Portraying the Internet in stories on-screen

A look at the new movie The Fifth Estate highlights the difficulties of portraying Internet action in film:

“[It’s] almost like going back to the basics of silent filmmaking – you are going to do some reading in this,” Condon told WIRED about his use of the cyber-visuals. “The question is: How to make that as immersive as possible. I think one of the things about a dramatized version as opposed to some of the very very good [documentaries] – Alex Gibney’s was wonderful – is that this is meant to give you an experience of, a sense of what it was like to be in the room.”Ok, sure. But does the room have to be a metaphorical representation of the internet when the actual apartments/cafes/hacker spaces where the WikiLeaks team worked suffice? Probably not. In fairness, there is one moment when the aforementioned fake office is shown going up in flames as Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) deletes troves of WikiLeaks files that is poignant, even if a bit much, but simply showing the disappearing files got across the same message. And there is more than enough drama in the hurried scenes set in hacker conferences, the radical underground world of Berlin’s Tacheles, and the newsrooms of the world’s most prestigious newspapers to go around — dramatizing online chat doesn’t feel necessary…

But that doesn’t save it from the trap that has plagued modern cyber-thrillers from Hackers to The Net. The internet — and documents and troves of data it transmits and contains — are not characters. They don’t have feelings or personalities, and it’s hard to make drama out of what happens on them.

The Social Network is one of the few films to do it well, and even though it took its own liberties; the amount of time we actually spent watching Mark Zuckerberg program was minimal and it managed to depict the internet and tech culture in a way that didn’t induce the sort of eye-rolling from tech-savvy viewers that Fifth Estate likely will. While the film ostensibly took place in the world of Facebook, it sidestepped the pitfalls of the online thriller by never taking its gaze off of the sometimes funny, sometimes brilliant interactions between Mark Zuckerberg and his cofounders and partners (“A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? … A billion dollars.”) The Fifth Estate attempts to do the same with Assange and his cohorts, but it gets muddled in explaining things and introducing unnecessary characters and loses its way. It’s a shame.

So The Social Network used the Internet as a prop in order to tell more common stories about human relationships, specifically the difficulty a young man has in building strong relationships with females. In this way, the star of the film is not really Facebook – it is the people involved in its making. People don’t have to care about or know about Facebook at all to know the familiar contours of a film about relationships. I’m also reminded of how The Matrix tried to show an always-on, connected data source: a screen of scrolling numbers and bits, representing information. But, again, that trilogy didn’t spend much time in those scenes and instead told a familiar story about oppressed people – and a chosen one – fighting back.

While this is an interesting analysis, how exactly could a film display the Internet without relying more on relationships? What would be a proper cinematic portrayal of the Internet?

“Have You Noticed How Adam Sandler Characters Always Live in Giant Mansions?”

This level of commentary is not usually associated with Adam Sandler movies but this is an interesting question: “Have you noticed how Adam Sandler characters always live in giant mansions?

Ostentatious displays of wealth are a tricky thing onscreen: Movies are meant to be aspirational, but if the main characters live in over-the-top splendor, not many audience members will be able to relate. No one has passed this note to Adam Sandler though; his characters, more than those of any other modern movie star, tend to live in gigantic, multi-million-dollar megamansions. How does Sandler so often manage to luxuriate in his own wealth without alienating his less fortunate fan base? It probably helps that as his characters’ homes grow ever grander, Sandler’s clothes remain eternally grubby. (Hey, you don’t have much money left over for new duds when the mortgages are this high!) Join us now on a tour of Sandler’s biggest screen houses, accompanied by a look at his wardrobe in each corresponding film. Get ready for some sticker shock!

I have seen two of these seven movies but I have a few ideas about why these characters might live in such homes.

First, the big home represents the pinnacle of success but ends up contrasting with characters who find they need more than money to enjoy life. Big homes are shown as lonely places – there is a lot of room for fun activities but it might take you a while to find other people or have regular interactions with others in the house. Thus, we see the big homes early in the movies as supposed success but we are meant to leave with the idea that one can be house rich and love poor. This is a theme of a lot of movies, not just Adam Sandler films.

Second, big homes (and other garish displays of wealth) are associated with bad people. In other words, movie-goers are intended to see the unnecessarily large home and quickly make the association that the characters living in it are not nice people. The big home is then a shorthand image intended to reveal more about the character of those living there.

This requires more analysis for a definitive answer but these big homes are certainly plot devices. Given the relatively short amount of time in a movie (particularly compared to longer novels or multiple seasons of a television show), these large homes are likely the product of careful decisions.

History – facts = sociology?

Lamenting how history is taught in today’s schools, one writer argues that history without facts is just sociology:

My son’s teacher confirmed that this is broadly true. The teaching of history in British schools is increasingly influenced by US methods of presenting the past thematically rather than chronologically. Thus pupils might study crime and punishment, or kingship, and dip in and out of different centuries. Consequently, dates lose their value. So 1605, which for me means the Gunpowder Plot, for my son simply means that he is five minutes late for games.

I didn’t argue with his teacher, and in any case there is more than one way to skin a cat, as Torquemada (1420-1498) knew. Besides, a slant on history that was good enough for two of our greatest historians, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, ought to be good enough for me. The subtitle of their enduringly delightful 1930 book, 1066 And All That, was A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates.

Maybe it wasn’t crusty American academics but Sellar and Yeatman, having a laugh, who really popularised the notion that history can be taught largely without dates. “The first date in English history is 55BC,” they wrote, referring to the arrival of Julius Caesar and his legions on the pebbly shores of Kent. “For the other date, see Chapter 11, William the Conqueror.” They didn’t specify the year in which the King of Spain “sent the Great Spanish Armadillo to ravish the shores of England”.

Whatever, I can see the logic of going down the thematic rather than the chronological route. And I made sympathetic noises when my son’s teacher explained that “it’s helpful for those pupils who struggle to take in lots of facts”. But even if we leave out dates, aren’t facts what history is all about? The rest, as they say, is sociology.

This is not an unusual complaint: the next generations always seem to know less history and perhaps even more troubling is that they don’t seem to care.

A couple of other thoughts:

1. Why can’t you have both dates and thematic approaches? Knowing dates doesn’t necessarily know that a student knows what to do with the information or that they know the broad sweep of historical change.

2. I think the argument in the final sentence is that sociology is devoid of facts. While sociologists may indeed care about certain topics (such as race, class, and gender) that others don’t care as much about, we also care about facts. For example, many sociology undergraduate programs have students take statistics and research methods courses. We don’t want students or sociologists simply interpreting data and information without having their findings be reliable (replicable) and valid (measuring what we say we are). There is a lot of debate within the field about how we can best know about the world and determine what is causing or influencing what. This is not easy work since most social situations are quite complex and there are a lot of variables at play.

3. Why can’t history and sociology coexist? As an overgeneralization, history tends to tell us what happened and sociology helps us think through why these things happened. Why can’t sociology help inform us about history, particularly about how certain historical narratives develop and then become part of our collective memory?

A call to update the definition of smart growth

The term “smart growth” has been around now for several decades. Kaid Banfield argues that the term needs some updating to include more recent concerns. After listing the principles from The Smart Growth Network, Banfield suggests a few things should be added:

Notice anything missing in those principles?  I do.  There’s nothing explicit about equity, health, food, water, access to jobs, parks, energy, green technology, and more – many of the things that have come to the forefront of community and environmental interests in 2010 were simply not on our minds in the 1990s or, if they were, not to nearly the same degree.  If we want to stay relevant, and honest and true to the issues that confront us and the people we represent, we need to do some updating…

[T]oday we confront a very different set of trends than we did in the 1990s.  In fact, I would say that we have made so much progress on these things – with market forces on our side, now, too – that we who like to think of ourselves as “progressive” risk being anything but, if we don’t turn some attention to the issues that have emerged in the 21st century.

My quick thought about these suggestions as a whole is that they are a call for making more explicit the goals or aims of the smart growth movement. If you look at the original principles, such as “Mix land uses,” it is not immediately clear why one should pursue this. But if a later principle then stated goals about equity or preserving the environment, the link between practice and intentions (and how they would affect the lives of people) would be more explicit.

It would be interesting to trace how some of Banfield’s suggestions, like equity, have developed over time. What is the narrative among planners and thinkers over time regarding how to make sure there are “communities of fairness and opportunity?” How does a narrative like this resonate with Americans?

h/t The Infrastructurist

Comparing stories and statistics

A mathematician thinks about the differences between stories and statistics and the people who prefer one side over another:

Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled. A drily named distinction from formal statistics is relevant: we’re said to commit a Type I error when we observe something that is not really there and a Type II error when we fail to observe something that is there. There is no way to always avoid both types, and we have different error thresholds in different endeavors, but the type of error people feel more comfortable may be telling. It gives some indication of their intellectual personality type, on which side of the two cultures (or maybe two coutures) divide they’re most comfortable. I’ll close with perhaps the most fundamental tension between stories and statistics. The focus of stories is on individual people rather than averages, on motives rather than movements, on point of view rather than the view from nowhere, context rather than raw data. Moreover, stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate and literal…

I’ll close with perhaps the most fundamental tension between stories and statistics. The focus of stories is on individual people rather than averages, on motives rather than movements, on point of view rather than the view from nowhere, context rather than raw data. Moreover, stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate and literal.

This is a good discussion and one that I think about often while teaching statistics or research methods. Stories are often easy for students to grab unto, particularly if told from an interesting point of view. In the end, these stories (particularly the “classics”) have the ability to illuminate the human condition or interesting concerns but don’t have the same ability to offer more concrete overviews of the typical or common experience. Statistics do offer a different lens for viewing the world, one where individual experiences are muted in favor of data about larger groups. Both can miss important features of the reality around us but offer different angles for tackling similar concerns.

Both have their place and I would suggest both are necessary.

Exploring the messages embedded in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Political scientist Dominic Tierney explores the cultural and religious meanings and values behind the familiar American song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Some of his thoughts on the song:

But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. Based on ideas from my new book, How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War, we can see how the nation’s experience is intimately connected to this crusader’s cry…

The totemic poem has guided the United States through many military trials. The “Battle Hymn” epitomizes the strengths of this nation: its optimism, and its moral courage. It’s a song of agency, of action, a call to sacrifice together for the cause. The soldiers who march to the “Battle Hymn” have helped to liberate millions.

But there is a dark side to the “Battle Hymn” and the American way of war. The righteous zeal of America’s war effort can excuse almost any sins—like killing hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians. When Americans loose the fateful lightning, they have no moral guilt, for they are the tools of God.

This is a fascinating topic, particularly considering that the song came out of the Northern side of the Civil War but seems to have later been adopted by a majority of Americans. A song like this does reflect the American narrative, the story that we tell about ourselves over the years and also helps interpret our current situation.

And yet, I feel like I have rarely heard this song in recent years – the more common American hymn is “America, the Beautiful” which seems to adopt a very different tone, particularly in its first verse which opens with images of nature though its later verses pick up on some of the same themes. What explains a shift away from “The Battle Hymn,” if this has indeed happened? What happens or changes when “The Battle Hymn” is used in settings that have less to do with war – would other songs be preferred then or are there causes today that could or would utilize this song and its messages?