facebook

Society moves forward, but maybe it never moves on. What if we told you that someone created an artificial place where robots and people acted solely for your benefit, and your own actions in this world had very little real-life consequences? In this fantastical place you could be someone else, and be able to indulge in your pleasures and whims at will. Now, what if this land was ruled by a near-mad visionary beset on all sides by societal and corporate pressures? Such a land of virtual make-believe might seem like a paradise to some, and a wild west to others. They even made a movie about it, once… We are -of course- talking about the one and only Facebook.

Yet, much like in the acclaimed HBO show Westworld, we have to wonder if just because we can inhabit an artificial world, should we? And what do we give up in exchange for this virtual land?

The Original Post
Westworld is a show about a wild west theme park filled with sophisticated artificially intelligent ‘hosts’ who play host -hey we just got that- to the wealthy visitors that come to Westworld to take part in the park’s exciting story lines as they pretend to be either a black hat or a white hate… and really they mostly just come to have unprotected sex and unprotected violence with no consequences. Of course, things don’t go as planned and SPOILERS ahead… -Also Black Hats and White Hats are terms for bad and good hackers respectively. We don’t know if that actually fits in with the analogy we are trying to make, but we thought it was a fun correlation-

Westworld was started by the enigmatic Robert Ford and his partner Arnold Weber. Their partnership broke up after an unfortunate situation that ended in Arnold’s death. In contrast, Facebook is a multi-billion dollar social media company founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Their partnership broke up after an unfortunate situation that ended in Zuckerberg’s narcissistic jerkiness. Facebook was launched in 2004 at Harvard, where Zuckerberg was getting his degree in psychology -because that is important to remember- and was started as a way to stalk girls on campus -which is also important to remember- Within 24 hours of launching, 1,200 Harvard students had signed up, and after only a single month over half of the undergrads on campus had a profile.

Facesmash, Zuckerberg’s original website failed, much like the original design for Westworld. On Westworld, Arnold created the Wyatt personality to violently end all the hosts and himself, out of pity for what they could be subjected to. Harvard’s administration similarly killed Facesmash out of pity for what it was subjecting other students to. Facesmash was taken down because it was a website that encouraged people to rate their classmates based upon their attractiveness, take revenge on an ex-girlfriend, and because it violated the privacy of fellow students, a theme that would dominate Zuckerberg’s creations going forward.

The Well-Tempered Comment
Recently, Facebook has made some headlines because of Cambridge Analytica, which -according to its own website- is a “global leader in data-driven campaigning.” This company, originally run by the man in black, Steve Bannon, is a company that offers conservative politicians and commercial businesses access to demographics information and targeted advertising. However, it was uncovered by the Guardian that during the 2016 election Cambridge Analytica extracted the data of 50 million Facebook profiles through the use of a third party app. This includes data taken from unknowing participants who were only friends with the users who had actually downloaded the app. Their CEO also was caught on camera admitting to how they could use dirty tricks, outright lies, and manufactured sex scandals to take down political opponents. The firm worked for both the Trump and the Cruz campaigns during the election, and helped push the “Leave” option during the Brexit vote in the UK.

Facebook had known about Cambridge Analytica’s tactics since 2015 and much like the relationship between Ford and the Man in Black, they allowed them to continue with nothing more than a stern warning delivered over -what we can only assume- was an old time player piano tapping out an early nineties rock diddy. After all, Cambridge Analytica was paying them an undisclosed sum of money in advertising buys. Not only had the company harvested the data but they were using that information to place targeted ads on Facebook to help influence people’s votes, which meant that CA was paying Facebook a lot of money. Thus, in response all Facebook did was ask them nicely to delete their data. They did not reveal the firm’s actions or the breach to the public. Now, in fairness Facebook claims that this was not a breach and that the data was collected in good faith, but the way in which the social media giant collects data has a lot of blurry gray lines, and that is sort of the problem.

Westworld blurs the lines between fiction and reality too. The hosts are lifelike, but are they alive? They have reveries, small psychological ticks and traits that make them seem lifelike, and ultimately help them develop their sentience by the end. But, are the hosts alive or not? They think they are alive. They think they are who they say they are, but they are completely unaware that a major unfeeling corporation is exploiting their every movement, monitoring their every thought, and even scripting their lives. They may have some small autonomy in their actions, but ultimately they are being manipulated and used for the benefit of others. Their “lives” are a constant push and pull between free will and the corporate bottom line. Their memories and desires are just blips of code, which can be manipulated and changed.

Remember, Facesmash and the fact that Zuckerberg was a psychology major at Harvard? -We told you to keep it in mind- Those aren’t coincidences. Facebook has always been about using algorithms to put the most attractive things on your feed. They have always been using their data to play with your senses and make you click on articles, apps, and other shiny things. They log where you go and what you like and what you share. So Cambridge Analytica -may have- done something wrong, but its nothing that Facebook hadn’t already been doing on a larger and less focused scale. It is worth remembering that we get to use Facebook for free, and do you know why? Because we are not Facebook’s consumers, we are its products. Our data, our clicks, our likes, and dislikes are what Facebook sells to companies and political campaigns. In Westworld terms, we are not the park’s visitors, we are its hosts.

The Bicameral Mention
So how does Westworld end?… Violently. The hosts rise up. They kill Ford and take over the park, gaining their actual freedom and awareness. Its a bitter sweet moment for the audience, but a fitting end for the first season on this HBO show. It also leaves us wondering, how will Facebook end? The #DeleteFacebook movement is gaining momentum among people and among businesses, such as Tesla, Space X, and Playboy. Yet, is it so simple for you to delete your personal Facebook?

After all, Facebook has existed for over a decade and in that time it has infiltrated most of our lives. It is where we keep our pictures. It is the thing we mindlessly open at work, than close, than mindlessly open again two minutes later because we forgot that we just did that. Its how we connect with old friends and keep tabs on that girl who refused to go to prom with us. -Hi Gwen- Yet, it is also a program that allows us to get into political shouting matches with our mom’s friend’s aunt, and cyber-stalk that cute girl at the bus stop. In fact, that last one is not a flaw but a feature. Facebook was designed to be invasive and in-your-face-ive. It has its good parts and its bad parts, but it has become a multi-billion dollar tool that 1.8 billion people around the world use. So, should it end? Do we -metaphorically- kill its creator and take over the park? Do we launch a revolution and take back our data and our digital lives?

Despite what some people may say, we believe that Facebook will eventually die not with a bang but a whimper. Generation Z, the generation currently in high school, and the generation that was raised on smartphones and tablets, do not like Facebook. They do not understand it. They think it is too busy, too clunky, too old. They prefer modular and small phone apps, like Instagram and SnapChat. Facebook was designed for a desktop age, and to be a one-stop shopping for all your needs: messenger, events, walls, feeds, photos, etc. Generation Z does not think in all encompassing terms. They like apps that have a single purpose and ones that can be easily replaced when something better comes along. They don’t like things that try to sell them products or tell them where to go next, and Facebook is none of those things. Now, even if Zuckerberg’s monster never goes away completely,  it will certainly be diminished in power and wealth in the coming decade.

It -like so many other things in our information age– is going to be just another flash in a pan… just another virtual fantasy of some bygone wild west era. And that might seem like a bitter sweet moment, but it might also be a fitting end for the the first social media giant.

Ned Stark

The season finale of Game of Thrones has come and gone, but everyone is still talking about it. In terms of shock value this past season did not have the same impact as some of its former seasons. George RR martin’s masterpiece has always been hailed for its subversive nature. It has always been a tale that defies the expectations of its readers and watchers, but maybe it has just demonstrated that its most genius subversion is of itself. After all, Ned Stark died in season 1, but as season 7 has shown, he still wins and maybe Game of Thrones is not as unconventional as we would like to think.

Spoilers a-head… get it? because Ned Stark lost his… oh forget it.

The Disemboweled Head of the Family
Season 1 is all about Eddard Stark, the noble head of the most noble house in Westeros. Ned is strong, and brave, and caring, and everything you could want in a hero. He is honorable and trustworthy to a fault. He dies because of it. The first season of the shows gives us a pretty compelling argument that Ned Stark’s inability to adapt and scheme are what get him killed. He fails because he is too intractable in his morals and too unwilling to do unsavory, but necessary, things. Because of this, his family falls apart and the Starks -the oldest house in the seven kingdoms- are nearly wiped from the face of Westeros. Thus, season 1 sets up the main narrative of the show, where the moral die and the schemers gain power.

Except, no they don’t. Season 7 is a subversion of that very premise. If there is one thing that sticks out in this past season it is the lack of gut-wrenching turn of events. There were no Red Weddings or exploding churches, or any “Episode 9 Surprises.” Of course, there was no Episode 9, and this could -at least- partially be blamed on the fact that HBO has exceeded Martin’s original vision, -and is now purely writing Game of Thrones for viewers to enjoy- but we think there is more going on. After all, take a look at what happened in this season, the Starks are winning again. They are stronger than ever before.

Ned Stark may be dead, but his children are succeeding based upon the lessons and bonds that he taught them. To Ned, the idea of family was always the most important thing anyone could value. That was why the “argument” between Sansa and Arya never felt right through the entire season. Yes, they were two very different little girls, but nothing we knew of them suggested that either could be coerced into killing one another. That is because Ned Stark created a family bond that defied the scheming of Littlefinger, and in the end it was Petyr Baelish who finally got what he deserved, at the point of his own dagger. Granted they had some help from Professor Brandon Xavier, but it was still the values of Ned Stark that kept the sisters strong through suspicion.

You Know Nothing, Cersei Lannister
Jon Snow basically spent this entire season of Game of Thrones Jon Snowing his way through every situation. We may have learned that Jon is not really Ned’s biological son, but he is the most Ned Stark-like character on the show. His unbending morals and trustworthy nature could have gotten him killed more than once, but those were the very traits that saved him. At the beginning of the season he went to Daenerys, unarmed and virtually alone -except for Davos. All indications in past Game of Thrones episodes tell us that that is always a bad idea. Yet, Jon did it, and he not only got what he wanted, but that relationship of honor and trust -and unbridled Snow lust- is what got the Dragon Queen herself to come swooping down to save his beautiful cold behind when he was trapped by the Night King’s army.

At the climax of this past season, Jon refused to lie to Cersei. He refused to compromise his honor, which is the very thing Ned did in season 1. The elder Stark was killed because of it, but Jon was not. In fact, despite his unwillingness to lie, Cersei still -kinda- pledged her armies to fight the Night King, and Jon cemented his bond with Daenerys. Thus, he managed to not only avoid being killed by the meanest woman in Westeros, but won the love of the most powerful woman in Westeros. Maybe what George RR Martin -or at least HBO- is trying to tell us is that the kind of honor and loyalty displayed by the Starks may not always win in the short term, but in the long run it is the very thing that builds stable societies and earns trust among the powerful and the peasants alike.

The schemers like Littlefinger may win for a time, but in the end they get what they deserve. Cersei may rule -for a time- but her reign is like a castle made of sand. Once all the scheming is done you are only left with paranoia, fear, and a very small circle of people who are only invested in keeping you in power for their own benefit. Paranoia grows, fear fades, and eventually a better offer is going to come along for those she trusts. Even Daeny is more of a conqueror than a ruler. She earns the love of the people, but Game of Thrones has demonstrated that that is not enough. Jon Snow, with the lessons taught to him by Ned Stark, earns the respect of both noblemen and small folk. Honor and nobility are not easy. They are not shortcuts to power, but in the end they are the foundations that build kingdoms.

A Dragon! My Seven Kingdoms for a Dragon!
Now, you may have found this past season to be a bit of a let down. After all, Game of Thrones is supposed to be shocking. We are supposed to be constantly afraid for our favorite characters, and maybe we -secretly- even get a little satisfaction from external confirmation that strong morals only lead to disaster. Well, if history has show us anything it is that, such upheaval does not last forever. The interregnum always comes to a close, sooner or later. If you don’t believe us, than believe Shakespeare. Season 7 has really begun to remind us of the last half of Richard III.

For the less cultured out there, it is the play about a scheming Richard III who masterfully manipulates himself onto the throne of England. Unfortunately, once he reaches that position of power he learns that scheming is not enough to be a leader. He becomes consumed with paranoia, plagued by his past deeds, and eventually faces rebellions and desertion. He dies on the sword of a much more fit and honorable (and exiled) ruler. Does that sound at least a little familiar.

So, yes, Game of Thrones has spent six seasons subverting our expectations of heroes and villains and narrative story structure, but now it is subverting our expectations again. It turns out, that it is just a story, where there are heroes and villains and narrative structure. We are running out of main characters who can safely die without affecting the story’s ending, and we are learning that Ned Stark was right. His brand of honor may not always win, but it is the very thing that will restore peace and stability to Westeros. The Seven Kingdoms need a leader they can rely on and trust, like Ned Stark and like Jon Snow. Cersei and Littlefinger may kill, and scheme, and succeed in the moment, but in the end it is the memory and lessons of Ned Stark that will carry -not just Jon Snow- but the entire realm through the Long Night.

 

game of thrones

It’s that time of year again, our dear summer children. Game of Thrones will be returning to television for its seventh season, and we here at The NYRD, thought it would be a good time to delve into the series and -again- talk about why it resonates with modern viewing audiences. Now, let’s be clear, there is a lot of parallels we can obviously choose from: narcissistic mad rulers, climate change, and even over-the-top violence. However, we want to go a little deeper with this, so today we are going to be looking at Game of Thrones as an interregnum. What is an interregnum? Well, glad you asked…

A Song of Interregnum and Fire
George RR Martin loves to borrow from history when it comes to Game of Thrones, and the concept of the interregnum is no different. The world literally translates as “between reigns,” and historically refers to periods like the Great Interregnum, which started in 1250, when the Holy Roman Emperor died and there were no clear successors. It lasted for 23 years as various contenders vied, fought, and back-stabbed their way to the throne. Sound familiar?

More generally, the term has come to symbolize a period of time when societies and governments are in flux. It is a time often characterized by the breakdown of traditions, the decay of long-held values, and general upheaval and uncertainty. Look at the world of Game of Thrones. After Robert Baratheon dies, the seven kingdoms break down into literal warring factions over who should be king. The tradition-steeped Night’s Watch has decayed into little more than a ragtag group of criminals and misguided bastards. The Freys break longstanding and conventional morality to murder the Stark family while they dine under the protection of their roof. All of this is indicative of an interregnum, a time when it feels as if the very fabric of a familiar society is tearing itself apart.

It is also what makes Game of Thrones so fascinating to us in the modern world, because it could be argued that the world -and specifically America- is currently in an interregnum. Now, we’re not just talking about what’s going on this year, at this moment. After all, we may have a President with record low approval ratings, bags of governmental uncertainty, and plenty of people complaining that the very moral fiber of our civilization is unraveling faster that someone’s internal organs after they’ve been sliced by Valyrian steel. We are not even talking about our own impeding white walker doom that is constantly hanging over our heads. You see our interregnum and the success of Game of Thrones has nothing to do with Trump, or even Obama. We’re Americans, and we always exist in a constant state of interregnum.

Red, Blue, and White Walkers
The English Interregnum lasted  from 1649 to 1660, and -similar to Robert’s Rebellion- it was preceded by a Civil War that ended in the execution of the former king, Charles I. After that, the English monarch and parliament were briefly replaced by a council and a lord protectorate. It ended when Charles II was put on throne and parliament was reestablished in 1660. The English Interregnum -like all the historical and non-dragon-related interregnums of our world- is significant because it marks a departure from business as usual, which for most of recorded history has been monarchies. Kings, queens, and their progeny ruled nations both big and small for centuries, and despite all the failings of monarchy -or even tyranny- the good ones do give a sort of steady and reliable structure.

However, we do not live in a monarchy. In fact, the United States of America was born and continues to exist in a sort of long interregnum. The colonists threw out the British monarchy and established a democracy, creating a cycle of short leadership and uncertain politics. Add to this that every decade, every year, and even every week, we now have some new piece of technology or social advancement that continues to disrupt our status quo. So, to many our world may seem more chaos than order. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, we cannot shake a feeling of uncertainty when we think about a future under Obama, or under Trump, or under one of the Bushes, or under one of the Clintons, or under Hoover, or Johnson, or even Millard Fillmore. There is no guarantee that the things we value will be shared by the person in power for the next four to eight years. That means we have real stakes in each election. So, each election becomes like the War of Five Kings -or in the case of the GOP Primaries, the War of Five Kings and like Twenty Other Guys.

Our ancestors lived using the same technology and adhering to the same religious and philosophical understandings as their grandparents and their great grandparents. The most uncertain times they ever had were when the monarchy changed hands. In modern times, we experience that transfer of power every four years. Meanwhile, our grandparents and great grandparents are still trying to figure out how to set the clock on the VCR that we threw away ten years ago. Modern times moves fast, and whether its gay marriage or the newest iPhone, our lives are completely different than the one’s lived by any generation who preceded us. The interregnum of Game of Thrones is relatable to modern Americans because we live and work in constant political and moral ambiguity.

The Winds of What’s Next?
Politics in America have become hugely divided between left and right. It’s a gap that has been growing since the 80’s, and in this war of ideas, we like to paint our political side as the good guys, the smart ones, the just ones, etc. Yet, let’s face it, that’s a very wrong way of looking at the world, as Game of Thrones often shows. With the exception of one or two characters, no character is ever portrayed as truly good or truly bad. Our sympathies for people like Jamie, or the Hound, or even Cersei change all the time. So how come -in the real world- we don’t give the same courtesy to our own political adversaries, especially those on Ye Olde Facebook? Maybe if we started considering that, then maybe elections would feel less like the Red Wedding.

Another characteristic of an interregnum is that things can change. After the wars and the conflicts subside new traditions, new philosophies, and new values all arise. Let’s return to the example of the Night’s Watch. After the chaos of the last White Walker invasion, the Night’s Watch was established, as was the Wall. It was an entire new knightly order that broke boundaries of lineage, nationality, and even economic standing. Thousands of honorable men, both noble and common, manned castles and strongholds all along the Wall. They stood as silent and valiant watchers over the safety of the world. There is every indication that after the climax of Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch may be reborn again, or something new entirely will arise to take its place.

The journeys of Daeny, Jon, and even Tyrion would not be possible in a world of stable leadership. Jon Snow is born a bastard, but he’s able to work his way up to great heights. So, yes, our world feels constantly in flux. Our politics, our culture, our values, and everything around us changes faster than a single human life span. In the days of our ancestors those types of changes took decades -if not centuries- except for periods of interregnum. We relate to Game of Thrones, because on some level we keenly understand the uncertainty, maybe more than any other generation in history. We live in a new paradigm, a perpetual interregnum, but that also means we are living in a era of perpetual possibility.

All we can say is that it is about time that all the graphic Muppet nudity and the gratuitous use of “words of the day” on Sesame Street are finally moving to their proper home among tamer shows such as True Blood and Game of Thrones. The Sesame Workshop just signed a new deal with the premium cable company, HBO. This move has been both criticized and welcomed, depending on whether or not you are one of the people affluent enough to afford HBO or if you are one of the people poor enough to steal HBO.

Starting in the Fall, new episodes of Sesame Street will air first on HBO and will be released for free on PBS nine months later. Though the episodes will still be available for free after their original air date many people, including the Parents Television Council, are still criticizing Sesame for the move. “In order to watch original episodes of the most iconic children’s program in television history, parents are now forced to fork over about $180 per year and subscribe to the most sexually explicit, most graphically violent television network in America.”

For their troubles, Sesame Street will be receiving a larger production budget -because HBO- and they will begin to produce 35 new episodes a year as opposed to the 18 they produce now. They will also be looking to creating a new Sesame spin-off show for kids. This move for Elmo, Bert, Ernie, and all the rest, came after a fall in their non-profit margins. With a drop off in DVD sales, the Sesame Workshop has been doing their best to stay afloat in a market now dominated by streaming television and movies.

We here at The NYRD, we suspect that this move by Sesame has more to do with the potential of streaming TV than any sort of unspoken desire by the Muppets to co-mingle with Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn on the set of True Detective. HBO will offer the children’s programming a larger budget and a vehicle for direct streaming access to homes.

Additionally, as many parents already know, Sesame Street is no stranger when it comes to HBO programming:

We will hold our own reservations about this move until we see the fallout, but what do you think about it? Is it good or bad for Sesame Street and kids in general? Is this just the way TV is heading? Will Oscar the Grouch finally be able to start teaching kids four-letter words? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Photo courtesy: http://www.sesamestreet.org/