers share, is a sense of loneliness. The malaise is not specific to New York, of course, but it is typical of a certain ilk of detached 20-somethings across the country.

The loneliness could be attributed to the Internet. Lin and his literary peers spend hours and hours online, and although doing so fosters a sense of connectedness, it is equally isolating. No matter how many fans or fellow writers Lin “meets” online, at the end of the day it’s still him, sitting at his laptop alone. Any moments of delight or engagement that the Internet prompts are separated by longer stretches of boredom, as implied by the title of a short story by Brandon Scott Gorrell, a member of Lin’s online literary gang. The story is called “Minimizing and Maximizing Mozilla Firefox Repeatedly.”

Meanwhile, the New York Review of Books blog discusses China’s One Child policy, and the detached scions it has produced:

The more he spoke, the more anguished he sounded about losing his son in other ways, too. Even as a youngster the boy would stay in his room glued to his computer avoiding human contact, rarely going out with his few friends. Other Chinese parents I spoke with said similar things about their children, complaining about their remoteness, their social isolation, and their obsession with technology. They seem an alien race of free-floating individuals.

Night lights Kyoto
Night lights Kyoto by my friend strangerpixel, whose images you should really check out on Flickr by clicking the image

Known Unknowns

At the Plain Blog About Politics, Jonathan Bernstein reminds us that, despite the oceans of political coverage that seems to saturate the media, many people do not take an active interest in politics outside of election time.

If you asked [my Father] to name a NASCAR driver he’d probably look at you as if you were nuts…but if you named some of them, he’d probably recognize the names. The idea is that lots and lots of people have about that level of knowledge about most of what happens in politics. It’s just background noise. We, the people who write and read political blogs, and watch debates, and pay attention to politics even in the off season –we’re the minority.

Bernstein is writing about US politics, discussing former Governors and presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, two people who I bet few in Britain would recognise.  Nevertheless, Bernstein’s cautionary tale is pertinent in the UK too – At election time, I remember being amazed that the Leaders’ debates could increase Nick Clegg’s popularity ratings so substantially.  How had so many people not heard of him, or see him perform?  In my world, he was on TV all the time!

Here’s Caitlin Moran on Twitter:

I’ve made a decision – I’m not going to find out who Justin Bieber is. He’s going to be the first “modern thing” I’m going to ignore.

This has stuck with me, because it was via this message that I discovered that a person called Justin Beiber existed.  Whenever I have mentioned this to other people, they have, without exception, replied: “Who’s Justin Beiber?” which reassures me somewhat.  If I am being culturally ignorant, then at least a lot of other people I know are too.  There is a Facebook group called I bet I can find 1 million people who hate Justin Bieber.  Perhaps I should start one called I bet I can find 1 million people who have never heard of Justin Bieber?

That Bieber is, in many circles, a hugely famous global phenomenon – worthy of single-serving sites, mash-ups and parodies – matters little to me.  The most cursory research quickly reveals that I am not his target market.  In such cases, admitting ignorance becomes something of a badge of sophistication.  However, in other cases, the sudden exposure of my own ignorance leaves me more concerned.  It is more embarrassing for me to admit that I had barely any knowledge of Alan Watkins’ career, or the output of Tony Judt, until people I follow began tweeting and blogging their RIPs.  As a fully paid up agent for the liberal left conspiracy, Watkins and Judt were guys I really, really should have known about before they died.  Instead, both names were part of the ambient noise around me (like Bernstein Snr and the NASCAR drivers).  I’m grateful that at least the news of their passing found its way into my ‘streams’, and I can now set about reading Postwar.

Of course, knowing that there are influential people out there who you have not heard of is not very helpful, because of course, you don’t know who they are!  This can be remedied by reading an entirely new or random blog, or just by picking up a weekly magazine that you might otherwise avoid.  What might me more interesting, however, is considering who or what currently exists on the penumbra of your consciousness?

The answer that springs to mind is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, which I first became aware of when I began to see young teensm on trains reading improbably thick paperbacks.  Meyer’s series managed to become a global success story while I remained oblivious.  Again, this is easily explained by the fact that I am not the target market.  However, now that movies are being made and advertised on the public transport system, I would say that the saga, with its emo-vampire chic, is part of most people’s peripheral vision now.  It is no longer ‘background noise’ as Bernstein has it, but rather, a collective cultural happening that infiltrates our awareness via a kind of osmosis.

I would say that there are a whole class of public figures – people like Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Huw Edwards, and John Terry – who enter our thoughts this way.  We know about them, and their notoriety before we even consider consuming their cultural oevres ourselves.  Certain politicians fall into this category too.  I would expect even the most uninterested and sullen of the lumpenproletariat to know who David Cameron was, and possibly George Osborne and Nick Clegg too.  However, if they aren’t clear who David Willets or Danny Alexander are… well, I think that’s forgivable.

Chromaroma

Ask and ye shall be rewarded.  In reply to my previous post, Matt Somerville tweets:

@robertsharp59 Sounds like you want to see http://www.chromaroma.com/

Indeed I do.  It is described as:

an online multiplayer game played out as you travel the city with your Oyster Card. By using Oyster data we are able to show you your Tube travel, and every journey means you amass points, taking a few steps further along the way to owning London.

Chromaroma is a type of location-based top-trumps. You collect places, identities, modes of transport and passengers as you travel around the city; discover and investigate mysteries attached to different locations and build alliances with fellow passengers that share your journeys. It’s a game you can play on your own, or part of a team.

This sounds very much like a Foursquare-type version of the idea I described earlier, so I will contact the Mudlark collective to ask for more information.  Hilariously, I am faced with the slightly awkward prospect of trying to express the depth of my interest, without giving the impression that I am in any way laying claim to the idea like John Turturro in Secret Window.

The Underground Project

A fascinating link that has been doing the rounds recently is the Live London Tube Map by Matthew SomervilleThe link is meant to be here, but at present (24/6/2010) it is not active… probably because so many people re-tweeted it and I guess it makes pretty heavy demands on the servers of Transport For London, who provide the raw location data.

I know many people share a fascination for watching or listening to events and processes that happen in real-time.  During the shuttle missions, I like to listen to the communications between the astronauts and Houston; ATC audio holds the same fascination, as does FlightRadar’s graphical representations of live air traffic around Europe.  Chris Heathcote has created a page of TFL cams, showing live images from London’s roads; and subscribers to the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project are just as keen to watch each other via CCTV as they are to watch actual programmes.

The appearance of Matt’s tube page inspires me to post a short concept for an urban game that I wrote a few years ago, uploaded to a wiki, and then failed to develop much further.  It is reproduced below.  I sense that Foursquare may actually perform many similar functions, though I haven’t used that platform yet.  Either way, it would be great to get some input from people like those who run LiveFiction and Hide&Seek.
Continue reading “The Underground Project”

Fear of Offending

Last week we learned that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have suffered death-threats on an Islamist site, after they attempted to depict the Prophet Mohammed in South Park.  Contributors to site called Revolutionmuslim.com warned they might be killed, like the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.  The Revolutionmuslim site is now down, but their threats are cached by Google:

We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.

The post also contained a link to a Huffington Post article which describes where Stone and Parker live.  The group later presented a ‘clarification’ on SlideShare, which is still live, and which repeats the threat:

As for the Islamic ruling on the situation, then this is clear. There is no difference of opinion from those with any degree of a reputation that the punishment is death.  For one example, Ibn Taymiyyah the great scholar of Islam says, “Whoever curses the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) – a Muslim or a non Muslim- then he must be killed…” and this is the opinion of the general body of Islamic  scholars.

… This shows that taking this stance is virtually obligatory, but it does not mean that our taking this stance is in some way an absolute call toward the requirement that the creators of South Park must be killed, nor a deliberate attempt at incitement, it is only to declare the truth regardless of consequence and to offer an awareness in the mind of Westerners when they proceed forward with even more of the same.

Quite chilling. In the end, Mohammed was shown on South Park in a bear suit, and then underneath a big black ‘censored’ box, with references to his name bleeped out. Producers at Comedy Central made clear that it was they, and not Stone/Parker, that inserted this censorship.  In the second of the two part episode, the man in the suit was revealed to be Father Christmas, not Mohammed.

What is odd about all this is that, before the Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark, South Park quite happily featured Mohammed, unveiled, uncloaked, and unbearsuited.  The episode freely circulates in repeats and on DVD, and can be viewed in this short Boing Boing interview with Parker and Stone:

This week, the saga took a strang twist, when cartoonist Molly Norris published and circulated a cartoon entitled ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day‘, highlighting the ridiculous outcome of the South Park situation, where drawing anything can be taboo if it is labelled ‘Mohammed’:

The images and the idea were dedicated to Parker and Stone, but their heritage can be traced back clearly to the beginnings of conceptual art: René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images‘ (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), perhaps? Norris ‘Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor’ label was quickly taken to be a real movement (it was not), and the ‘day’ assumed to be a proper publicity drive (which it wasn’t). Norris quickly removed her image, and made clear that she was not attempting to disrespect religion herself.

This entire episode marks a continuation, rather than a departure, from the frustrating discourse around blasphemy and ‘offence’.  Since the Rushdie affair, and especially since more recent examples such as the Theo Van Gogh murder, the ideal and right of free expression has been on the back foot.  Matt Stone’s quote in the video above highlights the sorry state of affairs:

Now that’s the new normal.  We lost. Something that was OK is now not OK.

When people like Stone and Parker do attempt to take this on, they are foiled by their own network.  Cartoonists like Molly Norris back away from any controversy.  In the UK, the recent production of Behud by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti reminds us that no-one is brave enough to put on Behzti, her controversial play set in a Sikh Temple.   Even the board of the illustrious Index on Censorship backed away from publishing a Mohammed cartoon earlier this year.

We are living in one of two worlds.  Either

  • the fears of all these people are justified, in which case, we have actually descended into a sort of fascist dystopia;  Or
  • we are being over-cautious, and self-censoring unnecessarily

My personal sense is that it is the latter state of affairs is where we are at.  The Revolution Muslim group seem tiny, pathetic and are easily dealt with using existing laws against threatening behaviour.  Likewise with other protesting groups in both the USA and the UK, who can be easily countered if free speech activists and artists co-ordinate properly.  Moreover, public opinion is certainly with free speech, and against those who think that blasphemy is a legitimate reason to censor.

Those with a personal connection to Theo Van Gogh, or Hitoshi Igarashi (Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator) may disagree over the nature of the threat.  Crucially, however, either situation is untenable and an assault on democracy, and cannot be allowed to stand.

My feeling is that political leadership is required.  Only political leaders can guarantee police and legal protection for those who push the boundaries of satire… and the companies that facilitate this.  We don’t have this at the moment, and artists seem to be swimming in uncertainty, lost and scared.