17776: Native Internet Art

An appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

At the beginning of this month, the U.S. sports website SBnation.com surprised its readers with an unexpected meditation on the game of (American) football. A piece titled ‘17776: What Football Will Look Like In The Future’ was posted to the site, alongside the usual results and recaps of recent baseball and basketball games. But when curious readers clicked on the headline, they were transported fifteen thousand years into the future, and billions of miles into deep space. Over the following weeks, new chapters to the story drew readers into writer Jon Bois’s appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

The characters in the world are very old, possibly immortal. They use their new-found longevity to play and watch long and complex games, usually based around what we 21st century denizens recognise as gridiron football. Several far-future nationwide football games are described, all with a lineage that can be traced back to those we watch today. But all the games a far more extreme and heightened, having evolved over millennia. Just as, with biological evolution, the essential components of a given animal order, family or genus are revealed as they become more pronounced, so those aspects American football that are at the core of the sport are revealed when the future-humans iterate it to a ridiculous degree.

Football's different things to different people. | see this kind of football, the open-world kind, as its end state. The old grid football, the hundred- yard kind, was basically just training wheels. The game was always all about the field, of course. The ground, the Earth. And it was kind of like,
A monologue by Ten, one of the extra-terrestrials
As well as the idea of play, Bois invites us to revel in the vastness and complexity of our planet, and the unique history of each patch of earth. In one particular sequence, I thought of the art of the Boyle Family, who pick random points on the globe and precisely reproduce the square metre of ground that they find there.
World Series
Two panels from the Boyle Family’s ‘World Series’ depicting studies of The Hague (left) and the Central Australian Desert. Installed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2003
I wonder if there's a single place in the whole world that's never had a story. I bet not. I just about guarantee you there's no places like that in America. Every little square of it, every place you stomp your foot, that's where something happened. Something wild, maybe something nobody knows about, but something. You can fall out of the sky and right into some forgotten storybook.    -- recognized by
Another of Ten’s monologues
 
The format goes beyond what one might expect from a piece of online writing. It’s a collision of YouTube video animation, chat room text, and Google Earth renderings. One thought I had after reading a couple of chapters was that it should not be surprising that the format is surprising. Modern technology offers countless ways to render a narrative, and all Bois has done is to take a fairly well established format—a chat room script—and illustrate it with animations from a common online tool. It is not particularly radical, but the way we publish online (both the format of digital content, and it’s graphic design) has become so formulaic that even small and obvious departures from the norm suddenly feel innovative. In a Q&A, the author himself puts it very well:

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

On Facebook, a friend of mine writes:

it is such a brilliant piece of work, creative and touching and imaginative and smart, and it could only work here, in this medium. Is there anything else like that? I’m not sure.

There are precedents. First, in the Q&A, Bois cites Calvin and Hobbes as an influence on his writing. And there are moments in 17776 that feel exactly like Bill Watterson’s comic strip. In particular, the way in which the three narrators revel in the beauty of (in turn) the Earth, human endeavour and the game of American football, could easily be something Calvin comes out with on one of his meditative sledge rides.

Calvin and Hobbes, 9 November 1987. Bill Watterson

I think a better comparison than Calvin and Hobbes is with the xkcd web comic. If Jon Bois is not a fan of Randall Munroe’s twice-weekly panels, I’d be astonished. xkcd characters often manifest the same geeky wonder at creation that Ten, Juice and finally Nine profess in 17776.

But there is more: xkcd also regularly experiments with form too: 1446: ‘Landing’ and 1190: ‘Time’ are long form animation; while 1110: ‘Click and Drag’ is a 10 gigapixel image. 1416: ‘Pixels’ plays with the idea of fractals in order to sell us a book.

From the stories, I expected the world to be sad...
The first three panels from xkcd ‘Click and Drag’.

When ‘Click and Drag’ was first published, I wrote:

This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.

We can call 17776 ‘native’ internet art too, I think. The combination of text, GIFs and video only really work when read in a browser. I suppose it could be translated into a single YouTube video but that would be an act of adaptation, just as the ‘whole world’ images that xkcd fans have created of comic 1110 are an adaptation (and a spoiler) for the online version.

Projects like 17776 remind us that while the game of football may be old, the Internet is still a very new medium. It’s a delight to live in this moment of innovation, and to watch artists experiment within it.

I regret not being more experimental myself.

To Win, and To Win Fairly

Winning makes history. But winning in the right way is just as important, because it generates goodwill and political capital.

Oh, the twists and turns of the Democrats Primary season! Now its Hillary’s turn to feel the heat, after she invoked the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in a discussion over the lengthy nomination process:

My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don’t understand it.

The implication from many quarters is that Senator Clinton is hanging in there on the off-chance that Senator Obama is murdered. However, if you watch the YouTube of her interview (with the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader) its clear that is not what she is saying. The operative word here is quite obviously ‘June’ and not ‘assassinated’.

Now, I’m an Obama fan, and wish Clinton would drop out of the race. The controversy a few weeks ago surrounding comments from Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor, was ruthlessly exploited by the Clinton campaign. If this comment about Bobby Kennedy sinks her, there would be a real sense of schadenfreud, reap-what-you-sow and (to borrow a phrase from Wright) chickens coming home to roost.

However, Obama is really supposed to be above all that. He is running on the rhetoric of change, to wash the disingenuity from Washington politics. For the knock-out punch to be landed so unfairly would be a shame. It would show that such dirty politics is still legitimate. Victory, for Obama, would be less sweet.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing debate within the Democratic Party as to whether the Florida and Michigan delegations, previously banned for breaking the DNC’s rules governing primaries, should be seated. Clinton argues that they should, and of course stands to benefit if that happens. Obama argues that they should not, because they broke the rules, and everyone agreed not to campaign there. Currently, Obama has the moral high-ground here, and the consensus is that this view will prevail.

However, a little piece of gossip threatens this claim. It is rumoured that 40 or so Super-Delegates are planning to defect from Hillary Clinton, and endorse Barack Obama. Over at The Field, Al Giordano hints:

Cardoza is one of the leaders of this effort (which includes not only superdelegates, but here’s something that should set off some paranoia in Camp Clinton: there are pledged Clinton delegates in “The Cardoza 40,” too).

Emphasis mine. Obama should not be welcoming other people’s pledged delegates into his fold. These people, unlike the super-delegates, have been awarded their position on the basis of a popular vote in favour of Senator Clinton. To condone her delegates to vote instead for Obama is profoundly undemocratic, and unworthy of the Illinois Senator’s inspiring rhetoric. Let us hope he distances himself from this possibility.

Winning makes history, and confers power. But winning in the right way is just as important, because it generates goodwill and political capital.

All this reminds me of Manchester United’s Champions League victory on Wednesday evening. Yes, they won, and lifted the trophy. But their achievement is sullied by the manner in which it came about. The previous win, in 1999, will be more highly regarded, and will be more fondly remembered.

Update

Via the Dish, xpostfactoid highlights the ways in which Obama has maintained his integrity, and killed Hillary with kindness.

The Art of the Run-up

Following last night’s drama in Moscow, I can only reiterate how important the run-up is to penalty-taking.

John Terry's angst

Following last night’s drama in Moscow, I can only reiterate how important the run-up is to penalty-taking. Over half of the spot-kicks taken last night were actually quite shoddy, with both Van der Sar and Cech getting their fingers to most of the shots. However, a strong run-up from the shooter meant that the power was enough to carry the ball into the goal. Meanwhile, Ronaldo, Terry and Anelka were all hesitant.

There’s probably a Gordon Brown metaphor to be found somewhere in all this, but I really can’t be bothered to pick it out.

Alisher Usmanov

Let us hope that the prospect of yet another post-Soviet Croesus ripping the heart out of yet another Premiership Football Club inspires a viable campaign against this podgy, anti-democratic thug.

While the We Can’t Turn Them Away campaign gathers pace, here’s some news of another campaign – this time regarding freedom of speech. I am very “late to the party” on this one, but as Justin says

This isn’t a race, this about sharing views and showing solidarity.

So, who is Alisher Usmanov? Is he, perhaps, a detained blogger in Egypt? Or an activist in Burma? Nope – he is an Uzbek billionaire who owns part of Arsenal Football Club. When Usmanov sought to increase his stake in the club to 21%, Craig Murray (a former ambassador to Uzbekistan) posted some articles about Usmanov on his website www.craigmurray.co.uk. The businessman threatened to sue Murray if he did not retract his articles. Since Murray believed his allegations to be true, he refused and invited the legal action.

Usmanov responded by threatening legal action against not only Craig Murray, but other blogs which had republished Murray’s articles. Crucially, they also threatened legal action against the web hosting company, FastHosts. The result was that several blogs were temporarily taken offline, and some remain unreachable. Tim Ireland, relentless blog stalwart and one of the victims of the hostile action, has the full timeline.

Tim also cites the ‘cross-spectrum’ outrage at the action of Usmanov and his solicitors, Schillings. Defending freedom of speech tends to unite bloggers like nothing else. As expected, there are plenty of succint quotes out there. Mr Eugenidies says it in his own style:

I don’t give a shit about this character, or Arsenal FC (no offence to any Gooners out there); nor do I share all or even most of Tim Ireland or Craig Murray’s politics. But that’s far from the point. If you can be silenced for calling a businessman a crook, then you can be silenced for calling a politician a crook, too. Then it’s everyone’s problem.

That bloggers should be crusading for free-speech is to be expected. In fact, I would say it is the normal state of things. That a blogger and his web host are being sued is not a unique occurrence. Given that blogging still has a reputation as a fringe pursuit for obsessives and activists, I imagine that news of the legal action is something that the population at large would find unremarkable.

For me, the ‘hook’ is Usmanov’s involvement with Arsenal. I am a fair-weather fan myself, although my family are much more dedicated supporters. They particularly dislike the methods of Roman Abramovich, such as the tapping up of Ashley Cole. The meddling of Vladimir Romanov at Hearts is well documented. Let us hope that the prospect of yet another post-Soviet Croesus ripping the heart out of yet another Premiership Football Club inspires a viable campaign against this podgy, anti-democratic thug.

Cult footballers and followings

Dave Hill amusingly plugs his book 33 times over at Comment is Free. The novel is called The Adoption and is of course available online. I fear this plug may be too late for Christmas, however.

I do enjoy Dave’s blog – especially his thought on such slippery subjects as multiculturalism and political correctness – and I recommend his novel on this basis. It is interesting to see many others do the same: This is not merely a case of blogger-boys-club-back-scratching, but recommendations based on sincerely held beliefs about the quality of a writer’s output. Having said that, a novel is a very different type of writing than blogging, and there may not be a correlation between lengthy fiction, and pithy political opination.

Elsewhere, I hear that Highbury cult-figure Perry Groves’ autobiography is massively outselling Ashley Cole’s offering, due in no small part to the campaign for that very thing over at Arseblog. Dave Hill bemoans the focus in the book-trade in pushing a few bestsellers, leaving the less high profile authors to fend for themselves. The alternative model he suggests – that of bloggers bypassing the marketing hype and recommending alternatives – seems to be working in Groves’ favour, and at Cole’s expense.

Ashley now earns more in a week than Perry’s transfer fee to Arsenal twenty-years ago. He may be more famous at the moment, but will be remembered amongst the Arsenal fans for his involvement in the ‘tapping up‘ scandals, and being married to someone from Girls Aloud. In 2006, it seems an online campaign has snowballed, as readers come to realise that actually, Cole is a less interesting character than someone who has been out of the game for a decade.

To find that it is Perry Groves who has benefited from this phenomenon is unsurprising, as he was always a cult figure anyway. Often on the bench, he never reached the stratosphere of later stars such as Ian Wright and Tierry Henry, or even team-mates like Charlie Nicholas (for whom he set up the winning goal in Arsenal’s 1987 League Cup win). Nevertheless, Groves’ work ethic, bionic throw-ins, and an odd appearance (his nickname was ‘Tintin’ which is why I remember him so well) made him a Highbury favourite.

To come full circle: All this talk of cult figures (and of footballers marrying C-List celebrities) reminds me of the essay by digital artist Momus, which I quoted in my article on the Impact of Blogs for Writer’s News earlier this year. Momus’ point was that the new, digital media could allow people to by-pass the bottleneck of the mainstream outlets. The online world promised to be fertile territory for the unadulterated cult-figure. From my article:

Pandering to the lowest common denominator in the ‘mainstream’ can be a debilitating process … Through online publishing, an idiosyncratic writer can find viable target audiences, without diluting their work.

Attaining this niche-fame – a kind of cult following, perhaps – becomes increasingly attractive to the serious writer. As the digital artist Momus said: “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” We live in an era where mainstream celebrity seems entirely unrelated to talent. Finding a small, dedicated audience online may be a better measure of success, than C-list recognition in the mainstream.

Cautions, crosses… and those cartoons

If the thuggery of sectarianism is our first concern, the second is how different groups are treated when the hackles of the extremists among them are raised. When violence between Christians occurs, we say that it is a social problem, a feature of urban living. No suggestion is made that the problem may be a flaw in the religion itself, or that one of the two groups should radically change its thinking… or leave. But this is precisely what happens when the troublemakers are Muslim.

Artur BorucAn alarming story I spotted at the weekend, but forgot to mention: ‘Alarm’ at cross player’s caution. The Celtic goal-keeper Artur Boruc was cautioned by police for causing a breach of the peace, after he made overtly Catholic religious gestures at the stauchly protestant Ibrox Stadium. He crossed himself, in the theatrical ‘spectacles-testicles-wallet-and-watch’ manner, so beloved of Catholics everywhere.

The argument for Boruc’s culpability here comes from the idea that he almost certainly knew what effect his gestures would have. They were not done innocently, but were intented to annoy the Rangers fans. It is a worrying decision for many reasons, I think we would do well to remember many of the debates that surrounded the Danish Mohammed cartoons affair in February – another controversy over symbolism, intent, and interpretation.

The most important debate then, as now, did not so much revolve around the ‘meaning’ of the symbol itself. In both cases, we agree that it is at least possible for symbols that one group find offensive, to considered benign or even sacred by another. No-one can define the symbol positively or negatively for everyone – people just have subjective responses. We only become concerned with the matter when one person (or newspaper) seeks to deliberately incite such responses in others. Then we ask whether they have a right to do so, balancing freedom of speech considerations with public order.

In the case of the cartoons published in the Jyllands Posten, the consensus (it seemed to me) settled with the importance of freedom of speech. The right to offend was rightly trumpeted. Those who did have a negative reaction were labelled as intolerant. Certainly, said the blogosphere, the secular ideals of freedom of speech trump the traditions of a religious group, especially when the issue concerns criticism of that group. The government seemed to agree, and those who over-reacted were arrested.

In this latest, analagous case however, the opposite has happened, and it is the provocateur who has been punished. I think this is wrong for a couple of reasons. First, I might say that banter between the home and away teams is part of any game of football. The home fans shout jibes at the opposition, while at the other end the players of the team they support are receiving a similar treatment from the visiting fans. Sometimes the banter works, and a player is put off his game. At other times the player responds, and riles the opposing fans some more. Being annoyed by players from other teams is, I would suggest, a part of the game. It is certainly a big part of being a dedicated fan. Furthermore, Boruc’s contribution was not racist or deprecating to the Ranger’s fans themselves. It was an overt gesture of his own faith which pissed them off. He should be allowed to do it, just as they shout rude things about the Pope in return, as they invariably are wont to do when Celtic visit Ibrox.

Is it not appalling that the Ranger’s fans could get so offended by the crossing gesture in the first place? The real issue here is that the rampant sectarianism still exists, and the punishment of Boruc in a way condones the mutual intolerance between the Catholics and Protestants in Scotland.

If the thuggery of sectarianism is our first concern, the second is how different groups are treated when the hackles of the extremists among them are raised. When violence between Christians occurs, we say that it is a social problem, a feature of urban living. No suggestion is made that the problem may be a flaw in the religion itself, that the policy of “multiculturalism” has failed, or that one of the two groups should radically change its thinking… or leave. But this is precisely what happens when the troublemakers are Muslim. Moreover, there are more Protestants and Catholics in the UK than there are Muslims. If Islamic extremism is such a threat to the unity of this country, then sectarianism is too. And since it manifests itself most overtly during football matches – those weekly beacons of the British way of life – it has a greater impact on the wider culture, than the Islamic lobby could ever have. Yet it occupies our thoughts to a lesser degree. Its easier to demonise those beared weirdos in sheets, than it is to criticise the guy in a football who uses sport to teach his sons how to hate.

Stadium, overheard

I’ve been pottering about quietly in my flat, with the windows open. It is a still kind of day here in in Edinburgh, and the sound from Tynecastle wafts over the tenements. In this manner I deduce that Hearts are beating whoever it is they are playing.

I’m reminded of my time in Rio de Janeiro, living near the Parque Guinle, in the shadow of the Corcovado. If Fluminese or Botafogo happened to score, the city would erupt in a joyous cacaophony, like a jungle awakening.

Sometimes I find it is nice to live in a noisy town. The disturbances, like the roar of Tynecastle, or the One O’Clock Gun, are a kind of language of the city, one that you can pick out and understand above the hum of the traffic. It is a communication (of sorts) with your neighbours, who are elsewhere and enjoying themselves. “We are here,” they say. “You are not alone.”

Two Zizou round-ups

The speed at which this particular narrative (is it ‘The Rise and Fall..’, ‘The Fall and Rise…’, ‘Hero to Zero’?) has cycled through its steps is astonishing. On Sunday, Zidane was the villain who lost France the World Cup. Monday and Tuesday was the lip-reading intrigue over what was said. On Wednesday he apologised and by now he is the toast of all France for standing up to racism! It is as if a peice of history has been manufactured at high-speed.

Jarndyce links to a number of posts discussing that headbutt, and analyses the the political victimology of Zizou:

The presumption that Zizou was justified in “retaliation” can only be explained by assuming Materazzi fits the northern European stereotype of the Italian as a racist wop. To those that charge Materazzi with racially abusing Zidane, on the basis of so little evidence, I call right back at you.

The speed at which this particular narrative (is it ‘The Rise and Fall..’, ‘The Fall and Rise…’, ‘Hero to Zero’?) has cycled through its steps is astonishing. On Sunday, Zidane was the villain who lost France the World Cup. Monday and Tuesday was the lip-reading intrigue over what was said. On Wednesday he apologised and by now he is the toast of all France for standing up to racism! It is as if a peice of history has been manufactured at high-speed.

Now it is Friday, and we are into post-modern parodies for laughs. Anil Dash has compiled a movie of the Internet’s best Zidane animations, in the inaugural Zidane World Cup Headbutt Animation Festival. Full circle.

Sunny at Pickled Politics has curated a similar festival. Apologise to the visitors from there who visited here looking for the above linked YouTube video – I accidentally deleted the embed code from the post. Now reinstated…

July 1st, our fateful day

And so over ninety years the analogies are mirrored, reversed. The ball kicked over the trenches in 1916 lands at Rooney’s feet. His “shot” is fired back through the decades, and men fall over, never to stand again.

More from Great-uncle Roland’s diary:

Friday 30th June 1916. 7pm.
I have just got back from the trenches, which were squelching with mud … It was a lovely afternoon with a fresh wind blowing. Some of the trenches were badly knocked about. I looked over into Hunland as I came out – the wood in front looking like currant bushes with the blight.

Some trees were down in our wood. I passed the cemetary, as I came back, and looked at [Lt. Wilfred Dent Wroe’s] grave. I am moving up by myself at 8.30, having a little time here to wash and have a meal. I had three letters tonight and the Observer, rather delayed, all posted on Sunday.

This ends the diary before the “push” as I must pack up.

Thirteen hours later 2nd Lt. Roland Ingle was dead. He is buried in the same Becourt Military Cemetery he had visited the day before.

Fast forward ninety years. The World Cup is building to a crescendo, and we are bombarded by war-time allegories. Meanwhile, The Times carries a picture of Wayne Rooney in a Kitchener style pose, accompanied by the famous slogan “Your Country Needs You.” My brothers have answered the call, and are in Germany. They have been mingling with the German fans, jubilant after their victory over the Argentines.

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Bill Shankly’s famous quote persists. I hope he said it firmly with his tongue in his cheek, because it is, of course, utter tosh. Football doesn’t matter like wars matter. Actually, I think most fans know this, despite the hyperbole. There are those who would say that clearly, I haven’t been visiting the right sort of pubs in the wrong parts of town… and yet today in Edinburgh, arch-rivals Hearts FC and Hibernian FC have joined together to commemorate The Somme.

The fun of the game is precisely giving yourself over to a set of arbitrary rules, and ‘buying into’ the theatre that ensues. Sure, one has to suspend disbelief, pretend for a moment that it does matter. But the party atmosphere that my siblings have reported back can only exist if one ultimately acknowledges that is all a game. Something done purely for fun, for enjoyment, for escapism. Those who allow the boundaries to be crossed, as Shankly suggests, are idiots. They are just like those who believe that soap-opera characters are real people.

Contrast the “a game as a war” analogies, with the attitudes of the men at The Somme. I read today that some British soldiers there had a competition, to try and kick a football into the German trenches as they went for the big “push” at 7.30am. No-one claimed the prize, because all those who had competed were killed. As Roland Ingle wrote, they took chances of life and death as all being “part of the game”.

And so over ninety years the analogies are mirrored, reversed. The ball kicked over the trenches in 1916 lands at Rooney’s feet. His “shot” is fired back through the decades, and men fall over, never to stand again. We use the language of war, words like “this fateful day” and “our hero,” to describe events and people that are no such thing. The real heros have already met their fate. And now, because of The Fallen, we are free, to play a game with the Germans and the Portuguese, united by a complete triviality, the one excuse for a party. This is how we honour them.

Look, Uncle Roland! Now they are our friends.

English and German Fans mix in Cologne, before a World Cup 2006 fixture

Footballers' Fonts

The names on the shoulders of the German players are rendered in a nice sans-serif bauhaus font. The Costa Ricans, on the other-hand, have gone for a truly horrible Comic Sans.

After Munich, back in the ‘1, I lost my visceral dislike of the German football team. Like Argentina and Holland, they have become Just Another Team. I therefore enjoyed the opening match of the World Cup as a neutral, and sat with a pint to enjoy five goals (I missed the first).

German ShirtA designer friend of mine, who usually loathes football, supported the Germans. The reason? Well, the names on the shoulders of the German players are rendered in a nice sans-serif bauhaus font. The Costa Ricans, on the other-hand, have chosen a truly horrible Comic Sans Bold.

Let’s just hope the England team shirts have proper kerning. Poor typography could – once again – cost us the tournament.