Tag Archives: cynical

Augmented Reality

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I work in telecoms (the obvious home for classicists) and was recently at the Mobile World Congress expo in Barcelona, where the latest and greatest developments were being demonstrated. My personal favourites were the waterproof paper and the laser keyboard, but there was a lot of noise around the trend of AR – Augmented Reality.

This means a ton of different things, but mostly overlaying what you see on a screen with additional information. Currently you can look at a street through your camera phone and get info on the buildings (like ‘this is a restaurant, here’s the menu, here’s the number to call for reservations’). I spoke to someone at Ford who was talking about HUDs on cars combined with AR, and that by 2020 he expected to see an AR-HUD on most car windscreens showing satnav on the road, minimum stopping distances from the car ahead (and what speed that car is travelling at), speed camera warnings, turn-off warnings, etc etc.

This all sounds pretty cool (although I’d have thought that much white noise on the windscreen might be a bit dangerous? But I’m not a driver so not confident of my ground there), but it did slightly leave me wondering – are we advancing the technology because there’s a demand for it, or because we can?

It’s the same thing that the tablet threw up. Even the phone operators didn’t know what it was for – one of the most popular speeches I ever put together was a bunch of people who use tablets in their businesses, because that let the operators hear where their product fit in the market. Mental. They just made it because Apple did, and people bought them.

Why did people buy them? This got asked in the conference as well. One of the delegates, who had just got one, replied with ‘it’s the nicest thing you don’t need’. Do we really want this stuff? Or do we buy it because they tell us we want it, and it’s shiny?

I don’t have a tablet. I have played with one at various events and decided that it is ultimately fairly pointless. My phone, laptop and TV will do each task better. But everyone who does have one seems to adore them. So – and I’m genuinely curious about this – what is it about advanced technology in general, and tablets in particular, that is so attractive?

Writing as a Social Irresponsibility

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“Your relationship with the reader is sadomasochistic.” – David Brin

The mark of a good book is that the reader can’t put it down. You want your audience to read rather than sleep, to ignore their work and choose your book over their friends and family. You want them to engage with your world so much that it becomes more real than their own.

Part of this is giving them what they want but making them wait for it. David Brin used the example of a murder mystery reveal or ‘parlour’ scene, to which there are three possible responses from the reader:

1)      That doesn’t make sense.

2)      I saw that coming a mile off.

3)      Of course! I’m so stupid, I should have known!

The writer is aiming for response 3, but if they let the reader actually know in advance then that reader will in fact be disappointed.

This ties directly into the ‘happily ever after’ issue that I referred to last week. All readers need some sort of closure – cliff hangers are the most frustrating thing in the world, and you can really only pull that trick once or twice before you start losing people. The question is, who are you writing for and what does that audience actually want in terms of closure?

‘Happily ever after’ is one of the most common tropes in writing because people like it. It may not be realistic but people don’t read fiction for realism (that’s not to say you can afford not to make your characters believable – there’s an important difference between credibility and realism).

I have to confess that this is something I struggle with. Despite being a generally upbeat person, I can’t seem to get away from writing tragic endings. Whenever I run roleplay games they usually end up with mentally traumatised characters, if not TPK (total party kill). I’ve yet to write a book in which all the protagonists survive to the bitter end and it’s usually my favourite character that bites the bullet. George R.R. Martin Syndrome.

Killing off protagonists is a noble tradition and a useful weapon in the writer’s arsenal. Ending on a tragic note is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it brings closure, but all the time? Sadomasochism aside, you shouldn’t traumatise your readers otherwise they won’t come back. I doubt I’ll be watching any film with the marketing line ‘From the director of Revolutionary Road’, for example.

Clearly I need to sit my muse down and have a word. ‘Happily ever after’ is an acceptable ending.

The Trouble With Love

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Yesterday’s post was a little emotionally squishy, so I’m making it up to you by talking today about the trouble romance in storytelling can cause.

Let’s start with the obvious: Mills & Boon, et al. Yes, I read them as a teenager. It’s practically a requirement of being a girl (especially one at a single-sex boarding school). Leaving the plot and writing quality aside, the stories engender entirely unrealistic expectations of love and romance. The hero is always handsome, flawed in some way that won’t actually cause problems later, and fantastically good in bed. There’s usually an element of mystery, or some great trial / misunderstanding that the couple have to go through, but it all works out fine in the end. Oh, and there’s only ever one Mr. Right.

Yeah, right.

Even Shakespeare’s at fault with his whole ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ thing (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1.1.132-140). And, of course, there’s Romeo, Romeo. At least his protagonists have the mitigating factor of being complete idiots occasionally – I’m thinking primarily of the entire cast of Much Ado About Nothing here – but the expectations of love are still set at 1) fall in love, 2) some trauma, challenge or other excitement, 3) happy ever after / tragically glorious death together (more on this later). It’s such a pervasive technique of storytelling that it bleeds into our expectations of life. That’s very dangerous.

I have come across one piece of literature that I think covers this. (I’m sure there are others out there, I just haven’t found them yet). I’d like to share it with you. It’s by one of my favourite poets and it can be read as dismissive or depressing, but I see in it a simple sweetness. Make of it what you will.

Song by Rupert Brooke

“Oh! Love,” they said, “is King of Kings,
And Triumph is his crown.
Earth fades in flame before his wings,
And Sun and Moon bow down.” —
But that, I knew, would never do;
And Heaven is all too high.
So whenever I meet a Queen, I said,
I will not catch her eye.

“Oh! Love,” they said, and “Love,” they said,
“The gift of Love is this;
A crown of thorns about thy head,
And vinegar to thy kiss!” —
But Tragedy is not for me;
And I’m content to be gay.
So whenever I spied a Tragic Lady,
I went another way.

And so I never feared to see
You wander down the street,
Or come across the fields to me
On ordinary feet.
For what they’d never told me of,
And what I never knew;
It was that all the time, my love,
Love would be merely you.

No Man Is An Island

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Communication and storytelling in the modern world has run into a weird phenomenon – something that various people have termed the ‘over communicated society’. Social media means there’s so much white noise that it’s nearly impossible to hear the important stories or (more crucially in some cases) the important silences.

I want to take the recent Kony 2012 video as an example. When you have 30 minutes to spare, watch this:

It’s a fantastically well put-together story, spread using social media to tell the world. The global fireplace, if you want to get purple about it. And when I first saw it, I was hooked. Yes, it simplifies the issue of advocacy in a regional/civil war, but that was inevitable since you can’t get an international popular movement without a single strong point. The man on the street isn’t going to be emotionally involved in a debate on the morality of funding in Africa, but he might possibly get off his sofa to do something about child abduction and torture. They weren’t asking for money, either – all they were asking people to do was raise awareness of Joseph Kony, so that his crimes could no longer be ignored. I was impressed, enough to want to help. (And that’s hard to do, since I’m innately both lazy and selfish.)

Assisted by the raptor, who is innately cynical (one of many reasons we work well together), I spent a couple of hours on the internet researching. There are issues around Invisible Children, including funding (irrelevant to the argument of raising awareness), something called the ‘White Man’s Burden’ (insert John Dunne quote here), and the ignorance of Western Society meaning we shouldn’t get involved (which, followed through, means no one does anything about injustice and I might be speaking German right now). There were numerous blog posts, twitter feeds and debates going on across all forms of social media and, in the end, it came down to whether I felt the central point – that of raising awareness about Kony and his crimes – was valid and separated enough from the attacks on IC themselves.

What I did not find until the following day was this: Kony isn’t really the problem anymore.

The amount of social noise and hype made that rather crucial fact very hard to find. More hours of research later, I’m still not 100% certain of it (citation please, James?). What Invisible Children did – telling a story to the international country that is social media – is truly impressive, and the response shows how powerful such tools are. But I think it also shows the dangers.

There’s another danger which I haven’t really seen people touch on. Exposure to what’s commonly called the ‘data explosion’ means that we are much more likely to become jaded. Murder? Nothing new. Famine? We’ve all seen millions of pictures. You can’t care about everything so, in the end, you don’t care about anything if it doesn’t directly affect you. It’s much, much harder to get people worked up enough to take action which is one of the reasons I was so impressed with IC. As a couple of teachers on various blogs about the issue said, they even managed to get middle-class American teenagers to care enough to save up their pocket money. That’s powerful.

Like I said, I’m lazy, selfish and jaded. Yet the story IC told was strong enough to make me start to do something. If it wasn’t for a friend sending me that last link, I would (I hope) have gone ahead and run London IC Blackout Night. But the fundamental story is based on a lie – one they have deliberately propagated.

I still believe in the importance of stopping child abduction, soldiery, rape and torture. There are other ways to help. But, with all this white noise, they are harder to find and sadly, I’m a bit more cynical than I was before.