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.

An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious, arrogant, cowardl and self indulgent. On all of these counts, you are mistaken.

Dear People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters —

As is customary with this form, I must begin by stating whether or not we have met.  We have not.  But in many ways, I feel like you.  In fact, following my Open Tweet to People Who Write Open Letters this morning, it could be said that I am you.  I share your concern that the Open Letter form has become a cliché, and your worry that we are reaching Peak Open Letter, bringing an ennui that can only be described as Open Letter Fatigue.

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious and arrogant.  You claim that they are cowardly.  You claim they are self indulgent.

On all of these counts, you are mistaken.  Continue reading “An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters”

Liz Kendall as a Quick Case Study on Political Persuasion in the Digital Age

My advice to all political campaigners is therefore to produce videos that show your candidate speaking to supporters

On Monday, Labour Party members received an e-mail from Liz Kendall in their inboxes: an open letter.

You probably think I’m writing to ask you for your vote in the upcoming election for party leader.

And I am.

But what really matters for our country and our party is another election – the one we’ll fight together in 2020.

By then, our country will have suffered under five more years of the Tories.

&cetera.  I was a little underwhelmed by the text, to be honest.  The values she lays out do not seem to delineate Kendall from other candidates, or even the other parties.  “End inequalities” and “eliminate low pay” are policies that Labour surely shares with the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP.   Conservative Party Leadership Candidates probably would not put these issues at the top of an appeal to their members, but it would be difficult to find a Tory MP that disagrees with either.  However, “we need a more caring society”, “We must share power with people” and “We need a future of hope for all our young people” are phrases that would make their way onto a Conservative membership e-mail.   Only once in the e-mail does Kendall explain a policy difference between her and anyone else (on inheritance tax).   So the aspirations and goals, worthy though they are, seem rote when stated by themselves. Continue reading “Liz Kendall as a Quick Case Study on Political Persuasion in the Digital Age”

The New Social Media, All About Images, Less About The Search

Which of course got loads of re-tweets, because the Internet does like a bit of meta.

I’ve noticed that instead of sharing a concise and searchable 140 character message, people have taken to sharing an image of a person with a longer quote on it.  Is this how social media works now?

Its a trend that’s taken off because both Twitter and Facebook have made the process of embedding and displaying images in their respective timelines much easier.

For example: Continue reading “The New Social Media, All About Images, Less About The Search”

Google's Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That

My social media stream is full of people praising Google for taking a ‘brave’ stand against the Russian state.  Why?  Well, today’s Google Doodle is a rainbow themed Winter Olympics Graphic.

The Russian Government has recently passed blasphemy laws and other measures that restrict freedom of expression.  They have also passed a ‘gay propaganda’ law which bans discussion of homosexuality around minors – an attack on the already embattled homosexual community in Russia.
Continue reading “Google's Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That”

Quoted in the Washington Post

I’m delighted to have spoken to the Washington Post for an article about the Twitter abuse furore.

I’m delighted to have spoken to the Washington Post for an article about the Twitter abuse furore:

“The worry is that the abuse button will be abused,” said Robert Sharp, a spokesman for English PEN, a literary group that promotes freedom of expression. “It puts the power of censorship into the hands of those who would be offended, which is fine when it’s a rape threat. But the same technology will be used by Christians to censor atheists, used by atheists to censor Christians, and so on.”

Credit where its due: Tom Phillips’ article on theTwitter abuse button was fresh in my mind when I spoke to the WaPo journalist.  And there’s a huge body of work out there on the issue of ‘offence’ as a trigger for censorship.  My turn of phrase “those who would be offended” is not natural speech, but its the sort of thing that springs to mind when you’ve been marinated in these kinds of arguments.

How we wake up to the misogyny in our midst

This post by sexologist Jill McDeviitt is quite astonishing. It chronicles her rage at being sent an entirely inappropriate e-mail by a man she had never met, and his subsequent approach to her parents when she threatened to publish the e-mail on her blog.

It is yet another story of how men send women inappropriate, disgusting and/or downright illegal messages over the Internet – an issue that we have been discussing all week.

The part of McDevitt’s post that I found particularly revelatory is when she describes how her parents behaved, when the man contacted them (he was the husband of someone who worked with Jill’s step-mother):

I’m left to marvel not just at your individual misogyny, but also the infantilizing sexism that exists in the back corners and in the cobwebs of the brains of everyone involved.

Receiving a repugnant email from you, a strange man, is bad enough. But what makes this case so compelling is how you were able to entangle my normally feminist and self-aware family, illuminating just how deep tolerance of predatory men goes in our society.

Continue reading “How we wake up to the misogyny in our midst”

Notes on PRISM, privacy and surveillance

Here are a few notes and links in lieu of something more rounded.

I have been away this week and unable to write anything on the PRISM revelations that have dominated the news over the past few days.  Here are a few notes and links in lieu of something more rounded.

At ORGcon, I did preface my remarks during the ‘free speech online in the UK’ panel to note that the right to free speech includes the right not to be surveilled.  If you think your conversations are being monitored, then you are not going to speak as freely as you may wish.  (I will post a longer reflection on the ORGcon discussion soon).

This week I did read an article by Daniel Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education which summarises variations on the “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” argument for surveillance. It’s obviously extremely relevant given recent revelations surrounding the US Government’s PRISM programme.

Solove’s article is a frustrating read, because the arguments against surveillance are, like many human rights issues, bound up in ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling frog’ concepts that tend not to resonate with ordinary people. Public interest (and outrage) at privacy invasions only occur when rare real-life examples manifest themselves, as when the damage has already been done (the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone being the prime example).  Liberally minded people who oppose surveillance and privacy intrusions on principle need more sound-bites to compete with “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. Solove lists a few candidates – “Why do you have curtains, then?” is probably the best retort. Continue reading “Notes on PRISM, privacy and surveillance”

I was using WordPress before it was cool

I have used every version of the software since the antiquated version 1.5.

Yesterday was the 10th birthday of WordPress, the blogging platform from which these words that you are reading are delivered to your glowing rectangle.1 Here is an interesting infographic, showing how dominant the software has become.

WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg has typed a love letter to his anthropomorphised project.

I’ve been using WordPress since September 2005, or eighty percent of the platform’s lifetime.  I have used every version of the software since the antiquated version 1.5.  When I began blogging, WordPress had been downloaded 538,514 times.  According to the infographic, that number has risen to more than 66 million.  This puts me comfortably into the earliest 1% of users.  I was using WordPress before it was cool.

When I began, the default Kubrick design had only just been introduced, and there was even an option to activate an older ‘classic’ template.  There were no options for uploading images (you had to do that via FTP or ‘hotlink’ from an existing image online) or integration with social media, and there was no way to change the look and feel of the site unless you knew some CSS and PHP.

However, the two core pieces of functionality that make WordPress so useful were already in place back in 2005 – themes and plugins.  By uploading small pieces of stand-alone code, you could change the look (themes) or functionality (plugins) of the site without messing with the core code.  That was not a unique feature of WordPress, but I am sure that the simplicity of the way it was implemented contributed to its success.

That, and the fact that WordPress is OpenSource, meaning anyone can edit the code and create themes and plug-ins.  I was very impressed when, in 2010, Mullenweg transferred ownership of the WordPress trademark to a non-for-profit company, meaning the platform cannot be sold to an Internet giant, as Tumblr was last week.

Other sites in which I have a hand that use the WordPress platform include The LIP Magazine archive, The Word of an Insignificant Woman, Liberal Conspiracy, and English PEN.



1.  Unless, of course, you’re reading this at some point in the near or far future when I have, in an ironic twist, abandoned WordPress for some other software and imported all my old posts.