17776: Native Internet Art

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.

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”

British Humour, Under Achievement, and the Sports Personality of the Year

David Beckham, Bradley Wiggins and the Dutchess of Cambridge
David Beckham, Bradley Wiggins and the Dutchess of Cambridge at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, ExCel, 16th December 2012

I want to draw attention to something particular regarding the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award 2012. It’s best encapsulated in this tweet from Sunder Katwala, who is director of the British Future thinktank:

I love the suggestion that sports people might ‘bid’ for the Sports Personality of the Year trophy, as if it is an Oscar nomination or Presidential campaign that must be plotted and strategised years in advance. The humour lies in the idea that winning a world championship or a gold medal is simply a false peak, a means to an end, with the ultimate pinnacle actually being that little trophy of an old-style TV camera, on a polished wooden stand. Continue reading “British Humour, Under Achievement, and the Sports Personality of the Year”

Thoughts on the Olympics II: Legacy and Grassroots


Another popular comment on the London Olympics is the idea that we should host them every year! That would certainly give a boost to team GB athletes but I am not sure other countries would agree!

this sentiment actually misses the point. The Olympics are about internationalism. Part of the reason London 2012 has been so delightful is because the event is part of a larger narrative: We are sandwiched between the might of Beijing and the sexiness of Rio.

We do host major international sporting events every year, for example, the Premier League or the London Marathon. These contests are televised globally and draw an audience, but the particular atmosphere generated by the Olympics is founded on the fact they are a one off.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Olympics II: Legacy and Grassroots”

On The Censorship of Cricket

The thing that caught my ear this morning was the cricket scores. England are on tour, playing Pakistan… in Abu Dhabi. The English cricketers cannot travel to play in actual Pakistan due to security threats.

This echoes the problems experienced by delegates to the Jaipur Literary Festival last weekend. Threats of violence (real and imagined) kept Salman Rushdie away from the podium, and even derailed a planned video-link appearance.

In both cases, the threats of a few reactionaries are spoiling the chances of ordinary people to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. In both these cases they are Islamists, although Hindu Nationalists are guilty of similar ad hoc censorship of artists such as the late M.F. Hussain.

But anyway, my half-formed thought is this: I wonder to what degree the practice of sport might be considered ‘expression’ in the same way as we think of writing as expression? The elegance of Sport is often likened to dance, which undeniably a form of artistic expression. And dancers are routinely referred to as ‘athletes’ with similar fitness regimes. The need for an audience is common to both groups too. If an audience is barred from a performance, then that is an infringement of the artist’s freedom of expression. Is not the barring the Pakistani cricket fans from the games (by virtue of the games being played in another country) a similar infringement?

The problem is not experienced by the players. Since Pakistan has a proud cricketing heritage, with millions of enthusiasts. Denying these fans the ritual of test matches feels like a denial of their cultural expression too. The Islamic fundamentalists are demanding that their conception of Pakistan trumps any other ideas of what is important.

This is probably an old conversation for Pakistani cricket fans. Yet it is seldom discussed here in the UK. The fact that the Test Match venue has been moved to Dubai is not remarked upon by the sports reporters. I think it is a useful issue to highlight, because if these similarities between art and sport hold up, then that would be a very useful point for free expression campaigners to insert into the campaigning rhetoric. One assumes there are more sport-lovers than literature-lovers.

Evolution of Skydiving Videos

In my youth, I would go skydiving at weekends.  My take-up of the sport was round about the time that digital video was coming onto the consumer market and into the world of freefall.  Most electronics shops sold high-end mini-DV units for four figure sums alongside VHS camcorders.  All units were relatively bulky and you required a homemade helmet with a camera-mount bracket on the front.

The films we produced then were rudimentary.  They were washed out and a bit shaky, and any that were edited were typically very basic montages set to some kind of dance-music sound-track.  Here’s an example I made earlier.

Compare that with this beautiful thing from design studio Betty Wants In, advertising a skydive centre in Melbourne. Its in a different league to what I saw being produced a decade ago, even from the professionals. Chief amongst its virtues is the focus on stillness and calm, and the relative stasis that you achieve in freefall (relative being the operative word). By contrast, when I was doing this sort of thing, the entire culture revolved around speed and the iconography was all cliched lightning bolts and flames. It shows how the practitioners of this relatively new genre have evolved, helped of course by the reduced price and size of HD video.

Its Only A Game

My thoughts on why the World Cup is not xenophobic caused a good debate, here and at Liberal Conspiracy.  I think the public response to our national team’s dire performance yesterday backs up my view that football fans (even England fans) know all too well that “its only a game” and that xenophobia is rare, unwelcome and marginalised.

In particular, the consensus that Germany were by far the better team and deserved to win, despite Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal.  The ignorant patriot would hold that this mistake by the referee cost England the game, but apart from our Italian manager Fabio Capello, no-one is advancing that argument.  In fact, the effect of the denied goal has actually been to remind us of the 1966 goal-mouth incident, where Geoff Hirst was awarded a goal by the Azerbaijani (not Russian) linesman.  The merest hint of a suggestion that maybe there is a possibility that perhaps Hirst’s ricochet did not actually entirely cross the line used to be one of our nation’s most cherished shibboleths.  Yet after the game, the idea that Lampard’s bad luck was karmic payback for Hirst’s good fortune is common currency: Richard Williams analysis in The Guardian takes this line, and echos may of the tweets I read yesterday evening.  This is not the attitude of a xenophobic nation.  Rather, it is an aquiesence to Law 5 of the game that says that the referee’s decision is final, even if it is wrong.  A commitment to the Rule of Law that would make any civil libertarian proud.

England fans looking glum, culled from @qwghlm's Tumblr
England fans looking glum (culled from @qwghlm’s Tumblr)

The World Cup is Not Xenophobic

We’re only three days into the World Cup, and already I’m tired of the drone.  I speak not of the Vuzuvelas, but of the naysayers who dismiss the World Cup as being somehow xenophobic.  Laurie Penny was at it last week, now quoted approvingly by fellow Orwell Prize nominee Madame Miaow.    Even my friend Ste Curran was at it earlier, and I expected better from him.

These curmudgeons assume that any time two teams from different sides line up against each other, it is inherently warlike.  They assume that whenever anyone chooses to support a team based purely on nationality, they are indulging in a form of blind patriotism akin to the worst excesses of political nationalism.  And while the tone of these writings is, yes, a little knowing and light-hearted, I detect real sentiments of contempt in what they say.  How strange that these writers cannot perceive the knowingness of the football fans at which they sneer, the tongue-in-cheek tone with which real sports fans approach their passion.

In particular, the charge of ‘patriotism’, or of any kind of ‘ugliness’ does not stand up to even the most cursory of examinations.  Christ, you do not even need to go to South Africa to do this – the evidence is right there on the TV screens.  See those idiot fans, cheering and leering behind the po-faced TV reporters?  Look closely at their shirts, their face-paints, and you will see the colours of many teams, of many countries.  The fun of a football tournament like the World Cup lies as much in the meeting of new people from distant shores, as it does in actually watching the game itself. The rowdy fans at Rustenberg and elsewhere know this – it is why they bother.

I think that it is precisely because football is “only a game” you find its purest form in the international competitions, not the club game.  In the latter, I think the naysayers have a point – the excessive sums spent during tough economic times on ringers from overseas does seem obscene, bizarre and unsporting.  By contrast, managers of national teams are limited in who they can pick.  They cannot buy in new talent from elsewhere.  In this sense, their situation is closer to the game as most of us play it – you’re stuck with whoever is available.  At school, teams are usually organised arbitrarily along classroom divisions, or else by means of the dreaded ‘line-up’ so despised in the childhoods of the sportingly challenged.  Either way, the talent pool is limited and the team is stuck with whoever they are given.  In pub and amateur football (or any kind of team sport, really) you are similarly limited to whoever can get off work or out of bed in time for the 10:30 kick-off.  Likewise in kids’ football, which tends to operate on a subscription model over which the person picking the team has zero control.

The fun of most sport, indeed, of most games, lies in these arbitrary constraints.   We agree on some rules to abide by, and set ourselves other random constraints (such as the players, the cards, the dice)… and then we try our damnedest to win.  The fact it is all made up; that we have chosen to spend our time like this; that the outcome does not actually matter to our lives one iota; that it is entirely and necessarily divorced from our day-to-day existence:  That is where the ‘sport’ exists.  The fact that it doesn’t matter is precisely the point, because it is an escape from things that do matter.  Pointing out the futility of the exercise, usually by reference to the well worn “grown men kicking a pig’s bladder” cliche, is like the irritating snoot who tells everyone else how the magician does his tricks, thus spoiling the show.

Cheating in sport is despicable because it similarly breaks the suspension of disbelief in which the rest of us have colluded.  Related, I think, is the way in which the obnoxious amounts of money spent on footballers’ transfer fees leaves a sour aftertaste: buying in new players seems like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.  The presence of Kevin Pieterson in the England Cricket team makes many of us uneasy, despite his undoubted talent… because switching nationalities looks like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.

Football is so popular because most of us have the emotional intelligence to be able to buy in to the spectacle.  The utter frivolity of what is at stake is the perfect excuse for a great big global party, in which people of all ages, from all continents and from all religions, can participate.  The simplicity of the rules means literally everyone can understand what is going on.  Yes, there have been idiots who use football as an excuse for violence… but the game was always the excuse, and not the cause of that particular type of stupidity.  These men do not define the sport, and they are a dying breed.  In their place steps an ever growing number of sports fans who just want to watch the game with their friends, old and new.

Are we wasting too much media attention on the unfoldings of a meaningless tournament in South Africa?  I find it hard to be annoyed.  Once every four years, the eyes of all of humanity turn towards the same place.  Everyone, whether they like it or not, is distracted by the same thing.  It is not religious, it is not violent, and it cannot be bought.  Its a delightful phenomenon, one we should cherish.

Football fans from Germany and England celebrate in Cologne during the 2006 World Cup Finals
English and German Fans mix in Cologne, before a World Cup 2006 fixture

Cross-posted over at Liberal Conspiracy.