Will the Blockchain enable Neo-Tribalism?

I’ve been working around bitcoin for almost three years and have been consistently fascinated by it. So much so that I even embarked upon a career-change into technology and have been building my skills as a programmer these past few years. (I figure I will have just as much time, if not more, to pursue the sorts of projects that drew me into film in the first instance.)

One of the joys of getting into technology, is to speculate on possible futures. What will happen if?

One of the wilder speculations I’ve been coming back to in my mind, is whether the blockchain will enable a new sort of tribalism. And no, not the kind where we eat each other. The good kind. The sitting-under-trees-telling-stories kind. Tribalism has been much maligned and may conjure certain images – after all, the winners have written our history. But at least hear me out…

First, we get some form of self-sovereign digital identity happening on the blockchain. There is simply too good an argument, too many costs to be saved, too much to be gained, that make such a digital identity a fait accompli — (and because a Big Brother centralised approach has failed before, the only acceptable solution is decentralised). Then, these identities will enable and be created by, a reputation layer. Imagine an append-only record of claims. A record that is immutable on the blockchain. Something I’ve been working on, for example.

A reputation layer would store information that qualifies the identities interacting with each other. Sort of like clothing an invisible man. Each claim made on the reputation layer, sheds some light on the character of the identity that claim is about. Suddenly, our reputations become a tangible commodity. And, I hope, we all put on our best behaviour because there is more a stake — more to be lost. We all just ‘do the right thing’. Wouldn’t that be great!

So what sort of information goes into such a reputation layer? Initially, I think about all the sorts of claims that we make about each other, that organisations make about us, that we make about things. Think consumer reviews – ‘I ate that pie and it was yummy’ or ‘This internet enabled toaster burns things’. Think accreditations – ‘having fulfilled all the requirements prescribed by the university…’ or ‘this company is organic’. Think ratings  – ‘I read this blog and it was worthwhile’ or ‘I like that song’. These statements could all be considered claims; with a source, some data and a target.

The next step, is to try imagine what new sorts of claims we could make on such a reputation layer.

To try imagine that, I cast my imagination to what has come before. That is, to the myths and legends of small tribal societies.  Rites of passage or initiation. Take traditional tattoos as an example. To those who know the story behind the symbolism, a particular tattoo may convey a rich meaning. It says something about its bearer. Now imagine if that type of information could be conveyed into the blockchain, into the aforementioned reputation layer that is coming for us. The particular meaning of such information could be agreed upon by some arbitrary consensus mechanism.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could more readily identify the elders of our community? The wizards. Here is someone who has earned the respect of the community as a result of their expertise, skill-set or wisdom. What would happen if anyone could point out who they identified as ‘wizard’ on this reputation layer? Think of what it would do to hiring, to PR, to the power balance between employers and employees?

Imagine if ‘being a wizard at x’ was the most valuable form of currency on this reputation layer. It’s conceivable that commodity reputation could surpass money in its value.

Would that mean we forget about everything else and spend all our time trying to become wizards? Or do we sit around a campfire and listen to wizards regale us with their tales of magic and wonder? To teach us how we too, can become wizards…

Is that not starting to sound like some form of neo-tribalism?

NB: This idea is half-baked, what do you think the future will bring?

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Are Our Minds Broken?

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As Thomas Selfridge lay with his skull fractured, dying, Orville Wright was not only witnessing the death of his dear friend but the birth of a new, unintended invention – the airplane crash. The flying machine experiment that moments before soared above an eager crowd had lost power and turned head-first to the ground. The damaged propeller of the fatal crash is kept on display at the National Museum of the United States Airforce, perhaps as a small reminder of unintended consequences.

What if reality is not composed of substances but of events? The creation of the airplane being the event that gave birth not just to the first plane crash, but to all plane crashes since, to international romance, to backpackers, to backpacker bars, to tables with nonslip tread for backpackers to dance on top of. What could be ordinarily conceived of as one single thing could also be described as a continuum of overlapping events. Perhaps relationships are not secondary to a thing, but are what the thing is.

In 1994, after eight years and twenty million dollars of development, the world’s first genetically engineered plant was brought to market; the Flavr Savr tomato. The test tube tomato was a huge hit, selling for twice the price of ordinary tomatoes and had to be rationed at certain grocers. The Flavr Savr, or CGN-89564-2 as it is known in the biotech product database, was labeled to address public concerns as to its test tube origins, along with complimentary in-store brochures and even a dedicated helpline.

The Flavr Savr tomato was soon adopted as the mascot for a new movement against GMO technology. In their approval of the Flavr Savr, the United States Food and Drug Administration created, as a precedent, the default assumption that transgenic plants are safe for consumption. One of the key lessons of the Flavr Savr tomato was that the technology was being sold to the wrong market – that the benefits of GM crops would have greater appeal to farmers with the promise of more yield for every acre.

It was the promise of higher yields that led to the Green Revolution, some decades earlier. New technologies in agriculture, such as the use of synthetic fertilisers derived from fossil fuels, pesticides, the development of high-yield cereal grains, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, and modernised management techniques were credited for saving over a billion people from starvation.

Norman Borlaug won a Nobel peace prize for his role in championing the Green Revolution. Borlaug had witnessed as a young man the desperation of people in real hunger, seeing grown men starve on the streets of Minnesota during the great depression.  He made it his life’s work to redress the world’s hunger.

But the high yield crops of Borlaug’s revolution monopolised all other crops, disrupting the natural diversity nurtured by small-scale self-sufficient farmers. Uniformity of industrial agriculture created single points of failure. Soils depleted of organic matter demanded greater amounts of water, resulting in ground water crisis in places such as Punjab. The reliance on external chemical inputs to sustain industrial farming methods made farmers ever more reliant on the companies that owned and manufactured the chemicals.

The monopolies of new crops inevitably created new corporate monopolies. In order for farmers to supply the water to their crops, they resorted to drilling up groundwater. As the water table dropped ever deeper, farmers needed to buy more expensive pumps to extract the water, to use more petrol to run those pumps. Increasing costs trapped the farmers in a cycle of debt. Intensive farming methods absorb all nutrients from the soil.  As soil quality depletes, ever-increasing amounts of fertiliser are required. And so it goes.

The Monarch butterfly, the wanderer, with its distinctive orange and black pattern, is known to drift through cemeteries. The appearance of the Monarchs is celebrated on the Day of the Dead. According to traditional belief, the Monarchs are the souls of ancestors returning to Earth to visit their loved ones.

To food scientists developing genetically modified maize, Monarchs are non-target Lepidoptera. GM Maize is the second most widely grown transgenic crop in America. The maize is designed to express the genes for various insecticidal protein endotoxins, to kill pests responsible for billions of dollars in crop losses. In 1999, a paper published in Nature raised concerns that the endotoxins expressed in GM Maize were inadvertently killing off the Monarch butterfly. The paper launched the Monarch butterfly as as the cause célèbre for environmentalists opposed to biotechnology.

If the biotech industry was searching for its own mascot, they found it in Golden Rice, the crop heralded as a miracle cure for the malnutrition suffered by hundreds of millions of people. The concept of improving the content of missing micronutrients in major staple crops was a holy grail of GM science. Golden Rice was engineered to produce such a micronutrient, vitamin A, with genes from Daffodils lending its yellow ‘pissed on’ colour.

Dr Ingo Potrykus, who developed the crop over many years, shared similar childhood memories of hunger and starvation as Borlaug before him. He shared a similar zeal; “In fighting against Golden Rice reaching the poor in developing countries, GMO opposition has to be held responsible for the foreseeable unnecessary death and blindness of millions of poor every year”.

Critics claim that there are cheaper, more water prudent alternatives to Golden Rice – crops naturally rich in vitamin A that would conserve biodiversity. They also suggest that Golden Rice is attempting to address the very problems the Green Revolution created by eliminating natural biodiversity. AstraZeneca, despite giving the crop away on a royalty-free basis, own the rights to the patent underlying Golden Rice. Potrykus even acknowledges that it was a desire for good PR that led to companies such as Monsanto to agree to release the interlocking patents related to the Golden Rice project.

Critics accuse golden rice of being a trojan horse, designed to advance the corporate takeover of nature.

The enclosure of the commons was essential for the Industrial Revolution that preceded the Green Revolution. Commons became commodities. Self-sufficient farmers were displaced from their traditional lands becoming the waged labour that would staff the factories of burgeoning industry. Colonisers would give letters to their colonial subjects to sign away their traditional lands. Legal fictions were enforced through violence and terror. In the mind of the coloniser, the land is a passive entity to be adapted, used up, bent to their will. The attempt to transform commons to commodities continues with the patenting of nature.

According to an ancient Indian text, the Ishopanishad: ‘A selfish man over-utilising the resources of nature to satisfy his own ever increasing needs is nothing but a thief because using resources beyond one’s needs would result in the utilisation of resources over which others have a right.’

Perhaps, all these events can be traced back to the events of a much earlier time, to a time when Prometheus gave fire to the first humans. John Moriarty, the Irish philosopher, was raised in the institutions of the Enlightenment, a scholar of universities. Moriarty recalls the moment when, sensing that something was deeply wrong with his way of thinking, he wept into the wild grasses and heathers of the bog, wishing to rebuild his mind from the simple sensations of nature. Moriarty emptied his mind out in an attempt to listen.

Observing the dolphin, Moriarty heard the dolphin say to nature ‘Shape me to suit you’, where we, with our god-stolen fire, told nature that we would shape it; and have ever since shaped nature to suit us. The Gods punished Prometheus for his deed; chaining him to a rock by a mountain where the eagle tears away at his liver, for eternity.

I was first struck by the enormity of our hubris when I came across Beneforte TM, the ‘better-for-you’ broccoli. Beneforte is a broccoli hybrid that takes conventionally grown broccoli and crosses it with a wild broccoli. The ‘better-for-you’ broccoli was developed by Seminis, a subsidiary of Monsanto (it is not genetically modified). Sold in pre-sliced packets Beneforte claims to contain two to three more glucoraphin than regular broccoli, which may reduce the risk of cancer. Apparently it’s better for you.

Monsanto has filed a patent for Beneforte, which would set a new precedent whereby nature is patentable. A patent is a set of rights granted in exchange for disclosing an invention. Monsanto claim to have invented a new Broccoli. To invent means to come into; to create from nothing.  Man claims to create Nature.

Have we manipulated nature for so long that we now believe we can create it?

And can the shovel that dug the hole be used to un-dig it? The appointed experts on sustainability; who jet from conference to conference, business-class, to trot out their techno-epiphany to crowds of ‘really smart people’ with some new variant on the claim that we can use our tools to hammer nature back into shape. It will be ok. We’re humans, we can do that.

Meanwhile the genuine experts on sustainability cannot be contacted by phone or email. They are walking the earth living off the land and in harmony with it. Maybe we ignore those experts because if we listened to them we’d have to shake off our claim over nature, to live radically different lives.

Dolphins, in their naiveté, make surprisingly adept navy personnel. Presently, we humans have conscripted dolphins to participate in war games in the Black Sea.  Our Navies have taught the dolphins how to defend from intruders. Of course, dolphins have no concept of an intruder – they are playing along in our peculiar game. We have taught them how to find bombs using their innate and powerful echolocation. Special dolphin armour has been developed at the University of Hawaii. According to official denials, rumours of an attack fleet of dolphins that can fight and kill an enemy, are mere rumours. If the rest of it is true, we can presume that they tried but that the dolphins simply refused to fight.

Is Moriarty right, are our minds gone mad? Are our minds broken?

Initially written for The Plant Hunter

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The Potential of Cinemas

Arriving in the coffee-house, customers were expected to take the next available seat, placing themselves next to whoever else has come before them. No seat could be reserved, no man might refuse your company. This seating policy impresses on all customers that in the coffee-house all are equal. Though the matter of seating may appear inconsequential, the principle of equality this policy introduced had remarkable ramifications for the decades to come. From the arrangement of its chairs, the coffee-house allowed men who did not know each other to sit together amicably and expected them to converse.

The Coffee-House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis, 2005

I have been reading Markman Ellis’ fabulous history of the coffee-houses, and it got me thinking about the cinemas. I only ever watch films in the cinemas, because I’m particular about watching films on a big screen. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t see much of a reason to go to the cinemas. My local cinema in Sydney has two hundred or so seats. Often, I am only one of a handful of people in attendance; a sad state of affairs.

Perhaps cinemas should look to the Coffee-House of 17th Century London for some inspiration…

On that note, David Lynch is planning some exciting things in Paris

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Point of View

Film might never reach its potential if it is constrained by path-dependent notions. Perhaps certain notions and ideas are only accidental habits. Perhaps in the fullness of time, those ideas might constitute the evidence of an art form that was in its infancy.

One such idea is that a film must side with one particular character, in the singular; that the story should be told from the point of view from of one protagonist. Whose story is it? Robert Mckee argues that:

The more time spent with a character, the more opportunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between audience and character.

Robert McKee ‘Story’, 1999

McKee’s premise is that film only has a limited amount of time to work with. The more characters, the more diluted our involvement with each character. But isn’t this merely a technical challenge? Isn’t it possible for a writer to use time more economically in the same way a poet uses words sparingly?  Think of the ambitious buildings throughout history, unprecedented structures which challenged the elemental and unchanging forces of nature. The engineer devises new methods to enable the construction.

William Goldman suggests that a script with too many characters frustrates the demand of movie stars to play a lead role:

You simply cannot have that many characters in a movie today. It’s confusing, it’s a turnoff, and in terms of movie storytelling, it’s just wrong… Even worse than the number of characters was this: there was no star part.

William Goldman on his adaptation of Absolute Power in ‘Which Lie Did I Tell?’, 2000

Perhaps this is the only legitimate reason for writing fewer characters: to make a script more appealing to movie stars on whose participation the financing for the film may rely. It’s a short-sighted reason, but a practical one. I don’t think audiences are easily confused or turned off by stories with dozens of characters. A number of acclaimed TV series have featured a large casts and complex interweaving narratives. If anything, I find the runtime of those acclaimed TV series a turn-off. I wish they would distill those stories further, into a single two-hour movie.

Great cinema can have a cast of dozens, maybe even hundreds. Think about a film like ‘City of God‘ or ‘Mullholand Drive’ (conceived as a TV series) or Robert Altman’s masterpiece ‘Nashville’;

How do we know what cinema is capable of?

How will we ever know if we let assumption constrain its ambition?

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The Power of Music

Here is Harry Dean Stanton performing José López Alavéz’s song Cancion Mixteca. An instrumental version of the song, played by Ry Cooder, was used in Wim Wender’sParis, Texas‘ – to heartbreaking effect.

Cinema can completely disarm an audience, leaving them defenceless against the full power of great music.

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The Responsibilities of Cinema

Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognise and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time pp43

How can you remind people of what very decent individuals they are? If you can do that, and they walk out of the cinema feeling good about themselves, better about the world, you’ve done a service. If you don’t, there are much, much easier ways of earning a living.

Lord David Puttnam in an interview with Leigh Sales on Lateline

Thanks to Scott Henderson’s #Ozfilmblogathon for the impetus to put some of the following thoughts into words.

What is the reason for cinema?

There have been many discussions about the direction of cinema produced locally here, in Australia, but these discussions rarely engage with the question of purpose.  It could be said that each film is an attempt to answer this question, each film is a statement on the purpose of the medium. Commentators prefer to talk about box office figures and business matters yet often those discussions are confused, failing to take into account the budget, P&A spend or the revenue structure particular to a production. They say cinema is for Art or Entertainment (many films have proven this to be a false division) and yet few can give an adequate account of either. Without a clear sense of purpose, and filmmakers knowing that purpose, cinema will flounder. The main question to begin any debate about our national cinema should be; ‘What is the reason for cinema?’

If cinema doesn’t have a reason to exist then many lives will have been wasted. Great efforts will have amounted to nothing. What sort of films do we make if films mean nothing to us? What is cinema without the dignity of a purpose? I couldn’t go on living in such a meaningless void if cinema did not have a reason to exist, a purpose worth striving for. But cinema is here for a reason.  I’ve been thinking about this question for seven years; What Is The Reason for Cinema? Now, exclusive to you my dear readers, I will attempt to answer:

Cinema exists to serve audiences; to serve needs specific to their time and place in history and to serve needs that are universal and timeless. As audiences, we have base needs that are immediate and material. We also have needs of the spirit that are eternal and transcendent. Great cinema can, and should, serve both.

Cinema as Entertainment – Base needs

To create anticipation and excitement

Through the expectation of an emotional experience with well crafted scenarios, dialogue, character and action.

To stimulate the imagination

By creating worlds, dreaming dreams, making manifest ideas narrowly outside the grasp of our reality and following curiosity wherever it takes us.

To provide a rich and satisfying emotional experience

With stories (told through the craft of filmmaking) that are surprising, immersive and engaging.

Cinema as Art – Spiritual needs

To frame moral questions

Through dramatic scenarios that embody the conflict of opposing ideals and values,  allowing the audience to give serious consideration to underlying moral questions. Great Cinema stimulates the conscience of the audience and of society.

To show people the best parts of themselves

Through the transformative final act of the story, that final moment in which the main character discovers their better self.

Or by exposing (through character) our capacity for inhumanity, we yearn to discover our better selves.

To unite audiences

Through the communion of cinema going, the lingua franca of film, the binding force of shared experience and shared understanding.

To foster empathy

Through power of close-ups, the intimacy of sharing a character’s struggles, joys and passions.

To show the truth

By shining a light into darkness, highlighting injustices and the plight of the oppressed.

In my humble opinion, cinema that fulfills these responsibilities is Great Cinema. Films like ‘La Strada’, ‘Pickpocket’, ‘High and Low’, ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Bicycle Thieves’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘Do the Right Thing’, ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ‘L’Enfant’, ‘Dancer in the Dark’ and many, many more. Each of these films should be celebrated in their own right. I intuitively know that these films are Great Cinema by their extraordinary, immediate power and because they have stuck with me. I remember them vividly because I need to remember them. Great Cinema is important and necessary.

Posted in ethics, filmmaking | 3 Responses

Violence

Dear Readers,

There are moral repercussions to all acts of violence. Art that depicts realistic violence and deliberately omits the moral dimension of the act, is dehumanising and wrong.

Two recent examples come to mind. The first is ‘Underbelly’ – a TV series based on real-life criminals who wrought violence and misery on the Australian East-coast. The events of the story are based on fact but the true horror of the facts are glossed over and given a treatment that glamourises the perpetrators. The show aspires for titillation and nothing greater.

A much more interesting and honest take on the story would have portrayed the true horror of the acts and the true nature of the criminals. It would make for a richer, more complex and maybe also a much darker story. Instead they’ve taken serial-murderers and distorted their character to such a degree that you might expect to find them on the set of Neighbours.

The second example is Kick-Ass, a film that Roger Ebert, among other critics, found morally reprehensible. The film never appealed to me anyway, but I made an effort to read the script (an early draft) to see what the fuss was about. Here’s a line out of page one, just after an aspiring superhero plummets to his death from a tall building;

We needn’t look closer to be sure that he’s dead. But what the hell. We track in.

The violence in Kick-Ass is highly-realistic, brutal and gratuitous. There is nothing wrong with depicting highly-realistic, brutal and gratuitous violence*. But it is cynical and dehumanising to omit the moral dimension of the acts. If the violence is realistic, the moral dimension should be realistic. And I don’t mean that the villains must be punished.

Ebert observes that;

This isn’t comic violence. These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead.

There is no mistake in this, the script is calculated to shock and provoke. But to what end? And what comes next, when films like Kick-Ass no longer shock or provoke?

The corrupting influence of the media is often exaggerated and audiences are usually more discerning than credited. That doesn’t mean we should bow down and be unquestioning of the media. Indeed, I find it sad and even terrifying that ‘moralistic’ has become a term of derision in some critical circles.

Artists should strive to be righteous, this doesn’t mean that Art should preach. But Art should frame the questions, allowing the audience – by their own reason, feelings and conscience – to arrive at the Truth.

  1. If the media is appropriately classified.
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Detail

I must re-emphasise, if just for my own benefit, that the films that I’ve been most impressed with and most engrossed in, pay attention to detail.

‘A Prophet’ is another great film that is rich in seemingly* authentic detail**. This creates the illusion that you are watching real events, real people, in a real world – so you really care about them.

  1. I can’t verify that the detail is authentic. But if it’s convincing, does it matter?
  2. I would like to point out some examples, but I don’t wish to spoil. Go see it!
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The Surface

http://images.library.amnh.org/photos/index.html

There is a nice quote from Leonardo Da Vinci which goes something like this: “Think about the surface of the work. Above all think about the surface”

— Bresson in ‘Excerpts from an Interview with Robert Bresson’ (James Blue, 1965)

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Causation

The following may seem obvious to you, my esteemed reader, but for myself I’ve enjoyed having these concepts laid out – articulated. For this reason I highly recommend The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative by H. Porter Abbott, which I’m paraphrasing:

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

A happens, then B happens. So A must cause B, right?

No, not if you’re a scientist (unless you’ve eliminated all the other variables). But Barthes calls this fallacy “the mainspring of narrative… the confusion of consecution and consequence, what comes after being read in narrative as what is caused by“. Ordering events in a sequence gives the impression of cause and effect.

Sometimes this sleight-of-hand isn’t the malicious sort often practised by advertisers, lawyers and politicians. Our mind seeks order. We tend to assume a causal link unless we’re told not to. Take the sentence;

“The King died and then the Queen died.”

Do you think it was it grief that killed her? The plague? An assassination? Just a co-incidence? Maybe we’ll never know…

(Image from Tarkovsky’s magnificent film ‘The Mirror’)

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